Holy Land Pilgrimage and Biblical Geography




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A Connecticut Yankee tackles Biblical Geography

Edward Robinson, born in Southington, Connecticut, realized a childhood dream when he came to the Holy Land in 1838 to research biblical geography.  After publishing Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia in 1841, Robinson was recognized as the foremost biblical scholar of his day.  He succeeded in identifying nearly 200 sites mentioned in the Bible, which were previously unknown.  With the passing of time, Robinson’s reputation has only been enhanced. To this day, he is considered the “Father of Biblical Geography.”

As a Connecticut Yankee, Robinson had the knowledge to seriously tackle biblical geography.  From the days of the Pilgrims, when they stepped onto Plymouth Rock holding the King James Authorized Version of the Bible in hand, the Good Book was a vital component of New England education, worship and daily life.  This may explain why the first printing of Robinson’s book -- in 5,000 copies -- was quickly sold out.

“Indeed in no country in the world, perhaps, is such feeling more widely diffused than in New England, in no country are the scriptures better known, or more highly prized.  From his earliest years the child there is accustomed not only to read the Bible for himself, but he reads or listens to it in the morning or evening devotions of the family and in the daily village school, in the Sunday school and Bible class….”
(From Robinson’s Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia, published in Boston, 1841)

Fluent in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, the Old and New Testaments, and the works of first century AD historian Josephus Flavius, Robinson wisely chose as his traveling companion, Pastor Eli Smith (also born in Connecticut!) who had served as a missionary in Beirut.  Smith was fluent in Arabic and familiar and comfortable with the customs of the Middle East.  Robinson prepared himself for this pilgrimage by diligently going through all the accessible literature on Palestine, collating every bit of information on file cards.
Robinson brought with him two pocket compasses, a thermometer, telescope and measuring tape.  He brought the Bible not only in English, but also in Hebrew. Robinson, Smith and a cook rode on horses while 3 mules carried their tent, sleeping bags and food.  Their daily expenses came to under $5 per day.  The "firman," (a permit from the Turkish sultan) which gave them the right to travel freely around the country, was their most important possession.

Robinson and Smith each kept their own diary and only later did they compare notes and evaluations.  They stopped at least every hour to take notes.  In the evening, they incorporated their notes into their diaries which served as the basis for Robinson’s published work.  To their great satisfaction, Robinson and Smith found that the notes they took independently corresponded to a remarkable degree.

Edward Robinson, Father of Biblical Geography

Robinson and Smith took to side roads besides following the main pilgrim highways. According to Robinson when they traveled by camel, they covered two geographical miles per hour.  When they traveled by horseback or muleback, they traveled 2.4 geographical miles per hour.  By camel, horse or mule, there is hardly a biblical site west of the River Jordan that they did not visit.

Robinson arrived in Jerusalem on Saturday, April 14, 1838, the day before Easter. Many pilgrims will identify with Robinson’s emotions as he approached the Holy City
for the first time.

“The feelings of a Christian traveler on approaching Jerusalem can be better conceived than described.  Mine were strongly excited.  Before us, as we drew near, lay Zion, the mount of Olives, the valleys of Hinnom and Jehoshaphat, and other objects of the deepest interest; while crowning the summits of the same ancient hills was spread out the city where God of old had dwelt, and where the Savior of the world had lived and taught and died.

From the earliest childhood I had read of and studied the localities of this sacred spot, now I beheld them with my own eyes; and they all seemed familiar to me, as if the realization of a former dream.”
(From Robinson’s Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia, published in Boston, 1841)

Robinson was the first to suggest that the stones jutting out from the western wall were the spring of an arch supporting a bridge which connected the Upper City (that is the Jewish Quarter of today) with an entrance into the Temple Mount used by Herod whom Robinson called a “splendor-loving tyrant.”  Robinson’s description of his “discovery” gives a flavor of his personality,

“During our first visit to the southwest corner of the area of the mosk [i.e. mosque], we observed several of the large stones jutting out from the western wall, which at first sight seemed to be the effect of a bursting of the wall from some mighty shock or earthquake.  We paid little regard to this at the moment, our attention being engrossed by other objects; but on mentioning the fact the same evening in a circle of friends, we found that they also had noticed it; and the remark was incidentally dropped by Mr. Whiting that the stones had the appearance of having once belonged to a large arch.

The courses of these immense stones, which seemed at first to have sprung out from their places in the wall in consequence of some enormous violence, occupy nevertheless their original position; their external surface is hewn to a regular curve; and being fitted one upon another, they form the commencement or foot of an immense arch, which once sprung out from the western wall in a direction towards Mount Zion, across the valley of the Tyropean. This arch could only have belonged to THE BRIDGE, which according to Josephus led from this part of the temple to the Xystus [Greek architectural term for the portico of the gymnasium] of Zion; and it proves incontestably the antiquity of that portion of the wall from which it springs.”
(From Robinson’s Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia, published in Boston, 1841)

Robinson meticulously measured the three courses of stone visible to him and each stone individually, as well as its distance from the southwest corner of the Temple Mount Courtyard.  He concluded that the existence of these remains of the ancient bridge seemed to remove all doubt that this part of the western wall could be dated to the time of the ancient temple.  And he wonders, “How they can have remained for so many ages unseen or unnoticed by any writer or traveler?”

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Robinson's Arch as it looked in 1869

Illustration in the Land and the Book by W. M. Thomson, published 1869

"Robinson's Arch" was a very visible landmark in the 1860s

I found the above photo in my copy of The Land and the Book subtitled Biblical Illustrations drawn from the manners and customs, the scenes and scenery of the Holy Land.  Published in London in 1869, it was written by W. M. Thompson, a missionary to Syria and Palestine for 30 years.  Below I quote Thompson who mentions that Robinson’s discovery was much debated in his day.  The italics are mine.
“South of this Wailing-place are the great stones of the arch which Dr. Robinson identified as part of the bridge on which Titus stood in order to hold a parley with the Jews in the Temple.  One of these stones is twenty-five feet long….Of course there must have been several piers and arches.  The whole causeway is supposed to have formed a magnificent passage from Zion to the south porch of the Temple.

The identification, history and object of this gigantic work have in our day furnished an arena of debate and strife almost as noisy and earnest as when the Temple was sacked and burned by the Romans.”
(From Thompson’s The Land and the Book, London, 1869)
Later explorers, appreciative of Robinson’s tremendous contribution to biblical geography, named this arch after him and the name "Robinson's Arch" has stuck to this very day.

Because Robinson was right on so much else, the archeologists who dug under Robinson’s Arch from 1968 onwards were very surprised to discover that Robinson was wrong about the bridge.  Instead, they concluded that Robinson’s Arch supported a monumental staircase which ascended the Temple Mount from the south, from the City of David. This is what it would have looked like,

Robinson's Arch, reconstructed

Diagram on site at the Ophel Excavations

Robinson's Arch once supported a monumental staircase
 leading up into the Temple courtyard

I like to sit with my groups opposite Robinson’s Arch, facing the outer western wall of the Temple.  I ask my pilgrims to stretch their necks backwards, look across, and try to imagine the splendor of the courtyard Joseph and Mary experienced as they presented Jesus in the Temple precincts.  When we read the birth narrative and Jesus’ presentation in the Temple in Luke 2, we contrast Herod’s opulence to the simplicity of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and childhood.

We continue with the story of the frantic parents’ 3-day search for Jesus, only to discover him amazing the rabbis with the depth of his questions in the Temple courtyard.  Wouldn’t Robinson feel proud that under “his” arch, pilgrims 170 years later are opening their Bibles to study the Gospel of Luke?

Robinson's Arch in 2007

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Robinson's Arch 2007

On May 11th, Robinson and his party camped at the En Gedi oasis, opposite the shores of the Dead Sea.  Robinson writes that he arose at dawn.  While everyone else was loading the animals, Robinson ascended the pass above the waterfall, hiking for 45 minutes to reach the top of the cliff.  He gazed over towards the east, to the Dead Sea and reflected upon the destiny of the guilty inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, the ancient cities of evil. (Genesis 19)

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Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Above the Dead Sea, Robinson and his party camped by the En Gedi waterfall

Then Robinson turned his attention southwards to a ruin called Sebbeh by the Beduin and, with the aid of a telescope, identified it as Masada. This was a bull’s-eye for Robinson. In his words,
“The truncated summit of the lofty isolated rock forms a small plain apparently inaccessible; and this is occupied by a ruin.  We had been greatly struck by its appearance; and on examining it closely with a telescope, I could perceive what appeared to be a building on its northwest part, and also traces of other buildings further east…

This spot was to us for the time a complete puzzle.  We thought at first it might perhaps be the ruin of some early convent.  But subsequent research leaves little room to doubt that this was the site of the ancient and renowned fortress of Masada, first built by Jonathan Maccabeus, and afterwards strengthened and rendered impregnable for Herod the Great, as a place of refuge for himself.

The description of Josephus corresponds very exactly with the character of Sebbeh as seen from a distance; and there is little doubt that future travelers who may visit its site will find other and more definite traces of its ancient strength.  The building now visible on the northwest and the columns described by the Arabs are not improbably the remains of Herod’s palace.”
(From Robinson’s Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia, published in Boston, 1841)
The reason why no one before had identified Masada is that first century AD historian Josephus doesn’t say on which side of the Dead Sea Masada was located.  As a matter of fact, one of Herod’s fortresses, called Machaerus, is located on the eastern side of the Dead Sea.  Machaerus, according to Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews XVIII:5:1-2), is where John the Baptist was beheaded.  (Matthew 14)

Nearly 30 years after Robinson’s visit, Captain Charles Warren climbed Masada and affirmed Robinson’s identification.

Bethsaida was a nameless tel, known only as “Et-Tell,” i.e. “The Mound  of Ruins,” until Robinson passed through in June 1838.  Although it was located a mile from the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee, Robinson suggested this was Bethsaida, a fishing village from the time of Jesus and hometown of the disciples Peter, Andrew and Philip.

Forty years later the German scholar Gottlieb Schumacher explored the area, looking for the best route to make railroad tracks for a train from Haifa to Damascus.  Schumacher declared that Bethsaida was too far from the Sea of Galilee.  He suggested a much more likely site called el-Araj, for it was located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  For one hundred years scholars argued whether Robinson or Schumacher was correct.

In 1987, archeologist Rami Arav (today at the University of Nebraska) carried out probes at the two sites.  The proof was unequivocal: a settlement layer from the Roman period existed only at Et-Tell.  Arav thus confirmed Robinson’s identification of Bethsaida.  Although Bethsaida is today far from the shores of the Sea of Galilee, excavators have found many fishing implements such as rods and lead weights for nets, so that most scholars today agree with Robinson’s conjecture.

southern part of Tel Bethsaida

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Tel Bethsaida may have looked something like this
when Robinson dropped some coins as he was traveling through

In late 1999 I participated in a full-day seminar for guides on site at Bethsaida.  Rami Arav told us that during the dig they had found two American coins.  Presumably they had fallen out of the pocket of Edward Robinson.  If I remember correctly, (unfortunately I wasn’t as prodigious a note-taker as Robinson!) the archeologist told us that they were from the period of Andrew Jackson!
Robinson also identified my favorite biblical site, Tel DanTel is a Hebrew word meaning “a mound of ruins.”  Tel is found in the Hebrew Bible five times altogether; twice in Joshua, in connection with the conquest of Ai and the conquest of Hatzor. This is how I imagine Robinson “discovered” Dan:

Robinson would deliberately not strike up conversation with the locals, fearing that they would make up stories about what they thought he wanted to hear.  He would simply point to topographical features on the landscape, and then Eli Smith would ask the local farmers in Arabic, “what’s this called; what’s that called?”  When Robinson pointed to the high mound above the headwaters of the River Jordan, a local riding by on a donkey told Smith it was called “Tel el Kadi.”  Smith translated this as the “mound of the judge.”

Robinson thought for a moment and opened his Bible.  Then he snapped his fingers and said, “Hey this must be the ancient city of Dan."  And so it was!  Robinson had simply opened his Kings James Version of the Bible to Genesis 49:16, “Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel.”  Natives of the upper Galilee had preserved the original biblical name of the city by translating it into Arabic.

Robinson identifed the ruins as the synagogue of Capernaum

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Limestone synagogue at Capernaum, located by Robinson

Robinson also identified not only Capernaum, the headquarters of Jesus public ministry in the Galilee, but also suggested the remarkable white limestone columns and Corinthian capitals lying around on the site had once graced the synagogue at Capernaum.  Like Bethsaida, Capernaum’s location was vigorously debated by scholars for the next hundred years.  I see it as a fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy when he cursed both cities,

“Then he proceeded to denounce the towns where most of his miracles were done, because they did not repent:  Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida!  For if the miracles that were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes long ago!  But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.  And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven?  You will go down to Hades.”  (Matthew 11)

If the Bible has an important place in your life, then why don’t you make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land?  It’s a lot easier than it was in Robinson’s day (and air-conditioned).  You can visit the synagogue at Capernaum, the mound of the ancient city of Dan, Peter’s hometown of Bethsaida and Herod’s fortress at Masada, all identified by Robinson.  You can walk on the 2,000-year-old sidewalk right under Robinson’s Arch. And, this Connecticut Yankee who has been living in King David’s Court for over 30 years will be happy to be your guide!

Copyright 2007, 2009 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.


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