Laurence Oliphant.

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

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are informed was a Gileadite.

Our road now began to wind upwards through the


woods, which became more dense and the timber
heavier as we ascended. We were, in all probability,
as nearly as possible passing over the scene of the
encounter between the armies of Joab and of Ab-
salom, which must have taken place in the immediate
neighbourhood of Mahanaim ; for the three hosts
into which David divided his army went forth out of
that city to overcome Absalom, while David remained
himself, at the request of the townsmen, inside the
city, where his presence was considered by them as
a protection in case of an attack (2 Sam. xviii. 3),
" The battle," we are told, " was then scattered over
the face of all the country, and the wood devoured
more people that day than the sword devoured."
The total loss amounted to twenty thousand men.
It is possible that the 42d Psalm, that most pathetic
lamentation of David, and which at the same time
breathes such profound trust and confidence in God,
evidently even under the pressure of some over-
whelming affliction, was composed while bewailing
the death of his son in the gates of Mahanaim ; for
in the sixth verse the identical name occurs which is
retained to this day by the village at which we halt-
ed, and which seems to furnish additional evidence of
the proximity of Mahanaim. " O my God, my soul
is cast down within me : therefore will I remember
Thee from the land of Jordan, and of the Her-
monites, from the hill Mizar." The whole passage
is clearly an allusion to some great sorrow which


overtook him beyond Jordan, and which, together
with the lesson it was intended to convey, would
remain indelibly stamped upon his memory.

The forest in which this important engagement
took place was called the " wood of Ephraim," but it
is evident that, though called by the name of another
tribe, it was in the land of Gilead, and must have
been in close proximity to Mahanaim, or the inhab-
itants would not have been in fear of attack, nor
could Joab's messengers have carried the news of
Absalom's death so speedily to David, whom they
found sitting between the gates of the city. It will
be remembered that one of them, Ahimaz, " ran by
the way of the plain, and overran Cushi," thus show-
ing that Mahanaim must have been on the outskirts
of the forest, which would exactly agree with the
position of Birket Mahneh ; while " the wood of
Ephraim" must have been the northern section of
the wooded country of Gilead, bordering on the
plain. It is probable that the anomaly of the name
may be accounted for in this way. On a reference
to the account of the distribution of the tribes
(Joshua xvii. 14-18), it will be found that the tribe
of Ephraim as well as Manasseh was discontented
with their portion, and complained to Joshua of the
limited amount of territory on Mount Ephraim
which had been assigned to them. "And Joshua
answered them. If thou be a great people, then get
thee up to the wood country, and cut down for


thyself there in the land of the Perizzites and of
the giants [or Rephaims], if Mount Ephraim be
too narrow for thee." This wood country in the
land of the Perizzites and the giants could be none
other than Gilead. They answered that, in order to
do so, they would have to cross the valley of Beth-
shean, where the Canaanites used chariots of iron
(Beth-shean is about twenty miles due west of Ma-
hanaim) ; but Joshua replied to them, *^ Thou art a
great people, and hast great power ; thou shalt not
have one lot only : but the mountain shall be thine ;
for it is a wood, and thou shalt cut it down ; and the
outgoings of it shall be thine : for thou shalt drive
out the Canaanites, though they have iron chariots,
and though they be strong." It is evident from this
that the two tribes the sons of Joseph were to
some extent treated as one by Joshua, and were
told to take possession of some part of the mountain
of Gilead. Again, we find that the children of Eph-
raim had separate cities among the inheritance of the
children of Manasseh, and that the inheritance of
Machir, the eldest son of Manasseh, was " Gilead and
Bashan." It is therefore extremely natural to sup-
pose that a settlement of Ephraimites, after whom a
wood was called, was situated on the extreme south-
ern frontier of Manasseh, projecting as it were into
the forests of Gad, and thus specially known as the
wood of Ephraim. That only a very small portion
of it ever really fell to the lot of Manasseh and


Ephraim, is evident from the boundary towns by
which the limit of Gad is indicated, and which leaves
that tribe nearly the whole mountain.

We now seemed to have entered an entirely new
country. The traveller who only knows Palestine
to the west of the Jordan, can form no idea of the
luxuriance of the hillsides of Gilead, doubly enjoy-
able by the contrast which they present to the rocky
barren slopes of Galilee and Judea, or even to the
plains of the Hauran and Jaulan. Here we crossed
sparkling rivulets where the sunlight glinted through
the foliage of handsome oak, terebinth, and carob
trees, and traversed glades seldom disturbed by the
foot of man, which led into the deep solitudes of the
forest. In one of these Absalom met his end ; and
one could well understand, as one came suddenly
upon the brink of some rock or gorge, why, possibly
In headlong and disastrous flight, so many of the
combatants on that fatal day should have been
numbered among the missing, that it was said " the
wood devoured more than the sword." In places
the forest opened, and the scenery resembled that of
an English park, the large trees standing singly in
the long grass ; while at others, where possibly in old
days there had been well-cultivated farms, the trees
gave way altogether to luxuriant herbage, encircling
it as though it were a lake of grass into which their
long branches drooped. At a spot where two paths
diverged our zaptiehs suddenly halted : one they


said led to Ajlun, the other striking off in exactly the
opposite direction to Beloola ; but Beloola, which like
an ignis fatuus constantly receded as we approached,
now seemed altogether to have changed its situation.
Had we known at the start that it lay so far to the'
east if it does lie there at all we should not have
been seduced into searching for it. In Dr Smith's
excellent map a place of that name is marked, but
it was in quite another position from that assigned
to it by our zaptiehs, who seemed now to doubt
very much whether we should reach it at all, and
could give us no assurances as to accommodation.
On the other hand, the way to Ajlun was plain before
us. The path was a well-beaten one, the distance
moderate, the night-quarters certain to be tolerable
for it is a village of sufficient importance to give
its name to the province, and it had the additional
attraction of lying in the heart of the mountains and
forests, while to reach Beloola it seemed we should
have to skirt away towards the deserts. Possibly
the whole of the representations of the zaptiehs were
pure fabrications, and they had invented them in
order to take us to Ajlun for their own purposes ;
but there was a great deal to be said in favour of the
latter village, principally that the road there took us
exactly through the country we desired most to see.
As it is, excepting the Tunisian officer whom we
met at Irbid, and who' told us of its existence and of



its vast subterranean dwellings, and of the ruins by
which they were surrounded, I have not met any
one who knew anything about Beloola, nor can I
find any mention of it in any work on this region
which I have had an opportunity of consulting. My
impression is, that this subterranean town will be
found somewhere in the Jebel Kafkafa.

When we had attained an elevation of about
3500 feet above the sea, we came upon a compara-
tively level plateau and some patches of cultivation,
though we passed no signs of habitations, and from
a shoulder on the ridge obtained a magnificent view
over the vast wooded tract which stretched to the
west and north-west, broken into valleys, containing
streams flowing into the Jordan. In the opposite
direction our view was over an undulating forest
country, almost on our own level. We were, in
fact, crossing the highest part of the chain ; and
soon after, turning south-west, commenced a descent
down a romantic gorge, where the oaks and tere-
binths overshadowed the gigantic rocks amid which
they grew. Suddenly we turned a corner, and a
prospect as unexpected as it was beautiful burst
upon us. The glen widened into a lovely valley,
where fields and olive -groves mingled with the
forest, and wreaths of blue smoke indicated the
presence of a larger population than we had yet
seen. A lofty conical hill rising above those which


surrounded it, and crowned with a large square
castle, which in the distance bore no appearance of
being a ruin, formed a most striking background to
the picture. It was such a view as one would ex-
pect to find rather in the Black Forest than within
twenty miles of the great Arabian desert, and filled
us with delightful anticipations.

1 64



The stream which we are now following rises at the
fountain of Jenneh ; and at the point where it forces
its way through a narrow passage to fall into the
broad Wady Ajlun, the village of that name is sit-
uated, perched most picturesquely on the hillside
some hundreds of feet above the valley, and sur-
rounded by olive-groves and gardens. It was the
largest centre of population and best- built village we
had seen to the east of the Jordan, though that is
giving it scant praise, for the population did not
probably exceed five hundred ; and the superiority
of the houses consisted in some of them having a
sort of upper chamber on their flat roofs, and in the
mud with which they were plastered being a little
better put on than usual.

Three-fourths of this population are Christian, and
the remainder Moslem. Although I generally prefer

AJLUN. 165

lodging with a Mohammedan to being cheated by
a Christian in the more civihsed parts of Turkey,
in these remote regions, where the cupidities of the
latter have not been stimulated by their contact
with Western civilisation, one finds them almost as
hospitable as Mussulmans ; and as in the village
of Ajlun the houses they occupied seemed larger
than those of the followers of Mahomet, we decided
on seeking for Christian quarters. The zaptiehs,
however, had views of their own on the subject, and
wished to take us to one of their own friends, and of
their own religion : and so, although we had distinctly
explained our wishes, we found ourselves in the midst
of the Moslem quarter before discovering our mis-
take. Our moving away from it at the moment we
were about to be hospitably received, seemed rather
a marked slight, and apparently gave rise to the sus-
picion that we had some reason for manifesting so
decided a preference for the Christians. We felt this
at the time, but there was such a tempting-looking
house on the other side of the village, that we
allowed our desire for our own comfort to overcome
considerations of policy and politeness, and much to
the disgust of the zaptiehs, whom we rated roundly
for disobedience of orders, rode off to investigate its
capabilities. On our way we met a Greek priest,
with light sandy unkempt locks hanging beneath his
high square hat, a ragged garment, and bare feet,
a very poverty-stricken-looking specimen of his


profession ; but perhaps this was to his credit, as he
was the spiritual superior of the village, and might
have used his position to enrich himself, as is com-
mon with his class all through Syria. Perhaps there
was nothing to be got out of his flock, who were as
poor as himself; perhaps there had been no great
demand lately for bigamous marriages. However
that may be, he was overwhelmingly polite, and not
above a gratuity in consequence, and piloted us to
the coveted mansion, where the big upper room had
attracted us from afar.

When one arrives at a village with zaptiehs, hos-
pitality is perhaps not so much a merit as a necessity.
The traveller thus accompanied never thinks of ask-
ing permission he takes possession. As we never
intended that our hosts should be losers, we had
the less scruple in thus summarily installing ourselves
wherever we took a fancy, even though, as in the
present case, the house was tenanted by a lone widow
with children. We had not been deceived by appear-
ances decidedly there was no such room in the vil-
lage as the one we now appropriated. It was on
the roof of another chamber, situated, as usual, in a
courtyard surrounded by a mud wall, and containing
oven, stables, cattle-pen, &c. ; and from it, had we
so desired, we could have walked over the roofs of
many adjoining houses, piled one above the other on
the hillside, their courtyards usually the scene of a
good deal of feminine activity. Indeed, no sooner


were we installed than all the widow's lady friends
came to look at us ; old women and young maidens
flocked to offer their services, and, under pretence of
making themselves useful, to gratify their curiosity.
Nor had we any reason to object. Not only did
they help to sweep out the room, bring mats and
coverlets, fetch wood and water, stopping every now
and then to gaze earnestly, like deer only half tamed,
but they were objects of interest in themselves. In
no part of Syria or Palestine have I seen such beau-
tiful girls as among the Christian maidens of Ajlun.
Their faces were of the purest Grecian type ; their
eyes large and lustrous ; nose, mouth, and chin clas-
sical in their outline ; their complexion a light olive ;
and the symmetry of their figures, so far as one
could judge, corresponded with the beauty of their
faces. Their habit of carrying water-jars rendered
their carriage easy and graceful. On the chin, just
below the under lip, they were usually tattoed with
a blue mark like a small gridiron, which no doubt
lends an additional charm when your taste has been
properly educated to it, and is quite as attractive as
the small round piece of sticking-plaster called a
beauty-spot, which they may hope to arrive at when
they get to "tied backs," instead of the loose blue Arab
gowns which now form their only garment. As our
bustling entertainers possessed all our sympathies,
and our zaptiehs, as usual, were gratuitously rough
and overbearing, we packed them off to find quarters


for themselves among their Moslem friends. The
priest, who was a mild inoffensive personage, appar-
ently devoid of intelligence, came and squatted on
his heels in our room, where we regaled him with
coffee, and endeavoured without success to extract
information from him. Partly from suspicion and a
fear of compromising themselves, and partly from
the difficulty of grasping any ideas with which they
are not familiar, the ordinary villager in these parts
is a person from whom it is very difficult to obtain
intelligent answers to the most simple questions.
From what we could gather, however, the Christian
and Moslem population of Ajlun were not on such
good terms as we had found them elsewhere, and
a somewhat quarrelsome spirit generally seemed to
pervade the villages in the neighbourhood.

We had still time, while Hanna was cooking our
dinner, to go out for a walk of exploration. Below
our house, and close to the stream, was situated a
handsome edifice, once a Christian church, which was
converted into a mosque by some sultan, who has
recorded the fact in an elaborate inscription in Turk-
ish, which we could not read. The building was a
hundred yards long by fifty broad, the roof supported
by arches ; and a lofty square tower, like a campanile,
had once formed the belfry, and was now the haunt
of the muezzin. Within a few yards of this mosque
was a massive building of great antiquity, which we
entered, and found that it had been erected over a


copious spring, which filled a chamber twenty feet by
ten, with bubbling water clear as crystal, and about a
foot in depth. This gushed out into a venerable
covered aqueduct, and was the chief water-supply of
the village. All round us were traces of age, and of
a departed greatness. Though I failed to perceive any
prostrate columns or remains of Roman ruins, there is
every probability that they exist, and that in former
times Ajlun was a city of importance, though, so far
as I know, it has not yet been identified as the site of
any place known either in Roman or Jewish history.
Perched on a projecting crag, about a hundred feet
above the spring, were the ruins of an old castle,
which, until a comparatively late period, had been
used as the residence of the governor of the pro-
vince, when Ajlun formed its capital. It has been
allowed since then to fall completely into disrepair,
and probably dates from the time of the Crusaders,
and is of Saracenic origin. There can be no doubt
that the antiquarian who should establish himself at
Ajlun would find abundant return for the trouble of
examination ; while no more beautiful or healthy spot
could be found, as a centre from which to explore
the surrounding country, teeming as it does with
associations of the deepest interest, and strewn with
ruined cities, the identification of which has yet to be

We were reluctantly compelled by the growing
darkness to curtail our own investigations, though we


were not sorry to sit down to a well-earned repast,
and were just spreading our blankets, preparatory to
an attempt to sleep upon them, when our hostess
came in, and informed us with some appearance of
trepidation, that our conduct in first going to the
Moslem quarter, and then, when we found out our
mistake, leaving it to install ourselves among Chris-
tians, had given great offence, as proving that we
were not true friends of the Sultan, and that she had
been warned by friends that a plot had been formed
to attack and rob us in the night. She therefore
dragged out of the corner of the room a huge stone,
which she directed us to roll against the door, as it
was destitute of any fastening, and keep watch all
night. We had scarcely complied with this request
when we heard a knocking, and found on inquiry that
it was not a robber but one of our own zaptiehs who
wished to effect an entrance. The object of his visit
was to corroborate the statement of our hostess. He
also had heard among his co-religionists of their in-
tention to attack us, and came to give us warning.
This was by no means reassuring, for we quite
thought our zaptiehs capable of being at the bottom
of the whole scheme ; nor would it necessarily be
rendered abortive by the fact that we were fore-
warned, as two travellers with one revolver between
them could scarcely be considered a match for half a
village. It is due to the Moslem population to say
that, had we thrown ourselves in the first instance


upon their hospitality, we should not have incurred
the slightest risk ; but they believed they had been
insulted, and were probably encouraged in this belief
by our zaptiehs, who were in a very bad humour,
and quite in the spirit of revenge. Upon several
occasions we had been obliged to reprove them
sharply, and especially to express our regret to the
one who had been in Beatson's Horse, that he had
not been improved by the discipline and punishments
to which he had been subjected while in that distin-
guished corps. However, we thanked him for his
warning, rolled back the stone when he had gone,
examined our solitary revolver, and then our blankets.
We considered the latter likely to prove of the great-
est service to us. They were so crowded with fleas
that, were I not afraid of being accused of exaggera-
tion, I should say the insects must have had some
difficulty in moving about. It was quite evident that
we should have no trouble in keeping awake and
watching. The idea of being caught " napping " was
manifestly out of the question. In fact, so little hope
had we of going to sleep, that we determined, in spite
of the projected attack, to do our utmost to accom-
plish that object, but all our efforts were in vain.
I think we should have been relieved if something
had occurred to vary the occupation of monotonous
scratchinof. As it was and we discovered after-
wards why our would-be assailants' hearts failed them
at the last moment we were the victims of no other


attack than that made by these persistent and vora-
cious little insects upon our cuticle. I think a great
many Kefr Assad fleas were here joined by those of
Ajlun, and the whole were carefully rolled up in our
blankets next morning, for our benefit on the follow-
ing night. It is true that at early dawn I enlisted
the willing services of some lovely village maidens
to pick them out ; but the hosts were too numerous
for them to make any impression upon, and they
gave up the task in despair.

We determined before leaving Ajlun to visit the
Kulat er Rubud, or Castle of Rubud, which forms so
conspicuous a feature in the landscape, the lofty hill
on which it was situated rising almost immediately
from behind the village. After a steep ride of about
half an hour up a winding path, we reached the sum-
mit, and found ourselves at an elevation of 3700 feet
above the level of the sea, and about 4500 above the
valley of the Jordan, which lay mapped out at our
feet throughout nearly its entire length. With the
aid of a map we could designate by name the prin-
cipal mountains of Palestine beyond it, while to the
north the wooded country was intersected by wadies,
and in the distance the snowy summit of Hermon
was dimly visible. To the south, and winding round
the base of the mountain on which we stood, was the
lovely Wady Ajlun, adding its contribution to the
Jordan, and fertilising a rich tract of well-cultivated
country, of which the important village of Kefrenjy


is the centre. Behind it rose the mountains of
Gilead, closing in the prospect on the south and

Crossing a broad moat, now dry, but which had
been hewn out of the Hving rock, by a drawbridge,
we entered the castle by an archway in which had
been a portcullis, and followed a winding passage
and stairway the latter had become an inclined
plane, owing to the debris with which it was blocked
for nearly a hundred paces. Several chambers
opened out of this corridor to the right and left.
We emerged into daylight in the centre of the castle,
and here we found the great central tower and keep.
Ascending this, partly by the remains of stone steps,
and partly by the help of the crumbling walls, we
surveyed, from its commanding height, the interior
economy of the castle, the external walls of which
are still standing intact, with massive flanking towers
built on projections of the rock. While the moat itself
enclosed a square measuring a hundred yards each
way, the castle had been built irregularly, so as to
take advantage of the natural conformation of the
rock : besides the central tower there was a square
tower at each corner, and a lofty massive projection
on the southern side. Standing on the apex of a con-
ical hill, it must have been impregnable in ancient
times. Besides what appeared to be a choked well,
there was a cistern hewn out of a platform of rock
inside the castle, and another much larger one outside


the moat. The arches of the doors and windows
were pointed. The walls were machicolated above
the entrance and round the towers, and on some of
the massive stones of which they were constructed
were carved desig-ns. Altogfether the castle is in
a tolerable state of preservation, considering that it
is said to have been erected by Saladin the Great ;
indeed Seetzen, who first visited it in 1806, found it
inhabited at that date by the Arab sheikh who was
the chief of these parts.

As we had a day's journey still before us, we
could not linger so long as I could have wished at
a spot so seldom visited ; and I would gladly have

Online LibraryLaurence OliphantThe land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; → online text (page 12 of 35)