Early Christian Travel Reports from Eretz Yisrael
Early last year I published excerpts from 10 rare books in my library, which contain reports from Christian travelers to the Holy Land. The 10 books cover the period 1610 to 1846. They are important historical testimonies of the prominent presence of a Jewish population in Jerusalem and other cities, while documenting the lack of any Arab population in most of the Land of Israel. I will continue my book journey now, quoting from eight more rare books in my library written in Latin, Portuguese, Swedish, French, English and German. The translations are my own.
Hadrianus Relandus, Palaestina, 1714, 2 volumes, with a large number of steel-engraved maps in Latin, with many Hebrew quotations from rabbinical sources. Relandus gives a geographical description of the distances to the various sites in Jerusalem. His account of the community on the Golan Heights, however, is most important. On page 815 of the second volume, he describes a very rich Jewish community life there. He describes a German/Ashkenazic synagogue and a Portuguese/Spanish or Sefardic synagogue, some of whose members emigrated from Amsterdam. We, of course, always knew that the Golan Heights had no Arab or Syrian population until this century, but was the scene of a large number of ancient Jewish communities and synagogues. This Latin book is, therefore, an important confirmation of these facts.
Lamentavel Relacão, Lisbon, 1756, in Portuguese. Thus is a rare booklet written by a Franciscan priest describing the hardships and oppression imposed by the Arabs on Christians living in Jerusalem.
Fredrick Hasselquist, Stockholm, 1757, written in Swedish. This book was considered so important that it was speedily translated into English and published in London under the title Voyages and Travels in the Levant. I own both the Swedish and English versions. Hasselquist was a Swedish scientist and a student of the world-famous Swedish botanist Carl Linne. His teacher sent him in 1749 to the Holy Land and neighboring countries, and he stayed until 1752, studying native flowers and plants. His report was published on orders of Her Majesty the Queen in Stockholm in 1757.
Most important to us today is his description of his visit to Jerusalem and its Jewish population: "Jerusalem has among its inhabitants 20,000 Jews. In the Jewish Quarter, Jewish women go around without veils, which Turkish (Arab) women are not permitted to do. Most of the Jews are poor, as they are not permitted to conduct commerce, which would be their natural occupation. They have no income other than what pilgrims of their own nation -- coming to Jerusalem from all corners of the earth -- distribute in aims. Their leading rabbi has handsome revenues of which he must pay the Turks the major part, as must the Christians, in taxes heavily imposed on them for the right to kiss their holy sites." It is obvious from this highly reliable, scientific report that the Jews already made up the majority of Jerusalem’s population 250 years ago! This information has, of course, profound political value for the demographic rights of Jews in Eretz Yisrael.
Geographic Description of Palestine or the Land of Judah, by Lars Kumblin, Stockholm, 1770, written in Swedish. The book is dedicated to Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Sophia Magdalena. The book describes heavy earthquakes that shook the Holy Land in 1759 and 1762 causing heavy casualties.
Kumblin reports that the name Jerusalem disappeared from use after Roman Emperor Hadrian destroyed the city following the Bar Kochba revolt and changed the name to Aelia Capitolina. He mentions that no Arab would recognize the name "Jerusalem." Instead, they now use the name El Kods or El Kude -- an abbreviation of "Bet Al Mokadas" based on the Hebrew "Beit Hamikdash" -- but for some centuries the Arabs called the city by the pagan name Aelia.
Itinéraraire de Paris a Jerusalem, by F.A. Chateaubriand, Paris, 1812, written in French. In describing the Valley of Jehosafat with Mt. Olives near Jerusalem. Chateaubriand writes: "Here you see the oldest and most recent Jewish tombstones and monuments, because the Jews come from the four corners of the world to die here. A Jew will pay gold for a little earth taken from here, to cover his corpse when he dies ... Only the monuments of Zachariah, Jehosafat and Absalom rise above the desolation of the huge cemetery."
He also visited the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and reports: "Between the Temple Mount and Mt. Zion, we entered the Jewish Quarter. Their misery has fortified them to resist the assaults of the Arabs, holding their eyes fixed on the Temple. I entered a school where I wanted to buy a Hebrew Pentateuch, which a rabbi used to teach a child to read. But he said he would never sell such a holy book! "The Jews are so poor that they must annually send for contributions from their co-religionists in Egypt and Morocco." He also recounts the travel account of Benjamin de Tudela, who found Jews in the 12th century living in many towns in the Holy Land. He also traces the ferocious acts of Arabs against Christians and lists massacres of Christian clergyman by the Arabs in Jerusalem.
Reiss Durch Palaestina, by Jena, 1825, in German. This German book is a translation, as the title page indicates, from the travel notes of an English cavalry officer stationed in India who paid a visit to the Middle East in 1821 and 1822. His interests are partly religious, since he was a Christian, and partly military, because he may have been a spy for Great Britain, as the British developed very early an interest in wresting away much of the Middle East from the Ottoman or Turkish empire. He reports real strife between the Arab ruler of Acco and the ruler of Damascus. As a result, he was afraid to wear his British army uniform outside Jerusalem as he might have become embroiled in the fighting and political intrigues among the waring Arab communities. The only peaceful Arab he met was the commander of Jerusalem, who, he writes, "was the only one who did not treat me like a dog." He even allowed the British officer to climb on the roof of his house to see, from a distance, the Omar Mosque, as "any Christian who would enter that place would immediately be put to death by the Arabs, because the Arabs believe that any prayer by a Jew or a Christian pronounced on the Temple Mount is heard by Allah, and might imperil the existence of the Moslem empire."
His only observation of the presence of Jews in Jerusalem referred to the monuments of Absalom, Zachariah and Jehosafat below the Mt. of Olives. Interestingly he reports with much respect his encounter with "an honorable, converted Jew, Joseph Wolf." This man is known as a dangerous missionary who spent many years in the Holy Land, trying -- without any success -- to convert Jews to Christianity. (Wolf’s own travel account, published in Philadelphia in 1845, was mentioned in my previous article.) The British officer concluded that, except for Turkish officials, all inhabitants suffered enough under the Turks and were longing for a Christian power to take over the entire area. He is convinced that this is the message of the Holy Scriptures, which, he believes, predicts the downfall of the Moslems. This British officer’s trip to the Holy Land took place shortly after Benjamin Disraeli’s trip there, which resulted in Disraeli writing several popular books about a future Jewish State, making political and religious interest in Eretz Israel so prominent in Britain.
In the Holy Land, by Andrew Thomson, London, 1883. This relatively modern book was written before the Zionist colonization of Eretz Yisrael began. Thomson gives a vivid description of Jewish Jerusalem:
"As you enter the eastern portion of Mount Zion, which is enclosed within the city walls, you look over Moriah and find it crowded with synagogues -- the white-bearded Jews, with those indelible, typical features, cherishing an ancient worship, which has lingered around the same spot for 3,000 years, and which refuses to amalgamate with any other.
"The population of modern Jerusalem has been very differently Estimated, and no doubt it increases by some thousands at the season of the annual religious feasts, but 18,000 appears to be the most probable average population; and while the Mohammedans are the master, the Jews form the decided majority (italics added), being, it is likely, not far short of 8,000. They come in a constant stream from every corner of the world.
"It is indeed remarkable in how many ways the Jews keep hold of their country with a trembling hand and are reluctant to let go the traces and the records of a glorious past ... The attendance of the Jews at the different synagogues was regulated by the countries in which they were born. Jews from the coasts of Africa and from the south of Europe usually frequented one synagogue; German and Polish Jews were to be found in another; and so it was with all nationalities."
This survey of ancient Christian travel reports on Eretz Yisrael has yielded a very important historical and political fact: The reports -- ranging from 1749 to 1883 -- prove that the Jews were in the majority in the population of Jerusalem. Most of the rest of the country was desolate, with almost no reports of Arabs living anywhere except in a few scattered cities. Those Arabs whom we see there today evidently migrated there only during the past century or so. Areas such as the Golan Heights had only a Jewish population. This is food for thought for those whose only passion is to push for giving the land "back" to the Palestinians. The Jewish title to the land is certainly overwhelmingly stronger and of far longer duration than that of the Arabs.
I invite book lovers to search their own libraries for similar travel accounts that so convincingly illuminate our links to our Land.
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