Journal of Palestine Studies, XXXI, no.1 (Autumn 2001)

 

Recent Books

 

Measuring Jerusalem: The Palestine Exploration Fund and British Interests in the Holy Land, by John James Moscrop

London: Leicester University Press, 2000. ix + 222 pages. Appendix to p. 234. Bibliography to p. 237. Index to p. 242. $74.95 cloth.

 

Reviewed by Edward Fox

 

The Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) was one of the first European archaeological institutions to study Palestine. It was founded in England in 1865 by leading figures in the country's religious, aristocratic, and mercantile establishments to study the "archaeology, manners and customs, topography, geology, natural sciences (botany, zoology, meteorology)" of the Holy Land, on the grounds that "no country should be of so much interest to us as that in which the documents of our Faith were written, and the momentous events they describe enacted."

The history of the PEF from 1865 to the start of the Great War in 1914 is of interest because in it can be found the seeds of many of the problems that beset Palestine now. John Moscrop's meticulous and detailed account shows how pious Victorian Englishmen translated their devotion to the text of the Bible into a belief that the land described in it belonged to them in a spiritual sense. Moscrop shows how this spiritual identification with Palestine evolved into a British government policy in which Palestine became part of the empire and a possession whose ownership was contested among the other imperial powers of Christian Europe.

The PEF launched expeditions to map, survey, and excavate in the Ottoman provinces of Palestine. These early expeditions laid the foundations for biblical archaeology in the following century. Only now are the intellectual assumptions under which these British enthusiasts worked (many of them military officers of the Royal Engineers) seen as belonging to an age of faith rather than an age of rationality: Their common aim was to study and measure the land in order to "prove" the truth of the biblical narrative. Through the lobbying of the influential Earl of Shaftesbury (better known to students of British history as the father of benevolent social legislation limiting the working hours of industrial workers), a British consulate was established in Jerusalem in 1856. Its aim was both political and spiritual. Politically, it gave Britain a foothold in a strategic comer of the weakened Ottoman Empire; spiritually, it gave Britain a religious role in the Holy Land, in the improbable form of protector of the Jews of Palestine. Shaftesbury, like many men of his time, held the evangelical belief that the conversion of the Jews to the true (Anglican) faith would herald the Second Corning of Christ. Making British consular protection available to Jews whenever possible was seen as a step in this direction. Conversion to Christianity would (it was hoped) follow.

Although Moscrop does not make the point, this mystical attachment to Palestine on the part of Britain's rulers served as fertile ground for the ideas of early Zionism and accounts for the official British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine that culminated in the Balfour Declaration and the commitment to a Jewish national home that underlay British policy during the Mandate.

When it suited the War Office, the PEF was used literally as a front organization under which militarily important mapping and surveying expeditions were conducted, especially after the construction of the Suez Canal. The Survey of Western Palestine, conducted soon after the PEF's founding, led by Lieutenant Horatio Herbert Kitchener (later Lord Kitchener), not only provided strategically valuable data, it also defined Palestine as a modem geographical entity. In 1912, a similar expedition was launched to map an area of southern Sinai. One of the archaeologists employed to give the mission a convincing scholarly character was a youthful T. E. Lawrence.

This work examines the nuts and bolts of the relationship between British imperial interests and the PEF, leaving the interpretation to others. We learn regularly, for example, of the precise amounts in the PEF's bank ac- counts as its fortunes rose and fell. In using such a conventionally chronological approach, emphasizing detail, Moscrop serves readers who want just the facts and nothing more. As a historical narrative, it is slow going.

The book ends with General Allenby’s historic entry into Jerusalem on foot in 1918, and there is little mention in the book of the PEF in the period after that. To some it may come as a surprise that the PEP still exists: it has occupied the same tiny building in central London for nearly 100 years, thanks to a wealthy patron who bought the freehold. It still produces a journal, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, and has a small but matchless library, but its glory days are long past.