An American in Palestine 3
Mendes I. Cohen Tours the Holy Land Part III: Entering Palestine
Written by Dr. Deb Weiner. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel.
Cohen traveled through Palestine twice, first in March 1832 on his way from Syria to Egypt and then on his way back in September and October. He visited Jerusalem each time but otherwise traveled different routes, enabling him to stop at virtually every major biblical landmark then known—which he pointed out in his letters by citing the relevant chapter and verse each time he reached an important spot. Clearly, he knew his Hebrew Bible.
His first stop was just outside Acre. He happened to arrive during the famously brutal siege of the town by the army of the formidable Ibrahim Pasha, who was engaged in conquering Palestine and Syria on behalf of his stepfather, Egyptian ruler Mohammad Ali, as part of an internecine Ottoman struggle. Fortunately for Cohen, he enjoyed Ibrahim’s hospitality and spent an entire week in the Egyptian camp, “accommodated with a splendid tent” belonging to Ibrahim’s top aide, and one morning even “took coffee with Ib. Pasha and the Adm. of the Fleet.” Cohen described himself as “splendidly entertained,” venturing out each morning to witness Ibrahim’s attacks on the “strongly fortified” town. “Since my arrival in the camp on the 2nd, the firing of cannons and bombs have been incessant day and night,” he wrote to his brothers. At one point Acre’s walls were breached, but “when the Egyptian troops . . . were driven back I returned to my tent to breakfast.”[i]
Cohen’s enthusiasm for the Egyptian army and its westernized style (complete with military marching band) dimmed upon touring a field hospital filled with the anguished cries of amputees and other wounded soldiers. “I left the scene with feelings of deep emotion thinking if our acts and deeds in this, are judged in the next world, what must our rulers have to answer for when for some personal pique they plunge nations into war with each other thus sacrificing their subjects.”[ii] Yet he remained interested in Ibrahim’s campaign, frequently reporting on its progress in his letters home.
Mostly, though, Cohen occupied himself with exploring the region’s biblical sites. From Acre he traveled on horseback to Mt. Carmel, where he visited the “Grotto where Elijah called the people &c. and slew the false prophets.” He stayed overnight at the Carmelite monastery, where he and his French traveling companions were “kindly received.” Cohen frequently found hospitality at monasteries and mosques, and often traveled with Christian tourists he met along the way. Lest his mother worry about the influence of a Spanish missionary with whom he shared some adventures, he wrote, “Priest Castro Gonsalves has been in the U. States and at Baltimore. I need scarcely state that having travelled much over the world he is a man of the most liberal sentiments and in the capacity of a missionary has enough to do in taking care of his flocks in various countries without meddling with the flock of another shepherd.”[iii]
After parting with his French companions, Cohen wended his way south with “three horses, one for my luggage, one for my servants, the other for myself.” He traversed a “beautiful plain enriched with the fruits of a rich soil,” passed some ruins (“perhaps the site of the ancient Dor a town appertaining to the tribe of Manasseh, Josh c. 17 v.11”), spent an uncomfortable night outdoors unable to sleep “on account of the fleas,” traveled through a “very unpleasant” sandstorm to “the site of the ancient Gilgal, Judges c. 2 v. 1,” and emerged into the valley of Sharon, “a most beautiful and fertile country . . . thick in grass and clover enriched with about 30 different kinds of field flowers.” He rested for the night at a mosque in an Arab village where, “lest I might not be admitted, my Arab guides told the keeper I was a Head Physician in the service of Ibrahim Pasha – this insured the best quarters there were.” The next day he was at Jaffa and shortly thereafter he joined a trail of pilgrims bound for Jerusalem.[iv]
[i] Letter to brothers, March 8-11, 1832; travel journal, March 2-11, 1832. On the siege of Acre and its historic importance see Gudrun Kramer, A History of Palestine: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Founding of the State of Israel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008): 63-66.
[ii] Letter to brothers, March 8-11, 1832.
[iii] Travel journal, March 11-14, 1832; letter to Judith Cohen, March 19; letter to Judith Cohen, September 27, 1832.
[iv] Letter to Judith Cohen, March 19, 1832.