Wednesday, 28 July 2010

So much has changed - and yet... An excerpt from a travel diary of 1836

This excerpt from a travel diary written more than a century and a half ago brings out into the light some of the history that seems to have been denied us in the West in recent years - but also rings the bells of recognition within me. Yes, the times have changed, and the people have now returned to the land they can call their own, but the warmth and love and hospitality are still there, and have been shared with me in the past few days as warmly as they were in 1836... The road to reconciliation starts within our hearts. May we have the courage to walk it.

Visit to the Jews of Hebron (1836)

I followed the janissary, 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;1 and, following the janissary 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 sheik2 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 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; and I look to my reception here and by the monks of Mount Sinai as among the few bright spots in my long and dreary pilgrimage through the desert... .

Judge, then, of my satisfaction at being welcomed from the desert by the friendly and hospitable Israelites. Returned once more to the occupation of our busy, money-making life, floating again upon the stream of business, and carried away from the cares and anxieties which agitate every portion of our stirring community, it is refreshing to turn to the few brief moments when far other thoughts occupied my mind; and my speculating, scheming friends and fellow-citizens would have smiled to see me that-night, with a Syrian dress and long beard, sitting cross-legged 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.

With the few moments of daylight that remained, my Jewish friends conducted me around their miserable quarter. They had few lions to show me, but they took me to their synagogue, in which an old white-bearded Israelite was teaching some prattling children to read the laws of Moses in the language of their fathers; and when the sun was setting in the west and the Muezzin from the top of the minaret was calling the sons of the faithful to evening prayers, the old rabbi and myself, a Jew and a Christian, were sitting on the roof of the little synagogue, looking out as by stealth upon the sacred mosque contain­ing the hallowed ashes of their patriarch fathers. The Turk guards entered the door, and the Jew and the Christian are not permitted to enter [the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron – I.K.]; and the old rabbi was, pointing to the different parts of the mosque, where, as he told me, under tombs adorned with carpets of silk and gold, rested the mortal remains of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob .

1 The author probably did not know that in all Muslim lands, travelers could be lodged only ill the Jewish quarter (or Christian, if it existed) or in khans.

2 The sheik and his attendants were Arabs paid to protect the security of the traveler. Every traveler, even if indigenous to the country, was obliged to place himself under the protection of an escort so as to escape the danger of being robbed or killed by the Bedouins.

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852), the later discoverer of the Maya civilization, from a book Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia, Petrea and the Holy Land, New York, 1837; reprint University of Oklahoma 1970, (pp. 312-14).

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