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Huck Finn, meet Arik Sharon

by michael July 21 2008
Municipal newsThings to do
Mark Twain
With a mustache that grand, you'd think he'd be cheerier

One is a renowned man of letters, a novelist, satirist and essayist whose emancipationist sympathies, finely honed wit and admirable mustache ensured him the title of "father of American literature." One is an Israeli war hero turned iconoclastic, if corpulent politician who during his tenure as prime minister began the process of disentangling the nation from its thorny post-1967 territorial gains before being felled by a stroke. And one is a religious Zionist seminary/urban development concern currently engaged in the controversial business of buying up and resettling the Old City's Muslim Quarter. Their common ground? One Jerusalem building, it turns out.

The aforementioned man of letters, one Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens, embarked in 1867 on a tour of Palestine, then a region within the Ottoman Eyalet of Syria, and spent several days poking about the religious sites of Jerusalem. His travels in the Holy Land and Europe inspired the popular travel memoir The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrims' Progress, published in 1869, and partly informed the (for its time) remarkably philosemitic Concerning the Jews, published years later in 1898 - although as his surviving letters indicate, Twain's chief concern while he was actually in Jerusalem was one that should be familiar to any modern Jerusalem tourist: which thematically appropriate tchotchke to buy for the folks back home. From a letter to a Christian Quarter bookseller:

Mr. Esais—Fix up the little Bible I selected (I don’t want any other)—the one that has backs made of Balsam-wood from the Jordan, oak from Abraham’s tree at Hebron, olive-wood from the Mount of Olives, & whatever the other stuff was—ebony, I think. Put on it this inscription: “Mrs. Jane Clemens—from her son—Mount Calvary, Sept 24, 1867.�? Put “Jerusalem�? around on it loose, somewhere, in Hebrew, just for a flyer. Send it to our camp, near head of the valley of Hinnom—the third tents you come to if you leave the city by the Jaffa Gate—the first if you go out by the Damascus Gate.
Twain, when not pitching a tent in the valley that now houses the Sultan's Pool performance venue, was staying in the Mediterranean Hotel, then the preferred Jerusalem haunt of foreign intelligentsia indulging in a bit of Orientalism. In the years that followed Twain's visit, though, the Mediterranean was sold off, repurposed and eventually forgotten - until now.
A group of researchers and archaeologists has recently located the Jerusalem building that housed the famed Mediterranean Hotel, which served in the late 19th century as the intelligentsia's cultural, social and tourist hub in the Holy Land.

Based on photos, blueprints, maps and observations, the research team was able to pinpoint the institution to the Wittenberg House in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Today, the building houses the religious seminary of the Ateret Cohanim non-profit organization.
Yes, Mark Twain's old stomping ground is now the home of those, um, territorially optimistic young men at Ateret Cohanim. But before the entire building became the organization's property, one of the apartments comprising it was owned by none other than disengaging schawarma connoisseur Ariel Sharon. It's a small world, and Jerusalem happens to be at the center of it.

Twain's hallowed footsteps through our city might or might not be worth following, but if such an endeavor does interest you, this tour might just be your bag.
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