For sheer wealth of full flavored information, few travel books of 19th century Palestine equal Ermete Pierotti’s Customs and Traditions of Palestine. During the eight years (1854-1861) the Italian engineer spent repairing Eretz Yisroel’s roads for the Mustapha Surraya, Pasha of Yerushalayim, he kept a sharp lookout for the land’s faults and foibles and put the best between the covers of his book.
During his Palestine stint, Pierrotti developed a strong aversion for Bakshish, the golden lubricant that oiled the turgid wheels of Turkish bureaucracy. Bakshish came in three forms, outright charity, tips for imaginary or actual services done, and bribes. In Pierotti’s view, the Middle East was suffering from a massive overdose of the elixir.
“What traveler in the East, especially in Syria [this included Palestine in his time] does not know the world Bakshish?” he complains.
“So many times has it been dinned into his ears that he uses it at home and it has thus become almost naturalized in Europe… Sleeping or waking, dressing or undressing, working or idling, still the same cry is heard, hateful as the fly’s buzz, the gnat’s trumpet, or the flea’s bite to the weary traveler.”
Most annoying of all was when Arabs demanded Bakshish not for doing one a favor, but for receiving one.
“I have frequently come upon men o r w o m e n quarrelling in a village or in the open country,” he recalls “…Sometimes, I have interfered to prevent a fatal termination to the strife and separated the combatants, after protecting the weaker party. As soon as tranquility has been restored, both have pronounced the mighty word; and when I asked on what pretext they claimed it, was generally informed, ‘Because I had interrupted their business,’’ or ‘because they had left off to please me.’ …In fact, the Arabs sometimes get up a quarrel when they see a European coming, in hopes that they may be parted and so get an excuse for asking for a gift.”
He gives a specific example of the malaise.
“One day,” he writes, “I was returning from inspecting the repairs of the road between Jaffa and Jerusalem (which were executed by order of Surraya Pasha in 1859), and, about two hours journey from the latter place, found a laborer lying by the wayside, who had been badly hurt in exploding a mine [road construction explosive]. I stopped, washed and bound up his wounds as well as I could, and then placing him on my horse, walked slowly by his side, accompanied by his brother, to the Latin Hospital in the town, and placed him in bed.”
The result of his kind deed was appalling. “It would naturally be supposed that the patient thanked me for my care,” he continues. “Not a word, he only asked for bakshish, and as he was so badly hurt, I had not the heart to refuse it. This however, was not all; on quitting the hospital I was met by the brother who made the same demand. Out of patience, I asked, ‘Why?’
He replied, ‘Because I have accompanied you hither.’ ‘But you have accompanied your brother.’ ‘No sir,’ he answered, ‘you told me to come, otherwise I would not have stirred!’ He will not quickly forget the ‘bakshish’ that I administered.”
The Keys of Yerushalayim
Amidst the beliefs and legends of Palestine’s Arabs, Pierotti found a curious custom that occurred every time a new pasha was appointed over Yerushalayim.
“We all know, and the Arabs are aware that G-d said to Abraham, Unto thy seed will I give this land,” he writes. “…Every Mohammedan also knows that Jerusalem once belonged to the Hebrews and was taken from them as a punishment for their infractions of the laws of the prophets Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon.” Palestinian nationalists might take offense at what he writes next:
“When, the news of the death of Abdul Megid and the accession of Abdul Azis reached Jerusalem on July 8, 1861, Jerusalem Jews requested that the governor Surraya Pasha restore to them the keys of Jerusalem, according to a right which they claimed on the death of one sultan and the accession of another. They brought forward sufficient proofs to support their demand, so that the Pasha did not refuse it, but referred it to his ordinary council, consisting of the mufti or chief officer of religion, the khadi or chief judge, and other persons of distinction, natives of the country.
Their decision was in favor of the claim of the Israelites since the whole council was aware that the Jews were the ancient owners of the country.
“Subsequently, Said Pasha, the general of the army, accompanied by the officers of his staff and some members of the council, and followed by a crowd of sight-seers, went to the Jewish quarter where he was met by a deputation of Jewish elders and conducted to the house of the Chief Rabbi, who received the Pasha at the door, and there was publicly presented with the keys. The Pasha was then entertained with the utmost respect at the divan of the Rabbi; refreshments, coffee, and tobacco, were served, and then the Rabbi (not having a garrison to defend the keys) restored them with many thanks to the general, who was escorted back by the elders of the Jews to the governor of the city, Surraya Pasha, to give an account of his mission, and show him that none of the keys were missing.”
“So,” he concludes, “in 1861, the Jewish nation possessed for one hour the keys of Jerusalem, which were delivered over to them by the Arabs in consequence of the unvarying tradition which they had preserved.”
James Finn, the 19th century British consul of Yerushalayim, is less enthusiastic about the custom. In his memoirs Stirring Times, Finn writes of the Jewish custom of “getting possession of the great keys of the city gates on the decease of each Sultan of Constantinople, and after a religious service of prayer, and anointing them with a mysterious preparation of oil and spices, allowing them to be returned to the civic authorities on behalf of the new monarch. For the exercise of this tradition they make heavy presents to the local governors, who allow of a harmless practice that has prescription [profit] to show on its behalf. It is a matter of baksheesh to them.”
By Pierotti’s time, the fauna of Palestine were in lightning decline. Biologists tell us that Eretz Yisroel once teemed with scores of species now confined strictly to the precincts of Yerushalayim’s Biblical Zoo. From beneath the holy soil, the researcher’s spade has unearthed the bones of hippopotami, rhinoceroses, warthogs, wild horses, wolves, and badgers. Changing weather and shrinking habitat eradicated them. By Pierotti’s time, the widespread use of firearms was exterminating Syrian bears and ostriches. What about crocodiles?
All the Arabs he met positively asserted that crocodiles still swam the waters of the Zerka, or Crocodile River that begins in the Shomron Mountains and empties into the Mediterranean north of Caesarea. In 1859, he decided to get to the bottom of the matter. Passing Caesarea’s famous aqueduct, his entourage reached the Zerka River and prepared to cross. But this was easier said than done.
“My escort, to my surprise, seemed afraid, and held back,” he recalled. “On inquiring of my dragoman (servant), Antonia Alonza, I was informed that not one of them was willing to ford the stream, the excuse being that they were ignorant of the nature of its bed, but that the real reason was that they feared the crocodiles.”
Local Arabs insisted that crocodiles were depleting their flocks and showed him sheep bones strewn near one of the reptiles’ reputed haunts, but admitted they had never actually seen one. Pierotti did his best to get eaten alive by tracking the reptiles to their lairs.
“I induced two of them to lead me to the favorite haunt of the crocodiles, and was conducted to a spot where some bones of sheep were strewn about… I tried to persuade the shepherds to ford the stream, but in vain; and though on each refusal I offered a higher reward, they steadfastly refused to put a foot in the water. The only things then left for me to do were to look for footprints in the sand or to find some bones of the crocodile.”
Unfortunately for the annals of biology, Pierotti escaped with his life by the simple expedient of finding nothing; the only specimens he caught were skeleton fragments handed to him by local Arabs.
“As then I cannot suppose that anyone would have been at the trouble to bring these from Egypt,” he writes, “I conclude that even if the reptile does not now exist in the Zerka, it was found there no time since.”
Indeed, crocodiles have never been seen since. That is why you can safely wander the paths of Israel’s Nachal Taninim nature reserve where you are more likely to meet songbirds than their six-foot, scaly counterparts.
Thanks to 19th century easy-going hunting laws, or lack thereof, you can now explore every corner of Eretz Yisroel with little risk of losing part of your anatomy to a vicious quadruped, although the guarantee cannot be extended to Israel’s bipeds.
Pierotti Saves a Jew
Pierotti does not forget to discuss the blood libel disease that was prevalent in the whole of Syria, especially among Christians. He once witnessed a similar incident with his own eyes.
“One day in 1858, on going out of my house in Jerusalem, I saw a very respectable Jew running at full speed, pursued by some Arabs, who as soon as he reached me claimed my protection against his assailants,” he writes. “These tried to drag him away from me; I asked what was the matter, but had only yells and incoherent exclamations in reply, so I determined to place the Jew inside my own doors for security.”
After getting the Jew inside – with the help of his servants – the Jew told him the reason of the disturbance. As he was walking through the town, he found a little boy crying and stopped to ask what the matter was. He found that the child had lost his way, so he took him by the hand and went to help him find his home. Some men came up and snatched the child away, saying,
“You have taken him to kill him, and you shall smart for it!”
After placing the Jew in the custody of the police, Pierotti told his employer, the Pasha, what happened, and after a short examination, the Jew was released and the Arabs sent to prison.
And so, nearing the end of Pierotti’s book, one gets the distinct feeling that while life in old time Palestine may have been more exotic than monochrome modernity, safer and more comfortable it was not.
(Ermete Pierotti., Customs and Traditions of Palestine. Bell and Daldy Cambridge, 1864.)