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Pioneering British exploration and scriptural geography: The Syrian Society/The Palestine Association



This paper relates to a unique pioneering British association established in London in 1805, for the ‘philosophical, physical and biblical’ study of Palestine/the Holy Land. The short-lived Syrian Society/Palestine Association (PA) adopted the model of the African Association, founded by Sir Joseph Banks in 1788 for the promotion of travel and discovery in Africa. The PA was a predecessor of two important British scholarly societies: the Royal Geographical Society (RGS, founded 1830) and the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF, founded 1865). We first consider the historical, religious and scientific contextual background to the period, following the Napoleonic Wars in the Ottoman Empire and the revival of Christian religious beliefs and biblical criticism in Britain and Europe. Based on primary archival sources not previously studied, we then analyse the declared objectives of the Association, its founders, membership, structure, mode of operation, interrelations with consuls, traders, bankers and organisations (such as the Levant Company, the East India Company and contemporary missionary societies), accomplishments, and possible reasons for its failure. We discuss its closure in 1834, the transfer of its funds to the newly founded RGS, and the later establishment of its ‘daughter in spirit’, the PEF in 1865.