In April 1859, Emperor Alexander II’s brother Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich was the first of the Romanovs to visit Jerusalem – ‘finally my triumphant entry’, he recorded in his laconic diary, ‘Crowds and dust’. When he walked to the Holy Sepulchre: ‘Tears and emotions’; and when he left the city, ‘we couldn’t stop crying’. The emperor and the grand duke had planned a Russian cultural offensive. ‘We must establish our presence in the East not politically but through the church,’ declared a Foreign Ministry report. ‘Jerusalem is the centre of the world and our mission must be there.’ The grand duke founded a Palestine Society and the Russian Steamship Company to bring Russian pilgrims from Odessa. He inspected the 18 acres of the Russian Compound where the Romanovs were starting to build a little Muscovite town.* Soon there were so many Russian pilgrims that tents had to be pitched to house them.

The British were every bit as committed as the Russians. On 1 April 1862, Albert Edward, the plump, twenty-year-old Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), rode into Jerusalem, escorted by a hundred Ottoman cavalrymen.

The prince, who stayed in a grand encampment outside the walls, was very excited about getting a Crusader tattoo on his arm and his visit made an indelible impression both in Jerusalem and back home. Not only did his presence accelerate the recall of James Finn, accused of financial improprieties after twenty years of his domineering presence, but it intensified the feeling that Jerusalem was somehow a little piece of England. The prince was guided around the sites by the Dean of Westminster, Arthur Stanley, whose immensely influential book of biblical history and archaeological speculation convinced a generation of British readers that Jerusalem was ‘a land more dear to us from our childhood even than England’. In the mid-nineteenth century, archaeology suddenly became not just a new historical science to study the past but a way to control the future. No wonder archaeology was immediately political – not only a cultural fetish, social fashion and royal hobby, but empire-building by other means and an extension of military espionage. It became Jerusalem’s secular religion and also, in the hands of imperialist Christians such as Dean Stanley, a science in the service of God: if it confirmed the truth of the Bible and the Passion, Christians could reclaim the Holy Land itself.

The Russians and British were not alone. The consuls of the Great Powers, many of them religious ministers, also fancied themselves as archaeologists, but it was American Christians who really created modern archaeology.* The French and Germans were not far behind, pursuing archaeological spectaculars with ruthless national esprit, their emperors and premiers keenly backing their digs. Like the space race in the twentieth century with its heroic astronauts, archaeology quickly became a projection of national power with celebrity archaeologists who resembled swashbuckling historical conquistadors and scientific treasure hunters. One German archaeologist called it ‘the peaceful crusade’.

The Prince of Wales’ visit encouraged the expedition of a red-coated British officer and archaeologist, Captain Charles Wilson, who, in the tunnels close to the Western Wall under the Gate of the Chain Street, discovered the monumental Herodian arch of the great bridge reaching across the Tyropaean Valley to the Temple. It is still known as Wilson’s Arch, and this was just the start.

In May 1865, an array of patricians, from Earl Russell the foreign secretary to the Duke of Argyll, founded the Palestine Exploration Fund with contributions from Queen Victoria and Montefiore. Shaftesbury would later serve as its president. The visit to Palestine of the first heir to the British throne since Edward I ‘opened the whole of Syria to Christian research’, explained the Society’s prospectus. At its first session, the Archbishop of York, William Thompson, declared that the Bible had given him ‘the laws by which I try to live’ and ‘the best knowledge I possess’. He went further: ‘This country of Palestine belongs to you and me. It was given to the Father of Israel. It’s the land whence comes news of our redemption. It’s the land where we look with as true a patriotism as we do this dear old England.’

In February 1867, Lieutenant of Royal Engineers Charles Warren, twenty-seven years old, began the Society’s survey of Palestine. However, the Jerusalemites were hostile to any excavations around the Temple Mount so he hired plots nearby and sank twenty-seven shafts deep into the rock. He uncovered the first real archaeological artefacts in Jerusalem, the pottery of Hezekiah marked ‘Belonging to the King’; forty-three cisterns under the Temple Mount; Warren’s Shaft in the Ophel hill that he believed was King David’s conduit into the city; and his Warren’s Gate in the tunnels along the Western Wall was one of Herod’s main entrances to the Temple – and later the Jewish Cave. This adventurous archaeologist personified the glamour of the new science. In one of his subterranean exploits he uncovered the ancient Struthion Pool and sailed on it on a raft made of doors. Fashionable Victorian ladies were lowered in baskets down his shafts, swooning at the biblical sights as they loosened their corsets.

Warren sympathized with the Jews, angered by the boorish European tourists who mocked their ‘most solemn gathering’ at the Wall as if it were a ‘farce’. On the contrary, the ‘country must be governed for them’ so that ultimately ‘the Jewish principality might stand by itself as a separate kingdom guaranteed by the Great Powers’.* The French were just as aggressive in their archaeological aspirations – though their chief archaeologist, Félicien de Saulcy, was a bungler who declared that the Tomb of Kings just north of the walls belonged to King David. In fact it was the tomb of the Queen of Adiabene dating from a thousand years later.

In 1860, Muslims massacred Christians in Syria and Lebanon, furious at the sultan’s laws in favour of Christians and Jews, but this only attracted further Western advances: Napoleon III sent troops to save the Maronite Christians of the Lebanon, refreshing French claims to the area that had survived from Charlemagne, the Crusades and King Francis in the sixteenth century. In 1869, Egypt, backed by French capital, opened the Suez Canal at a ceremony attended by the French empress Eugénie, the Prussian crown prince Frederick and the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph. Not to be outdone by the British and Russians, the Prussian Frederick sailed up to Jaffa and rode to Jerusalem, where he vigorously promoted a Prussian presence in the race to grab churches and archaeological prizes: he bought the site of the Crusader St Mary of the Latins, close to the Church, and Frederick (the father of the future Kaiser Wilhelm II) backed the aggressive archaeologist Titus Tobler, who declared: ‘Jerusalem must be ours.’ As Frederick headed back to Jaffa, he almost rode into Franz Joseph, the Emperor of Austria and titular King of Jerusalem, who had only recently been defeated by the Prussians at the Battle of Sadowa. They greeted one another coldly.

Franz Joseph galloped into Jerusalem escorted by a thousand Ottoman guards, including Bedouin with lances, Druze with rifles, and cameleers, and accompanied by an enormous silver bed, a present from the sultan. ‘We dismounted,’ the emperor recorded, ‘and I knelt in the road and kissed the earth’ as the cannon of David’s Tower boomed a salute. He was overcome by ‘how everything seemed to be just like one imagined it from one’s childhood stories and the Bible’16 But the Austrians, like all the Europeans, were buying buildings to promote a new Christian city: the emperor inspected the huge earth-works to build an Austrian Hospice on the Via Dolorosa.

‘I shall never concede any road improvements to these crazy Christians,’ wrote the Ottoman grand vizier Fuad Pasha, ‘as they would then transform Jerusalem into a Christian madhouse.’ But the Ottomans did build a new Jaffa road especially for Franz Joseph. The momentum of the ‘Christian madhouse’ was unstoppable.


Captain Charles Warren, the young archaeologist, was passing the Jaffa Gate when he was amazed to witness a beheading. The execution was horribly botched by a clumsy headman: ‘You’re hurting me,’ cried the victim as the executioner hacked at his neck sixteen times until he just climbed on to the unfortunate’s back and sawed through his spinal column as if he was sacrificing a sheep. Jerusalem had at least two faces and a multiple personality disorder: the gleaming, imperial edifices, built by the Europeans in pith helmets and redcoats as they rapidly Christianized the Muslim Quarter, existed alongside the old Ottoman city where black Sudanese guards protected the Haram and guarded condemned prisoners whose heads still rolled in public executions. The gates were still closed each sundown; Bedouin surrendered their spears and swords when they came into the city. A third of the city was a wasteland and a photograph (taken by the Armenian Patriarch no less) showed the Church surrounded by open country in the midst of the city. The two worlds frequently clashed: when in 1865, the first telegraph opened between Jerusalem and Istanbul, the Arab horseman who charged the telegraph-pole was arrested and hanged from it.

In March 1866, Montefiore, now a widower of eighty-one, arrived on his sixth visit and could not believe the changes. Finding that the Jews at the Western Wall were exposed not only to the rain but to occasional pelting from the Temple Mount above, he received permission to set up an awning there – and tried unsuccessfully to buy the Wall, one of many attempts by the Jews to own their holy site. As he left Jerusalem, he felt ‘more deeply than ever impressed’. It was not his last trip: when he returned in 1875 aged ninety-one, ‘I beheld almost a new Jerusalem springing up with buildings, some of them as fine as any in Europe.’ As he left for the last time, he could not help but muse that ‘surely we’re approaching the time to witness the realization of God’s hallowed promises unto Zion.’*

Guidebooks warned against ‘squalid Polish Jews’, and a ‘miasma of filth’, but to some it was the Protestant pilgrims who tainted the place.17 ‘Lepers, cripples, the blind and idiotic, assail you on every hand,’ observed Samuel Clemens, the journalist from Missouri who wrote as ‘Mark Twain’. Travelling the Mediterranean aboard the Quaker City, Twain, celebrated as the ‘Wild Humorist’, was on a pilgrim cruise called the Grand Holy Land Pleasure Excursion which he renamed the Grand Holy Land Funeral Expedition. He treated pilgrimage as a farce, mocking the sincerity of American pilgrims whom he called ‘innocents abroad’. ‘It’s a relief to steal a walk for a hundred yards’, he wrote, without encountering another ‘site’. He was most amused to find the column in the Church that was the centre of the world made of the dust from which Adam was conjured: ‘No man has been able to prove that the dirt was NOT procured here.’ Overall he hated the Church’s ‘trumpery, geegaws and tawdry ornamentation’, and the city: ‘Renowned Jerusalem, the stateliest name in history has become a pauper village – mournful dreary and lifeless – I wouldn’t want to live here.’* Yet even the Wild Humorist quietly bought his mother a Jerusalem Bible and sometimes reflected, ‘I am sitting where a god has stood.’

The tourists, whether religious or secular, Christian or Jewish, Chateaubriand, Montefiore or Twain, were good at seeing where gods had stood but almost blind when it came to seeing the actual people who lived there. Throughout her history, Jerusalem existed in the imagination of devotees who lived faraway in America or Europe. Now that these visitors were arriving on steamships in their thousands, they expected to find the exotic and dangerous, picturesque and authentic images they had imagined with the help of their Bibles, their Victorian stereotypes of race, and, once they arrived, their translators and guides. They saw only the diversity of costumes in the streets and dismissed the images they did not like as Oriental filth and what Baedeker called ‘wild superstition and fanaticism’. Instead, they would build the ‘authentic’ grand Holy City they had expected to find. It was these views that would drive the imperial interest in Jerusalem. As for the rest – the vibrant, half-veiled, ancient world of the Arabs and Sephardic Jews – they could scarcely see it. But it was very much there.18

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