Laurence Oliphant.

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

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of that brawling stream, rushing in a turbid torrent
between banks thickly fringed with cane and olean-
der. Here we lunched, and refreshed ourselves
with a delightful bath preparatory to a long and
arduous climb up the opposite slope of the valley. "
We wondered whether we were anywhere near the
spot impossible to identify where Jacob wrestled
with the angel prior to his interview with his brother
Esau, and which took place at a ford of the Jabbok,
which he named Penuel. As he was on his way
from Mahanaim to Shechem, the modern Nablous,
he had already trended somewhat further to the
south than he need have done ; but this was doubt-
less for the purpose of meeting his brother, whom he
desired to conciliate before taking up his abode in
his neighbourhood. As the spot usually identified
as Succoth, the next stage on his journey, lies on the
west bank of the Jordan, considerably to the north
of the direct road from the Jabbok to Shechem, he
would most probably have had to recross this stream
with his flocks and herds, and then turn southwards
aeain to Shechem. Burckhardt mentions a ruin on
the east side of the Jordan, also called Sukhat ; but
this is open to the same objection, though it has the
argument in its favour that it is situated within the
territory of Gad, which we know Succoth to have
been. It is just possible that it was necessary for
Jacob to go so far out of his way to find a ford across


the Jordan ; before the matter can be decided, the
Sukhat mentioned by Burckhardt should be visited,
as the site adopted by Robinson and Vandevelde
seems open to the fatal objection that it is not within
the limits of Gad (Josh. xiii. 27), unless we suppose
the boundary of .that tribe to have extended beyond
the Jordan.

It is evident that Succoth and Penuel were on
the main route from Central Palestine to Eastern
Gilead, for by it Gideon pursued the Midianitish
kings, Zebah and Zalmunnah, following them up prob-
ably into the mountains on our left : he then returned
and took vengeance on the inhabitants of the two
towns for refusing supplies to his army, razing the
tower of Penuel, and slaying all the men in the
place. It is probable that it was situated at the
most frequented of the Jabbok fords, where its banks
become more easy of access. There were some
vestiges of ruin where we crossed, and from the
height above we could trace the course of the stream
from the base of the mountains to the Jordan, so
that there can be little doubt the site of this interest-
ing locality was within view had we been able to
place it. The Jabbok issues from a gorge in the
mountains of Eastern Gilead, which it cleaves about
the centre : the scenery here has never been visited,
but it must, from the configuration of the country,
be very picturesque. When the Ammonites were
driven out by Sihon they took refuge in the fast-


nesses of Eastern Gilead, and the defiles of the
Upper Jabbok, which rises near their capital, Rab-
bath-Ammon, and then with a long sweep plunges
into the recesses of these mountains, to reappear in
a cleft of the high open country where we crossed
it. Hence it is that when the Jews in their turn
conquered Sihon, " from Arnon unto Jabbok," they
appear to have stopped there, " for the border of
the children of Ammon was strong" (Num. xxi. 24) ;
and again it is said, " only unto the children of Am-
mon thou camest not, unto every place of the tor-
rent Jabbok, and unto the cities in the mountains."

The mountains here alluded to were undoubtedly
those of the eastern ranges, which we had been
looking at all the morning, and which once, there-
fore, contained cities, the ruins of which remain yet
to be discovered.

We had now traversed the whole province of
Ajlun, from east to west, and from north to south,
and throughout our wanderings we had not seen a
tent, nor even a Bedouin, except those who were
brought in as prisoners while we were at Irbid. We
had met no travellers, except now and then a Jedei-
deh man ; and had not passed through a dozen vil-
lages on our journey of these not one contained
more than a hundred houses, the amount of land be-
longing to each village averaging about ten acres per
soul. XEvery acre we had traversed was susceptible
of the highestjcultivation ; indeed it would be difficult



to imagine a country more highly favoured both as
regards soil and climate. The cmps consisted chiefly
of wheat, barley, beans, and lentils ; maize, millet, and
peas were also grown. Immediately contiguous to
the villages were invariably olive-groves, and often
vineyards the country being apparently especially
adapted to the production of wine and oil. Fig,
almond, pistachio, and other nut-bearing trees grow
wild. Kali, or saltwort, is cultivated in some parts
of Ajlun, the potass extracted from it being exported
for the purpose of making soap. Flocks of goats
are far more commonly met with than sheep, though
these are also pastured on the hillside, chiefly by
nomad Arabs. The peasants use oxen to plough
with, and occasionally own a donkey or two, but
very rarely a camel or a horse, though these animals
are extensively owned by the nomads. The climate
is eminently adapted for the cultivation of all de-
scriptions of English farm and garden produce in its
higher altitudes ; while the productions of Syria and
Palestine, such as tobacco, silk, sesame, flax, &c., are
only not grown because the population is too poverty-
stricken and apathetic to raise them. The soil of
the northern part of the province is largely composed
of basaltic trap, which, when disintegrated, forms the
richest arable land. The mountain region is principally
a chalk and limestone formation. Though the forests
are said to contain bear and deer we saw no large
game of any kind in them, but plenty of partridges.


While the agricultural capabilities of the country-
are thus neglected and undeveloped, it is possible
that it also contains mineral resources only waiting
to be explored ; and there can be no doubt that, with
an enterprising and industrious population, it might
be made to furnish a revenue to the Turkish Gov-
ernment equal to any district of equal extent in the

After crossing the Zerka or " Blue River," as the
Jabbok is now called, we passed out of the govern-
ment administered by the Mutessarif at Sheikh Sa'ad,
into that which forms the Mutessariflik of the Belka,
the seat of government being at Nablous the ancient
Shechem to the west of the Jordan. While, how-
ever, the whole province, including that part lying to
the west of the Jordan, is officially known as " The
Belka," the district to which that name properly be-
longs lies to the east of the Jordan, and continues to
form part of the ancient land of Gilead. The Belka
is in fact exactly that region between the Mojib or
Arnon, and the Zerka or Jabbok, which was called by
the Romans Persea, " the country beyond," although
that term sometimes had a wider signification, and
was made to include Ajlun, and even Jaulan. Thus
the modern Belka, like the ancient Persea, has a
general signification ; but the Peraea proper, and the
Belka proper, have precisely the same boundaries.

Our path from the ford led up the steep grassy hill-
side, where broom white with blossom was growing


thickly. The character of the soil was now changed,
and presented a red and friable appearance, indicat-
ing the presence of sandstone strata beneath. After
an ascent of about an hour, we passed the ruined
village of Alakuny on a hill to the left, and came
upon signs of cultivation, though we had now left
the country of villages. Throughout the Belka there
is no settled population, excepting at the town of
Salt. The Arabs come to the springs, near which,
before they were driven away, the inhabitants were
settled in villages, and cultivate the ground which
the proximity of the water enables them to irrigate :
having camped there long enough to plough and
sow the land, they move off with their flocks, return-
ing at harvest-time to reap the crops. Hence the
country is covered with the ruins of these villages,
which, however, often do not contain remains more
important than those which a barbarous peasant-
population would be likely to leave. Tumble-down
huts, which had been constructed of large stones, are
found lying in heaps ; occasionally, however, we may
come across a piece of carving, or the fragment of
a column indicating buildings of a still older date,
and of a departed civilisation for the springs have
gathered round them inhabitants from time im-
memorial; but it has been reserved to these latter
days for the country to be so completely depopulated,
that even the sedentary Arabs have been obliged to
abandon it to their nomad kinsmen. Such a ruin


is SIhon, situated to the left of our path, and which
may possibly, from its similarity of name, be the site
of a town of such ancient date that it was called
after the first ruler of this country whom we ever
hear of, Sihon, king of the Amorites. Beyond this
we entered a lovely district not heavily wooded, but
with a sufficient amount of timber to render it park-
like and beautiful ; and at the spring of Allan, where
there was a ruin with some stones showing marks
of great antiquity, and some rock-tombs, there was
an expanse of the richest cultivation, surrounded by
trees, commanding a fine view, and offering the
most attractive combination of soil, climate, and
scenery which the heart of an intending settler
could desire. At this time of year there were no
Arabs here ; but the cultivators, whoever they were,
seemed quite satisfied to leave their growing crops,
unfenced and untended, to the chapter of accidents.
Our zaptlehs did not know whether they had been
planted by wandering Arabs or by the people of Salt,
from which town we were only six or seven miles

We were all this time climbing up to the summit
of the ridge of the Jebel Jilad range. These are the
mountains of Gilead proper ; for although the moun-
tains of Ajlun were embraced in the Scriptural ap-
pellation of " the mountains of Gilead," the fact that
the Arabs have especially applied the name Jebel
Jilad to the mountains to the south of the Jabbok,


would seem to imply that they were for some
reason more exclusively entitled to it. Pine seems
commoner on this range than on the Jebel Ajlun,
possibly from the fact that it is more of a sandstone
than a limestone soil. At the top of the pass a new
view over the mountains of Moab bursts upon us,
and we pass a ruin where there are some broken
columns, and descend sharply for nearly an hour,
plunging finally into a ravine turning a sharp
angle of which we suddenly find ourselves in the
presence of the town of Salt, which takes our breath
away by its unexpected extent and relatively im-
posing appearance after our late experience among
the squalid villages of Ajlun.




Salt is situated on a high projecting spur formed
by the junction of two gorges. It is surmounted
by an old castle, still in tolerable repair, and the
houses cluster one above another from the margin
of the streams which meet in the valley to the
crest of the hill. In fact, one might possibly climb
from the bottom of it to the top, by mounting from
one flat roof to another, so tightly packed are they,
and so narrow are the muddy lanes by which they
are divided. They are usually small one-storeyed
mud-daubed tenements ; and the shops in the prin-
cipal street only differ from the dwellings in that
the front is completely open in the daytime, after
the manner of Eastern shops generally, so that the
whole of the interior is exposed to view.

Besides the dense population which is, as it were.


hived on the steep projecting shoulder, there is a
quarter of the town built on the opposite side of one
of the gorges which gives it quite a civilised aspect ;
here are a number of houses boasting of whitewash,
with two storeys and verandas ; here, too, is the
Serai or Government building, and the residence of
the Caimakam, and a Greek monastery, and several
schools. In one of the best of these houses lives
Mr Halil, a Church of England catechist, by whom
we were most hospitably received, and who allowed
us to make his house our home during our stay In
Salt. (The change to a civilised room was a luxury
which we were quite In a humour to appreciate after
the last few nights on the flea-Infested mud-floors
of the Ajlun villages ; and in order not to import
any of our living freight Into our new quarters, we
spread our blankets In the sun and had them care-
fully and laboriously picked overT)

Salt now contains a population which Is estimated
at 6000 souls, and Is the only centre of population
to the east of the Jordan. In the days of Burckhardt
It only contained about 3000 inhabitants, but It has
Increased principally during the last ten years, ow-
ing to the establishment here of a seat of govern-
ment. Prior to that time Salt, though nominally
governed by the Porte, was practically Independent ;
Its lawless population knew no other restraints but
that which a sense of self-preservation imposed upon
them, for they were constantly quarrelling with each


Other or fighting with the Arabs. There were, it
seems, always two great rival factions who were con-
stantly disputing for supremacy, except when they
found it necessary to combine against the common
enemy ; and the history of the town is a record
of the turbulent and warlike spirit of its inhabitants,
who in former days looked upon the foreign travel-
ler as a victim to be plundered, and upon the Turk-
ish official as an enemy to be slain. When Ibrahim
Pasha of Egypt took possession of this part of Syria,
he named an Arab sheikh to be governor of the
place, and installed him in the castle. The people
promptly resented this assumption of supreme au-
thority, and cutting off the sheikh's head, sent it to
the Pasha as an evidence of their determination to
preserve their independence.

Since, however, the Turkish Government has man-
aged to sustain its authority, the inhabitants find
that the security which has resulted therefrom has
attracted strangers with capital, and that they have
materially benefited by this sacrifice of their liber-
ties. Salt has thus become by degrees the mercan-
tile entrepot for the whole region east of the Jordan ;
and the merchants here trade with the Arabs and
advance them money on their crops and flocks ; the
latter are thus imperceptibly acquiring commercial
instincts, for nothing civilises a man so rapidly as
teaching him to borrow money and run into debt.
They were also learning to sell not merely their


semen, but even their sheep, and to cultivate the
land, a proceeding which the true Arab of the desert
esteems in the highest degree derogatory, but which
is becoming now necessary to the existence of the
tribes in the Belka so that the market here is much
frequented by Bedouins.

The population of Salt is about equally divided
between Moslem and Christian, the preponderance
probably being rather in favour of the former.
The majority of the Christians belong to the Greek
Church, but there are a few Catholics and Protes-
tants. So far as external appearance goes, it is not
possible for the stranger to discriminate between
the followers of the different religions. The whole
population, men and women, are thoroughly Arab in
look and bearing, though they have a type of coun-
tenance somewhat peculiar to themselves. Through
their swarthy complexions I often observed a ruddy
tinge ; and I was surprised to see how many of the
women had auburn hair and blue eyes, while red-
bearded men were quite common. Altogether the
people are a decidedly handsome race, who have
kept themselves free from foreign intermixture, and
have retained their distinctive character, doubtless
owing to their isolation, and a lawlessness which has
rendered fraternisation difficult. It has been sug-
gested that the people of Salt are the descendants
of the Edomites, and have retained the character-
istic of their progenitor Esau.


There is nothing in the dress of the people to dis-
tinguish them from Bedouins. The women wore
the long blue gown : the men despise the nether
garments even of Eastern civilisation, and often
go into camp like other Arabs to cultivate their dis-
tant fields. Just below our window there was a
copious fountain, from the old stone spouts of which
gushed forth cascades, where women were em-
ployed all day filling their water-jars, and lingering
to gossip ; and their graceful and erect figures and
finely-cut features were quite an interesting artistic
study. The abundance of clear water with which
the town is supplied, and its capacity for defence
against the methods of barbaric warfare, have no
doubt contributed to its importance and stability. It
has always been in one sense a city of refuge ; and
to it, from time immemorial, have outlaws escaped
from justice, and hither have peasants from the
neighbouring villages, when attacked by Arabs, fled
for shelter. The amount of land now farmed by its
population is 1200 feddan a feddan being the area
of land which one yoke of oxen can plough in a
day; and the revenue accruing to the Porte is about
^1000 sterling a -year, which is far short of the
proper proportion. The remainder of the revenue
which the Government derives from the Belka is
obtained from the Arabs by the dime-tax on sheep.
As, however, the number which they are supposed
to possess usually depends upon a private arrange-


ment arrived at between them and the tax-collector,
by which the latter is recompensed for making the
smallest possible return, no idea can be formed, from
the total of taxes collected, of the number of sheep
which are pastured on the rich plains of the Belka.
They are as tempting now to the modern cattle
farmer and grazier as they were to the children of
Reuben and of Gad when they arrived here " with
a very great multitude of cattle," and could not be
induced to accept an heritage anywhere else ; for
" when they saw the land of Gilead and the land of
Jazer, behold the place was a place for cattle." The
ruins which have hitherto been supposed to be those
of Jazer though I have suggested the possibility
of a different site are situated a few miles to the
south of Salt, where the plain country begins, which
stretches to the confines of Moab.

In spite of there being a Caimakam to govern
them, the Arabs of the Belka are tolerably inde-
pendent of restraint, and the yoke sits lightly upon
those of the town of Salt. The seat of government
is at Nablous, on the other side of the Jordan, and
it is too far distant for any direct supervision to be
exercised by the Mutessarif there, who must depend
upon his subordinates for reports on the state of his
district. This official, isolated amidst the Arabs,
finds that his life is made safe and pleasant to him
just in the degree that he is not too severe ; and in
the absence of any regular troops to rely upon, his


Influence must depend rather upon indulgence, not
to say connivance, than upon force. However, there
is no question that the last few years have worked an
immense change in the attitude of the Arabs, which
the recent arrival of some soldiers has done much to
confirm ; and that, with a still more decided exercise
of authority and display of force, the Belka might be
made as safe and desirable a location for farming as
any which could be found elsewhere. (^So far the
experience of a firm hand upon the Arabs here has
been most encouraging, j Wherever it has been tried
it has succeeded, provided it has been applied with
judgment and discretion. They are, indeed, too
dependent upon the pasture and arable land to defy
a Government which could drive them forth into the
eastern deserts to be set upon by the Bedouins
there, who claim a prescriptive right to its oases.

The Belka, however, is extensive and fertile ^
enough to maintain a very large population in
addition to the scattered Arabs with their flocks
who now roam over it, and for whom, in the event
of its becoming occupied by a settled population,
special tracts could be reserved in case they should
elect to remain in the country, and adopt sedentary/
habits. ''

The men of Salt seemed an idle and somewhat
defiant-looking race, who passed most of their time
lounging in groups at the street-corners, and criti-
cising with curious gaze unusual visitors. The Turk-


ish Government has not yet ventured to enforce
the conscription for the army here ; and in order
to avoid being liable for it, none of the inhabitants
have taken out tapoo papers or title-deeds for the
real property which they occupy and cultivate. The
consequence is, that throughout the whole of the
Belka there is not an acre owned for which a legal
title can be shown. They now hold by prescriptive
right alone, and numerous quarrels arise in conse-
quence over the possession of land. The hillsides
in the immediate vicinity of Salt are covered with
the finest vineyards, from the grapes of which excel-
lent wine could be made, if the art was properly
understood ; but not one of those who cultivate them
can produce a scrap of paper giving him any right
to do so a state of things which at present makes
the transference of land, except by the unsafe pro-
cess of a mutual arrangement, impossible. The
whole country, in fact, is governed by use and cus-
tom, tempered by the somewhat rough principle
that might makes right ; and now that civilisation is
creeping in, the contest will not unnaturally arise
between the " might " that is made by money, and
that which consists of superior numbers and brute
force. According to the best estimates I could
obtain at Salt/ not a twentieth part of this rich pro-
vince is cultivated 1 and about a fourth part of the
revenue to which it is entitled upon this reaches
the Government. It is difficult to estimate what it


probably might be made to yield if it was occu-
pied by a settled population, properly and honestly
administered, and the ownership of land was placed
upon a legal and safe basis.

We had not much opportunity of discussing these
questions with the Caimakam on whom we called,
as at a first interview with strangers the ordinary
Turkish functionary, though exceedingly polite, is
not always disposed to be communicative, and we
had no opportunities afterwards of cultivating his
acquaintance ; but he offered us every facility in his
power for continuing our journey, and was especially
anxious to impress upon us the fact that the most
profound order and tranquillity reigned throughout
his Caimakamlik, in spite of the great difficulties
with which he had to contend.

In point of fact, both Ch ristians and Arabs unite
in a common feeling of dislike to the Turkish Gov-
ernment; but I think they would entertain this feeling
towards any Government who undertook the task of
keeping them in order. It is only since the period
of our visit that the neighbouring province of Kerak
has really submitted to the authority of the Porte,
and a detachment of regular troops has, I believe,
lately been sent there. This will complete the
pacification of the whole country east of the Jordan,
and prepare it for that development at the hands of
a settled and peaceable population which I hope is
in store for it.


Our future progress now became a matter of some
difficulty, for we were in a country destitute of any
accommodation except that furnished by the vermin-
haunted tents of the Bedouin Arabs, upon whom we
could not rely to provide grain for our horses, which
we should therefore be obliged to carry with us.
This involved extra baggage-animals ; and though
we ransacked the resources of the town, all we could
obtain, after a day's search, was a couple of miser-
able little donkeys.

We availed ourselves of the delay to make an

Online LibraryLaurence OliphantThe land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; → online text (page 14 of 35)