The Holy Land in the 19th Century
JNS.org – Following his journey through Sinai, Scottish artist David Roberts arrived in southern Palestine in 1839. After visiting Hebron, Roberts arrived in Jerusalem, the other ancient holy city of the Jewish people. His lithographs, published in London between 1842 and 1849, exposed Western viewers for the first time to enticing views of the Holy Land and its ancient sacred sites.
Connecticut-born Bible scholar Edward Robinson had recently documented a visit to the Holy Land in his massive three-volume Biblical Researches in Palestine. Robinson intended “to lay open the treasures of Biblical Geography and History still remaining in the Holy Land.” He concluded his preface with a wish: “May He, who has thus far sustained me, make it useful for the elucidation of His truth!”
Robinson devoted nearly half his first volume to Jerusalem. “Strongly excited” as a Christian traveler in the Holy City, “where the Saviour of the world had lived and taught and died,” he was riveted by “everything connected with it that could have a bearing upon the illustration of the Scriptures.” Robinson was especially touched by old Jewish men at the Western Wall who “may at least weep undisturbed over the fallen glory of their race; and bedew with their tears the soil, which so many thousands of their forefathers once moistened with their blood.”
Vienna-born (1797) Ida Laura Pfeiffer, who became a renowned world traveler and writer, first visited Palestine and Egypt when she was five years old. “When I was but a little child,” she wrote, “I had already a strong desire to see the world.”
At an early age, she rejected a woman’s place at home, where she had been forced by her mother to wear dresses, take piano lessons (which she hated so much that she cut her fingertips with a knife), and learn to knit. Seeking freedom in travel, she returned from another visit to Palestine in 1842 and wrote A Visit to the Holy Land, Egypt, and Italy — the first such published account by a woman.
It was, in essence, the diary of a Christian pilgrimage (dedicated, among others, to her church and Sunday school). “It was with a feeling of awe hitherto unknown to me,” she wrote, “that I trod the ground where my Redeemer had walked.” While in Jerusalem, she spent an entire night “uninterrupted and alone” in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Its sanctity provided “the most blissful hours of my life,” she said. As for “the town” of Jerusalem, “very desolate, barren, and sterile,” it was nonetheless rather bustling, “particularly the poor-looking bazaar and the Jews’ quarter” (her sole mention of Jews).
Christian writers dominated the literature of the Holy Land. Rev. D.A. Randall dedicated Egypt, Sinai, and the Holy Land (1865) to his Church and Sunday school (before adding family and friends). He wondered, “Why another book of travels and observations in the East?” Among the reasons: “Here God has left the traces of his footsteps.” In his travels and in his labors, Randall had “not been unmindful of his dependence on HIM whose favor alone can give success.”
At “the Jews’ Place of Wailing” Randall noted that Friday afternoon was “the special time” for “these sorrow-stricken children of Abraham … to congregate here and weep for the departed glory of their city and temple.” He was riveted by the “venerable old men” who “seemed overpowered by their deep and apparently heart-felt emotions; their strong frames trembled, the great tears rolled like raindrops down their cheeks, and they wept aloud.” He was so deeply touched that “almost before I was conscious of it, I was weeping with them.” Amid their “tears and lamentations,” Randall saw “the traces of an omniscient and overruling God.”
By the mid-19th century, it seemed impossible to write a book about the Holy Land in fewer than 500 pages, often with accompanying volumes of similar length. So it was that American writer Charles W. Elliott undertook to recount life in the Holy Land through 4,000 years. Elliott described Jerusalem as “a Moslem and Oriental town” with a Jewish Quarter that “a man may smell far off.” Its alleys and courts were “unspeakably offensive to eye and nostril … reek with decaying fruit, dead animals, and human filth … in the midst of which … innumerable armies of rats and lizards race and fight.” Around its edifices “reek and starve about four thousand Israelites, many of them living in a state of filth … unlike the condition of their clean, bright ancestors.”
A decade later, William M. Thomson (identified as 45 years “a missionary in Syria and Palestine”) authored The Holy Land: Southern Palestine and Jerusalem. A strongly identified Protestant, he described the Church of the Holy Sepulcher “as by far the most interesting half-acre on the face of the earth.” After a lengthy tour of the Temple Mount with a “Muhammedan” guide, he visited “the Jews’ place of wailing.” Indeed, “no sight meets the eye in Jerusalem more sadly suggestive than this wailing of the Jews over the ruins of their Temple.” For centuries, “they paid large sums to their oppressors for the miserable privilege of kissing the stones and pouring out their lamentations.” Every Friday, “with trembling lips and tearful eyes,” they came to chant their prayers.
Frank DeHass, United States Consul in Palestine between 1873 and 1887, found time to write Buried Cities Recovered (1889), meticulously recounting his Middle Eastern travels. The 12 tribes of ancient Israel, he believed, were “God’s chosen people, whose history … is the oldest, and, in fact, the only reliable history of our world and race. Blot out Jewish history, and what would we know of the origin of man or the world, of God or the future?”
In modern Palestine, however, “You see nothing but ruin and desolation every-where.” Within the Old City walls of Jerusalem, DeHass found “open courts filled with garbage, whole squares deserted or given up to the lepers and dogs … [an] accumulation of filth” where “people spend most of their time in the open air, throwing all their garbage, ashes, and everything else into the streets.”
“Nothing could be more touchingly sad,” DeHass wrote, than a visit to the “wailing place” of the Jews “on the eve of their Sabbath.” There “the children of Abraham may be seen kissing the cold stones, some praying or reading portions of Scripture, and others weeping as if their hearts would break over the desolation of Zion.” DeHass was in awe: “What superstition, what devotion, what faith!”
The first popular tourist guide devoted to Palestine (and Syria), subtitled “Handbook for Travelers” and published in 1876, was edited by Karl Baedeker whose German grandfather had been the world’s most renowned guidebook publisher. By the time of the 1898 edition, when the travel memoir had yielded to the travel guidebook, there was a sufficient flow of tourists to Palestine to justify detailed information about appropriate clothing (ranging from “dust mantles” to “woolen drawers,” “rubber collars and cuffs,” and a “pith helmet”). Visitors were warned of “crowds of ragged, half-naked children shouting backshish,” hoping for a few coins. Travelers were instructed how to say at the Bath, “You need not rub me.”
In Jerusalem, “a dirty modern town” with a “crust of rubbish and decay,” the “fanaticism and jealous exclusiveness of the numerous religious communities … form the chief modern characteristics of the city.” Little attention was paid to the decrepit and unappealing Jewish Quarter, except for “the Wailing Place of the Jews,” where “a touching scene is presented by the figures leaning against the weather-beaten wall, kissing the stones, and weeping.” There “the Spanish Jews, whose appearance and bearing are often refined and independent, present a pleasing contrast to their squalid brethren of Poland.”
In 19th century guidebooks, Christian holy sites received considerably more attention — and devotion — than the sacred places of Jews and Muslims. Jews had a commendable and duly recognized place in ancient history, but only their miserable lives in modern Palestine were worthy of close attention.
In the end, the guidebooks reveal as much about their Christian authors as they do about the places they visited and the people they encountered. Revealingly, none of the authors referred to Arabs as “Palestinians,” who would not emerge as a distinctive and self-identified people until the rebirth of a Jewish state in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, most recently, Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel (1896-2016).