Travel Guide to the Land of Israel in the 19th Century

Don’t forget your horse, your Bible and some candles.

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Image that appeared in the 19th-century guidebooks to the Holy Land.
Image that appeared in the 19th-century guidebooks to the Holy Land. Credit: Emil Salman
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

“On this day the traveler shall rise early, because many and distinguished things he must see today. He would do well to take him a donkey to ride upon and candles to illuminate the darkness of the caves.” The time is the late 19th century, the city Jerusalem, the writer the Land of Israel researcher Avraham Moshe Lunz and the donkey is only one of many four-legged means of transportation that were offered to travelers.

In this period, before the railway was laid and carriage roads were paved in the Land of Israel, travelers to the Holy Land also used horses or mules to get from place to place. “The horses in this land are accustomed to walking on rocks and stumbling blocks, ascending mountains and descending valleys,” wrote Lunz in an effort to reassure them. “The traveler can sit comfortably on his horse, mule or donkey without trepidation.”

Even 125 years after it was published in 1890, Lunz’s guidebook, “Moreh derekh Be’Eretz Yisrael Vesuria” (“Guidebook to the Land of Israel and Syria”) is still relevant. Not as a travel guide, of course, but as a primary historical source that is rich with social, geographic, economic and cultural detail.

His guide is incomplete, however. Missing from it are Christian and Muslim sites, which he called “defilement of the goyim.” In the chapter on Jerusalem he neglects to mention the Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Armenian Quarter of the Old City.

It goes without saying that he did not forget the Western Wall. “These stones have the power to cry and to melt even a heart of stone,” he wrote. “Slip off your shoe, go close and kiss the stones of the kotel, loyal witnesses to the heroism of your people, his majesty and greatness in days of old.”

Lunz was not alone in discriminating in favor of the Jews. In their guidebook of tours in and around Jerusalem published in 1920, the teacher and guide Chaim Aryeh Zuta and the archaeologist Eliazar Lipa Sukenik wrote: “The Jews in Jerusalem take first place among all the nations that dwell there ... exceeding in their quality and their quantity all the other residents combined.” They nevertheless recommended to the Jewish tourists to “be gracious to the Arabs you meet along the way.”

Other guidebooks of the time also presented an unbalanced picture. Most of the ones that were published before the 1920s were meant for pilgrims who were mainly interested in the Christian holy sites and avoided the Jewish sites.

“The achievements of Zionism, such as the blooming of the desert and the establishment of hundreds of thriving agricultural settlements, cities, factories and cultural and education institutions, including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, were not touched upon in most cases,” says Eli Shiller, a Land of Israel researcher who recently completed a comprehensive, ground-breaking archival study of guidebooks that were published in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

By way of example he cites the famous tourists’ handbook published by Thomas Cook and Son in London, which did not mention Zionism until the 1934 edition, and then only after Jewish readers complained.

Even then, there were guidebooks that didn’t try to conceal their authors’ political views. In a guide published in London in 1926, the Egyptian journalist Alexander Khoury wrote that every month at least 1,000 Jewish immigrants arrive in Palestine, which violates the rights and interests of the inhabitants of the land, who are descendants of the Canaanites, economically, socially and politically.

“These guides contain fascinating and invaluable historical material,” Shiller told a visitor to his home in Jerusalem in May. “The information they hold is unknown even to scholars, much less the general public.” Shiller likens Lunz’s guide to “the finest of old wines, which genuine devotees of the Land of Israel will read from beginning to end all at once.”

Indeed, pouring through Lunz’s suggestions is like a sweet journey back in time, before airplanes, trains, Waze and Google Maps. Instead of a cellphone and charger, Lunz’s readers planning a trip to the Holy Land were urged to equip themselves with a horse, candles and binoculars.

In his “Handbook for Travellers in Syria and Palestine,” published in 1858, Josias Leslie Porter concurred with Lunz about the wisdom of using the local horses for transportation. He noted that while “the pace of the donkey may be thought easier at first; but after a day or two, probably even an hour or two, the steady walk of the horse is far less fatiguing.”

Porter advised readers to “try their steeds for a ride of some hours before they engage them for a long journey,” and to bring their own English saddle if possible. He warned travelers to select their horse, mule or donkey carefully and to “[i]nsist on having the animal you engaged” in the event the locals try to substitute a different beast. He also recommended wearing a “small ‘Dean and Adams’ revolver,” unconcealed, to deter robbers in Syria.

Travel in the Land of Israel during this period was not easy, and the guides go into some details regarding the difficulties, for example, of proper hygiene. Lunz writes that while the local Arab inhabitants keep their homes very clean and remove their shoes before entering, “they pay no attention to cleanliness outside of their homes.”

Lunz writes that the bodies of dead animals can be found in alleyways, and suggests an explanation for the Arabs’ hygiene issues: “Among the Muslims there is a superstition against washing children, in the belief that ‘dirt protects the skin from diseases.’” Zuta and Sukenik also cite the lack of cleanliness and of sunlight in the narrow streets of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

“The classic guides of the 19th century and the early 20th century are unique,” says Shiller, whose study will be published in the next issue of Ariel. The effort invested in them was considerable, he says, and included “the authors’ unmediated visits and thorough fieldwork on an uncompromising level.”

The German publisher Karl Baedeker, whose name for years was synonymous with travel guides, issued its first guide to Palestine and Syria in 1876. The text was written by the famed orientalist Albert Socin after an extensive visit to the region. Baedeker himself made the journey to field-test Socin’s handiwork before sending it to press. The maps that were included with the book were drawn up for the purpose by a known geographer-cartographer.

Later guides were “adapted to suit mass secular and less educated tourism, which treated the visit not as a religious or cultural experience but rather as a kind of entertainment,” says Shiller. The publishers reduced the historical background they provided in favor of information about hotels, travel arrangements and entertainment. Some even included large amounts of advertising for hotels and related businesses.

Shiller says it wasn’t easy to find the guides for his research. “They barely appear in the most important central libraries, because they were not treated with the respect due to them,” he told Haaretz. “Others were published as limited editions and are no longer extant.” He found his quarry in private collections, such as that in the home of Israeli music researcher and Israel Prize laureate Eliyahu Hacohen, Shiller’s research partner.

Some of the guides included recommendations on what to pack for a visit to the Holy Land. Zuta and Sukenik supplied a rather extensive list of supplies, which includes “pins, thread, needle and buttons; compass, binoculars, picture machine and electric torch.” And, of course, “a Bible will accompany you on all your trips.”

A comparison between their list of first-aid supplies and the one published by Lunz 30 years earlier is instructive.

“The traveler shall not forget to bring with him upon leaving one of the cities in the Holy Land to tour the land hinin powder [quinine powder, for the prevention and treatment of malaria], drugs to strengthen the stomach, soda powder [bicarbonate or baking powder] and lemon salt [citric acid or sour salt],” Lunz wrote in 1890.

“Talcum powder for the socks and between the joints, pills for fever, antipyrine for headache, iodine or iodoform in case of wound or bleeding,” Zota and Sukenik recommended in 1920.

Food also must be prepared in advance, “since generally there is no place along the way to purchase victuals,” Zota and Sukenik wrote. The traveler was also instructed to bring containers for water “and fill them at a place with good water.” They warned, however, “in general try not to drink much during the trip. Do not eat uncooked fruit. Take especial care not to drink water immediately after eating fruit. In general, do not change your habitual hours of taking your meals.”

And what about clothing? Their tips may sound rather scary to the summer visitor to these parts: “Wear thick, long woolen socks and hobnailed boots. Woolen nightclothes are advised. Wear a brimmed hat wrapped in a light-colored sweater, to protect your neck. Wear dark glasses to cover your eyes, especially on summer days.”

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