Chaim Weizmann

The connections to Russia

Pilgrims, pogroms a mad monk and the seceding Finns

The Grand Duchy of Finland

Several members of the expedition were Finns and at the time of the expedition Finland was part of the Russian Empire.

Sweden were the rulers of Finland until the start of the 19th century. During the Napoleonic Wars, Russia initially fought against Napoleon. However, after a series of crushing defeats, celebrated in street names and stations across Paris, Russia swapped sides. Russia then demanded that Sweden do the same and ally with them against England. When Sweden refused, Russia declared war and captured Finland. Finland became an autonomous province within the Russian Empire. However, Russian was never adopted as the primary language.

Valter Juvelius lived in Viipuri, a town which today is known as Vyborg, is close to Saint Petersburg and now part of the Russian Federation.

As Finland was part of the Russian Empire it was involved in the First World War against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empires. Pertti Uotila joined up and became an officer in the Russian Imperial Cavalry. He fought in the disastrous Russian campaigns against Germany.

1916 painting of Pertti Uotila and his brother

Pertti (front) is in the uniform of a Russian Pihkova lifeguard dragoon


The expedition arrived in Jerusalem at a time the city was expanding rapidly. Immigration drove most of this. There were many sources of this immigration, some came from other parts of the Ottoman Empire, but many were from outside and they came from all faiths. Certainly, Jewish immigration was a large driver. The Yemeni Jews were small in number, but they were joined by large groups driven by the same way as the Sephardim several hundred years before; persecution of Jews by Christian European monarchs. In the late-nineteenth century, the ruler was Tsar Alexander III of Russia. Chaim Weizmann described the results:

“I can remember the stampede — the frantic rush from the Russian prison house, the tremendous tide of migration which carried hundreds of thousands of Jews from their ancient homes to far-off lands across the seas. I was a witness in boyhood and early manhood of the emptying of whole villages and towns”

The vast majority of these migrants did not go to Jerusalem or the Holy Land. Between 1888 and 1914, two million Jews left Russia, and of this 85% went to the United States. However, some did come to the Holy Land. In this wave of immigration, between 1881 and 1903, which has become known as the First Aliyah, nearly 35,000 Jews arrived in Palestine.

Easter Pilgrims

As well as people who came to live in Jerusalem, there were the pilgrims who visited the city briefly. The biggest group of these were Russian pilgrims. Every year thousands of Russian Orthodox Christian pilgrims would flock to the city. They were mostly impoverished peasants who travelled from their village in the interior of Russia to the port of Odessa to embark for the Holy Land.

The Russian government subsidised the boats. They were often overcrowded and any poor weather led to seasickness and unbearable conditions. Once they arrived in the Holy Land, most of the pilgrims would walk from Jaffa to Jerusalem. They were filled with religious devotion and would visit multiple Christian sites in the Holy Land. They would return to Russia in possession of mementoes the pilgrims believed would help ease their path to heaven. These could be shrouds washed in the river Jordan or measured against the stone where Jesus’ body was supposedly washed after his crucifixion. They would also return to Russia with earth from the Holy Land, which would be put in their coffin when they died.

The mass of pilgrims was a tremendous economic benefit for the city. Beggars flocked to Jerusalem during the annual Russian pilgrimage and disappeared again when the last boat has gone home. This influx was even though the Russian peasants were poor themselves. Candlemakers, icon painters, shroud makers and olive wood trinket-makers worked all year round to meet the demand at Easter. Not all returned to Russia. Some died in Jerusalem, happy in the belief that this would also speed their passage to heaven. Others fell victim to the temptations of the city. Rasputin, who performed the same pilgrimage in 1911, and who knew more than most about temptation, said that nuns should not go to Jerusalem ‘so huge is the seduction, so envious the enemy’. Many sadly ended up in poverty or prostitution.


After the members of the Parker expedition were discovered digging in the Dome of the Rock riots broke out and wild rumours flew around. One of these was that the Russian pilgrims had been armed and planned to massacre the city’s Muslims. At the same time after one day of disturbance troops sealed off the Russian Compound in order to ensure that there was no violence against the Russian pilgrims.

Finnish Independence

In 1917 following disastrous battlefield losses Russia experienced two revolutions. The second one brought the Bolsheviks to power and ended Russian involvement in the First World War. Finland took advantage of the instability and declared independence from Russia. This led to a bloody civil war in Finland, with Red versus White. As with most civil wars, it was brutal, with atrocities committed by both sides. The war also drew in the Bolsheviks, the Germans and the Allies. Pertti Uotila fought for the right-wing Whites, who eventually proved victorious.

After the Finnish Civil War, Uotila fought against Bolshevik Russia for several more years in the so-called Tribal Wars. The British opposed the Bolshevik Revolution and supported those fighting against it. They landed a force in Murmansk in Northern Russia to help in the fight. Winston Churchill said the policy was ‘to strangle at birth the Bolshevik State’. Many groups were fighting here and their identity was not always clear. Uotila’s friendship with the Old Etonians, made in the heat of Jerusalem, now proved crucial in the cold of the Arctic Circle. The British did not want any weapons they provided to local forces to reach either Bolsheviks or the Germans, so they were initially suspicious of a group of Finns fighting in German-supplied uniforms. Out of these strange-looking soldiers stepped Uotila to help sort matters out. He negotiated with the Royal Navy officers and convinced them that they should supply his Finnish forces with arms and munitions. His connections to the British establishment were vital in persuading the Royal Navy officers they could trust him. One of the foremost proponents of Britain’s policy in Russia was Winston Churchill, former First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1918 he was minister of munitions. Pertti had spent time in Jerusalem with Gordon Wilson, who was married to Winston Churchill’s aunt. This was not Uotila’s last fight with the Russians. After the Soviet Union signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. Two weeks later, the Soviets marched into Eastern Poland, as agreed with Germany. They also invaded Finland, and the two unequally matched nations fought the three-month Winter War. Uotila, now almost sixty, rejoined the Finnish Army. Despite the mismatch, the Finns were largely successful in defending their country.

Pertti Uotila

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The connections to France

Archaeologists and bankers

There were two main connections of the expedition to France. Neither were members of the expedition and one vigorously opposed the expedition. The other saw it as an opportunity to gain valuable knowledge.

Father Louis-Hugues Vincent

Father or Pere Vincent was a Dominican monk who had joined the order as a young man. Vincent came to the Ecole Biblique et Archaeologique in Jerusalem in 1891 and dedicated the rest of his long life to archaeological study in the Holy Land. He was a widely respected scholar and expert. In an obituary, the monk was described as combining ‘genius, industry, charm and humility, enthusiasm and balance’ in his work as a scholar and teacher.

The work of the strange amateurs of the Parker expedition quickly alarmed the established archaeologists in the Holy Land. They complained to the governor in Jerusalem and sent urgent enquiries to Constantinople and to their organisations back in Europe. Parker realised that the level of opposition could cause problems and started to allow visits from a few of the established archaeologists. Six weeks after the excavations began, Parker escorted Pere Louis-Hugues Vincent through the tunnels.

His visit and those of a number of other archaeologists visits did not entirely stop the pressure to have a proper recording of the work. Jacob Spafford was one of those pressing Parker on this. Eventually, the pressure paid off, and Spafford gained a promise that the expedition would allow Father Vincent to record their work and any findings.

Parker did not inform Vincent of the expedition’s real objective, and Vincent was suspicious of Parker. However, the arrangement worked for this mismatched couple. Vincent realised he had an opportunity he could not miss to understand and record the ancient water systems of the city. So he accepted Parker’s invitation. Vincent was allowed to document the excavations but he could not interfere in or direct them. Parker imposed one other condition: Vincent was not allowed to say or write anything publicly about the expedition without approval. Vincent respected this condition scrupulously. When Vincent could do so in 1911, after so many had criticised the expedition, he remained warm and complimentary and, publicly at least, refused to condemn them.

One of the most long-lasting legacies of the expedition was the work of Father Vincent. Parker had agreed to his involvement because of rumours circulating about the expedition and growing opposition because of its secrecy. Vincent brought his unrivalled knowledge of Jerusalem, gained over many decades, to his work. Professor Kathleen Kenyon said Father Vincent’s work in remapping the tunnels and shafts helped salvage a very unsatisfactory enterprise. She said Vincent was small, charming and elegant, but anyone who ‘disagreed with him came in for a terrific pounding, though always couched in the most polite terms.’ The plans he produced of the tunnels formed the basis of all archaeological work in these places for the next century.

Baron Edmond James de Rothschild

Baron de Rothschild was a member of the French branch of the famous banking family. He was an early supporter of Jewish immigration to Palestine. The First Aliyah is best known for the establishment of agricultural projects, often financed by Baron de Rothschild. He had invested up to 10 million francs of his own money by 1890, which was four times the size of any other backer.

The Parker expedition presented a problem for members of the Jewish community. Most though that it was a crazy idea and extremely unlikely that they would find the Ark. Still, there was a dilemma for the Jewish community. They may have thought the search was crazy, but what if the expedition found the Ark? Such an outcome was unthinkable. Baron de Rothschild said he did not care about excavations but did care who possessed the Ark. So, some members of the Jewish community obstructed the expedition.

The Baron purchased the land between the expedition’s plot and the Pool of Siloam. His agent, Albert Antebi, had brokered many of the Baron’s purchases for Jewish settlements in Palestine. He was experienced in buying sites with as little fuss and publicity as possible. Antebi carried out the land purchases quickly and without the issues which the Parker expedition had experienced. Antebi also paid labourers to report back to him on what was happening in the tunnels. Having purchased the site next to the expedition, Baron de Rothschild applied for permission to excavate. His deep connections in Constantinople meant he had no problems obtaining a firman to excavate next to the competing expedition. This expedition later took place under the supervision of Raymond Weill.

Baron de Rothschild told Israel’s future first President, Chaim Weizmann, that his

‘purpose was to uncover the Ark of the Covenant, which he believed to be buried there. I asked him, very seriously, what he hoped to achieve with the Ark. He answered: “Les fouilles, je m’en fiche: c’est la possession” — “excavations be damned, it’s possession that counts.”‘

Other geographical connections

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