American Travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th Century

August 31, 2017
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The vision of the Holy Land in 19th-century America was shaped by religious and cultural sentiment, and influenced by the experiences of those groups who traveled there: missionaries, pilgrims and tourists, explorers, settlers, and consular officers, all of whom had different motives for their journey and reports.

Ottoman Palestine held an allure for American travelers. Whether their motivation was religious; scientific, such as Edward Robinson whose visits opened the field of biblical archeology; or curiosity, like Mark Twain’s travels through Palestine, which unexpectedly launched his career as a writer, all who made the journey were taken unaware by the realities of what they encountered on the ground.


In June of 1867 American writer and humorist, Mark Twain embarked on what he called a great pleasure cruise aboard the steamship Quaker City. His travel companions, religious pilgrims and wealthy tourists, their ultimate destination, the Holy land. So began a new age of popular travel to Palestine as American tourists set out to experience the story places of the Bible for themselves. But what they found was often not what they expected. American travelers were forced to reconcile the stark reality of Ottoman controlled Palestine with our sentimental expectations of the Holy land.

Few places on earth held as strong a grip on the imaginations of 19th century Americans as Palestine. American Protestants felt a deep connection to the Holy land they knew so well from biblical stories. Sacred sites at once familiar and mysterious, tugged at American hearts and minds. But the levant at the turn of the century was Terra incognita. Little visited and largely undocumented by the West. Political upheaval would soon bring change.

Napoleon’s campaign to rest Palestine from the Turks in 1799, led to the creation of the first modern Holy land maps. Egyptian occupation from 1831 to 1841 drew Western political attention. With the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Turkey in 1832, the door to Palestine was opened to the West. Among the first to journey to the Holy land were missionaries, religious pilgrims, biblical scholars, and archeologists.

Motivated by religious zeal and biblical scholarship, these early visitors published detailed accounts of their experiences. Their narratives peaked American curiosity and shaped popular notions about the land and its religious, historic and cultural significance. American theologian and biblical geographer, Edward Robinson traveled to the Holy land in 1838 to make the first scientific survey of biblical sites. His conclusions, a combination of science and sentiment, would lay the foundation for modern biblical archeology and inspire future exploration. Writers and artists like Scottish painter David Roberts also traveled to the region returning with emotional interpretations of the land and its people. Robert sumptuous sketches and lithographs reinforced American’s idealized notions of biblical landscapes. By mid century American interest in foreign travel had become a passion. The advent of steam powered ships and trains made travel to the Holy land possible for a larger audience of Americans.

Writer Herman Melville visited Palestine in 1856 and found his naive expectations shattered by its bleak reality. His experience would inspire Chloral a poem and pilgrimage in the Holy land. After the civil war, steam ships were recommissioned for the tourist trade and expeditions for wealthy tourists were organized. Mark Twain’s unprecedented Holy land excursion signaled a new era of popular travel to the Levant. Twain, working for a San Francisco newspaper chronicled his four months journey via dispatches back to America.

His characterizations of the Holy land were blunt and irreverent. He described the region as “The most hopeless, dreary and heartbroken piece of territory out of Arizona.” With biting satire, he marked the emotional reactions of his travel companions and at times himself, to Holy sites. When published as the innocence abroad, Twain’s Travelogue became the most influential book on Holy land travel in America and launched his celebrity as a social satirist. Americans embraced his stories and were eager to follow his footsteps to the East. Before the century was out, American Holy land travelers would number in the thousands.

Join the 19th century American travelers on their journeys to the Holy land. Read accounts by explorers, generals, writers, and former and future presidents who made the journey and whose experiences and reactions are as emotional and complex as the history of the land itself.