Palestinian Christmas over 100 years ago

Palestinian Christmas over 100 years ago David Robert's vision of Jerusalem, 1824


Just a century ago, the firm of Karl Baedeker in Leipzig issued a new edition of their guide to Palestine and Syria.

I have been looking through this stout, but easily handled little volume of over 400 pages, bound in bright red cloth, hoping to catch glimpses of the Holy Land as it was at Christmas time 100 years ago under Turkish rule, before the appalling disasters of the Great War altered the world forever; before the final fall of the Turkish Empire and the emergence of the troubled Levantine states that to this day continue to disturb the tranquility of the region and the peace of the world.

Baedeker’s guides were the most famous guides of their day, and the content is often drawn upon by scholars because of its accurate information.

While travel guides were not new, Baedeker’s innovation was to include very specific details of transportation, accommodation, prices, what to see in museums, and so forth. The edition I have been reading is in fact the fifth edition of the guide to Syria and Palestine.

The guide had first appeared in German in 1875. The writer was Dr Albert Socin, though it is Karl Baedeker’s name that appears on the title page — even though he had died in 1859. The 1912 edition was revised in detail by a resident of Jerusalem, Dr Emmanuel Benzinger.

These dates are significant, for the advent of steam ships and trains had made both Egypt, to which Baedeker also provided a handbook, and beyond that the Holy Land, easily accessible.

The difference was that Egypt was under British influence and later control. Palestine was then still part of the dominions of the Sublime Porte, the Turkish emperor at Istanbul.

However, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem had been the object of pilgrims since the middle ages and increasingly so in the late 19th Century.

The preliminary pages of Baedeker provide advice in general for the tourist, or rather the traveller or even the explorer, for the conditions across this wide territory were not safe enough in most places in 1912 for mere tourism.

The guide comments on bed bugs, water drinking, passports, the hospitality of desert tribes; but adds that the traveller needed to go armed in places nearer the towns which were beset by bandits. Guns could not be imported, however; you had to buy your pistols and rifles on the spot.

Travellers are warned to employ only well recommended dragomans to show them round — some are listed by name — the rest were largely in league with the merchants and hotels to defraud the visitor.

The historical details these local guides provided about the sacred places were not to be relied on — you were better off with Baedeker.

Hotels were nearly non-existent; instead one is counseled to stay where one could in the hostels run by the Italian and Spanish Franciscans.

Those run by Oriental Christians would not be up to the standards expected by Europeans and Americans.

Political history

But what sort of place was Palestine then? Many travellers carried with them vague notions of the past derived from the Bible.

The life they saw in Palestine at the turn of the 19th Century was carried back into their realisations of what the Holy Land had been like at the time of Jesus — one can see the same thing in the magnificent paintings of J.J. Tissot done on the spot at this time.

Archaeologists and historians might complain about this, but no-one listed. In widely circulated images, Jesus was dressed, not as a 1st Century Jew, but a 19th Century Arab.

Six years before, in 1906, a British writer on the Holy Land, having described the broken nature of the landscape, divided between the seaside plains and the hill country of the interior, added: ”This brokenness of the land, and especially this mixture of hill and plain, have obvious effects on the history of Palestine. She has always been a land of petty populations.”

Indeed, the Israel of antiquity had been largely confined to the hill country; the plains were in the hands of other nations such as the Philistines and the Canaanites. Other territories to the east and north were only held fitfully.

”There was only one Jewish prince who united Palestine under his sway, Alexander Janaeus,” the writer claimed, ”and he only for a year or two.”

Through that hill country, ancient roads connected the Holy Places of the New Testament, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem. These were the ways that modern pilgrims went, after landing at Jaffa.

And this is the route we will follow with the aid of Baedeker.


The guide devotes some 80 pages to Jerusalem and its environs, an indication of its prime importance, not only in biblical history, but in the minds of the pilgrim and tourist.

The political arrangements of the Turkish Empire are bewildering to the modern mind, an array of petty little divisions, which aided the Sublime Porte’s minions and tax collectors to both divide and rule, and to farm the taxes.

Jerusalem had become famous, not because of its position, but in spite of it. In 1912, it was the capital of the independent sanjak of El-Kuds, the Arab name for Jerusalem; independent in the sense that it had no overlord except the Sublime Porte, far away in Istanbul, to whom the local ruler answered directly.

The city was quartered then between the Muslims, who held to the streets around the Dome of the Rock to the east; the Christians (divided into 11 different groups), the Armenians to the west and the Jews in the south-east.

In the greater region of the mutesarrif, there were 25,332 Muslims, just over 44,000 Christians, and a mere 39,866 Jews, and some 6,000 ”foreigners”, according to a census in 1892. All these had representatives on the city council.

By 1912, things had changed. There were by then nearly 40,000 Jews in the city of Jerusalem alone, an indication of how their numbers had risen sharply in two decades with emigration from Europe, largely from Russia. Outside the city they were still few.

The Dome of the Rock, built by tradition on the foundations of the Temple, was held sacred by the Muslims because of the mosque there. All the Christian monuments and shrines were to be found largely in the Christian and Armenian quarters. The most important of these was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Christian sites of the Passion and Death of Christ were largely traditional, but had all be identified at quite an early date, and had been recognised by the state after the time of Constantine.

St Helena, the emperor’s mother, had by tradition discovered, thanks to a vision, the site of the Crucifixion.

But in the course of the 19th Century the new explorers, many of them evangelical Protestants, had re-examined these matters.

It has been claimed that between 1840 and 1876 no less than 16 theories were put forward for the site of the Crucifixion.

The burial place of Jesus was also disputed. The archaeologist of the Palestine Exploration Fund Lieut-Col Claude Conder identified a site outside the city to the north as the real tomb.

Only a short distance away, General Gordon (he of Khartoum fame) identified another tomb as the true site.

”Gordon’s Garden Tomb” is much visited today by American evangelicals, who prefer it to the shrine at the Holy Sepulchre church.

Certainly it is a quiet, emotive place, which has influenced many artists in their rendering of the Resurrection. However, such dissensions in Jerusalem reflected the wider divisions of Christianity — the hope of Jesus that ”you may be one” was sadly unavailing.

The physical state of Jerusalem in 1912 left much to be desired. Sanitation was not what many Europeans might have hoped for in the crowded tenements of the ancient city.

But there was a great contrast between the hotels they stayed in and the poorer quarters of the city.

Baedeker is sharp about this: ”The dirty Jewish quarter contains numerous synagogues, hucksters booths, and taverns, but offers no object of interest to the traveller.”

However, the Jewish population itself was, in fact, of great interest. It was divided too. There were the original Jews, Sephardic by custom, some who had been there from earlier times, others who had come from Spain and Portugal in 1492 when the Jews there were expelled.

Then there was the rising population of Ashkenazi Jews from Russian and from the Russian territories of Poland and Eastern Europe. These were very poor.

Then there were the Bokharan Jews, from Central Asia and of Mongolian race, who were wealthy. The poorest of the poor Jews were those from the Yemen — who not being Europeans had no share in the funds sent from Europe by Jewish settlement societies there.

(These social divisions still exist, now amplified by the arrivals in recent times of more Jews from Morocco and from Soviet Russia, and underline the politics of modern Israel.)

The shrines of Jerusalem were not the only attractions in 1912. Many pilgrims travelled further, to Nazareth and to Bethlehem, especially at Christmas.


Nazareth is given only three and a half pages in the guide. This suggests that for pilgrims it then had little interest. There was only one hotel, run by a German, ”plain but good and clean”.

Down to the time of Constantine, the village was occupied by Samaritans, those outcasts of the Bible. Later the population was Christian, but it suffered over the centuries.

Rebuilt by the Franks it was visited by King Louis of France. But after the Franks left, the town lost its importance.

In 1620, the Franciscans, aided by the Muslim ruler Fakhreddin, established themselves there and the place began to revive.

By 1912 there was a population of some 15,000, nearly all Muslims or Christians of one kind or another. It was a prosperous place, with farming and cattle raising.

”The inhabitants are noted for their turbulent disposition,” the guide notes. ”The Christian farmers have retained many peculiarities of costume. At festivals the women, many of whom are beautiful, wear gay embroidered jackets, and have their foreheads and breasts laden with coins.”

The main shrines were the Church of the Annunciation, the focus of most pilgrims, and the Workshop of Joseph. The ancient synagogue where Jesus had preached was now a Greek church.

Outside the town was Mary’s Well, where women could be seen constantly drawing water.

”As this is the only spring in the town, it is all but certain that the Child Jesus and his mother were once among the regular frequenters. The motley collected around the spring, especially towards evening, presents a very picturesque appearance.”


The guide gives some seven pages to the birthplace of Jesus, for it was, especially around the Christmas season of the Latin and Greek churches, the main centre of pilgrimage.

Yet it was also a poor place, with only ”a small Arab hotel, where night quarters can be obtained if necessary” — the Franciscan hostel would seem to have been preferred.

The population was about 11,000, nearly all Christians. Muslims had been expelled by the Christians in 1834, and after another insurrection in 1854 their quarter was destroyed by order of Ibraham Pasha.

By 1912, though the local Bedouin used the town as a market, only 300 Muslims lived there.

The Christians were mostly farmers, but many of them had for centuries lived by making rosaries, crosses, and other articles in wood, mother of pearl, coral, and ”stinkstone” — a mixture of lime and bitumen, which made very fragile pieces of artwork.

The little place was filled with religious institutions of all kinds, some run by the 60 resident Protestants.

The main shrines were the Church of the Nativity, by tradition built over the little cave where Jesus was born.

This identification dated back to at least Justin Martyr in the 2nd Century. Here Constantine had built a basilica, which largely remained.

There, on Christmas Day 1101, Baldwin was crowned king of the Crusader states.

At the time of the church’s restoration in 1672, the guide notes, ”the Greeks managed to obtain possession of it”.

The Latins were again admitted by the Emperor Napoleon III in 1852. The focus of pilgrims was the little subterranean Chapel of the Nativity, lighted by 32 oil lamps at that time.

Under the altar in the recess which had been the floor of the cave, a silver star was set into the stone, inscribed Jesu Christus natus est hic de Virgine Maria, around which burned 15 lamps, six belonging to the Greeks, five to the Armenians, and four to the Latins.

Beyond the Chapel of the Innocents was to found the tomb of St Jerome.

Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin from the Hebrew and Greek, died in Bethlehem in 420 — the tomb has been shown since the end of the 16th Century.

Outside the town, a little to the east, many pilgrims then made their way out to the Field of the Shepherds: ”A very old tradition makes this the spot where the angels appeared to the shepherds”, remarks the guide.

There had originally been a cistern here it seems, a likely place where the shepherds might have led their flocks to water as in the familiar words of the psalmist.

Christmas 1912

The guide provides insights into the condition of these Holy Places and of the Holy Land a century ago which still have a bearing on current affairs.

Significantly, the first efforts at the economic development in the Holy Land were made after 1868 by a German Christian sect of Templars, or ”Friends of Jerusalem”, who hoped to convert the world to their ways, starting in the places of Jesus’s own work.

”The ‘Temple’ numbers some 1,200 members in six colonies,” the guide observes, ”and has unquestionably done much to promote the colonization of the country.”

But of greater significance were the settlements or colonies of Jews also around the port of Jaffa, where already the growing of fruits and vegetable was under way, creating the resources that would transform the land in due course and provide the economic foundations for the state of Israel.

It is often argued that there were very few Arabs in Palestine at the time of the Mandate, when the Jews were promised ”a national home in Palestine”.

This is not really the case. But what the British may have had in mind when uttering those words, was not an extensive state as now, but merely a gift to the Jews of that highland stronghold to which the writer in 1906, quoted above, alluded.

They seem to have envisaged not so much a Jewish state, but a continuation under another empire of what had obtained under the Turks, a country with room for everyone, a place of ”petty populations”.

What lingers from the reading of the Baedeker guide, however, is the role of the Christians in Palestine.

Not just those of oriental descent, but the Latin incomers such as the Franciscans, the ”Custodians of the Holy Land” for the Vatican, who had arrived in the Middle Ages.

The guide admits that Christian schemes, their businesses, schools, colleges, orphanages, hospitals, their attitudes to what was required to be done to make the place livable in, had done much to transform the Holy Land over half a century. This fact is too easily forgotten today.

In 1912, the Holy Land at Christmas was at peace. Yet the reader of Baedeker can detect in hindsight just those social and political developments which were to lead to the present day conflicts that continue to disturb the towns and hills where once walked the Prince of Peace.