Journeys across Blankness

Jonathan Parry

  • Dislocating the Orient: British Maps and the Making of the Middle East, 1854-1921 by Daniel Foliard
    Chicago, 336 pp, £45.00, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 226 45133 6

On display in the Dutch House at Kew Gardens, the nursery of George III’s children, is a map copied by one of the royal infants from the jigsaws used by their governess, Lady Charlotte Finch, to teach them geography. It indicates, with affecting but spurious precision, the territorial boundaries of the 12 tribes of Israel, in what the children, like almost everyone else in the 18th and 19th centuries, called the Holy Land. When in 1856 the civil service tried to haul itself into the modern world by holding competitive entry examinations, candidates for junior clerkships in the education division were required to draw a map of old Palestine, ‘indicating the position of the Jewish tribes’.

Thomas Jervis’s map of the Crimean peninsula
Thomas Jervis’s map of the Crimean peninsula

Biblical Palestine loomed large in the teaching of geography for generations of British children: I can remember drawing maps of it at Sunday school in the 1960s, to accompany my own newspaper supplement featuring some of the more colourful Old Testament stories. In 1847 a government inspector noted that in some schools the only map available was of Palestine. In 1856 the Salisbury Diocesan Training College, which prepared young women to teach in Anglican schools, gave them a lesson plan on the Dead Sea which warned of the danger of being overwhelmed by sand or the salty sea. This was more than a decade before the intrepid Thomas Cook organised the first package tour of the Holy Land, at a cost way beyond the means of any young teacher. Also in 1856, A.P. Stanley published a thoughtful study, Sinai and Palestine in Connection with Their History, making him the natural choice to accompany the Prince of Wales on his educational tour of Palestine in 1862.

When the Palestine Exploration Fund was established in 1865 to promote archaeological and surveying work in the region, Archbishop Thomson of York, in his inaugural address, remarked that ‘Palestine belongs to you and to me … that land has been given to us … [it is] the land towards which we turn as the fountain of all our hopes.’ Just what the archbishop meant by this is one of the questions tackled by Daniel Foliard in his rich book on the history and meaning of the various mapping exercises undertaken by the British in the region that by 1920 was called the Middle East.

Foliard rightly criticises anyone who interprets Thomson’s address as imperialist. He wasn’t suggesting that the land should be conquered by Britain; he was invoking the Holy Land of the Protestant imagination, and Jerusalem as a heavenly city. He proclaimed that the task of the church at home was to help modern Britons towards a better realisation of the shining city on the hill in their daily lives. As the historian Eitan Bar-Yosef has shown, few Victorians thought it necessary to visit Palestine for the sake of their spirituality. They had no interest in colonising it, and not much curiosity about conditions there. But they were keen to know about the historic sites that might illuminate and verify the events described in the Bible.

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