“Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color… It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land.” This short excerpt, taken from a torrent of slurs and condescending ridicule, was written by American author and traveler Mark Twain, as he describes his bitter disappointment by the Holy Land as he discovered it in a visit in 1867.
Twain, the penname of Samuel Clemens, was then a young journalist sent by the Daily Alta California, which funded a journey that cost $1,250 to Europe and the Levant, peaking with the visit to the Land of Israel, then a remote province in the massive Ottoman Empire. In the two weeks during which Twain traversed the country in an organized trip, from September 17 through October 1, he wrote 51 articles documenting his journey, which were considered a hit among newspaper readers. As the author described in his own words: “We prowled through the Holy Land, from Caesarea Philippi [Banias] to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, a weird procession of pilgrims, gottenup regardless of expense, solemn, gorgeous, green-spectacled, drowsing under blue umbrellas, and astride of a sorrier lot of horses, camels and asses…”
His reports were eventually compiled into the book The Innocents Abroad, which solidified Twain’s status as one of the sharpest of American satirists. Like other travelers in those years, Twain came to the country under the influence of gushing descriptions of pilgrims and painters who presented the Holy Land as a “land flowing with milk and honey,” and who painted it as though in a dream, while ignoring the neglect that reigned. Twain, on the other hand, was confronted with the “naked truth,” as he put it, and wrote from the perspective of a broken dream: “Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise?...Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition — it is dream-land,” he wrote.
“Mark Twain was a hedonist, major cynic, drinker who tended to curse, and nonetheless his descriptions are those of an observant traveler and provide a total contrast to the descriptions and paintings from scriptures and pilgrims’ literature,” explains Dr. Milka Levy-Rubin, curator of the humanities collection in the National Library in Jerusalem.
Dr. Levy-Rubin’s comments don’t come randomly: In honor of the Fourth of July, and the United States’ 236th Independence Day, an exhibit opened on in the National Library called “Dreamland: American Travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th Century.” The opening included an evening of lectures, with the participation of Professor Ruth Kark from the Department of Geography in the Hebrew University. Kark is one of the exhibit’s curators, along with Dina Grossman from the Shapell Manuscript Foundation [an independent educational organization dedicated to the histories of the United States and the Holy Land, with emphasis on the 19th and 20th centuries], Nira Ilsar from the National Library of Israel, and others.
This unique exhibit presents maps, photographs, documents and books provided by the American Shapell Foundation, and from the National Library’s collection. “This is the first in a series of exhibits that deals with the special connection between America and the Land of Israel, a connection that has continued for more than 200 years,” says Professor Kark. “This exhibit focuses on the opening of the country to the West in general and to America specifically.”
Another such traveler was Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, who wandered through the Holy Land roughly one decade before Twain’s visit. Like Twain, he didn’t hide his disappointment by the neglected land. He was also shocked by what he saw in the American Colony in Jaffa, one of three American colonies in the Land of Israel, whose members were victims of frequent rapes and murders. “One of the families then living in the American Colony was the Grossteinbeck family, the head of which was the great-grandfather of the famous author John Steinbeck,” Professor Kark recounts. “Indeed, in his book East of Eden, which was released in 1952, Steinbeck hints at the trauma that befell the Americans in the Jaffa colony.”
Twain and Melville certainly weren’t the last visitors to disparage the country, but they were among the first to represent the tourist revolution in the Land of Israel, which started to gain momentum in the mid-19th century. “Even though the Land of Israel was always a pilgrim idealization, there was a dramatic shift in this period, thanks to modern mapping methods and research,” said Dr. Levy-Rubin.
It was actually the Frenchman Jacquotin, Napoleon Bonaparte’s cartographer, who provided the breakthrough for modern mapping in the beginning of the 19th century, though he only mapped the coastal region. It seems that he left most of the work to an American man named Edward Robinson, who is known for “Robinson’s Arch” on the Temple Mount.
“Robinson wasn’t a regular pilgrim, but rather a researcher who is considered the founder of modern archaeology,” Dr. Levy-Rubin continues. “The man recognized sites from the Bible. He wandered through the country twice, in 1838 and in 1852, when he was accompanied by Ali Smith, an Arabic-speaking missionary who lived in Beirut.”
William Francis Lynch was another well-known American researcher who visited the county at that time, sent with a research delegation on behalf of the U.S. Navy. He was the first to research the Hula Valley, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, taking scientific measurements on depth and temperature, and even collecting samples and figures on zoology and plant life along the Syrian-African rift. He submitted his findings in a detailed report to the U.S. Congress, in addition to an accurate map of the Dead Sea at the time, which is on display in the new exhibit. “But of course we wouldn’t recognize in his map the Dead Sea as it looks day,” laments Dr. Levy-Rubin.
The Invention of the “All Inclusive” Vacation
Scientific research and mapping of the Holy Land would not have have succeeded in bringing dozens, hundreds, and eventually thousands of tourists 150 years ago, if it hadn’t been for a few dramatic events that helped get the job done. The most significant was the invention of the steam engine, and with it the steamboat. On the deck of one such steamboat, called Quaker City, sailed Mark Twain.
This is where American entrepreneur and adventurer Thomas Cook enters the picture. Cook was a Baptist minister who recognized that things were changing, and he switched careers and established a travel agency. As a result, instead of individuals taking risky journeys, Cook’s company offered modern tourism: a travel route through the Near East that included a trip to Egypt, the land of the pyramids, and a trip down the Nile. The route concluded in the Holy Land. Another route he offered including a trip by sea from the United States to ancient sites in Italy and Greece, which also ended in the Holy Land. The company printed colorful posters, with a camel in the foreground and the Nile and Holy Land in the background, and hung them in different train station. They are also a part of the National Library exhibit. “The Americans were already excellent clients for travel,” says Dr. Levy-Rubin.
But the innovation offered by Cook’s travel agency also included the conditions of a travel package: tents with a dining room and bathroom, personal servants, and a guide and translator who led the group through different Holy Land sites. “The basic idea was to meet all of the traveler’s needs, including food and water. In my opinion, Cook should be credited with inventing the form of tourism now called ‘all inclusive,’” Dr. Levy-Rubin says, laughing.
But it wasn’t only Cook who understood the business potential of turning the Holy Land into a popular tourist destination. At that time, the first guidebook had come out, called Murray, a sort of Lonely Planet of the 19th century. Twain used that guidebook on his visit to the Land of Israel. The guidebook was the first to include detailed information on currency in different countries, opening hours of consulates and embassies, recommended restaurants, suggested tipping amounts, and recommended hotels.
And if we’re on the subject of hotels, one of the top ones was the Mediterranean Hotel, which earned warm recommendations in different guidebooks. In the years of its existence, the hotel occupied various locations in Jerusalem. It was initially located in the Christian Quarter, and hosted, among others, Melville, Robinson and his travel companion Smith. The hotel later moved near Damascus Gate, to a structure called today the “Wittenburg House,” known as Ariel Sharon’s home in the Muslim Quarter. The exhibit displays a model of the hotel, in which Twain resided as well.
As is the case with any trip around the world, the tourists couldn’t return home without gifts from the Holy Land. Duty Free shopping may not have existed, but the souvenir industry from the land of Abraham and Jesus was already in full bloom. The invention of photography helped the process: tourists acquired albums of photos from around the country and albums of dried local flowers. The bindings of both types of albums were made of wood from olive trees, some with the word “Jerusalem” engraved in them. They also bought prayer beads from olive pits, crosses and decorations made from mother-of-pearl produced in Bethlehem, and stereoscopic cards to be viewed through a special device enabling a three-dimensional experience illustrating different views of the land.
Among the important tourists who visited the Land of Israel at the time was also the well-off Roosevelt family. The parents and five children traveled in Egypt, continued to Jaffa, and went on to Jerusalem in hopes of staying in the prestigious Mediterranean Hotel, in which they had reserved rooms in advance. After they discovered their rooms were given away, they angrily moved to the competing Damascus Hotel.
The five Roosevelt children, whose beautiful photo graces the exhibit, included 15-year-old Theodore, who would go on to become the 26th president of the United States. Young Teddy wrote the following in his journal: "In the afternoon we went to the Wailing Place of the Jews. Many of the women were in earnest, but most of the men were evidently shamming."
“It was another innovation in modern tourism,” Professor Kark explains. “While Robinson the researcher left his family in Germany, this was the first time that entire families, including wives and children, went on trips around the world and also came to the Holy Land.”
And a propos presidents and visits to the Holy Land, visitors from America also included two generals in what can be likened to the “post-army travels” so popular among Israelis today. The two were William Sherman and Ulysses Grant, who would also become president of the United States. They ditched their combat uniforms after the end of the American Civil War and headed off on a trip. “At the end of the civil war, the search for a new religious identity was prominent. It grew stronger after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” Professor Kark adds. “After all, Lincoln expressed his wish to visit the Holy Land and Jerusalem just minutes before he was killed.”