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Emet m'Tsiyon

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Mark Twain on Israel's Landscape [1860s]

In ancient times, the Land of Israel --previously known as Canaan-- was called a land of milk and honey. During the Second Temple period up to 70 CE, the land flowed with olive oil, an agricultural product that was exported and made the prosperity of the ancient Jews. Even after the devastation of Roman suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt, most of the Land continued to flourish. Jews of Second Temple times built terraces on the hillsides of Judah and Samaria to hold the rainwater, a system which Professor Menashe Harel is convinced was a Jewish innovation. Many of these ancient terraces are visible to this day. However, after the Arab conquest, agricultural deterioration set in. Woods on the hills were cut down and the hills were not reforested. Walter Lowdermilk, an American expert on agronomy, wrote the once-famous book, Palestine, Land of Promise in the 1930s, which described the process from a scientific point of view. However, many earlier travelers had noted the ecological deterioration of the land under Muslim rule.

As a comparison, consider Mesopotamia, now called Iraq. It too was a flourishing land under Persian rule and before, and was cultivated by various ancient peoples, including Jews. Iraq's agricultural prosperity depended on an extensive and well-planned irrigation system. The Mongols, not the Arabs, are usually credited with destroying this irrigation system. However, what is significant is that the irrigation works of ancient Iraq were not rebuilt by Arabs or subsequent Muslim rulers of Iraq to this day. And today, the desert area of Iraq is greater than in ancient times. The Arabs, particularly the Badawin [=Bedouin] are called in Arabic, Awlad al-`Arab. This means "Children of the Desert." It would be just as accurate to call the Arabs "Fathers of the Desert." Consider Iraq and Israel under Muslim rule. By the way, the very word `Arab means desert in Arabic and is cognate to the Hebrew word `arabah, which can be translated as desert or steppe.

Here are excerpts from Mark Twain's book, Innocents Abroad, also quoted in the previous post, in which he depicts with his artist's pen the desolation of the Land of Israel under Arab-Muslim rule, specifically the Ottoman Empire in which many Arabs held high posts, including scions of wealthy, notable Arab families from Jerusalem and Sh'khem [=Neapolis > Nablus].

Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? [referring to a Christian tradition that the land had been cursed]
Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition -- it is dream-land.

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, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. The Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee sleep in the midst of a vast stretch of hill and plain wherein the eye rests upon no pleasant tint, no striking object, no soft picture dreaming in a purple haze or mottled with the shadows of the clouds. Every outline is harsh, every feature is distinct, there is no perspective --distance works no enchantment here. It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land.

Palestine sits in sack-cloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies.

Gray lizards, those heirs of ruin, of sepulchres and desolation, glided in and out among the rocks or lay still and sunned themselves. Where prosperity has reigned and fallen; where glory has flamed and gone out; where beauty has dwelt and passed away; where gladness was, and sorrow is; where the pomp of life has been, and silence and death brood in its high places, there this reptile makes his home, and mocks at human vanity. [see previous post for book data]
In the title, Twain calls the country "Holy Land." Unfortunately, in the body of the text, as quoted here, he calls it "Palestine." Perhaps, as a man who considered himself scientific and modern, he preferred a name not used in the Jewish Scriptures or the Christian New Testament, a name lacking in religious connotations. Be that as it may, his description of the land in his day [the late 1860s], was confirmed by the accounts of many other travelers and Western and Jewish residents of the Land in the 19th century. Who was to blame for this desolation in a land once flowing with milk and honey? In these passages, he refers to the Christian tradition of a curse on the land. However, in the previous post, Twain is quoted as blaming Jerusalem's wretchedness on Muslim rule. By the way, today the Sea of Galilee, called in Hebrew the Kinneret, is surrounded by beautiful greenery. Even the Dead Sea, still mostly surrounded by desert, has its green patches around kibbutzim like `Eyn Gedi and Kalia, and around the hotels, and the `Eyn Gedi nature reserve, etc.
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Coming: more on British misrule in Israel, Jews in Jerusalem, etc.



  • Emet;

    Enjoy your work. There's a run along the Syrian border to the Sea of Galilee that I participated in in 1996.

    Its interesting to compare my very positive experience in Israel to Twain's observations.

    Thank you and yours for the strength being shown in these trying times. Israel is defending all of our shared values.

    By Blogger Bill, at 5:56 PM  

  • Todah Rabah, Limes

    [todah rabah = thanks]

    By Blogger Eliyahu m'Tsiyon, at 12:51 AM  

  • Great post!

    By Anonymous Randy Bennett, at 11:48 PM  

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