Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Blooming 'Desert'

Here's a wonderful and revealing pre-World War I portrait of Palestine from Estelle Blyth's 1927 memoir, When We Lived in Jerusalem. Blyth was the daughter of  G.F.P. Blyth, Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem from 1887 to 1914.

You can see what a scruffy, neglected little desert Palestine was, how in need of the redeeming Zionist touch to bring it back to life, to make it bloom*:

"The fertility of Palestine is amazing. Everything grows out in the open and, as it seems to us under conditions that ought to prevent any self-respecting vegetable life from attaining to maturity. The land, after yielding one crop, will be scratched over by the primitive native plough, which does little but disturb the surface, and another crop put in. Even the little patches of soil amongst the rocks on the hillsides are ploughed and sown, and with good result. Palestinian vegetables would demoralise Covent Garden. We had cauliflowers that measure one foot across, and water melons which a man's arms could hardly span: the grapes of Eschol still grow in clusters from 3 to 4 feet in length.

"In their season, grapes formed a part of everybody's meal, however poor; a rotl (6 ounds) of grapes cost about tenpence, and for a trifling present we could go into a vineyard and eat as much fruit as we could manage. Amongst the trees I can remember only a few; the olive, fig, mulberry, pomegranate, almond, karob, palm, fir, terebinth, willow, myrtle, hawthorn, white and pink acacia, white and pink oleander, tamarisk, juniper and Persian lilac...

"And what of the flowers of Palestine? From the semitropical vegetation of the Jordan Valley to the English flowers so dearly cherished in gardens, practically everything seems to flourish. The wild flowers in spring are lovely beyond telling, especially perhaps in Galilee. We have anemones, scarlet, white, mauve and pink, which many believe to be the lilies of the field before whose glory that of Solomon paled; hyacinths, ranunculus, cyclamen, irises, black arum lilies, narcissus, honeysuckle, daisies, cistus, broom, mandrake, thrift, hyssop, orchids, asphodel, speedwell, acanthus, vetches of many kinds (during a short walk we picked more than 20 different kinds); the list becomes unduly long, but is not nearly complete. In my mother's garden many English flowers grew with a luxuriance I have never seen equalled elsewhere. Living in Palestine, and marking its lavish beauty and fertility... we realized that such expressions as 'the excellency of  Carmel and Sharon', and 'the desert shall blossom as the rose', are no lovely fancy of the poet, no delusion of the over-fervid patriot, but the sober, literal truth.

"Palestine remains a land of corn and wine and honey. We see the surface richness of her; but what of the treasures hidden in her breast, 'the chief things of the ancient mountains and the precious things of the everlasting hills'?... The natural resources of Palestine are practically unknown; but one day the world will awake to find out how literally true are the words of Moses: 'It is a good land, a land in which thou shalt lack nothing'.

"Beauty, as well as richness, surrounds you in Palestine. The colouring of the sky at dawn and sunset, so brilliant yet so delicate; the warm tints of the rich red earth; the green and silver of the olive trees, with their berries of emerald and amethyst; the deep deep blue of the sky paling towards the horizon;... by all these things sight and sound and feeling alike are touched and charmed and quickened. There is magic in the very air as it sweeps across the many-coloured hills, and beauty everywhere, and with it all an elusive and mysterious charm that has never been captured by any one, though some of those magnificent passages in Isaiah bring it closer to us than anything else."

[*On the Zionist myth of 'making the desert bloom', see my posts Sir Bob Wows JNFaithful at Galah Dinner (25/11/08) and Making Deserts Bloom (11/5/11).]

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