Mark Twain in the Holy Land by John Holmes

Mark Twain in the Holy Land 

‘I have seen old Israel’s arid plain.
It’s magnificent — but so’s Maine!’

(New England - Jonathon Richman and the Modern Lovers, 1976)

When I think of Mark Twain (real name Sam Clemens) I think of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and a few famous quotes. But those titles were not his bestselling book in his lifetime. That was The Innocents Abroad, still one of the most commercially successful travel books of all time. This piece is about the background to that work. Subtitled The New Pilgrim’s Progress, it is about a trip Twain made across Europe, ending in the Holy Land, the voyage’s principal destination.                 
The year was 1867. By way of context, this was two years after the end of the American Civil War (1861-65) and the assassination of Lincoln, and nine years before General Custer’s Seventh Cavalry were routed at the Battle of Little Bighorn. In England it was almost halfway through Queen Victoria’s 63 year reign. 

Twain was a brash 31 year old reporter when he persuaded the Daily Alta in San Francisco to send him on the first ever cruise aboard the Quaker City, a retired Civil War gunboat, on a five month trip to Europe and on to Palestine. It was agreed that for $1200 he would write fifty articles for the paper. He was also to send despatches to a couple of East Coast publications. He had grown up in the Calvinist tradition with a love of Bible stories and a desire to believe in the New Testament message, despite feeling unable to do so. He was counterculture, endlessly curious, energetic and humorous. The other 64 passengers were mainly small-town businessmen and professionals - little travelled but mostly well up on the Bible and religious. 

Twain soon found the self-righteousness of the pious folk distasteful with their nightly prayer meetings led by the humourless Colonel Denny. He organised his own group: the Nighthawks (later Sinners) who drank, smoked and played cards. When they went to the Old World - Spain Italy and France - he soon tired of the docile reverence expected of the travellers, feeling tour guides were manipulating them. In Italy he was outraged at the sight of the well-fed priests compared to the starving lay population around them. He was constantly annoyed by all the hyperbole and adulation for things merely because they happened to be old. Europe’s traditions were suffocating it to death. After stops in Greece, Russia and Turkey, they arrived at Beirut where the passengers divided into groups. Twain chose a challenging three week trek on horseback, paying English-speaking dragomen $5 a day to guide and protect the eight Americans, although not from the conditions - hot, dusty desert. Water was scarce because Islamic villages refused to allow their wells to be profaned by Christians. Tents, however, were luxurious with ample food and drink. In that respect at least, the travel books had been proved correct.


When a three day trip in the Bekaa valley was crammed into two so the pious could avoid travelling on the Sabbath, Twain objected but without success; fearing for the horses, he believed their mistreatment sinful. On reaching Banias, their first stop in the Holy Land, Twain’s sense of wonder revived - to be walking where Jesus once trod! But the feeling soon passed, irritated by the pious weeping over relics and chipping off fragments of the temple to take with them. He branded them ‘American Vandals’. Approaching the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus performed healing miracles and walked on water, the pious were full of excitement, seeing their lifelong dream of sailing over it within grasp. No price could be too high for such an experience. But when the boatman quoted them the equivalent of $8 (a dollar each) they tried to persuade him to accept $1. So disgusted was he that he departed without them, causing a squabble amongst the pilgrims as to whose fault it was, and leading one wag to ask, ‘Colonel Denny, could this be the reason Jesus walked?’ For Twain, having earlier dismissed Lake Como as inferior to Tahoe, Galilee was similarly unimpressive. The relative smallness of everything, compared to its depiction in the Bible and at Sunday school, was central to his disappointment with the Holy Land. He discovered that the kings of mighty nations he’d thrilled in reading about as a boy, had no more to their domains than the average American small-town mayor. He also felt travellers were betrayed by earlier writers, in particular William Prime with his overly sentimental prose and frightening tales of his heroics fighting bloodthirsty heathens.

The journey on to Jerusalem was rocky and desolate, and pious and sinner alike rejoiced on seeing the Holy City before them. They stayed in the Mediterranean Hotel in relative comfort, so much so that Twain spent the entire first day enjoying its luxury. Jerusalem, however, proved another letdown. Once again, he simply could not reconcile the city in the Bible with it in real life ( saying a fast walker could circumnavigate it in an hour). He found it dirty, crowded, noisy and smelly, people in squalor unimaginable to the average American, everyone yelling ’baksheesh’ and pestering him to do deals on things he didn’t want. Even the pious seemed disillusioned with the city. 

At the Muslim Dome of the Rock situated on the ruins of King Solomon’s temple, Twain was disgusted by Colonel Denny’s refusal to remove his shoes as was the required custom, simply because it was not his religion. At the Tomb of Jesus his Protestant sensibility gagged at all the ‘gewgaws and tawdry ornamentation’. He was bemused by the Tomb of Adam, suspecting it was, like much he’d seen, fraudulent. But then he thought that if genuine, it was, after all, a blood relative buried there, ‘True, a distant one, but still a relative’, and he wept at the fact of never having known his ancestor. A decade later, the tomb had became a tourist stop as the place where Mark Twain wept. He softened at the site of the Crucifixion, however, prepared to accept that, given its significance, it must have happened there or close by, and gained from it an appreciation of the power of religion. It was after this he ordered a special Bible with cover made from three different woods to take back to his mother. He was respectful of her faith and that of anyone else when it was genuine. 

Away from Jerusalem the party swam in the Dead Sea and the River Jordan. From his Bible readings he had anticipated the latter to be miles across but found it no wider than Broadway in New York. In Bethlehem with its beggars and relic-peddlars, he was able to touch the spot where the infant Jesus had once lain — and he experienced nothing whatever. Two days later, the party, by now keen to return home, travelled, despite it being the Sabbath, to Jaffa where they boarded ship. Even the pious were relieved to be free of the desert, and, as Twain observed, ‘They wept not over Jerusalem.’ 

The Quaker City arrived back in New York in November 1867. A publisher approached Twain about a version of the articles for a book. He worked on them, refining the prose, and the book was published in 1869. He dedicated it to his mother. It was a great success with critics and public alike. There was a laugh on every page and after the ravages of the Civil War the nation was in need of it. The book transformed his life. He could now turn his full attention to writing books. He travelled extensively, but never again to Palestine. He mellowed over time, however, saying that looking back one doesn’t recall the heat, thirst, squalor and so on, only the pleasant memories of Jerusalem.


His book is still read today, or at least quoted from. In 2009 Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, gave President Obama a first edition. Twain has sometimes been criticised for depicting Ottoman-ruled Palestine as such a desolate place — it has been used in arguments over the state of the country before Zionism - and also criticised for his flippancy. But Twain was young and relatively unknown. He was writing his impressions, originally as articles, not an academic text book or political treatise. Moreover, as indicated by the title, he was as interested in his fellow travellers as the countries they visited; it was in his nature to mock almost everything and everyone, including himself. In The Innocents Abroad he sought to convey what contemporary American eyes saw, rather than what others might want those eyes to see. Americans felt inferior to the Old World, which the Old World encouraged, and he wanted to show them they had no reason to feel so. Their New World offered much more. 

Finally, there was an interesting postscript to his love affair with Lake Tahoe. In a scenario that would no doubt have amused him, it was formally proposed that one of its coves be renamed after him. However, the local Washoe tribe protested against this. For all his progressive views on issues such as slavery, his public openness to other faiths and races did not extend to the American Indian, and the Washoes’ complaint went beyond his disparagement of them as a ‘digger tribe’. After reflecting on it, even the man who’d suggested the change declined to support it, and in 2014 the idea was dropped. It is unlikely to be revived.

Picture Credits - on line, copyright unclear. Will remove if offending.

‘Greetings’ by Kevin Murphy

Our thanks to Kevin for this thoughtful response to the prompt ‘Wave’

The greatest impact of Covid 19 on the human race could be an invisible one – not microscopic like the virus itself, but actually not visible. It could alter key fundamental behaviours, which may not be addressed at the UN or at the family level – a psychological element, one affecting mental and therefore physical health of the population of the earth.

A Doctor Zunin made a discovery on which management ‘guru’ Claus Moller built a theory of good management, which he has taught to internationally successful organisations and companies. Simply put: the first four minutes of any relationship set the tone of the rest of the relationship. This includes anything from a short conversation to a marriage for life, and every time we meet and greet.

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Pete’s response to the trigger green


The world was astounded by a little school girl who took on their governments, her name Greta Thunberg. She was fighting for this planet of ours, against pollution and destruction of the ozone layer. We will never forget how she took on single handed, Donald Trump, the President of the United States of America, addressed the United Nations whilst winning all our hearts.

Then, an invisible creature decided to rear its ugly head in Wuhan, China; its name, ‘Coronavirus’ (Covid 19). It grounded aeroplanes; stopped trains, kept vehicles off the road and confined communities to their homes preventing them from disposing of their litter in public places. It did what Greta could not do.

Unfortunately it sadly killed millions as it swept across the globe, taking governments like ours unprepared. For years our government had been slowly running down and destroying the Health Service by privatising areas bit by bit, hoping we wouldn’t notice. This is when it came back to bite them, and boy did it bite them hard. Our nurses, doctors, porters, care workers, and others, too any to mention stepped forward with the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ putting their own lives at risk, fully aware of a shortage of protective equipment. Unfortunately some paid the ultimate price to protect us. They were angels and we salute them.

During this time, there has been one person who has been overlooked and not given a mention, in any way, shape or form. That person was one of the greatest politicians this country has ever known, Aneurin Bevan the founder of our wonderful NHS.

In order to rectify this, I have written to Her Majesty the Queen, requesting he receive a posthumous Knighthood and appear on a future banknote. This is the least we could do.

Thank God we have great people like Greta Thunberg, Aneurin Bevan and not forgetting Captain Tom Moore.

‘Revisiting the Trolley Problem’ by Andrew Bell

Following our link to Dandelion Sleeves post ‘Reinterpreting the Trolley Problem’, Andrew Bell has written this thought provoking response:

Revisiting the trolley problem: a cautionary note.

The self evident truth of the value of the preservation of life is rightly stated to be the best steer through the ‘Trolley Problem’.

But when we came to the gatekeeper, the only person who has actual control of the lever, Kerry simply tells us that their primary concern and only impetus for action, is to the preservation and continuation of the runaway train. But I wonder whether this is true?

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‘Reinterpreting the Trolley Problem’ by Kerry Swarbrick

A great piece by Kerry posted on her own blog, ‘Dandelion Sleeves’ today. You can read it at:

While you’re there why not take a look around – Kerry is a talented writer and her pieces are always fun and informative. There are some wonderful illustrative photos, taken by Kerry, too!

Junk by Kevin Murphy

I have had an affinity with junk since I asked my Dad what the ‘Rag and Bone man’ was, and it has tickled me right up to now when my son and friends have developed a multi million pound company that even has the word ‘junk’ in its title.

Junk itself is a fun word, not easily used seriously – however much one might disagree with the notions of Stalin or Thatcher, they didn’t spout a load of junk – but perhaps rubbish?

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The Scar by Kevin Murphy

The Scar

Sitting in our autumn holiday cottage, I said to my grandson, ‘Look at the light on that hillside, Isaac. It’s strange and misty, but there is no mist.’

It was a tiny window in the converted seventeenth century barn. We were warm and cosy, but outside, days of rain drenched the countryside but not our spirits. The sun had come up at the other side of the escarpment, but slight haze caused the light to skim across the very heavy dew – the grass was grey.

Suddenly all changed. Had a cloud moved away? The hillside was a gleaming emerald in a golden frame of storm tossed leaves.

‘Look at that tree, Grandpops, it’s got two trunks.

We leant into the frame for a better look. The row of trees running to the horizon did look as if it was tipped with the mature skeleton of a doubled-trunked oak, fully exposed, all its leaves already stripped.

It was a good observation by the lad. It had me bemused for a minute. ‘Ah, I see now. That’s a pair of trees, Isaac, standing beside each other, but from here they are almost in line, one behind the other.’

Later, after embalming ourselves with a swim in the heated pool, we took a walk out along Brackendale Lane towards Carsington in the hope of catching the early sunset over that great expanse of water. The lane is supposed to follow Brackendale Brook, but today we couldn’t tell which was which. Isaac had the wellies on so could ford the many streams the lane passed through – so he did.

Towards the top end of the lane, the land on both sides levelled out in a plateau. I reflected how that skinny brook was today doing what it had patiently been doing for perhaps millions of years – scratching the deep scar out of the plateau, carrying silt down towards the river Dove and onwards to the oceans.

The scar it has left, like a beauty spot, is what has attracted Isaac and all my family to gaze upon – this weather changing face of Derbyshire.

A Very Special Houseplant – By Andrew Bell

Some months ago, I took over the care of an anthurium or flamingo flower, an exotic house plant which is a native of the tropical climates of South America. It came as a gift to my wife, but very soon, I took a liking to it.
I love its generous display of shiny, waxlike pointy leaves and the flowers, which consist of beautiful salmon pink bracts or blooms; and, sitting on top, a vertical spike of tiny flowers that begin with a whitish colour, but then slowly change to a pleasing limey green.

I also keep a small family of spider plants that all came from the very first plant we had which, for many years, held pride of place on a small table in the hall, by the front door. Spider plants are much less needy but, with just a little TLC are just as pleasing to the eye as the more exotic plants.

Right now, this flamingo flower has no companions. Trying to discover how to give it the care it needs: maintaining the right balance of warmth, moisture, feed and light is still a bit of a challenge, but I know from experience with the spider plants, that, in time, this knowledge will arise by simply taking a few moments to give the plant my undivided attention.

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On Journaling and Word Rambling – Kerry Swarbrick


Personal narratives are something we all construct, even if we choose not to share them. We invent them. Weave them. Like making up reasons for what we did after it’s already happened; as if there were some considered rationale or deliberate reasoning before it was done. Which there probably wasn’t. But we can be very persuasive after the fact. To ourselves, at least. Narratives are hooks. Necessary hooks on which to hang strings of causality, reason and meanings with no real meaning at all. Tissue-thin paper chains blowing about in the wildly unreasonable landscape of absurdity. Continue reading

The Knife Killers by David Graham

Rapacious assaults on the innocents

Throughout human history the vast majority of the peoples who have and do inhabit the continents and island of this planet; regardless of their cultures, races or creeds, have and still do simply want to live out their lives in a peace that allows for them to grow and prosper. Throughout that same history those same peaceful peoples have and still do come up against that rapacious minority of peoples who have sought and still seek to deny the innocents the peace they have needed and still need in which to survive. Continue reading