LONDON — Over the last few months the world has experienced something that has been called “unprecedented.” But quarantine — or in newspeak, lockdown, social distancing, or isolation — does have its place in history.
While the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic is frequently cited during the COVID-19 crisis, let us go back further in time to the Holy Land in the early 19th century. There we find cholera epidemics — and the travels of Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore, the philanthropic giants of the Victorian world.
Undergoing long, arduous journeys over land and by sea from England, Moses and Judith traveled on several occasions to offer financial, social and political help to those living in the Holy Land. Whereas today a round trip from London to Ben Gurion Airport takes half a day, in 1827 the Montefiores’ journey lasted 10 months. Only a week of that journey was spent in the Holy Land, in their ultimate destination of Jerusalem.
The Montefiores faced various existential threats during their several journeys to the Holy Land, including bloodthirsty Greek pirates in the Mediterranean who were rebelling against the Ottoman regime during their first visit in 1827. But plague and quarantine did not dog that first visit to the city of Sir Moses’s dreams.
It was the couple’s next visit in 1839 which, according to Judith’s travel diary, was plagued by — well, plague. She mentions “quarantine” 38 times. Cholera was part of life then — and, like today’s plague, contagious and incurable.
Cholera was a much different bug than today’s coronavirus — bacterial not viral, and with different symptoms. It could spread rapidly through populations, leaving death and devastation in its wake. Quarantine measures were necessarily put in place.
Mediterranean countries took quarantine very seriously and ports were well-equipped to deal with cholera and other disease, particularly malaria carried by mosquitoes. Maritime hospitals known as Lazarettos — after Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers — were established expressly to monitor travelers, boats, and cargo for the infection and to prevent its spread.
A doctor would carry out health checks on travelers, ascertaining their status by inspecting their general appearance, examining their skin and the inside of their mouth, and by measuring their pulse. Isolation and social distancing was practiced as necessary, and according to the level of plague in the places from where the travelers had arrived. There were fumigation facilities and areas designated for checking luggage.
Among others, there were Lazarettos in Marseilles, Beirut, and Malta where the Montefiores were obliged to quarantine while on their journeys. These maritime hospitals were well-known to all, and a regular part of life when traveling between Europe and the Levant.
Jews living in the Holy Land, aware of the upcoming arrival of the Montefiores on their third excursion in 1849, wrote to them at the Lazaretto Beirut — guessing correctly that the recipients would undoubtedly languish there for a considerable time before continuing their journey, and therefore have plenty of time to read their letters.
Traveling in the height of 1839 Victorian style
In 1839, the couple traveled in style from their Gothic mansion-of-a-home, Eastcliffe Lodge, located in the seaside English town of Ramsgate, through northern Europe. Riding in their private top-of-the-line traveling carriage, changing horses regularly, and availing themselves of the luxuries of riverboat paddle steamers en route, they then boarded a ship bound for Malta, an important international port in the Victorian age.
Every ship entering and leaving the eastern Mediterranean anchored at Malta, and people and cargo would transfer from vessel to vessel. This was in the days before organized, regular travel in Europe (which would be dreamed up by Thomas Cook two years later in order to ferry workers by train to a religious meeting in 1841), so travelers would wait for a suitable vessel to arrive, and then negotiate with its captain regarding their onward journey.
The Malta authorities under the control of the Ottoman Sultanate operated a sophisticated quarantine system with a quarantine harbor at Valletta for cargo, and the fabulous Lazaretto on Manoel Island suited for any well-heeled passengers.
The luxury hotel had been upgraded the previous year by Malta’s governor, Henry Bouverie, and could accommodate hundreds of people in suites of rooms where groups from different boats could stay while sitting out their quarantine. Boat parties could enjoy classy Victorian comforts in their capacious suites, while securely separated and distanced from each other so infection could not be transmitted.
The Montefiores had stayed there on their return journey from the Holy Land in 1827, when plague was not really a threat in the eastern Mediterranean — though it raged further north in Marseilles at the time — when quarantine seems to have just been a precaution.
They stayed there again on their way home again in 1839, when the situation was very different: On their outbound journey, constant reports of plague in Jerusalem and Jaffa had reached them via other travelers arriving from the eastern Mediterranean. Reports including the number of people who had died in Jerusalem on that day, so many on another, that the gates of Jerusalem were closed preventing people from entering or leaving the city. This was essentially the 1839 analogue version of today’s COVID-19 online worldometer.
Heated debate ensued as to whether it was wise to continue the journey. Moses wanted to continue alone (part of their large entourage consisted of people they had met en route, servants they had brought from home, and their great friend, polymath and polyglot, Dr. Louis Loewe) to reduce possible exposure of plague to his wife. But she would not hear of it, invoking Ruth’s refusal to leave her mother-in-law Naomi.
The couple was very concerned about whether they would be permitted to enter the Holy Land via Jaffa, a port that could be, and sometimes was, closed to new arrivals according to the level of plague there. In fact, the whole city may have been shut to maintain social distancing.
The Montefiores were reliably informed that if they could disembark in Jaffa, they wouldn’t have to quarantine upon arrival in Jerusalem. Presumably, if sent north to Beirut to disembark, they would encounter a number of people who could be infected during their long journey south, and quarantine would probably be enforced outside the city. All very worrying.
Via Alexandria and Beirut, with a clean bill of health
There was another hurdle en route, anyway — the requirement to anchor at Alexandria, 945 miles east of Malta, to drop and pick up passengers, goods and the post, and then sail for the Holy Land. With plague rampant, every stop in a journey meant that quarantine could add weeks to an excursion.
Armed with a clean bill of health from the Malta Lazaretto and quarantine harbor authorities, the Montefiores continued their journey eastward on May 3, 1839, accompanied by a quarantine boat (to ensure no contact with a vessel that had not passed quarantine) to their carrier, the steamboat Megara, which was heading for the Holy Land from Corfu via Malta and Alexandria.
Four days later the party arrived at Alexandria, where quarantine was very strict. Officials from the Alexandrian quarantine boat boarded the Megara and demanded to see the bill of health document. The captain’s proffering of it by hand was summarily rejected, and it was handed over with a pair of tongs for inspection so the new arrivals’ good health could be confirmed, permitting disembarkation. The tone of Judith’s diary suggests that she and Moses found this precaution very amusing, perhaps because they had yet to personally experience the effects of the widespread plague.
They heard more disturbing tales from other travelers from the Holy Land about plague in Jerusalem and Jaffa, as well as hostilities starting between the Ottoman sultan and the army of Mehmed Ali, the charismatic Pasha of Egypt and ruler at the time of the Holy Land and Syria, along with his militarily gifted son Ibrahim Pasha. Then, on May 9, the Megara set sail again — right in the direction of all the trouble.
Landing in Jaffa proved impossible as the port had been closed because of plague there, and the Montefiores were forced to disembark further north in Beirut.
In Beirut harbor the quarantine boat officials conducted a new ritual — the clean bill of health had to be handed over for inspection in a special wooden box and given to the “commander himself,” according to Judith’s diary. More news about plague, war, and the danger of attack by brigands when traveling around the Holy Land at this point made her take a more philosophical view about the onward journey and simply trust in the Almighty for guidance and protection.
Disembarking in Beirut in 1839 the Montefiores headed south towards Jerusalem. Ten years later in 1849 they travelled overland from Istanbul and were obliged to spend 12 days in quarantine at the Lazaretto Beirut where the accommodations were far less comfortable than the facilities at Manoel Island, which had included a purification room containing ovens, dryers and fumigation equipment.
Ominously, the graves of previous travelers who had succumbed to the plague were visible to guests from their rooms, which had only a very small window for ventilation. Strict separation was maintained between those in quarantine and any visitors, and they could only communicate through a set of double grills at a safe distance.
Judith was very ill for several days in her uncomfortable room, during which time a nearly seven-foot-long poisonous snake had to be killed just outside in the dark corridor. Apparently the Lazaretto grounds were infested with them.
While quarantine arrangements were strict at sea for ships coming in to port, they seem to have been quite fluid in different places on land, similar to today’s arrangements, with differences in the severity and observance of quarantine rules depending on the prevalence of plague and the local approach to it.
A warm Holy Land welcome
The Montefiores were welcomed enthusiastically wherever they went, and in 1839 stayed in people’s homes in Beirut, Safed and Tiberias, while avoiding some villages on their southward journey from Beirut to Safed. For instance, the esteemed sage Rabbi Haim Nisim Abulafia, later to be the chief rabbi of Ottoman Palestine, hosted them in his home in Tiberias.
However, most of the excursion was under canvas. The Montefiores had bought four tents on arrival in Beirut — one for themselves (which included a travel bed), one for their friend Loewe, one for the servants, and one for cooking (they traveled with Ibrahim, their personal cook). Others in their entourage would sleep al fresco.
Judith carried a pistol, rode a horse side-saddle, and was affectionately known as “The General” by the group. Stocked up with supplies and relying on Ibrahim to source food locally, the Montefiores began their journey south, glamping at various locations.
After Tiberias they were refused entry into Nablus because the residents feared plague, and set up camp in a cordoned off quarantine area, but were allowed into other towns. Sleeping outside a city’s protective walls was risky, as aggressive, violent brigands were known to attack, steal, maim and kill.
Sleeping seems to have been regarded differently as far as quarantine went, and though the Montefiores passed their nights in a cordoned off area outside of town, during the day they were allowed to sightsee and visit people on their philanthropic mission.
Despite observing social distancing on their journey south from Beirut (loose as it was at times), the Montefiores arrived at the Mount of Olives and sat in self-imposed quarantine outside Jerusalem.
Judith writes that they dreaded infection. They had been increasingly worried about whether to enter at all because the daily death toll from cholera had been relentlessly high for several weeks.
While in Safed, they had received news in a letter from Rabbi Moshe Navon, Ottoman Palestine’s then-chief rabbi, that they couldn’t avoid a visit since “only” three people had died of plague in Jerusalem the previous Sabbath. This letter is part of a large collection in the Montefiore Endowment Library in London, consisting of letters from Jews living in the Holy Land at the time.
On reading the letter several years ago, I laughed at the idea of trying to persuade guests to accept an invitation based on low numbers of dying people — but that was before COVID-19 had made the effects of a plague felt in this generation. Now, as the daily death toll fluctuates and people are keen to loosen the constraints of lockdown, it is easy to empathize with our 19th-century forebears.
So the Montefiores set up a cordoned-off camp on the slopes of the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, at a time when the ancient city walls were there to protect those within from brigands and marauders.
Applications for aid — and five live sheep
Over the next week, a stream of visitors poured out of the city gates and came to see them on the mountain. Word of the Montefiores’ generosity to Jews and others in towns along the way had reached Jerusalem, and people came to petition them for assistance. Many did so in writing, which is preserved in the collection at the Montefiore Endowment to this day. As at different ports, letters were handled with tongs and placed on the ground, to avoid human contact and the transmission of disease.
The governor of Jerusalem, Muhammed Dizdar, and the rabbis of the German and Portuguese synagogues honored the Montefiores with their visits. The entourage brought gifts of food including wine, cakes, butter, apricots, oranges, cheese, tea, coffee and five live sheep — and relentlessly begged the couple to enter Jerusalem. The Muslim governor wanted to honor them, and promised a magnificent and festive welcome. The Montefiores resisted, terrified of catching the plague.
The English consul, William Young, also visited them on the Mount of Olives. He and his wife were convinced that the extreme poverty of the Jews in Jerusalem (as in other towns) was the chief cause of the effects of the plague; they had seen people reduced to eating grass and weeds.
The Montefiores’ philanthropy was absolutely essential to the thousands of Jews in the Holy Land, many of whom enduring abject poverty to a degree that today in the 21st century is hard to imagine.
For a week the Montefiores resisted the advances of their visitors — but eventually capitulated, accepting the offer from Jerusalem’s governor. They entered the city in a procession fit for kings, on a fine Arabian horse escorted by military cavalry in fabulous costume, to the joyous reception of all the clapping, singing and instrument-playing Jewish inhabitants.
Crowds thronged the narrow streets as the Montefiores arrived, people jostled to get near to them, rubbing shoulders with them as guards vainly tried to maintain a distance to “lessen the danger of contagion” in a mission impossible.
The Montefiores then returned, via the same crowded route, to their quarantine camp on the mountain side, invigorated and overwhelmed by the welcome they had received. The next day more petitioners arrived at the camp requesting help. The philanthropists at this point had run out of cash (which they had been carrying around in 11 sacks and distributing personally to the residents of various towns including Safed and Tiberias.
Despite the dangers of sending cash by road Montefiore ordered more from Beirut for distribution to all the numerous petitioners in Jerusalem. But for fear of catching the plague, he did not distribute the funds in person, so great was the risk there. All the letters of these petitioners and those in other cities, Jewish, Muslim and Christian, are stored in the archive at the Montefiore Endowment library.
From Jerusalem the Montefiores continued to Hebron on their philanthropic mission, following their own sporadically relaxed rules regarding social distancing. They again stayed in a cordoned quarantine encampment at night, but took — by today’s lockdown standards — huge risks by day.
Nothing a little salty sea water can’t fix
After several weeks traveling around the Holy Land and almost miraculously avoiding illness, injury or worse, Moses wanted to start the long journey home to England, through the Mediterranean via Alexandria, Malta, and Western Europe. He and Judith were hoping to leave the country from Jaffa, but because they had entered Jerusalem at a time of severe plague, and could be harboring it, they knew this was not realistic.
On arrival at Jaffa they were refused entry regardless because of plague raging there. Forced to endure quarantine outside Jaffa and not knowing how long permission to enter the city would be denied, the Montefiores understood that their only option was to go north to Beirut and leave from there. They persuaded and paid the quarantine superintendent at Jaffa to write them a certificate of health stating that they were free of plague symptoms and had not entered the city, a certificate that might prove helpful on their way.
And so they and their entourage began the long and dangerous 265-mile trek north, carefully avoiding any contact with people. Their main concern was to limit the risk of lengthy quarantining now that they had completed their mission.
But quarantine remained a persistent problem for the Montefiores on that journey north in the summer of 1839. They arrived at the foot of Mount Carmel in June not intending to stay in Haifa for long. Officials there had other ideas, and insisted that the entourage quarantine for at least two weeks in a cordoned-off area by the sea shore.
Neither their health certificate, bribery, nor a visit from the English consul were able to get them out of isolation, but finally, their connection to the governor of Beirut managed to do the trick. The quarantine officials relented and said that the stopover could be reduced to one week rather than two — if the Montefiores would agree to immerse themselves, the entire entourage, and all their belongings — including horses, mules, tents and bedding — in the briny Mediterranean Sea. It was a far cry from the hand sanitizer and temperature checks used when traveling today.
While mulling over the potential loophole, news arrived of an attack on Rabbi David Loeb by roadside bandits as he carried money from Beirut given to him by the Montefiores. In their determination to take the cash they had cut off his fingers. The Montefiores later heard that he had died from his injuries. This drove home the very real dangers they faced as they slept outside the protection of city walls, traveling from town to town on their benevolent undertaking, and knowing that more danger lay ahead on their way to Beirut.
A loyal Janissary, an elite Ottoman guard, who had accompanied the Montefiores on their excursion from town to town left them at the quarantine cordon at the foot of Mount Carmel, balking at the thought of enforced immersion in the Mediterranean Sea. The Montefiores and the rest of the entourage submitted and endured the dunking in order to continue their journey to Beirut.
Though fully aware that Judith’s servant Anne was very ill and weak, and had been for some time, they had neglected to inform the quarantine authorities for fear of being obliged to keep 40 more days in quarantine outside Haifa. Anne was to die later in Malta, though not, it transpired, from plague.
They boarded a boat bound for Alexandria, where they spent the night in a hotel with no restrictions, and then on to Malta, where Judith was very disappointed by the rigorous demands of the quarantine. Her recollections of pratique (the release of a boat and its passengers from quarantine) and personal freedom on their previous visit in 1827 did not tally with the reality she faced in 1839.
Their trunks were turned “topsy turvy” in the search for any stray pieces of cotton, which were confiscated because they could be carrying plague. Judith described this health security search as “Black Saturday.” The luxurious Lazaretto allowed no contact between parties at all, so great was the risk and fear of plague, and she was amused by the evident fears of some “Maltese gentlemen” staying in a suite near hers.
Her party was not permitted to enjoy the pleasure boats at the harbor, as she had done in the past, nor could she visit people and places in town. She was annoyed that her washing had to be done by a washerwoman obliged to stay overnight throughout the Montefiores’ stay in Malta, rather than the “excellent laundresses” of Valletta.
Judith felt overwhelmed and shut in by the very strict routine in Malta in 1839, while the conditions there in 1827 were far less strict, reflecting the very much lower risk of plague at the time.
While waiting in Malta, the Montefiores were concerned that they would be banned from continuing their journey home because their passport was lined with fabric, which constituted a risk of carrying the plague. Fortunately, they were permitted to continue and were spared the complication of applying for another.
Judith also remarked that “this tedious quarantine must certainly prove an impediment to general traveling in Egypt, and pernicious to the interests of that country, as well as to this island.”
After enduring quarantine at the Lazaretto Malta from July 19 to August 6 in the scorching, breezeless heat, the Montefiores boarded a boat home with no further quarantine required.
Undeterred, the Montefiores will be back
Despite the difficult and sometimes arduous journey, they were to return to the Holy Land several more times, knowing that their excursions would involve quarantine — such as on the way home in 1849 at the Lazaretto Marseilles, again due to cholera.
In 1849 the Montefiores traveled via Istanbul to Damascus to deal with the aftermath of the Damascus Blood Libel of 1840. They intended to organize the removal of a plaque wrongly and perniciously accusing the Jews of the ritual murder of a Christian priest and his assistant. (Their mission was ultimately unsuccessful, and the plaque, shockingly, is still there to this day.)
Moses Montefiore was to make his last visit to the Holy Land in 1875 at the ripe old age of 90.
The couple had survived the many perils of the Eastern Mediterranean, including war, bandits, heat, camping, and mosquitos, and the plague of cholera. They were well-versed in the strictures of quarantine and all it entailed. But their experience of plague and quarantine as well-heeled Victorian travelers would have been very different from those of less fortunate people.
Like today, there was a great social divide: the Jews living in abject conditions of filth, starvation and fear in Jerusalem for example, relied on the Montefiores and other private benefactors for material help where there was none coming from the authorities.
Quarantine stations in the Mediterranean continued to function until 1936, nearly 20 years after the Spanish Flu pandemic. One can only hope this is not an indication of how long the COVID-19 crisis will last.
The writer is the Montefiore Endowment Librarian Researcher, in London. The library contains manuscripts and artifacts connected to Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore.