The setting sun cast golden light on the ancient city walls behind Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, where I sat having drinks with an Israeli friend. The transcendent scene prompted her to quote the Talmud: “Ten measures of beauty were bestowed on the world; nine of these were given to Jerusalem,” she recited in Hebrew, neglecting to mention the separate claim in rabbinic literature that the city was also endowed with 90 percent of the world’s suffering.
The description of splendor rang true in the encroaching twilight, and the King David’s terrace was an idyllic spot to take it in. Yet despite its beauty, few—if any—cities in the world are as bitterly divided as Jerusalem, fought over for centuries by the three religions that deem it holy. The neighborhoods are Balkanized into realms for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, with the Jews themselves settling in distinct areas depending on their degree of religious observance.
At one end of the spectrum is the King David, an icon of Jewish politics and culture. At the other is a second legendary retreat, the American Colony Hotel, which attracts a very different clientele—and is equally imbued with the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Each has provided a stage for major players seeking to resolve or inflame Mideast tensions. And both provide undeniably luxurious accommodations whose serenity has periodically been shattered by violence.
A plaque near the King David’s entry recalls the notorious attack that gave it the dubious distinction of being the only hotel in the world to have been bombed by a future prime minister. In 1946, when the hotel housed offices of the British Mandate rulers, the Irgun resistance movement, led by Menachem Begin, detonated explosives that demolished one wing and killed 91 people in a bid to hasten Britain’s withdrawal. Decades later, as Israel’s leader, Begin met with Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat in a landmark summit at the hotel.
U.S. secretaries of state from Henry Kissinger to Hillary Clinton have used the King David as their base, and countless foreign leaders have stayed the night. This can spell periodic inconvenience for less august visitors, as when hundreds of them had their reservations abruptly canceled when President Bush and his entourage took over the premises in 2007 (the hotel, which tried to find alternate lodgings for the uprooted guests, stresses that this is an infrequent occurrence).
The King David’s cavernous lobby has been compared to a set for a Cecil B. DeMille–style biblical epic. The majestic pink limestone building, completed in 1931, was meant to recall a palace from ancient times; the owners, who were the same Egyptian-Jewish family that financed the Shepheard Hotel in Cairo and the Mena House hotel at the foot of the Pyramids, wanted the interiors to evoke “ancient Semitic style and the ambience of the glorious period of King David.” An ardent Zionist family purchased the property in 1957 to be the flagship of the Dan Hotels chain.
With so much history and diplomatic comings and goings, the King David sets a gold standard in the minds of many Jewish travelers, as well as with the cosmopolitan crowd typically found on the grounds. At the vast swimming pool, surrounded by a manicured lawn, swaying palms, and towering cedars, I watched two women in string bikinis chatting in French while young American Orthodox Jewish mothers swam—fully dressed for modesty and with hair covered by sequined snoods—with their children.
To avoid violating religious law, nothing is cooked on the Sabbath. And because the food is kosher, the room service menu asks that guests refrain from ordering dairy and meat together. “Most guests are aware of these laws, and if they aren’t, the room service waiter will tell them,” said Haim Spiegel, Dan Hotels’ director of food and beverage. As we talked, the murmur of French speakers around us grew louder. French president Nicolas Sarkozy was arriving shortly on an official visit, and it was time to check out, as I had been warned when I initially made my reservation.
Only a 10-minute cab ride away from the King David, the American Colony is just north of the Damascus Gate, next to the so-called seam between East and West Jerusalem. When Jordan controlled the eastern sector, from 1948 until 1967, a wall dividing the city ran in front of the hotel’s driveway. “The American Colony is located much deeper in the Middle East than the King David,” Spiegel had told me in West Jerusalem. This was made apparent as I entered my room. “Allah-u-akbar,” blared a muezzin’s call from a mosque a mere 60 yards away. (It woke me again each morning at four.)