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Emet m'Tsiyon

Monday, July 10, 2006

Mark Twain on Jerusalem and the Jews There in the Late 19th Century

One of America's greatest authors and greatest humorists, Mark Twain, visited Israel in 1867 as part of a guided tour. His account of the trip, with often humorous depictions of his fellow tourists, was published in 1869. It was called:

Being some Account of the Steamship Quaker City's Pleasure
Excursion to Europe and the HOLY LAND;
with Descriptions of Countries, Nations,
Incidents and Adventures
as They Appeared to the
with two hundred and thirty-four illustrations
(Samuel L Clemens)
Twain wrote a dozen or so books. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) is generally acknowledged to be the greatest of his books and, in my not so humble opinion, the greatest American novel since the English language began to be spoken on the western shore of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, "His first travel book, The Innocents Abroad (1869), made him famous. . . " [Justin Kaplan in Brief Lives (Boston 1965)]. That is, it was this book that made him famous.

Here are excerpts from the book describing Jerusalem and the Jews there:
Perched on its eternal hills, white and domed and solid, massed together and hooped with high gray walls, the venerable city gleamed in the sun. So small! Why, it was no larger than an American village of four thousand inhabitants, and no larger than an ordinary Syrian city of thirty thousand. Jerusalem numbers only fourteen thousand people.
Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village; the riches of Solomon are no longer there to compel the admiration of visiting Oriental queens; the wonderful temple which was the pride and glory of Israel, is gone.
At the ancient wall of Solomon's Temple which is called the Jew's Place of Wailing, and where the Hebrews assemble every Friday to kiss the venerated stones and weep over the fallen greatness of Zion, any one can see a part of the unquestioned and undisputed Temple of Solomon, the same consisting of three or four stones lying one upon the other, each of which is about twice as long as a seven-octave piano, and about as thick as such a piano is high.

It seems to me that all the races and colors and tongues of the earth must be represented among the fourteen thousand souls that dwell in Jerusalem. Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent-flag itself, abound.
Twain's depiction of Jerusalem's wretched poverty at that time is grim indeed. His description of the Land of Israel in general is one of desolation, depopulation, and poverty. We will quote his descriptions of the country on another post. At this point, when discussing the desolation of Israel in the 19th century, we ought to refer to a book by Saul S Friedman [Youngstown State University] which has gotten very little attention. It is a book undeservedly neglected, probably because its truths do not fit the line being promoted so assiduously by the enemies of civilization.
Friedman supplies a host of excerpts from many authors who visited or lived in the Land of Israel in the 19th century and up to World War One. One of the authors was an Arabic-speaking Christian who had learned English. It is unfortunate that Friedman uses the name "palestine" in the title of his book, although in the 19th century it was solely a Western name not used in Hebrew of course, nor in Arabic [that is, not even in the form Filastin, which Arabs use nowadays]. Nor was there any territorial division of the Ottoman Empire with that name or that corresponded in its boundaries even roughly to those of the new political entity called "Palestine" set up by the international community in 1920 at the San Remo Conference to embody the Jewish National Home. Note that Mark Twain calls the country "The Holy Land" in the title of his book. It is not clear what "Syria" meant in Twain's usage. At that time, Lebanon, the Land of Israel west of the Jordan, and Transjordan, were all often considered parts of Syria in the broad sense. Friedman's book is:
Saul S Friedman, Land of Dust: Palestine at the Turn of the Century (Washington, DC: University Press of America 1982).
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Coming: More of Mark Twain on the Land of Israel, Jews in Jerusalem, Glubb Pasha's follies, etc.


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