Monday, June 9, 2014

Life in Palestine 1830-1880 as Described by a Very Unusual Woman, Lydia Mamreoff von Finkelstein Mountford

Von Finkelstein (Set in Stone, Fixed in Glass
We never heard of Lydia Mamreoff von Finkelstein Mountford (1855-1917) until we came across several clippings in a New Zealand archive from the 1880s. 

She was born in Jerusalem to a Russian family, apparently Jewish, according to historian Ron Bartur. She spoke Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, German, and French.  The family converted to Christianity and it appears she later became a Mormon.  She was a popular actress, missionary, and news correspondent. She traveled to the United States, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand presenting Bible-based plays.  She filed news reports on the German Emperor's visit to Jerusalem in 1898, and probably appears in the bottom left of this picture with a reporter's pad in hand.

One of her most interesting articles appeared in the Aroha News (New Zealand), October 24, 1888, entitled "PALESTINE FIFTY YEARS AGO AND PALESTINE TODAY."   Her observations about life in the Holy Land for Christians and Jews are fascinating, and we present excerpts below in blue:

Inside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City as it appeared in Lydia
von Finkelstein's days, circa 1870. (New York Public Library)
About fifty years ago, with the exception of some Polish Jewish families, and a few Latin monks, there were no European residents in Jerusalem. At that period the Jews did not contribute either to the civilisation of the inhabitants or the improvement of the city, but adapted themselves to the manners of the people and the exigencies of the place. The monks confined themselves to their daily avocations in the convents, and to the entertainment of wealthy pilgrims and travellers, whose visits, like those of angels, were few and far between.

Receiving the German Emperor in 1898. Von Finkelstein, the reporter,
is presumably at the bottom left. (Library of Congress)

Von Finkelstein, in
 costume, 1885
(Imagining the Holy Land)

The Jews, as well as the native Christians, throughout Syria and Palestine, were daily and hourly subjected to oppression, extortions, exaction, robbery and insults from their Moslem neighbours. It was no unusual occurrence for the Moslem to enter their houses, ransack closets and boxes, and appropriate any article of wearing apparel, furniture, or food that took the marauder's fancy. The local Government authorities would occasionally, when in need of funds, levy blackmail to the amount of hundreds of pounds on the Jews and native Christians, threatening them with massacre and plunder in default of payment. Consequently, Jews and native Christians dared to make any display of wealth only at the risk of losing life or property, and often both....

... With the advent of the American and English missionaries came the dawn of a brighter day tor the Holy City, and indeed for the whole country. On account of Moslem fanaticism and prejudice, these messengers of the Gospel, and consequently pioneers of civilisation, were obliged for a certain period of time to adopt the Oriental dress for safety. The Oriental furniture, utensils, and cuisine, though in

Hezekiah's Pool in Jerusalem's Old City. All those windows and not
a pane of glass, 1865 (New York Public Library)
many respects better adapted to the climate and surroundings, were so entirely different to those of Europe and America, that those early settlers, wealthy or otherwise, may truly be said to have endured hardships and privations great and innumerable. Occidental furniture, utensils, crockery or glass, were not to be had for love or money; and only those fortunate families or individuals possessed them who had had sufficient foresight to bring such articles from their homes in Europe. Further, there was not a window in any house in Jerusalem that had a pane of glass in it; wooden lattices, shutters, and iron bars being the order of the day.

Portrait of von Finkelstein and three
unknown people taken by Krikorian,
a well-known Armenian photographer
in Jerusalem (circa 1885, Library
 of Congress)

About the year 1845, a European merchant first imported —at great inconvenience, risk, and cost, having to travel to Beirout and Alexandria to make the purchase—Occidental furniture, crockery, and windowglass. There were no facilities for travel, and no steamers touched at the port of Jaffa. Once, and later twice a year, the Jewish, Latin, and other communities sent messengers to Beirout from Jerusalem, a journey of about 150 miles overland, to fetch the mails and other matter that might have been brought by the steamers from Alexandria and Constantinople, which at stated periods touched for a few hours at Beirout. About the year 1845 steamers began to stop occasionally at the port of Jaffa...

The American Colony on the beach near Jaffa, 1866
(with permission of the Maine Historical Society)

IIn the year 1866 a large American colony came out, and settled in Jaffa. It was called the American Adams colony. The colonists held their estate under great disadvantages. Mr Adams, either through design or in ignorance of the laws, possessed no title deeds; neither were the colonists, who purchased lots, provided with the necessary documents — all holding the property under bills of sale and pm-chase, whose legality and validity could have been questioned at any moment. Consequently interested parties took advantage of their position, and the best and the largest portion of the land they had paid for was lost, and all the trees out of a fruit plantation cut down, rooted up, and carried away...

Von Finkelstein's performance - not in Jerusalem - but at a replica of Jerusalem at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair
 (from Set in Stone, Fixed in Glass) For more on "Jerusalem" at the 1904 World's Fair click here. Note the
Christian and Jewish banners on the stage


  1. This is truly fascinating. I know a little about Lebanon at that period. Focusing on Lydia von Finkelstein would make a valuable contribution to historical research. Thank you. You learned about her doing research in New Zealand? You must be a fascination personages as well!

    I am going to put a link on my blog.

  2. I agree that this is fascinating also because when you think of the narrative of the Arab "Palestinians" today, of the prospering developed country that the Israelis just "stole" from them. Of the cruelty of the Israelis compared to their sainthood, when the truth is that Palestine before Zionism and the British mandate was a promitive, backward, barbaric place. The lie is so enormous that mant "Palestinians" see Israel today, after it was built from scratch by the Jews and truely believe that it's all theirs. It all belongs to them, it always looked like that - developed, modern and green and not the desolated backward place it truelly was.

  3. Mamreoff could be a Jewish name from Bukhara / converting of Jews to christianity in Jerusalem was a very unusual event / Palestine is not an Arabic name but a Greek, first used by Herodotus, and in use by the languages of Latin source. The whole area of Syria and Palestine is called in Arabic: E-SHAM, meaning the land of the Semites /