Monday, August 13, 2012

"Deserts Into Gardens & Waste Places Into Cultivated Fields": Palestine As It Was In 1865 & 1899


"Deserts Into Gardens & Waste Places Into Cultivated Fields": Palestine As It Was In 1865 & 1899

"Israel did not make the desert bloom. Instead, thanks to a deal struck with the British viceroys of Mandate Palestine, it made away with a land, a set of institutions and, indeed, a culture that was not its own."

So states an American businessman of Palestinian Arab Christian heritage, Mr Zahi Khouri.  While not wishing to denigrate him or attempting to nitpick some of the details in his article (for instance, about the Jaffa orange), I believe it is interesting and appropriate here to cite a Victorian witness to the regeneration of the Holy Land, to the reclamation of its barren places, by Jewish pioneers who did indeed "make the desert bloom".

The witness I call, British Major-General Sir Charles Wilson (1836-1905),  was chairman of the Palestine Exploration Fund (its website is here), with which he had been long involved, for the last few years of his life.

In July 1899, as reported in the Jewish Chronicle (14 July 1899), he addressed the Fund's Annual General Meeting in London, regarding his recent travels in the Holy Land:

"The lecturer said that the face of Palestine was changing very rapidly, and the change was due to various causes.  The tomb-hunter, who had done such infinite harm in Egypt, was abroad in Palestine and destroying its antiquities.  Another change was brought about by a revival of medievalism, which showed itself in a scrambling for holy places.  The amount of building of monasteries which had gone on in the Holy Land during the past twenty years was extraordinary.  There was scarcely an eminence which was not occupied.  Great harm had also been done to the antiquities of the country in this way.  Thus the foundations of a synagogue which he had disclosed at Tel Hum [Capernaum], in 1865, had been covered up again.  A great change had also been brought about in the landscape of the country, which was due to the Jewish colonies.  He was quite unprepared for the extraordinary improvement that the Jewish colonies had effected, turning deserts into gardens and waste places into cultivated fields. Ekron, especially, furnished a fine example of what was done by proper cultivation.  [Emphasis added.] As colonists, the Jews showed themselves to be the equal of any people in the world (loud applause).

His visit to Moab and Edom had been a short one, but it enabled him to realise the main features of the country and its description in the Bible.  He ascended Mount Pisgah, but, unfortunately, it had been raining, and the valley of the Jordan had been filled with steam, which obscured the view. The river Arnon, the northrn boundary of Moab, was the modern Wady-el-Mojib, which empties itself into the Dead Sea, about twenty-five miles south of Jericho.  A journey along the high plateau brought them after a time to a plain, which must be "The Field of Moab," mentioned in the Bible. One of the most interesting places in Moab was Kerak, where he came across an instance of the little care that the people of those parts evince for their dead. They let them lie about in the open to putrefy and be eaten by jackals.  The Tomb of Noah, close to Kerak, was a place of pilgrimage much esteemed in the south of Palestine. Coming to the Biblical Tophel, the view of the Dead [Sea] from there was very beautiful.  From the edge of the plateau they got an extraordinarily fine view of Mount Hor,in Edom. They entered Petra through the celebrated defile known as the Sik.  They lodged in the Khasneh Phar'aun, the famous structure in which travellers sleep.  From Petra they visited Mount Hor.  Sir Charles exhibited on the screen a view of the interior of Aaron's Tomb, this being the first photograph of the tomb that had ever been taken.  They found a fragment of a Greek inscription in this tomb.  The Turkish Pacha [sic] had mended the road all the way up to Mount Hor."

On 14 December1899, Sir Charles spoke on the topic "Palestine of Today" to members of London's Camera Club at their premises in Charing Cross Road.
Hosea, 14:7
Again, a reporter from the Jewish Chronicle went along.  This is is his prĂ©cis of Sir Charles's talk (JC, 22 December 1899):

"General Wilson said that his first visit to Palestine was in 1864, when he went there at the request of Baroness Burdett-Coutts, who was willing to pay the cost of improving the water supply of Jerusalem.  The Turkish authorities were willing that this should be carried out, but they demanded that £20,000 to £25.000 should be deposited with them.  Of course this demand was not complied with, and nothing was done. 

During the last four or five years he had been Chairman of a Committee having a similar object and view.  In the spring of this year he again visited Palestine, and it was a proof of the unchanging character of the Turks that the same demand was made as in 1864.  In the thirty-five years Palestine had greatly altered.  A most extraordinary change had been brought about through the cultivation of the plains, and this was mainly due to the Jewish colonies established in several parts of Palestine.  {Emphasis added here and below.] In 1881, when employed in Asia Minor, he was sent by the Government to see what was going on in respect of the Jewish colonies.  The colonists had suffered great privations, and the movement would have collapsed but for the munificence of Baron Edmond de Rothschild.  What in 1865 were the most unpromising of sites, nothing better than barren sandhills, were now flourishing colonies.  The manufacture of wines was one of the principal industries at the Colony Rishon le Zion; and he had tasted some brandy four or five years old, which was almost equal to the best old French brandy.... In one colony as many as 50,000 olive trees  had been planted.  Formerly, Palestine had been deforested; but now travellers came across whole forests of Eucalyptus trees which were a protection against fevers.  Another improvement for which Jews should have the credit, was the better means of transport; in fact, the only good roads had been made by them.  In the hilly country, too, the Jews had done a great deal in restoring the terraces.  They had planted there mulberry trees, and the silk produced by the worms which fed on the leaves of the trees fetched prices as good as the silk sent from Beyrout...."