Laurence Oliphant.

The land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; online

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from its present desolate condition.^ -^

The Anazeh are by far the most powerful tribe
between the Jordan and the Euphrates, control an
area of about 40,000 square miles, and can bring
over 100,000 horsemen and camel-drivers into the
field. They are divided into four great tribes, each
of which, in its turn, is subdivided. The Wulid
Ali are those who most commonly make raids into
the country east of the Jordan, fighting occasion-
ally with the Beni Sukhr, and supplying the largest
number of camels to the Hadj. Their sheikh is
generally a man wielding considerable influence at
Damascus ; indeed, many of the Arab sheikhs either
pass some of their time in that city themselves, or
have their representatives there.

One of the most interesting of the tribes on the
Syrian border is the Roala, amongst whom the
Caimakam had lived. He told us that they alone
still retained the famous war-cradle, which all the

1 Since the above was written, I hear that the Government have
decided to discontinue the Hadj from Damascus. This measure
guarantees security for life and property to the east of the Jordan,
provided the local officials are active and efficient functionaries.


tribes once possessed. It is a sort of car, called
"uttfa," composed of ostrich - feathers ; and before
the tribe goes to war, the most lovely girl in it is
selected, and placed, in the lightest possible attire,
in the cradle, which is then put on the back of a
camel. The silken string by which the camel is
led is then placed in her hand, and the warriors
of the tribe pass before her. Whoever she selects
as the leader of the camel becomes the leader of
the host, which she accompanies, and is a promin-
ent figure in the battles. If, in the war which
follows, the tribe is beaten and the war-cradle cap-
tured, it is deprived for ever after of the privilege
of possessing one. The Roala are the only tribe
who still retain this singular distinction ; but one or
two Arabs whom I afterwards spoke to on the sub-
ject, told me they were not likely ever to lose it, as
they never now perform the ceremony, or risk the
capture of the cradle in battle.





We left Irbid furnished with a circular letter from
the Caimakam to the village authorities of his dis-
trict, and under the escort of two Kurdish zap-
tiehs, who did not by any means turn out either
intelligent guides or agreeable companions. The
problem of a local police force doubtless presents
many difficulties in a country where there is noth-
ing to pay them with, and their only chance of a
livelihood consists in robbing the very people whose
predatory propensities they are supposed to check.
A couple of Kurdish zaptiehs with flowing kufeiyeh
and abeih, their loose trousers stuffed into high buff-
coloured boots, armed with pistol, dagger, and car-
bine, dashing into a village on their fiery little Arabs,
throw a whole population into consternation ; the
men cringe and fawn, the children run screaming to


their mothers, who cower tremblingly before the un-
welcome visitors. These latter look perfect speci-
mens of brigands themselves, and behave with far
less consideration than the ordinary robber, who tries
to be popular with the peasantry, and neither pil-
lages nor oppresses them more than is absolutely
necessary. The zaptieh, secure in his official posi-
tion, does both with impunity. The villagers hasten
to conciliate him by placing before him food and
lodging of the best, however long his visit may last.
Both he and his horse are provided for at the vil-
lage expense, and woe betide the sheikh if there
is any stint in the supplies. Sometimes a party of
these worthies, sent to punish some refractory hamlet,
quarter themselves upon it indefinitely, and are only
bought off at a great sacrifice to the unhappy peas-
antry. We were perpetually obliged to check the
arbitrary behaviour of the men we had with us, and
I shuddered to think of the possible brutality of one
of our zaptiehs when alone he was such an unmiti-
gated ruffian, even under the restraint of our pres-
ence. He had been a Bashi-Bazouk in Beatson's
Horse during the Crimean war, and accused the
British officers of the most impossible crimes and
misconduct a pretty clear evidence that his own
behaviour had been such as to necessitate a disci-
pline which he had avenged by libels ever since.
Unfortunately he required a great deal more to
reform him, and the fear of losing his backsheesh


was the only check on the exuberance of his in-
solence. This was not the style of man who would
go out of his way to show us a ruin, or even facil-
itate the execution of plans we had already deter-
mined on ; indeed, the great delight of his life
seemed to be to thwart them, and to take us in the
opposite direction from the one we wished to go.
This man was not a solitary specimen of his class.
We had experience altogether of eight different
zaptiehs, and the best of them was only some-
what less of a ruffian than the other seven. Until
the Government is in a position to pay its police
force sufficient to maintain themselves and their
horses, there can be little doubt that the inhabi-
tants would enjoy greater peace and security if
there were no police at all. At all events, it
would be better to try and raise them in the
country in which they were to be used, a plan most
successfully adopted in the Lebanon, instead of im-
porting them from Kurdistan, where the instincts
of the inhabitants are more lawless and predatory
than in any other part of Turkey.

The two classes of individuals from whom the
peasantry suffer are the tithe-farmers and the zap-
tiehs. The former rob both the country- people
and the Government; and the whole system of
tax - collection is one that lends itself to an elab-
orate system of fraud, which extends to the gov-
ernor-general of the province, if that functionary is


open to corruption, as is too often the case. The
zaptieh is the natural ally of the tithe - farmer in
cases where the peasantry resist the exactions of
the latter. It is the greatest mistake to suppose
that the Christian peasant is more the victim of
these plunderers than the Moslem. Tithe-farmers
and zaptiehs are thoroughly impartial ; and in cases
where foreign consuls are in the neighbourhood, the
Moslem suffers far more than the Christian, who can
generally manage to get some protection. While
the administrative system of Turkey is thoroughly
corrupt and inherently vicious, there are no better
laws in any country, if they were properly applied.
It is no less a mistake to suppose that Turks are
not as anxious as Christians to see reforms introduced
which should give effect to them. The great diffi-
culty with which the reforming Pasha has to contend,
and there are many honest and patriotic men of this
class, is the control which a demoralised bureaucracy,
composed largely of Christians, who are the worst
element in it, as well as of Turks, have obtained in
all the departments of State at Constantinople. The
vested interests which attach to existing abuses are
so powerful, and the abuses themselves are so deep-
rooted, that without the assistance and support of
popular chambers at the seat of Government, and a
comparatively autonomous administrative system in
the provinces, no statesman with any regard for his
own reputation would attempt to cope with them.


In the case of the tithe - farmers, for Instance,
who are a very influential class, they would put
all their influence in motion to resist any altera-
tion of a regime under which they thrive. And,
unfortunately, there are too many high officials
whose interests are more or less bound up with
theirs. If, instead of selling the dime by auction
to speculators and money-lenders, the Government
were periodically to assess the villages, and the
taxes were collected by authorised officials, each
province could be made to yield a revenue out
of which a satisfactory local police force could be
maintained. And if, in addition to this, the various
governors - general were appointed for a term of
years instead of being constantly liable to change,
were invested with greater independent powers, and
each province allowed a greater voice in its own
administration, abuses could be reformed with
which, under the present centralised system, it
is extremely difficult to grapple. So far as the
peasantry, both Christian and Moslem, are concerned,
they desire no other reform, and would be perfectly
contented if they were freed from the presence of
the imported zaptieh, and the collection of the taxes
were put upon a sound and permanent basis.

The whole amount of the revenue at present
collected from the province of Ajlun, which is a
most fertile region about forty miles long by
twenty-five in width, is only 'jooo a-year, of which



a considerable proportion is paid by nomad Arabs
The plains are capable of producing the most mag-
nificent crops of wheat and other cereals ; beans and
lentils of all sorts grow in abundance. Its wine and
olive bearing capacity is proverbial from old time ;
its mountains are heavily timbered and abundantly
watered ; and upon its meadows the tribes of Gad
and Manasseh in old time pastured their flocks.
It formed the northern portion of that land of
Gilead whose attractions proved so irresistible to
them, that they ceased to continue their march
northwards and take possession of the country
which was originally designed to form part of the
heritage of Israel. It subsequently maintained a
large population, and was a most valuable pro-
vince under the Romans, when it was considered
to form part of the Perea, and contained several
of those ten cities whose renown earned for the
region in which they were situated the name of
Decapolis. Unlike the country to the west of the
Jordan, it has retained all its productive capacity,
and only needs a settled population and good
government to develop resources which are as
abundant as ever. Yet, out of seventy-five vil-
lages in Ajlun, fifteen are deserted, and the entire
population of the remaining sixty is certainly under
20,000. There can be no question that the pro-
vince is capable of abundantly satisfying the ne-
cessities of ten times that number. I feel no moral


doubt that ^50,000, partly expended judiciously in
bribes at Constantinople, and partly applied to the
purchase of land not belonging to the State from its
present proprietors, would purchase the entire pro-
vince, and could be made to return a fabulous interest
on the investment.

On leaving Irbid we rode in a west-north-westerly
direction, and after traversing rich arable land for
about an hour, reached the high stony plateau
which divides the Yarmuk from the plains of
Gilead. Here clumps of trees began to grow in
the spaces between the flat rocks, and the char-
acter of the country underwent a marked change.
Deep gullies intersected this ridge of limestone,
which was by no means destitute of soil, and
admirably adapted to the culture of the vine ; but
it was now devoid of population, and until we
reached the neighbourhood of Hebras, the capital
of this district, which is now called El Kafarat, we
saw no sign of life. We passed this village with-
out entering it, as to do so we should have been
obliged to make a detour of a mile, owing to the
conformation of the country. There can be no
doubt that many interesting remains are to be
found in this almost unknown section of country,
but my object was not so much to look for ruins
as to examine the topographical features of the
country, with a view to a possible line of railway
along the valley of Yarmuk. From what I already


saw, the indications were in the highest degree

The necessity of dividing our day's journey, in
a country where the population was so sparse, in
such a manner as to insure us some sort of ac-
commodation at night, made exploration more diffi-
cult than if we could have pitched a tent where we
chose ; but this, again, would have involved so much
extra conveyance for food and baggage, that the
one inconvenience was more than counterbalanced
by the other. We had, moreover, far better op-
portunities of seeing the inhabitants and judging of
the actual condition of the country by living amongst
them as we did, than if we had followed the ordi-
nary custom of travellers, and isolated ourselves in
our tents, limiting our contact with them to inter-
course through a dragoman. About mid-day we
entered a beautiful gorge, the sides of which were
thickly clothed with prickly oak, carob or locust -
bean, wild almond, terebinth, and other trees ; the
air was fragrant with the blossom of the wild jas-
mine ; and we lunched at a copious spring which
issued from a cave in the limestone, a spot of ideal
beauty. A hill a little beyond this point was pointed
out to us by the zaptiehs as the scene of the Caim-
akam's recent raid upon the Arabs, who had now
disappeared from this part of the country. Keep-
ing a somewhat more westerly direction, we passed
several caves which had formerly been used as


dwellings. One of these we entered for about
thirty yards ; it was a spacious grotto, and at its
farther extremity the ceiling had been pierced, pro-
bably for purposes of ventilation and as an outlet
for smoke. These became more numerous as we
approached Gadara. The first indication of our
proximity to these interesting ruins were the traces
of the old Roman road, where the ruts of the
chariot-wheels were deeply marked, and numerous
sarcophagi lay strewn thickly on either side, most of
them decorated with garlands and busts; those which
are still under shelter in the tombs forming con-
venient repositories in which the natives store their
ofrain. There are said to be two hundred sarco-
phagi, many of them in an excellent state of pre-
servation, scattered among the ruins of the ancient
city. But one is even more struck by the quantity
of tombs than of the stone coffins which have been
dragged out of many of them. The whole surface
of the ground is so honeycombed with these that it
looks like a rabbit-warren. Many of the stone doors
still swing on their hinges in the massive basalt
framework or rather would, if the mould which now
clogs them were removed. These were the tombs
in which it is supposed that the maniac lived who
" had devils long time, and ware no clothes, neither
abode in any house, but in the tombs," and who was
healed by our Lord.

The objection to this theory is, that from the city


of Gadara to the nearest point of the Sea of Galilee
is about eight miles as the crow flies. As the Sea is
nearly 2000 feet below the level of the city, it must
have been a good deal farther by the road. In the
account in Luke it is said " that when He went
forth to land, there met Him out of the city a cer-
tain man," &c. This is confirmed by Mark, who
says that "when He was come out of the ship, im-
mediately there met Him out of the tombs a man
with an unclean spirit," which would not have been
possible if the tombs were ten or twelve miles distant
from the landing-place ; nor could the description
of the swine running down a steep place into the
sea be made to apply to Gadara. Indeed, though
both evangelists state the miracle to have been per-
formed in the country of the Gadarenes, the city is
nowhere mentioned in the Bible ; and the hypothesis
of Thomson that the locality was Gergesa, the mo-
dern Kersa, which is situated near the steepest slope
on the banks of the sea, is far more plausible. In
Matthew's account of the miracle it is called "the
country of the Gergesenes ; " and it is possible
that Gadara, which was the capital of the Perea,
may have included Gergesa in its jurisdiction, and
that the definition which placed it in the land of
Gadarenes would not be altogether inaccurate.

The fellahin often use these tombs for dwellings
as well as granaries ; and one can well understand a
maniac finding in them all the shelter he needed.


Many of the stone frames into which the doors were
fitted were elaborately carved. The principal street
can still be traced by fragments of columns and re-
mains of its colonnade, and one theatre is in a fair
state of preservation twelve rows of seats were per-
fect for three-quarters of the way round, but the lower
six were nearly all destroyed, still I should scarcely
venture to dispute the practical observation of Mr
Merill, the American explorer, who remarks " that it
could be made ready for use again, at an expense
of a few thousand dollars ! " The other theatre was
about 300 yards distant, and much less complete.
From both magnificent views could be obtained. The
valley of the Jordan, with Scythopolis, the modern
Beisan, formerly the capital of the Decapolis, in the
midst of it, lay spread out at our feet, with the
mountains of Palestine beyond, while the wooded
range of Jebel Ajlun shut in the prospect to the

We looked down into the Yarmuk, 1 500 feet below
us, winding between precipitous cliffs of limestone
and basalt, and circling round a meadow of the
brightest green, which seemed almost in the bed of
the river, in the midst of which bubbled the warm
springs of Amatha. These are four in number, and
have a temperature of 1 15, 103, 92, and St^" Fahren-
heit, and are strongly impregnated with sulphur.
The Arabs have a profound belief in their virtues,
and they are consequently regarded by them as


neutral orround. I once met a Turkish official who
assured me that he had derived great benefit from
baths at Amatha, though I could get no definite
account from him as to where he lived while he was
performing his cure, as there is not a vestige of a
house in the neighbourhood, and he said he had no
tent possibly in a tomb. The basin of the largest
spring is sixty yards in length by thirty in width,
with an average depth of six feet. We did not
attempt to scramble down to them, but contented
ourselves with inspecting them through our opera-
glasses. These baths have quite recently been
carefully examined by Mr Merill, who found a
theatre, many " ruins of a superior description, and
several elegant stone chairs, with backs two and a
half feet high," besides other traces indicating that
in former times Amatha must have been a place of
great luxury as well as a sanitarium. There seems
to be no reason why it should not become so again.
A good road could easily be made from the baths to
Nazareth, distant only twenty-five miles, across an
almost level country. An excellent carriage-road
now connects Nazareth with Haifa, and Amatha
could thus be brought within an easy day's drive of
the best port upon the coast of Palestine. If a
hotel and bathing-houses were erected here, it could
not fail to become a popular and frequented winter's
resort for European valetudinarians. Surrounded
by the most romantic scenery, and Invested with


associations of exceptional interest, it is only a few
miles from the Lake of Tiberias, and lies in the
immediate neighbourhood of the ruined cities of
Gamala, Hippos, Aphek, Gadara, and Scythopolis,
to say nothing of others still to be discovered.

Indeed, one can scarcely imagine a spot combin-
ing a greater number of attractions which are so
accessible and yet so little known. Here the health-
seeker might vary the pleasures of picnic excursions
into the picturesque forest-clad mountains of Gilead,
with the more serious occupation of excavating the
buried treasures of the cities of the Decapolis, and
exhuming the monuments of a departed civilisation,
or refresh himself after his archaeological labours
with the excitement of wild boar, gazelle, and par-
tridge shooting, or with abundant fishing in the Jor-
dan, the Yarmuk, and the Lake. Situated about 500
feet below the level of the Mediterranean, the' climate
in winter resembles that of the Jordan valley, and is
eminently adapted for the invalid ; while the springs
themselves have doubtless retained the healing qual-
ities which once rendered them so famous, and are
unique in volume and extent. Mr Merill describes
one pond, which the sulphur stream has worn into
the rock a hundred yards in length by ten or fifteen
in width, with a depth of ten feet in which the tem-
perature is 98. The stream, on issuing from this
pool, falls over the rock into the river below, forming
a beautiful cascade. The whole volume of water,


gushing from the three springs combined, would
form a single stream twenty-one feet wide by twenty
inches in depth, with a rapid foaming current.

But the most attractive objects in the neighbour-
hood are the hot springs, and tropical valley at
'Mkhaibeh, and the Fountain of the Brides, which are
thus described by Mr MerilP : ''About one hour
up the valley, east of El Hamma (Amatha), there
is another beautiful plain called 'Mkhaibeh. In this
case the plain is on the south side of the river, which
flows at the very base of the mountains, to the north
of it. The Arabs praise this place for its palms and
vines. The plain is watered by a sulphur spring of
immense size, which has a temperature of 1 1 2, and
I estimate the volume of water flowing from it to be
nearly equal to that from the three sulphur springs
of El Hamma combined. This warm fertilising- water
has made this valley a tropical paradise. I counted
here eighteen different tropical trees and shrubs,
and I am certain there are more. It is almost
Impossible to penetrate the Immense jungle, while
above the tangled mass of vegetation there rise
two hundred graceful palms the whole, as one
looks down upon it from the neighbouring hills,
forming one of the most beautiful landscapes in
Syria. Here and at El Hamma there are three
mills that are run by water at a temperature of over

1 Palestine Exploration Society, Fourth Statement. New York :
January 1877.


100. About a mile east of 'Mkhaibeh, and on the
same side of the river, there is a beautiful little lake
of cool sweet water, called Birket El Araies, or
Fountain of the Brides. It has no outlet or inlet, is
nearly circular, and I was twenty-five minutes in
walking round it. Ducks and some other water-fowl
are found here, and the gentle slopes about the lake
are green, and afford excellent pasture for the flocks
of the Bedouin."

The Mandhur Arabs who people the valley of the
Yarmuk are a peaceful tribe much given to agricul-
tural pursuits, and could be easily dealt with. A
comparatively small sum, paid as black-mail, which, to
avoid that invidious term, might be called rent, would
insure a peaceable tenure of the springs to any en-
terprising capitalists who might be disposed to under-
take the operation of turning Amatha into a water-
ing-place, which, indeed, would be very much to the
advantage of the natives, who would derive, inci-
dentally, an abundant revenue from visitors and
tourists. A more dangerous foe would be the Beni
Sukhr, who, however, have no prescriptive right to
the valley, and who could easily be kept in check, if
it were not thought desirable to pay them, by the
police and military force at the disposal of the Caim-
akam at Irbid. With a functionary as active and
energetic as the present occupant of the office, there
would be no danger on this score.

It is remarkable, considering that the Yarmuk is


the most important affluent of the Jordan, that it
watered the territory of Gad and of the half- tribe
of Manasseh, and must have played an important
part in the campaigns of Israel, that it should never
once be mentioned in the Bible.

Gadara, which stands on a lofty projecting spur
between the Yarmuk and the gorge or Wady of the
Araba, is destitute of water, and was supplied by the
aqueduct which we crossed at Es Sal, and which is
led from the head-waters of the Yarmuk. The ruins
cover an area of about two miles in circumference ;

Online LibraryLaurence OliphantThe land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; → online text (page 10 of 35)