The diplomatic policy relating to Jerusalem was the work of Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary, but the Godly mission was the achievement of his evangelical stepson-in-law, the Earl of Shaftesbury.* Palmerston, aged fifty-five, was not a Victorian prig or evangelical but an unrepentant Regency buck known as Lord Cupid for his sexual escapades (which he jovially recorded in his diary), as Lord Pam for his jaunty vigour, and as Lord Pumicestone for his gunboat diplomacy. Indeed Shaftesbury joked that Palmerston ‘didn’t know Moses from Sir Sidney Smith’. His interest in the Jews was pragmatic: the French advanced their power by protecting the Catholics, the Russians by protecting the Orthodox, but there were few Protestants in Jerusalem. Palmerston wanted to diminish French and Russian influence, and saw that British power could be advanced by protecting the Jews. The other mission – the conversion of the Jews – was the result of his son-in-law’s evangelical ardour.

Shaftesbury, thirty-nine years old, curly haired and bewhiskered, personified the new Victorian Britain. A pure-hearted aristocrat dedicated to improving the lives of workers, children and lunatics, he was also a fundamentalist who believed that the Bible ‘is God’s word written from the very first syllable down to the very last’. He was sure that dynamic Christianity would promote a global moral renaissance and an improvement of humanity itself. In Britain, Puritan millenarianism had long since been overwhelmed by the rationalism of the Enlightenment but it had survived among the Nonconformists. Now it returned to the mainstream: the French Revolution with its guillotine, and the Industrial Revolution with its mobs of workers, had shaped a new British middle class that welcomed the certainties of piety, respectability and the Bible, the antidote to the raging materialism of Victorian prosperity.

The London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews, known as the Jews Society, founded in 1808, now flourished, thanks in part to Shaftesbury. ‘All the young people are growing mad about religion,’ grumbled another elderly Regency roué, Lord Melbourne, prime minister at Queen Victoria’s accession in 1837. Convinced that eternal salvation was attainable through the personal experience of Jesus and his good news (evangelion in Greek), these evangelicals expected the Second Coming. Shaftesbury believed, like the Puritans two centuries before, that the return and conversion of the Jews would create an Anglican Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Heaven. He prepared a memorandum for Palmerston: ‘There’s a country without a nation and God in his wisdom and mercy directs us to a nation without a country.’*

‘It will be part of your duty’, Palmerston instructed Jerusalem vice-consul Young, ‘to afford protection to the Jews generally.’ At the same time he told his ambassador to the Sublime Porte that he should ‘strongly recommend [the sultan] to hold out every just encouragement to the Jews of Europe to return to Palestine’. In September 1839, Young founded the Jerusalem branch of the London Jews Society. Shaftesbury was exultant, noting in his diary, ‘The ancient city of the people of God is about to resume a place among the nations. I shall always remember that God put it into my head to conceive the plan for His honour, gave me the influence to prevail with Palmerston, and provided a man for the situation, who can remake Jerusalem in her glory.’ Shaftesbury’s signet ring was inscribed ‘Pray for Jerusalem’, while (as we have seen) another zealous Victorian fixated with Jerusalem – Sir Moses Montefiore – added Jerusalem to his new coat of arms and inscribed it like a talisman on his carriage, his signet ring and even his bed. Now, in June 1839, Montefiore and his wife Judith returned to Jerusalem, armed with pistols to protect the cash they had raised in London.

Jerusalem was ravaged by the plague, so Montefiore camped outside on the Mount of Olives where he held court, receiving over 300 visitors. When the plague was ebbing, Montefiore entered the city on a white horse, lent him by the governor, and proceeded to hear petitions and distribute alms to the poverty-stricken Jews. He and his wife were welcomed by all three religions in Jerusalem, but while they were visiting the Sanctuary in Hebron to the south, a Muslim mob attacked them. They only escaped with their lives thanks to the intervention of Ottoman troops. Montefiore was not discouraged. As he left, this reborn Jew and dedicated imperialist celebrated a similar though of course different messianic fervour as Shaftesbury: ‘O Jerusalem,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘may the city soon be rebuilt in our days. Amen.’

Shaftesbury and Montefiore both believed in the divine providence of the British empire and the Jewish return to Zion. The righteousness of evangelical zeal and the reborn passion of Jewish dreams of Jerusalem dovetailed neatly to become one of the Victorian obsessions, and it happened that the painter David Roberts returned from Palestine in 1840 just in time to show the public his hugely popular romantic images of a flamboyantly Oriental Jerusalem ripe for British civilization and Jewish restoration. The Jews were in urgent need of British protection because the competing promises of tolerance issued by the sultan and the Albanians provoked a deadly backlash.


In March 1840, seven Jews in Damascus were accused of killing a Christian monk and his Muslim servant to use their blood for a human sacrifice at Passover. This imaginary scenario was the notorious ‘blood libel’ that had first appeared in Oxford at the time of the Second Crusade in the twelfth century. Sixty-three Jewish children were arrested and tortured to force their mothers to reveal the ‘hiding place of the blood’.

Even though he had only just returned to London, Sir Moses Montefiore, backed by the Rothschilds, led the campaign to rescue the Damascene Jews from this medieval persecution. Joining forces with the French lawyer Adolphe Cremieux, Montefiore dashed to Alexandria where he canvassed Mehmet Ali to free the prisoners. But only weeks later, there was another case of the ‘blood libel’ in Rhodes. Montefiore sailed from Alexandria to Istanbul where he was received by the sultan whom he persuaded to issue a decree that categorically denied the truth of the ‘blood libel.’ It was Montefiore’s finest hour – but his success was due as much to his nationality as to his often ponderous diplomacy. It was a fine time to be an Englishman in the Middle East.

Both the sultan and the Albanians were frantically bidding for British favour as the very existence of the Ottoman empire hung in the balance. Jerusalem remained under Ibrahim the Red who ruled much of the Middle East. While France backed the Albanians, Britain tried to satisfy their appetite while preserving the Ottomans. They offered Palestine as well as Egypt if Ibrahim would withdraw from Syria. It was a good offer but Mehmet Ali and Ibrahim could not resist the supreme prize: Istanbul. Ibrahim defied Britain so Palmerston put together an Anglo-Austrian-Ottoman coalition and despatched his gunboats, under Commodore Charles Napier, cannons blazing. Ibrahim crumbled before British might.

Ibrahim the Red had opened up Jerusalem to the Europeans and changed her for ever but now, in return for hereditary rule in Egypt, he abandoned Syria and the Holy City.* The French, humiliated by Palmerston’s triumph, considered a ‘Christian Free City at Jerusalem’, the first proposal for an internationalized Zion, but on 20 October, 1840, the sultan’s troops marched back into Jerusalem. Within the walls, a third of the city was wasteland, covered in thickets of prickly-pear cacti, and there were only 13,000 inhabitants, but 5,000 of them were now Jews, their numbers boosted by Russian immigrants and refugees from an earthquake that had struck Safed in Galilee.9

Even when Palmerston lost the Foreign Office to Lord Aberdeen, who ordered the vice-consul to desist from evangelical Jewish schemes, Young continued regardless. When Palmerston returned to power he ordered the Jerusalem consul to ‘receive under British Protection all Russian Jews who apply to you’.

Meanwhile Shaftesbury had persuaded the new prime minister, Robert Peel, to back the creation of the first ever Anglican bishopric and church in Jerusalem. In 1841, Prussia (whose king had proposed a Christian international Jerusalem) and Britain jointly appointed the first Protestant bishop, Michael Solomon Alexander, a Jewish convert. British missionaries became increasingly aggressive in their Jewish mission. In 1841, at the opening of the very English Christ Church near the Jaffa Gate, three Jews were baptized in the presence of Consul Young. The Jewish plight in Jerusalem was pitiful: the Jews lived ‘like flies who have taken up their abode in a skull’, wrote the American novelist Herman Melville. The swelling Jewish community lived in almost theatrical poverty without any medical care, but they did have access to the free doctors provided by the London Jews Society. This tempted a few converts.

‘I can rejoice in Zion for a capital,’ mused Shaftesbury, ‘in Jerusale for a church and in Hebrew for a King!’ Jerusalem went overnight from a benighted ruin ruled by a shabby pasha in a tawdry seraglio to a city with a surfeit of gold-braided and bejewelled dignitaries. There had not been a Latin patriarch since the thirteenth century and the Orthodox patriarch had long resided in Istanbul, but now the French and the Russians sponsored their return to Jerusalem. However, it was the seven European consuls, puffed-up minor officials representing imperial ambitions, who could scarcely contain their high-handed grandiosity. Escorted by towering bodyguards, the kavasses, wearing bright scarlet uniforms, wielding sabres and heavy gold wands that they banged on the cobbles to clear the streets, the consuls paraded solemnly through the city, craving any pretext to impose their will on the beleaguered Ottoman governors. Ottoman soldiers even had to stand in the presence of the consul’s children. The pretensions of the Austrian and Sardinian consuls were all the haughtier because their monarchs claimed to be kings of Jerusalem. But none were more arrogant or petty than the British and the French.

In 1845, Young was replaced by James Finn, who for twenty years was almost as powerful as the Ottoman governors, yet this sanctimonious meddler offended everyone from English lords and Ottoman pashas to every other foreign diplomat. Regardless of orders from London, he offered British protection to the Russian Jews but never ceased his mission to convert them. When the Ottomans allowed foreign purchase of land, Finn bought and developed his farm at Talbieh and then another at Abraham’s Vineyard, funded by a Miss Cook of Cheltenham, and aided by a team of dedicated English evangelical ladies, as a means to proselytize more Jews by teaching them the joys of honest work.

Finn regarded himself as a cross between imperial proconsul, saintly missionary and property magnate, unscrupulously buying lands and houses with suspiciously large amounts of money. He and his wife, another fanatical evangelical, learned fluent Hebrew and the widely spoken Ladino. On one hand, they aggressively protected the Jews, who were brutally oppressed in Jerusalem. Yet at the same time his pushy mission provoked violent Jewish resistance. When he converted a boy called Mendel Digness, he caused mayhem as ‘the Jews climbed over the terraces and made great disturbances’. Finn called the rabbis ‘fanatics’, but back in Britain, the powerful Montefiore, hearing that the Jews were being harassed, sent a Jewish doctor and pharmacy to Jerusalem to foil the Jews Society, which in turn founded a hospital on the edge of the Jewish Quarter.

In 1847, a Christian Arab boy attacked a Jewish youth who threw back a pebble which grazed the Arab boy’s foot. The Greek Orthodox traditionally the most anti-Semitic community, quickly backed by the Muslim mufti and qadi, accused the Jews of procuring Christian blood to bake the Passover biscuits: the blood libel had come to Jerusalem, but the sultan’s ban, granted to Montefiore after the Damascus affair, proved decisive.10

Meanwhile the consuls were joined by perhaps the most extraordinary diplomat in American history. ‘I doubt,’ observed William Thackeray, the English author of Vanity Fair, who was visiting Jerusalem, ‘that any government has received or appointed so queer an ambassador.’


On 4 October 1844, Warder Cresson arrived in Jerusalem as the US consul-general of Syria and Jerusalem – his chief qualification for the job being his certainty that the Second Coming was due in 1847. Cresson took the consular hauteur of his European colleagues to a new level: he galloped around Jerusalem in a ‘cloud of dust’ surrounded by ‘a little American army’ who belonged in a ‘troop of knights and paladins’ from a Walter Scott novel – ‘a party of armed and glittering horsemen led by an Arab followed by two Janissaries with silver maces shining in the sun’.

At his interview with the pasha, Cresson explained that he had arrived for the coming Apocalypse and the return of the Jews. A Philadelphian landowner, child of rich Quakers, Cresson had spent twenty years spinning from one apocalyptic cult to another: after writing his first manifesto, Jerusalem, the Centre of the Joy of the Whole World, and abandoning his wife and six children, Cresson persuaded Secretary of State John Calhoun to appoint him consul: ‘I left everything near and dear to me on earth in pursuit of truth.’ The US president John Tyler was soon informed by his diplomats that his first Jerusalem consul was a ‘religious maniac and madman’, but Cresson was already in Jerusalem. And he was not alone in his apocalyptic views: he was an American of his time.

The American Constitution was secular, carefully not mentioning Christ and separating state and faith, yet on the Great Seal, the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, had depicted the Children of Israel led by cloud and fire towards the Promised Land. Cresson personified how that cloud and fire were attracting many Americans to Jerusalem. Indeed the separation of Church and state liberated American faith and generated a blossoming of new sects and fresh millennial prophecies.

The early Americans, inheriting the Hebraist fervour of the English Puritans, had enjoyed a Great Awakening of religious joy. Now, in the first half of the nineteenth century, a Second Awakening was driven by the evangelical energy of the frontier. In 1776, some 10 per cent of Americans were church-goers; by 1815, it was a quarter; by 1914, it was half. Their passionate Protestantism was American in character – gritty, exuberant and swashbuckling. At its heart was the belief that a person could save himself and accelerate the Second Coming by righteous action and heartfelt joy. America was itself a mission disguised as a nation, blessed by God, not unlike the way Shaftesbury and the English evangelicals saw the British empire.

In little wooden churches in one-horse mining towns, farmsteads on boundless prairies and gleaming new industrial cities, the preachers in the New Promised Land of America cited the literal biblical revelations of the Old. ‘In no country,’ wrote Dr Edward Robinson, an evangelical academic who became the founder of biblical archaeology in Jerusalem, ‘are the Scriptures better known.’ The first American missionaries believed that the Native Americans were the Lost Tribes of Israel and that every Christian must perform acts of righteousness in Jerusalem and help the Return and Restoration of the Jews: ‘I really wish the Jews again in Judaea an independent nation,’ wrote the second US president John Adams. In 1819, two young missionaries in Boston prepared to put this into action: ‘Every eye is fixed on Jerusalem,’ preached Levi Parsons in Boston, ‘indeed the centre of the world.’ Their congregation wept as Pliny Fisk announced: ‘I go bound in spirit to Jerusalem.’ They made it there but their early deaths in the east did not discourage others because ‘Jerusalem’, insisted William Thomson, the American missionary whose wife died there during the revolt of 1834, ‘is the common property of the whole Christian world.’

Consul Cresson had ridden the wave of this flowering of prophecies: he had been a Shaker, a Millerite, a Mormon and a Campbellite before a local rabbi in Pennsylvania convinced him that ‘salvation was of the Jews’ whose return would bring the Second Coming.* One of the first to arrive in Jerusalem was Harriet Livermore. Daughter and granddaughter of New England congressmen, she set off in 1837, after years preaching to the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes that they were the Lost Tribes of Israel who should accompany her back to Zion. She rented rooms on Mount Zion to prepare her sect, the Pilgrim Strangers, for the Apocalypse that she expected in 1847 – but it did not come and she ended up begging in Jerusalem’s streets. At the same time, Joseph Smith, prophet of the new revelation of Latter Day Saints – the Mormons – sent his Apostle to Jerusalem: he built an altar on the Olivet to prepare ‘to restore Israel with Jerusalem as capital.’

By the time Cresson became the US consul, a growing number of American evangelists were visiting Jerusalem to prepare for the End Days. The US government eventually dismissed him, but he continued defiantly to issue visas of protection to Jews for several years and then, changing his name to Michael Boaz Israel, converted to Judaism. For his long-abandoned wife this was a revelation too far. She sued to have Cresson declared insane, citing his pistol-waving, street-haranguing, financial incompetence, cultic eclecticism, plans to rebuild the Jewish Temple and sexual deviance. He sailed back from Jerusalem for the Inquisition of Lunacy in Philadelphia, a cause célèbre, for Mrs Cresson was challenging the constitutional right of American citizens to believe whatever they wished, the essence of Jeffersonian liberty.

At the trial Cresson was found to be insane, but he appealed and was awarded a retrial. Mrs Cresson had to ‘deny either her Saviour or her Husband’ while he had to deny ‘either the One, Only God or My Wife’. The wife lost the second case, confirming American freedom of worship, and Cresson returned to Jerusalem. He created a Jewish model farm near the city, studied the Torah, divorced his American wife and married a Jewess, all the while completing his book The Key of David. He was honoured by local Jews as ‘the American Holy Stranger’. On his death he was buried in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.

Jerusalem was now so overrun by apocalyptic Americans that the American Journal of Insanity compared its hysteria to the California Gold Rush. When Herman Melville visited, he was fascinated yet repulsed by the ‘contagion’ of American Christian millenarianism – ‘this preposterous Jewmania’, he called it, ‘half-melancholy, half-farcical’. ‘How am I to act when any crazy or distressed citizen of the US comes into the country?’ the American consul in Beirut asked his secretary of state. ‘There are several of late going to Jerusalem with strange ideas in their heads that Our Saviour is coming this year.’ But Melville grasped that such majestic world-shaking hopes were impossible to satisfy: ‘No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations than Palestineparticularly Jerusalem. To some the disappointment is heart-sickening.’11

Jerusalem was essential to the American and English evangelical vision of the Second Coming. Yet even their urgency was dwarfed by the obsessive Russian passion for Jerusalem. Now in the late 1840s, the Russian emperor’s aggressive ambitions were about to place Jerusalem at what the English visitor, William Thackeray, called ‘the centre of the world’s past and future history’ and ignite a European war.


On Good Friday, 10 April 1846, the Ottoman governor and his soldiers were on alert at the Church. Unusually, that year the Orthodox and Catholic Easters fell on the same day. The monks were not just priming their incense-burners: they smuggled in pistols and daggers, secreting them behind the pillars and under robes. Who would hold their service first? The Greeks won the race to place their altar-cloth on the altar of Calvary. The Catholics were just behind them – but too late. They challenged the Greeks: did they have the sultan’s authority? The Greeks challenged the Catholics – where was their sultanic firman giving them the right to pray first? There was a stand-off. Fingers must have hovered over trigger sunder chasubles. Suddenly, the two sides were fighting with every weapon they could improvise from the ecclesiastical paraphernalia at their disposal: they wielded crucifixes, candlesticks and lamps until cold steel flashed and the shooting started. Ottoman soldiers waded in to stop the fighting but forty lay dead around the Holy Sepulchre.

The killing resounded around the world but above all in St Petersburg and Paris: the aggressive confidence of the coenobite brawlers reflected not just the religions but the empires behind them. New railways and steamships had eased the journey to Jerusalem from all over Europe but particularly by sea from Odessa to Jaffa: the vast majority of the 20,000 pilgrims were now Russians. A French monk noticed that in a typical year, out of 4,000 Christmas pilgrims, only four were Catholics, the rest being Russian. This Russian adoration flowed from the devout Orthodoxy to be found from the very bottom of society, the shaggy peasants in the smallest, remotest Siberian villages, to the very top, the Emperor-Tsar Nicholas I himself. The Orthodox mission of Holy Russia was shared by both.

When Constantinople fell in 1453, the grand princes of Muscovy had seen themselves as the heirs of the last Byzantine emperors, Moscow as the Third Rome. The princes adopted the Byzantine double-headed eagle and a new title, Caesar or Tsar. In their wars against the Islamic Crimean khans and then the Ottoman sultans, the tsars promoted the Russian empire as a sacred Orthodox crusade. In Russia, Orthodoxy had developed its own singularly Russian character, spread through its vastness both by tsars – and peasant hermits, all of whom specially revered Jerusalem. It was said that the distinctive onion-shaped domes of Russian churches were an attempt to copy those in paintings of Jerusalem. Russia had even built its own mini-Jerusalem* but every Russian believed that the pilgrimage to Jerusalem was an essential part of the preparation for death and salvation.

Nicholas I had imbibed this tradition – he was very much the grandson of Catherine the Great and heir of Peter the Great, both of whom had promoted themselves as protectors of the Orthodox and the Holy Places, and the Russian peasants themselves linked the two: when Nicholas’ elder brother Alexander I died unexpectedly in 1825, they believed that he had gone to Jerusalem as an ordinary hermit, a modern version of the Last Emperor legend.

Now Nicholas, harshly conservative, deeply anti-Semitic and shamelessly philistine in all matters artistic (he had appointed himself as Pushkin’s personal censor), regarded himself as answerable only to what he called ‘The Russian God’ in the cause of ‘Our Russia entrusted to Us by God.’ This martinet, who prided himself on sleeping on a military cot, ruled Russia like a stern drillmaster. As a young man, the strapping, blue-eyed Nicholas had dazzled British society where one lady described him as ‘devilish handsome, the handsomest man in Europe!’ By the 1840s, his hair was gone and a paunch bulged out of his still high-waisted and skintight military breeches. After thirty years happily married to his ailing wife, he had finally taken a mistress, a young lady-in-waiting – and for all Russia’s vast power, he feared impotence, personally and politically.

For years he had cautiously wielded his personal charm to persuade Britain to agree to the partition of the Ottoman empire, which he called ‘the sick man of Europe,’ hoping to liberate the Orthodox provinces of the Balkans and oversee Jerusalem. Now the British were no longer impressed. Twenty-five years of autocracy had desensitized him and made him impatient: ‘very clever, I don’t think him,’ wrote the shrewd Queen Victoria, ‘and his mind is an uncivilized one.’

In Jerusalem, the streets glittered with the gold braid and shoulder-boards of Russian uniforms, worn by princes and generals, while teeming with the sheepskins and smocks of thousands of peasant pilgrims, all encouraged by Nicholas who also despatched an ecclesiastical mission to compete with the other Europeans. The British consul warned London that ‘the Russians could in one night during Easter arm 10,000 pilgrims within the walls of Jerusalem’ and seize the city. Meanwhile the French pursued their own mission to protect the Catholics. ‘Jerusalem’, reported Consul Finn in 1844, ‘is now a central point of interest to France and Russia.’


Not all Russia’s pilgrims were soldiers or peasants and not all found the salvation they sought. On 23 February 1848, a Russian pilgrim entered Jerusalem who was both typical in his soaring religious fever and utterly atypical in his flawed genius. The novelist Nikolai Gogol, famed for his play The Inspector-General and for his novel Dead Souls, arrived by donkey in a quest for spiritual ease and divine inspiration. He had envisaged Dead Souls as a trilogy, yet he was struggling to write the second and third parts. God was surely blocking his writing to punish his sins. As a Russian, only one place offered redemption: ‘until I’ve been to Jerusalem,’ he wrote, ‘I’ll be incapable of saying anything comforting to anyone.’

The visit was disastrous: he spent a single night praying beside the Sepulchre, yet he found it filthy and vulgar. ‘Before I had time to pull my wits together, it was over.’ The gaudiness of the holy sites and the barrenness of the hills crushed him: ‘I have never been so little content with the state of my heart as in Jerusalem and afterwards.’ On his return, he refused to talk about Jerusalem but fell under the power of a mystic priest who convinced him that his works were sinful. Gogol manically destroyed his manuscripts then starved himself to death – or at least into a coma – for when his coffin was opened in the twentieth century, his body was found face down.

The special madness of Jerusalem had been called ‘Jerusalem fever’ but in the 1930s, it was recognized as Jerusalem Syndrome, ‘a psychotic decompensation related to religious excitement induced by proximity to the holy places of Jerusalem’. The British Journal of Psychiatry, in 2000, diagnosed this demented disappointment as: ‘Jerusalem Syndrome Subtype Two: those who come with magical ideas of Jerusalem’s healing powers – such as the writer Gogol.’12

In a sense, Nicholas was suffering from his own strain of Jerusalem Syndrome. There was madness in his family: ‘as the years have passed,’ wrote the French ambassador to Petersburg, ‘it is now the qualities of (his father Emperor) Paul which come more to the fore.’ The mad Paul had been assassinated (as had his grandfather Peter III). If Nicholas was far from insane, he started to display some of his father’s obstinately impulsive over-confidence. In 1848, he planned to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem but he was forced to cancel when revolutions broke out across Europe. He triumphantly crushed the Hungarian revolt against his neighbour, the Habsburg emperor: he enjoyed the prestige of being the ‘Gendarme of Europe’ but Nicholas, wrote the French ambassador, became ‘spoiled by adulation, success and the religious prejudices of the Muscovite nation’.

On 31 October 1847, the silver star on the marble floor of the Grotto of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, was cut out and stolen. The star had been donated by France in the eighteenth century; now it had obviously been stolen by the Greeks. The monks fought in Bethlehem. In Istanbul, the French claimed the right to replace the Bethlehem star and to repair the roof of the Church in Jerusalem; the Russians claimed it was their right; each cited eighteenth-century treaties. The row simmered until it became a duel of two emperors.

In December 1851, the French president Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the inscrutably bland yet politically agile nephew of the great Napoleon, overthrew the Second Republic in a coup d’état and prepared to crown himself Emperor Napoleon III. This womanizing adventurer whose sharply-waxed moustaches could not distract attention from an oversized head and an undersized torso was in some ways the first modern politician and he knew his brash, fragile new empire required Catholic prestige and victory abroad. Nicholas, on the other hand, saw the crisis as the chance to crown his reign by saving the Holy Places for ‘the Russian God’. For these two very different emperors, Jerusalem was the key to glory in heaven and on earth.


The sultan, squeezed between the French and Russians, tried to settle the dispute with his decree of 8 February 1852, confirming the Orthodox paramountcy in the Church, with some concessions to the Catholics. But the French were no less committed than the Russians. They traced their claims back to the great Napoleon’s invasion, the alliance with Suleiman the Magnificent, the French Crusader kings of Jerusalem, and to Charlemagne. When Napoleon III threatened the Ottomans, it was no coincidence that he sent a gunboat called the Charlemagne. In November, the sultan buckled and granted the paramountcy to the Catholics. Nicholas was outraged. He demanded the restoration of Orthodox rights in Jerusalem and an ‘alliance’ that would reduce the Ottoman empire to a Russian protectorate.

When Nicholas’ bullying demands were rejected, he invaded the Ottoman territories on the Danube – today’s Rumania – advancing towards Istanbul. Nicholas had convinced himself that he had charmed the British into agreement, denying he wanted to swallow Istanbul, let alone Jerusalem, but he fatally misjudged both London and Paris. Faced with Russian menace and Ottoman collapse, Britain and France threatened war. Nicholas stubbornly called their bluff because, he explained, he was ‘waging war for a solely Christian purpose, under the banner of the Holy Cross’. On 28 March, 1853, the French and British declared war on Russia. Even though most of the fighting was far away in the Crimea, this war placed Jerusalem at the centre of the world stage where she has remained ever since.*

As Jerusalem’s garrison marched off to fight the Russians, James Finn watched them present arms on the Maidan parade ground outside the Jaffa Gate where the ‘Syrian sun glistened along the moving steel for they marched with fixed bayonets’. Finn could not forget that the ‘kernel of it all lay with us in the Holy Places’ and that Nicholas ‘aimed still at an actual possession of [Jerusalem’s] Sanctuaries’.

Instead of the usual devout Russians, a new breed of often sceptical Western visitors – 10,000 a year, by 1856 – poured into the city to see the Holy Places that had sparked a European war. Yet a visit to Jerusalem was still an adventure. There were no carriages, just covered litters. She possessed virtually no hotels or banks: visitors stayed in the monasteries, the most comfortable being the Armenian with its elegant, airy courtyards. However in 1843, a Russian Jew named Menachem Mendel founded the first hotel, the Kaminitz, which was soon followed by the English Hotel; and in 1848 a Sephardic family, the Valeros, opened the first European bank in a room up some stairs off David Street. This was a still a provincial Ottoman town, usually governed by a scruffy pasha who resided in a ramshackle seraglio – residence, harem and prison – just north of the Temple Mount.* Westerners were ‘astonished at the beggarly meanness of that mansion,’ wrote Finn, and repulsed by the mangy concubines and ‘ragamuffin officials’. As visitors sipped coffee with the pasha, they could hear the clank of prisoners’ chains and groans of the tortured from the dungeons below. During the war, the pasha tried to ensure tranquillity in Jerusalem – but the Greek Orthodox monks attacked the newly appointed Catholic patriarch and herded camels into his residence, all to the delight of the great writers who came to see those very shrines for which so many soldiers were dying in the grinding battles and putrid hospitals of the Crimea. They were not impressed.


Herman Melville, then aged thirty-seven, had made his name with three novels based on his own breathtaking whaling adventures in the Pacific but Moby Dick, published in 1851, had sold just 3,000 copies. Melancholic and tormented, not unlike Gogol, he arrived in Jerusalem in 1856 to restore his health – and to investigate the nature of God. ‘My object – saturation of my mind with the atmosphere of Jerusalem, offering myself as a passive subject to its weird impressions’ – and he was stimulated by the ‘wreck’ that was Jerusalem, beguiled by the ‘unleavened nakedness of desolation’. As we saw earlier, he was fascinated by the ‘fanatical energy and spirit’ and ‘Jewmania’ of the many ‘crazy’ Americans. They inspired his epic Clarel – at 18,000 lines, the longest American poem, which he wrote when he got home as he toiled in the US Customs Office.

Melville was not the only novelist looking for restoration and consolation for literary disappointment in the Orient: Gustave Flaubert, accompanied by his wealthy friend Maxime du Camp, and funded by the French government to report on trade and agriculture, was on a cultural and sexual tour to recover from the reception of his first novel. He saw Jerusalem as a ‘charnelhouse surrounded by walls, the old religions rotting in the sun’. As for the Church, ‘a dog would have been more moved than me. The Armenians curse the Greeks who detest the Latins who execrate the Copts.’ Melville agreed that the Church was a ‘half-ruinous pile of mouldering grottoes that smelled like death’ but recognized that wars were started in what he called the ‘thronged news-room and theology exchange of Jerusalem’.*

The coenobite fighting was only one aspect of the violent theatre of Jerusalem. The tensions between the new visitors – Anglo-American evangelicals and Russian Jews and Orthodox peasants on one hand, and the older world of the Ottomans, Arab Families, Sephardic Jews and Bedouin and fellahin on the other – led to a series of murders. One of James Finn’s evangelical ladies, Mathilda Creasy, was found with her head smashed in; and a Jew was found stabbed down a well. The poisoning of a richrabbi, David Herschell, led to a sensational court case but the suspects, who were his own grandsons, were acquitted for lack of evidence. The British consul James Finn was the most powerful official in Jerusalem at a time when the Ottomans were so indebted to Britain, hence he took it upon himself to intervene wherever he saw fit. Considering himself to be the Sherlock Holmes of the Holy City, he set about investigating each of these crimes, but despite his powers of detection (and the aid of six African necromancers), no killers were ever found.

Finn was the courageous champion and proselytizing irritant for the Jews who still needed his protection. Their plight was, if anything, getting worse. Most of the Jews lived in the ‘stinking ruins of the Jewish Quarter, venerable in filth’, wrote Thackeray, and their ‘wailings and lamentations of the lost glory of their city’ haunted Jerusalem on Friday nights. ‘None equals the misery and suffering of the Jews at Jerusalem,’ Karl Marx wrote in the New York Daily Tribune in April 1854, ‘inhabiting the most filthy quarter, constant object of Musulman oppression and intolerance, insulted by the Greeks, persecuted by the Latins.’ A Jew who walked past the gate leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was, as Finn reported, ‘beaten by a mob of pilgrims’ because it was still illegal for a Jew to pass it. Another was stabbed by an Ottoman soldier. A Jewish funeral was attacked by Arabs. In each case, Finn swooped on the Ottoman governor and forced him to intervene and see British justice done.

The pasha himself was more interested in controlling the Palestinian Arabs whose rebellions and clan wars, partly a response to the centralizing reforms of the Ottoman empire, were often fought out with the gallop of camels, the swish of spears and the whistle of bullets around the walls of Jerusalem. These thrilling scenes played into the European view of Palestine as a biblical theatre crossed with a Wild West stage set, and they gathered on the walls to spectate the skirmishes which to them must have resembled surreal sporting events – with the added spice of the occasional fatality.


At their Talbieh evangelical farm for converting Jews, the Finns frequently found themselves caught in the crossfire. As bullets flew, Mrs Finn was often amazed to identify women amongst the warriors. She did her best to negotiate peace between the sheikhs. But the Bedouin were only part of the problem: the sheikhs of Hebron and Abu Ghosh fielded private armies of 500 warriors and fought full-scale wars against the Ottomans. When one of these sheikhs was captured and brought to Jerusalem in chains, the dashing warrior managed to escape and gallop away to fight again, like an Arab Robin Hood. Finally Hafiz Pasha, the aged governor of Jerusalem, had to lead an expedition with 550 troops and two brass field-guns to suppress the warlord of Hebron.

Yet despite such melodrama, on summer evenings, Jerusalemites of all creeds – Muslim and Christian Arabs along with the Sephardic Jews – picnicked on the Damascus road. The American explorer, Lieutenant William Lynch, observed a ‘picturesque scene – hundreds of Jews enjoying the fresh air, seated outside the walls under enormous olive trees, the woman all in white shrouds, the men in broad-brimmed black hats’. James Finn and the other consuls, preceded by Ottoman soldiers and kavasses with silver-mounted batons, promenaded with their wives. ‘As the sun set, everyone hurried inside the walls that were still locked every night.’

‘Ah the sadness of Jerusalem,’ sighed Finn who had to admit that the city seemed ‘monastically dull to a person imbued with the gay habits of other places. French visitors have been known to utter the ejaculation which ever accompanies the shrug of the shoulders at the contrast between Jerusalem and Paris.’ This was certainly not the sort of ejaculation which the priapic Flaubert expected and he expressed his frustration at the Jaffa Gate, ‘I let a fart escape as I crossed the threshold,’ even if ‘I was annoyed by the Voltaireanism of my anus.’ That sexual gourmand Flaubert celebrated escape from Jerusalem with a five-girl orgy in Beirut: ‘I screwed three women and came four times – three times before lunch and once after dessert. Young Du Campcame only once, his member still sore with the remnant of a chancre given him by a Wallachian whore.’

One unique American visitor, David Dorr, a young black slave from Louisiana who called himself a ‘quadroon’, agreed with Flaubert: on tour with his master, he arrived ‘with submissive heart’ filled with awe for Jerusalem but soon changed his mind: ‘When I heard all the absurdities of these ignorant people, I was more inclined to ridicule right over these sacred dead bodies and spots than pay homage. After seventeen days in Jerusalem, I leave never wishing to return again.’*

Yet for all their irreverence, the writers could not help but be awed by Jerusalem. Flaubert considered her ‘diabolically grand’. Thackeray sensed ‘there’s not a spot at which you may look but where some violent deed has been done, some massacre, some visitors murdered, some idol worshipped with bloody rites.’ Melville almost admired the ‘plague-stricken splendour’ of the place. Standing at the Golden Gate, gazing out at Muslim and Jewish cemeteries, Melville saw a ‘city besieged by armies of the dead’ and asked himself: ‘is the desolation the result of the fatal embrace of the Deity?’13

As Russian forces were repeatedly defeated in the Crimea, Nicholas fell ill under the strain and died on 18 February 1855. In September, the Russian naval base at Sebastopol fell to the British and French. Russia had been thoroughly humiliated. After staggering military incompetence on all sides in a campaign that cost 750,000 lives, the new Russian emperor, Alexander II, sued for peace, surrendering his imperial ambitions for Jerusalem, but winning at least a restoration of the dominant Orthodox rights in the Sepulchre, the status quo that still remains in force today.

On 14 April 1856, the cannons of the Citadel saluted the signing of peace. But twelve days later, James Finn, attending the Holy Fire, watched ‘Greek pilgrims, provided with sticks, stones and cudgels, concealed beforehand behind the columns and dropped from the gallery,’ attack the Armenians. ‘Dreadful conflict ensued,’ he observed, ‘missiles were flung upwards to the galleries, demolishing rows of lamps, glass and oil pouring down upon heads.’ When the pasha rushed down from his throne in the gallery, he ‘received blows to the head’ and had to be carried out before his soldiers charged in with fixed bayonets. Minutes later, the Orthodox patriarch appeared with the Holy Fire to screams of exultation, the beating of chests, and flickering of flames.

The garrison celebrated the sultan’s victory with a parade on the Maidan which was ironic because soon afterwards, Alexander II bought this parade ground, once the site of Assyrian and Roman camps, to build a Russian Compound. Henceforth Russia would pursue cultural dominance in Jerusalem.

The victory was bitter sweet for the Ottomans, their weak Islamic realm saved by Christian soldiers. To show his gratitude and keep the West at bay, Sultan Abdulmecid was forced, in measures known as Tanzimat – reform – to centralize his administration, decree absolute equality for all minorities regardless of religion, and allow the Europeans all manner of once-inconceivable liberties. He presented St Anne’s, the Crusader church that had become Saladin’s madrassa, to Napoleon III. In March 1855, the Duke of Brabant, the future King Leopold II of Belgium, exploiter of the Congo, was the first European allowed to visit the Temple Mount: its guards – club-wielding Sudanese from Darfur – had to be locked in their quarters for fear they would attack the infidel. In June, Archduke Maximilian, the heir to the Habsburg empire – and ill-fated future Emperor of Mexico – arrived with the officers of his flagship. The Europeans started to build hulking imperial-style Christian edifices in a Jerusalem building boom. Ottoman statesmen were unsettled and there would be a violent Muslim backlash but, after the Crimean War, the West had invested too much to leave Jerusalem alone.

In the last months of the Crimean War, Sir Moses Montefiore had bought the trains and rails of the Balaclava Railway, built specially for British troops in the Crimea, to create a line between Jaffa and Jerusalem. Now, endowed with all the prestige and power of a British plutocrat after the Crimean victory, he returned to the city, the harbinger of her future.14

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!