The Skeptical Pilgrim Melville’s Clarel

Weighing in at a colossal 18,000 lines, Herman Melville’s Clarel (1876), which centres on the theological musings of a group of pilgrims touring the Holy Land, is not for the faint-hearted. Jeff Wheelwright explores the knot of spiritual dilemmas played out in the poem and its roots in Melville’s trip to the Middle East two decades earlier.

May 13, 2020

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Detail from photograph of Herman Melville in 1860, photographer unknown — Source.

In October 1856, Herman Melville left the tinted hills of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for a lengthy excursion to Europe and the Holy Land. Just thirty-seven years old, Melville was a half-broken man. He suffered from headaches, sciatica, eyestrain, crushed hopes — in a word, burnout. His epic Moby-Dick had failed to catch on in 1851, and his next novel, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, was head-scratching at best, a laughing stock at worst. Subsequent short stories were tepidly received. Earlier in 1856 Melville had been able to squeeze out a final novel, The Confidence-Man, which was his tenth work of prose in thirteen years. The novel is a string of disjointed vignettes about hypocrisy and flimflam, a bitter rosary to brood on. The swashbuckler of the South Seas, the prodigy who had produced Typee and Omoo, was in the past. Herman Melville had pretty much decided to give up writing.

The trip was proposed and largely underwritten by his father-in-law, who worried, along with everyone in the family, about Herman’s physical and mental health. But if Melville’s spirit was half broken, the other half awakened when he was on his own again at sea, where he’d always been comfortable. The first entry in his maritime journal was: “Conversations with the Colonel on fixed fate &c. during the passage”.1 The conversational matter (with one G. C. Rankin, an anti-Christian polemicist) indicates his mixed state of mind at this period and also the philosophizing that, more than any other factor, had eroded and killed Melville’s popularity with American readers. “Fixed fate” refers to a line in Milton’s Paradise Lost about the paradoxes of “fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute” within the Puritan matrix of faith.2 On the one hand, a person’s moral fate, her ending in heaven or hell, was predetermined, and only God knew the outcome for sure. On the other hand, God, in creating human beings, had granted them the freedom to choose. There was a ray of light for human agency. How, therefore, was one to act in life?

Melville, we know, liked nothing better than to wade into these waters, but the stakes were high — not for him the sanctimonious talk or what he called the “parrot-lore” of conventional piety.3 Although the slant and depth of his religious convictions have been long debated, no critic doubts that Melville was obsessed with the implications of religion. Thus Athens, Rome, and the other places on his to-do list were all very fine, but Palestine was where the writer meant to test his understanding of faith in the landscape where Judeo-Christianity had emerged. The impressions he filed away of his brief stay would lead to his most ambitious and difficult work, the narrative poem Clarel, published twenty years after the voyage. At 18,000 lines, Clarel is the longest skein of verse in American literature and as knotty as the pasture pines of Pittsfield.

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Melville’s drawing of his Arrowhead home in Pittsfield, made in 1860 while aboard the Meteor with his brother Thomas on a one year voyage around Cape Horn — Source.

Landing at Glasgow, Melville traveled next to Liverpool, where his friend and mentor Nathaniel Hawthorne was serving as the American consul. Hawthorne’s record of the Liverpool visit is justly famous and proleptically echoes one of the concerns of Clarel. After walking for a while on the beach the two writers sat down and talked.

Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated”; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief . . . . It is strange how he persists — and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before — in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting.4

On the spectrum between atheism and devotion, Hawthorne situated Melville to the left, toward unbelief, but a non-believer would not care what happened to him after he died. “Annihilation” was shorthand for the direst punishment administered in hell. However, if Melville had “pretty much made up his mind” to that eventuality, he was implying that he could choose — that it was up to him whether he would be saved or damned. Melville’s anti-hero Ahab had claimed the same power over his own fate. A true Calvinist would say this was more free will than God would allow.

Shipboard into the Mediterranean, Melville seemed to brighten with the warming winter sun. After passing through the Greek islands, he spent some days exploring Constantinople and was greatly stimulated by the mosques, fortifications, esplanades, and barges. Also the seediness and bustle in the streets of the Ottoman capital made him anxious; he clutched his wallet against pickpockets and sought the highest ground and most sweeping views. He surveyed the formerly Christian city from its topmasts, as it were.

Thence to Alexandria and his first taste of the sands of the Middle East. The Pyramids bowled Melville over. His journal sputters, stops, and starts again as he strives to make sense of the mysterious structures. He decided they were the preternatural afterbirth of Jehovah, the signs of a God who had issued from the imagination of ancient Egyptian priests, but “for no holy purpose . . . . Terrible mixture of cunning and awful”5. Climbing, as was his wont, to the top of a pyramid, he compared the desert at its base with an immense ocean billow that would not break, and he became dizzy and frightened. From this moment onward the unfeeling vastness of the sea, which Melville knew well, and of the desert were married in his poetic vocabulary. As the critic Helen Vendler observes: “In the desert, as in the sea, human scale is lost, and the mind grapples for a larger scale by which to measure both life and thought.”6

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The Pyramids of Sakkarah (1858), by Francis Frith — Source.

The desert was deeply dismaying to Melville. In his journal and later in Clarel, Melville speculates that God’s embrace had squeezed the life and greenery out of the landscape, leaving stones and desolation as the environmental cost of monotheism — “Is the desolation of the land the result of the fatal embrace of the Deity?”7. It is due to comments like these that some Melvillians find the author irreligious.8 Exhibit A in that school of thought is sacrilegious Captain Ahab raging on the deck, but just as important to the question of Melville’s religiosity are the earnest, prolix pilgrims who debate one another in the wasteland of Clarel.

The full title is Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Before taking up its scheme, we should consider that Melville, cantering with a guide into Jerusalem in January 1857, arrived at a time of fervent European and American interest in Palestine. The Ottoman Turks who controlled the region had opened up the holy places to the West, a concession they granted in exchange for military support against anti-Ottoman forces in Egypt. Although Holy Land tourism has been popular ever since, most present-day tourists lack the intellectual zeal and moneyed curiosity of nineteenth-century expeditionaries such as the Americans Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant, and the young Teddy Roosevelt, and the Europeans Chateaubriand, Disraeli, Thackeray, Flaubert, and Gogol. This was not leisure travel. Poor, gritty, and, outside the towns, lawless, the Holy Land all but guaranteed an adventure. Yet the travelogues stuck to the beaten paths so predictably that in 1852 a British newspaper groused: “Oh! Another book about the East. If you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. The same Arabs, the same camels . . . .9 Melville was unusual for a literary visitor; his journalizing was terse, jagged, and intended only for himself. When he got home, a couple of his relatives were bewildered when he wrote nothing up about Palestine.

There is a subset of Holy Land literature that we may call sacred geography. Christians, many of them clerics, and especially Protestants, who tended to treat the Bible as factually accurate text, journeyed there in order to experience the places that had emotional meaning for them. It is a powerful thing to have a religious place put into one’s mind perhaps in childhood, and to hear it addressed over and over in church, this shrine or village anchoring events humdrum or passion-filled, and later for one to resolve to see that site in person, in the hope, finally, of feeling its sacred power. Especially erudite pilgrims — for example the Anglican priest Henry Baker Tristram, who visited Palestine in 1863 — applied their knowledge of the Bible not simply to the shrines but also to the geological and biological features of the Holy Land. The skeptical era of Darwin and Comte having begun, pilgrims like Tristram labored to reconcile the truths of Scripture with contemporary science.

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Image from Henry Baker Tristram’s Scenes in the East: Consisting of Twelve Coloured Photographic Views of Places Mentioned in the Bible (1872) — Source.

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Illustration of the Mole-Rat (which “lives chiefly about ruins”) from Henry Baker Tristram’s The Survey of Western Palestine: The Fauna and Flora of Palestine (1884) — Source.

Herman Melville would pick up on all these currents later — but for now in his journal he tried to steady himself as Jerusalem’s sights, sounds, and smells buffeted his sensibilities:

In pursuance of my object, the saturation of my mind with the atmosphere of Jerusalem, offering myself up a passive subject, and no unwilling one, to its melancholy [sic] weird impressions, I always rose at dawn & walked without the walls. Not so far as escaping the pent-up air within, was concerned was I singular here.10
Thoughts in the Via Dolorosa — women panting under burdens — men with melancholy faces.11
The city besieged by army of the dead — cemeteries all around. — 12
The mind cannot but be sadly & suggestively affected with the indifference of Nature & Man to all that makes the spot sacred to the Christian. Weeds grow upon Mount Zion; side by side in impartiality appear the shadows of church & mosque, and on Olivet [the Mount of Olives] every morning the sun indifferently ascends over the Chapel of the Ascension.13
Wandering among the tombs — till I began to think myself one of the possessed with devils.14
The strange arches, cisterns, &c you come upon about Jerusalem — every day discovered something new in this way.15
I looked along the hill side of Gihon over against me, & watched the precipitation of the solemn shadows of the city towers flung far down to the bottom of the pool of Gihon [Gihon Spring was the main water source of the ancient city], and higher up the haunted darkened valley my eye rested on the cliff-girt basin, haggard with riven old olives, where the angel of the Lord smote the army of Sennacherib.16
Inside the walls are many vacant spaces, overgrown with the horrible cactus.17
The Old Connecticut man wandering about with tracts &c — knew not the language. — hopelessness of it — his lonely batchelor [sic] rooms . . . 18

We don’t know what Melville expected of Jerusalem. He seems claustrophobic and at times even alarmed, yet he also keeps a sharp eye out for idiosyncratic human behavior. He must have befriended the “Old Connecticut man” who was passing out religious tracts, or else he could not have known about the man’s dour living quarters. The fellow blossoms into a memorable character in Clarel, an addled evangelist who rides a donkey to the Dead Sea. In the Old City of Jerusalem today, throngs of natives and foreigners make a hugely distracting river of color, but one readily spots the visitors who are not all in their right minds: For instance, the youngish man with Jesus-length blond hair, in bare feet and white robe, whom I saw carrying a cross in Muristan in the Christian Quarter one day in 2011, and again, in 2019, this time sans cross, when he attended the Catholic Easter mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Israeli psychiatrists have documented many cases of so-called Jerusalem syndrome, whereby tourists — dehydrated, disoriented, and overwhelmed with emotion — claim to be biblical figures. Scores of people have to be treated every year, usually recovering rapidly or at least becoming well enough to be sent home. Less common but more serious are psychotic eruptions entailing violence and self-mutilation. Fundamentalist American Protestants appear to be most at risk for developing Jerusalem syndrome. “It is an odd fact that many Americans who arrive at Jerusalem are either lunatics or lose their mind thereafter”, remarked J. E. Hanauer, a writer and Anglican canon who grew up in the city during the latter half of the nineteenth century.19

During his stay, Melville returned more than once to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was and still is a confusing, cavernous amalgam of theme park and holy of holies. The putative site of Christ’s tomb lies only yards from the putative site of the Crucifixion, just two of the shrines enclosed within the domed space. Christianity’s schismatic denominations have carved out zones in the church where each practices its rites. The leading officiants are the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, and the Armenian Apostolics, with lesser roles for the Syriacs, Copts, and Ethiopians. The Catholic Church is the sole representative of Western Christianity; the others are Eastern Orthodox. At times it’s hard to know where to turn. As competing liturgies and processions snake through the pilgrims and gawkers, incense wafts, cell phones swivel and flash, and tourist guides strain to be heard in a dozen languages.

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Detail from a photograph showing crowds awaiting the “Holy Fire” at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, by the photographic division of the American Colony, early 20th century — Source.

Melville’s strongest comment about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was: “a sort of plague-stricken splendor reigns in the painted and mildewed walls . . . . All is glitter and nothing is gold. A sickening cheat”.20 He was repulsed by the hucksters and hawkers, the successors to the money changers who had infuriated Jesus. More importantly, he could not accept that Christ’s body was pulled down from a wooden cross that three centuries later the emperor’s mother uncovered just over there, at Golgotha, its grim rock conveniently at hand, and that his body was laid to rest in a cave that once was located just over here. The miraculous reappearances of the cross and burial cave prime the true believer for the even more miraculous disappearance: that of the Resurrection. Permitted in small groups, the worshipers duck inside the Edicule, the marbled tomb. Melville was stung by “the ineloquence of the bedizened slab . . . like entering a lighted coffin”.21 But why then did he keep coming back to the church “almost every day”?22

After a few days in the city he joined a horse party and ventured into the desert. With Arab guides and armed guards, Melville and his companions went down to Jericho and the Dead Sea and returned to Jerusalem by way of the renowned Mar Saba monastery and Bethlehem. It was a standard, three-day, Holy Land loop of some thirty-five miles in all. Melville’s journal actively disparages the landscape:

Barrenness of Judea: Whitish mildew pervading whole tracts of landscape — bleached — leprosy — encrustation of curse — old cheese — bones of rocks, — crunched, knawed, & mumbled — mere refuse & rubbish of creation —23


Judea is one accumulation of stones — Stony mountains & stony plain; stony torrents & stony roads; stony walls & stony fields, stony houses & stony tombs; stony eyes & stony hearts. Before you, & behind you are stone. Stones to right & stones to left.24

The Dead Sea was no better:

— foam on beach & pebbles like slaver of mad dog — smarting bitter of the water, — carried the bitter in my mouth all day — bitterness of life — thought of all bitter things — Bitter is it to be poor & bitter, to be reviled, & Oh bitter are these waters of Death, thought I . . . . Rainbow over Dead Sea — heaven, after all, has no malice against it . . . . 25

Melville’s report of the water is accurate. Though invitingly clear, the Dead Sea scalds the mouth like acrid chili peppers. But its lovely color seems to have escaped him, a magenta-blue offsetting the rusty mountains of Moab on the eastern shore.

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Photochrom print of the Dead Sea, ca. 1890 — Source.

Having stayed two weeks, Melville was bound next for Italy and the softer landscapes of art museums. His overall judgment in sailing away was: “No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations than Palestine — particularly Jerusalem.”26 He was very glad to be through with the place, it appears, though the place was not yet through with him.

Melville told his family members the trip had revived him. If so, his work remained at an impasse. For a few years he tried the lecture circuit, where he expounded on travel, Italian art, and the South Seas, but his heart wasn’t in it. During the Civil War years, he published his first book of poems, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. Except for Billy Budd, his posthumously discovered short story, Melville’s writing following his pilgrimage eschewed prose for the constrained format of poetry, its compressions mirroring the squeezes upon his life.

Giving up on country living, Melville moved with his wife, Lizzie, and four children back to Manhattan in 1863. Money was tight, his drinking was a problem, and Lizzie nearly left him. His eighteen-year-old son Malcolm committed suicide in 1867. The year before, he had taken a job on the docks of New York as a customs inspector, a post that he held for nineteen years. Six days a week he would check the manifests of ships against their cargos and verify the import duties owed. He became an Ishmael-like figure, “grim about the mouth”, in the same haunts where he had introduced Ishmael to readers in 1851. But Melville meanwhile began to buy books about the Levant, and in his free time, unbeknownst to anyone, he started to compose Clarel.

The plot of the poem is simple. Clarel (pronounced CLAR-el) is a young seminarian whose faith has faltered. He arrives in Jerusalem. At loose ends, he wanders among the holy sites. He joins a circle of three other Americans and an Englishman, who are all older and more confident in their religious beliefs, or critiques, as the case may be. At the same time, Clarel falls in love with an American girl, Ruth, whose Puritan father has converted to Judaism and moved the family to Palestine. The youths’ happiness is not to be.

The story unfolds over four parts: “Jerusalem”, “The Wilderness”, “Mar Saba”, and “Bethlehem”. The first section introduces the core characters, and the other three follow Clarel and a shifting troupe on a ten-day peregrination on horseback. The passive, lovelorn seminarian has much less to say than the other characters do. We meet Rolfe, thought to be Melville’s alter ego, a pilgrim whose strength (and weakness) is to examine issues from many sides; Nehemiah, the aforementioned evangelist; Vine, a magnetic figure who is probably based on Nathaniel Hawthorne; Derwent, a cheery Anglican priest, always considering the Creator in a golden light; Mortmain, a bitter revolutionary; Djalea, a gnomic Muslim; and Margoth, a pick-wielding Jewish geologist who is scornful of the untestable revelations of religion. Ten or so lesser characters are no less distinctive. Not all live to return to the holy city.

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The Mosque of Omar, Jerusalem (1857), by Francis Frith — Source.

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Photochrom print of Mar-Saba (ca. 1890), from the Detroit Publishing Co. — Source.

Dialogue, not action, dominates Clarel. At first we’re reminded of old Western movies where long scenes take place inside a rocking stagecoach. The landscape out the window, with its scrolling mesas and peaks, is not very convincingly attached to the drama inside since obviously the actors are in a studio. Soon enough, however, Melville’s theological ruminations, biblical allusions, and historico-political commentary, dispensed as speaking parts to his cast, do connect us to the landscape, whether it is a crumbling edifice in Jerusalem or the bleak Judean wilderness. The monumental backdrop of Clarel never recedes but crowds right into the stagecoach. This trick cannot succeed unless the poet constructs metaphors tying the interior and exterior scenes together — but if Herman Melville could do one thing really well, it was to construct vigorous, compelling metaphors.

Clarel, a baggy monster of a poem, is not for everyone. First, the modern reader must not be discouraged by the staggering length. She must overlook Melville’s occasionally tortured syntax in shaping a rhyme and hold fast for the relentless beat of his iambic tetrameter. Thus, during the pilgrims’ ride along the Dead Sea:

Southward they file.’Tis Pluto’s park
Beslimed as after baleful flood:
A nitrous, filmed and pallid mud,
With shrubs to match. Salt specks they mark
Or mildewed stunted twigs unclean
Brushed by the stirrup, Stygean green,
With shrivelled nut or apple small.27

The reader must also care about religion. As Melville’s characters navigate the fearsome desert, they discuss and question, in no particular order, reason versus faith, the twists and turns in the evolution of monotheism, human suffering and God’s tolerance for it, the commonality of the world’s creeds, the strangeness of monks, the false allure of America’s secular “progress”, and the contradictory demands of existing on earth; and much more. It’s quite a ride, and not every secular modern reader will be able to complete it. Here is a typical musing by Rolfe on the persistence of the religious instinct, which Melville clothes in a characteristically marine metaphor:

Though some be hurled
From anchor, nor a haven find;
Not less religion’s ancient port,
Till the crack of doom, shall be resort
In stress of weather for mankind.
Yea, long as children feel affright
In darkness, men shall fear a God;
And long as daisies yield delight
Shall see His footprints in the sod.
Is’t ignorance? This ignorant state
Science doth but elucidate —
Deepen, enlarge. But though ’twere made
Demonstrable that God is not —
What then? it would not change this lot:
The ghost would haunt, nor could be laid.28

Melville was intent that his poem should appear during the centennial celebration of the United States. Clarel would be his reply to the cap-flinging and self-congratulation of 1876. With funding supplied by an uncle, he commissioned the publication of 350 copies, each issued in two volumes, since a single volume would have been too unwieldy. It landed with a thud, as he strongly sensed it would. “[E]minently adapted for unpopularity”, was his ironic appraisal in a letter eight years later.29 Contemporary reviewers either objected to or ignored the poem, and even after Melville’s literary reputation was revived in the 1920s, critics looked askance at Clarel, almost embarrassed for him in his late-life failure. In American Renaissance (1941), the critical study that set Melville firmly beside his peers Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Whitman, F. O. Matthiessen commented: “It would be impossible to say, from the several thousand lines of discussion between the shadowy characters, precisely what Melville himself thought . . . . Clarel is practically unreadable because of Melville’s inexplicable choice of rhymed tetrameter as the medium for philosophic meditation.”30

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Title page to the second volume of Herman Melville’s Clarel (1876) — Source.

Clarel gradually has gained admirers and defenders. New editions of Melville’s poetry have continued to appear, including a recent Library of America volume edited by Hershel Parker, author of the seminal two-volume biography of Melville. As with all great literature, what is old can be made new again. Young researchers interested in multiculturalism have found the poem fertile ground for articles and dissertations.31 The critic Hilton Obenzinger notes that the figure of Nathan, Ruth’s father, a Jewish convert and settler, is a “proto-Zionist” who foreshadows twenty-first-century Christian Zionism.32 Obenzinger’s colleague Carolyn Karcher suggests that Melville’s poem and journal contain a “pre-history” of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.33 William Potter, in Melville’s “Clarel” and the Intersympathy of Creeds (2004), hails the poet for recognizing and respecting the world’s religious diversity.34

For all of its high-flown ideas, the story of Clarel will be, for most, something of a downer. By the end of the poem, young Clarel has lost Ruth forever without having gained a deeper hold on his faith. The other characters quietly take their leave of Jerusalem, feeling bad for him. Clarel is last seen vanishing glumly into the crowded streets. With some effort a positive message may be extracted from the epilogue, which shifts, as if to change the mood, into iambic pentameter:

Then keep thy heart, though yet but ill-resigned —
Clarel, thy heart, the issues there but mind;
That like the crocus budding through the snow —
That like a swimmer rising from the deep —
That like a burning secret which doth go
Even from the bosom that would hoard and keep;
Emerge thou mayst from the last whelming sea,
And prove that death but routs life into victory.35

We are not consoled. Though Melville honors Jesus in the poem and the rosy afterlife Jesus promised, his heart was more attuned to the Old Testament stories of sackcloth and ashes.

For years Melville brooded over George Pollard, a real-life captain, whose life story informed both Moby-Dick and Clarel. In the 1820s Pollard had commanded two whaling vessels that were wrecked, the first by a sperm whale and the next by a reef. When the two men met, in 1852, a year after the publication of Moby-Dick, Pollard had been shunned and long forgotten. He was “a nobody”,36 Melville recalled, reduced to working as a night watchman on the docks of Nantucket. Impressed by the captain’s humility, Melville could not know then that his own career was headed for a crack-up and obscurity.

In Clarel, Rolfe describes an unnamed captain who is full of pride, an exponent of free will. Clearly the captain was based on Pollard — both suffered the sinking of two ships, by whale and by reef, and both ended their days as night watchmen on the docks. But in this unnamed captain, so stricken by double disaster, we can see parallels too with the author’s own life.37 For Melville, however, it was not ships but books — Moby-Dick and Pierre had sunk back-to-back, sending their author, careening and adrift, to the shores of the Holy Land. The job Melville took as a customs inspector was not that different from being a security guard on the docks. And so:

. . . Came the day
Dire need constrained the man to pace
A night patrolman on the quay
Watching the bales till morning hour
Through fair and foul. Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come; not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled;
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood.
He ate what came, though but a crust;
In Calvin’s creed he put his trust;
Praised heaven, and said that God was good,
And his calamity but just.38

Jeff Wheelwright is a freelance journalist, the former science editor of Life magazine, and a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow. He is the author of Degrees of Disaster (Simon & Schuster, 1994), The Irritable Heart (W. W. Norton, 2001), and most recently The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess (W. W. Norton, 2012). His fourth book will look at the the strip of the Holy Land between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.