Voyage to Palestine

Ben Gurion Airport concession. Israel, August 2016.

The extremely unfavourable reports I heard from Palestine caused me to defer my departure from day to day.  When I applied to my consul for a “firmann” (Turkish passport), I was strongly advised not to travel to the Holy Land. The disturbances on Mount Lebanon and the plague were, they assured me, enemies too powerful to be encountered except in cases of urgent necessity.

A priest who had arrived from Beyrout about two months previously affirmed positively that, in consequence of the serious disturbances, even he, known though he was far and wide as a physician, had not dared to venture more than a mile from the town without exposing himself to the greatest danger. He advised me to stay in Constantinople until the end of September, and then to travel to Jerusalem with the Greek caravan.  This, he said, was the only method to reach that city in safety.

One day I met a pilgrim in a church who came from Palestine. On my asking his advice, he not only confirmed the priest’s report, but even added that one of his companions had been murdered whilst journeying homeward, and that he himself had been despoiled of his goods, and had only escaped death through the special interposition of Providence.

I did not at all believe the asseverations of this man; he related all his adventures with such a Baron Munchausen air, assumed probably to excite admiration.  I continued my investigations on this subject until I was at length fortunate enough to find someone who told an entirely different tale.  From this I felt assured at least of the fact, that it would be almost impossible to learn the true state of the case here in Constantinople, and at length made up my mind to avail myself of the earliest opportunity of proceeding as far as Beyrout, where there was a chance of my getting at the truth.

I was advised to perform this journey in male attire; but I did not think it advisable to do so, as my short, spare figure would have seemed to belong to a youth, and my face to an old man.  Moreover, as I had no beard, my disguise would instantly have been seen through, and I should have been exposed to much annoyance.

I therefore preferred retaining the simple costume, consisting of a kind of blouse and wide Turkish trousers, which I then wore.  The further I travelled, the more I became persuaded how rightly I had acted in not concealing my sex.  Everywhere I was treated with respect, and kindness and consideration were frequently shown me merely because I was a woman.

Tel Aviv, August 2016.

May 17th

I embarked on board a steamboat belonging to the Austrian Lloyd. It was called the Archduke John.

It was with a feeling of painful emotion that I stood on the deck, gazing with an air of abstraction at the preparations for the long voyage which were actively going on around me. Once more I was alone among a crowd of people, with nothing to depend on but my trust in Providence. No friendly sympathetic being accompanied me on board.

All was strange. The people, the climate, country, language, the manners and customs—all strange. But a glance upward at the unchanging stars, and the thought came into my soul, “Trust in God, and thou art not alone.” And the feeling of despondency passed away, and soon I could once more contemplate with pleasure and interest all that was going on around me.

But who shall describe my feelings of joy when I discovered a European among the passengers? Now I was no longer alone; in the first moments we even seemed fellow-countrymen, for the barriers that divide Europeans into different nations fall as they enter a new quarter of the globe.

We did not ask each other, Are you from England, France, Italy; we inquired, Whither are you going? and on its appearing that this gentleman intended proceeding, like myself, to Jerusalem, we at once found so much to talk about concerning the journey, that neither of us thought for a moment of inquiring to what country the other belonged.

We conversed in the universal French language, and were perfectly satisfied when we found we could understand each other. It was not until the following day that I discovered the gentleman to be an Englishman.

Everyone understands English. Yafo, August 2016.

May 25th

This morning I could discern the Syrian coast, which becomes more glorious the nearer we approach. Beyrout, the goal of our voyage, was jealously hidden from our eyes to the very last moment.

Scarcely had the anchor descended from the bows, before our ship was besieged by a number of small boats, with more noise and bustle than even at Constantinople. The half-naked and excitable Arabs or Fellahs are so ready with offers of service, that it is difficult to keep them off.

The Bedouins and Arabs generally wear no garment but a shirt barely reaching to the knee.  Their head is protected by a linen cloth, to which a thick rope wound twice round the head gives a very good effect.

It almost becomes necessary to threaten these poor people with a stick, as they obstinately refuse to take a gentler hint.

Adapted from A Visit to the Holy Land, Egypt, and Italy, by Ida Pfeiffer (1846.) Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.