James Bell Forsyth.

A few months in the East : or, A glimpse of the Red, the Dead, and the Black seas online

. (page 5 of 10)
Online LibraryJames Bell ForsythA few months in the East : or, A glimpse of the Red, the Dead, and the Black seas → online text (page 5 of 10)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Israelites clad in gorgeous garments, and were forcibly
reminded of the beautiful painting (by Holman Hunt)
of * Finding Our Lord in the Temple," in which the
dresses of the Rabbis and the attendants are repre-
sented as very rich and brilliant. When we entered,
we could not find seats ; but one of our party, Mr.
Brown, of St. Louis in the United States, a very
good linguist, was recognised by a Spanish Rabbi,
who happened to be expounding the Scriptures at
the time. Mr. Brown had crossed from Marseilles
to Alexandria in company with this same Rabbi,
and had made his acquaintance. When he perceived
that we could find no seats, he paused in his discourse,
and said a few words to another person, who was with


him in the reading-desk or raised dais, in the middle
of the building ; and we were invited to take our
seats alongside of them, one of our number being a
Minister of the Gospel. Few Christians, probably,
have ever been so favored in a synagogue ; for the
Jews are jealous and intolerant in such respects, and
the eyes of many seemed to look upon us as unduly
privileged. We remained, with our hats on, for an
hour and a half ; and during this time we witnessed
the very interesting ceremony of the elevation of the
Law. The parchments are carried round, and the
people touch the fringe, kissing their fingers after-

No women were in the building they remain
outside at the windows ; and it would appear that,
in matters spiritual at least, they are regarded or
treated as inferior to the male sex. I have, since my
return, been informed by way of explanation, that
the ark, in which the Pentateuch is deposited, is
considered as a holy place, and can only be ap-
proached by the male line of the priestly family of
Aaron ; that on the Day of Atonement (on which
anniversary I was present), on the Festival of the
New -Year, and some other stated occasions, the
Parchments are carried round, the Priest repeating,
" This is the Law of Moses," and blessing the people
in the words which are directed to be used, in the


6th chapter of the Book of Numbers : " The Lord
bless thee, and keep thee : The Lord make his face
shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee : The
Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give
thee peace."

The Jew has no longer High Priest, Sacrifice or
Temple ; but he continues to live in hope, and,
annually, numbers find their way to the Holy City,
there to die, and to be buried in the Valley of
Jehoshaphat, where (both Jew and Mahommedan
believe) the final judgment will take place.

In company with Mrs. Finn, who, with her hus-
band the Consul, takes great interest in matters con-
nected with the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem, I
visited several schools and hospitals, founded, for the
benefit of this ancient race, by the charity and liberality
of English and Prussian protestants. These were all
remarkably clean and tidy, in marked and pleasing
contrast with every thing around them.

Great efforts have been made, in a spirit of enlarged
philanthropy, to induce the poor Jews to labour for a
livelihood, instead of existing on the miserable pittance
annually doled out to them, or the supplies of bread
and other necessaries begged for and collected by
the servants of the synagogues for the sustenance of
the needy. A farm has been purchased, for the pro-


motion of this important purpose, by the Jerusalem
Agricultural Association ; and from this well-inten-
tioned project happy results are anticipated. Sir
Moses Montefiore has done much towards founding
schools in Jerusalem, for the benefit of his impover-
ished co-religionists. He is also, at present, in con-
junction with a wealthy Hebrew of New Orleans,
building a large range of almshouses outside the Zion
gate, and they have employed an English architect,
to ensure the due accomplishment of their beneficent
intentions. These wealthy and benevolent men de-
serve high commendation for their charitable under-
takings, and they do well to leave such memorable
u Footprints on the sands of Time."

Before leaving the Jews' quarter, I may state,
that it is the most filthy and uninteresting part of
the city, being literally "heaps of stone" and rub-
bish. Taking up my prayer-book, I could not help
reflecting how completely had been verified the words
of the first verse of the seventy-ninth Psalm : "
God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance,
thy Holy Temple have they defiled ; and made Jeru-
salem an heap of stones."



On Sunday, the 1st of April, we attended the
English Cathedral. The church was well filled ; the
service was conducted most impressively; the singing
was good, and an excellent sermon was preached by
the Right Rev. Bishop Gobat, on the text (pecu-
liarly appropriate) : " He was numbered among the
transgressors." The Bishop's delivery was slow, but
very distinct for a foreigner ; some of his hearers are
said to complain that his discourses are rather long.
I was not furnished with any letter to the Right
Reverend Prelate, but he had the kindness to call
and invite me to spend the evening with him ; <
had, however, previously proceeded to the Jordan.

The church is a very handsome building, though
plain in style. The number of Protestants resident



in Jerusalem does not much exceed an hundred and
fifty ; yet, at this season of the year, the congregation
generally amounts to two or three hundred persons,
so many English and American tourists constantly
flocking to the Holy City at the time of Easter. The
number of travellers from America is greatly in excess
of that from Britain ; but all, being accounted of the
same Anglo-Saxon origin, are treated alike, and meet
with the same attention in the East.

The Russians are acquiring a large portion of the
city, and are building a spacious embassy ; during
my visit, they were digging out the foundations, and
had gone to a great depth, some twenty feet below
the present surface, but had found nothing save
rubbish and heaps of stones. The Russians, indeed,
seem as intent on acquiring a broad footing in Pales-
tine, as the French are desirous of obtaining one in
Syria and in Egypt. This eagerness probably arises,
on the part of Russia, from a cherished policy to
extend the influence of the Greek Church ; for other-
wise, in a political point of view, the possession of
Judea must, from the rugged nature of the country
and its almost impassable roads, be little worth.

On the 2nd of April, Mr. Brown, young Denny
and myself, after an early breakfast, started for
Jericho, Jordan, and the Dead Sea. We were in all


a formidable party, for there is still, in going down to
Jericho, some danger of " falling among thieves/'
We were accordingly accompanied by a Sheikh, or
Head of a Jordan tribe, mounted on a superb Arab,
and armed to the teeth. Our infantry consisted of
two Arab boys, clad in coats of sheep-skin their
only uniform and armed with muskets about seven
feet long. Then there was our dragoman ; also, a
cook, with other servants, and thirteen or fourteen
mules and horses. Our excursion would, in all pro-
bability, only extend to a three-days' journey ; but
we took with us tables, chairs, iron-bedsteads, and,
in fact, every article which we could have occasion
to use.

Woe to the traveller who essays to make this
journey without the protection of the sheikh; when he
gets to Jericho, some of the Arabs will make him re-
pent of, and pay for, his temerity. The very day after
we started, two Frenchmen, who were determined to
resist the imposition, and were desirous to avoid the
expense (about two dollars and a half each), were
robbed of everything which they had with them. A
few weeks previously, the Consul at Aleppo paid a
visit to the land of Moab, on the other side of the
Jordan ; and, although he had a numerous escort with
him, he was not only robbed of everything, but was

obliged to send to Beyrout for a large sum of money
as a ransom.

The author of "Eothen" describes his excursion
to that region, but apparently his own hardihood,
and the smallness of his retinue, proved his safety ;
for the utter indifference, which he manifested,
conjoined with these other causes, might induce the
Arabs to consider him no great quarry.

On our way, we passed through Bethany, and
visited the tomb of Lazarus ; and then entered on
our journey in good earnest. The road soon becomes,
as it has been described, dreary and toilsome, running
among white desolate hills, and wild rugged val-
leys, without a tree or shrub, or green grass-tuft, to
relieve the eye. It has been justly remarked, that
it would be almost insupportable, were it not for the
associations connected with it, and a certain sense of
danger and adventure. We travelled on, however,
under the dazzling and broiling sun, over rock and
hill, while the glare of the white, stony sand, reflect-
ing the sun's rays, rendered our progress very oppres-
sive ; but, at length, after eight hours' riding, we
found ourselves approaching Jericho.

From Jerusalem to the Valley of the Jordan, the
country is ic a vast howling wilderness;" and the
great plain of this renowned river is truly described,


as opening up suddenly before the eye of the tra-
veller, with the green banks of the stream sunk down
in a fissure in the middle of it, some thirteen hundred
feet below the surface of the Mediterranean. On
entering the valley, the mountain of Quarantania
(according to tradition, the scene of Christ's tempta-
tion) is pointed out to strangers ; and, as it rises
abruptly, white and bare, from the verdant plain, it
certainly presents a striking and interesting appear-
ance. From this point to Jericho, patches of green
are to be seen every here and there ; but the ground
is covered with a coating of hard, dry sand.

On our way, we visited the celebrated " Fountain
of Elisha," now sometimes called the " Spring of the
Sultan." This is supposed to be the place mentioned
by Sir Walter Scott, in his admirable tale of the
Crusaders "The Talisman," and called by him the
"Diamond of the Desert," near which Soliman and Sir
Kenneth reposed and refreshed themselves after their
fierce encounter. I may be excused for quoting, on
such an occasion, the beautiful passage immediately
connected with a description of the well :

" They had now arrived at the knot of palm-trees and the
fountain, which welled out from beneath their shade in sparkling
profusion. We have spoken of a moment of truce in the midst of
war ; and this, a spot of beauty in the midst of a sterile desert,
was scarce less dear to the imagination. It was a scene, which
perhaps elsewhere would have deserved little notice ; but as the


single speck in a boundless horizon, which promised the refresh-
ment of shade and living water, these blessings, held cheap where
they are common, rendered the fountain and its neighbourhood
a little paradise. Some generous or charitable hand, ere yet
the evil days of Palestine began, had walled in and arched over
the fountain to preserve it from being absorbed in the earth or
choked by the flitting clouds of dust, with which the least breath of
wind covered the desert. * * * Stealing from under the
arch, the waters were first received in a marble basin, much defaced
indeed, but still cheering the eye by shewing that the place was
anciently considered as a station, that the hand of man had been
there, and that man's accommodation had been in some measure
attended to. The thirsty and weary traveller was reminded by
these signs, that others had suffered similar difficulties, reposed in
the same spot, and doubtless found their way in safety to a more
fertile country. Again, the scarce visible current which escaped
from the basin, served to nourish the few trees, which surrounded
the fountain ; and where it sunk into the ground and disappeared,
its refreshing presence was acknowledged by a carpet of velvet

" Ere they remounted to resume their journey, the Christian
Knight again moistened his lips, and dipt his hands in the living
fountain, and said to his Pagan associate of the journey: 'I
would I knew the name of this delicious fountain, that I might
hold it in my grateful remembrance; for never did water slake
more deliciously a more oppressive thirst, than I have this day
experienced.' ' It is called in the Arabic language (answered the
Saracen) by a name which signifies the Diamond of the Desert. 1 "

Before proceeding to our tents, we visited the
site of ancient Jericho ; here, we saw nothing but the
remains of a dry mud-wall and some low mounds of
rubbish. Being now tired and hungry, we quickly
made our way to modern Jericho, as it is called, being


all that remains of the Jericho of the New Testament,
a wretched and miserable collection of tumble-down
huts. At the time, several hundred Russian pilgrims,
accompanied by a regiment of Turks, were encamped
outside the village, having just returned from bathing
in the Jordan.

Our dragoman had pitched our tents, and every-
thing in due order ; we found, also, a capital din-
ner ready for us, equal in every respect to such as
we had at the hotel. After wandering for some time
among the Russian caravan, we were serenaded by
a dozen Arabs, who sang and danced with great
monotony, not forgetting the usual solicitations for
backsheesh, which we gave ; and, retiring to our tents,
we were soon asleep on our camp-bedsteads ; I
am very sure of this, that I have seldom slept so
soundly as I did, under the tent, in front of Jericho,
after the wanderings of that day.

Next morning we were early up, and soon on our
way to the Jordan. The bridle-road, which leads to
the banks, is very good, for these parts; so that we
were able to canter along at a fair rate, and reached,
without delay, this celebrated stream so often men-
tioned in Holy Writ. Tradition assigns to the spot,
at which we had arrived, the passage of the Israelites,
as well as the baptism of our Saviour by John, his


forerunner. Here the Jordan is from sixty to eighty
feet in breadth, very muddy, and runs as rapidly as
a mill-sluice. We bathed in the stream, and did not
omit to bring away some of the water.

The reader may probably expect some descrip-
tive details of this celebrated valley and river, and
it might be satisfactory to transcribe these from the
best authorities ; but such a task is hardly within
the scope of the writer. It is sufficient to state,
that the valley, in its full breadth, about ten miles,
appears from our present position to be a long
plain, inclosed on either side by bold and barren
ridges, in the centre is the glen, through which
the Jordan flows. This valley, once so noted for
its fertility, for its palm-trees and balsams, has
undergone a desolating change from long neglect and
the fierce effects of a powerful sun on a locality so
peculiarly situated, below the level of the sea. The
Jordan itself flows through this glen at a depth of from
fifty to eighty feet below the plain of the valley ; and
this glen varies from two hundred to six hundred
yards in breadth, its sides being rugged and abrupt.
The banks of the river are conspicuously marked with
shrubs, willows and reeds. The stream gradually
widens, as it approaches its entrance into the Dead
Sea, where the width is about one hundred and
eighty yards, but the depth only three feet; yet,


owing to the soft and slimy nature of the soil, there
is no practicable ford.

Striking across the plain from the spot where we
had reached the Jordan, we arrived, after an hour's
canter, at the shores of the Dead Sea, and rode fully a
mile along this dull and dreary lake. Its length is
stated at forty miles, and its breadth varies from five
to nine, its depth being, in some places, upwards of
two hundred fathoms ! With Sodom and Gomorrah,
and the Cities of the Plain, buried in its abyss with
its own muddy and slimy shores, surrounded by cliffs
of naked rock, the Lake of Asphaltites reigns amidst
a most desolate and melancholy scene. Its waters,
though acrid and bitter beyond conception, are beau-
tifully clear ; and, in this respect, very different from
those of the Jordan: their specific gravity is so
considerably greater that that of the ocean, that it is
not possible for the human body to sink in them.

The surface of the Dead Sea, as I have already
indicated, is upwards of 1300 feet below that of the
Mediterranean. Situated at such a depth, with
cliffs of limestone rising immediately from its waters,
on the south and west, and with the mountains of
Moab on the opposite side, girding the scene as with
a wall, this extraordinary monument of God's judg-
ment against the Cities of the Plain, presents a most


solemn picture of solitary desolation. No living ob-
ject is discernible around ; no fishes float beneath,
no birds fly over the surface of its waters. Yet the
popular stories about the poisonous exhalations rising
therefrom are of a mythic origin. The nature of the
climate and the effect of the sun's rays, in so sunken
a locality, cause an immense evaporation and an
almost insufferable heat. The former effect will ac-
count for the disposal of the water that enters the
lake, and the latter for the habitual absence of animal
existence in its vicinity. We were, however, favored
on this occasion with a refreshing wind ; and yet,
from the shores of the Dead Sea to the Greek Con-
vent of Mar Saba, whither we next proceeded, we
had a very tiresome ride of four or five hours.

During the whole day, from the time we left Jericho
till we reached Mar Saba, we did not meet a living
creature, except one solitary camel without a rider.
There were now, on our road to the convent, preci-
pices so steep and chasms so vast, that it was at
times frightful to contemplate their nature. 1 gave
my horse the reins, and trusted entirely to his sure
footing ; but right glad were we to find ourselves, at
length, within the extensive walls of the Convent of
Mar Saba, which has been justly regarded, in the wild
grandeur of its situation, as one of the most remark-
able monastic institutions in Palestine. The large


and irregular edifices of the convent cover an im-
mense space of ground, and are inclosed in and pro-
tected by ranges of stone walls. There are rock
terraces and patches of garden in every direction ;
chambers, natural and artificial caves, chapels, and
other apartments, every here and there, upon ledges
of rock and elsewhere, on this once most notable site
of oriental anchorites and ascetics. The tomb of St.
Sabas is shewn in a small chapel, as also the den, in
which this chief of anchorites spent the greater part
of his life ; also several other cells consecrated by
the odour of sanctity. The Reception Booms are
very good ; and we passed the afternoon very com-
fortably in this secluded convent, so admirably situ-
ated for solitude and separation from the busy scenes
of life. We were politely conducted to all the sites
and objects worthy of inspection ; and we certainly
met with a most friendly reception.

After an early breakfast, on the following morning,
with our hospitable entertainers, we started on our
way towards Bethlehem. When we had continued
our ride for an hour, we came upon some very large
flocks of goats and sheep, which very naturally re-
minded us, on our approach to the birth-place of Jesus,
of that simple and time-honoured hymn : " While
shepherds watched their flocks by night ;" or, accord-
ing to the more modern version :


" While humble shepherds watched their flocks
On Bethlehem's plains, by night," &c.

On our way we had an excellent view of Jeru-
salem, which appeared in the distance as perched
on a mountain. I remarked, that, in approach-
ing the Holy City by the Jaffa Gate, one is
apt to imagine, from the proximity of the Mount of
Olives, that the city is on comparatively flat, level
ground ; but at the distance at which we now viewed
it, the interval of two hundred feet between the walls
and Olivet was not perceptible, so that the words of
the Psalmist were brought forcibly to the mind:
"As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the
Lord is round about his people from henceforth even
for ever." Psalm cxxv. 2.

We soon had Bethlehem in sight, a beautiful
village on the slope of a hill, surrounded by terraces
and gardens, and the immediate vicinity, which
seemed to be, to all appearance, the most luxuriant
part of Palestine that we had yet seen. The terraces
appeared to be carefully cultivated and kept, and are
abundantly adorned with olive-trees, fig-trees, and
the vine. The great Convent, on the eastern side,
from its vast extent and well-chosen site, has a
very striking and commanding look. There are
Latin, Greek and Armenian conventual communities
in connection with the Church of the Nativity a


large and imposing edifice. We were most punc-
tiliously conducted by a Monk over every spot of
interest, and our guide shewed us every place
connected with the life of the Redeemer, which
tradition has assigned to the birth-place of our Lord.
There is no doubt that the most beautiful part of
the building was erected by the Empress Helena, in
the early part of the fourth century ; and it is, there-
fore, of great antiquarian interest. The Monk con-
ducted us down a winding staircase to the Grotto of
the Nativity, descending (as it were) into a vault
hewn in the rock. Here he pointed out the identical
spot, where our Lord is said to have been born. It
is indicated by a marble slab fixed in the pavement,
with a silver star in the centre, round which are the
words : " Hie de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus
natus est? For details concerning the adjoining
chapels of St. Joseph and of the Holy Innocents, the
" Milk Grotto," and other particulars connected with
this interesting locality, I must refer my readers to
more lengthened compilations ; while (according to
my original purpose) I hasten to describe my journey,
and shew my Canadian countrymen what may be
achieved within a given time ; and this, too, without
hurrying heedlessly over the ground, or making more
haste than good speed.


Returning by Rachel's tomb, for it will be remem-
bered that Jacob buried his beloved wife "in the
way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem," we reached
Jerusalem a little after noon. On our arrival, we
were surprised to find the hotel quite full, although
when we left it, there was merely our own party ; but
mine host said he was always subject to such sudden




On returning to Jerusalem, our first visit was to
Mount Zion, which lies outside the walls of the
modern city. This celebrated hill, the largest of
those, on which Jerusalem was built, varies in height
above the adjoining valleys from 150 to 300 feet.
The slopes, with their terraces, are covered with
olive-trees. On the summit a level track extends
from the tomb of David to the citadel ; here a Mosque
has long stood, covering the sepulchre of the ancient
kings of Judah. Into this Mosque strangers, unless
they are followers of Mahommed, are not permitted
to enter; but leave is not withheld to their visit-
ing the Ccenaculum the Upper Chamber where
(according to tradition) our Lord instituted the Last
Sup,per, and where the Apostles are said to have met
after the Resurrection.


The privilege of passing Good Friday, in the
Holy City, was a subject for grateful and solemn
congratulation. To be, on such an anniversary, in
the very city and near the very spot where the great
atonement was offered, was an event calculated to
make a deep and powerful impression on the mind ;
and, I trust, that it was with subdued and suitable
feelings we attended the Protestant Church in Jeru-
salem that forenoon.

In the afternoon, Dr. Coates of the East India Com-
pany's service, Mr. Clarke of the 95th regiment, Mr.
Brown, two other gentlemen and myself, started on
horseback to visit Hebron. Passing Rachel's tomb,
already glanced at, we soon arrived at the Pools of
Solomon. These are three immense reservoirs in ex-
cellent preservation, situated in a line the one below
the other. They are described as having been partly
cut in the rocky bottom of the valley, and are built of
large hewn stones, certainly reminding the visitor of
the works ascribed to the great monarch whose name
they bear. The water is supplied from a subterranean
fountain, and conducted by ingenious and elaborate

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10

Online LibraryJames Bell ForsythA few months in the East : or, A glimpse of the Red, the Dead, and the Black seas → online text (page 5 of 10)