A Journey through Time to Jerusalem: Content Analysis of Jerusalem Descriptions in Jewish Travel Literature throughout the Ages


Date coverage: 1200 - 1900

Digital Humanities Historical Documents (e.g. Notarial sources; Census records; Ecclesiastical documents; Correspondence) Urban History Natural language processing (NLP) Urban Topography Tools for data mining/extraction OCR / HTR Landscape reconstruction Socio-Economic History

Travel literature is a hybrid genre that unites under one umbrella different descriptions of journeys, both fictional and non-fiction, those written as poetry or prose and those written in the form of a list of places, or as diaries or as other rich travel descriptions. If so, travel literature unites under it journeys of different types, and a diversity of travellers and travel purposes as well as in the style and genre of writing.

The journey in the past was not a simple act and involved many dangers, nevertheless travellers set out on journeys. So is the journey to Jerusalem and the pilgrimages to it – despite the destruction of the second holy temple and the exile, and despite the difficulties and physical dangers involved in the journey, Jews of all generations have not stopped longing for it and traveling to it. Historical researches of Jerusalem indicate that Jews did travel to it after the destruction of the Second Temple, but Jewish travel literature was preserved only from the middle of the 12th century. This travel literature presents a rich image of Jerusalem, which has been exposed more and more through the generations, and it includes physical descriptions of Jerusalem but also experiential descriptions related to the encounter with it. In addition, the historical research literature on Jerusalem also indicates that the travel literature is indeed an important source of knowledge of Jerusalem through the ages, along with other historical findings.

The current study was inspired by the European international project ‘Time Machine’, an enormous archival project, which collects, sorts, analyzes and makes accessible the various sources of information depicting the European capital cities, and aims to build ‘Time Travel’ simulation.

The aim of the study is to examine and analyze the content of descriptions of Jerusalem according to the Jewish travel Literature through the ages, from the 12th century to the end of the 19th century. The research is in the field of digital humanities and offers an innovative perspective for historical research about Jerusalem. The research incorporates methods from the field of computer science and information science and is aided by the historical research literature in the field. The study examined the scientific edition Travels of Eretz Yisrael of Avraham Yaari, which includes 33 stories of Travels to Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem. The corpus was chosen both because it is a scientific edition and because it is a rich and representative corpus of journeys to Jerusalem over the generations, and another reason – it also was freely shared on the internet by the HebrewBooks project, and was available to conduct a textual computational research as the current study.

The research used computational tools to convert the corpus to a file of characters, and also computational search functions in order to locate all the sections describing Jerusalem (‘Distant Reading’), and then character recognition errors which found in these sections after this convert were manually fixed and prepared for installation in computational textual tools (CATMA; Voyant). Subsequently, a thematic content analysis was performed, and all descriptions of Jerusalem were sorted into categories and sub-categories, and an array of categories that indicates the nature of descriptions of Jerusalem in the Jewish travel literature for its generations was constructed.

The next step was reading all the text sections (‘close reading’), and their subject and descriptions were examined in depth, using CATMA software, which assisted in the implementation of the content analysis. Next, the research questions were examined using computational queries, which have been run both on the text layer itself without the tags, on the data, and on the tagging layer and content categories – the metadata layer. The next step was reading all the texts sections (‘close reading’), and their subject and descriptions were examined in depth, using CATMA software, which assisted in the implementation of the content analysis. In addition, Voyant software was used, because of its option to make Stopwords List (exclude the meaningless words) for accurate examination of the words (Data layer), which does not exist in CATMA (However, Voyant does not offer tagging options). If so, questions were asked about the frequency of the words in the text as well as questions about the nature of the categories and the frequency of their occurrences as they arose in each story, in each period separately and in all periods together. These findings were analyzed and presented in tables and also in Words Clouds visualization tool (this visualization tool is offered on Voyant).

Although these programs do not offer the possibility to examine connections between different words, or categorical connections, these have been well tested and have undergone ‘human control’, and there has been reference to these connections that change the face of the findings. However, this is a major drawback and especially this will constitute an obstacle in significantly larger studies, where human intelligence will not be able to help much. At the same time, these tools have made it possible to produce significant historical insights, which otherwise would not have been possible to produce.

The conclusions of the study are that the travel literature is a rich source of information and presents a fairly rich image of the city of Jerusalem. The study showed that the main image of Jerusalem focused on physical descriptions of the city, and the most common categories were the description of the tombs in the vicinity of Jerusalem, the description of the Temple complex and all of these combined with the geographical landscape descriptions of Jerusalem. These findings, which were also examined and analyzed in a humane way, further revealed that although the physical descriptions are many more, still together with the experiential descriptions they present an image focusing on Jerusalem of heaven. Another conclusion is that the image of Jerusalem is slowly revealed over the generations: in the 12th to 15th centuries the descriptions are more focused on the temple complex and tombs in Jerusalem while describing the landscape, but from the 16th century the image becomes richer, and the number of categories increases significantly and often also describe the fabric of life of the population in Jerusalem, the customs and ways of life, the relations between the communities, the activity of trade and markets, the currencies and their value, the city authorities and important historical descriptions and folklore traditions. In the 19th century another interesting change took place – this is the period when the experiential descriptions and especially the personal impression stand out, and Jerusalem is described in terms of the Zionist act and the vision to settle Israel and Jerusalem, as well as the relations between the old settlement and the new settlers.

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