Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: Christian Traveler in the Holy Land

In an earlier number (February 1957), in this department, we set forth some fascinating entries from a journal kept by Herman Melville on a pilgrimage which he made to the Holy Land in 1857. Now, we offer an excerpt from the writings of a less famous traveler of the mid-19th century who journeyed to Palestine, among other places. John Lloyd Stephens was a graduate of Columbia College, and in 1834 a rising young New York lawyer and Tammany politician. But when a persistent throat infection failed to clear up, his doctors prescribed a trip abroad. The editor of the American Monthly Review, a friend of his, published a long letter from Stephens describing his travels through the Levant, from Athens to Smyrna; Stephens was thus embarked on a new career as a writer of travel books, and subsequently as an archaeologist, through his discoveries of the Lost Mayan cities in Central America.

The selections below are taken from the first of Stephens’s books, Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land (Harper and Brothers, 1837, Vol. II), which ran into many editions, both in England and America, and was still being reprinted in 1886. Among its enthusiastic readers in this country were Edgar Allan Poe, who reviewed it for the New York Review, and Rebecca Gratz, whose well-known letters make frequent reference to points of information she was picking up from her reading of Stephens. Only three years after the book was published, the Jews of America acted, for the first time, as a unit in the Damascus affair; it is not unlikely that Stephens’s book may have contributed to their new sense of community by making available to American Jews a vivid picture of the disabilities of the Jews of Palestine and the Near East under Turkish rule.—Joseph L. Blau

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I had no wish to stop at Hebron, though the first city in the Holy Land, and hallowed by high and holy associations. The glory of the house of David had forever departed. I was anxious to put an outpost between myself and the desert. . . . But the governor positively refused to let me go that afternoon; he said that it was a bad road, and that a Jew had been robbed a few days before on his way to Bethlehem; and again lying down, he silenced all objections with the eternal but hateful word, “Bokhara, bokhara,” tomorrow, tomorrow. Seeing there was no help for me, I made the best of it, and asked him to furnish me with a place to lodge in that night. He immediately gave orders to the janizary. . . .

I followed the janizary, who conducted me around outside the walls and through the burying-ground, where the women were scattered in groups among the tombs, to a distant and separate quarter of the city. I had no idea where he was taking me; but I had not advanced a horse’s length in the narrow streets, before their peculiar costume and physiognomies told me that I was among the unhappy remnant of a fallen people, the persecuted and despised Israelites. They were removed from the Turkish quarter, as if the slightest contact with this once favored people would contaminate the bigoted follower of the Prophet. The governor, in the haughty spirit of a Turk, probably thought that the house of a Jew was a fit place for the repose of a Christian; and following the janizary through a low range of narrow, dark, and filthy lanes, mountings and turnings, of which it is impossible to give any idea, with the whole Jewish population turning out to review us, and the sheik and all his attendants with their long swords clattering at my heels, I was conducted to the house of the chief rabbi of Hebron.

If I had my choice, these were the very persons I would have selected for my first acquaintances in the Holy Land. The descendants of Israel were fit persons to welcome a stranger to the ancient city of their fathers; and if they had been then sitting under the shadow of the throne of David, they could not have given me a warmer reception. It may be that, standing in the same relation to the Turks, alike the victims of persecution and contempt, they forgot the great cause which had torn us apart and made us a separate people, and felt only a sympathy for the object of mutual oppression. But whatever was the cause, I shall never forget the kindness with which, as a stranger and Christian, I was received by the Jews in the capital of their ancient kingdom. . . .

I had seen enough of the desert, and of the wild spirit of freedom which men talk of without knowing, to make me cling more fondly than ever even to the lowest grade of civilization. . . . Judge, then, of my satisfaction at being welcomed from the desert by the friendly and hospitable Israelites. . . . My speculating, scheming friends and fellow-citizens would have smiled to see me that night, with a Syrian dress and long beard, sitting crosslegged on a divan, with the chief rabbi of the Jews at Hebron, and half the synagogue around us, talking of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as of old and mutual friends. . . .

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Giving a last look to the Valley of the Shepherds, we were soon on the mountain’s side; and very soon, all the interest with which I had regarded Bethlehem was lost in the more absorbing feeling with which I looked forward to Jerusalem. . . . We were soon approaching the walls of Jerusalem, and seemed to be almost at their foot; but we were on one of the mountains that encompass the city, and the deep Valley of Jehosaphat was yet between us and the holy city—the sacred burying-place of the Jews, the “gathering-place of nations.” Crossing this valley, we ascended on the other side, and in a few moments were on one of the seven hills on which the city is built, and entering at the Bethlehem gate. It was guarded by a Turkish soldier, and half a dozen more lay basking in the sun outside, who raised their heads as I approached, their long mustaches curling as they looked at me; and, though they gave me no greeting, they let me pass without any molestation. . . .

The reader may remember the kindness with which I had been received by the chief rabbi at Hebron. His kindness did not end there; a few days after my arrival, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, the high-priest of the Jews in the city of their ancient kings, called upon me, accompanied by a Gibraltar Jew who spoke English, and who told me that they had come at the request of my friend in Hebron, to receive and welcome me in the city of their fathers. I had already seen a great deal of the Jews. I had seen them in the cities of Italy, everywhere more or less oppressed; at Rome, shut up every night in their miserable quarters as if they were noxious beasts; in Turkey, persecuted and oppressed; along the shores of the Black Sea and in the heart of Russia, looked down upon by the serfs of that great empire of vassalage; and, for the climax of misery, I had seen them contemned and spit upon, even by the ignorant and enslaved boors of Poland. I had seen them scattered abroad among all nations, as it had been foretold they would be, everywhere a separate and peculiar people; and everywhere, under all poverty, wretchedness, and oppression, waiting for, and anxiously expecting, the coming of a Messiah, to call together their scattered tribes, and restore them to the kingdom of their fathers; and all this the better fitted me for the more interesting spectacle of the Jews in the holy city. In all changes and revolutions, from the day when the kingdom of Solomon passed into the hands of strangers, under the Assyrian, the Roman, the Arab, and the Turk, a remnant of that once-favoured people has always hovered around the holy city; and now, as in the days of David, old men may be seen at the foot of Mount Zion, teaching their children to read from that mysterious book, on which they have ever fondly built their hopes of a temporal and eternal kingdom.

The friends made for me by the rabbi at Hebron were the very friends above all others whom I would have selected for myself. While the Christians were preparing for the religious ceremonies of Easter, the Jews were making ready for the great feast of the Passover; and one of the first offers of kindness they made me, was an invitation to wait and partake of it with them. The rabbi was an old man, nearly seventy, with a long white beard, and Aaron himself need not have been ashamed of such a representative. I would have preferred to attach myself particularly to him; but, as I could speak neither Arabic nor Hebrew, and the English Jew was not willing to play second, and serve merely as interpreter, I had but little benefit of the old man’s society.

The Jews are the best topographers in Jerusalem. . . . That same morning they took me to what they called a part of the wall of Solomon’s temple. It forms part of the southern wall of the mosque of Omar, and is evidently older than the rest, the stones being much larger, measuring nine or ten feet long; and I saw that day, as other travellers may still see every Friday in the year, all the Jews in Jerusalem clothed in their best raiment, winding through the narrow streets of their quarter; and under this hallowed wall, with the sacred volume in their hands, singing, in the language in which they were written, the Songs of Solomon and the Psalms of David. White-bearded old men and smooth-cheeked boys were leaning over the same book; and Jewish maidens, in their long white robes, were standing with their faces against the wall, and praying through its cracks and crevices. The tradition which leads them to pray through this wall is, that during the building of the temple a cloud rested over it so as to prevent any entrance; and Solomon stood at the door, and prayed that the cloud might be removed, and promised that the temple should be always open to men of every nation desiring to offer up prayers; whereupon the Lord removed the cloud, and promised that the prayers of all people offered up in that place should find acceptance in his sight; and now, as the Mussulman lords it over the place where the temple stood, and the Jews are not permitted to enter, they endeavour to insinuate their prayers through the crevices in the wall, that thus they may rise from the interior to the Throne of Grace. The tradition is characteristic, and serves to illustrate the devoted constancy with which the Israelites adhere to the externals of their faith. . . .

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About nine o’clock the next morning . . . we were sitting in the highest seats in the synagogue, at the foot of Mount Zion. My old friend the rabbi was in the desk, reading to a small remnant of the Israelites the same law which had been read to their fathers on the same spot ever since they came up out of the land of Egypt. And there they sat, where their fathers had sat before them—with high, black, square-topped caps, with shawls wound around, crossed in front, and laid very neatly; long gowns fastened with a sash, and long beards, the feeble remnant of a mighty people; there was sternness in their faces, but in their hearts a spirit of patient endurance, and a firm and settled resolution to die and be buried under the shadow of their fallen temple.

By the Jewish law the men and women sit apart in the synagogues; and as I could not understand the words of exhortation which fell from the lips of the preacher, it was not altogether unnatural that I should turn from the rough-bearded sons of Abraham to the smooth faces of their wives and daughters. Since I left Europe, I had not been in an apartment where the women sat with their faces uncovered; and, under these circumstances, it is not surprising that I saw many a dark-eyed Jewess who appeared well worthy of my gaze; and it is not a vain boast to say, that while singing the Songs of Solomon, many a Hebrew maiden turned her bright black orbs on me; for, in the first place, on entering we had disturbed more than a hundred sitting on the steps; secondly, my original dress, half Turk, half Frank, attracted the eyes even of the men; and, thirdly, the alleged universal failing of the sex is not wanting among the daughters of Judah.

The service over, we stopped a moment to look at the synagogue, which was a new building, with nothing about it that was peculiar or interesting. It had no gold or silver ornaments; and the sacred scroll, the table of the Law, contained in the holy of holies, was all that the pride of the Jew could show. . . .

It was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. The command to do no work on the Sabbath day is observed by every Jew, as strictly as when the commandment was given to his fathers; and to such an extent was it obeyed in the house of my friend, that it was not considered allowable to extinguish a lamp which had been lighted the night before, and was now burning in broad daylight over our table. This extremely strict observance of the law at first gave me some uneasiness about my dinner; but my host, with great self-complacency, relieved me from all apprehensions, by describing the admirable contrivance he had invented for reconciling appetite and duty—an oven, heated the night before, to such a degree that the process of cooking was continued during the night, and the dishes were ready when wanted the next day. I must not forget the Jew’s family, which consisted of a second wife, about sixteen, already the mother of two children, and his son and son’s wife, the husband twelve, and the wife ten years old. The little gentleman was at the table, and behaved very well, except that his father had to check him in eating sweetmeats. The lady was playing on the floor with other children, and I did with her what I could not have done with a bigger man’s wife—I took her on my knee, and kissed her. Among the Jews, matches are made by the parents; and immediately upon the marriage, the wife is brought into the household of the husband. A young gentleman was tumbling about the floor, who was engaged to the daughter of the chief rabbi. I did not ask the age of the lady, of course; but the gentleman bore the heavy burden of three years. He had not yet learned to whisper the story of his love to his blushing mistress, for, in fact, he could not talk at all; he was a great bawling boy, and cared much more for his bread and butter than a wife; but his prudent father had already provided. . . .

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