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How a Mark Twain Travel Book Turned Palestine into a Desert

The Innocents Abroad, the most famous 19th-century account of Palestine, is in the end an elaborate, sustained joke at the expense of the peoples and places of the Mediterranean.

Sacred to the Memory of Adam The American Publisher vol. 3 (1872) (all images are illustrations in the public domain)

Years ago — a lifetime ago, it seems — I lived in Israel.  For three years I called the city of Ashkelon home. I was an archaeologist, and while I lived there I occasionally served as a tour guide to the site of ancient Ashkelon, now a national park within the modern city. Once I led a group of women from Hadassah, who had come to Israel in solidarity during one of the Gaza wars . (The group had their own Israeli guide with them, and he had brought them to Ashkelon.) As we toured the site, I mentioned something about the Early Islamic period, and one of the women in the group asked if there had actually been Muslims living there. Before I could tell her that we were standing on what had for centuries been farmland of the Arab village of Jura — a village depopulated in 1948 and subsequently bulldozed — the Israeli guide jumped in: “1066 … I mean, 1866.”

Actually it was 1867.

And, in a scene worthy of The Innocents Abroad, he proceeded to tell of the emptiness and ruin and disappointment that met Mark Twain when he traveled to the Holy Land that year.

The Pilgrim’s Vision

1867 was a milestone year in Western interactions with Palestine. It marked the beginning of Charles Warren’s groundbreaking excavations in Jerusalem for the Palestine Exploration Fund. And that summer, Twain set sail on the Quaker City, as a relatively unknown journalist for the Daily Alta California, reporting on the first American pleasure cruise to the Mediterranean. The culmination of the journey, for him and his fellow travelers, was the Holy Land; they traveled through Palestine 150 years ago this month.

In retrospect at least, Twain was one of the most famous visitors to Palestine in the 19th century, and his book The Innocents Abroad the most famous 19th-century account of it. The book is known above all for its description of the desolation of the landscape and the ugliness of its people. Most of the country is “a silent, mournful expanse,” dotted with “nasty” villages of “miserable huts” and “the usual assemblage of squalid humanity” — disfigured wretches “fringed with filthy rags” and “infested with vermin,” naked and “sore-eyed” children “in all stages of mutilation and decay.” But Twain directs his barbs at everything and everyone: pilgrims, other travel writers, even himself. He continually mocks his Jerusalem guide for making unbelievable claims and never admitting error. After describing the spot on the Temple Mount (al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf) where, Twain says, David and Goliath “used to sit and judge the people,” he notes: “A pilgrim informs me that it was not David and Goliath, but David and Saul. I stick to my own statement — the guide told me, and he ought to know.”

In this vision of Palestine, art has little place. Paintings in churches are only mentioned in passing. Their decoration is sometimes praised (the altar of the Greek Chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is “gorgeous with gilding and pictures”), but more often condemned for its flamboyance. Twain, the Protestant, seems to be constantly searching for synonyms for its showiness, attacking the Holy Sepulchre alone for its “trumpery gewgaws,” “tawdry ornamentation,” “flashy ornamentation, in execrable taste,” “the gaudy trappings of the Greek Church” that “offend the eye.” The Dome of the Rock is similarly “showy,” but also suffers the problem of all mosques (and beautiful women, and mountains, and Niagara Falls): that its beauty is only noticeable “after considerable acquaintance.” When Twain stops to dwell on architecture, it is usually to illustrate a point about decline, about the difference between the weight of the past that the land bears and its current state: a “dilapidated” Crusader church here, “dusky arches” and “dingy piers and columns” there.

Gray lizards, those heirs of ruin, of sepulchres and desolation, glided in and out among the rocks or lay still and sunned themselves.… 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.

House of Ancient Pomp

But art shows its influence on Twain’s narrative in other ways. It is clear that for him — and presumably for much of his audience — ideas of biblical and historical events in Palestine were shaped fundamentally by paintings and prints and other representations circulating widely at the time: old master paintings of St. Veronica, “fanciful pictures of Belshazzar’s feast,” steel engravings of women at a well. At the traditional site of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Twain is unable to “imagine the angel appearing, with shadowy wings and lustrous countenance, and note the glory that streamed downward upon the Virgin’s head while the message from the Throne of God fell upon her ears.” What he describes is not the biblical account, but a Renaissance or Baroque painting of it. In the end, Twain seems to find these images superior to the reality in front of him: “Oriental scenes look best in steel engravings.”

In his own time, Twain was famous for describing Palestine as it really was. “Any one who wants to understand without going there exactly how it looks now,” one critic wrote, “had better read The Innocents Abroad.” This idea that Twain described Palestine “exactly how it looks now” originated, it turns out, with Twain himself. The Innocents Abroad “has a purpose, which is, to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes,” [Twain’s emphasis] he says in the preface to the book. He adds: “I think I have seen with impartial eyes, and I am sure I have written at least honestly, whether wisely or not.” Yet the book is anything but unstudied travelogue or spontaneous reportage. It is based on notebooks he kept during his travels and a series of his letters published in the Daily Alta California while on the trip as their travel correspondent. And what we see in comparing the letters and notebooks to the final product is an account worked over at length, thoroughly revised, details changed.

In one of his notebooks he observed that prophecies of the desolation of cities were meaningless, since all cities decline sooner or later: “It seems to me that the prophets fooled away their time when they prophesied the destruction of the cities — old Time would have fixed that easily enough.” But The Innocents Abroad is full of references to the fulfillment of prophecy concerning the desolation of landscapes and cities:

Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies … Jericho the accursed, lies a moldering ruin, to-day, even as Joshua’s miracle left it more than three thousand year ago; Bethlehem and Bethany, in their poverty and their humiliation, have nothing about them now to remind one that they once knew the high honor of the Savior’s presence.… Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village.

The Grave of Adam

Twain’s notebook argues against the supposed contrast between the barren Mount of Curses (Mt. Ebal) and the blossoming Mount of Blessings (Mt. Gerizim) by noting both were in cultivation; in the book, he argues against it by suggesting both were barren. The Innocents Abroad describes how “the boys still refuse to recognize the Arab names or try to pronounce them.” Of Ain Mellahah Twain says, “The boys call it Baldwinsville” — or was it “Williamsburgh, Canaan,” as in the byline of the original Daily Alta letter? Often the picture we get comparing Twain’s notebooks and letters and book is of someone slowly developing his comic material.

Even within The Innocents Abroad there are inconsistencies. Sometimes, when it serves his purposes, Twain describes a fertile landscape. In the case of the supposedly barren Mounts of Blessing and Curses, he points (in a little known passage) to the surrounding productive lands of Nablus to make a contrast. Sometimes Twain does criticize the prophecies of the fall of cities in his book. (Oddly, these passages aren’t widely quoted.) Sometimes he suggests the land was just as backward and empty in biblical times as in his day. (These passages aren’t famous, either.)

Twain was above all a humorist, and The Innocents Abroad abounds with irony and satire. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and throughout Jerusalem, what he focuses on is not describing art or architecture but telling tales. He tells of how he wept at the tomb of his ancestor, the biblical Adam – mourning that they were never able to meet (a celebrated passage at the time.) Or tells how he saw the house of the Wandering Jew (who has broken his wanderings to come back to it once every 50 years, for the last 1800). Or tells what he did with the legendary sword of the Crusader Godfrey of Bouillon:

I tried it on a Moslem, and clove him in twain like a doughnut. The spirit of Grimes was upon me, and if I had had a graveyard I would have destroyed all the infidels in Jerusalem. I wiped the blood off the old sword and handed it back to the priest — I did not want the fresh gore to obliterate those sacred spots that crimsoned its brightness one day six hundred years ago …”

The Wandering Jew

Then, after spending more than 600 pages savaging all comers and making vicious comments about the inhabitants of the lands he visited, Twain concludes, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” It is a wonder that anyone could read this book and take Twain to be a reliable (and unironic) narrator on Palestine in the 19th century.

Charge on Bedouins

And yet, Twain played a major role in popularizing the image of desolate, empty Palestine. The Innocents Abroad is still widely quoted for this image today: both Alan Dershowitz and Benjamin Netanyahu, among others, have cited it, decidedly unironically. I remember once trying to convince a senior Jewish studies scholar that Twain exaggerated the desolation and emptiness of 19th-century Palestine. But Twain was certainly not alone in presenting this image. By the time he arrived in Palestine, many other visitors had made it a staple of 19th-century travel writing. Far from not seeing through the eyes of others, Twain’s desolate Palestine is one of the least original aspects of The Innocents Abroad.

How reliable are these images of desolation, exactly? For 19th-century travelers, Palestine was “like the inkblots in a Rorschach test,” in the words of historian Jonathan Sarna. As Twain himself observed, each Christian (whether Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian) came to Palestine looking for — and finding — the Holy Land of their own denomination:

Honest as these men’s intentions may have been, they were full of partialities and prejudices, they entered the country with their verdicts already prepared, and they could no more write dispassionately and impartially about it than they could about their own wives and children.

(Wise words, except that in The Innocents Abroad Twain does not apply them to himself.) Reports of desolation must be viewed critically, as many Christians came to see “desolation” everywhere in order to find fulfillment of biblical prophecy. One author describes in detail the “terrestrial paradise” of the Sea of Galilee and its surrounding hills, then sums it up by calling it a “scene of desolation and misery.” (Twain himself criticizes this ending as “startling.”) A Church of Scotland mission falsely reported that the southern coastal plain was little cultivated but a pastoral landscape full of flocks and herds, thus matching the prophecy of Zephaniah 2:6: “And the sea coast shall be dwellings and cottages for shepherds, and folds for flocks.”

David Roberts, “Ramla” lithograph by Louis Haghe; from The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt, and Nubia vol. 2 (1843)

For many, desolation was not the primary image at all. Scottish artist David Roberts found “a richly cultivated country” in the area around Jaffa: “The ground is carpeted with flowers — the plain is studded with small villages and groups of palm-trees, and, independent of its interesting associations, the country is the loveliest I ever beheld.” A young Cyrus Adler, years before he became a leading figure in the American Jewish community, wrote of similar feelings in a letter to his mother:

I had one general impression of the great beauty of the country and little wonder that the Israelites fought so hard for it. The succession of hills and valleys and green fields. The ruins. The tremendous rocks. The piles of stone which have been collecting since ancient times all impressed me with the idea that this little country is one of the prettiest on earth.

So many factors influenced how people saw Palestine: where they were coming from, what parts of the country they saw, what travelers’ accounts they had already read, what religious tradition they were part of. Roberts visited the country in March, Adler in April — at the end of the rainy season, when (today as two centuries ago) the ground really is carpeted with flowers, and vivid greens surround you. Twain visited in September, when there has usually been no rain for months, and everything is brown and dry and dead. (Again, Twain highlighted this problem, but suggested that, even in springtime, there would only be patches of beauty within a sea of desolation.)

But desolate, empty Palestine won out. In historical scholarship, decline from a great and glorious past has come to be seen as one of the defining issues in the history of the region; only in the last 15 years or so have specialists in the history and archaeology of the region even begun to rethink this. Meanwhile, art historians and literary critics — who specialize in studying the nature of representation and reality — have led the way in recognizing that desolate Palestine has always been an imaginary construct.

The Innocents Abroad is, in the end, an elaborate, sustained joke: at the expense of the peoples and places of the Mediterranean, of Twain’s fellow travelers, of Twain himself. That it still helps people to take this desolate image of Palestine seriously, 150 years later, is perhaps Twain’s biggest, cruelest joke of all.

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