Palestine, a land virtually laid waste with
A review of Palestine, before the era of prosperity
began with the late nineteenth-century renewal of Jewish land settlement,
shows that periodically Palestine was virtually laid waste, and its population
suffered acute decline.
An enormous swell of Arab population could
only have resulted from immigration and in-migration (from Jordan and the
West Bank to the coastal area). It is helpful to see the land that was
virtually emptied-and why.
Dio Cassius, writing at the time, described
the ruin of the land beginning with the destruction of Judah:
Of their forts the fifty strongest
were razed to the ground. Nine hundred and eighty-five of their best-known
villages were destroyed....
One historian after another has reported the
Thus the whole of Judea became desert,
as indeed had been foretold to the Jews before the war. For the tomb of
Solomon, whom these folk celebrate in their sacred rites, fell of its own
accord into fragments, and wolves and hyenas, many in number, roamed howling
through their cities.1
In the twelve and a half centuries
between the Arab conquest in the seventh century and the beginnings of
the Jewish return in the 1880's, Palestine was laid waste. Its ancient
canal and irrigation systems were destroyed and the wondrous fertility
of which the Bible spoke vanished into desert and desolation... Under the
Ottoman empire of the Turks, the policy of disfoliation continued; the
hillsides were denuded of trees and the valleys robbed of their topsoil.2
In 1590 a "simple English visitor" to Jerusalem
wrote, "Nothing there is to bescene but a little of the old walls, which
is yet Remayning and all the rest is grasse, mosse and Weedes much like
to a piece of Rank or moist Grounde."3
"While Tiberias was being resettled by
Jews from Papal states, whose migration was approved by a papal Bull, Nazareth
was continuing its decline." A Franciscan pilgrim translated a Latin Manuscript
that reported that " 'A house of robbers, murderers, the inhabitants are
Saracens.... It is a lamentable thing to see thus such a town. We saw nothing
more stony, full of thorns and desert.'"4
A hundred years afterward, Nazareth was, in 1697, "an inconsiderable village....
Acre a few poor cottages ... nothing here but a vast and spacious ruin."
Nablus consisted of two streets with many people, and Jericho was a "poor
In the mid-1700s, British archaeologist
Thomas Shaw wrote that the land in Palestine was "lacking in people to
till its fertile soil."6 An eighteenth-century
French author and historian, Count Constantine Frangois Volney, wrote of
Palestine as the "ruined" and "desolate" land.
In "Greater Syria," which included Palestine,
Many parts ... lost almost all
their peasantry. In others.... the recession was great but not so total.7
Count Volney reported that, "In consequence
of such wretched government, the greater part of the Pachilics [Provinces]
in the empire are impoverished and laid waste." Using one province as an
example, Volney reported that
... upwards of three thousand
two hundred villages were reckoned; but, at present, the collector can
scarcely find four hundred. Such of our merchants as have resided there
twenty years have themselves seen the greater part of the environs ...
become depopulated. The traveller meets with nothing but houses in ruins,
cisterns rendered useless, and fields abandoned. Those who cultivated them
have fled... 8
Another writer, describing "Syria" (and Palestine)
some sixty years later in 1843, stated that, in Volney's day, "the
land had not fully reached its last prophetic degree of desolation and
... And can we hope long to carry on an
advantageous commerce with a country which is precipitately hastening to
From place to place the reporters varied,
but not the reports: J. S. Buckingham described his visit of 1816 to Jaffa,
which "has all the appearances of a poor village, and every part of it
that we saw was of corresponding meanness."11
Buckingham described Ramle, "where, as throughout the greater part of Palestine,
the ruined portion seemed more extensive than that which was inhabited."12
After a visit in 1817-1818, travelers reported
that there was not "a single boat of any description on the lake [Tiberias]."13
In a German encyclopedia published in 1827, Palestine was depicted as "desolate
and roamed through by Arab bands of robbers."14
Throughout the nineteenth century the abandonment
and dismal state of the terrain was lamented. In 1840 an observer, who
was traveling through, wrote of his admiration for the Syrian "fine spirited
race of men" whose "population is on the decline."15
While scorning the idea of Jewish colonization, the writer observed that
the once populous area between Hebron and Bethlehem was "now abandoned
and desolate" with "dilapidated towns."16
Jerusalem consisted of "a large number of houses ... in a dilapidated and
ruinous state," and "the masses really seem to be without any regular employment."
The "masses" of Jerusalem were estimated at less than 15,000 inhabitants,
of whom more than half the population were Jews.17
The British Consul in Palestine reported
in 1857 that
The country is in a considerable
degree empty of inhabitants and therefore its greatest need is that
of a body of population....
In the 1860s, it was reported that "depopulation
is even now advancing."19 At the same time,
H. B. Tristram noted in his journal that
The north and south [of the Sharon
plain] land is going out of cultivation and whole villages are rapidly
disappearing from the face of the earth. Since the year 1838, no less than
20 villages there have been thus erased from the map [by the Bedouin] and
the stationary population extirpated. 20
Mark Twain, in his inimitable fashion, expressed
scom for what he called the "romantic" and "prejudiced" accounts of Palestine
after he visited the Holy Land in 1867.21
In one location after another, Twain registered gloom at his findings.
Stirring scenes ... occur in the
valley [Jezreel] no more. There is not a solitary village throughout its
whole extent-not for thirty miles in either direction. There are two or
three small clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation.
One may ride ten miles hereabouts and not see ten human beings. 22
In fact, according to Twain, even the Bedouin
raiders who attacked "so fiercely" had been imported: "provided for the
occasion ... shipped from Jerusalem," by the Arabs who guarded each group
They met together in full view
of the pilgrims, after the battle, and took lunch, divided the baksheesh
in the season of danger and then accompanied the cavalcade home to the
city! The nuisance of an Arab guard is one which is created by the sheikhs
and the Bedouins together, for mutual profit... 23
To find ". . . the sort of solitude to make
one dreary," one must, Twain wrote dramatically,
Come to Galilee for that... these
unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of barrenness, that never, never
do shake the glare from their harsh outlines, and fade and faint into vague
perspective; that melancholy ruin of Capernaum: this stupid village of
Tiberias, slumbering under its six funereal palms.... We reached Tabor
safely .... We never saw a human being on the whole route. 24
"Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes....
desolate and unlovely.. . Twain wrote with remone. it is dreamland." 26
Nazareth is forlorn .... Jericho the
accursed lies a moldering ruin today, even as Joshua's miracle left it
more than three thousand years ago: Bethlehem and Bethany, in their
poverty and their humiliation, have nothing about them now to remind one
that they once knew the high honor of the Savior's presence; the hallowed
spot where the shepherds watched their flocks by night, and where the angels
sang, "Peace on earth, good will to men," is untenanted by any living
creature... Bethsaida and Chorzin have vanished from the earth, and
the "desert places" round about them, where thousands of men once listened
to the Savior's voice and ate the miraculous bread, sleep in the hush of
solitude that is inhabited only by birds of prey and skulking foxes.25
Jaffa, a French traveler wrote late in
the nineteenth century, was still a ruin27.
Haifa, to the north, had 6,000 souls and "nothing remarkable about it,"
another Frenchman, the author of France's foremost late-nineteenth-century
Holy Land guidebook, commented. Haifa "can be crossed in five minutes"
on the way to the city of Acre, he judged; that magnificent port was commercially
Many writers, such as the Reverend Samuel
Manning, mourned the atrophy of the coastal plain, the Sharon Plain, "the
exquisite fertility and beauty of which made it to the Hebrew mind a symbol
But where were the inhabitants?
fertile plain, which might support an immense population, is almost a solitude....
Day by day we were to learn afresh the lesson now forced upon us, that
the denunciations of ancient prophecy have been fulfilled to the very letter
-- "the land is left void and desolate and without inhabitants." 29
Report followed depressing report, as the
economist-historian Professor Fred Gottheil pointed out: "a desolate country";
"wretched desolation and neglect";31 "almost
abandoned now"32 "unoccupied";33
"uninhabited";34 "thinly populated."35
In a book called Heth and Moab,
Colonel C. R. Conder pronounced the Palestine of the 1880s "a ruined land."
According to Conder,
so far as the Arab race is concerned,
it appears to be decreasing rather than otherwise.36
Conder had also visited Palestine earlier,
in 1872, and he commented on the continuing population decline within the
nine or ten-year interim between his visits:
The Peasantry who are the backbone
of the population, have diminished most sadly in
numbers and wealth.37
Pierre Loti, the noted French writer, wrote
in 1895 of his visit to the land: "I traveled through sad Galilee in the
spring, and I found it silent. . . ." In the vicinity of the Biblical Mount
Gilboa, "As elsewhere, as everywhere in Palestine, city and palaces have
returned to the dust; This melancholy of abandonment, weighs on all the
Holy Land." 38
David Landes summarized the causes of the
shriveling number of inhabitants:
As a result of centuries of Turkish
neglect and misrule, following on the earlier ravages of successive conquerors,
the land had been given over to sand, marsh, the anopheles mosquito, clan
feuds, and Bedouin marauders. A population of several millions had shrunk
to less than one tenth that number-perhaps a quarter of a million around
1800, and 300,000 at mid-century.39
1. Dio Cassius,
History of the Romans, lxix, 12-14, cited by de Haas, History, pp.
55-56. De Haas adds: "In the third of the Schweich Lectures of 1922 the
late Israel Abrahams ('Campains in Palestine from Alexander the Great'
London, 1927) belittles Dio, Cassius' record of this war, and repeats the
suggestion that the Jews were influenced by Hadrian 'consent to the rebuilding
of the Temple.' This rebuilding myth, depending upon the alleged visit
of Hadrian to Palestine on the death of Trajan, has been fully dealt with
by Henderson in his biography of Hadrian. All the dimensions of the war,
its gravity, and its duration, are fully attested by the inscriptions relating
to the legions and by the honors distributed at the end of the campaign.
The archeological records, carefully analyzed, support Dio Cassius and
not his would-be corrector.
Palestine had indeed become "sackcloth
2. Carl Hermann
Voss, "The Palestine Problem Today, Israel and Its Neighbors" (Boston,
1953), p. 13.
Palestine Exploration Fund, Quarterly Statement, p.
86, cited in de Haas, History, p. 338.
4. De Haas,
History, p. 337, citing Palestine Exploration Fund, Quarterly Statement,
p. 197, translation of Latin manuscnpt by a Franciscan pilgrim.
Maundrell, The Journal of Henry Maundrellfrom Aleppo to Jerusalem, 1697,
Bohn's edition (London, 1848), respectively pp. 477, 428, 450.
Shaw, Travels and Observations Relating to Several Parts of Barbary
and the Levant (London, 1767), p. 331ff. De Haas notes: "Hasselquist,
the Swedish botanist, munching some roasted ears of' green wheat which
a shepherd generously shared with him, in the plain of Acre, reflected
that the white bread of his northern homeland and the roasted wheat ears
symbolized the difference between the two civilizations' Had he known that
Mukaddasi boasted in the tenth century of the excellence Of Palestine's
white bread he might have been still more impressed by the low estate to
which the country had fallen in seven hundred years.... Hasselquist joined
a party of four thousand pilgrims who went to Jericho under an escort of
three hundred soldiers. He estimated that four thousand Christians, mostly
of the eastern rites, entered Jaffa each year, and as many Jews. The Armenian
Convent in Jerusalem alone could accommodate a thousand persons. The botanist
viewed the pilgrim tolls as the best resource of an uncultivated and uninhabited
country. . ~ . Ramleh was a ruin." (Emphasis added.) De Haas, History,
pp. 349, 358, 360, citing Frederich Hasselquist, Reise nach Palastina,
etc., 1749-1752, pp. 139, 145-146, 190.
Lewis, "The Frontier of Settlement in Syria, 1800-19 50," in Charles Issawi,
ed., The Economic History of the Middle East (Chicago, 1966), p. 260.
Constantine F. Volney, Travels Through Syria and Egypt in the Years 1783,
1784, 1785 (London, 1788), Vol. 2, p. 147. According to Volney, ". . .
we with difficulty recognize Jerusalem.... remote from every road, it seems
neither to have been calculated for a considerable mart of commerce, nor
the centre of a great consumption.... [the population] is supposed to amount
to twelve to fourteen thousand.... The second place deserving notice, is
Bait-el-labm, or Bethlehem, ... The soil is the best in all these districts
... but as is the case everywhere else, cultivation is wanting. They reckon
about six hundred men in this village capable Of bearing arms.... The third
and last place of note is Habroun, or Hebron, the most powerful village
in all this quarter, and able to arm eight or nine hundred men . . ." (pp.
Travels, Vol. 2, p. 431.
10. A. Keith,
The Land of Israel (Edinburgh, 1843), p. 465. "The population (viz., of
the whole of Syria), rated by Volney at two million and a half, is now
estimated at half that amount."
Buckingham, Travels in Palestine (London, 1821), p. 146.
Mangles and the Honorable C.L. Irby, Travels in Egypt and Nubia (London,
1823), p. 295.
Alig. deutsch Real-Encyklopaedie, 7th ed. (Leipzig, 1827), Vol. VIII, p.
15. S. Olin,
Travels in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land (New York, 1843), Vol.
2, pp. 438-439.
238, "Report of the Commerce of Jerusalem During the Year 1863," F.O. 195/808,
May 1864. ". . . The population of the City of Jerusalem is computed at
15,000, of whom about 4,500 Moslem, 8,000 Jews, and the rest Christians
of various denominations. . ." From A.H. Hyamson, ed., The British Consulate
in Jerusalem, 2 vols. (London, 1939-1941), Vol. 2, p. 331.
Finn to the Earl of Clarendon, Jerusalem, September 15, 1857, F.O. 78/1294
(Pol. No. 36). Finn wrote further that "The result of my observations is,
that we have here Jews, who have been to the United States, but have returned
to their Holy Land -Jews of Jerusalem do go to Australia and instead of
remaining there, do return hither, even without the allurements of agriculture
and its concomitants." Ibid., 1, pp. 249-52.
Forsyth, A Few Months in the East (Quebec, 1861), p. 188.
Tristram, The Land of1sraek A Journal of Travels in Palestine (London,
1865), p. 490.
Twain, The Innocents Abroad, pp. 349, 366, 367.
p. 366, 375.
Hoche, Les Pays des croisades (Paris, n.d.), p. 10, cited by David Landes,
"Palestine Before the Zionists," Commentary, Feb., 1976, p. 49.
Lievin de Hamme, Guide indicateur, Vol. Ill, pp. 163, 190.
Reverend Samuel Manning, Those Holy Fields (London, 1874), pp. 14-17. W.M.
Thomson reiterated the Reverend Manning's observations: "How melancholy
is this utter desolation! Not a house, not a trace of inhabitants, not
even shepherds, seen everywhere else, appear to relieve the dull monotony....
Isaiah says that Sharon shall be wilderness, and the prediction has become
a sad and impressive reality." Thomson, The Land and the Book (London:
T. Nelsons & Sons, 1866), p. 506ff.
Prime, Tent Life in the Holy Land (New York, 1857), p. 240, cited by Fred
Gottheil, "The Population of Palestine, Circa 1875," Middle Eastern Studies,
Vol. 15, no. 3, October 1979.
Bartlett, From Egypt to Palestine (New York, 1879), p. 409, cited in ibid.
Allen, The Dead Sea: A New Route to India (London, 1855), p. 113, cited
in ibid. 62), p. 466,
Thomson, The Land and the Book (New York: Harper Bros., 18 cited in ibid.
Wilson, In Scripture Lands (New York, n.d.), p. 316, cited in ibid.
C.R. Conder, Heth and Moab (London, 1883), pp. 380, 376.
Loti, La Galilee (Paris, 1895), pp. 37-41, 69, 85-86, 69, cited by David
Landes, "Palestine Before the Zionists," Commentary, February 1976, pp.
"Palestine," p. 49.
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