During the Gilded Age, American interest in the Holy Land surged to an obsessional height that scholars call “Holy Land Mania.” The term “Holy Land” referred to the Ottoman provinces of the eastern Mediterranean, including Palestine, and parts of present-day Lebanon and Syria (then together called Syria). In practice, Americans used the expression more expansively, as I do here, to note any part of the Middle East associated with the Bible, including areas in today’s Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq. From the late 1860s to 1900, American visitors to the Holy Land outnumbered all other globetrotters. The Holy Land became a popular destination for artists, writers, tourists, colonists, pilgrims, missionaries, scientists, and scholars. The reasons for this explosion of interest were complex. The political involvement of European powers in the Middle East piqued the fascination of Americans with the region’s diverse landscapes and cultures, including its various populations of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Archaeological expeditions raised the scientific significance of the area, and at the same time new challenges to religious dogma such as Darwinism drove Americans to scour the Holy Land for biblical testimony as a means of affirming the grounds for belief. As Americans strove to unify the nation after the Civil War, many more viewed the Holy Land—specifically, Palestine—as the “maternal” origin for a shared national culture rooted in the Christian faith.
Palestine was an especially powerful symbol of national identity: Americans had long thought of themselves as God’s chosen people, or members of a favored nation akin to the biblical Israelites. This covenantal connection grew as travelers experienced the East, and it offered a sacred rationale for US conquest and domination of other lands. The imaginary bond between America and the “Promised Land” enabled late nineteenth-century thinkers to frame US imperial expansion as the fulfillment of the nation’s sacred purpose. Imperialism also pervaded American depictions of the Holy Land: America’s connection to Palestine was so deeply felt, and so many travelers had imposed themselves on its sacred geography, that some claimed the sacred terrain as American “territory.” Protestant Americans believed that they were ordained to reconquer Palestine through peaceful means, such as culture and philanthropy, despite the peripheral involvement of the US in the power struggle among European nations for control of the declining Ottoman empire.
The biblical fixations of Americans were entangled with Orientalist stereotypes. Whereas Americans saw themselves as modern and innovative, they often characterized the peoples of Palestine as unchanged relics of the biblical past. The greater Islamic world was depicted as opulent, erotic, and languorous, populated by picturesquely lounging Arabs and seductive harem women. Such stereotypes blinded Americans to the complex social, political, and religious conditions of the region.
Adolf Schreyer (German, 1828–1899), detail of Arab Warriors, c. 1870s. Oil on canvas, 18 3/4 x 32 7/8 in. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Bequest of Charles Parsons, 1905.