H.V. Morton’s In the Steps of the Master is a wonderful mix of travelogue, history, archaeology, and adventure. He wrote the book in an attempt to express the thoughts and the encounters that a traveller through Palestine ‘with the New Testament in his hands’ would have experienced.
At the time the book was written in 1934, Palestine and the neighbouring territory of Trans-Jordan was administered by Great Britain after they had been taken from the Turks in WWI. The country was divided into provinces headed by Commissioners and under them were the village headmen. A British Inspector General of Police commanded a highly respected police force that was made up of British, Jews and Arabs.
The country and its way of life had remained remarkably unchanged over the centuries and even the law of the land was a modified form of Ottoman Law. In the time of Christ three official languages were recognised - Latin, Greek and Hebrew. In 1934 the Mandate for Palestine stated that the official languages of Palestine were English, Arabic and Hebrew.
The book begins with the author boarding a boat on the Suez Canal in Egypt. From there he crossed to El Kantara where the railway that was constructed by Allenby’s troops during the War followed an ancient route through Gaza, Lydda, Jaffa, and into the mountains of Judea.
‘As the train climbs and winds into the hills towards the mountain capital of Jerusalem, you are aware of something fierce and cruel in the air. You have the same feeling in Spain when the train crosses the Sierra de Guadarrama towards the mountain capital of Madrid. But Judea is fiercer than anything in Europe. It us a striped, tigerish country, crouched in the sun, tense with a terrific vitality and sullen and dispassionate with age.’
Morton visited many different places mentioned in the New Testament such as Galilee, the Mount of Olives, Golgotha, Samaria, Bethany, the Dead Sea, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem:
‘My first thought was amazement that Jerusalem should ever have been built. A more unlikely place for a famous city cannot be imagined...There is a splendid defiance about the situation of Jerusalem, or perhaps it would be more correct to say that no people who did not believe themselves to be in the special care of God would have dared to have built a city in defiance of all the laws of prudence.’
Everywhere he went he saw around him people unconsciously illustrating the Bible and he often delved into aspects of the Bible that a person who had never been to Palestine would overlook. From his travelling experiences he was able to make interesting connections and comparisons. For example, having seen the ruins of Ypres after WWI he likened them to what the Christians would have faced upon their return to Jerusalem after the siege of Titus in 70 A.D.
Herod the Great, Saladin, the Emperor Julian, Pontius Pilate, Tiberias, and the Crusades, besides many other lesser known people and events, were vividly described. Lady Hester Stanhope was one of these. She makes an appearance in Alexander Kinglake’s Eothen and Morton gives us a sympathetic cameo of her life and her tragic end.
The artist William Holman Hunt also gets a mention. He painted one of his best known paintings, The Scapegoat, while living in Palestine.
These cultural insights and the exploration of history and archaeology are extremely helpful in understanding the background of the New Testament.
‘The Gospel accounts...are always meticulously accurate.’
‘The hideous instability of mind which the Passover mob shared with all mobs in history is clearly seen in the Gospels when the people one say cried, “Hosanna!” And the next “Crucify Him!”
We are using In the Steps of the Master this year for Geography (Ambleside Online Year 11) but it covers so much more than geography. It is beautifully written and captures Palestine very much like it would have been when at the time of Christ.