200 Years of Tourism in the Holy Lands – From Mark Twain to the Digital Age

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
Tags: American School of Oriental Research, Ancient Near East Today, ANET, ASOR, Digital Age, Egypt, Mark Twain, Tourism
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By: Uzi Baram, Professor of Anthropology at the New College of Florida

Heritage Tourism’s Roots in the Grand Tour

Heritage contends with nature as the fastest growing parts of the world’s largest industry, tourism. Heritage tourism involves visits, usually leisurely and purposefully enjoyable, to a historically or culturally significant locale. Archaeological sites are particularly attractive for heritage tourism. Ruins and histories buried by time provide opportunities to see and maybe even touch something hidden for centuries or millennia. The phenomenon is well known to visitors to the Near East, which remain an attractive tourist destination.

Figure 1: Tour Egypt Website

Figure 1: Tour Egypt Website

The roots of today’s heritage tourism can be found in the Grand Tour, the convention of travel employed by the early modern elite of Western Europe. People travel for many reasons, and pilgrims, merchants, and explorers had gone to the Mediterranean for millennia. But travel implies insights into places or into one’s self through an engagement with difference. A famous quote, attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo states, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” Travel and education, understanding and worldliness became clearly linked for Western Europeans through the Grand Tour.

The Grand Tour

Richard Lassels, in his 1670 book Voyage or a Complete Journey through Italy, was the first to describe a particular type of travel, the “Grand Tour.” With its origins in the sixteenth century British elite, the Grand Tour became a fixture in seventeenth and eighteenth century Western university education and a shared experience of aristocratic and landed men, and many women, throughout Western Europe. By the eighteenth century, the pattern of the Grand Tour was firmly in place.

Figure 2 Grand Tours Map by Baram

Figure 2: Grand Tours Map by Baram

The Grand Tour was a foundation for Western European elite education and social polish through experiencing Classical ruins and the origins of western civilization.  Its required stops included specific sites of national and cultural importance such as Paris, Florence, Rome, Venice, Athens, Constantinople, and, if possible, the religious sites of the Holy Land.

Travelers who crossed the divide between Christendom and Islam to visit the sights of the Ottoman Empire ran the gamut of the famous and near famous. They included: the poet Lord Byron, who in 1810 swam across the Hellespont Strait and then joined the Greek War of Independence; Lady Hester Stanhope, who excavated at Ashkelon; future British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli; Scottish landscape painter David Roberts;

Figure 3a David Roberts - LOC

Figure 3a David Roberts - LOC

Connecticut minister Edward Robinson, who published Biblical Researchers in Palestine and Adjacent Countries in 1841; American diplomat and explorer John Lloyd Stephens, famous for his travels in Yucatan but whose first Incidents of Travel took him to Egypt and the Holy Land; Gertrude Bell, who wrote of travels to Romania and Persia, Petra and Baalbek, and became Oriental Secretary to the British High Commissioner in Baghdad in 1917; Florence Nightingale, whose travels to Greece and then Egypt produced  Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile 1849-1850 before she gained fame as a nurse during the Crimea War; and novelists Herman Melville and Mark Twain, who visited the Holy Land in 1856 and 1867, respectively.

Figure 3b: David Robert in costume

These travelers, and many others, recorded ancient ruins and forgotten cities, commented on the peoples and places, and explained the Ottoman Empire and Islam to Western audiences. Many chipped pieces off of ruins for their cabinets of curiosities. Others painted and later photographed what they saw. Many wrote travel accounts, which while informative, are problematic for both what was recorded and what was ignored.

Accounts of Travel

An archaeological view of European travel accounts sees them as artifacts of interactions between Western European travelers and the residents of the Near East. They were produced in a context of uneven power relations and became part of European cultural hegemony regarding the eastern Mediterranean but they also are an entry point for understanding those relationships

Travel narratives were exceedingly popular and the number of publications related to travel increased greatly from the seventeenth century into the nineteenth century. Historical geographer Yehoshua Ben-Arieh noted that in 1800 there were 597 books published on travel to Palestine; by 1877, there were 3515 books. The total number of manuscripts related to Grand Tours must be huge. Travel accounts are curious conveyers of information, containing descriptive geographies, ethnographic observations and interpretations, hints on successful interactions and disappointing excursions, local histories of famous and infamous places and events, philosophical and moral musings, and political polemics and even self-effacing humor.

Travel accounts and experiences represent tremendous diversity but also some important generalizations. Following Edward Said’s critique of Western scholarship we might observe that Western representations displaced indigenous accounts with images of “Eastern” stasis and degeneration, and of Islamic rule as tyrannical. Orientalism is a continual reminder that the travel accounts were uneven encounters with difference; they highlighted the significance of particular places and ruins, facilitating the Western appropriation of their meanings.

If the representations in the travel accounts are one-dimensional imperialistic and degrading, they can be dismissed in our post-colonial age but the narratives provide insights not available from other sources. The 20th century transformed the Near East with wars and a large flow of humanity, within, in, and out of the region. The continuing destruction of monuments, due to violence, development or simply the decay of centuries, means travel accounts are imperfect vehicles for putting pieces of the past together. The Ottoman Empire was exotic for Western Europeans and many recorded things taken for granted by the indigenous officials, scholars, and other literati. For instance, descriptions by Western Europeans during the late Ottoman period have helped archaeologists understand the common ceramic vessels known to archaeologists as Gaza ware. Another approach is to read against the grain of the travel accounts to understanding the peoples of the Ottoman Empire. The empire grouped peoples on an ethno-religious basis (the millet system) but Western European and North American travelers came with a racialized worldview. Their descriptions of peoples, while problematic and often inaccurate, observed physical characteristics and diversity masked by the Ottoman religious categories.

Figure 5: Jaffa gate Cooks Tours sign American Colony Photo collection.

Figure 5: Jaffa gate Cooks Tours sign American Colony Photo collection.

If the details in travel accounts are important to understand daily life, the larger legacy of travel accounts and paintings was encouragement of more visitors to the region. The Grand Tour created routes followed by those we now call tourists. Tourism is a mid to late nineteenth century phenomenon that involves mass movement of people along routes marketed by capitalist firms. Thomas Cook conceived of organizing groups in 1844, with the famous Cook’s Tours of the East starting in 1869. Thousands of travels came to Palestine on those tours. The example spread to North America, and soon distinctive American voices recorded tours of Europe and the Holy Land.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Quaker City was the first steamship bringing North Americans on package tours of the eastern Mediterranean. Samuel Clemens, as he was known at the time, ensured its fame. In Innocents Abroad, we have descriptions of Mark Twain’s travels, of the peoples he encountered, and descriptions, and commentary on the places he visited. It took three months for the sixty-six Americans to cross the Atlantic to Western Europe and then over to the Holy Land and Egypt.

Figure 6: The Innocents Abroad. By: Mark Twain

The tour included a trip to the Paris Exposition, the canals of Venice, the ruins of Pompeii, and the Hagia Sophia. The final destination was the pyramids of Giza but the climax was the visit to Jerusalem - with all the expectations and implications of a holy place. Twain’s descriptions are engaging despite the expressions of disappointment, exemplified by his description of Palestine as “desolate and unlovely.” The book reflects the renewed American identity that came with Reconstruction after the Civil War and Twain’s wit ensures Innocents Abroad continues to be a good read.

Figure 7: Quaker City Toursts at Giza.

Even though tourism has an aura of frivolousness, some accounts of specific peoples, places, and social dynamics can be enlightening in exposing what has been forgotten from the recent past. Laurence Oliphant traveled to the Black Sea, served as secretary to Lord Elgin and for the British diplomatic mission in Japan, and, in the 1880s, moved to Palestine. In Haifa, or Life in Modern Palestine, Oliphant describes the Bosnian colony building houses above the Crusader ruins at Caesarea as well as the Circassians, Slavs, Turkoman, and Jews who were settling between Caesarea and Mount Carmel and the Germany Colony in Haifa and the Druze village on top of the Carmel. The participant-observations are nearly ethnographic in offering a view of diversity for a small corner of late Ottoman Palestine, and a reminder that among the thousands of travel accounts are some insightful observations of social changes in the Near East.

Continuing Tours and Representations

The Grand Tour connected travel and education. Today, university study-abroad programs continue the legacy, and tourism expands the consumption of place.

Figure 8: Damascus Gate

The increasing numbers of visitors to the eastern Mediterranean, even with their disenchantment, humor, and orientalism, contribute to preservation of observations of material remains. The masses of tourists snapping photographs today might seem overwhelming, but some of those images may be the last of monuments to be destroyed in war or civil unrest, removed in the name of progress and development, or simply dissolved by the time. Grand Tour writers offered a treasure of insights into places, the diversity of peoples, and the development of routes. One day the millions of digital photos taken by tourists may offer insights not recorded scholars and government officials, into a region that still being transformed.

Uzi Baram is Professor of Anthropology at the New College of Florida


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