In Hebron, “Death or the Koran Would Have Been the Penalty Required” (Daphne Anson)
John Lloyd Stephens (1805-52) was an American explorer, writer, and diplomat. He travelled in the Middle East during 1834-36. In this extract from volume two of the third edition his Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia, Petraea and the Holy Land, published in 1839, we encounter a very moving tale of his literally overnight bonding with the Jews of Hebron and of a moving incident concerning Hebron’s octogenarian chief rabbi, who I believe was Ḥayyim ha-Levi Polacco. I’ve also included brief snippets from the author’s impressions of Jerusalem, which he visited next.
The Bedouins and Fellahs about Hebron are regarded as the worst, most turbulent, and desperate Arabs under the government of the pacha [sic; Pasha].… We turned a point pf the mountain to the left; and at the extreme end of the valley, on the side of a hill, bounding it, stands the little city of Hebron, the ancient capital of the kingdom of David. But it bears no traces of the glory of its Jewish king…. [A] small town of white houses, compactly built on the side of the mountain, a mosque and two minarets, are all that mark the ancient city of Hebron.…. I had no wish to stop at Hebron, though the first city in the Holy Land … The glory of the house of David had for ever departed. ,,, I had an indefinable longing to sleep my first night in the Holy land in [Bethlehem]. But the governor positively refused to let me go that afternoon; he said that it was a bad road, and that a Jew had been robbed a few days before on his way to Bethlehem… Seeing there was no hope for me, I made the best of it, and asked him to furnish me with a place to lodge that night….… I followed the janizary [sic; janissary] … I had no idea where he was taking me; but … their peculiar costume and physiognomies told me I was among the unhappy remnant of a fallen people, the persecuted and despised Israelites. They were removed from the Turkish quarter, as if the slightest contact with this once-favoured people would contaminate the bigoted follower of the Prophet. The governor, in the haughty spirit of a Turk, probably thought that the house of a Jew was a fit place of repose for a Christian; and, following the janizary through a low range of narrow, dark, and filthy lanes, mountings and turnings, of which it is impossible to give any idea, with the whole Jewish population turning out to review us … I was conducted to the house of the chief Rabbi of Hebron.If I had had my choice, these were the very persons I would have selected for my first acquaintances in the Holy Land. The descendants of Israel were fit persons to welcome a stranger to the ancient city of their fathers; and if they had been then sitting under the shadow of the throne of David, they could not have given me a warmer reception. It may be that, standing in the same relation to the Turks, alike the victims of persecution and contempt, they … felt only a sympathy for the object of mutual oppression. But, whatever the cause, I shall never forget the kindness with which, as a stranger and a Christian, I was received by the Jews in the capital of their ancient kingdom …[My own friends] would have smiled to see me that night, with a Syrian dress and long beard, sitting cross-legged on a divan, with the chief rabbi of the Jews at Hebron, and half the synagogue around us, talking of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as of old and mutual friends.With the few moments of daylight that remained, my Jewish friends conducted me around their miserable quarter. They … took me to their synagogue, in which an old white-bearded Israelite was teaching some prattling children to read the laws of Moses in the language of their fathers; and when the sun was setting in the west, and the Muezzin from the top of the minaret was calling the sons of the faithful to evening prayers, the old rabbi and myself, a Jew and a Christian, were sitting on the roof of the little synagogue, looking out as if by stealth upon the sacred mosque containing the hallowed ashes of their patriarch fathers. The Turk guards the door, and the Jew and the Christian are not permitted to enter; and the old rabbi was pointing to the different parts of the mosque, where, as he told me, under tombs adorned with carpets of silk and gold, rested the mortal remains of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.…. Hebron, one of the oldest cities of Canaan, is now a small Arab town, containing seven or eight hundred Arab families. The present inhabitants are the wildest, most lawless, and most desperate people in the Holy land …. A petty Turk now wields the sceptre of the son of Jesse, and a small remnant of a despised and persecuted people still hover round the graves of their fathers; and though degraded and trampled underfoot, from the very dust in which they lie are still looking to the restoration of their temporal kingdom.Accompanied by my Jewish friends, I visited the few spots which tradition marks as connected with the scenes of Biblical History. Passing through the bazars at the extreme end, and descending a few steps, we entered a vault containing a large monument, intended in memory of Abner, the greatest captain of his age, the favoured and for a long time trusted officer of David, who, as the Jews told me, was killed in battle near Hebron, and his body brought here and buried. The great mosque, the walls of which, the Jews say, are built with the ruins of the temple of Solomon, according to the belief of the Mussulmans and the better authority of the Jews, covers the site of the Cave of Machpelah, which Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite; and within its sacred precincts are the supposed tombs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.The doors were guarded with jealous care by the bigoted Mussulmans; and when, with my Jewish companion, I stopped for a moment to look up at the long marble staircase leading to the tomb of Abraham, a Turk came out from the bazars, and, with furious gesticulations, gathered a crowd around us; and a Jew and a Christian were driven with contempt from the sepulchre of the patriarch whom they both revered. A special firman from the pacha, or perhaps a large bribe to the governor, might have procured me a private admission; but death or the Koran would have been the penalty required by the bigoted people of Hebron.On a rising ground a little beyond the mosque is a large fountain or reservoir, supported by marble pillars, where my companion told me that Sarah had washed the clothes of Abraham and Isaac. Leaving this, I went once more to the two pools outside the walls, and after examining them as the so-called works of Solomon, I had seen all a stranger could see in Hebron.…. I had spent a long evening with my Jewish friends. The old rabbi talked to me of their prospects and condition, and how he had left his country in Europe many years before, and come with his wife and children to lay their bones in the Holy Land. He was now eighty years old; and for thirty years, he said, he had lived with the sword suspended over his head; had been reviled, buffeted, and spit upon; and though sometimes enjoying a respite from persecution; he never knew at what moment the bloodhounds might not be let loose upon him; that since the country had been wrested from the sultan by the Pasha of Egypt, they had been comparatively safe and tranquil; though some idea may be formed of this comparative security from the fact that during the revolution two years before, when Ibrahim Pacha, after having been pent up several months in Jerusalem, burst out like a roaring lion, the first place upon which his wrath descended was the unhappy Hebron; and … the unhappy Jews, never offending but always suffering, received the full weight of Arab vengeance. Their houses were ransacked and plundered; their gold and silver, and all things valuable, carried away; and their wives and daughters violated before their eyes by a brutal soldiery.…. He told me that he had lately had occasion to regret exceedingly the loss of a paper, which would now be of great use to him; that he was a Jew of Venice (I can vouch for it that he was no Shylock), and thirty years before had left his native city and come to Hebron with a regular passport; that for many years a European passport was no protection, and, indeed, it had been rather an object with him to … identify himself with the Asiatics; that in consequence he had been careless with his passport, and had lost it; but that now, since the conquest by Mohammed Aly and the government of Ibrahim Pacha, a European passport was respected, and saved its holder and his family from Turkish impositions. He mourned bitterly over his loss … for his children and grandchildren, whom his carelessness had deprived of the evidence of their birthright and the protection of their country.I was interested in the old man’s story … and drawing upon … my legal knowledge, I told him that the loss of his passport had not deprived him of his right to the protection of his country, and that. If he could establish the fact of his being a native of Venice, he might still sit down under the wings of the double-headed eagle of Austria… Learning tjhat there were in Hebron some of his very old acquaintances, who could testify to the fact of his nativity, I told him to bring them to me; and I would take my affadavits, and, on my arrival at Beyroot, would represent the matter to the Austrian consul there; and I thought that with such evidence the consul would not refuse him another passport.He thanked me very warmly, and the next morning early, while I was waiting for my departure, he brought in his witnesses…. I swore the white-bearded old men upon … a Hebrew copy of the Old Testament. I then dictated an affidavit for the rabbi himself, and was about administering the oath as before, when the old man rose, and taking the paper in his hand, and telling me to follow him, led the way through a range of narrow lanes and streets, and a crowd of people, to the little synagogue, where, opening the holy of holies, and laying his hand upon the sacred scroll, he read over the affidavit and solemnly swore to its truth. It did not need this additional act of solemnity to convince me of his truth; and when he gave me back the paper, and I saw the earnestness and deep interest depicted in the faces of the crowd that had followed us, I again resolved that I would use my best exertions to gladden once more the old man’s heart before he died. I added to the several affidavits a brief statement of the circumstances under which they had been taken, and, putting the paper in my pocket, returned to the house of the rabbi; and [subsequently] … at Beyroot I called upon the Austrian consul, and before I left had the satisfaction of receiving from him the assurance that the passport would be made out forthwith, and delivered to the agent whom the old rabbi had named to me.I had nothing now to detain me in Hebron; my mules and a kervash provided by the governor were waiting for me, and I bade farewell to my Jewish friends…. I passed through the dark and narrow lanes of the Jewish Quarter, the inhabitants being all arranged before their houses; and all along, even from the lips of maidens, a farewell salutation fell upon my ears…. With the last of their kind greetings still lingering in my ears, I emerged from the Jewish Quarter, and it was with a warm feeling of thankfulness I felt, that if yesterday I had an Arab’s curse, today I had a Jewish blessing.…. [A] few days after my arrival, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, the high priest of the Jews in the city of their ancient kings, called upon me, accompanied by a Gibraltar Jew who spoke English, and told me that they had come at the request of my friend in Hebron, to receive and welcome me in the city of their fathers. I had already seen a great deal of the Jews. I had seen them in the cities of Italy, everywhere more or less oppressed; at Rome, shut up at night in their miserable quarters as if they were noxious beasts; in Turkey, persecuted and oppressed; along the shores of the Black Sea and in the heart of Russia, looked down upon by the serfs of the great empire of vassalage; and, for the climax of misery, I had seen them contemned [sic] and spit upon even by the ignorant and enslaved boors of Poland. I had seen them scattered abroad among all nations, as it had been foretold they would be, everywhere a separate and peculiar people, and everywhere, under all poverty, wretchedness, and oppression, waiting for, and anxiously expecting, the coming of a Messiah, to call together their scattered tribes, and restore them to the kingdom of their fathers; and all this the better fitted me for the more challenging spectacle of the Jews in the holy city. In all changes and revolutions, from the days when the kingdom of Solomon passed into the hands of strangers, under the Assyrian, the Roman, the Arab, and the Turk, a remnant of that once-favoured people has always hovered around the holy city; and now, as in the days of David, old men may be seen at the foot of Mount Zion, teaching their children to read from that mysterious book on which they have ever fondly built their hopes of a temporal and eternal kingdom.The friends made for me by the rabbi at Hebron were the very friends above all others whom I would have selected for myself. … [O]ne of the first offers of kindness they made me, was an invitation to wait and partake of [Pesach/Passover] with them. The rabbi was an old man, nearly seventy, with a long white beard, and Aaron himself would not have been ashamed of such a representative. …The Jews are the best topographers in Jerusalem … That same morning they took me to what they call a part of the wall of Solomon’s temple. It forms part of the southern wall of the mosque of Omar, and is evidently older than the rest, the stones being much larger, measuring nine or ten feet long; and I saw that day, as other travellers may still see every Friday in the year, all the Jews in Jerusalem clothed in their best raiment, winding through the narrow streets of their quarter; and under the hallowed wall, with the sacred volume in their hands, singing, in the language in which they were written, the Songs of Solomon and the Psalms of David. White-bearded old men and smooth-cheeked boys were leaning over the same book; and Jewish maidens, in their long white robes, were standing with their faces against the wall, and praying through cracks and crevices….[A]nd now, as the Mussulman lords it over the place where the temple stood, and the Jews are not permitted to enter, they endeavour to insinuate their prayers through the crevices in the wall, that thus they may rise from the Throne of Grace. The tradition is consistent, and serves to illustrate the consistency with which the Israelites adhere to the externals of their faith.…. At about nine o’clock the next morning I was with [the Gibraltar Jew, the richest Israelite in Jerusalem”], and in a few moments we were sitting in the highest seats in the synagogue, at the foot of Mount Zion. My old friend the rabbi was in the desk, reading to a small remnant to the Israelites the same law which had been read to their fathers on the same spot ever since their fathers came out of the land of Egypt. And there they sat, where their fathers had sat before them … the feeble remnant of a mighty people; there was sternness in their faces, but in their hearts a spirit of patient endurance, and a firm and settled resolution to die and be buried under the shadow of their fallen temple.…. [As] I could not understand the words of exhortation which fell from the lips of the preacher it was not altogether unnatural that I should turn from the rough-bearded sons of Abraham to the smooth faces of their wives and daughters. Since I left Europe, I had not been in an apartment where the women sat with their faces uncovered; and … I saw many a dark-eyed Jewess who appeared well worthy of my gaze…The service over, we stopped for a moment to look at the synagogue, which was a new building, with nothing about it that was peculiar or interesting. It had no gold or silver ornaments; and the sacred scroll, the table of the Law, contained in the holy of holies, was all that the pride of the Jew could show. My friend, however, did not put his own light under a bushel; for, telling me the amount he had himself contributed to the building, he conducted me on to a room bought at his own expense in the schoolroom, with a stone in the front wall recording his name and generosity.We then returned to his home [for dinner]… He was a man about fifty-five, born in Gibraltar to the same abject poverty which is the lot of most of his nation. In his youth he had been fortunate in his little dealings, and had been … an enterprising man; for he had twice made a voyage to England, and was so successful and liked the country so much that he always called himself an Englishman. Having … become very rich, he gratified the darling wish of his heart by coming to Jerusalem, to die and be buried with his fathers in the Valley of Jehoshaphat. But this holy purpose did not make him undervalue the importance of life, and the advantages of being a great man now….It was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. The command to do no work on the Sabbath day … at first gave me some uneasiness about my dinner; but my host, with great self-complacency, relieved me from all apprehensions, by describing the admirable contrivance he had invented for reconciling appetite and duty – an oven, heated the night before to such a degree that the process of cooking was continued during the night, and the dishes were ready when wanted the next day……. I set out for Jaffa, the ancient Joppa…. About three hours from Jerusalem we came to the village of Abougos, the chief of the most powerful families of Fellahs in the Holy Land. Nearly all his life he had been in arms against the government, and his name was known among all the Christians in the East as the robber of the pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre….
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