Palm Trees in Paradise

Victorian Views of the Ancient Near East Landscape

By: Naomi F. Miller

Originally Published in 1990

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The significant origin stories of Western civilization take place in the ancient Near East, a fact that provoked interest in the region long before the many recent crises focused our attention there. Throughout the 19th century, Europeans and Americans imagined this ancient land in painting, draw­ing, and writing. Little information was available, and these portrayals tended to reflect general artistic and scholarly trends of the time, as well as the experiences of the individual artist.
In the early 19th century, classical and biblical texts were the main sources of information about the ancient Near East. As the century progressed, firsthand travelers’ ac­counts provided new, eyewitness details about a world remote from Europe. Archaeological and epi­graphic discoveries also played an increasingly important role in deter­mining how the ancient Near East was portrayed. In the latter part of the century, views of the ancient landscape were based in part on these reports on the land and people of the actual Near East; however, they were also influenced by the Orientalist movement.

A hundred years of research have since expanded our data base and altered our interpretive frameworks; but, like the Victorians of yester­year, we continue to use ancient and historical texts, modern geographical analogies, and archaeological data to create a picture of the ancient land­scape.

Early Views of the Near East

It is sobering to realize just how little was known in the 19th century about the ancient civilizations. The first scientific excavations at Near Eastern sites did not begin until the latter half of the century, and the results of this research were not immediately accessible to the public.

With only meager documentary evi­dence, contemporary writers were pretty circumspect in their imagin­ings about the natural environment, in marked contrast to their musings on racial origins and distinctions.

Interest in biblical themes, how­ever, is apparent in 19th century painting and drawing. For example, the Garden of Eden was a common subject for landscape study. Al­though people did not doubt the accuracy of the geographical des­cription of Eden in the Bible, they projected their own vision of perfec­tion onto it. Thus, an 1832 rendering shows the strong influence that the English landscape garden had on the artist’s view of Paradise (Fig. 3). Even Bible stories concerning some­what more historical events were set in the same type of English garden (Fig. 1).

Compositions from the early 19th century frequently reflect the ideals of contemporary landscape painting, with artfully placed vegetation in the foreground, and diagonal lines leading the eye to the midground and background (cf. Clark 1976). Unfortunately, exotic scenes that follow these Western pictorial con­ventions are often indistinguishable from English landscapes. One way some artists avoided this problem was by careful selection of vegeta­tion. For example, an illustration of “The Temptation” (Fig. 4) features the Lebanon cedar, a tree introduced to England in the 17th century but whose Eastern origin was well known.

Plants are sometimes shown in imaginative juxtaposition: Lebanon cedar, a tree of hills and mountains in the Levant, and palms, which grow in more tropical climes, many be shown growing side by side. Even as late as the 1860s, Gustave Dore depicted the exotic East not only with palm trees, but also with what appears to be prickly pear cactus, a New World native that was im­ported into the Old World long after the biblical events he was illustrating (Fig. 5). Most commonly, however, it is a clump of palm trees that lets the viewer recognize an exotic orien­tal locale (Fig. 6).

Travelers’ Accounts

In the course of the 19th century, interest in and knowledge of the Near East grew. Although Euro­peans had reported on their travels through the region from the time of Marco Polo (1254?-1324?), the 19th century saw an increase in military, commercial, and scientific contacts. Napoleon and the French were active early on in Egypt and North Africa, and the British, too, eagerly sought power and influence. At first only the intrepid traveled to the Near East, frequently disguised as Arabs, Turks, or Bedouins; by the end of the century, however, Euro­peans traveling in the area were more common, and tourists were derided for affecting local costume (Thornton 1983).

Nineteenth-century Europeans al­ready had some idea of what to expect from the published reports of previous travelers. Their information about the region as it was in ancient times, however, came primarily from the Bible and classical writers. One can imagine the ironic tone of one traveler who commented, “When we passed that way on our journey from Busrah to Baghdad, the land was flooded by the spring rains, so we saw nothing of the beauties of para­dise” (Hume-Griffith 1909; see Fig. 8). This traveler may not have been aware that he was actually passing through what might be better des­cribed as a pre-Edenic landscape (see box on Garden of Eden).

In report after report, travelers contrast Herodotus’s description of Babylonia, whose fertile fields were said to yield 200-fold, with the sorry state of the modem countryside. One visitor considered Syria to be a country so highly favoured by Heaven, that it unites, by a happy combination of various properties of soil and climate, the advantages of every zone…yet, in every age [it has been] wasted and depopu­lated by the ravages of con­querors. The very playground of ambition. (Conder 1830).

Another scholar wrote:

Babylonia was once the most fertile spot on the face of the earth…but now this whole region is little more than a desert. The yearly incursions of the Arabs compel the inhabitants to seek the protection of the walled towns, whose governors more slowly, but as surely, rob them of their little all. (van Lennep 1875:22)

Many of the European tourists to the Near East, especially those visit­ing the Holy Land, tried to imagine what life was like in biblical times. Whether to compare or contrast, they interpreted what they saw through their interest in the Bible (Fig. 7):

The lands of the Bible have passed through various vicissitudes, and been overrun and occupied by many strange nations. Yet it is acknowledged that in no other portion of the globe have tradi­tions, customs, and even modes of thought, been preserved with greater fidelity and tenacity. This is the uniform testimony of all who visit the East….The remarkable reproduction of Biblical life in the East of our day is an unanswerable argument for the authenticity of the sacred writings. (van Lennep 1875:5)

One need only recall the Victorian obsession with “Progress” to recog­nize this view of the unchanging Arab as an example of the smug superiority frequently expressed by well-heeled Victorians towards people of other cultures and classes.

Artistic Trends 

By the latter half of the 19th century, “Oriental” subjects in paint­ing, literature, and music had be­come very popular in the West. Artists were among the many tourists to the Near East, and their responses and motives were similar to those of their literary counterparts. Illustra­tions depicting the Near East in anti­quity became less fanciful, but showed anachronistically modern landscapes. An example of the growing sophistication and interest in accurate representation can he seen in two views of Mt. Ararat, the first published in 1848, complete with palm (Fig. 9a), and the second in 1884 (Fig. 9b).

Biblical scenes were set against an ethnographically traditional and topo­graphically modern backdrop. For example, Horace Vernet “shocked” his audience by depicting biblical characters in Bedouin dress, and to justify his use of these modern details wrote an article entitled “Some Analo­gies that Exist Between the Costume of the Ancient Hebrews and that of Modern Arabs” (Thornton 1983).

Art historians have noted that an interest in accurate portrayal was within the mainstream of the “realist” tradition of painting in the latter half of the 19th century (Clark 1978). The Orientalist painters did not extend their interest in realism to the depic­tion of widespread poverty (Stevens 1984:21) or the more “modern” as­pects of the Near Eastern scene, but when it came to landscape painting, artists did try to capture the strong light and barren vistas.

Contributions from Archaeology and Epigraphy

A new source of information in the 19th century was the texts and art that were emerging from ancient mounds after millennia of burial. During the second half of the 19th century, major archaeological excavations were underway throughout the Near East. Many of the sites belonged to cultures familiar from the Bible (Babylonia and Assyria), and the new informa­tion was incorporated into biblical interpretations (see box titled “Glimpse of History’s Dawn”). Im­portant Assyrian archives and bas-reliefs began to tell a different side of the story.

Assyrian reliefs uncovered at Nine­veh and elsewhere depict a stylized view of the landscape, the back­ground against which murder and mayhem could be shown. In one such relief, King Assurbanipal (Sth/7th c. B.C.) reclines in his garden in the presence of his wife and servants; the severed head of the Elamite king hangs inconspicuously in the trees (Fig. 10a,b). Figure 10c shows an imaginative reconstruction of the historical Mesopotamian scene. The critical characters are all there—the King, wife, servants, and heads—although the artist neglected to pick up on a convention of Assyrian garden portrayal: unnatural com­binations of plants, like palm trees and grapevines.

Assyrian texts published at the turn of the century complement contemporary representations of gar­dens. They record that the Assyrian kings collected exotic plants on their military campaigns, and grew them together on royal estates. A Tiglath­pileser I relief states: Cedars and urkariina trees / and allakanish trees, in the countries / I have conquered…I took, / and in the gardens of my land / I have planted them. And rare garden-fruits / which were not found within my land / I took, and in the gardens of Assyria / I have caused them to flourish.

(Budge and King 1902:91)

Long before Europeans suspected the existence of Assyrian gardens, they knew about the Hanging Gar­dens of Babylon from classical sources. The ancient author Jose­phus said that Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, tried to re-create the mountainous terrain of his home­sick Persian wife. The gardens were supposedly built on stone vaults or terraces, irrigated by mechanically raised waters of the Euphrates river. Soon after the discovery of the Assyrian reliefs, scholars recognized a relationship between earlier As­syrian gardening practice and the later historical accounts of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (Perrot and Chipiez 1S84:445; Figs. 11, 12).

Modern Views of the Ancient Near Eastern Landscape

The dominant impression in many rural areas of the Near East today is one of an environment modified by humans. Trees are largely restricted to the banks of watercourses and cultivated plots, and in many areas of former forest, animal dung is a major fuel. Victorians, too, were quite aware of the importance of fuel and the effect of over-exploi­tation on the environment (Fig. 13). In 1832, for example, Thomas Upham wrote that forests are mentioned so frequently [in the Bible] as to convince us, that the Hebrews anciently were not often compelled, like the modern inhabitants of Palestine, to burn the excrements of animals for fuel; although it may sometimes have been the case, as is probable from Ezek. 4:15. (1832:16)

Some travelers noted the reduced state of the Lebanese forest, and others pointed out that erosion had dramatically changed both the shape of the land itself and the climate (Gage 1871). But these authors had no way to date the changes they saw. Thus, even though same people recognized that landscape change must have occurred over the mil­lennia, visual images of the ancient landscape did not generally incor­porate these observations.

It is fair to ask how far our understanding of the ancient Near Eastern landscape has progressed in the past hundred years. Modern paleoenvironmental research has demonstrated that fairly widespread deforestation and degradation of pasture area had occurred by the time of the early civilizations (Miller 1991), and that detectable human modification of the vegetation had already begun in some areas as early as 8000 B.C. (Köhler-Rollefson 1988).

We will never know just what the Babylonians and Assyrians saw when they looked out across the steppe or traveled into the moun­tains, but were we to be transported back 3000 years, we might not find the view totally unfamiliar. Yet, if we looked closely, we would notice an absence of some species, especial­ly introduced crops and weeds from the New World and elsewhere. There would also be better quality pasture, with lower proportions of plants that are unpalatable to grazing animals. Forests would he more extensive, and probably denser as well. And at any particular location, the topography could well be dif­ferent, as over the centuries wind and water have rearranged the shape of the land itself. If we traveled back to yet earlier times, or to regions remote from the ancient centers of population, the vegetation and land­scape would be even less recogniz­able.

Today, scholarly works occasion­ally include artists’ reconstructions of ancient settlements, but these are generally placed in a generic, simpli­fied setting. A major modern source of popular representations of the ancient Near Eastern landscape is illustrated Bible stories and similar materials aimed at children. Depic­tions range from schematic or fanci­ful backgrounds to plausible ren­derings of the present-day rural landscape. Victorian sensibilities are still encountered, as in this caption to a photograph of the Jordan river: “Trees and shrubs on the banks of the River Jordan glow in the evening sunlight. It was probably just such a peaceful sight as this which greeted the Israelites as they came down to the Jordan, ready to cross over into the promised land” (Rowland-Ent­whistle 1981:21). A lack of imagina­tion may prevent us from visualizing a landscape much different from today’s, and more research would probably sharpen our reconstruc­tions, but after a hundred years, we have not surpassed the depictions made by our Victorian forebears.





Cite This Article

Miller, Naomi F.. "Palm Trees in Paradise." Expedition Magazine 32, no. 2 (July, 1990): -. Accessed February 27, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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