Weeks before the bootcamp I wrote to all of the prospective attendees urging them to get their notes in order and do all of their reading and research in advance before coming, so that they could fully take advantage of the scheduled writing time. Of course this proved to be a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’, as over the past fortnight or so I found I spent more time writing to university catering services, putting in stationery orders, and making laminated signs that I did organising my own research.
My original plan - many months ago - had been to use the bootcamp time to write another chapter of my thesis (I currently have one ‘in the bank’, at least in first draft form). I’ve been wanting for ages to write my chapter on early modern travellers to mountains and have various exciting snippets, but I still needed to take a look at all of the texts altogether to try to trace some common themes, so that I could write the chapter in a more interesting fashion than just “traveller x went to mountains and did this and thought this, then in the following decade traveller y went and thought similar thing and did this different thing…” Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to draw out the more thematic lines, for example grouping together travellers who visited mountains in order to see holy sites, or travellers who climbed to the top of a mountain and enjoyed the view. So when it came to the first session of the bootcamp (two days and 6,185 words ago…) I decided to compromise; I would write out those traveller-by-traveller accounts, with the aim of discovering the themes as I did so, and then later re-organising the prose I produced to better reflect them. It has been not just successful but enjoyable - I have discovered those looked-for themes, but I’ve also had the chance to get more closely associated with the individual figures who are going to populate this chapter. And some of them are extremely good fun to spend time with.
I think my favourite thus far is probably Jean de Thévenot, who made a series of journeys through Europe, Persia, and the East Indies between 1652 (aged just 19 or 20) and his death in Azerbaijan in 1667. I’m most fascinated by his accounts of visiting various Biblically-significant mountains, including Mount Sinai, Mount Catharine, and what is now called ‘Mount Quarantania’ (Jabal al-Quarantal), supposedly the mountain where Jesus fasted forty days and nights and was tempted by the devil. Although these journeys could be called piligrimages, Thévenot’s behaviour and the reactions he records himself as having to the sights he visits seem to more closely resemble the activities of a modern-day tourist. At one point, he and his companions delay their departure from a specific region because they were ‘unwilling, notwithstanding all our fatigue, to leave any thing unseen’ (my emphasis) - like any good tourist, Thévenot had to see it all.
In the region of Mount Sinai, Thévenot sought out various landmarks relating to the passage of the Israelites, and was disappointed when they do not live up to expectations. Upon trying to find the ‘seventy old Palm-Trees’ through which the Israelites had reportedly passed he found, instead, a field of newly-grown trees, apparently there for the profit of the nearby monastery. Twelve wells of water once said to be sweetened by a miracle via Moses were found to have returned to their former bitter taste, and the so-called ‘Bath of Moses’ was found to be a small, dark, unappealing cave. The last straw on that particular day of unfruitful sight-seeing came when Thévenot went to draw water from a well beside the monastery that he was staying out. He found that it had an unappealing smell, and went - helpfully? - to notify the monks of this. They phlegmatically replied that they supposed they hadn’t cleaned it out very recently, but that it was still ‘the best water thereabouts’ that Thévenot could hope to find. To me this interaction seemed to hold shades of modern-day holiday-makers descending on a remote rural pub and being baffled at finding only one choice with regards to wine, i.e., white or red.
For all that the monks of that particularly monastery were not necessarily set up to deal with touristical demands or desires, Thévenot’s text does reveal what can only be termed a roaring tourist trade. Coming down Mount Sinai, he commented somewhat acerbically on the practices of ‘the Greeks’ who seemed to be in charge of managing the mountain. At the foot of the moment, they passed ‘two fair stone Porticos’ where, according to the Greeks, pilgrims generally paid ‘a certain small due’ (one has to wonder whether Thévenot held to this alleged tradition, or not). They also passed the imprint of a camel’s foot upon a rock, supposedly of Muhammed’s camel, but Thévenot suspected that print had been created by human hands, with the aim of attracting more Muslim pilgrims to the mountain. He held a similar suspicion about ‘a great Head of a Calf’ cut in a rock, at the site of the casting of the golden bull by the Israelites. Perhaps the ‘Disney-fication’ of historic sites is not such a new phenomena after all…
Obviously, there are far more analytical statements to be made regarding Thévenot’s text and how it speaks to my main research question of early modern reactions to mountains, which I’ve tried to make over the course of some of the other several thousand words written during the bootcamp. But what can’t really go into the thesis, which is why I’ve said it here, is the somewhat arresting vision of a seventeenth-century Frenchman going on his travels and ticking off his “must-see destinations”, and being fleeced and exasperated and fussy in the way many of us are today when travelling to see and experience a different place with different ways and customs from our own. More seriously, his focus on places of religious significance highlights how mentally proximate the Biblical past seems to have been in early modern Europe. At one point, Thévenot’s companions climb up to the top of Mount Quarantania, so that they could stand in the very same spot as Jesus when he was tempted by the devil. Historic sites today attract visitors for exactly the same reasons - so that people can inhabit a space that is shared, across a gulf of time, with events and people long gone. I find the thought of that apparently shared compulsion an arresting one.