The driving force behind the move is the Bukharan Jewish Congress' president, Lev Levayev, a Bnei Brak diamond, real estate and chemical tycoon.

The Jerusalem municipality will expropriate the two structures, and Levayev will provide the funding. Ranked the 278th wealthiest person in the world by, Levayev, 50, is the chairman of Africa-Israel Investments Ltd. – which just won the tender to build Tel Aviv's light rapid transit system. In 2005 Africa-Israel completed a controversial $230-million 5,800 apartment project for the Haredi sector in Modi'in Illit in Samaria.

Levayev, who was born in the then-Soviet city of Tashkent in 1956 and immigrated to Israel in 1971, had previously tried to buy The Palace. The Palace is a grandiose mansion built by a Bukharan industrialist reputedly to house the messiah upon his arrival in the Holy City. But when the vendors learned the identity of the would-be purchaser, they reportedly quickly doubled their asking price causing the deal to fall through.

The noted philanthropist and supporter of right-wing causes in Israel is interested in preventing the further deterioration of the landmarks, which were built by Bukharan

Jews a century ago as part of a neighborhood of summer homes for wealthy merchants from Samarkand and Tashkent. The once-elegant district was originally known as Rehovot.

Davidoff House, built in 1906, will continue to be used as the neighborhood matnas (community center). The building, with its distinctive double height roof, evokes both the wooden synagogues of Poland and the architecture of Tuscany.

Davidoff House

The Palace, considered the finest residential building in Jerusalem when it was erected, is the place where England's General Edmund Allenby stayed after capturing the city from the Ottoman Turks in December 1917.

The Palace

Today The Palace houses an Orthodox girls school. Levayev plans to completely restore the former mansion as the Museum of Bukharan Jewry.

Bukharan Jews, also called Bukhoran, Bukharian or Bukhari Jews, originally hailed from the Tajik city of Bukhara in Central Asia – an exotic locale on the Silk Route visited by the 13th century Venetian explorer Marco Polo. Over centuries, Jews there developed a distinctive language called Bukhori, which is a dialect of Farsi with many Hebrew words, akin to the relationship between Yiddish and German.

Similarly Bukharan Jews had their own distinctive style of traditional dress – elaborate silk robes, some fine examples of which are on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The construction of the Trans-Caspian railroad between 1880 and 1905 ended the isolation of Bukharan Jewry. The railroad ran through Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent, linking the three largest Bukharan Jewish communities with the Jews of Europe for the first time in over a millennium. The period 1876 to 1916 marked the communities' golden age; dozens of Bukharan Jews held prestigious jobs, and some became wealthy.

Ironically, while Czarist Russia persecuted Ashkenazi Jews living in the European part of the vast empire, Bukharan Jews in remote Central Asia were free to practice Judaism. Some took advantage of their new-found prosperity and freedom to build lavish summer residences in Jerusalem. Other Bukharan Jews settled permanently in the Land of Israel. In the early 1890s they established the Rehovot quarter, which was considered at the time one of the most magnificent neighborhoods of Jerusalem's New City. It later became known as Jerusalem's Bukharan Quarter. Some 1,500 Bukharan Jews arrived in this first Central Asian aliyah, which ended with the outbreak of World War in 1914.

The Bukharan Quarter is unique among Jerusalem's Ottoman era neighborhoods outside the Old City inasmuch as it was fully planned with an orderly, grid-pattern layout, wide streets and spacious houses, explains architect and historian David Kroyanker. The nouveau riches founders sought a European look, very likely in order to recall the newly-Russified towns they had come from in Central Asia, he said.

Their villas reflect a melange of architectural styles, including Neo-Renaissance – a style then in vogue in Italy where many Jerusalem architects of that era hailed from. "Most structures were built around a courtyard, much like their homes in Bukhara, where residents belong to patriarchal 'tribal' families. The buildings had long dimensions and one or more wings, each of them housing consanguineous or socially-close families," he noted.

However, unlike European buildings, the Bukharan Quarter mansions typically avoid exact symmetry, a fact which Kroyanker attributed to their builders' Middle Eastern outlook.

The outbreak of World War I prevented the completion of many of the family compounds. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, fortunes changed and the Bukharan Quarter lost much of its wealth, but even so the area retains a certain faded elegance.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the vast majority of Bukharan Jews have immigrated to Israel and the United States. About 100,000 settled in Israel, and another 50,000 in the United States - mainly in Queens, New York but also in Phoenix, Atlanta, Denver and San Diego. It is estimated about 2,000 still remain in Uzbekistan and less than 1,000 in Tajikistan. Manhattan's 108th Street, known as "Bukh harlem," is a tight-knit enclave of Bukharan restaurants and gift shops.

Fortunes changed again - for the better, and in 2000 the World Bukharian (sic) Jewish Congress was formed in Israel, with Levayev as its main benefactor. The organization reflects the growing Bukharan community in the West and its desire to preserve its traditional culture in an ever-changing world.

But the saga of Bukharan Jews is not over. Last summer Rabbi Michael Borokhov of Rego Park's Beit Gavriel Congregation led 20 families to settle in Israel on a Nefesh b'Nefesh flight. A further 80 Bukharan families from the same Queen's synagogue are expected to come on aliyah from New York this year.

(Photos: Gil Zohar)