Serenity is immediate. On our first visit, 20 years ago, we felt it the instant we drove inside the high stone wall surrounding Jerusalem's American Colony Hotel compound, with its ancient olive trees, its tall cypress, and its hedges of rosemary. The persistent hum of honeybees and the muted voices of human conversation were all that could be heard, almost as if the place were wrapped in soundproofing.
Neither time nor modest expansion has changed this remarkable hotel, once a pasha's villa, later hospital, then hostel. The American Colony has been at the center of Jerusalem's troubled history for the last 100 years. It has been home to members of the UN, to Lawrence of Arabia, to international journalists and travelers who have discovered its serenity.
Leaded glass doors lead into the small reception lobby. Blue Persian tiles sit flush in white plaster walls. Another leaded glass door opens onto an enclosed patio where water tumbles musically from a fountain into a pool filled with lazy goldfish.
Brilliant multicolored flowers bloom on potted desert plants and vines that climb up the surrounding stone walls. Across the patio and up three stone steps is a great double wooden door with a foot-long iron key jutting out from one keyhole. A long iron hook secures the other door tightly to the inside of the thick casement.
The spacious bedroom has a high vaulted ceiling, arching from pure white walls; it is simply furnished with two large beds, upholstered chairs, bureau, desk, and couch. Elegant Persian carpets lie on a floor of mosaic tiles set in diamond patterns.
The closet and bathroom are huge. In fact, as one visitor remarked, ''Most closets aren't so large and many homes don't have living rooms as big as that marble and porcelain bathroom.''
The window alcove is large enough to permit a child to sit within and pull aside the lace curtain a crack to ''spy'' on the activity in the patio, as one daughter of mine delighted in doing during our first sojourn there.
The permanent occupant of that alcove, however, is an unglazed, slightly pink , earthen pitcher of water, a piece of muslin covering its top, sitting on a tray with drinking glasses. This is the way people have kept water cool for centuries.
Meals are served in the patio, on round tables covered with fresh green linen , or in a large inner dining room. Buffets of roasts, fish, hommos, baba ghanouj , salads, and fruit are elegantly displayed.
One of the great charms of the main building is that each of its rooms is individual. None is exactly like the other save for the high vaulted ceilings, which seem to keep the air circulating.
The second level of the main building contains more guest rooms and a splendid living room. Winding stairways lead up to that level. Large windows overlook the patio, the Holy City, a nearby mosque with its tall minaret, or, on the north side, another garden where a large free-form swimming pool, complete with cabanas, has recently been added.
The sitting room is a lived-in museum of fine furniture and luxuriant green plants. Its ceiling of herringbone timbers is culminated by a high dome tiled in blue with gold stars. It is comfortable and quiet, a room where one can sit at antique desks to write letters, in a comfortable chair or couch to read, or have tea with friends.
For almost a century the American Colony has been an active participant in the city's life. It has survived two world wars and the innumerable Arab-Israeli conflicts, serving in them all either as a hospital or as clearing station for hospitals, but always as a refuge for anyone in need.
Kings, princes, generals, diplomats, UN and Red Cross officials, peacekeeping soldiers, priests, ministers, archaeologists and historians, novelists and journalists, all have stayed here at one time or another along with pilgrims and tourists. It was in the American Colony Hotel that Lowell Thomas was introduced to Col. T. E. Lawrence, the ''Uncrowned King of Arabia,'' an encounter that led to Thomas writing ''With Lawrence in Arabia.''It was also here in the late '60s that Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, co-authors of ''Is Paris Burning?,'' spent months researching their book ''O Jerusalem!''But oddly, the American Colony had its beginnings in the great Chicago fire 110 years ago. Its history has involved many people, but chiefly a remarkable American woman, Bertha Spafford Vester.Mrs. Vester was three years old when she came to Jerusalem, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Her family came to the Holy Land from Chicago, where her father, Horatio Spafford, was a prosperous lawyer. A series of personal tragedies left Bertha and her sister the only surviving children. The family turned to Jerusalem for comfort and peace, and in 1881, accompanied by 16 Chicago friends, they founded the American Colony, dedicated to nursing and teaching the people of Jerusalem. The Colony's first home, on the north wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, largely occupied by Palestinian Arabs, is now the Spafford House Children's Center.The house on the wall became too small, so the Colony rented a cluster of arched, high-ceilinged villas outside the city, but only three blocks from the Damascus Gate, on the road that runs up the Kedron Valley, sometimes called the Valley of Jehoshaphat. The largest of the buildings was built in the 1850s by Rabbah Effendi, a wealthy Arab patriarch, as a combination fortress-palace. It was one of the first dwellings built outside the city since Roman times.The palace served as a community center, and in about 1905, with the influx of American tourists, it was converted into a hostel and then a hotel.After the 1948 war, bathrooms and central heating were installed ''and it became a proper hotel,'' according to Horatio Vester, Mrs. Vester's eldest son, who with his wife, Valentine, has been managing the hotel since 1962 . Now the proprietors have turned the management over to a Swiss firm, Gauer Hotels. But they still reside in the late Mrs. Vester's apartment and continue their active participation in the hotel's life.A substantial proportion of the hotel's profits still go toward helping maintain the Spafford Children's Center, which celebrated its centenary Sept. 21-27. Somehow the hotel, like the Spafford Children's Center, has survived the wars that have beset Jerusalem in the past 100 years.During the period 1948-49, the hotel was under almost constant cross fire between Arabs and Israelis. It received 30 direct hits from shellfire. Several guests were wounded and, with the exception of newsmen covering the war, all guests were evacuated.In the six-day war of June 1967, the hotel was again caught in a cross fire. A Jordanian tank, which stationed itself in the hotel driveway in front of the entrance, began shooting across the street and over the wall that until then divided the city between Arabs and Israelis. The Israelis responded in kind. The main building received 21 direct hits by mortar shells and three incendiaries. One hundred and forty-four mortar tails were picked up later in the garden and other buildings. The priceless Turkish fountain was demolished.''This (the fountain) was a huge affair,'' Horatio recalled. ''It consisted of a series of stone basins, over which the water trickled. Each had a different tone, so that the dripping water created a symphony of gurgles.'' It was replaced by a new fountain after considerable search.In the past 14 years the Vesters have added new buildings and a swimming pool, but these have not changed the charm of the hotel.The magnetism of the American Colony Hotel stems from the friendliness of its staff, the fragrance of its gardens, the grace of its simple walls, high ceilings, and arches. There is nothing ugly nor anything plastic. Its stone and masonry are the same native stone that makes all of Jerusalem appear golden.