On his landmark visit to Israel 150 years ago, American literary giant Mark Twain witnessed what he did not then know was the start of the prophetic return of the Jewish people to the land. The renowned travel book that became the foundation for his success, Innocents Abroad, painted a picture of a holy land whose desolation would serve as the beginning point of prophecy brought to life.
In June of 1867, Mark Twain embarked on a journey to Europe and Ottoman Palestine, now Israel. Unimpressed, he described the Holy Land as “unpicturesque” and “unsightly”, even “desolate”. From September 24-25, 1867, Twain stayed at the Mediterranean Hotel, now called the Wittenberg House, in the “Old Jewish Quarter” (now the Muslim Quarter of the Old City). At the time, Jews in the Old City had just become a majority, but the margins were slim.
Since then, the Old City, Jerusalem, and Israel has begun a redemption process in which in addition to the land giving fruit, there is a revival of Jewish life, an ingathering of exiles, and Jewish sovereignty in the land. Indeed, Twain’s book, which was published 30 years before the first World Zionist Congress, has often been used to support the Zionist idea that Palestine was a “land without a people for a people without a land.”
According to Daniel Luria, the Executive Director of Ateret Cohanim, an organization that works to reestablish Jewish roots in the Old City of Jerusalem, when Twain visited, the Old City was a “backwater town for the Ottomans, not a glorious city like it is today.” But now, he told Breaking Israel News, “We are living in the realization of the prophecies that Twain witnessed. Only when the Jewish people returned to the land was it built up. Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) returned and finally we see the true unfolding of the redemption process.”
Twain’s descriptions in Innocents Abroad gave evidence to Jeremiah’s prophecy of destruction of the Holy Land, followed by an end to desolation. Jeremiah prophesied in 25:11 and in the Book of Lamentations that “This whole land shall be a desolate ruin.” Echoing the Biblical words, Twain wrote, “Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes…. desolate and unlovely.”
Of the Jezreel valley (in Israel’s lower Galilee region), Twain wrote, “Stirring scenes […] occur in the valley no more. There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent-not for thirty miles in either direction. There are two or three small clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride ten miles hereabouts and not see ten human beings.”
He described the Galilee as “the sort of solitude to make one dreary […] Come to Galilee for that […] these unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of barrenness, that never, never do shake the glare from their harsh outlines, and fade and faint into vague perspective; that melancholy ruin of Capernaum: this stupid village of Tiberias, slumbering under its six funereal palms […] We reached Tabor safely […] We never saw a human being on the whole route.”
“It’s an interesting reflection to see how far we’ve come, with the Hula Valley, Jerusalem, and the sites and seas he visited,” said Yoni Shapira, founder of Landmark Heritage Services and lecturer on the Holy Land in the 19th century through the eyes of Mark Twain. “Twain would not have recognized the land if he saw it today.”
Twain’s descendant, Tommy Waller, is a witness to the transformation that the Holy Land has seen since Twain’s visit 150 years ago, and has actually become part of its redemption. Twain was Waller’s great-great-grandmother’s nephew, and “It is interesting,” noted Waller to Breaking Israel News, “that a cousin of his would come here to Israel and say the opposite that he said 150 years ago. But they say there are no coincidences in Israel.”
Waller, the founder of an organization called HaYovel which brings Christian volunteers to work on the land and strengthen independent farmers in Israel, only understood the prophetic nature of his ancestor’s, and then his, time in Israel when he first began to harvest grapes in Israel. In Jeremiah 33:11, it is prophesied that the land would later flourish: “For I will restore the fortunes of the land as of old—said Hashem.”
Waller echoed this prophecy, saying, “Where he saw desolation, I’m seeing restoration. Where he saw rocks, I’m seeing vineyards.
“Our volunteers talk about how beautiful the land is. Not about desolation, but communities and farming land – the opposite of what it once was. It’s a prophetic place,” he said.
Waller argues that although Twain was “making fun of the land,” he essentially strengthened the prophetic truth of what would happen in the future as the Jewish people began to return. “He wasn’t trying to be an advocate of Israel, we was trying to write a good article. But as it turns out, he’s an Israel advocate whether he would like it or not,” said Waller.
During his travels in Jerusalem, Twain purchased a Bible as a keepsake and inscribed it in English and Hebrew for his mother. The Bible, made of “Balsam-wood from the Jordan,” “oak from Abraham’s tree at Hebron,” and “olive-wood from the Mount of Olives”, was surprising for an adamantly secular writer who described the land so unemotionally, called religious passions “emotions of the nursery,” and questioned the link between “The Land” and “The Book.”
Shapira explained that the norm of the day was for Westerners to look at Jerusalem as an exotic place through orientalism and a Biblical lens. But Twain saw Jerusalem as it was, “A place of desolation, over population, disease, swamps, and animals,” looking past the romanticism that many artists and travelers portrayed.
Twain, who was a freemason, was cynical about organized religion and critiqued “American vandals abroad” who brought back merchandised items and called them part of reality, Shapira told Breaking Israel News. Nevertheless, Twain respected his mother’s devout Christian approach and knew that she would appreciate a Bible from Jerusalem with “Yerushalayim” – “Jerusalem” – written on it in Hebrew.
Rabbi Tuly Weisz of Breaking Israel News went so far as to suggest that Twain’s eventual fame in the American canon was a result of his unconscious role in the fulfillment of prophecy.
“He wasn’t the father of American literature until this visit, when he wrote the postscript to Jeremiah,” noted Rabbi Weisz. “As the last one to report on the destruction chronicled by Jeremiah, God used Mark Twain to be a prophet.” Rabbi Weisz believes the current flourishing of the Land of Israel is undoubtedly part of Jeremiah’s prophecy that the land will be restored.
Editor’s note: Tuly Weisz is the founder and publisher of Breaking Israel News