‘Jerusalem overawes me’ declared François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand, even though this ‘deicidal city’ was ‘a heapof rubbish’ with the ‘confused monuments of a cemetery in the midst of a desert’. This bouffant-haired Catholic royalist embraced the romantic view of a shabby Gothic Jerusalem awaiting rescue by the ‘genius of Christianity’. To him, the more miserable Jerusalem was, the holier and more poetical she became – and the city was now desperate.

Rebel pashas and hordes of Palestinian peasants repeatedly rebelled and seized a godforsaken Jerusalem which had to be stormed by the governors of Damascus who marched down annually with an army and treated the city as conquered enemy territory. The vicomte arrived to find the governor of Damascus camped outside the Jaffa Gate while his three thousand soldiers menaced the inhabitants. When Chateaubriand settled in the St Saviour’s Monastery, it was occupied by these ruffians who extorted cash from the friars. He strutted the streets armed with several pistols but in the Monastery, one of them caught him unawares and tried to kill him: he only survived by almost throttling the Turk. In the streets, ‘we met not a creature! What wretchedness, what desolation for most of the inhabitants had fled to the mountains. Shops are shut, people conceal themselves in cellars or withdraw to the mountains.’ When the pasha left, the garrison in David’s Tower numbered just a dozen and the city became even more eerie: ‘The only noise is the galloping of a steed of the desert – it’s a janissary who brings the head of a Bedouin or returns from plundering the unhappy peasants.’

Now the Frenchman could revel in the squalid sacred mysteries of the shrines. Yet this enthusiastic gourmand, who gave his name to his recipe for steak, relished the banquets he shared with his famously plump Franciscan hosts, feasting on ‘lentil soup, veal with cucumbers and onions, broiled kid with rice, pigeons, partridges, game, excellent wine’. Armed with several pistols, he retraced every step of Jesus while mocking Ottoman monuments (‘not worth notice’) and the Jews who were ‘covered in rags, sealed in the dust of Zion, with vermin that devoured them’. Chateaubriand was astonished to ‘behold these rightful masters of Judaea living as slaves and strangers in their own country’.

In the Sepulchre he prayed on his knees for half an hour, his eyes ‘riveted to the stone’ of Jesus’ tomb, dizzy with the incense, the clash of Ethiopian cymbals and chanting of the Greeks, before kneeling at the tombs of Godfrey and Baldwin, those French paladins who had defeated Islam, ‘a religion hostile to civilization that systematically favoured ignorance, despotism and slavery’.

The Franciscans awarded Chateaubriand the Order of the Holy Sepulchre in a solemn ceremony. As they encircled the kneeling vicomte, attaching the spurs of Godfrey to his heels and knighting him with the Crusader’s sword, he experienced an almost ecstatic joy:

If it is considered that I was at Jerusalem, in the Church of Calvary, within a dozen paces of the tomb of Jesus Christ, and thirty from that of Godfrey de Bouillon, that I was equipped with the spurs of the Deliverer of the Holy Sepulchre; and had touched that sword, both long and large, which so noble and so valiant an arm had once wielded, I couldn’t remain unmoved.5

On 12 October 1808, an Armenian sacristan fell a sleep by the stove in the Armenian gallery on the second floor of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The stove caught fire, burned him to death and then spread. The Tomb of Jesus was destroyed. In the ensuing chaos, the Christians invited Hassan al-Husseini, the mufti, to campin the courtyard of the Church to prevent looting. The Greeks accused the Armenians of arson. England and Austria were fighting to contain the apparently invincible Emperor Napoleon so the Greeks, backed by Russia, were able to consolidate their control over the Church. They built the rococo aedicule that stands around the Tomb today. They celebrated by smashing the graves of the Crusader kings: Chateaubriand, now back in France, was the last outsider to see them.* A Muslim mob attacked the builders restoring the Church; the garrison mutinied, and the Butcher’s successor and son-in-law, Suleiman Pasha – who was known as the Just (though anyone would have seemed clement after his predecessor) – captured the city: forty-six rebels were executed, their heads decorating the gates.6

As the real Jerusalem decayed, the imaginary Jerusalem ignited Western dreams, encouraged by Napoleon’s nasty little Middle Eastern war, the decline of the Ottomans – and the book that Chateaubriand wrote when he got home. His Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem set the tone of the European attitude to the Orient with its cruel but inept Turks, wailing Jews, and primitive but ferocious Arabs who tended to congregate in picturesque biblical poses. It was such a bestseller that it launched a new genre and even his valet, Julien, wrote his memoirs of the trip.* In London, Sir Sidney Smith’s boasting about his Levantine exploits caught the imagination of his royal mistress – and inspired the most absurd of royal tours.


Princess Caroline, estranged wife of the English Prince Regent (later King George IV), was much taken with the dashing Smith, and regularly invited his cousin, Lady Hester Stanhope, niece of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, to provide cover for their brazen affair.

Lady Hester loathed the coarse, deluded and lecherous Princess Caroline, who showed off to Smith by ‘dancing about, exposing herself, like an opera girl’ and even gartering below the knee: ‘an impudent woman, a downright whore! So low! So vulgar!’ Caroline’s marriage to the Prince Regent had been a disaster and the so-called ‘Delicate Investigation’ into her love-life at that time later revealed at least five lovers including Smith, Lord Hood, the painter Thomas Lawrence and various servants. But Smith’s stories of Acre and Jerusalem at least found their mark: both women quite separately decided to travel to the East.

Lady Hester had her own Jerusalem destiny. Richard Brothers, an ex-sailor and radical Calvinist, had declared himself a descendant of King David who would be the Ruler of the World until the Second Coming of Christ. His book Plan for New Jerusalemrevealed that God had ‘pre-ordained me to be the King and Restorer of the Jews’, and Brothers also asserted that the British people were descended from the Lost Tribes: he would lead them back to Jerusalem. He designed gardens and palaces for the Temple Mount, and uniforms and flags for his new Israelites, but he was eventually imprisoned as a lunatic. This Anglo-Israelite vision was an eccentric one. Yet within thirty years a belief in a sacred return of the Jews to accelerate the Second Coming was almost British government policy.

Brothers expected a heavenly lady to assist in this enterprise and selected Lady Hester Stanhope to be his ‘Queen of the Jews’. When she visited him in Newgate Prison, he predicted that ‘she would one day go to Jerusalem and lead back the Chosen People!’ Stanhope did indeed visit Jerusalem in 1812, dressed fetchingly in Ottoman costume, but Brothers’ predictions did not materialize. She stayed in the East – and her fame helped to promote European interest. Most satisfyingly of all, she beat the despised Caroline to Jerusalem by three years.

On 9 August 1814, the princess, aged forty-six, departed on a scandalous Mediterranean tour. Inspired by Smith, Stanhope and the pilgrimages of various crusading ancestors, Caroline declared that ‘Jerusalem is my great ambition’.

In Acre, the princess was greeted by Suleiman the Just’s ‘prime minister, a Jew who wants an eye, an ear and a nose’ – for the pasha had inherited not only the Butcher’s fiefdom but also his Jewish adviser, Haim Farhi. Ten years after the Butcher’s death, Caroline’s courtiers were amazed how many ‘persons one sees in the streets without noses’. But the princess relished the ‘barbarous pomp of Eastern mores’. She arrived with an entourage of twenty-six including a foundling, Willie Austin, whom she had adopted (though he was possibly her own child), and her latest lover, an Italian soldier named Bartholomeo Pergami, sixteen years her junior. Now a baron and her chamberlain, he was ‘a man six feet high with a magnificent head of black hair, pale complexion and moustaches that reach from here to London!’ as one lady swooningly described him. By the time Caroline left for Jerusalem, her retinue of 200 ‘presented the appearance of an army’.

She entered Jerusalem on a donkey like Jesus, but she was sufficiently fat to need a servant propping her up on each side. The Franciscans escorted her on her ass to her suite at St Saviour’s. ‘It would be impossible to paint the scene,’ remembered one of her courtiers. ‘Men, women and children, Jews and Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, Catholics and infidels all received us. “Ben venute!” they cried!’ Illuminated by burning torches, many fingers extended towards the Royal Pilgrim’ with shouts of ‘That’s her!’ No wonder: Caroline often sported ‘a wig (curled at the sides nearly as high as the topof the bonnet), artificial eyebrows (nature having denied her any) and false teeth’, with a scarlet dress, cut low at front and back and far too short, scarcely hiding the ‘immense protuberance of her ventre’. A courtier had to admit that her entry was both ‘solemn and certainly laughable’.

Proud of being the first Christian princess to visit for six centuries, Caroline sincerely wanted to leave ‘a proper feeling of her elevated status’, so she established an Order of St Caroline with its own banner – a red cross with a riband of lilac and silver. Her lover Pergami was the Order’s first (and last) ‘Grand Master’. On her return, she commissioned a painting of her pilgrimage: The Entry Queen Caroline into Jerusalem.

The future Queen of England handed out generous donations to the Franciscans, and on 17 July 1815 (three weeks after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo) ‘quit Jerusalem amid the thanks and regrets of all ranks and degrees’ – hardly surprising given the state of the place.

When Damascus trebled the taxes in 1819, the city revolted again. This time, Abdullah Pasha,* the strongman of Palestine, the Butcher’s grandson, attacked Jerusalem and when it was captured, the city governor personally strangled twenty-eight rebels – the rest were beheaded the next day, all the bodies lined up outside Jaffa Gate. In 1824, the savage depredations of the Ottoman pasha known as Mustafa the Criminal led to a peasants revolt. Jerusalem achieved independence for some months until Abdullah bombarded it from the Mount of Olives. By the late 1820s, Jerusalem was ‘fallen, desolate and abject’, wrote a brave English traveller, Judith Montefiore, visiting with her wealthy husband, Moses. ‘Not a single relic’, she said, remained of ‘the city that was the joy of the whole earth’.

The Montefiores were the first of a new breed of powerful and proud European Jews, determined to help their benighted brethren in Jerusalem. They were fêted by the city’s governor but stayed with a Moroccan former slave-trader within the walls and started their philanthropic work by restoring Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem, Judaism’s third holiest shrine after the Temple and the Patriarch’s Tombs in Hebron, but, like the other two, also holy to Islam. The Montefiores were childless and Rachel’s Tomb was said to help women conceive. Jerusalem’s Jews welcomed them ‘almost like the coming of the Messiah’, but begged them not to give too much because the Turks would simply cripple them with higher taxes after they had gone.

Moses Montefiore arrived as an Italian-born, self-made English gentleman and international financier, brother-in-law of Nathaniel Rothschild, but he was not particularly religious. The trip to Jerusalem changed his life. He left as a reborn Jew, having prayed all through his last night there. For him Jerusalem was simply ‘the city of our forefathers, the great and long-desired object of our wishes and journey’. He believed it was every Jew’s duty to make the pilgrimage: ‘I humbly pray to the God of my forefathers that I may henceforth become a more righteous and better man as well as a better Jew.’* He would return to the Holy City many times and he henceforth contrived to combine the life of an English grandee with that of an Orthodox Jew.7

No sooner had Montefiore left than a Byronic poseur rode into town: both men were English Sephardic Jews of Italian descent. They did not yet know about each other – but one day both would promote Britain’s advance into the Middle East.


‘You should see me in the costume of a Greek pirate. A blood red shirt with silver studs as big as shillings, an immense scarf, girdle full of pistols and daggers, a red cap, red slippers, blue broad striped jacket and trousers. Excessively wicked!’ This was how Benjamin Disraeli, the twenty-six-year-old fashionable novelist (already author of The Young Duke), failed speculator and aspiring politician, dressed on his Oriental tour. Such jaunts were the new version of the eighteenth-century Grand Tour, combining romantic posturing, Classical sightseeing, the smoking of hookah pipes, avid whoring and visits to Istanbul and Jerusalem.

Disraeli had been raised as a Jew but was baptized at thirteen. He regarded himself, he later told Queen Victoria, as ‘the blank page between the Old and New Testaments’. He looked the part. Slim and pale with a head of black ringleted hair, Disraeli rode through the Judaean hills, ‘well mounted and well armed’. When he saw the walls:

I was thunderstruck. I saw before me apparently a gorgeous city. In the front is the magnificent mosque built on the site of the Temple with its beautiful garden and fantastic gates – a variety of domes and towers arise. Nothing can be conceived more wild and terrible and barren than the surrounding scenery. I never saw anything more essentially striking.

Dining on the roof of the Armenian Monastery, where he was staying, Disraeli was enraptured by the romance of Jewish history as he gazed out at ‘Jehovah’s lost capital’ and was intrigued by that of Islam: he could not resist trying to visit the Temple Mount. A Scottish physician and later an Englishwoman had both penetrated the esplanade – but only in strict disguise. Disraeli was less adept: ‘I was detected and surrounded by a crowd of turbaned fanatics and escaped with difficulty!’ He regarded the Jews and the Arabs as one people – the Arabs were surely ‘Jews on horseback’ – and he asked the Christians: ‘Where is your Christianity if you don’t believe in their Judaism?’

While he was in Jerusalem, he started to write his next novel, Alroy, about the doomed twelfth-century ‘Messiah’ whose uprising he called a ‘gorgeous incident in the annals of that sacred and romantic people from whom I derive my blood and name’.

His Jerusalem visit helped him refine his unique hybrid mystique as a Tory aristocrat and exotic Jewish panjandrum,* convinced him that Britain had a role in the Middle East – and let him dream of a return to Zion. In his novel, David Alroy’s adviser declares, ‘You ask what I wish. My answer is a national existence. You ask what I wish. My answer is Jerusalem.’ In 1851, Disraeli the rising politican reflected that ‘restoring the Jews to their land, which could be bought from the Ottomans, was both just and feasible’.

Disraeli claimed Alroy’s adventure was ‘his ideal ambition’ but actually he was far too ambitious to risk his career for anything Jewish: he wanted to be prime minister of the greatest empire on earth. Over thirty years later when he had reached the ‘topof the greasy pole’, Disraeli did guide British power into the region by gaining Cyprus and buying the Suez Canal.8

Not long after Disraeli had returned to embark on his political career, an Albanian warlord who was the ruler of Egypt conquered Jerusalem.

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