This Explorer Visited Israel in the 19th Century and Found It to Be Anything but Empty

French geographer Victor Guérin arrived in the Land of Israel in 1852, and returned for additional visits over the course of the next 36 years. His in-depth book conveys what has remained and what has been renewed here since his time, and shows that most of the country’s residents at the time were Arabs

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French geographer and explorer Victor Guérin
French geographer and explorer Victor Guérin. Inspiring diligence.Credit: Gallica Digital Library
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

In 1868 French explorer and geographer Victor Guérin wrote in his book “Description géographique, historique et archéologique de la Palestine” (Geographical, Historical, and Archaeological Description of Palestine): “We passed through a undulating high place, which was partitioned by many shallow valleys, with beautiful pastures for herds. At 6:15 a.m., we arrived at the gardens of Julis. The gardens there are divided by hedges of cactus pears.”

This week, I stood on the exact same site described by Guérin. The site is now called ‘Hodaya rest area.’ It has a few picnic tables placed there by the Jewish National Fund amid the eucalyptus trees. The homes of Moshav Hodaya are visible on the other side of the road.

There I read the lines that Guérin wrote about Julis 154 years ago. “At 6:25 a.m., we arrived at the village that goes by this name. It is built upon a hill, and has perhaps 500 residents. In the ‘ville’ (town) that is dedicated to Sheikh Mohammed, I saw cut stones that left the impression of being ancient. Several marble columns are laid across the mouth of the well, with furniture arranged around it.”

Hodaya rest area, previously the village of Julis. "I saw cut stones that left the impression of being ancient."Credit: Ilan Assayag

Nothing is left of the village Julis. Eighty years after Guérin visited here, a war took place. The village was occupied, its residents forced to abandon their homes, and the site was completely destroyed. Nevertheless, the well described by Guérin, with the rounded ancient marble columns, was still there. A sign posted by the JNF testifies to this being the site. From the hilltop green fields can be seen. There are still cactus-pear hedges, but there are no gardens. The pastures and the herds have also disappeared. In several spots you can see piles of stones, which had once been the walls and rooms of the houses in the village. It is the same country, but different.

Guérin, whose 200th birthday was recently marked (he was born in September 1821), documented his visits to the country in seven volumes. They were published in Hebrew by Yad Ben-Zvi in 1982. He devoted three volumes to Judea, two to Samaria and two to the Galilee. His literary undertaking enables us to regard the land from a particular historical point of view. This is precisely what the geographical expanse looked like before the first Zionists arrived.

Guérin’s expeditions to Palestine were conducted over the course of 36 years, between 1852 and 1888. The First Aliyah wave of immigration began in 1881. His observations enable the reader to compare with exact precision what has happened here in the past 140 years. What remains, what has disappeared and what has been renewed.

Over the course of several days I toured the country in Guérin’s footsteps. I tried to find places he had visited. Sometimes it was very easy - the ruins of Ashkelon remain in the exact same place; sometimes it was impossible - not a trace remains of the village Hamama, north of Ashkelon in the area of Nitzanim. Today it is the Holot Nitzanim nature reserve, where the remains of the old orchards have been buried under the dunes. This is what Guérin wrote about the site: “The gardens of Hamama are outstandingly fertile. They are divided by living fences of huge cactus pears, and are planted with olive, fig, pomegranate, mulberry and apricot trees. Here and there slender palm trees and broad treetops of sycamore trees rise above them.”

The trees are still there. The village where in Guérin’s estimate “at least 800 persons” were living is no longer. In its place are other villages - the settlement Nitzan, Kibbutz Nitzanim, and Moshav Beit Ezra.

Most of the villages described by Guérin have since vanished without a trace. At Julis, near Hodaya, I experienced immense pleasure at my “discovery” of the precise location with the help of aforementioned well. Other places, around Kibbutz Cabri in the Western Galilee, for instance, where Guérin stayed for a few nights in the village of al-Kabri, were mainly a source of frustration. Settlements, orchards, industrial buildings, gas stations, JNF forests and nature reserves conceal the earlier stratum.

Kibbutz Nitzanim near Ashkelon. Not a trace remains of the village Hamama, in the area of Nitzanim.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Haim Ben-Amram, who translated Guérin’s writings into Hebrew, is worthy of a separate article. It is hard to fathom how he managed, until his death in 1990, to carry on such a rich, extensive and high-quality translation enterprise. In the foreword to his translation of Guérin’s writings, Ben-Amram compared him to another important explorer from the same time period, Henry Baker Tristram, whose thick book “The Land of Israel, a Journal of Travels in Palestine, Undertaken with Special Reference to Its Physical Character” was also translated by Ben-Amram. Tristram is now considered the father of Israeli zoology. The translator had found in both of them “a deep emotional connection to the Land of Israel as the cradle of Christianity.” Guérin may have been a Catholic and Tristram a Protestant, but both of them were practicing Christians, and in Ben-Amram’s opinion, “The reader can usually rely on the factual descriptions in their books.”

One-man delegation

After taking on classical studies Guérin lived in Greece for many years, where he was employed at the École française d’Athènes, the French School of Athens. From Greece he would set out for lengthy expeditions throughout the Middle East. In his foreword, Ben-Amram notes the truly unique aspect of Guérin’s work - he acted as a one-man delegation. In addition, his method was unique - on each expedition, he would choose a point of origin, usually a village that would provide him with food and guidance, then set up a tent and live in it. From there, he would embark on exhaustive excursions through the surrounding region. At every such stop, he employed a local guide and interpreter, who traveled with him for several days, and whose job would be to point out the antiquities sites and spell their names in Arabic.

At some of the sites, Guérin made an association between their Arabic names and sites mentioned in the Bible. Sometimes he was right - in Ashkelon, for instance - but sometimes he was wrong: he identified the village Aqir with the Philistine Ekron. Years later, archaeologists discovered the remains of Ekron at Tel Miqne, which is situated ten kilometers south of Aqir, on the ruins of which Mazkeret Batya was built.

Ashkelon National Park beachCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Besides the interpreter, Guérin would also hire two armed bodyguards (bashi bazouk - soldiers of fortune in the Ottoman Empire). One of them would transfer his belongings to the next stop, while the other accompanied him on his excursions. They travelled on horseback. The distances covered each day were relatively short, and their wakeup times in the morning were very early. Guérin’s diligence is awe-inspiring.

One paragraph in Ben-Amram’s foreword is worthy of special attention: “I leave it to the interested reader to calculate how many kilometers Guérin traversed in the country using this system. Based on his notation of the number of residents at the various settlement points through which Guérin passed, the reader may also be able to calculate and come up with a reasonable estimate of the size of the Arab population in Israel during the years of his excursions, and it will certainly become clear to him whether at the time the land’s Arab residents were predominantly peaceful farmers or had in fact been robbers living by their swords, an image that has taken form in recent times.”

A reading of Guérin’s writings clearly reveals that the country was not empty of residents. It had hundreds of small villages scattered across a large territory. The residents of these villages engaged in agriculture. The orchards were fruitful, the wells provided water and the streams were clean; alongside them were fertile gardens and fields.

According to customary estimates in 1870 the Arab population of Palestine consisted of approximately 350,000 people. At the same time the Jewish population numbered only 25,000, with half of them residing in Jerusalem. Fifty years later, there were 700,000 Arabs and about 100,000 Jews, and in 1948, there were 1.2 million Arabs and 600,000 Jews.

Another clear and significant conclusion arising from Guérin’s writings is that at the time there were innumerable uninhabited ruins from previous eras throughout the country. These ruins were of great interest to Guérin, and he devoted most of his time to searching for and documenting them. The impression gained from reading his writings is that the country was simply filled with them. In several places, such as in Julis, you can still see these findings in the field. Elsewhere, where new settlements have been built, there are no longer any traces of these ruins. Places in which significant antiquities sites have been discovered were converted to national parks. Over the course of the 150 years that have passed since Guérin’s visit, extensive and expert archaeological research has been introduced. This has preserved many of the sites at which Guérin saw remains scattered on the ground.

Ashkelon National Park Credit: Moshe Gilad

Through Guérin, it is possible to better understand a few of the ancient strata. However, since his time at least one more stratum has been added to the mix - the majority of the villages in which Guérin was hosted, whose residents he counted and whose orchards he described in brief - the ruins were more interesting to him - no longer exist. They have become yet another level in the colossal layer cake that is called the Land of Israel.

In his introduction, Guérin wrote: “There is no more apt place than Palestine to fit the expression coined by the ancient author, ‘Everywhere you turn, you are placing your foot on history’ and the traces of the history on which you are stepping hither and yon are such that they conjure in your imagination the most wondrous occurrences to have ever taken place, occurrences the impression of which may be felt to this day and which will continue to reverberate until the end of days of humankind.”

In Ashkelon, following my visit to the no-longer-existing Julis and Hamama, I saw several excellent examples of which he spoke. One is found in the Tel Ashkelon National Park. This gorgeous site makes for a very pleasant visit. The land on which the national park is built in southern Ashkelon is adjacent to what once was the 19th century village of Jorah.

Guérin described it thus: “At 5:45, we arrived in the village of Jorah, the number of residents is 300. Is there anything ancient here? Was it one of the suburbs of Ashkelon? That is reasonable to assume. In any event, in its houses, constructed in a particularly coarse fashion, one may discern many ancient remains that are the spoils of the ruins of the city… Residents of this village raise gardens replete with abundant crops that, due to frequent irrigation, include pleasant fruit trees and all manner of flowers and vegetables. Given the aforementioned ruins of Ashkelon it is understandable that it is now very difficult to reconstruct in one’s mind, on the basis of what one sees in the sites that remain, which have been made indistinct and have been changed - not only the first Ashkelon, that of the Canaanites and the Philistines, or the Ashkelon that was expanded and beautified by Herod in the Roman period, but even the Ashkelon of the Middle Ages, as existed in Crusader times.”

The situation today is the complete opposite. In fact, the earliest strata in the Ashkelon layer cake - Canaanite, Philistine and Herodian - are easy to see. The excavations and the reconstruction in the Tel Ashkelon National Park confer on them honor and value. The village of Jorah has vanished, but two bucket-wheel wells from the Ottoman period, which have been well preserved in the national park, offer an indication of nature of the local agriculture.

Not far away, in central Ashkelon’s Independence Square, it seems as if time is standing still. The structures of the mosque and the elongated khan are still standing. But they are in poor condition. Ashkelon’s municipal museum, which was closed on the day of my visit, is housed in the mosque.

Guérin wrote about it thus: ‘There are 1,500 residents living in al-Majdal. The homes are nearly all built of stone, but a few are made from clay mixed with gravel. The main mosque is built of well-polished stones. The courtyard in front of it is paved with marble flagstones that were extracted from the ancient installations. I saw several stands of marble columns there that were lying on the ground. Stretching upward from the building is a quite handsome tower. It is situated alongside a large plaza that is surrounded by shops.” Everything still looks exactly as he described it, and it is quite a dismal picture.

A fondness for ruins

Historical geographer Professor Haim Goren of the Tel-Hai Academic College has written a book about Edward Robinson, who explored the area in the 1830s. Not long ago, Goren published a book about explorers of the Dead Sea - “Dead Sea Level: Science, Exploration and Imperial Interests in the Near East.” In an interview for Haaretz, Goren highlighted the importance of Guérin’s work: “He was an interesting character, who lived in Athens and wrote about numerous regions but was turned on by the Holy Land and took advantage of every expedition that he took to explore it. In 1863, he began to carry out expeditions here and to investigate the country in a serious manner. He has a religious motive that is combined with a research motive. He is considered very credible, and although he has errors here and there, his book is a wonderful source of information about the country in those decades.”

“The fact that he went alone sounds like an act of lunacy now. When you read his writings, you understand that this is astounding work for an individual who was going at it alone. His major expedition in 1863 went on for eight months. The expedition taken by Robinson and Smith, from Cairo to Beirut, lasted three and a half months. That gives you an idea of Guérin’s thoroughness. He provides a wealth of data on various sites, names, type of population, whether the place is inhabited and by whom - Druse, Muslims, Christians. For an investigator working solo, that is an indescribable accomplishment.”

Was he, as many believe, a French spy in the Ottoman Empire?

“No. There is no evidence of that, and based on the sources in our possession he had no such appointment or mission. He did not report to anyone. This was a private initiative. It would also be worth remembering that he was an historical geographer and not an archaeologist. Although he is interested in antiquities, he does not excavate. At the same time, it is difficult to compare him with other explorers in the country.”

Ashkelon National Park Credit: Moshe Gilad

How is it that in the same exact decade, important travelers such as Robinson, Tristram, Tobler, Guérin and Mark Twain all arrived here?

“Take out Mark Twain. He is a journalist in search of anecdotes, who visited here for a very brief period of time and wrote an amusing book, but not a research study. Robinson and Smith arrived in 1838, long before Guérin. Robinson came back here in 1852. Tristram arrived here only coincidentally in the 1860s. At the time, the country was opening up to foreign Christian visitors, and the Ottomans were back in control of it. Tristram, who was originally a zoologist and a clergyman, was interested in the Scriptures and in the fauna. The Holy Land and its animal kingdom fascinated him. Conversely, Guérin engaged mainly in ruins. Also at that time, 1865, the British ‘Palestine Exploration Fund’ was established. It led to a steep rise in the exploration of Palestine. It may be that Guérin even met members of this association in Palestine and that there was a connection between them. My book on the Dead Sea explorers ends in 1850, but several more delegations came here subsequently to explore the sea. And you have to bear in mind that from 1868 on, the Templars were also in the country. Guérin met them, as well.”

At Independence Square in Ashkelon, I sat and read Guérin’s description. “The orchards of al-Majdal constitute a green strip that ornaments this town. The soil of the gardens is sandy, but nevertheless very fertile. They are filled with date, pomegranate, olive, mulberry and citrus trees, and soaring above them, here and there, are pleasant palm trees and huge sycamores.”

The return trip from Ashkelon took only an hour. In the car, driving at 110 kilometers an hour, I thought about what a beautiful country there used to be here. And then I remembered that I do not like horseback riding, and that the first roads in Israel were paved only decades later and that I had a fantastic coffee at the gas station near Hodaya. Ben-Amram once quoted a beautiful line of Alterman’s: “I am with you, oh roads, in my very own life I have loved.”

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