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23 November 2008

"A Land without a People"? Palestine in 1880

Scene from 1910 in one of several German (Christian) settlements in Palestine, Sarona, established 1871. The Germans were the first to bring modern agricultural techniques and large-scale reforestation to Palestine. Many were deported to Australia during World War II, and the last mayor of Sarona, Gotthilf Wagner, was ambushed and shot to death by Zionists in 1946. What used to be Sarona is now in the middle of Tel Aviv.

Zionist Jews like to pretend that Palestine was relatively unpopulated and/or barren prior to their arrival and seizure of the territory. Some of them also like to claim that Jerusalem was already a Jewish city in the 19th century. I am offering this information from a 19th century source as a check on that propaganda.

In these passages Dr. William M. Thomson, an elderly Christian missionary, discusses some of the highly productive farming communities that existed in Palestine long before the Zionist takeover wherein it has been claimed that the Jews "made the desert bloom." Palestine was already quite fertile where, as Thomson observes, an underground "river of vast breadth" seems to flow, not realizing that this underground "river" was actually a system of irrigation tunnels left by the Persian Empire.

Thomson also mentions that Bedouins inhabited significant portions of "the Holy Land" but unlike the industrious Philistines (i.e. Palestinians) of Jaffa and Gaza he does not find much to praise in them; yet even they are evidence that the land was not uninhabited.

Oddly, Thomson repeatedly waxes romantic amid observation of the Palestinians in mundane tasks, viewing through a Biblical lens and thinking, this is how it must have been in Biblical times, but when he comes to the modern Jews living in Jerusalem he is totally unimpressed. His impression of them is both unattractive and un-Biblical. He has to contrive rationales to continue believing that they really are the heroes of his favorite story-book.

I think that it may be a mistake on Thomson's part to try to name a cause for the gloomy demeanor of the Jews that he saw at Jerusalem. We have plenty of gloomy Jews in the USA today, and some that look like death warmed over even when nothing is particularly wrong. For some people gloom is the normal mode; Jewish negativity is proverbial. The poverty-stricken appearance of those 19th century Jews may be misleading too, if it is true that Jews cultivated the habit of appearing as paupers no matter how much wealth they accumulated.

Thomson estimated that Jews constituted only 40% of the population of Jerusalem (10,000 out of 25,000) in 1880, even after several decades of rapid increase due to the arrival of Ashkenazim from Europe. The fact that there were some Jews in Jerusalem in the 19th century by no means proves that it was a Jewish city; much less does it imply that Palestine in general belonged to Jews. Thomson mentions encountering Jews only in and near Jerusalem, and by the Dead Sea, where he saw encamped "Muhammedans, Druses, Maronites, Catholics, Greeks, Armenians, Copts, Syrians, Jews, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and infidels, in one vast congregation (p.353)."

Selected passages from
by William M. Thomson, D. D. (Forty-five years a missionary in Syria and Palestine)

Who made the desert bloom? The ancient Persian irrigation system at Jaffa

Our position is not only novel but picturesque, and extremely pleasant. Notwithstanding all I had heard and read about these gardens, I am surprised at their extent. From the roof of the house the eye wanders over a veritable wilderness of luxuriant vegetation, apparently without limits, and certainly very beautiful.

Jaffa is famed in modern times for her gardens and orchards of delicious fruit more than for anything else. They are quite extensive, flourishing, and profitable, but their very existence depends upon the fact that water to any amount can be procured in every garden, and at a moderate depth. The entire plain seems to cover a river of vast breadth, percolating through the sand en route to the sea. Hundreds of Persian water-wheels, working night and day, produce no sensible diminution, and this inexhaustible source of wealth underlies the whole territory of the Philistines [i.e. Palestinians] down to Gaza at least, and probably much farther south, though wells have to be sunk to a great depth in many places to reach the water.

Have we any reason to believe that these Persian water-wheels were here in ancient days of Jewish history? I have been greatly interested in them, and they seem admirably adapted for the purpose intended.

Simple in construction, cheap, quickly made, soon repaired, easily worked, they raise an immense quantity of water. Many efforts have been made to introduce pumps, but they always fail and get out of repair ; and as there is no one able to mend them, they are thrown aside, and the gardener returns to his na'urah. The whole of this machinery is quickly enumerated and described. A clumsy cog-wheel, fitted to an upright post, is made to revolve horizontally by a mule attached to a sweep; this turns a similar one perpendicularly, placed at the end of a heavy beam, which has a large wide drum built into it, directly over the mouth of the well. Over this drum revolve two rough hawsers, or thick ropes, made of twigs and branches twisted together, and upon them are fastened small jars or wooden buckets. One side descends while the other rises, carrying the small buckets with them ; those descending empty, those ascending full, and as they pass over the top they discharge into a trough which conveys the water to the cistern. The length of these hawsers and the number of the buckets depend, of course, upon the depth of the well, for the buckets are fastened on the hawser about two feet apart. The depth of wells in Jaffa varies from ten to forty feet. If the mule or camel turns the wheel rapidly, which he rarely does, a bucket with about two gallons of water will be carried over the top of it and discharged into the trough every second ; and it must be a good pump that will steadily do as much. The hawser is made of twigs, generally of myrtle, not merely because it is cheap and easily plaited by the gardener himself, but because its extreme roughness prevents it from slipping round on the wheel, as an ordinary rope would do, and thus fail to carry up the loaded buckets.

There are other kinds of water-wheels in this country. The shaduf, so conspicuous on the Nile, is nowhere to be seen in Palestine, but the well-sweep and bucket are used in many places ; and I once saw an Egyptian working an apparatus much like the shaduf on the shore of the lake a little north of the city of Tiberias.

Another method is common in this land of Philistia, which I have also seen on the plains of Central Syria. A large buffalo-skin is so attached to cords that, when let down into the well, it opens and is instantly filled, and, being drawn up, it closes so as to retain the water. The rope by which it is hoisted to the top works over a wheel, and is drawn by oxen, mules, or camels, that walk directly from the well to the length of the rope, and then return, only to repeat the operation until a sufficient quantity of water is raised. This, also, is a very successful mode of drawing water.

The wheel and bucket, of different sorts and sizes, are much used where the water is near the surface, and also along rapid rivers. For shallow wells merely a wheel is used, whose diameter equals the desired elevation of the water. The rim of this wheel is large, hollow, and divided into compartments answering the place of buckets. A hole near the top of each bucket allows it to fill, as that part of the rim, in revolving, dips under the water. This, of course, will be discharged into the trough when the bucket begins to descend, and thus a constant succession of streams falls into the cistern. The wheel itself is turned by oxen, or mules, or camels.

This system of wheels is seen on a grand scale at Hums, Hamath, and all along the Orontes. The wheels there are of enormous size. The diameter of some of those at Hamath is eighty or ninety feet. Small paddles are attached to the rim, and the stream is turned upon them by a low dam with sufficient force to carry the huge wheel around with all its load of ascending buckets. These immense wheels are driven by the river itself; and the water, carried up to the required height, is sufficient to irrigate the extensive gardens. There is, perhaps, no hydraulic machinery in use by which so much water is raised to so great an elevation at so small an expense. Certainly I have seen none so picturesque or so musical. These wheels, with their enormous loads, slowly revolve on their groaning axles, all day and all night, each one singing a different tune, with every imaginable variation of tone, sobs, sighs, shrieks, and groans — loud, louder, loudest, down to the bottom of the gamut — a concert wholly unique and half infernal in the night, which, heard once, will never be forgotten.


The fruits of Jaffa are the same as those of Sidon, but with certain variations in their character. Sidon has the best bananas, Jaffa furnishes the best pomegranates. The oranges of Sidon are more juicy and of a richer flavor than those of Jaffa ; but the latter are FRUITS OF JAFFA. 23 larger, hang on the trees much larger, hang on the trees much later, and will bear to be shipped to distant regions. They are, therefore, more valuable to the producer. It is here that you see in perfection fragrant blossoms encircling golden fruit. In March and April these Jaffa gardens are indeed enchanting. The air is overloaded with the mingled perfume of orange, lemon, apple, apricot, quince, plum, and china trees in blossom. The people then frequent the biarah, sit on mats beneath the grateful shade, sip coffee, smoke the nargileh, sing, converse, or sleep, as best suits their individual idiosyncrasies, till evening, when they slowly return to their homes in the city. To us of the restless West this way of making kaif us of the restless West this way of making kaif soon wearies by its slumberous monotony, but it is elysium to the Oriental.

Are these orchards remunerative in a pecuniary point of view ?

I am informed that they yield ten per cent, on the capital invested, clear of all expense. Our friend Mr. Murad tells me that a biarah which costs 100,000 piastres will produce annually 15,000; but 5000 of this must be expended in irrigation, ploughing, planting, and manuring. This allows the proprietor 10,000 piastres, which is a fair profit on capital invested in agricultural pursuits.

The Friendly People of Fertile Gaza

The first time I came into this region I was agreeably surprised to find it neither flat nor barren, nor in any way resembling a sandy desert, as I had been led to expect from reading the narrative of Philip's ride through it with the eunuch. From the distant mountains it indeed has the appearance of a level plain, but the view is so vast that even very considerable hills are lost to the eye. In reality, Philistia closely resembles in appearance some of the rolling prairies of the Mississippi Valley. The country is equally lovely, and no less fertile. I am inclined to believe that, owing to something in the nature of the soil, or of the climate, or both, the sources of its fertility are even more inexhaustible than in most parts of our own land. Without manure, and with a style of ploughing and general culture which would secure nothing but failure in other countries, this vast plain continues to produce splendid crops every year, and this, too, be it remembered, after forty centuries of such tillage.

Here we are at el Muntar. I have brought you to the top of this high tell, not to honor the mukam of the saint, nor because this is the "hill that is before Hebron," to which Samson carried the gate of Gaza — though the tradition is probably correct, since it is in the proper direction — but because from it there is a fine view, stretching far away to the south-east, even to the ridge that overshadows el Khulil, as the city of Abraham is now called. Nothing more than this can be intended by "the hill before Hebron," for the town itself is at least thirty miles off, and behind lofty mountains. Be this as it may, I know no one stand-point from which you can survey so much of old Philistia as from this Muntar. We are to pass through the central part eastwards to-day, and can study it at our leisure ; but the southern region, quite to the desert, is best seen from here. I once came from er Ruhaibeh, spending the night on the bank of Nahr es Suny, where it unites with Wady es Seba', which comes down from Beer-sheba. The rolling plain from that wady northwards to Gaza was then green and flowery as a meadow, and much of it clothed with wheat ; but there is not a village along the entire route, and all the grain belonged to tent-dwelling Arabs. We passed many of their encampments, where every kind of work common in ordinary villages was in active operation, and carried on with the same sort of implements. There were, however, as was natural, many more camels and larger flocks than ordinary peasants possess ; and these formed a very striking feature in this agricultural tableau. All around us were examples of primitive pastoral life, like those seen on this same plain, I suppose, in the days of Abraham and Isaac. Men, women, and children, clad in garments, and following employments, pastoral and agricultural, like those of the patriarchs. It carried one back, as by enchantment, to the tents pitched in the valley of Gerar in the days of those venerable ancestors of God's chosen people.

These pastoral Arabs present a very interesting study. Unlike the wandering Bedawin, their cousins, they are permanently settled on this plain along the seaboard ; and their manner of life must closely resemble that of the Philistines with whom the patriarchs associated. We were passing through their encampments for several hours, and were everywhere welcomed as friends. The women were not veiled, nor was there any objection made to our visiting their tents, and inspecting their furniture, their employments, and even their garments. They were far from idle ; but, as the harvest had not yet commenced, they were chiefly occupied with their flocks and herds, and in the manufacture of cheese and butter. Some of the women were spinning goat's-hair into strands, to be woven into coarse black material for tent-coverings, rugs, and sacks for the grain. Their spindle was of the most simple kind, being often merely a stone, which they dexterously twirled around until the strand was sufficiently twisted. They can weave without any loom. The threads of the warp are stretched upon the ground, and made fast at either end to a stout stick ; and the threads of the woof are passed through with the hand, and pressed back into position by a rude wooden comb.

Boys and girls were scattered over the plain, watching the flocks to prevent them from trespassing upon the wheat-fields. From every camp broad and well-trodden paths led across the plain to the wells, where only the flocks are watered ; and I noticed that many of these paths turned towards the sea-shore, probably because water is there found at less depth than in the interior. These wells are the places of public resort, and there one can see and study to the best advantage the appearance, manners, customs, and costumes of these modern Philistines. There they gather, with all their belongings, in groups picturesque and suggestive to the traveller and to the eye and imagination of the artist.

German Colonists at Sarona
(pp. 45-49)

We have a long detour to make [on the route from Jaffa to Caesarea], and I hope we shall find the tents pitched and dinner awaiting when we reach our camp in the evening. For what special purpose is this detour? To obtain a general view of the northern part of the plain of Sharon, and to visit the fountain-head of the river 'Aujeh at er Ras, which has recently become a competitor with Kefr Saba for the honor of being the site of Antipatris.

Here, on our right, is a suburb evidently modern, and the houses have a familiar appearance, not unlike those in our own land.

They are foreign, and the people who inhabit them are also foreign, and connected mostly with the German colony through which we shall pass in about an hour's time. This nearest and most conspicuous house is the residence of our present consular representative, Mr. Hardegg ; and near it is the girls' school, and the home of Mrs. Hay and her invalid sister, Miss Baldwin, who conduct it. For similar benevolent purposes, that large and prominent edifice on the elevated ridge east of the city has been erected by Miss Arnott, an energetic and devoted lady from Scotland. May their self-denying work be crowned with abundant success.

Where is to be the terminus of the much-talked-of railroad to Jerusalem ?

You noticed a large building on our right, before we passed this suburb ; that is to be the first station, and it is the only part of the enterprise that has hitherto been achieved.

Or ever will be, I suppose. I cannot associate Joppa and the Holy City with a modern railway, even in imagination.

It would be unwise to pronounce almost any projected enterprise impossible in these days. And since there are no great engineering obstacles to overcome between Jaffa and Jerusalem, a railroad could soon be built, were there any adequate demand for it, or travel and traffic to support it. [The railroad from Jaffa (a.k.a Joppa) to Jerusalem was completed in 1892.] When I was here a few years ago, there was some talk of excavating a harbor along the low ground extending into the gardens eastward from that solitary station-house. It could be made, no doubt ; and when the great Hebrew capitalists of the world purchase Palestine from the Sultan, and restore it to the Jews, it very likely will be.

If not till then, the prospect is dim and distant enough.

You need not be too confident even of that. Some such project is persistently kept before the public by letters, essays, pamphlets, and lectures, premillennial and others. And it is a fact not to be ignored, that many intelligent people, both in Europe and America, are now greatly interested in this subject, and in this country with direct reference to such a consummation. Things more strange have happened in this land, and in the world at large, than that the Rothschilds, the Montefiores, and their compeers in colossal wealth, should purchase Palestine; and so far as the bankrupt government of the Sultan is concerned, the best use that could be made of this country would be to sell it. Now let us dismiss this subject, with the remark that although it is impossible to be in Palestine at the present day without having these and kindred topics thrust upon our attention, yet we need not dwell upon them, nor allow them to interfere with our special purposes.

We are continually meeting groups of donkeys, with baskets swinging on either side, and filled with the largest, brightest oranges I ever saw. They are to be sent by sea to foreign parts, I suppose, for there can be no local demand for such quantities of fruit.

No doubt; for this is but one of the many similar roads that converge from all parts of these gardens towards a common centre about the entrance into the city.

How extensive are the gardens?

The entire length, from north to south, is about seven miles, the average breadth one mile and a half, and the variety and quantity of fruit produced is quite surprising. Did you ever compare the list of modern fruits with those mentioned in the Bible ?

I have never had the specific information necessary for such a comparison.

No better data can be found in the country than those furnished by these gardens of Jaffa, and we may make the comparison here and now. The result will probably disappoint you. Those mentioned by the sacred writers, such as olives and figs, dates and apples, pomegranates and grapes, are all here; while the fruits that are the life and glory of these gardens — the orange, the lemon, the apricot, the peach, the pear, the plum, the quince, and the banana — do not appear at all on the Biblical list. In like manner the number and variety of berries, of vegetables, of nuts, and of flowers known and valued in our times, far exceed those of the ancients.

How do you account for the great superiority of the modern?

By the supposition that these fruits are not indigenous products of this country, but were brought into it from foreign lands, in connection with the Persian, Greek, and Roman empires, and, of course, after the canon even of the New Testament was closed. Many of the names in common use among the Arab peasants are neither Hebrew nor Arabic, and not a few of them are evidently Persian. It was not until after the Hebrew isolation had given place to general intercourse with distant lands that the fruits and vegetables in question were introduced into this country.

What place is this which we are laboriously approaching through this shifting sand ?

It is the German colony, and bears the appropriate name of Sarona. The situation is high, and ought to be healthy. The houses, erected in the midst of pleasant gardens, with ample space around them, and painted white, have a very home-like and inviting appearance.

It is surprising to find veritable Germans upon this plain of Sharon. Who are they, and under whose auspices have they been led to emigrate to this lonely spot?

The motive or impulse is a religious one, and the parent society, called The Temple, has its head-quarters in Germany, I believe at Stuttgard. Though I have had their published articles of faith kindly sent me by Herr Hardegg, the head of a similar colony located at the foot of Carmel, near Haifa, I cannot easily give a summary of them. Their assumed title, The Temple, intimates the belief that they are to found some sort of a spiritual temple in the Holy Land. So far as I know, they are plain, honest, hard-working people. Amongst them are carpenters, masons, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and one or more representatives of nearly every other trade or profession in civilized life. The colony numbers, all told — men, women, and children — about two hundred souls. Herr Hoffman is the presiding elder of the little community; but I believe there are no recognized clergy amongst them, and no special importance is attached to the common ordinances of the Christian Church. The site occupied by that part of the colony near the city belonged originally to an American company, under the control of a Mr. Adams, which was mismanaged, and ended disastrously many years ago. But peace to Sarona and its kind-hearted people! It is full two hours' ride to er Ras, across the wide and fertile plain of Sharon, and we must push on.

As there are very few villages on this part of the plain, I suppose it must be unhealthy.

All along the river 'Aujeh, which you see below us on our left, malarial fevers are very common during the months of summer and autumn; and those who cultivate the land locate their homes at a distance — generally on the lower slopes of the mountains. You can see them dotting the foot-hills of Judaea far away to the south, and northward also, along the picturesque declivities of Samaria. That dilapidated castle coming into view on our left marks the site of er Ras, and to visit it we have come thus far out of our way.

What is it, or was it, and for what distinguished ?

The castle was called Mirabel by the Crusaders, and built, doubtless, to command the fountain and the road.

The Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem as of 1880
(p. 544)

Re-entering the city, I passed down eastwards from Zion Gate through the Jewish quarter, or Haret el Yehud. It is the most squalid part of the city, and the inhabitants make no effort to clean their filthy lanes and streets. I was in search of the new synagogue, which, standing on the eastern brow of Zion, directly fronting the Haram area, is quite a conspicuous object. It is a large
square building with a lofty dome, but without the least pretensions to architectural adornment on the outside, and with little to relieve the severe simplicity of the interior except some texts in Hebrew painted upon the walls.

It is a comparatively new edifice, and, therefore, has a fresh and cheerful appearance, in marked contrast to the wretched hovels around it. The [recently immigrated] Ashkenazim, to whom it belongs, are chiefly of German and Polish origin, and are under the protection of their several consular agents. The Sephardim, though mostly from Spain and Portugal, and speaking a corrupt Spanish, are, nevertheless Turkish subjects, and the only Jewish community recognized by the Government. They have their synagogue in that vicinity, and there are other smaller ones in different parts of Haret el Yehud: but none of them are specially attractive.

I have a vivid recollection of my first visit to one of these synagogues, many years ago. The room had nothing in or about it like any other place of worship I ever entered, and the congregation was in character and keeping with the place. I never saw such an assemblage of old, pale, and woe-begone countenances.

The behavior of the worshippers was very peculiar and somewhat ridiculous. The men, with broad-brimmed hats, or whatever other head-dress they possessed, were reading or muttering prayers, and while doing so they twisted and jerked and wriggled about incessantly, and at times with great vehemence, that "all their bones should praise the Lord," as one of them explained the matter to me. When they began what was understood to be singing, it was the most outrageous concert of harsh nasal sounds I ever heard. It was Hebrew, too; but if David thus "praised the Lord," I should never have thought of calling him the sweet singer of Israel.

And yet, I suppose, it was much after this fashion that he and all his band of trained musicians did actually celebrate the praises of the Most High. You hear the same nasal twang and grating gutturals in the singing of every denomination throughout the East. The Orientals know nothing of harmony, and cannot appreciate it when heard, but they are often spellbound, or wrought up to transports of ecstasy, by this style of music ; and no doubt the Temple service, performed by those trained for it, stirred the deepest fountains of feeling in the vast assemblies of Israel gathered at Jerusalem on their great feasts.

There is something inexpressibly sad in the features, deportment, and costume of these children of Abraham, as they grope about the ruins of their once joyous city.

This is partly owing to the fact that many of them have been great sinners elsewhere, and have come up here from all countries whither the Lord hath driven them, to purge away their guilt by abstinence, mortification, and devotion ; then to die, and be buried as near the Holy City as possible. This also accounts for the ever-increasing multitude of their graves, which are gradually covering the side of Olivet. The Jews come to Jerusalem to die ; and a community gathered for that specific purpose will not be particularly gay, or very careful about appearances.

In their Biblical and historical relations to the Holy City, the Jews form the most interesting class of her mingled population: but it is difficult for a stranger, while wandering amongst their wretched habitations, to have any other feeling in regard to them than that of compassion. They are miserably poor, and almost wholly dependent upon their coreligionists in Europe for their support. All their public buildings and charitable institutions have been established and are supported by the liberality of Sir Moses Montefiore, Baron Rothschild, and other wealthy Hebrews in distant countries.

Population and Demographics of Jerusalem as of 1880
(p. 559)

I found it impossible to ascertain the number of the present inhabitants of the city, some estimating it at sixteen thousand, others as high as thirty-five thousand. You are aware that the Turkish Government does not take any reliable census, and hence all statements founded upon its estimates must be mere approximations. It is certain, however, that the population of Jerusalem is steadily, though not rapidly, increasing. My own acquaintance with the city extends over nearly half a century, and during that long period I suppose the population has doubled — that is, from twelve thousand in 1833 to something more than twenty-five thousand at the present day. The Jews have increased more than any other class, and probably amount, in round numbers, to ten thousand, the Moslems to eight or nine thousand, and the Christians of all sects to six or seven thousand. This gives a total population of over twenty-five thousand.

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