You have to be impressed by Andrew Jampoler, a retired Navy Captain who has written a number of books on rather esoteric historical happenings. I have just read through his “Sailors in the Holy Land”, the story of “the 1848 American Expedition to the Dead Sea and the Search for Sodom and Gomorrah”, a fascinating book. That Jampoler, and so many others like him, have the drive, patience, time and competence to put together books like this has long amazed me.
The book was published a few years ago by the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis. It’s a handsome, well constructed book, and it tells a very interesting story.
The major task of the United States Navy is clear, but in the 19th century, the Navy’s defense mission was, for the most part, limited. Following the end of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the Navy had relatively little to do, it had too many ships for current activities, and an even greater surplus of naval officers, many of whom were anxious for sea duty. It came to be realized that the American fleet could undertake another important task, namely the carrying on of scientific explorations, the most notable of which was the six ship 1838 Pacific Ocean expedition led by Lt. Charles Wilkes. Not only was important data collected, but Navy personnel had the experience of sea duty, and the prestige of the Navy was enhanced.
Jampoler focuses on another such expedition, one of which (to my understanding) is not very well known. This is the much smaller expedition led by Lt. William Lynch to explore the Sea of Galilee, to travel downstream on the Jordan River and to measure and examine the Dead Sea.
In 1848, of course, Palestine and surrounding areas were all under the rather spotty sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire, and was still recovering from a major earthquake about ten years earlier, as well as a revolt by the Egyptian pasha against the Turkish sultan. Palestine was rather sparsely settled, with even the largest communities (Jerusalem, Jaffa, Tiberias, etc.) being quite small, quite primitive and quite hard to get to. This was to change fairly rapidly – railroads and the telegraph would soon come, making communications and travel much easier. But they were not yet in place.
The book tells the story of this, rather successful, expedition. It starts with the decision that the trip could proceed, the selection and provisioning of the ship to carry the participants to the holy land, the choice of participants, and the decision as to what kind of boats could be used to navigate the dangerous, rapid-filled Jordan, and how to get those boats from the harbor at Acre to Tiberias on the Galilee. It proceeds with the long trip across the Atlantic, and the stops along the Mediterranean, including Minorca, Malta, Istanbul, Izmir, Beirut, Jaffa and Acre, the land trip to Tiberias, the adventuresome trip downriver to the Dead Sea and the exploration of the Dead Sea, which included the most accurate to date by far measuring of both the depth of the Dead Sea and its elevation below sea level. Side trips, as well, to Jerusalem, Masada, Damascus and more.
In addition to geography, Jampoler introduces the reader to residents of Palestine – Turks, Arabs, Christians, Druze, Jews. Based on the published narratives of Lynch and others, and extensive research amongst documents in the National Archives and Library of Congress, he describes the attitudes of the members of the expedition, and their impressions of the places they visited and the people they met.
One more point – Jampoler is a very good writer, but he does have his quirks. He likes to give you information that is tangential to his main focus. For me, that is a strong point; I can see where some others may differ. But I like that he told me that the large building in which Lynch met the Sultan of Turkey is now the site of the Kempinski Hotel in Istanbul, and to follow through the history of the original building and the site through fires, revolutions and remodeling. I like that he told me about the apparently extensive adulterous activities of Lynch’s wife, which led to a divorce and one more reason why he was just as happy to get out of town. When he talks about various Biblical sites, how he not only gives the Biblical references, but talks about how Hollywood treated the events much, much later. And even his short comparison with the place of Masada in the minds of Israelis, with that of the Alamo for Texans.
I enjoyed the book, learned a lot, and recommend it.
As fascinating as this book is, it is obviously somewhat challenging, even for someone with a basic background in the area being explored. No such challenges are levied by Richard Ford’s three novelette “Women With Men” or Gabriella de Ferrari’s novel “A Cloud on Sand”. Ford’s simple stories (one involving a man with a good but tiring marriage who thinks that a liaison in Paris would be a nice diversion; one about a teenager in Montana, living with his father and going to visit his Mother in Seattle, learning about life from his aunt; and one about a divorced American, an author visiting Paris with his new romantic interest trying to decide what his relationship with her should be, when he learns that she commits suicide) are just good reading, as is de Ferrari’s novel which talks about the relationship between the members of a fascinating family split between Genoa and parts of South America before and during the Second World War.
None of these books are, I guess, on anyone’s ‘must read’ list, and maybe there is no reason for them to be. But I certainly don’t regret the time I spent with them.