The Dragomans

The word 'dragoman' comes from turjeman in Arabic, turgemana in Aramaic. This is an Arabic, Turkish or Persian translator who is employed as an official interpreter by embassies and consulates, or as a tourist guide.

This term was widely used up until World War I but is now heard only locally by Arabs who use the Arabic form, turjeman. Until fifty years ago you could find a listing of all local Dragomans, how to contact them and the precautions to take when dealing with them in all travel guides to the Middle East, from the famous Baedeker's to the Guide Bleu. In the "Guide Indicating Sanctuaries and Historical Sites in the Holy Land" by Fra Lavinio from Hamme, published in 1870, you will find this description:

"Dragomans are widely informed about the country: they know all the roads and can speak different languages. They work as interpreters, guides and intermediators. Before hiring a dragoman, one should ask information about his honesty and capability from trusted sources. Not all Dragomans can give the right explanations about remarkable sites one meets along the way."

A dragoman was in charge of finding transport (mules, horses and carriages), shelter for the night (tents or inns) and food. He was supposed to keep away highwaymen and beggars, to obtain special permits and to bargain at the bazaar. He also served as the "cicerone" (guide) at different sites of interest, although he was not always qualified for this role. Dragomans were often westerners who had moved to the East, learned the local language and customs and then acted as escorts for European travellers.

The most famous dragoman in the Holy Land was an American named Carola Floyd; he was a member of the American colony that had settled in Jaffa in the middle of the nineteenth century. He arrived with carriages that he eventually used to escort tourists around the country.

In 1898, he guided the Prussian Emperor Wilhelm I on his visit to Jerusalem. He dressed extravagantlly, and with all his sabres and daggers he looked like an authentic desert Bedouin.