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Views of the Wilderness
Nineteenth-Century Western Travellers to the Dead Sea and the Deserts of Palestine


In 1838, Edward Robinson, the renowned American biblical scholar, undertook his first tour of the Holy Land. Entering the country from the Sinai Peninsula, Robinson spent many weeks exploring the Judean Desert, the Negev and Wâdy Arabah. The publication of his findings in 1841 brought in a new era of travel to the Holy Land (Ben-Arieh: p. 85). No longer would most people confine themselves to the sacred sites, which they considered to have been amply studied by their predecessors. Relying on the ever-growing democratisation of the means of transport and “the emergence of the travel agent, especially in the corporate person of Thomas Cook and Son” (Hulme and Youngs: p. 48), Western travellers began turning their eyes to the wilderness of Palestine. For these forerunners of mass-tourism, the wasteland of the Holy Land, more than the old cities of Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, represented the “Ultimate Other” or, to put it another way, a completely new environment standing in sharp contrast with what they would have expected to see or hear in day-to-day life. More specifically, what could be referred to as the “wilderness wanderings” in Palestine during the nineteenth century gave Western travellers the opportunity to ride camels under the blazing desert sun, experience the sensation of extreme thirst and all sorts of deprivations, enjoy scenes of camping for the night, explore ancient ruins, hidden monasteries and biblical locations, deck out in “oriental” clothes as part of the phenomenon of “going native”, and, with a little bit of luck, like in a modern-day safari park, spot some wild Bedouins and “pull out a gun or two”.

The purpose of this paper is to shed some light on the complex encounter of nineteenth-century Western travellers with the deserts of Palestine as emerging from the descriptions of two areas renowned for their dramatic landscapes and numerous biblical associations, that is to say, the Dead Sea and the Sinai Peninsula. As will be demonstrated, perhaps more than any other desert scenery in the Holy Land, these two regions were depicted throughout the nineteenth century in different ways for different discourse purposes.[1]

There has been a long history of Western fascination with the Dead Sea, which is the lowest land point on earth, at 412 meters below sea level.

According to the Book of Genesis, the plain of Jordan where the Dead Sea is now located was once a blossoming forested area and the site of seven powerful cities, among them the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah. The Old Testament goes on to describe how God, on account of the sins of their inhabitants, overthrew the cities with “brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven” (Genesis 19: 24), sparing only Abraham’s brother Lot and his daughters. Hence, from the very beginning, the Dead Sea and its desert surroundings have been regarded as the living embodiment of crime, perversion and Divine Retribution.

During the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, many legends and myths had revolved around the Dead Sea, which became to be known as the “Sea of the Devil” (Chronique d’Enroul et de Bernard le Trésorier: p. 68). Pious travellers and monks, among the few who dared venturing into the plain of Jordan, mentioned in their writings the existence of ungodly smells, mysterious ruins lying on the bottom of the lake, smoking fires and the salt statue of Lot’s wife casting her spell over unwanted visitors. On the whole, as Sir Thomas Browne notes in his work Pseudodoxia Epidemica, published in 1646, ocular explorations of the Dead Sea during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance were highly poisoned by superstition, contradiction and plagiarism (Browne: Seventh book, Chapter XV).

Contrary to common belief, nineteenth-century Western travellers to the largely unexplored Dead Sea and the Sinai desert areas, especially until the major scientific expeditions of the late nineteenth century, were still under the spell of ancient legends and traditions. The miserable conditions or the absence of roads and the frequent Bedouin attacks certainly played an important role in creating an atmosphere of mystery and fear. As Austrian traveller Ida Pfeiffer, who visited Egypt and Palestine in 1842, recalls in her account:

The journey to the Jordan and the Dead Sea should never be undertaken by a small party. The best and safest course is to send for some Arab or Bedouin chiefs, either at Jerusalem or Bethlehem, and to make a contract with them for protection. (Pfeiffer, A Visit to the Holy Land, Egypt and Italy)

Nevertheless, even travelling under the guard of Bedouins often proved to be a dangerous enterprise. Commenting on the desert vagabonds, Jesuit missionary in India and Syria William Gifford Palgrave maintains in Personal Narrative of A Year’s Journey Through Central and Eastern Arabia:

Deeds of the most cold-blooded perfidy are by no means uncommon among these nomads, […] To lead travellers astray in the wilderness till they fall exhausted by thirst and weariness, and then to plunder and eave them to die, is not infrequent Bedawin procedure. (Palgrave, vol i: p. 36)

On the other hand, it should be reminded that not all nineteenth-century Western travellers to Palestine adopted such a harsh attitude towards the Bedouins. Some preferred to see them as the natural descendants of ancient Israel, and praised their noble attitudes and their knowledge of the ways of the desert. For example, the Swiss Catherine Valérie Boissier, otherwise known as the Countess of Gasparin, who journeyed to Palestine in 1848, treated her Bedouin companions with the utmost admiration. She states in Journal d’un voyage au Levant: “I have never felt safer anywhere else, surrounded by better people”[2] (Gasparin, vol iii: p. 53).

In other words, driven on the one hand by horror and on the other by fascination towards the Bedouins, nineteenth-century visitors to the Dead Sea and the Sinai Peninsula came away with a general feeling of irrational unease and suspicion at the otherness of the desert. The sense of foreboding increased as they made their way through the wilderness. “There is a sort of impression that something is at fault,” says Reverend Canon Tristram, “that there ought to be more trees and shrubs” (Picturesque Palestine, vol i: p. 144). Ida Pfeiffer repeatedly stresses the dreary and burnt nakedness of the landscapes “behind which,” she claims, “the robber-tribes of Arabs and Bedouins frequently lurk, making this part of the journey exceedingly unsafe” (Pfeiffer, A Visit to the Holy Land, Egypt and Italy). Fear in face of such unfathomable bareness is so inviting, that one begins unconsciously to think about well-known myths and biblical stories. Does not the man in Luke 16: 24 ask Abraham to have mercy on him for “I am tormented in this flame”? Is it not written in Matthew 4: 1 that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil”? In the Divina commedia, while venturing through Inferno, does not Dante say “After my weary body I had rested, The way resumed I on the desert slope, So that the firm foot ever was the lower” (Dante, Inferno, Canto I, lines 28-30). Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the deserts of Palestine continued to weave their way into the imaginary of nineteenth-century Western travellers as a synonym for death and the vision of hell on earth.

Describing his trip from Jerusalem to Jericho, Alphonse de Lamartine, whose 1832-1833 voyage took him to Greece, Turkey, Palestine and Lebanon, is taken aback by the mighty picks and the precipices seen on the way. He says: “It is impossible to resist the impression of sadness and horror inspired by this landscape”[3] (Lamartine: p. 312).

Likewise, Dean Stanley’s description of a sandstorm, which overtook his party near the Red Sea in 185l, conveys sensations of a supernatural punishment directed at mankind, as often occurring in the Old Testament: “Imagine all distant objects entirely lost to view; – the sheets of sand fleeting along the surface of the Desert like streams of water; the whole air filled, though invisibly, with a tempest of sand, driving in your face like sleet” (Picturesque Palestine, vol. iv: p. 12).

In “A Ride Across Palestine”, British novelist and dramatist Anthony Trollope can hardly hide his bewilderment when faced with the struggle and suffering of hundreds of pilgrims returning from Jericho, near the shores of the Dead Sea, to Jerusalem. He says: “But never in my life had I seen bodily pain so plainly written in a man’s face. The sweat was falling from his brow, and his eyes were strained and bloodshot with agony” (Trollope, Tales of All Countries). The ordeals endured by Trollope’s pilgrims throughout their journey in the desert give resonance to the Doctrine of Hell as elaborated in early Christian writings, such as the comments on the first epistle of Peter by Clement of Alexandria:

All souls are immortal, even those of the wicked, for whom it were better that they were not deathless. For, punished with the endless vengeance of quenchless fire, and not dying, it is impossible for them to have a period put to their misery. (Clement of Alexandria, Manuscript Fragments of Clement of Alexandria)

But nowhere are the notions of death and hell more clearly expressed by nineteenth-century Western travellers than in their descriptions of the Dead Sea.

For example, Ida Pfeiffer’s descent towards the lowest point on earth – which, taken literally, is in itself a reminder of hell – has overtones of dark powers and confusion:

A silence of death brooded over the whole landscape, broken only by the footfalls of our horses echoing sullenly from the rocks, among which the poor animals struggled heavily forward. At intervals some little birds fluttered above our heads, silently and fearfully, as though they had lost their way. (Pfeiffer, A Visit to the Holy Land, Egypt and Italy)

Taking the idea of hell on earth a step further, Rabbi Joseph Schwarz brings back to life in his narrative, written in the form of a scientific report, most of the ancient legends about the Dead Sea. To begin with, Schwarz emphasises the total absence of life in the vicinity of the lake. He also discusses the existence of sulphurous vapours ascending from the waters, claiming that “should a bird fly over the surface of the water during the disengagement of these strong vapours, it would drop down dead instantly.” Finally, true to the biblical story, Schwarz concludes: “It is thus that the divine curse still rests on this neighbourhood” (Schwarz, A Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine). To put it differently, three attributes traditionally associated with hell are identified by Schwarz in relation to the Dead Sea: the absence of all forms of life, horrible smells of sulphur and the concept of an eternal punishment.

Sharing much of the same mise-en-scène and symbolism as those used by Schwarz to depict the Dead Sea, Alexander William Kinglake expands on the stillness of the air, the starkness of the landscape and even makes reference to the doomed city of Gomorrah:

I went on and came near to those waters of death. They stretched deeply into the southern desert, and before me, and all around, as far away as the eye could follow, blank hills piled high over hills, pale, yellow, and naked, walled up in her tomb for ever the dead and damned Gomorrah. There was no fly that hummed in the forbidden air, but instead a deep stillness; no grass grew from the earth, no weed peered through the void sand; but in mockery of all life there were trees borne down by Jordan in some ancient flood, and these, grotesquely planted upon the forlorn shore, spread out their grim skeleton arms, all scorched and charred to blackness by the heats of the long silent years. (Alexander William Kinglake, Eothen or Traces of Travel Brought Back from the East)

Regarding the seawater, Reverend David Van Horne reports in Tent and Saddle life in the Holy Land that it “was so salt, bitter and pungent that it affected the nostrils to such a degree as almost to produce strangulation, while the smarting of the eyes and each little abrasion of the skin produced not only discomfort, but positive suffering” (Van Horne: p. 171). Trollope joins Van Horne in underlining the unique, almost bizarre, properties of the water: “Anything more abominable to the palate than this water, if it be water, I never had inside my month” (Trollope, Tales of All Countries).

However, hand in hand with their negative and often supernatural portrayal of the deserts of Palestine, many nineteenth-century travel narratives managed to distance themselves, at least to a certain extent, from previous accounts by their constant effort to add objective weight to subjective judgments, and by their tribute to the beauty and the tribal values of the desert.

Along with its chaotic vision of the desert, Charles Pickering Clarke’s travel account features romantic scenes of Bedouin encampments in Sinai:

The loneliness is very intense. Yet there is an intermittent murmur of laughter and merriment from the group of Arabs round the encampment fire, which begins to shoot forth a cheerful light on the white canvas of our two small English tents. (Picturesque Palestine, vol. iv: p. 5)

Similarly, while camping for the night along the shores of the Dead Sea, Captain William Francis Lynch, who conducted in 1847 one of the earliest American scientific explorations of the Dead Sea, observes:

Around the blazing fires, which shot long, flickering tongues of flame into the night, and seemed to devour darkness, were gathered in circles, groups of Franks and wild Bedawin, solemnly smoking the chibouque, drinking coffee, or listening eagerly, as, with wild gesticulations, one related an adventure of the day, or personal incident of times gone by. (Lynch: p. 166)

These two passages, with their strong yearn for camaraderie and trust, are part of the nineteenth-century art movement called “primitivism”, which could be seen as the simplistic idealisation by Europe and the United States of non-Western ways of life (Thomas: p. 174). What emerges is an image of the desert not only as a dead area, but also as an environment of extreme magnificence and of amazing colours and shapes – characteristics rarely if ever evoked by narrators of previous centuries. To use Clarke’s words: “Wonderful are the effects of the colouring! Delicate are the gradations of light and shade! Intense is the silence!” (Picturesque Palestine, vol. iv: p. 120). The desert also appears as a place of primordial enchantment and biblical authenticity, unspoiled by modern times. For example, Edward Robinson writes about Mount Sinai in his work Biblical Researches: “It was a scene of solemn grandeur, wholly unexpected, and such as we had never seen; and the associations which at the moment rushed upon our minds, were almost overwhelming” (Robinson: p. 89).

As far as the Dead Sea is concerned, Mark Twain, who visited Palestine in 1867, describes the lake as “a scorching, arid, repulsive solitude,” which “makes one think of funeral and death” (Twain: p. 402). Nevertheless, Twain does not hesitate to bid farewell to one of the greatest myths regarding the Dead Sea: “We looked everywhere as we passed along, but never saw grain or crystal of Lot’s wife. It was a great disappointment” (Twain: p. 404).

Covering the general aspect of the Dead Sea, Edouard Delessert, who accompanied French archaeologist Félicien de Saulcy on his expedition to the area in 1850, observes in Voyage aux villes maudites: “In contrast to those people of vivid imagination who claim it to be dark and mysterious, the water of the Dead Sea is of the most admirable blue”[4] (Delessert: p. 23). He then states: “It was the first time, but certainly not the last, that we found ourselves in contradiction with wrong preconceived notions about the Lake Asphaltite”[5] (Delessert: p. 23). In fact, the Dead Sea, as related by Delessert, flourishes with life and vegetation: “[…] a group of wild ducks, coming to rest on the surface of the lake, dove in the water and flapped their wings with delight”[6] (Delessert: p. 24).

Alphonse de Lamartine challenges another legend often associated with the Dead Sea: “I could not find the ruins of those engulfed cities that some people claim to have seen beneath the waves”[7] (Lamartine: p. 324). However, in his own way, Lamartine embodies the malaise shared by many of his contemporaries in dealing with the representation of the Holy Land. As a matter of fact, despite the growth of rationalism, Western travellers to Palestine, especially during the early stage of the modern exploration of the region, attempted to reconcile scientific theories with biblical truths. This certainly explains, as has been shown, why the nineteenth-century image of the deserts of Palestine, and of the Dead Sea in particular, always seems to jump forewords and backwards, using a doublespeak based on the certitude that time will eventually unify both science and religion. For instance, when debating the formation of the Dead Sea, Lamartine argues: “How was it formed? Probably, true to the Bible and common sense, a crater was born within the vast chain of volcanic mountains stretching from Jerusalem to Mesopotamia, and from Lebanon to Idumea, in those times when seven cities thrived in the plain.”[8] He then goes on to assert: “It does neither contribute to, nor does it take away from the expression of this eternal sovereign will that some call miracle, and that others call nature; nature and miracle are but one in the same”[9] (Lamartine: pp. 323-325).

In short, while relying on more objective findings, the vast majority of Western travellers to the Holy Land during the first half of the nineteenth century refused to take any step that might be interpreted as clearly rejecting biblical authority. However, in spite of continual efforts to maintain the old beliefs, as the years passed, little by little, travellers began to openly denounce the mythical character of the deserts of Palestine, taking further steps from miracle towards rationalism and from obscure observations towards scientific measurements.

As a final word, it should be noted that, with the nineteenth century drawing to its end, there came the French popular writer Julian Viaud, alias Pierre Loti, who, in contrast to the growing number of Western travellers who had already embraced the new ideas of their era, was determined to experience the continuing presence of God in Palestine. His voyage to the Holy Land was meticulously planned in accordance with the Book of Exodus. Around the end of February 1894, instead of taking the boat from Cairo to Jaffa, Loti and his party decided to walk in the steps of the Hebrews by following the old caravan trails from Suez to Gaza, thus crossing the Sinai Peninsula. At the beginning of the voyage, everything goes rather smoothly; Loti is awestruck by the splendour of the desert, which he considers to be some sort of a tunnel that will carry him from atheism to religious rebirth (Le Désert: p. 27). Yet, Loti’s hope to regain his lost faith comes to an abrupt end when he reaches Mount Sinai. In the spirit of the biblical story of the Ten Commandments, the strong February winds and heavy snowfalls tightening their grip on Jabel Musa, as Mount Sinai is known locally, give Loti reasons to believe that God still inhabits the venerated pick. However, as Loti climbs up the mountain, with no sign of divine grace in sight, faith slowly gives way to doubt and disappointment. While spending the night in the monastery of Saint Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai, Loti becomes as disillusioned as most of his contemporaries: “It is an incredible silence; we are among ruins and dead people”[10] (Le Désert: p. 73). Although the presence of God never entirely disappears in Loti’s narratives about the Holy Land, after the Mount Sinai’s episode, it is merely a shadow of its former self. Hence, the man who was ready to trade his atheism for a glimpse of the burning bush strikes what could be seen as his century’s final deathblow to the primacy of myths and legends in the representation of the deserts of Palestine.

Guy Galaska

  1. ^ Please note that all quoted passages from the travel narratives by Edouard Delessert, Valérie de Gasparin, Alphonse de Lamartine and Pierre Loti are my own translations from the original French into English.
  2. ^ « Je ne me suis jamais sentie plus en sûreté, entourée de gens meilleurs. »
  3. ^ « Il est impossible de résister longtemps à l’impression de tristesse et d’horreur que ce paysage inspire.  »
  4. ^ « Les eaux de la mer, n’en déplaise aux gens d’une imagination trop vive et qui les croient sombres et mystérieuses, étaient de la couleur bleue la plus admirable. »
  5. ^ « C’était là la première fois, mais non la dernière, que nous nous trouvions en contradiction avec les idées erronées répandues partout sur le lac Asphaltite, […]. »
  6. ^ « […] une troupe de canards sauvages s’envola et alla se poser sur la mer Morte en plongeant, en agitant les ailes de l’air le plus heureux de la terre; »
  7. ^ « Je n'aperçus pas non plus ces ruines de villes englouties que l'on voit, dit-on, à peu de profondeur sous les vagues. »
  8. ^ « Comment s'est-elle formée? Apparemment comme dit la Bible, et comme dit la vraisemblance, vaste centre de chaînes volcaniques qui s'étendent de Jérusalem en Mésopotamie, et du Liban à l'Idhumée, un cratère se sera ouvert dans son sein, au temps où sept villes peuplaient sa plaine.  »
  9. ^ « Cela n’ajoute ni ne retranche rien à l’action de cette souveraine et éternelle volonté, que les uns appellent miracle, et que les autres appellent nature; nature et miracle n'est-ce pas tout un? »
  10. ^ « Le silence est inouï; on est dans des ruines, chez des morts. »

Référence électronique

Guy GALAZKA, VIEWS OF THE WILDERNESS, mis en ligne le 03/08/2018, URL :

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