Many British travellers felt that, as Christians, they had a personal stake in the Middle East. The name of Jerusalem, a city sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims, had long been embedded in British religious, literary and political life as the symbol of a longed-for destination imbued with Biblical antiquity. But the reality of the city’s modern appearance only started to become familiar from images brought back by artists from around 1840. In comparison to their preconceptions of Jerusalem, most artists were in fact disappointed by what they found. David Roberts wrote that, while trying to capture picturesque images of the city, ‘I have often laid down my pencil in despair’.
As the balance of population of Jerusalem shifted towards a Jewish majority in the nineteenth century, British visitors often looked towards the city’s Jewish communities for the future redevelopment of Palestine. An interest in Jewish life, initially sparked by the connection to the culture in which Jesus Christ had lived, often grew into a fascination with Jewish tradition for its own sake.
Away from the complex religious dynamic of Jerusalem, British artists tended to admire Islamic culture on its own terms. At Cairo, Damascus and elsewhere, the daily prayers in the great mosques, the gathering for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and the lifelong study of the Qur’an were all frequent subjects.