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.