Exactly 150 years ago today, Mark Twain made an unusual purchase for his mother at a Jerusalem book shop. He was on a five month expedition to Europe and the Mideast with a church group from Brooklyn, New York. The humorist’s chronicles from that trip not only put him on the literary map making him rich and famous, they also served as an important testimony as to the dismal state of affairs in Palestine as of September, 1867.
A natural skeptic, Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, was not taken by the splendor of the Holy Land. He wrote sarcastically, if not irreverently, about the region’s legendary religious sites. The Sea of Galilee was, "a solemn, sailless, tintless lake, as unpoetical as any bath-tub on earth" The Church of the Nativity was, “tricked out in the usual tasteless style observable in all the holy places of Palestine."
Throughout his writings which he later published in what became his top best seller, "Innocents Abroad," Twain explicitly states that the area was desolate and devoid of inhabitants. His group entered Palestine from the north, passing through such sites as the Sea of Galilee, the Banias, Nazareth, Jenin, and Nablus.
Riding on horseback through the Jezreel Valley, Twain observed, "There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent — not for 30 miles in either direction. There are two or three small clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride 10 miles, hereabouts, and not see 10 human beings."
He continues, "Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince . . . Can the cure of the Deity beautify a land?"
Mark Twain was not wrong to write 150 years ago, that "Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies." In fact, the Jewish tradition understands that the desecration of Jerusalem is in fact all according to the divine plan, as I explain in an article in the Jerusalem Post.
However, that was all about to change.
In the 1880’s, Jews from Europe began looking eastwards in order to re-establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. They began organizing politically and lobbied their governments to support the historical return of the people of Israel to the land of Israel.
Half a century after Twain’s visit, England issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917 recognizing Britain's support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was formed and the real flourishing of the land began in earnest.
The land with only several thousand inhabitants that Mark Twain visited is now home to 8.7 million residents. The region which sat in "sackcloth and ashes" 150 years ago is now lush and green and exports agriculture all over the world.
One thing that is most interesting from Twain’s expedition, is that while he was in Jerusalem, he purchased a most unusual gift for his mother: a Bible.
The King James Bible was an ironic choice of a gift from the man who famously quipped, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." Nevertheless, on September 24, 1867, Twain ordered his mother the holy scripture bound in olive wood as a souvenir from his visit to Palestine.
"Put on it this inscription: 'Mrs. Jane Clemens — from her son — Mount Calvary, Sept 24, 1867.'" Put "Jerusalem" around on it loose, somewhere, in Hebrew," he wrote to the bookseller.
If Mark Twain visited Jerusalem today, he would not believe his own eyes. But then again, as the old humorist himself wrote, "You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus."
Rabbi Weisz is the director of Israel365, which connects 2 million people to Israel every month. He founded the I365 newsletter, is publisher of Breaking Israel News, and editor of The Israel Bible. He lives with his family in Ramat Beit Shemesh. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.
© 2021 Newsmax. All rights reserved.