Famous Americans Who Made Holy Land Tours

Exhibit showcases early American travel to Palestine

An ongoing exhibit at the National Library of Israel (located on the Hebrew University campus) highlights early American travel to Palestine. Famous Americans from Mark Twain to Theodore Roosevelt (pictured here, second from left, with his siblings) all made early Holy Land tours. The Houghton Library at Harvard University

When the first American missionaries arrived for their Holy Land tours in 1819, it took three days to travel from their port of disembarkation in Jaffa to Jerusalem. When Mark Twain arrived nearly half a century later, he still found the roads “infernal” and the place as a whole “desolate and unlovely.” Jerusalem, he said, was “a pauper’s village … The glory of Jerusalem has indeed parted.”

Americans’ engagement with the Holy Land in the 19th century is a multifold story. Following the missionaries in the early part of the century were the scholars, most notably Edward Robinson, the “father of Biblical geography,”* who was able to travel to Palestine in 1832 (and again in 1852) with his friend and former student Eli Smith. Robinson identified scores of Biblical sites by their survival in modern Arabic names: for example, Bethel in Arabic Beitin; Shiloh in Arabic Seilun; and Anath in Arabic Anathoth.

Robinson also identified Robinson’s Arch in the western wall of the Temple Mount, which he thought supported a bridge to the other side of the city. Actually it supported a staircase leading up to the Temple Mount.

In 1847–1848 United States Navy Lieutenant William F. Lynch successfully searched for the source of the Jordan River and explored the Dead Sea; it was the first scientific exploration of the region.**

In 1857, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, was able to travel to Palestine, but he was not impressed. He found it “a caked, depopulated hell.”

After the Civil War, Holy Land tours picked up, as if the cessation of the horrors of war somehow released the spirit. Moments before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln himself expressed a desire to visit the Holy Land.

After General Ulysses S. Grant’s two terms as president and an unsuccessful bid for a third, he went on a worldwide tour that included travel to Palestine. General William Tecumseh Sherman, who marched on Atlanta during the Civil War and succeeded Grant as army commander after the war, likewise paid a visit to the Holy Land.

The future president Theodore Roosevelt, then 15 (second from left in the photo with his siblings and cousins), visited the Holy Land in 1873. Even at 15, he observed in his diary that Jaffa “is thoroughly oriental with very pretty women.”

Most of this information is contained in a tasteful, bilingual catalog (Hebrew and English) for a beautifully designed exhibit titled Dreamland—American Travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th Century at the National Library of Israel, located at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The exhibit was created and sponsored by the National Library of Israel and the Shapell Manuscript Foundation of Los Angeles and is curated by the Foundation’s Dina Grossman. This exhibit of early Holy Land tours closes in mid January, but if you can’t make it, the catalog is still available.

To read more, view a virtual exhibition or purchase a catalog, please visit The Shapell Manuscript Foundation website.



[*] See sidebar to J. Maxwell Miller, “Bible Maps—How Reliable Are They?Bible Review, Fall 1987.

[**] See Emanuel Levine, “BAR’s Bicentennial Salute—The United States Navy Explores the Holy Land,” Biblical Archaeology Review, December 1976.


Based on Strata, “19th-Century Americans in the Holy Land,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2012.

Posted in Biblical Archaeology Topics.

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