An Extraordinary Man to Match the Tall Tales

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

On March 10, 1908, Aaron Aaronsohn pitched camp at the edge of Matsok Haha'atikm - the cliff along the African-Syrian Rift that overlooks Ein Gedi - and gazed eastward at the Dead Sea. In the eyes of the Zionist botanist from Zichron Yaakov, this was the climax of a dangerous journey to the Dead Sea and its environs, which was still terra incognita for the Zionist settlers.

After stopping with his entourage to rest on the beach, Aaronsohn decided to overcome his qualms and swim in the oily waters. "I had a long bathe in the Dead Sea," he recorded in his diary. "The Sea was calm.... Even though I was in the water up to my neck for about 15 minutes, I did not feel any unpleasant sensation and, indeed, the opposite."

On the beach, the horse he had ridden from the Carmel awaited him. This historic encounter with the Dead Sea caused even the imperturbable scientist to lose his equanimity:

"Upon coming out of the water I leaped onto my horse, naked, and rode to the sweet water," he wrote.

Aaronsohn, a botanist, agronomist and Zionist leader, is known mainly as the person who discovered "the mother of wheat" in 1906, and equally as the leader of the Nili underground, which subverted the Ottoman Turkish regime in Palestine. It is less well-known that Aaronsohn had close ties with the sultan's court - he spoke Turkish very well, and was accorded a great deal of esteem by the Ottoman regime by virtue of his scientific research on the flora, geography and quarries in our region. He undertook the expedition to the Dead Sea and Transjordan at the behest of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, whose private property included the Dead Sea.

A century after the journey to the Dead Sea, Aaronsohn's travels in the land of Israel are at the center of the research of Dr. Ran Aaronsohn of the Hebrew University. Aaronsohn, 58, is kin to Aaron Aaronsohn: His grandfather, Shmuel, was Aaronsohn's brother.

"Aaron has no direct descendents, but I am the person closest to him," he relates. "I grew up at the home of my grandmother, who was Aaron's sister-in-law and his neighbor. The stories about him were recounted in the family, but I always thought they were tall tales. It took me years to discover that he really was an extraordinary person, a genius and a polymath."

Zoologist, cartographer and bird-hunter

The Imperial Ottoman Expedition for the Exploration of the Dead Sea set out on the orders of the sultan, accompanied by a platoon of Circassian soldiers, who were hired to defend it from brigands. During the course of four months it passed through the Judean Desert to Ein Gedi, and from there to the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, to Tel Namrin and Jerash in the Jordan of today. The central figures were the German Protestant geologist Professor Max Blankenhorn, the Arab physician Dr. Muharram Effendi, and the leader of the expedition, the Zionist-Jewish Aaronsohn. The delegation also included a zoologist, a cartographer and a "bird- hunter."

"This really was an expedition into the unknown," says Ran Aaronsohn. "The Dead Sea was a marginal, uninhabited area, a land with no government and no law. They suffered from storms, heat, plagues of mosquitoes and injuries."

In his capacity as the owner of the Dead Sea and its environs, the sultan required of Aaronsohn - who was an Ottoman subject - that he investigate the quarries and the region's possibilities for industrial and agricultural development.

"The aim was the development of the Ottoman Empire, or advancing the sultan's own economic interests," explains Aaronsohn. "Aaronsohn was an independent entrepreneur, who for economic ends took all kinds of missions upon himself, on the one hand for the Zionists and on the other for the Ottoman Turks. That was how he earned his living. It did not bother the Ottoman Turks at all that he was a proud nationalist and Zionist, and they financed the entire expedition."

At that time the Dead Sea had become a focus of interest of major powers, because of the phosphates and the potash recently discovered there, and which today are a major export item from Israel. Then there were experts nosing around on behalf of British and German companies that wanted to exploit the natural resources of the region.

Juicy remarks

"It is very likely that under the table Aaronsohn was asked by the Zionist institutions to examine things of which the Ottomans were not aware," says Aaronsohn. "He tried to conceal the Zionist aims and keep them secret both from the Ottoman authorities and from representatives of European companies who were touring the region. Aaronsohn had two hats: He was both a Zionist and a researcher on the sultan's behalf. But the one who foot the bill was the sultan."

According to Aaronsohn, his great-uncle "was very different from later Zionists because he was baladi (Arabic for local), and he considered himself a son of the country, with close ties to the authorities. Unlike the pioneers of the Second Aliyah (the wave of Jewish immigrants to Palestine between 1904 and 1914, mostly from Russia and Poland), he did not set himself apart from the Arabs but rather employed many Arabs and felt very comfortable with them."

Aaronsohn's journals, which have been published by the Aaronsohn Foundation, are comprised mostly of descriptions of bushes and grasses, which he identified on the journey. In between, however, there is a scattering of juicy observations about his companions on the journey. Among other things, these document his complex relationship with the doctor, Muharram Effendi, who was responsible for writing the reports to the Sultan.

Usually, he describes scornfully the doctor's qualms about the journey. "Early in the morning Muharram Effendi came to tell me that because of a shortage of barley, we would have to give up the trip to the south. We scolded him, as he deserved," wrote Aaronsohn on March 18, and later: "Muharram Effendi is truly in the grip of fear. He did not want to separate from our four soldiers."

'Open Sesame'

On April 2, the investigators returned to the banks of the Jordan, after having explored its eastern side. "We came to the Jordan bridge that opened before us as if by magic. Muharram Effendi spoke the verse, 'Open Sesame,'" writes Aaronsohn.

It appears that the expedition was a success. The problems, however, came from a different direction: Three months later, the revolt of the Young Turks broke out. Sultan Abdul Hamid had to institute reforms and within half a year he was deposed.

Many of the Zionist leaders who had settled in the land of Israel welcomed this event, and hoped that it would lead to a change in the Ottoman regime's attitude toward Zionism. For Aaronsohn and Blankenhorn, however, this was a disaster: The sultan owed them money. "The Young Turks shrugged off their obligations," explains Aaronsohn. "They said: The sultan commissioned you - he should pay you himself. Aaronsohn spent three months in Istanbul to get the money."

Had Aaronsohn's hostility toward the Ottoman regime, against which he spied during the period of World War I, already begun at that time? "This is a mystery that hasn't been solved," says Aaronsohn. "On the one hand, he was a loyal Zionist, and on the other he participated in the Ottoman sultan's committees. It is hard to know whether he was motivated by the desire to act for the good of the Zionist settlement, or whether he still considered himself a loyal Ottoman."