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Like many others, Porter is sure to note that no one lives within the walls of the former city, but that there is an Arab village right beside it.

This, too, is seen as the fulfilment of a biblical prophecy: ‘Ashkelon shall not be inhabited.’These accounts of 19th-century European and American visitors to Palestine hint at how profoundly the Bible has shaped the ways in which they saw the country.

In Porter’s day, the historic city was farmland for Jura, an adjacent Arab village.


Seen by Europeans and Americans as the foundations of Western civilisation, the Bible and the classics served to define the Western relationship to the lands of the East, especially Palestine, or the Holy Land.

Travellers accepted with little question the hardly believable numbers of people given in these works: armies routinely numbered in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

After reaching the top, he surveyed the verdant Palestinian countryside.

Gardens covered most of the site, and Porter listed their rich produce: vines, pomegranates, figs, apricots, plus ‘luxuriant beds of onions and melons’.

Westerners in the 19th century did not question scriptural descriptions of ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’.

They interpreted biblical language in terms of their own surroundings.

The year was 1858 when Josias Leslie Porter, an Irish Presbyterian minister, travelled all across Palestine.

Porter was making notes for one of the first modern travel guides to the country, to be published later that year by the London firm of John Murray.

But dirt roads are a far cry from a desolate wasteland.

Palestine’s many valleys and plains – ‘covered with fine fields of wheat’, as the pioneering American scholar Edward Robinson described them – were producing significant agricultural surpluses throughout the 19th century.

Then, even further removed from his trip, he wrote that only ‘one small section’ of Ashkelon had ‘little gardens’, most of the site being covered with ‘hillocks of drifting sand’.


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