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An American in Palestine: Mendes I. Cohen Tours the Holy Land (6)

Posted on April 15th, 2019 by

Written by Dr. Deb Weiner. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel. 

Part VI: The Legacy of Mendes Cohen

(missed part I? Start here.)

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, c. 1870. Photo by P. Bergheim, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Cohen’s final days in Palestine were a bit subdued. For some time, he had been tracking the course of the Plague and adjusting his route accordingly. As he had explained at the start of his Middle East trip, “The mortality of the Cholera is not so great as that of the Plague: with the latter, one half or more, who take it, generally die, while in the former not more than one in four.” The dreaded disease broke out in Jerusalem toward the end of his second stay there and he decided to keep “a rigid quarantine” until his departure.[i]

He did venture out to a town near Mt. Tabor, “where is held every Monday a large fair. I arrived at it when at its height. I suppose there must have been 800 Arabs at it. They come from all parts, from miles around.” Observing the lively conversations at this public gathering place, he commented, “I dare say their politics is talked over in the same style as they are at Washington tho’ not allowed so publicly.”[ii]

Cohen probably purchased some trinkets at this fair to add to the souvenirs he collected on his travels. His notes and letters describe a varied assortment of items acquired during the journey. “I have a bottle of water of the Jordan and one of the Dead Sea, with some other little etceteras picked up at Jerusalem,” he wrote in one letter. In another, “I am getting made a few Thephilin and Mazuzahs and perhaps may have a sapher made should I return this way from Egypt.” While some keepsakes had special meaning for him as a Jew, he also collected for others, including Christian acquaintances. During a second and more leisurely visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he picked up “a fine long wax candle and a book of the service which I have in my mind to present to some of my friends whom I met at Paris and whom I am sure will appreciate its value from the circumstance of its having passed through the various stations within the church.”[iii]

But the items that Cohen gathered were far more than just the mementos of a tourist. Along the way he collected seriously and he collected well. The artifacts he purchased during his journey up the Nile River constitute the “first important American collection of Egyptian antiquities” and form the basis of the Johns Hopkins University Archaeological Collection, “one of the oldest and richest university collections of classical artifacts in the United States.”[iv] His notebook of detailed sketches and descriptions of the flora of Palestine somehow found its way onto a shelf in the Hebrew University, where it was later rediscovered and, according to Israeli botanists, appears to be the most complete record of 19th century flora of the land of Israel.[v] He also kept a study notebook featuring an alphabetical list of definitions and descriptions of the phenomena he came across. In entries such as “abraxas,” “crocodile,” “hand,” “kohl,” and “rings,” he carefully recorded the customs of the people he encountered as well as their natural surroundings.

Cohen’s letters and diary entries do not reveal him to be a particularly introspective person. It is interesting, then, that the study notebook begins with four long biblical quotes that, since he rarely quoted at length from the Bible in his journals, appear to have had special meaning for him. All are admonishments to the Israelites to not act like others, to remain a people apart. Three forbid the making of idols or graven images, “for I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 26.1). The fourth quote, from Leviticus 18.3, serves as a summation: “After the doings of the Land of Egypt wherein ye dwell, shall ye not do; and after the doings of the Land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their ordinances.”[vi]

Mendes I. Cohen returned to the United States in 1835 and though he had other occasion to travel abroad, remained thereafter a lifelong citizen of Baltimore. He served in the state legislature, became a director of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and was awarded the honorary title of Colonel because of his service at Fort McHenry. He took his place as a Jewish communal leader, serving as vice president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society for more than twenty years. In 1858 he presided over the meeting at which plans for the Hebrew Hospital of Baltimore were made. He also was a director of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum.[vii]

Upon his death in 1879 at age 83, newspaper obituaries recounted Cohen’s exploits both as Fort McHenry defender (he was the last survivor of his artillery company) and as world traveler. They emphasized as well Cohen’s religious commitments, noting his communal leadership and his penchant for private worship. Concluded the Baltimore Sun, “He was always a firm upholder of the faith of his fathers.”[viii]

The obituaries also assessed Cohen’s place in Baltimore society and did a good job of capturing his personality. “Col. Cohen was one of the oldest and most highly respected citizens of Baltimore,” stated the Evening Bulletin. He “frequently entertained his friends by describing scenes and incidents of his travels.” Although he was blind the last three years of his life, “he was almost daily on the streets, attended by a servant, and his tall and commanding figure could frequently be seen on North Charles and Baltimore streets, near the scenes of his early activity.” A man of action to the end.

~The End~

[i] Travel notes; unidentified newspaper article dated Smyrna, Nov 6, 1831 (see note 7); letter to Judith Cohen, October 2.

[ii] Letter to Judith Cohen, October 2.

[iii] Letter to brothers, March 28, 1832; letters to Judith Cohen, March 19 and 24.

If his first visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre made him feel claustrophobic, his second made him uncomfortable for other reasons. He arrived during a ceremony that featured priests parading with ritual objects, while pilgrims drew near to kiss the objects. The Turks, he wrote, “are always in attendance to preserve order . . . this they accomplish by using the whip-sticks which they used most liberally to the legs, heads, shoulders and backs of the pilgrims whose sole object” was to reach the priests, “who encouraged the people to approach at the expense of a good thrashing which they [don’t] mind receiving.” He concluded, “I remained about an hour witnessing such a scene—a disgrace to their religion.”

[iv] His nephew Mendes Cohen donated the collection to JHU after his uncle’s death. See;

[v] Conversation with Israeli botanist Ofer Cohen, July 2008, Baltimore.

[vi] Study notebook, “1829-1833: Journeys of M.I. Cohen” Folder, Box 4.

[vii] “A Prominent Hebrew Dead,” Evening Bulletin, May 7, 1879; “The Late Mendes I. Cohen—Interesting Sketch of his Life—Reminiscences, &c.,” Baltimore Sun, May 8, 1879; two unidentified newspaper obituaries, “Mendes I. Cohen” Vertical File, Jewish Museum of Maryland.

[viii] Ibid.


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An American in Palestine: Mendes I. Cohen Tours the Holy Land (5)

Posted on April 15th, 2019 by

Written by Dr. Deb Weiner. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel. 

Part V: From the River Jordan to the Sinai Desert

(missed part I? Start here.)

Cohen’s letters made use of every inch of available space, as in this March 2, 1832 missive to his brothers. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

Cohen also encountered Jewish communities outside of Jerusalem during his two trips through the region. “In Palestine there are several cities of Jews,” he explained. “Indeed nearly all the towns contain [at least] a few.” They proved to be even poorer than their counterparts in Jerusalem. He observed Succot with the Jewish community in Nablus (the biblical Shechem), “but as they have found me out to be a rich man I have been constrained to shorten my visit.” Traveling to Hebron, he passed through a town where “All the Yehoodim of the place [heard that] a Frank Yehoodah was coming that way and as their whole and sole object was to get a little cash from me I disappointed them.”[i]

Hebron had a population of 5,000, mostly Arabs, with around 300 Jews (“including 15 she-nar-zim or Tych who are Muscovites.”) Cohen went there to see Judaism’s second holiest site (after the Temple Mount), the Cave of Machpelah, burial place of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. That Jews were forbidden to enter the mosque that stood on the site did not deter him, though “the first day I arrived the Yehoodim followed me so closely I could not get a chance to ask permission to see the interior.” The next day he bribed an attendant and went in.[ii]

Cohen’s disregard for obstacles of any kind proved to be a hallmark of his trip. Palestine was not a particularly safe place for tourists, especially in areas affected by the war between Ibrahim Pasha and local minions of the Sultan. Cohen described some of the dangers to his mother, but reassured her that “I had my pistols with me.” When he was told that an excursion with some companions by horseback from Jerusalem to the River Jordan would be extremely hazardous, he secured a heavily-armed guard from the Governor of Jerusalem. “We are eight in number all well armed and have an escort of 15 soldiers with an Arab chief to accompany us whom the Governor sent for, persons going on this pilgrimage generally have much to fear from the Arabs . . . looking daily for prey of robbery or plunder.”[iii]

In this case, however, he fell victim to a different kind of danger: like the pilgrims he had previously observed, he was being fleeced. Five days later he wrote in disgust, “A few women gathering herbs were all that we saw out of the reach of what may be called civilization. . . . I considered the whole thing as a farce and got up by the Governor for the purpose of saving his own pocket which by our not employing these Bedouins he would have to provide for himself.” The group’s protectors were “poor miserable almost naked and starved paysans . . . some of them appeared not more than 15 to 17 years of age. . . . [They] had nothing to eat but what we could give them. From the rice we made a pilaff. Our stock of bread was small and as we did not know how many days we should be out had to put it under a rigid guard otherwise in a few moments nothing would have been left.” He concluded, “All travellers speak of the excursion as a perilous one, I would have no objection to go alone on it.”[iv]

But the places he visited were worth the aggravation. After stopping at Jericho and the Well of Elijah, the group reached the Jordan and crossed over its shallow waters. “I cut myself a good cane from one of the many trees that grow on this ‘other side of Jordan.’ From the bed of the river I took stones to serve as a memorial that my children may know that Israel came over this Jordan on ground. I also measured the width of the river where I crossed and found it to be 116 feet English measurement. The deepest part not being more than 4 feet 6 inches. While there is a bank on one side there is none on the other and is evident when ‘Jordan overflows [its] banks at the time of harvest’ that it spreads its benefits over the land.”[v]

From there it was on to the Dead Sea. The guards “endeavored to alarm us for the purpose of hastening us on by telling us the Bedouins would appear in a few moments from their secret places and attack us. But we were not to be intimidated so easy. When we had completed our observations, we mounted our horses proceeding south. . . . Before leaving this very interesting spot I looked in vain to designate the ‘mountains of Nebo to the top of Pisgah that is over against Jericho’ for which I refer you to the 34th or last chapter of Deuteronomy.” Crossing the plain between the Jordan and the Dead Sea, “The feet of our horses sank two or three inches beneath an encrusted surface of soil not unlike snow when frozen on the surface.” He speculated that this phenomenon could be due to the effect of the overflowing Jordan, or proximity to the “salt sea.” Their experience of the Dead Sea—unlike the journey that got them there—would be familiar to modern-day tourists. “Taking off our boots we went some distance into it for the purpose of filling a bottle.”[vi]

On their return to Jerusalem the group stopped off at Bethlehem and Rachel’s Tomb. “We entered within the outer wall of the tomb to see the tomb itself which is nothing remarkable,” reported Cohen. But it did give him a chance to express his solidarity with the Jewish people. “The names of thousands of the Yehoodim are inscribed on its walls to which I added mine in Hebrew.” At Bethlehem he joined his Christian companions in touring a different kind of holy site. “We delivered a letter to the Superior and after partaking of a dinner we were accompanied through the various places sanctified to their religion by the nativity of its founder. St. Matthew Chap 2-24.”[vii]

Hebron, c. 1870. Photo by P. Bergheim, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Cohen’s passage through the Sinai Desert exemplified his determination to pursue his adventures regardless of the difficulties involved. He arranged the projected nine-day trip while in Cairo after his Nile excursion. After securing the necessary diplomatic permissions, he hired a Bedouin sheik as guide, agreeing to pay 600 piastres: 300 down and 300 at the end of the trip, “with a promise of a good back-sheesh (or present) if the journey is made a good one.” The sheik “promises everything with his supply of men. . . . He is to conduct me to Suez, to the top of Mt. Sinai and thence the direct road to Gaza, to point out to me the celebrated places and antiquities on the route. Thus with a perfect understanding my Bedouin sheikh (head of village) came up with his four camels to the gates of the Frank convent” in Cairo where he was staying, “and in the afternoon of the 24th of August I left Cairo.” The four camels were for Cohen, his servant, his luggage, and his water.[viii]

The first challenge was learning how to ride the camel, “which was awkward enough at the beginning but 2 and a half days journey has reconciled me to the mode as well as the utility,” he wrote en route. More worryingly, “Our drinking water does not keep as well as we had expected. . . . However we have undertaken the journey and must submit to its many inconveniences.” When his caravan reached the Well of Moses, he observed the water “gurgling from the ground” with more than the usual tourist’s interest. Unfortunately he “tasted of it and found it to be brackish. The camels did not drink very freely of it.” That night, he recorded in his diary, “the wind blew strong and our tent came down. All hands employed in getting it up.” The next day he jotted, “The sun intensely hot.”[ix]

The “perfect understanding” between Cohen and the sheik did not last long. As he wrote in his diary, “I had much difficulty with him having to dismount from my camel and punch him, knocking off his turban.” In a letter to his mother, he explained, “My sheikh objected to my going to Yor the ancient Elim. Had a quarrel with him. Reminded him of his fair promises, gave him a rap on his head. He found me determined and finally consented good humoredly to go, provided I would not take my luggage, terms agreed upon ‘for his pleasure’ I told him.” With this compromise, Cohen and the sheikh went alone on their detour, to meet up with the rest of their party (and luggage) at Mt. Sinai. Later the two would disagree over other issues, and Cohen ended up hauling the sheik before authorities in Gaza and getting his fee reduced.[x]

An exhilarated Cohen scribbled this hasty note from atop Mr. Sinai. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

Yet his diary throughout his Sinai trip reveals a palpable sense of biblical history that made the hardships worthwhile. One day he recorded, “The Arabs say that Moses and his army crossed the Red Sea not far from this spot.” A few days later he stayed at a monastery “on the spot they say where Moses was herding his flock when the Lord appeared to him in the midst of a flaming bush.” When he reached Mt. Sinai he ticked off the sites that he came upon in quick succession: “Spot where tables of the law were thrown from the hands of Moses. Spot where the Molten Calf was made. Spot where the Tabernacle was set up. Spot of the Burning Bush. The Well from which Moses fed Jethro’s flock.” The ascent up the mountain took three hours, the descent two. Crossing a wide expanse the following day, he wrote, “I have no doubt the children of Israel passed over this plain. It is one which will contain several millions of people.”[xi]

Continue to Part 6: The Legacy of Mendes Cohen

[i] Letters to Judith Cohen, March 19 and October 2, 1832.

[ii] Letter to Judith Cohen, October 2.

[iii] Letters to Judith Cohen, October 2, March 19.

[iv] Letter to Judith Cohen, March 24.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Letter to Judith Cohen, September 27. As intrepid a traveler as Cohen was, he was outdone by one of his traveling companions, as he admiringly told his mother in his letter of August 27, 1832: “Mr. Lenant, a French traveller in the true meaning of the word [has] been in these parts travelling fifteen years and has become one of the head men of a tribe of Bedouins.”

[ix] Letter to Judith Cohen, August 27; travel notes.

[x] Letter to Judith Cohen, September 27; travel notes.

[xi] Travel notes.


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An American in Palestine: Mendes I. Cohen Tours the Holy Land (4)

Posted on April 15th, 2019 by

Written by Dr. Deb Weiner. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel. 

Part IV: The Holy City

(missed part I? Start here.)

The Jaffa gate, Jerusalem, c. 1870. Photo by P. Bergheim, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 Cohen passed through the Jerusalem city gate in the late afternoon, settled into his lodgings at the Convent of St. Salvador, paid a quick visit to the priest in charge, and immediately set off “in search of the Synagogue,” hoping to arrive in time for services. Plunging through the old city, through narrow streets and teeming bazaars, he suddenly found himself swept along with a crowd of pilgrims into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was one of Christianity’s holiest sites, “within the walls of which Christ had been Crucified – washed – buried and almost a hundred other things to each of which there is an altar.” Entering a small, stuffy, and overcrowded chamber, “I thus imagined myself within the very tomb of him whom the Gentiles seek.” He hastened out, and “going through the bazaars asked several persons as well as I could make them understand where the Synagogues were.”[i]

Finally someone took him to the “Tyche shool,” or Ashkenazi synagogue, where he asked for Rabbi Mendel, whose name some American missionaries had previously given him. The rabbi invited him for supper after the service. Cohen found him to be “a man about 45 years of age having a young wife not homely. He wore a beard and his headdress was a fur cap which many [of the congregants] wore being pilgrims from Russia, Prussia, Poland, etc.” The following morning in shul they honored Cohen by giving him “one of the high places” and calling him up for the blessing (which, as previously mentioned, he momentarily bungled).[ii]

 The Jewish population was divided into two “different sects” that “live in friendly intercourse” with each other, Cohen wrote. “The largest are the Spanish and Portuguese Nusach, the smaller the Tych or Ska-nar-zim, each having their own head or Grand Rabbi to which the Jews of all parts seek for knowledge.”[iii] During his two sojourns in the city he would get to know both groups. He took a keen interest in the lifestyles of his coreligionists and his reports offer a rare glimpse of the Jews of Palestine from the point of view of a western Jew, few of whom had traveled to the region. In fact their visits were so rare that he saw fit to mention that “A year or two ago there were two of our people here from London – a Mr. Sampson and Mr. and Mrs. Montefiore.”[iv] Undoubtedly this was Sir Moses Montefiore, whose life-changing 1827 visit to Jerusalem led him to become the great Jewish communal leader of the 19th century. Palestine would not have this effect on Mendes Cohen. His letters reveal a person who was able to observe sympathetically, but with a fair amount of American-style skepticism, the situation of Jews in the Holy Land.

Cohen placed his description of the Jewish community in the larger context of Jerusalem. The city, he wrote, “contains about 12,000 inhabitants of whom about 4,000 are Jews – the rest Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, etc. and a few Franks (Europeans).” In addition, the city’s ranks swelled with pilgrims of all sorts. “They are all of the poor of the land from whence they come, ignorant and destitute of education bestowing their little means on the numerous Turks who take any opportunity to fleece them. . . . Misery, poverty, lameness and blindness are visible at any step made through the streets of this once great city.”[v]

The Jews, like everyone else, suffered at the hands of the “rapacious Turks” who governed Jerusalem. “The Jews here are generally poor, they also have to pay a certain sum each year to the Turkish Governor,” he noted. The few Jewish families of means were forced to conceal their wealth, lest the Turks “make heavy exactions from the Congregation.” And the synagogues were taxed enough already. “The whole appearance of these synagogues is that of poverty as they are not allowed to build or add to their buildings without paying a large sum to the Turks.”[vi]

Cohen’s American sensibilities were greatly offended by this situation, and he made his views known to his hosts. But “it is in vain that I reason with them,” he declared. “America is the land of milk and honey where each may sit under his own vine and fig tree and none to make them afraid. But the Rabbis have scripture too much at their finger ends and think they are bound to hold on to what once belonged to them and which is now usurped by the Turks.”[vii]

“The Jewish quarter of Jerusalem with its two synagogues, Palestine.” Photo by J.F. Jarvis, c.1900, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The synagogues may have been poor, but they were rich in Torah scrolls. “The Grand Synagogue of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews is divided into 4 compartments each being a synagogue within itself,” Cohen described. “These 4 Synagogues contain from 100 to 150 Safers or Rolls of the Laws of Moses and several with the Prophets. . . . The Rolls have been presented from time to time by individuals to be kept in the sanctuary – the average price from 50 to 100 dollars according to size, these Rolls are never sent to other places being the gift of pious donors.” The four interconnected shuls in the “Portuguese” synagogue seated between 120 and 300 persons each, much larger and more impressive than the Ashkenazi synagogue—understandable, since the Ashkenazi population was both much smaller (numbering only “300 souls”) and of more recent origin.[viii]

Cohen’s first visit to the Portuguese synagogue occurred on the Sabbath. “There were assembled in all the four shules several hundred of the nation and a great many females in the window galleries. . . . They all wore a white covering over their heads.” He found that “the women are as regular in attendance as the men . . . They are very devout and without participating in the ceremonies practically part of the congregation. They go through all the exercises.” On his return trip in September, he spent Rosh Hashanah there. “I had several honors – was called up as Cohen both days – one day in the shool with the Grand Rabbi.”[ix]

In between sightseeing at Jerusalem’s churches and bazaars and meeting with the local Governor (who served him “pipes and coffee” and introduced him to several Arab “chiefs”), Cohen made time to visit with members of the Portuguese shul and to record his impressions with the dispassion of an anthropologist. He does not indicate how he communicated with his hosts, though he does mention encountering “one by the name of Isaac the son of Solomon who could speak Italian,” and perhaps helped translate. “I found and is generally the case three to four families within the walls of [one] house living together. The withal for living is very scarce here. . . .  House rent is cheap. Though you must not suppose they are anything like those we occupy in America. The whole system is different and cannot be easily described.”[x]

He went into considerable detail on relations between the sexes. “I have seen very few single young girls. They marry when twelve or thirteen years of age. The boys marry at about the same age. The whole is arranged by the parents who have to continue to take care of the youngsters. . . . The Jewesses do not cover their faces as the Christian and Turkish females – when they go out they wear a handkerchief around their forehead and down each side of their ears. . . . I was accompanied to the house of a young lady to pay my respects on the birth of a son now two days of age. As the parlors are made into bed rooms when bed-time arrives, we were ushered into her presence. The parents, females were at the bed side. The lady is 14 years of age. . . . Was told by the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardim that a Jew may have more than one wife and there are now some in Jerusalem having two and three wives.”[xi]

Continue to Part V: From the River Jordan to the Sinai Desert

i] Ibid.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Letter to Judith Cohen, September 28, 1832.

[iv] Letter to Judith Cohen, March 19.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Letters to Judith Cohen, September 28, March 19.

[vii] Letter to Judith Cohen, March 19.

[viii] Letter to Judith Cohen, September 28.

[ix] Letters to Judith Cohen, March 24, September 27.

[x] Letter to Judith Cohen, March 24. Cohen seemed to have no problem talking to people wherever he went on his travels, though how he did so remains a bit of a mystery. He clearly knew several languages and possibly some Arabic, the lingua franca of the Middle East.

[xi] Letters to Judith Cohen, March 24, September 27.


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