Past Perfect: “Lo! The Holy City”
Difficult and sometimes dangerous, American travel to the Middle East in the mid-19th century generated many descriptive diaries by a wide range of visitors during their pilgrimages. Many noted American writers were among these early travelers, including author and humorist Mark Twain (1835–1910), author of historical fiction J.W. DeForest (1826–1906), poet and editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878), and poet and travel author Bayard Taylor (1825–1878). Following are their reactions as they penned their first views of Jerusalem.
At last, away in the middle of the day, ancient bits of wall and crumbling arches began to line the way—we toiled up one more hill, and every pilgrim and every sinner swung his hat on high! Jerusalem!
Perched on its eternal hills, white and domed and solid, massed together and hooped with high gray walls, the venerable city gleamed in the sun. So small! Why, it was no larger than an American village of four thousand inhabitants, and no larger than an ordinary Syrian city of thirty thousand. Jerusalem numbers only fourteen thousand people.
We dismounted and looked, without speaking a dozen sentences, across the wide intervening valley for an hour or more; and noted those prominent features of the city that pictures make familiar to all men from their school days till their death …
I record it here as a notable but not discreditable fact that not even our pilgrims wept. I think there was no individual in the party whose brain was not teeming with thoughts and images and memories invoked by the grand history of the venerable city that lay before us, but still among them all was no “voice of them that wept.”
There was no call for tears. Tears would have been out of place. The thoughts Jerusalem suggests are full of poetry, sublimity, and, more than all, dignity. Such thoughts do not find their appropriate expression in the emotions of the nursery.
—The Innocents Abroad (1869)
Seated on a rocky hill, and surrounded by a wilderness of other hills, stands Jerusalem the fallen. As our eyes beheld it suddenly from the north, it seemed the city of destruction in a land of desolation. Not a house, not a cultivated field, and scarcely a tree relieved the dreary monotony which rolled barrenly to its very walls. Further on, indeed, a few olive orchards lifted their pallid verdure, and thin harvests waved a scanty mockery of famine over the terraces of the rapidly descending hillsides. But in general the land is bald and yellow, stricken, as it were, with old age; and the abundant sunlight, changed 072from a blessing into a poison, bakes and scorches its mournful unprofitableness. Over broad glaring rocks, over herbless earth, over stones from ruined walls, over the fragments of fallen terraces, we rode to the gates of her who slew the Prophets. A few wandering figures sprinkled that solemn silence, looking like fugitives and remnants from some by-gone and vanished populousness.
—Oriental Acquaintance (1856)
William Cullen Bryant
At length, after crossing a bleak table-land, where the soil seemed to have been washed away by rains from the spaces between projecting rocks, we came in sight of the walls, the towers, and the domes of the Holy City. The ancient metropolis of Palestine, the once imperial Salem, had not lost all its majesty, but still sat like a queen in her place among the mountains of Judea … I will not attempt the description of a place described so often, nor dwell upon the reflections which arose in my mind at the first sight of that spot from which the light of that religion now professed by all the civilized world, dawned upon mankind, and to which the hearts of millions in every zone of the globe yet turn with a certain reverence.
—Letters from the East (1869)
Lo! The Holy City! Our Greek jerked both pistols from his holsters, and fired them into the air, as we reined up on the steep.
From the description of travelers, I had expected to see in Jerusalem an ordinary modern Turkish town; but that before me, with its walls, fortresses, and domes, was it not still the City of David? I saw the Jerusalem of the New Testament, as I had imagined it. Long lines of walls crowned with a notched parapet and strengthened by towers; a few domes and spires above them; clusters of cypress here and there; this was all that was visible of the city. On either side the hill sloped down to the two deep valleys over which it hangs. On the east, the Mount of Olives, crowned with a chapel and mosque, rose high and steep, but in front, the eye passed directly over the city, to rest far away upon the lofty mountains of Moab, beyond the Dead Sea. The scene was grand in its simplicity. The prominent colors were the purple of those distant mountains, and the hoary gray of the nearer hills. The walls were of the dull yellow of weather-stained marble, and the only trees, the dark cypress and moonlit olive. Now, indeed, for one brief moment, I knew that I was in Palestine; that I saw Mount Olivet and Mount Zion; and—I know not how it was—my sight grew weak, and all objects trembled and wavered in a watery film. Since we arrived, I have looked down upon the city from the Mount of Olives, and up to it from the Valley of Jehosaphat; but I cannot restore the illusion of that first view.
—The Lands of the Saracen (1864)
Difficult and sometimes dangerous, American travel to the Middle East in the mid-19th century generated many descriptive diaries by a wide range of visitors during their pilgrimages. Many noted American writers were among these early travelers, including author and humorist Mark Twain (1835–1910), author of historical fiction J.W. DeForest (1826–1906), poet and editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878), and poet and travel author Bayard Taylor (1825–1878). Following are their reactions as they penned their first views of Jerusalem. Mark Twain At last, away in the middle of the day, ancient bits of wall and […]