15 Jul Latrun
Latrun (Hebrew: לטרון, Latrun; Arabic: اللطرون, al-Latrun) is located at a strategic hilltop in the Latrun salient in the Ayalon Valley. It overlooks the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 25 kilometers west of Jerusalem and 14 kilometers southeast of Ramla. It was the site of fierce fighting during the 1948 war. During the 1948–1967 period, it was occupied by Jordan at the edge of a no man’s land between the armistice lines known as the Latrun salient. In the 1967 war, it was captured by Israel along with the whole salient and the West Bank, and remains a part of Israel to this day.
The hilltop includes the Trappist Latrun Abbey, Mini Israel, a park with scale models of historic buildings around Israel, The International Center for the Study of Bird Migration (ICSBM), which is adjacent to Yad La-Shiryon Memorial and Museum. Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace) is a joint Jewish-Arab community on a hilltop south of Latrun. Canada Park is nearby to the east.
The name Latrun is ultimately derived from the ruins of a medieval castle. There are two theories regarding the origin of the name. One is that it is a corruption of the French, Le toron des chevaliers (The Castle of the Knights), named by the Crusaders. The other is that it is from the Latin, Domus boni Latronis (The House of the Good Thief), a name given by 14th century Christian pilgrims after the penitent thief who was crucified by the Romans alongside Jesus (Luke 23:40–43).
In the Hebrew Bible, the Ayalon Valley was the site of a battle in which the Israelites, led by Joshua, defeated the Amorites (Joshua 10:1–11). Later, Judah Maccabee established his camp here in preparation for battle with the Seleucid Greeks, who had invaded Israel/Judea and were camped at Emmaus; this site is today identified by archaeologists as Hurvat Eked. According to the Book of Maccabees, Judah Maccabee learned that the Greeks were planning to march on his position, and successfully ambushed the invaders. The Jewish victory in what was later called the Battle of Emmaus led to greater Jewish autonomy under Hasmonean rule over the next century.
Little remains of the castle, which was reputedly built in 1130s by a Castilian nobleman Rodrigo González de Lara who later gave it to the Templars. The main tower was later surrounded with a rectangular enclosure with vaulted chambers. This in turn was enclosed by an outer court, of which one tower survives.
In 1883, the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Survey of Western Palestine (SWP) described Latrun as a few adobe huts among the ruins of a medieval fortress.
In December 1890, a monastery was established at Latrun by French, German and Flemish monks of the Trappists, from Sept-Fons Abbey in France, at the request of Monseigneur Poyet of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The monastery is dedicated to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows. The liturgy is in French. The monks bought the ‘Maccabee Hotel’, formerly called ‘The Howard’ from the Batato brothers together with two-hundred hectares of land and started the community in a building which still stands in the monastic domain. In 1909 it was given the status of a Priory and that of an Abbey in 1937. The monks established a vineyard using knowledge gained in France and advice from an expert in the employ of Baron Edmond James de Rothschild from the Carmel-Mizrahi Winery. Today they produce a wide variety of wines that are sold in the Abbey shop and elsewhere.
The community was expelled by the Ottoman Turks between 1914–1918 and the buildings pillaged.
Walid Khalidi in his book All That Remains describes al-Latrun as a small village established in the late 19th century by villagers from nearby Emmaus.
In the 1922 census of Palestine, conducted by the British Mandate authorities, Latrun had a population of 59, all Muslims. In addition, Dair Latrun (“The monastery of Latrun”) had a population of 37 Christian males. In the 1931 census they were counted together, and Latrun had a population 120; 76 Muslims and 44 Christians, in a total of 16 houses.
The Latrun monastery was rebuilt in 1926. The crypt was completed in 1933 and the church in 1954. The monastery was designed by the community’s first abbot, Dom Paul Couvreur, and is an example of Cistercian architecture. Much of the stained-glass windows were produced by a monk of the community.
A Juniorate, a school for young boys, ran from 1931 until 1963 and provided many vocations for the community, especially of Lebanese monks.
Following the 1936–39 Arab revolt, the British authorities built a number of police forts (named Tegart forts after their designer) at various locations; Latrun was chosen due to its strategic significance, particularly its dominant position above the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem road. Many members of the Yishuv who had resisted the British administration were imprisoned in a detention camp at Latrun. Moshe Sharett, later Israel’s second Prime Minister, and several other members of the Jewish Agency’s Executive Committee, were held at Latrun for several months in 1946.
As of the 1945 statistics, the population of the Latrun village had grown to 190 Christians, with a total of 8,376 dunams of land. Of this, a total of 6,705 dunams were used for cereals, 439 dunams were irrigated or used for orchards, 7 for citrus and bananas, while 4 dunams were classified as built-up public areas.