John Murray’s 'Handbook for Travellers in Syria and Palestine'

1 October 2018 10:45

Chris Donaldson, Lecturer in Cultural History, writes

''I have a soft-spot for old guidebooks, particularly Victorian ones. So, when given the chance to spend a weekend in Jordan last month, I made a point of packing a copy of John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Syria and Palestine (pub. 1858).

My interest in such items isn’t just an affectation. It’s a core part of my research. One of the best ways to learn about a culture – past or present – is to study the way it portrays the rest of the world.

Such books, of course, also offer unique glimpses into historical travel arrangements.

Among other things, they prove that Victorian visitors to the Middle East didn’t pack lightly. In addition to food, medicine, and folding beds, most guides list handguns as ‘requisites of the road’. —Murray’s recommends a .436 Dean & Adams.

Not being a crack shot, nor much in need of a spare bed, I chose to forego such accessories and set forth with a few changes of clothes, a pack of almonds, and some Nurofen. Thus equipped, I ventured forth on what proved to be a packed but relaxed long weekend.

  I had the particular good fortune on my first day in Jordan to attend a seminar on heritage and cultural memory at the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL). From there, I set off for the south to visit Wadi Rum and, of course, Petra: a location which, as Murray’s Handbook assures me, was as integral to the Victorian tourist’s experience of the region as it is to Jordan’s modern visitor economy.

My interest in these locations (beyond their obvious scenic appeal) lies in their status as protected heritage landscapes. Both are complex historical sites, which, not unlike national parks and UNESCO properties closer to Lancaster, are struggling to balance the demands of conservation with the need to maximize their economic value. 

Both locations, moreover, raise difficult questions about the commodification of cultural heritage, and the processes by which some of the traditional practices that struck Victorian travellers as curiously exotic have become marketable forms of tourist ‘entertainment’.

The branding and marketing of such heritage landscapes chimes with some of the core themes addressed at the seminar I attended at CBRL, and they’re topics I’ll be exploring with students on our MA critical heritage studies module this year. We’ll also find time to dip into a few old guidebooks during that module, of course.

For now, though, I’ve returned from my travels ready for the start of the new year. My copy of Murray’s Handbook has a fair bit of sand in its pages now, but the book seems all the better for the wear and tear.''

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