On August 7, 1840, Edward Henry Palmer, explorer and chronicler of the Land of Israel, was born at Cambridge.
Palmer was more than familiar with the Bible’s geography from an early age, and he used that education, along with his love for languages, to reveal the depths of the Bible’s geography.
His works chronicling the Land of Israel, and helping the British be ready to take over the land, which would eventually happen after the First World War, would play a key role in the Jews’ Return to Zion.
Near the end of the 19th century, the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel was imminent.
The first of the pioneers had already made their way to the “Land of the Carmel,” and political Zionism led by Dr. Theodor Herzl was taking root.
But the Jews’ quest wouldn’t be easy, as settlers returning to the land of their forefathers would be called thieves and usurpers by populations that had dwelled in the ancient territory for but a short period.
It was therefore crucial that Christian lovers of Zion made the effort to connect the People of the Bible to the Land of the Bible, and that the land would be in the right empire’s hand, an empire that understood that the Land of Israel belonged to the People of Israel.
“The connection between sacred history and sacred geography... was beginning to be understood, by those who turned their attention to the subject, that unless the geography of the Holy Land can be clearly ascertained, and the natural features exactly laid down, the history of the events which have taken place upon that soil can never be clearly comprehended,” wrote Walter Besant, a colleague of Palmer, in his biography on the Orientalist titled “The life and achievements of Edward Henry Palmer.”
In 1864, co-founder of the Palestine Exploration Fund George Grove and Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts of London commissioned a group of Royal Engineers to carry out the Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem, the first modern mapping of the Holy City.
With that survey complete, another team went out to the Sinai desert to find biblical treasures, and to prepare the ground for the Jews’ return.
“Everybody knows about the Lord Moses and the Beni Israel,” Besant wrote. “Why all this going about with instruments, books, and paper? Why all these questions, save to hide the real purpose of the Survey, which was, of course, undertaken as a preliminary to taking the land?”
Nonetheless, for Palmer, with his love of the Bible, seeing the places where the events actually happened was unreal for him.
“From the tomb of Nebi Saleh we caught our first glimpse of the mountains of the Jebel Musa range. Our entrance into the Desert of Sinai was marked by a singularly appropriate incident, and we had a piece of the Bible translated for us into every-day life as it was the time of the Patriarchs,” he wrote in “The desert of the Exodus : journeys on foot in the wilderness of the forty years’ wanderings.”
In 1882, he went to Egypt on a secret mission, and was shot by Arab robbers in Wady Sudr on August 11. His remains were buried with those of his two companions, and they were eventually brought back to England.
Palmer’s work was another layer to help convince the world again that the people of Israel’s return in the 19th and 20th centuries was the same as the Israelites entering the Land of Canaan by divine order, and that it would be the British who would help with “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object,” as the 1917 Balfour Declaration read.
Besant summed up the important work by saying that while Palmer’s motivation may have been to find out more about the geography of the Bible, in the end it will bring the Bible and the People of the Bible to life.
“Moreover, it will be seen that what has been so useful in religious matters may also prove useful in things political,” he wrote.
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