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Summer Reading: The Innocents Abroad

September 4, 2018

As summer fades into the mist, it’s time once again to look back at one or two books I shall remember for longer than a nanosecond. The first is Mark Twain’s account of his travels to the Old World. It’s reckoned by many to be the first travel classic. Not quite, I would argue. Ibn Battuta preceded him by several centuries, and his journeys were far more arduous than Twain’s. But at least with The Innocents Abroad you don’t have to rely on a translation.

Twain’s book started out as a series of reports to an American newspaper. It’s effectively the story of a cruise, but not a maritime adventure that today’s waddling tourists would recognise as such. In 1867, two years after the end of the American Civil War, he and sixty intrepid fellow travellers sailed off from New York on a converted military steamer. Their journey took them via the Canaries to Gibraltar, France, Italy, Turkey, Russia and the Holy Land, the centrepiece of the trip.

Unlike the modern cruise liner, which provides days of gorging and aimless recreation punctuated by short visits to exotic ports, Twain’s ship served as a jumping-off point for extensive travel by land, mainly by rail, coach and horseback.

I’m not sure how widely his travelogue is read today, but I suspect that if it forms part of any university literature syllabus, it would be riddled with trigger warnings that prepare our delicate young for some weapons grade political incorrectness that would make even the most hardcore Trump supporter blanch. But that was then, and this is now.

I say this because his opinion of the peasantry wherever he goes is rarely short of contemptuous, be they French, Italian or the dirt-poor indigenous population of Palestine. He reserves special scorn for the influence of the Catholic church, especially in rural Italy. Nor is he deeply impressed with the art treasures of the Renaissance he encounters in Rome, Florence and Venice. And everywhere, it seems, the innocents abroad are beset by beggars, con artists and rapacious guides.

Apart from his biting wit, and a sense of irony which can often be lacking among his present-day compatriots, what fascinates about The Innocents Abroad is the historical context.

He’s in France three years before the Franco-Prussian War, at a time when Baron Haussmann is tearing down medieval Paris to build the city of boulevards and squares we know and love today. He visits Italy while the unification is still under way. Rome is still part of the Papal States and is not to be absorbed into the Kingdom of Italy for another three years. Palestine is still part of the Ottoman Empire, and Jerusalem a shabby city of thirty thousand, whose holy places are tended by Christian factions that need to be kept apart to prevent them from fighting each other.

Damascus, he reckons, deserves the accolade of Eternal City more than Rome:

In her old age she saw Rome built; she saw it overshadow the world with its power; she saw it perish. The few hundreds of years of Genoese and Venetian might and splendor were, to grave old Damascus, only a trifling scintillation hardly worth remembering. Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies. Though another claims the name, old Damascus is by right the Eternal City.

Visitors to the old city before the current civil war would recognise the description of his accommodation:

We stood in a great flagged court, with flowers and citron trees about us, and a huge tank in the centre that was receiving the waters of many pipes. We crossed the court and entered the rooms prepared to receive four of us. In a large marble-paved recess between the two rooms was a tank of clear, cool water, which was kept running over all the time by the streams that were pouring into it from half a dozen pipes. Nothing, in this scorching, desolate land could look so refreshing as this pure water flashing in the lamp-light; nothing could look so beautiful, nothing could sound so delicious as this mimic rain to ears long unaccustomed to sounds of such a nature. Our rooms were large, comfortably furnished, and even had their floors clothed with soft, cheerful-tinted carpets. It was a pleasant thing to see a carpet again, for if there is any thing drearier than the tomb-like, stone-paved parlors and bed-rooms of Europe and Asia, I do not know what it is. They make one think of the grave all the time. A very broad, gaily caparisoned divan, some twelve or fourteen feet long, extended across one side of each room, and opposite were single beds with spring mattresses. There were great looking-glasses and marble-top tables. All this luxury was as grateful to systems and senses worn out with an exhausting day’s travel, as it was unexpected—for one can not tell what to expect in a Turkish city of even a quarter of a million inhabitants.

Twain’s onward journey to Palestine is on the back of a succession of mangy, long-suffering horses, accompanied by a large band of attendants who pitch luxurious tents and serve sumptuous feasts each night – the 1867 equivalent of glamping, I suppose. As they enter Palestine, they are provided with a magnificently clad armed horseman, there to deter Bedouin raiders from preying on them. A protection racket, it seems, because the few Bedouin they encounter are ground down by poverty and not very interested in passing strangers.

The holy places themselves are a disappointment, at least to Twain, if not to the zealous pilgrims among the party. He casts a jaundiced eye on the run-down villages where they are surrounded by baksheesh seekers, and on the unlikely claims that “this is the exact spot where Jesus took a leak before feeding the Five Thousand…..” and so forth. I can relate to his scepticism, having visited some of these places a century-and-a-half later.

Before setting out to Palestine, he and his companions make a side trip from Constantinople up to Yalta on the Black Sea. There they learn that Tsar Alexander II is in residence. Through the good offices of the American consul, the group manage to wangle an invitation to pay their respects to the Tsar and his brother, the Grand Duke Michael. This was a time when Russia and the US were not deadly adversaries, and perhaps the great man was curious about this bunch of ordinary citizens of America, to whom he had just sold Alaska.

Imagine if today a bunch of Chinese tourists showed up at Balmoral asking for an audience with the Queen. I suspect they would not be greeted as de facto representatives of Xi Jinping and rewarded with tea and cucumber sandwiches. Twain himself was one of a committee that was deputised to write a speech of greeting to the Tsar, to which His Highness gave a suitably graceful reply. Fourteen years later Alexander, after surviving numerous assassination attempts, finally succumbed to a bomb in St Petersburg. Clearly his anarchist opponents never thought of infiltrating a crowd of American tourists in Odessa, a vulnerability that didn’t escape the author’s notice.

The relative disappointment of Palestine was redeemed by the next stop: Egypt. Twain waxes lyrical about the wonders of ancient Egypt, despite an indifferent stay at the legendary Shepheard Hotel. The land of the Pharaohs was it seems, everything that the Holy Land wasn’t. Magnificent ruins, and a civilisation that invented things millennia before they were reinvented in the West:

We were glad to have seen the land which was the mother of civilization—which taught Greece her letters, and through Greece Rome, and through Rome the world; the land which could have humanized and civilized the hapless children of Israel, but allowed them to depart out of her borders little better than savages. We were glad to have seen that land which had an enlightened religion with future eternal rewards and punishment in it, while even Israel’s religion contained no promise of a hereafter. We were glad to have seen that land which had glass three thousand years before England had it, and could paint upon it as none of us can paint now; that land which knew, three thousand years ago, well nigh all of medicine and surgery which science has discovered lately; which had all those curious surgical instruments which science has invented recently; which had in high excellence a thousand luxuries and necessities of an advanced civilization which we have gradually contrived and accumulated in modern times and claimed as things that were new under the sun; that had paper untold centuries before we dreampt of it—and waterfalls before our women thought of them; that had a perfect system of common schools so long before we boasted of our achievements in that direction that it seems forever and forever ago; that so embalmed the dead that flesh was made almost immortal—which we can not do; that built temples which mock at destroying time and smile grimly upon our lauded little prodigies of architecture; that old land that knew all which we know now, perchance, and more; that walked in the broad highway of civilization in the gray dawn of creation, ages and ages before we were born; that left the impress of exalted, cultivated Mind upon the eternal front of the Sphynx to confound all scoffers who, when all her other proofs had passed away, might seek to persuade the world that imperial Egypt, in the days of her high renown, had groped in darkness.

After a return visit to Gibraltar, the final stop was supposed to be Cadiz. But there, as in Athens and other intended stop-offs, the party was prevented from disembarking because of a cholera pandemic that was raging through the Ottoman Empire, Italy and Spain. Twain did, however, manage to sneak into Athens, and also made it into Spain unbeknown to the authorities.

If you love travel books, The Innocents Abroad is well worth a read. This was my first introduction to Mark Twain, I’m ashamed to admit. The book is full of wit, wisdom and some passages of superb writing. Be prepared, though, to have to read the occasional passage more than once to get the sense – a reminder that the English language doesn’t stand still. But if, like me, you’ve visited most of the places he describes, you’ll find his narrative fascinating, both because of the historical context and because of what has not changed since his time.

But before you pass the book on to your teenage offspring as they prepare for their gap year travels, be sure not to forget the trigger warnings.

  1. This makes me want to read a Mark Twain book:) I think I can pick this specific book. I always associate him with Tom Sawyer and I had this different idea of Twain’s books. 😁

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