Culture / Talisker Donahue

Benjamin Disraeli and Cosmopolitan Jerusalem

Jerusalem as the centre of the world

The view of Jerusalem is the history of the world; it is more, it is the history of Earth and Heaven.”

Jerusalem is a divided city. It has been ‘in the news’ for more than two-thousand years, usually for all the wrong reasons and it clings to the cultural imagination of more than half the world’s population. Three of the most widely practiced world religions see the city as one of, if not the, most important geographical areas on the planet and this has resulted in violence, deception and dishonour. It has also resulted in Jerusalem being a place of immeasurable personality which unites that same half of the planet on common spiritual ground. If a peaceful world ever decided to appoint a global capital who could argue against Jerusalem’s place on the final list of nominees?

There is a feeling amongst social-scientists that we are, in fact, moving closer to this sort of situation. Bodies such as the UN, IMF, WHO and even the Olympics suggest that ‘cosmopolitan’ politics will play an increasingly important role in our world; we have even been given a glimpse into our cross-border bonds with the recent financial crisis which has affected the ‘global economy’.

The image that I have of Jerusalem is not of warring religious factions, it is of a cultural melting pot where we are most likely to discover a sliver of a true Universalist spirit. This is what Benjamin Disraeli saw in 1831 and wrote eloquently about in Tancred and it is what countless authors from Montefiore to Huda Imam have seen since.

A portrait of the young Disraeli by AG Chalon. It is undated but is a good representation of the Disraeli who embarked on the ‘Grand Tour.’

Jerusalem was to prove the highlight of the twenty-six year old Disraeli’s Grand Tour. He himself said that he could have written “half a dozen sheets on this week, the most delightful of all our travels.”1 The weather was glorious and Disraeli dined “every day on the roof of [his] house by moonlight”2 after playing at the intrepid nineteenth century tourist and respectable British pilgrim. He was wined and dined by the socialites and he visited the Tombs of the Kings and the Holy Sepulchre. He was, in essence, representative of the supposed two thousand traveller-authors who visited Palestine between 1800 and 1878 and the impressions he took away coloured the central scenes of his novel Tancred.

This book, the third in Disraeli’s Young England Trilogy, tells the story of a young aristocrat who, after losing faith in politics and society, goes “in search of the wisdom of the three great Asian religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”3 Of course this to be found in Jerusalem. Tancred slowly begins to comprehend the hybrid nature of East and West which Disraeli demonstrated through Tancred’s relationship with the various indigenous inhabitants of Jerusalem and, especially, the Jewish Eva.

Tancred first meets this woman who has an almost primeval beauty, “such as it existed in Eden”4. Her very name is reminiscent of Eve; she is ‘woman’ before she is Jew and her features reflect all the nations of Earth.

[Her] complexion was neither fair nor dark, yet it possessed the brilliancy of the north without its dryness, and the softness peculiar to the children of the sun without its moisture.”5

Her cosmopolitanism even extends into her conversation and she states that perhaps she ought to worship Jesus as he is of her race. Indeed Eva has read the Bible and, for Tancred, her mentality is a hybrid mix of Judaism and Anglicanism, she is “already half a Christian.”6 Tancred though has not yet received his cosmopolitan epiphany and his advice of turning to the church for guidance is met with… un-enthusiasm.

“David Street, Jerusalem” A typically Orientalist painting by Gustav Bauernfeind who visited the city in 1880. For an interesting discussion of Orientalist art and the 21st century see: David street is now a popular tourist market and souk.

It is not just in the Holy Land’s inhabitants that Tancred, and Disraeli, find a cosmopolitan identity. The very nature of the place as the cradle of civilisation stirs in the pilgrim the sense that he is treading on ground belonging to humanity. For Tancred, all the natural beauty and wonder of Jerusalem and Palestine pale into insignificance when set alongside the sites of human endeavour and identity,

[his] eye seized on Sion and Calvary; the gates of Bethlehem and Damascus; the hill of Titus; the Mosque of Mahomet and the tomb of Christ”7

In seeing this hybrid mix of man’s history he realises that

the view of Jerusalem is the history of the world; it is more, it is the history of Earth and Heaven.”8

Tancred’s impression of the universality of the Holy Land is further enhanced during his excursion to Sinai where he observes “two ruins, a Christian church and a Mahometan mosque. In this, the sublimest scene of Arabian glory, Israel and Ishmael alike raised their altars to the great God of Abraham”9 This coexistence, this acceptance of the holy land as a shared space, awakens in Tancred the understanding that “it is Arabia alone that can regenerate the world.”10 This thought has continued into the modern age and in 2008, when discussing Jerusalem being voted Arab capital of culture, Huda Imam described the city as the “world capital of humanity and spirituality.”11 As she took around fifty children on a tour of the city one Muslim child asked whether he could pray at the church of the Holy Sepulchre,

You can pray anywhere you want… Since my childhood, I have always loved to light a candle, recite the fatiha, and make a wish when I visit this church. As a Jerusalemite, I consider it part of my culture” she replied.12

This is Jerusalem beneath the politics, beneath the violence and at its cosmopolitan best.

A Modern view of David street tourist market

Talisker Donahue


1 Disraeli. Home Letters Written by the Late Earl of Beaconsfield in 1830 and 1831. p.120. Kessinger Publishing Co. Kila, (MT, USA). 2004.

2 Ibid.

3 Proudman, M.F. Disraeli as an ‘Orientalist’: The Polemical Errors of Said. p.551 The Journal of the Historical Society. Vol.5. no.4. 2005.

4 Ibid. p.187

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid. p.189

7 Ibid. p.184.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid. p.288-89

10 Ibid. p.465

11 Imam, H. Jerusalem: A World of Culture. This Week in Palestine. Issue 123. 2008. (Accessed 18/04/12)


One thought on “Benjamin Disraeli and Cosmopolitan Jerusalem

  1. Pingback: My 10 favorite travel quotes « Journey Around The Globe

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