At the start of the Jewish resettlement — in the 1870s-1880s — Palestine was a province of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, ruled by the Sultan in far-off Istanbul. The entire non-Jewish population west of the Jordan River was about 140,000, including nomads who moved in and out and even roving bandits. That population had been stagnant or in decline for centuries.
The land was depopulated, deserted, impoverished and barren. Western travellers, who knew from the Bible of the beauty, fertility and vitality of ancient Israel, came to visit and found not the Land of Milk and Honey but an empty wilderness of ruin and desolation.
A British consul reported in 1857 that the land was not cultivated, villages had disappeared, and that “The country is in a considerable degree empty of inhabitants and therefore the greatest need is that of a body of population”.
Mark Twain rode through just a few years before the start of Jewish resettlement and saw only “. . . the kind of solitude to make one dreary.” The Galilee was “unpeopled deserts . . . rusty mounds of barrenness” where he “never saw a human being on the whole route”. He concluded that “Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes . . . desolate and unlovely.”
— From Innocents Abroad, 1867.
At about the same time, a British Christian clergyman came to the Holy Land and wrote: “But where are the inhabitants? This fertile [coastal] plain which might support an immense population is almost a solitude. . . . The denunciations of ancient prophecy have been fulfilled to the very letter – ‘The land is left void and desolate and without inhabitants.'”
– Reverend Samuel Manning, These Holy Fields, 1894.
By the early Nineteenth Century it was perceived, especially in the United States and Great Britain, that the only hope for the restoration of Palestine was in the return of the only people who loved it and would care for it. Those who seriously espoused the idea of the Return of the Jews included U.S. President John Adams, British Prime Minister Disraeli, British Foreign Minister Lord Palmerston, and writer George Eliot.
This had indeed been the sustaining hope of the Jews themselves for two millennia, and it became an active movement by the 1870s-1880s, even before Theodor Herzl organized Zionism as a worldwide movement.