Sir Laurence Oliphant was reputedly larger than life. He lived in the German Colony close to what is now Haifa Port and spent his summers in the Druse village of Daliat al-Carmel.
It is therefore not clear why a quiet wooded lane linking Sderot Moriah with Rehov Bikurim a couple of blocks from the Carmel Center is named after this Christian Zionist British diplomat. But it is true that the mountain path he would have traveled with his horses and carriages taking his entourage back and forth between the seashore and the Druse village became the main artery linking downtown Haifa with the mountain villages long before the Central Carmel became a busy urban center.
Making enquiries at the Haifa Municipality, helpful sources led me in the direction of Prof. Yossi Ben-Artzi, a historian and rector of the University of Haifa, who is chairman of the municipal committee responsible for naming streets.
"More than 60 years ago, before the State of Israel, a street on the Hadar was named for Oliphant," he said. For reasons unknown to him, the road was moved or built over with the large-scale development of the middle level of the Carmel, which was at one time the main shopping and leisure center of Haifa. So Rehov Oliphant moved together with the upwardly mobile population of Haifa to the upper level of the Carmel.
"It is a very old street," agreed Ben-Artzi, "and the decision to name it after Oliphant was made a long time ago."
A mystic, poet, writer and world traveler, Oliphant, of Scottish origin, settled with his wife Alice in 1882 in the German Templers Colony in Haifa. Long before this, while still a British diplomat, he founded the Christian Lovers of Zion in London. Oliphant was a man of vision. In his book The Land of Gilead, written in 1880 during the Turkish occupation, he set out proposals for the settlement of Jews in the region and for its economic and political development.
Within those pages can be found maps of a proposed railway system from Ismailia to Haifa via the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and Tiberias, with a branch line to Damascus. Oliphant's vision foresaw trading and pilgrimage among the neighboring countries and the residential development outside the major towns. The proposed line from Beirut to Jaffa, linking with the Ismailia line via Haifa and the Sharon Plain, was actually built, as was part of the Haifa to Tiberias line, and there are still rusty tracks to be seen in the fields of the Jezreel Valley.
During their sojourn in the German Colony, the artistic, poetic and mystic elements of the Oliphants were more pronounced, but in 1887, Laurence did write another analytical book: Haifa - or Life in Modern Palestine." Meanwhile Alice recorded her impressions in watercolors. And their household was completed with the presence of their secretary, Naftali Herz Imber, the composer of "Hatikva," a story in its own right.
Eight years ago, "The Drawing Room of Lady Oliphant," a collection of watercolors and drawings by Alice Oliphant, was exhibited at the National Maritime Museum in Haifa. These pictures bore witness to the pastoral scenery of the Carmel seashore in the 19th century. Open fields separated the German Colony from the sea and the windmill at Bat Galim was clearly visible from Alice's beautiful English garden.
The second or parallel part of the Oliphant odyssey is their love affair with the Druse community and the time spent at their summer house in Daliat al-Carmel. Oliphant bought land from the Elkara family and built the house which was then bequeathed to the town and is today used as a community center. During the time he lived there, Oliphant influenced the local community to develop economically and specifically to foster their native arts and crafts in this beautiful mountaintop village. Today, Daliat al-Carmel is probably the most elegant and affluent of Druse villages in the region and the harmonious relationships between its residents and their Jewish neighbors is also part of the Oliphant legacy. For the Oliphant home was open to all to visit and talk and drink together.
The Hamud Elkara Gallery in Daliat al-Carmel is owned by the same family which sold the land on which Sir Laurence Oliphant built his summer house in the 1880s.
In one of those cases of serendipity, about 10 years ago, three artists from Ein Hod, Nehama Levandal, Nadav Bloch and Mara Ben-Dov, were touring and painting in Scotland when they by chance met a marine archeologist, Richard Pryce, whose neighbor was also named Laurence Oliphant, a distant cousin of the 19th-century visionary. He introduced the Scottish laird to the artists who then invited him to open their new exhibition at the gallery whose family was so connected with the historic Oliphant.
The 19th-century Oliphants had no children, although it was reputed that Sir Laurence's Bohemian life-style had borne fruit in the Holy Land.
By the end of the 1880s, both Oliphants were dead. There still exists an Oliphant House in the German Colony and in Daliat al-Carmel, but Rehov Oliphant, a leafy lane on the Central Carmel, although only remotely connected to Sir Laurence's life in Haifa, gives a glimpse of the once-wild beauty of the Carmel city.
It takes about five minutes to walk down the length of the lane which has a few apartment buildings on one side only, all set in steeply sloping shaded gardens. Rocks and uneven steps form paths through the moss and wild flowers between the houses and into the wadi below. Even at midday, the road is shaded by enormous old trees. Apart from a few cats looking for patches of sunlight among the foliage, the only people to be seen were those taking a shortcut between the busy Sderot Moriah and the schools and swimming pool on Rehov Bikurim.
Sir Laurence Oliphant would have great satisfaction if he could view the State of Israel today, for the modern industrial society was part of his vision. There is still a long way to go, however, to achieve the continuation of that vision, trade and free travel with the neighboring countries.