Wed 29 Dec 2010
I continue a thread on one of the numerous 19th century Bible customs travel accounts by Christian enthusiasts able to travel to their “Holy Land.” The author, Frank S. DeHass, served as the United States Consul in Palestine in the mid 19th century. His text is aptly entitled Buried Cities Recovered, or, Explorations in Bible Lands, giving the results of recent researches in the Orient, and recovery of many places in sacred and profane history long considered lost. My copy, handed down from my grandmother, was published in 1886 in Philadelphia by Bradley & Company; the tenth edition no less! This is a wonderful read and it is worth reading the entire book online, thanks to Google Books.
An eastern inn, or khan, never was a house of entertainment in the sense that Americans understand a hotel to be. Such accommodations as provision, bed, and other comforts at an inn are unknown int he Orient, and belong exclusively to western civilization. In the East all travelers carry their own bedding and provision with them, and must dress their own food, kindle their own fire, and spread their own table. An Oriental inn is merely a place of shelter from the storm, or protection from robbers, where a man and his beast can safely lodge for the night free of charge. A portion of the khan was assigned to the beasts, generally one side, and travelers who came in late, if they found the khan full, would have to make their beds in the manger with the horses and camels, as Joseph and Mary were forced to do. These caravansaries, or inns, were sometimes very rude, simply a rough wall built around a house, or natural caves int he rocks, as appears to have been the case at Bethlehem. Many of these grottoes are used as stables in the neighborhood, and some of them as dwellings by the Arabs.
Until superseded by convents, each village had its khan; they were also found along the great lines of travel. These inns were considered sacred property. No invading army every disturbed them. Generally there was but one khan in a place and in a small town like Bethlehem there never could have been but one. When once an inn is established, through the liberality of some prince or man of wealth, it became public property consecrated to hospitality, and could never be appropriated to other purposes.
We have been thus minute in our description of an Oriental khan because tradition locates the inn of Joseph and Mary at Bethlehem on a portion of the estate of Boaz – the old homestead of Obed and Jesse – so that the birthplace of David was identical with the birthplace of Jesus, his illustrious successor and King eternal. We visited the place on Christmas eve in order to celebrate the great event very near, if not on the very spot, where Christ our Lord was born. The weather was mild, and on the way we passed several shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats, among which we saw quite a number of lambs and kids skipping among the rocks.
As eighteen centuries before, “there was no room in the inn,” but by invitation of the Patriarch we stopped at the Armenian Convent close by. Our party were the first Americans ever entertained by the monks, and our ladies the first women ever admitted into the convent. We were treated with great respect, and every attention was shown us; but the thought of sitting and sleeping on rich divans in the same city, and very near the identical spot, where the in fact Saviour once lay upon the straw, detracted greatly from the enjoyment of the occasion. Still, I considered it a great privilege to be there, and a strange feeling came over me as I joined int he midnight service over the manger where our blessed Lord, in all probability, once lay a helpless babe; and when we all marched with lighted tapers through the old church, and down into the Grotto of the Nativity changing the Christmas carol, “Glory to God in the highest,: we felt spell-bound, and our hearts re-echoed the sentiment back to heaven; and when we surrounded the manger, and read in characters of gold the inscription beneath the altar – HERE JESUS CHRIST WAS BORN! no words can describe my emotions.
It seems that Dr. DeHass was ultimately capable of putting words together to describe his experience at Bethlehem on Christmas eve. The selection above is a classic example of biblicized Orientalism. As noted by Edward Said and others, this is the kind of homogenized “East” in which real people and places are but foils for the imagination of the viewer. I say “biblicized” because the romanticism here is not just to dismiss the Palestine of the time as inferior to the civilized West, but also as inferior to its gloriously imagined Biblical past. The description of the khan, a place the author did not actually stay in that night nor is there any evidence he actually saw a contemporary khan in Bethlehem, is generic and composite. Whatever “inns” he may have seen in Palestine or heard about, it is absurd to assume that these remained unchanged for virtually two millennia or that this description was representative. There surely were places in Bethlehem where a traveler could get a bed and meal. Not all khans were stables. And to say that no invading army ever disturbed them is only to note that such humble spots were not worth disturbing. I suspect, however, that invading armies over the years had no qualms about destroying anything in their path. It is also interesting to note that we never hear about any real people in this narrative. The benefactor of the khan is simply a “prince or man of wealth.”
The experience of DeHass and his party is the ultimate colonial privilege trope. After describing the kind of khan he thinks Jesus was born in, he suggests there was no “room at the inn” for his party. Which inn? Bethlehem as a major pilgrimage center had numerous places for pilgrims to stay, often but not always in nearby religious convents. There was money to be made in housing the faithful, so very few pilgrims with pocket change at the time would have been stuck in rude stables. Our author, with his ladies, spent the night in what appears to be a lavish and comfortable surrounding, where he retired to after the midnight vigil at the church. If indeed such hotel-like comfort “detracted greatly from the enjoyment of the occasion,” he has only himself to blame. I suppose since his was the first “American” party (a dubious claim, I suspect) to grace the convent, he felt compelled to rest as befit his station as Consul. The point is that DeHass as Consul had connections because of the power he represented. Bethlehem would have welcomed his money and devotion, no matter what his status, but we read his account today because the learned divine in the service of the state returned to America and wrote up his account for an eager public.
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