History

The Almoner Altar and the ‘Pasha of Jerusalem’

Museum of the Order of St John Dr Roberto Rossi, Collections Volunteer

Picture3On the south-west side of the crypt, at its eastern end, is a work known as the Almoner Altar. It is named due to the earlier stained glass representation of Christ flanked by St. John the Baptist and St. John the Almoner inserted behind.  Records for the construction of the altar are sparse. Henry Fincham’s description of the south chapel in a 1916 guide indicated it was constructed under the then Rector Rev. Thomas Charles Elsdon a few years previously.

It consists of a step, dais, and frontal attached to the wall with the table (mensa) above this. The frontal is made of grey marble with a series of white square marble panels with red eight-pointed crosses on the two at the ends and in the centre. The dais is of grey stone with a black bordered rectangle, which is split into separate red and black squares with gold eight-pointed crosses and various crests with royal insignia such as the Fleur-de-Lis. The border between the front step and dais is bordered by a gold and red patterned band. Inserted within the front step is a square paving stone from the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem.

The Church of the Nativity was built by Constantine the Great Picture4(AD 272-337) where it was believed Jesus was born. It was heavily embellished by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (AD 482-565). Over the years it had seen various and sometimes major repairs and reconstruction.

The stone was donated to the Order by Edward Keith-Roach OBE, CBE in 1946. The nature of the donation is recorded in a written dedication on the altar. Keith-Roach framed this piece in olive wood from the Holy Land (now it is probable, given the dimensions, weight and thickness, the written dedication is now in the original frame).* Consequently, the insertion of the stone into the altar step post-dates the original donation.

Picture2

Edward Keith-Roach was an important figure in the ‘British Mandate in Palestine’ (1922-1947). British control of the region was given to them by the League of Nations to administer.

Edward Keith-Roach was born in 1885 to a large family. He carved out a career in banking, working for a while in India. He served in Sudan and learned Arabic. When General Allenby entered Jerusalem in November 1917, the British were left in military control of Palestine. In 1919, Keith-Roach joined the fledgling administration. He rose quickly in the ranks and became Assistant Governor of Jerusalem. In 1922 when the Mandate was granted, he was made District Commissioner of Northern Palestine, before becoming District Commissioner of Jerusalem in 1926.

Keith-Roach was a capable administrator. He edited and wrote a guidebook on the region. Everything anyone needed to know about Palestine was covered. It included various subjects from: history, religion, flora and fauna, political and legal structures, healthcare, weights and measures, to postage stamp costs, and train times. It was revised and updated on multiple occasions. Keith-Roach later produced his own memoirs of his career.

Picture1

This entire Mandate period was predictably controversial. The administration was caught in the middle of extreme tensions between Palestinian Arabs and militant Zionists. Some instances, such as the ‘Wailing Wall Disturbances’ in 1929, saw Keith-Roach caught in an international campaign to have him ousted, although he was exonerated by the League of Nations.

During the ‘Great Revolt’ against British Rule by the Palestinian Arabs from 1936-1939, Keith-Roach’s memoirs related he had been the target for three assassination attempts.

Keith-Roach had been made an Esquire in the Order in 1926, Serving Brother in 1927, and was promoted to a Knight of Grace in 1934.

Correspondence with the Order showed Keith-Roach had wished to become a Knight in the Order and to have his sons: Alan and Martin, as his Esquires. Unfortunately, rule changes in 1936 meant this was reserved for the higher ranked Knight of Justice. The Order automatically offered this rank to all High Commissioners in the British Empire, Palestine included; but Keith-Roach never attained either title.

In 1943 Keith-Roach retired and returned to Britain after suffering from increasingly severe asthma. Reuters labelled him ‘the Pasha of Jerusalem’ for the fairness he showed both sides during his posting. Keith-Roach maintained a strong affection for the Order and the Ophthalmic Hospital, which on one occasion treated him for a serious eye-condition.

Until his death in 1954, Edward Keith-Roach continued to serve the Order.

*Many thanks to Mr Keith Schnarr for discussing this possible interpretation.

Latest blog posts