Search the Site:
search tips / sitemap
Click for Related Articles

Palestine, a land virtually laid waste with little population 

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....

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

One historian after another has reported the same findings.
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 nasty village."5

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

... And can we hope long to carry on an advantageous commerce with a country which is precipitately hastening to ruin? 9

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 depopulation." 10

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.... 18
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 of pilgrims.
They met together in full view of the pilgrims, after the battle, and took lunch, divided the baksheesh extorted 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

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 a solitude that is inhabited only by birds of prey and skulking foxes.25

"Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes.... desolate and unlovely.. . Twain wrote with remone. it is dreamland." 26

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 idle. 28

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 of prosperity."

But where were the inhabitants? This 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"; 30 "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

Palestine had indeed become "sackcloth and ashes."

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.

2. Carl Hermann Voss, "The Palestine Problem Today, Israel and Its Neighbors" (Boston, 1953), p. 13. 

3. Gunner Edward Webbe, 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, 1925, p. 197, translation of Latin manuscnpt by a Franciscan pilgrim.

5. Henry Maundrell, The Journal of Henry Maundrellfrom Aleppo to Jerusalem, 1697, Bohn's edition (London, 1848), respectively pp. 477, 428, 450.

6. Thomas 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.

7. Norman 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.

8. Count 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. 303-325).

9. Volney, 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."

11. J.S. Buckingham, Travels in Palestine (London, 1821), p. 146. 

12. Ibid., p. 162.

13. James Mangles and the Honorable C.L. Irby, Travels in Egypt and Nubia (London, 1823), p. 295.

14. Brockhaus, Alig. deutsch Real-Encyklopaedie, 7th ed. (Leipzig, 1827), Vol. VIII, p. 206.

15. S. Olin, Travels in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land (New York, 1843), Vol. 2, pp. 438-439.

16. Ibid., pp. 77-78.

17. No. 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.

18. James 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.

19. J.B. Forsyth, A Few Months in the East (Quebec, 1861), p. 188. 

20. H.B. Tristram, The Land of1sraek A Journal of Travels in Palestine (London, 1865), p. 490.

21. Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, pp. 349, 366, 367. 

22. Ibid., p. 349.

23. Ibid., p. 429.

24. Ibid., p. 366, 375.

25. Ibid., pp. 441-442.

26. Ibid.

27. Jules Hoche, Les Pays des croisades (Paris, n.d.), p. 10, cited by David Landes, "Palestine Before the Zionists," Commentary, Feb., 1976, p. 49. 

28. Brother Lievin de Hamme, Guide indicateur, Vol. Ill, pp. 163, 190.

29. The 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.

30. W.C. 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.

31. S.C. Bartlett, From Egypt to Palestine (New York, 1879), p. 409, cited in ibid.

32. Ibid., p. 410.

33. W. Allen, The Dead Sea: A New Route to India (London, 1855), p. 113, cited in ibid. 62), p. 466,

34. W.M. Thomson, The Land and the Book (New York: Harper Bros., 18 cited in ibid.

35. E.L. Wilson, In Scripture Lands (New York, n.d.), p. 316, cited in ibid.

36. Colonel C.R. Conder, Heth and Moab (London, 1883), pp. 380, 376.

37. ibid., p. 366.

38. Pierre Loti, La Galilee (Paris, 1895), pp. 37-41, 69, 85-86, 69, cited by David Landes, "Palestine Before the Zionists," Commentary, February 1976, pp. 48-49.

39. Landes, "Palestine," p. 49.

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
E-mail to a friend

Source: "From Time Immemorial" by Joan Peters, 1984
SPECIAL OFFER Purchase this national bestseller available at WorldNetDaily

Stark truth about Mideast history
Get Joan Peters' milestone book on origins of the Arab-Jewish conflict


Portions Copyright © 1984 Joan Peters, Portions Copyright © 2001 Joseph Katz
All Rights Reserved