|The sense of seeing Jerusalem
Reflections on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the nineteenth Century
Jerusalem has been, since the 4th century ad. a central site of Christian pilgrimage. In the nineteenth century a new wave of pilgrimage caused a significant increase in the number of pilgrims coming from the West. This article will suggest a new perspective for viewing this phenomenon.
The pilgrims always had a variety of motives for coming to Jerusalem: to visit the holy places, to atone for their sins, or to improve the efficacy of their prayer. In the nineteenth century the religious revival in Europe and in the United States1, the rise of colonialism and orientalism2, the development of the historical and archeological research3 and improved technology, which shortened the distance between the west and the Holy Land4, were responsible for adding new motives for traveling to Palestine. Among the modern pilgrims these new motives included the search for relief of their physical illnesses, the search for sexual adventure, and the desire to return to their lost childhood, for which they felt much nostalgia.5.
I would like to suggest yet anther motive: the desire not merely to be in the holy city of Jerusalem, but to see it, and I emphasize the verb to see.
Among the new pilgrims were many painters, such as David Roberts (1796-1864), W.H Bartlett (1809-1854), W.H Hunt (1827-1910) and others, who became famous thanks to their journeys to the Holy Land6. There were also many photographers such as Felix Bonfise (1831-1885) who used new technology and brought with them huge cameras with which to memorialize Jerusalem7. Many writers also focused their minds on seeing the city and describing the sight of it. An excellent example of this special way of thinking and seeing is Mark Twain (1835-1910), who described the journey of his group to the Holy City, in 1867:
"We longed to see (my italic) Jerusalem. We spurred up hill after hill, and usually began to stretch our necks minutes before we got to the top- but disappointment always followed- more stupid hills beyond- more unsightly landscape- no holy city." 8
We find a similar report in the writing of Alfonse de Lamartine (1790-1869):
...could discern a city of which one could distinguish but the most elevated part and that descending along the length of the hillside: this could only be Jerusalem; we had believed ourselves to be yet more distant, and each of us, not daring to ask the guide anything from fear of seeing his illusion destroyed, was silently rejoicing in this first stealthy glimpse of the city; and all things inspired in me the name of Jerusalem. It was she! ...We halted our horses to contemplate this mysterious and dazzling apparition. …." 9 .
Lamartine writes that he felt no sorrow when he discovered that his group could not actually visit the city because of outbreak of the plague and therefore could only watch over it from afar. 10
In a similar way the French impressionist writer Pierre Loti (1850-1923), who traveled to the East in 1894 hoping to fulfill his mother’s unrealized dream to see Jerusalem, wrote:
“…and it was to her [his mother] that he announced his departure: he was “fulfilling” her “old dream” of seeing Jerusalem before her death…”
As his group of pilgrims drew near he still longed to see the city:
“Tomorrow morning, at daybreak, we will ascend towards Jerusalem… the fantasy of a slow walk, to the rhythm of a camel’s rocking gait, in the pink desert’s infinity…then, at the end of the long journey, clouded in a mirage, Jerusalem will appear or, at least, its grand shadow.” 11
Even Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), the cruel realistic writer, cannot ignore his romantic
feeling, and confesses:
“We have been still ascending for a lengthy hour…At each instant I expect to see Jerusalem and I do not see it. “12
The famous American author of “Moby Dick” Herman Melville (1818-1891), was amazed by the sights of Jerusalem and describes it in his poetry:
“….And, at last, aloft for goal,
Like the ice-bastions round the pole,
Thy blank, blank towers, Jerusalem!”
“…. Why, well I know
Salem to be no Samarcand;
Taws scarce surprise: and yet first view (my italic)
Brings this eclipse….”13
"Why was it so important to see the city in this manner? What did the pilgrims hope to see, and what did they see? What was the relationship between their previous image of the city, and what they actually saw?
In the western world, with the coming of enlightenment ideas, the sense of seeing received central importance. Both Descartes the rationalist, and Locke the empiricist, based their philosophies on sight – the scientific sense, which was and still is the basis for most of our models of the world - as in maps, charts and diagrams14. The gaze establishes the distinction between subject and object, which in turn constituted the basis of scientific observation, according to which every observed object was by definition a real one15: It follows that the sense of seeing represents objective reality.
On the other hand, Holy Scripture, and in particular the Book of Revelation of the New Testament , are full of vivid descriptions of visions such as:
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away: and there was no more sea”16
“…And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and
showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from
This vision claims to reflect a future reality, but one that can only be seen in the mind’s eye of the believers.
We have here two varieties of seeing, one “real” or “scientific”, the other metaphoric. These two ways of seeing created a tension that the pilgrims hoped to resolve by actually seeing Jerusalem. The city of Zion exists in the mind’s eye of the believer, but at the same time it is a real place, which can be observed. It follows that the city can bridge the gap between religious belief and the modern scientific worldview, since both may be considered as “the truth”. To observe the city means to break down the boundaries between belief and science, and perhaps even to reach the sublime “real truth”. According to the sociologist George Simmel of all the senses only the sense of seeing lends us a two dimensional understanding of the object, that is, both its historical and present nature. In this sense looking at the city contributes to a coming together of past and present, thereby bringing to the fore the mythological aspect of time18.
As I have already mentioned, among the pilgrims of the nineteenth century were many writers, painters and photographers. They came to see, and describe in words, paintings and photographs the landscape of the Jerusalem. Prisoners of their image of the city, and like an eager lover before his first meeting with the object of his love and desire, they met their “blind date”- Jerusalem - in order to give a concrete form to their object of fantasy, to give her flesh and bones. In reality they did find flesh, bones and other body part, but not the lovely curves of their fantasy and sublime desire; rather, they found themselves surrounded by rotten stinking flesh that oppressed them and took control of their souls.
The confrontation between the image of the city and the real city, therefore, was far from simple. Here are two typical examples. The first is the romantic French writer François Réné de Chateaubriand, who visited Jerusalem in 1806-1807. He observed Jerusalem and described its walls, but concerning the city itself he made use of the image that he had brought with him from Europe:
“I stood there and observed Jerusalem, I estimated the height of its walls. I absorbed into my inner self in one instant, all of its historical memories from Abraham to Godfrey of Bouillon. Thinking about how the universe had been change by mission of one man. Looking in vain for the temple of which nothing remained.” 19
Nothing can be more different from this than the writing of Flaubert, the cold realistic writer, who visited the city in 1850. He too came to see his beloved imaginary city take shape. He did find the “real” Jerusalem, but not the one he hoped to find:
“Jerusalem is a slaughterhouse surrounded by walls. The first strange thing we saw was a butcher’s shop…There was a big well in it, there we saw dry blood, feces, black intestines which the sun had almost burned into ash. the stench was terrible. Someone said: “The first thing we saw in the holy city was blood”…. the excrement near the walls created a terrible stink… ruined buildings everywhere, and everywhere the odor of the grave. 20
Like Chateaubriand, Flaubert also describes the walls of the city, but only in order to make a frame for the city within. He saw Jerusalem as a slaughterhouse, as a place of death and decay, a place dominated by a terrible stench. This place does not allow the objective gaze, the basis of western thought that had brought him and many others to the city. His conclusion was:
”If you are a true believer don’t go to the Holy Land”. 21
As in Festinger’s “when prophecy fails”, which demonstrates that in a community of believers some hold on even more strongly to their beliefs when the prophecy fails while others lose their faith completely, the confrontation of the image with reality leads to extreme reactions: some of the believers fall into despair, while other hold fast to the image, and are blind to the reality around them. 22 Those who fall into despair abandon the sense of seeing and obsessively describe the terrible smell of the inner city , while those who hold fast to the image continue to describe the city as it from afar, and by so doing succeed in “controlling” it, as Foucault has explained23.
As we have seen, the Holy City and the different ways of "seeing it" offer a good example of the old problem of the inability to bridge the gap between one's image of a beloved object and the fact that the beloved object fails to live up to expectations. “Seeing Jerusalem” might have been considered as a solution to the “unabridged” gap so evident in the nineteenth century between the two "truths" one could see: the concrete and physical reality and the apocalyptic and visionary reality. The pilgrims came to see the city with the innocent hope of bridging this distance and bringing back to Europe a harmonious solution, but they failed: neither the beloved imaginary Jerusalem was found nor the solution to the tension between these two way of seeing.