Jerusalem of Ink: Why Writers Are Pulled to the Holy City

The Holy City has inspired many a writer over the generations. Mark Twain is but one of them.

Moshe Gilad

When the institution that provides good treatment to people suffering from Jerusalem syndrome is finally established, one of its largest, most spacious wards will go to the writers. Like many other people, writers are attracted to Jerusalem.

They visit it, and immediate afterward describe their visit in great detail. There are more than a dozen examples of writers who, at the end of a visit (sometimes a very brief one), wrote thousands of words about Jerusalem.

Mark Twain was here for only three and a half days, on one of which he rested and never left his hotel. He spent a whole day at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the rest of the time walking in Jerusalem’s alleyways and visiting the Temple Mount. Yet he wrote 11,000 words about Jerusalem in his work “Innocents Abroad,” including the following sentences: “Jerusalem is mournful, dreary and lifeless. I would not desire to live here.” I have enormous respect for Mark Twain. There are not many writers greater than he.

The program of the 2014 International Writers Festival, which began Sunday, includes a special walking tour entitled “In the Footsteps of Great Writers and Travelers,” organized by the Haim Kubersky School for Jerusalem Studies at the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute. I went with the guide, Ruth Magal, on a preliminary tour.

We met at the Old City’s Zion Gate in front of two “No Entry” signs that now stand on both sides of the gate, beside a “Dead End” sign. It was noisy at that hour of the afternoon.

The Old City by night. Photo by Moshe Gilad

It takes a sharp and dramatic transition to go from the confused, overburdened reality of May 2014 to the mid-19th century. Magal explained softly, and with enthusiasm, that I must imagine a completely different city.

“Imagine that we are walking here 180 years ago,” she said. “Imagine that there is no city outside the walls. Everything we see to the west, that huge city, does not exist. Imagine that a visit to Jerusalem is a strong religious experience that changed many people’s lives in a significant way.”

I try taking breaths, closing my eyes and wondering whether things are better or worse the way they are now. Magal laughs when I ask her what she thinks about the 19th century. “That’s my favorite time period because it’s when so many things were going on in Jerusalem, changes and great innovations. But I’m not sure I could have tolerated the filth that was in the city then. It’s not easy even today, and the situation is a good deal better than it was then.”

The Old City of Jerusalem has inspired writers through the ages. Photo by Moshe Gilad

We walk westward from the Zion Gate, close to the outside wall, until we reach its southwest corner. Here there is a lovely place that overlooks the new city. None of it existed in the mid-19th century. The first Jewish neighborhood built outside the Old City walls, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, which we are facing, was established only in 1860. We examine bare hills.

The wall turns northward here, toward Jaffa Gate and the Tower of David, but the promenade is blocked and two police officers in uniform tell us that we cannot pass because an episode for the television program Hamerotz Lamillion (Israel’s version of “The Amazing Race”) is being filmed there. A red plastic ribbon and several blue metal barriers make it clear to us that we need a change in plans.

Bells ring loudly as Magal tells me about the tour’s first protagonist: Judith Montefiore, the wife of Sir Moses Montefiore, who visited Jerusalem for the first time in 1827. The trip from London lasted roughly six months. When the Montefiores came to Jerusalem, they stayed in a tent encampment on the Mount of Olives and stayed outside the walls at first for fear of infection. The visit changed their lives. The religious experience of visiting Jerusalem brought them very close to Jewish tradition. After the visit the couple became religiously observant, and on subsequent trips Montefiore brought his own shohet, or religious slaughterer, so that kosher meat would be available to them.

Jews at prayer near the Western Wall. Photo by Moshe Gilad

Judith Montefiore visited Jerusalem five times − an almost incredible feat in the traveling conditions of the time. The detailed journal that she kept of her second visit in 1839 is available for reading on the Internet.

Still outside the walls, we turn toward Mount Zion, pass Dormition Abbey and continue toward King David’s Tomb and the Cenacle, also known as the Upper Room, traditionally held to be the site of the Last Supper. Mount Zion is one of the most sensitive sites in Israel, but that is not evident on a quick visit. The Cenacle is closed for renovations in honor of Pope Francis’s upcoming visit. That only emphasizes the importance of the place, which is sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Near the entrance to King David’s Tomb, Magal reads aloud some excerpts from Judith Montefiore’s travel diary that describe her visit to this exact place − Mount Zion. Thanks to her good connections, she was brought to see what was known even then as King David’s Tomb, though at first her guides deceived her and showed her a different tomb, possibly a copy of the “actual” one. Only in the end, after a loud argument that almost became violent, was she taken to the tomb she wanted to see.

Mark Twain. Photo by AP

All of Mount Zion, and particularly the area known as King David’s Tomb, have suffered from acts of severe vandalism, which shows that not much has changed since Lady Judith’s visit. We pass up a visit to the tomb in favor of going to the roof above it to look out over the area. The view is lovely, with soft light, and in the distance we see the glittering golden dome on the Temple Mount.

On the roof, Magal reads an excerpt of Selma Lagerlof’s novel “Jerusalem.” Lagerlof, a Swedish writer and Nobel laureate, visited Jerusalem for two weeks in March 1900. She came from Jaffa at the end of a visit to Cairo together with her partner Sophie Elkan, and spent most of her time among the Swedish Christians who, together with a group of Americans, made up the American Colony led by Anna and Horatio Spafford. After her visit, Lagerlof wrote a novel about Jerusalem that contained fictional characters but accurate descriptions of the city in the 19th century.

As we stand on the rooftops of the Jewish Quarter, I think of the long list of respected writers who visited Jerusalem during the 19th century and wrote about it. Herman Melville wrote that it was “besieged by an army of the dead.” Gustave Flaubert visited in 1850 and wrote of his disgust at the odor and filth there. Other authors also testified to the enormous gap between the Jerusalem of fantasy and the one of reality. Magal calls this “the gap between the upper and lower Jerusalem.”

The same Old City walls that Mark Twain saw. Photo by Moshe Gilad

Mark Twain spent much of his time in Jerusalem visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “One naturally goes first to the Holy Sepulchre,” he later wrote. Here, too, although he describes the tomb as “the most sacred locality in Christendom,” he maintains his critical tone. “Stooping low, we enter the vault − the Sepulchre itself. It is only about six feet by seven, and the stone couch on which the dead Saviour lay extends from end to end of the apartment and occupies half its width. It is covered with a marble slab which has been much worn by the lips of pilgrims. This slab serves as an altar, now. Over it hang some fifty gold and silver lamps, which are kept always burning, and the place is otherwise scandalized by trumpery, gewgaws, and tawdry ornamentation.” It could not be described better even today.

Twain was 31 at the time, working as a journalist for the Daily Alta California when he traveled through the region. The 50 articles he published after his trip were collected into the book that became known as “Innocents Abroad,” which became a best-seller, selling 70,000 copies in its first year of publication.

My favorite excerpt from the book − an excerpt that describes the eternal hesitation of any tourist anywhere, describes Twain’s visit to the Temple Mount. “I need not speak of the wonderful beauty and the exquisite grace and symmetry that have made this Mosque so celebrated − because I did not see them. One can not see such things at an instant glance − one frequently only finds out how really beautiful a really beautiful woman is after considerable acquaintance with her; and the rule applies to Niagara Falls, to majestic mountains and to mosques − especially to mosques.”

It is a good thing that Twain was here to describe things in the most precise way possible.