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In the steps of H. V. Morton

24 June 2009

The journalist and travel-writer died 30 years ago this month. Terence Handley MacMath tested his observations of the Holy Land

I PACKED my bag to go to Amman and in it I put: The Holy Land: The indispensible archeological guide for travellers by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (OUP 1992); Matthew Teller’s indispensable Rough Guide to Jordan (Rough Guides 2006); and a battered ex-Islington Libraries edition of H. V. Morton’s In the Steps of the Master.

I must have bought my 1966 edition (with a revised introduction written in 1962) 30 years ago, at about the time that Morton died, on 17 June 1979. The book itself, with its lurid and stirring Technicolor dustjacket, and several black-and-white photographs taken mainly by the author, was first published in 1934.

It became my vade mecum, not in the sense of the first two books, which give authoritative information on the what, where, and how of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but because Morton had a gift for inspired storytelling and observation that has endeared him to millions of readers.

He supplies the reason “why” you might make such a venture. And so vivid are the pages that, whether you are able to make the journey in reality or as a pillow-pilgrim, you share the im­aginative vision of someone who has pondered on text and tile, stones and passing encounters; through the layers of people who created the history of the Near East, from the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Ottomans, and British to the infant states we visit today.

For all that, travel in the Near East was be­com­ing so commonplace in the ’20s and ’30s; Morton could gently mock the “elderly English women [in Cook’s office in Jerusalem] arranging to join a party for Petra, and reserving a tent in the camp which Cook’s maintain there in the spring . . . performing an act that would have made the hard Burckhardt’s blood run cold.” (Burckhardt was the first explorer to re­discover Petra in 1812, disguised as a Muslim.)

Since then, of course, there have been times when even the most debonair English tourists have stayed away. Now, 75 years after Morton’s account came out, I was fascinated by the parallels and contrasts. What, if anything, had remained the same?

FIRST, THOUGH, Morton himself. A few years ago, his books could be found easily in second-hand bookshops, perhaps most of all In Search of England, and In the Steps of the Master, closely followed by In the Steps of St Paul, and Through Lands of the Bible. These works mirrored his twin passions for “English­ness” and a romantic historical imagination. They, along with many other titles, made his fortune, although his day job was as a successful journalist.

Henry Canova Vollam Morton began work­ing on his father’s paper, the Birmingham Gazette, in 1909. When that was taken over by unsympathetic management, father and son moved to London.

Young Morton struggled to get a footing in Fleet Street, and diverted himself by develop­ing a passion for archaeology, through making friends with G. F. Laurence, an archeologist and antiquary.

Perhaps his impatience with the drudgery of a young reporter gave him time to develop the historical and archeological education he had missed through not going to university. In 1923, he persuaded the editor of the Daily Express to send him on the most exciting assignment of his career, scooping the official Times reporter at the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

From there, Jerusalem was just around the corner, so to speak, and Morton made the jour­ney which he describes in the first chapter of In the Steps of the Master, written ten years later.

Ironically, being ill and homesick in Jerusalem prompted him to write his first best-seller, In Search of England (1927). It found a ready market in those who had lost so much in the Great War in defence of England — and who now possessed an Austin Seven, a Morris, or a bicycle to explore it.

Divorce and remarriage gave Morton the op­portunity to set out for the Near East with his second wife, Mary, and together they explored the Holy Land, what is now Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.

Divorce and remarriage gave Morton the op­portunity to set out for the Near East with his second wife, Mary, and together they explored the Holy Land, what is now Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.

The intro­duction to the 1962 edition looks back wistfully to those inter-war years:

“During a recent visit to the Holy Land, I was able to compare the freedom of movement which I enjoyed when writing this book with the restrictions now im­posed by the Jordan-Israel fron­tier. Young people accept the situation as a matter of course; others, like myself, remember with nostalgia the ease of travel, and the air of friendly co-operation which existed when this part of the world was admin­istered by Britain and France.”

Today, of course, one can cross from Jordan to Israel, but making Morton’s original entrance from Egypt, or venturing into Lebanon and Syria, would be difficult.

Morton wrote: “I found Old Jerusalem practically unchanged, save for the fact that the Arabs have expelled the Jews, and conse­quently the Wailing Wall is always deserted. Also, I could never see, and hear, without a smile, that the up-to-date muezzin does not al­ways ascend the minaret to utter the call to prayer, but does so with the aid of a microphone and a loud speaker!”

Morton also praises the new churches built by Barluzzi for many of the holy sites, and congratulates the modern traveller on the chance to see the Dead Sea Scrolls.

EVEN MORE archeological discoveries have been made since 1962, and, as Morton says, “elements of change storm these massive ramparts of conservatism”. You can no longer walk to Bethany as Jesus and Morton did — you have to catch the number 36 bus from outside Damascus Gate, and carry your passport with you: the prayers from the mosque will be con­veniently broadcast to you over the bus radio.

If there are changes to come as a result of the huge satellite dishes on every roof in the Muslim quarter, they have yet to be seen — but the dishes have now been joined by water tanks, to supplement the water-supply needed by families who tend to be larger than the Chris­tian and Jewish families. The problem of water in the Holy Land, which the ancient world seems to have been remarkably efficient at solv­ing, is now very real again.

If there are changes to come as a result of the huge satellite dishes on every roof in the Muslim quarter, they have yet to be seen — but the dishes have now been joined by water tanks, to supplement the water-supply needed by families who tend to be larger than the Chris­tian and Jewish families. The problem of water in the Holy Land, which the ancient world seems to have been remarkably efficient at solv­ing, is now very real again.

So much, though, is still the same: my hotel, near the Jaffa Gate, run by an Arab Christian family; getting hopelessly lost trying to find the Holy Sepulchre; the crowd of “town Arabs in European clothes and tarbushes, Armenians, Franciscan friars and white Dominicans. . . Greek priests, who are square-bearded like As­syrian kings and stride through the crowd wear­ing rusty cassocks and high round black hats. . .”

David Street and the souk have the same con­trasts that Morton describes — the labyrinthine wonder that is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the tri-lingual city itself: “As soon as you go out of the station, you notice that sign-posts, proclamations, motor signals, and such-like are trilingual, and you realise that history is repeating itself in the strangest way.

“In the imperial archives of ancient time, there must have been a clause very like Article 23 of our Palestine Mandate. In the time of Christ the three official languages were Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

“And as you go into Jerusalem, glancing at the trilingualism everywhere, the words of St John come into the mind: ‘And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews. This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh unto the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin.’”

MICHAEL BARTHOLOMEW has written a biography of Morton, In Search of H. V. Morton (Methuen, 2006), which reveals a troubled, ambitious writer who later owns himself in a letter to his wife, Mary, as an “irreverent bastard”.

Bartholomew puzzles over the deepest im­pulses of a writer who seems to have a Bible in his hand wherever he went and certainly knew the Holy Land and scripture; “was no sceptic” (indeed, Bar­tholomew notes elsewhere that Morton hated the scepticism of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of Ancient Rome); yet was not a “pious orthodox Christian” preaching about what he saw.

He did not need to be pious to be faithful to the Gospels. He observes, records, and puts the gospel accounts into a wide historical context, weaving stories about Herod the Great, Pontius Pilate, or the Crusaders, and then setting them in the context of his own personal encounters with Bedouin, going fishing with fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, attending Muslim festivals, and finding, paradoxically perhaps, that the closest parallel with the Temple Jesus knew was the Islamic Temple Mount.

All this, and an ability to wonder, to evoke an emotional, personal response to the multi-layered life around him, which he recalls from childhood: “My sister reminded me once that I was in the habit of stopping when we were out on walks and saying ‘Stop. On this very same place, if you dug down, down, down, you might come to a Roman.’”

As an example, the purchase of a fragment of Roman tile in an antiquary’s shop near Jaffa Gate prompts an astonishingly vivid account of the siege of Jerusalem, which painlessly educates the Gospel reader into knowing how accurate Jesus’s prediction of the fall of Jerusalem was. (Morton does not engage in biblical criticism, or suggest that these predictions may have been written after the event. As a writer, perhaps, he is content to analyse the received texts as a given.)

The modern-day pilgrim speeds to Petra in an air-conditioned coach along the King’s Highway, or visits the Jordan baptism site, in its tangle of tamarisk trees, escorted discreetly by armed guards. He or she can experience these same Gospel texts opening out dynamically through encounters with shepherds, soldiers, drivers, Arab and Jewish traders, and profes­sional religious of every nationality and denom­ination of the Abrahamic faiths — not to men­tion the birds, animals, and plants, the sun sizzling on the slab tombs of the Kidron Valley, and the permanent darkness of the cave tombs at Gadara, or Bethany full of illumination

The keys to Morton’s power are his literary penetration of the Gospel texts, which he can tease out more profoundly than most preachers; an ability to look about him and convey in his imagination what Jesus saw; and the extent of his technical and archeological knowledge.

He was interested in detail, and from the trivia of daily life — a water pipe, a tile — he was able to wrest the passions and intentions of people who lived thousands of years ago, in such a way that he can introduce them to us as people like ourselves.

SO, WHAT is different now? Well, Amman is no longer a small city built on two or three hills; it spreads over seven. King Abdullah II probably does not go in public procession to the mosque, accompanied by a military brass band and “a detachment of Arab pipers . . . the pipes fluttering with Royal Stuart tartan”; and the mosque he goes to will, probably, be the vast new King Hussein mosque, built by the king’s father and completed nine years ago.

The Royal Air Force no longer has a base there, and the safety of elderly English ladies motoring down to Petra will be guaranteed not by the British-trained Arab legion, but the Jordanian police. Bethlehem no longer looks any­thing like a Christmas card, and its houses cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as “a group of startled nuns”.

The infamous security wall challenges you as soon as you arrive, as it does again, not far from the ravishingly beautiful Benedictine garden near the unconvincing “House of Mary and Martha” in Bethany.

As Jewish people once again pray fervently at the Wailing Wall, the Palestinian people express their anger in graffiti on the security wall. And, as Morton betrays a rare burst of annoyance at the intrusive efforts to part the sightseer from his money at Nazareth, you may feel the same in these sacred/profane places. I did not know whether to laugh or cry at the sound of pipes playing “Jingle Bells” as we arrived at “The Shepherds’ Field” in Bethlehem.

Bartholomew characterises Morton’s tone and description of the religious sites and rituals as “reverent”; but because Morton is nothing if not the quintessential Englishman abroad, there is also self-deprecating humour, and the ability to balance the emotionally charged spiritual experience of watching the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee, or waiting at the Holy Sepulchre, with deft, minute observations, such as hearing the sound of a typewriter drifting from a boat on the lake, which turns out to be an eccentric traveller writing letters home to his wife.

This contrast of the sublime and the ridiculous, the ancient and the modern, the sacred and the profane is what awaits the Christian pilgrim everywhere; but perhaps nowhere more so than in the Near East, where politics (from which Morton stays as clear as possible), commerce, and human necessity shaped the in­carnate Son of God’s experience, just as it does the modern traveller’s.

While your suitcase is being searched by an unsmiling Israeli guard with an alarming-looking weapon, you can recall wryly Morton watching the Seaforth Highlanders patrolling the Old City during a religious festival in the ’30s, as he recalled the Roman soldiers keeping the peace during the crucifixion. And when, with Morton, you are groping through the souk on the way to the Holy Sepulchre, you, too, can be shocked to find yourself suddenly in a street marked “Via Dolorosa”.

“I had blundered on the Way of the Cross, and I had treated it as if it were any ordinary street. I felt ill-at-ease. I set this down because it is so typical of one’s first thoughts in Jerusalem. The mind, accustomed to the divine Christ of Western churches, encounters in Jerusalem the memory of Jesus the Man, the Jesus who ate and slept and became weary, who drove the hucksters from the Temple, who drank the cup of death on Golgotha.

“At home one always thinks of Jesus in heaven, on the right hand of God the Father, but in Jerusalem one thinks of Him walking the dusty white roads, and one’s intelligence is per­petually rejecting or accepting certain places that tradition associates with His manhood. As God, He is everywhere, but in Jerusalem cen­turies of piety have competed to place His footsteps on this stone and that road. It was almost with a shock that I realised that the Via Dolorosa could be a real road with men and women and animals on it.”

BARTHOLOMEW’S biography takes us behind the H. V. Morton who influenced generations of 20th-century Christians in their understanding of the Bible, to the Harry Morton who, possibly spoiled by his own suc­cess, forsook post-war England (though never his ideal of Englishness) to live the rest of his life in South Africa.

The diaries reveal a journalist who was not interested in politics (though he astutely predicted the result of Germany’s “reparations” after the Great War, and observed the agenda gap between Orthodox Jews and the Jewish Agency in 1933), and a husband and father who was not particularly loving or loveable. He was not politically correct, if judged by our standards, and he could never entirely con-demn Nazism, even after the revelations of the war.

His greatest love seems to have been his mother, whom he lost too early in his life. Bartholomew also reminds the innocent reader that Morton’s travel books were also fiction — carefully constructed narratives, with the presence of his wife and other companions ex­cised, so that nothing intrudes on the intimacy of the author’s relationship with the reader, or spoils the illusion that the book itself is one journey.

In the Steps of the Master finishes with what is almost a retelling and a simultaneous reliving of Passion Week, when the distinction blurs between the events of Christ’s passion and Morton’s own observation of things such as the crowds, the full moon, a Jewish Passover celebration, and a retelling of the crucifixion.

The end to Morton’s journey is Mary Mag­dalene’s own journey to the disciples with news of the resurrection. Hers was a journey to inspire countless others to follow in the steps of her master.

“Upon the third day, early in the morning, Mary Magdalene hastened to the Tomb, and when she saw that it was empty sorrow filled her heart, so that, St John tells us, she wept. As she turned to go, Someone stood before her, and she heard a Voice asking: ‘Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?’. . . In the greyness of the morning the woman ran back with the message that Christ had Risen.”

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