From the Land of the Free to the Holy Land

Most Americans don’t know it, but the United States has been involved in the Holy Land for a long, long time.

Starting in the early 19th century, as travel to the region became safer — in the wake of the wars fought by the US and Europe against the Barbary Pirates (1801–1805 and 1815–1816), and the 1830 French conquest of Algeria — North Americans came to make their stamp, particularly in archaeology and specifically in Jerusalem.

Most notable of all, perhaps, was American biblical scholar Edward Robinson, for whom is named the wide stone arch that once supported a monumental staircase at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The remains of Robinson’s Arch on the western side of the Temple Mount. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

A New Englander with proficiency in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, Robinson is known as the “Father of Biblical Geography” for his work in identifying the historical artifacts that confirmed Bible accounts. His well-known “gospel harmonies” attempted to reconcile differing accounts in the Christian Scriptures into a single narrative.

After Robinson’s death in 1863, fellow scholars Henry B. Smith and Roswell D. Hitchcock wrote that “men of learning… had treated of the Geography of Palestine, without having personally explored it. … On the other hand, unlearned men in abundance had traversed Palestine, and returned to repeat and perpetuate its monkish legends. … The time had come for a scholar … to enter this tempting field with thermometer, telescope, compass, and measuring-tape, but, above all, sharp-eyed and sufficiently skeptical, and then make report of what he had seen and measured.”

Robinson arrived in Jerusalem for the first time in 1838, after being offered a professorship of biblical literature at Union Theological Seminary in New York. His condition for taking the job: permission to be absent for three or four years for the purpose of exploring the Holy Land. The seminary agreed and on July 17, 1837, Robinson set sail.

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