Laurence Oliphant.

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

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I leant over them and looked sheer down about 300
feet into one wady, and 400 feet into the other, I
did not wonder at its having occurred to King David
that the leader of a forlorn - hope against these
ramparts would meet with certain death, and conse-
quently assigning the position to Uriah. The only
possible point from which that officer could have
advanced was at the apex where the low neck con-
nects the citadel with the high plateau beyond, but
even here he would have had to charge up an almost
hopeless escarpment. This is confirmed by the ac-
count of Joab's messenger to David describing the
incident, who says : " We were upon them even unto
the entering of the gate. And the shooters shot from
off the wall upon thy servants ; and some of the
king's servants be dead, and thy servant Uriah the
Hittite is dead also" (2 Sam. xi. 23, 24). Portions
of this colossal gateway, and the massive wall flank-
ing it, at the point where the low neck joins the
apex of the triangle, still remain to attest the truth
of this narrative, and to identify the spot where
Uriah met his fate. Joab afterwards took the lower
city, which he called " the city of waters," indicating
very probably that the Jabbok was dammed into a
lake near the lower city, to which the conformation
of the valley would lend itself ; but that the citadel
still remained, and was upon the point of being taken,
doubtless because its water-supply was cut off, and
the provisions, after a siege which must have lasted


nearly two years, had become exhausted. So David
arrives to take part in the final capture of the citadel,
and avenges their pertinacious resistance by putting
*' the people that were therein under saws, and under
harrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made
them pass through the brick-kiln " (2 Sam. xii, 31).

The citadel in all probability contained a temple
to Molech " the flame-god," who was the supreme
object of Ammonite worship, to whom they offered
up human sacrifices ; and the brick-kiln here alluded
to may be conjectured to have been literally the
" burning-place of Molech," where sacrifices were
offered, and the children of Ammon made their sons
pass through the fire. Perhaps where the temple
of Molech once stood the Romans reared that mag-
nificent .edifice, the ruins of which still remain to
attest its grand proportions ; it faces to the east,
and was doubtless either dedicated, like that of
Baalbec, to the sun or to Hercules. In either case,
the religious idea was closely allied to that which
is embodied in the worship of Baal and of Molech.
The foundations of this temple were about eighty
yards by forty, and its facade was composed of four
colossal columns the pedestals of which are still
standing, while the columns themselves, measuring
about five feet in diameter, are prostrate at their
base. Not far distant is what appears at first to be
a square tower, but it is in reality a very perfect spe-
cimen of a Byzantine church, the external walls of


which measure about seventy-five feet each way,
and are comparatively in good preservation. The
carving and ornamentation inside are very beautiful,
but three of the arches which formed recesses have
been built up, leaving only one by which it may
be entered.^ Near it was a building which seems
to have been a mosque ; and there can be little
doubt that, though we have no evidence of its ever
having been permanently occupied by the Turks,
the Arabs have from time immemorial made tem-
porary habitations here, and had a place of worship.
It is possible that the massive square tower may
have been once a central keep, which was con-
verted by the Byzantines into a church. The col-
umns of another temple were still standing, and near
them was an old tower still in a sufficiently good state
of repair to be inhabited by a Circassian family.
The citadel seems to have been largely dependent
on the lower town for water, to judge by the ac-
counts of its sieges ; but there can be no doubt that
numerous subterranean passages to the valley of
the Jabbok existed the calcareous nature of the
rock offering peculiar facilities for excavations of this
nature. One cistern which I measured roughly was
eighty yards In circumference and about thirty feet

^ Canon Tristram seems to have been the first to discover this in-
teresting specimen of Byzantine architecture only a few years ago, but
I am at a loss to understand how it can have escaped the observation
of previous travellers.


deep ; and I also saw the remains of a well. The
view from the citadel was neither very extensive
nor interesting, beyond affording one a bird's-eye
view of the ruins in the valley below; the rest of
the landscape was so nearly on a level with the
fortress that it was somewhat circumscribed. No
trees were visible in any direction ; and the rolling
prairie, though affording good pasture, was bare-
looking enough. The hillsides in every direction
were honeycombed with caves, which in former days
doubtless formed the dwelling-places of a very con-
siderable population. Some of these under the cita-
del apparently extended for some distance, but we
had neither the time nor the lights to enable us
to explore them.

It would take days to do justice to the ruins of
Ammon ; notwithstanding the examination to which
they have already been subjected, there can be little
doubt that a little excavation would unearth interest-
ing results ; and that under the heaps of ddbris that
strew the valley lie buried antiquarian treasures.
The stream, now alive with fish, once evidently
flowed between massive masonry embankments, and
in places was covered over, for the single arch which
now spans it has rather the appearance of having
once formed a portion of this tunnel than of a bridge.
Near it stand the lofty walls of the grand basilica,
its arched entrance leading into a court, now grass-
grown, where once the worshippers assembled.



We found when we returned to our tent the Sheikh
Diab, who had accompanied us from Kalat Zerka, in
close confabulation with old Suleiman, the impenitent
zaptieh, who was evidently tampering with him, and
undermining his principles. The result was soon
apparent, for the sheikh came, and, wath many apolo-


gies, excused himself from escorting us to Heshbon,
on the ground that he was on bad terms with the
sheikh of the Adwan, who were encamped there.
We asked him why this had not occurred to him
before his conversation with Suleiman, as when he
had volunteered to be our escort he knew perfectly
well that the Adwan were at Heshbon. As he was
unable to explain his conduct satisfactorily we dis-
missed him ignominiously, without a baksheesh^ and
determined to go to Heshbon without him, keeping


the lamb which he had presented to us as a forfeit
for his misconduct. We also decided on sending the
old zaptieh back to Salt with a letter detailing to the
Caimakam our grievances against him, and going on
with the younger one. The sheikh of the Adwan Arabs
is a somewhat notorious character, by name Sheikh
Goblan, celebrated for the extortionate manner in
which he black-mails travellers, for it is under his
escort that the journey to Jerash and Ammon is
always made, and he has had enough to do with
tourists to understand the art of fleecinof them.
However, we flattered ourselves that we equally
well understood the art of refusing to be thus plun-
dered, especially with a company of troops within a
few hours' distance ; still, as we were probably the
first travellers who had ever explored these regions
without having paid a farthing either to him or any
other Arab sheikh, the precedent was not one likely
to make him receive us very amicably.

While sitting at the door of our tent, surrounded
by Circassians, two Arabs arrived with a couple of
camels, each bearing a millstone. They were on
their way to Heshbon from the Lejah, where the
people make a special trade of millstones, the ir-
regular surface of the basaltic trap, of which the
whole region is composed, being peculiarly adapted
to the purpose. They were evidently inspired with
a wholesome dread of the Circassians, and seeing us
on such good terms with them, encamped unpleas-


antly near us for protection ; though if there is a
difficult thing for one man to steal from another I
should have said it was a millstone, so large that a
camel could barely stagger under it. It is an evi-
dence of comparative civilisation that Arabs should
want millstones ; but I afterwards met a Christian
peasant from Palestine who made a very good liveli-
hood by going about grinding corn for the Arabs.
The only permanent erections in the country, and
they are few and far between, are occasional mills,
each consisting of one very small room, and a very
big overshot wheel. There were three or four close
to Salt, and I had seen one near Gadara ; the Ad-
wan have one near Heshbon, and there are two or
three more between that place and Kerak.

We had dined off Sheikh Diab's lamb, and were
just composing ourselves to sleep, when the rain,
which had been threatening all day, came down in
torrents. Our tent soon became a shower-bath, as
it was only adapted as a shade from the sun ; and
we put up our umbrellas inside it in the vain attempt
to keep our beds dry, as these were spread on the
ground, and occupied the entire limited area of the
tent floor. Our efforts were perfectly futile : the water
soaked in all round below, and collected in the hol-
low of the canvas above, which formed a sort of
reservoir, requiring every few minutes to be emptied
from within by a poke upwards with a stick, when it
rushed in a cascade over the tent-side. Our servants


were crowded together outside, under a waterproof
sheet, and I do not think suffered so much as we did.
We now regretted that we had not chosen the alter-
native of the fleas, and seriously considered the ex-
pediency of trying to make for a cave ; but the night
was pitch-dark the nearest cave was half-way up a
cliff, and about a quarter of a mile off, and even if
we could find our way to it, we should be wet through
by the time we got there. Moreover, it was impos-
sible, under the circumstances, to pack up and carry
our bedding without its becoming even more soaked
in the process than it already was ; so we put on
our waterproofs, squatted under our umbrellas, and
listened to the occasional grunt of the camels with
the millstones in close proximity, who seemed as
much disgusted with the state of things as we

When day broke the weather was as bad as it was
possible to be. The heavy rain was being driven
by a bitterly cold wind down the valley, and there
was not a break in the clouds to indicate a possible
change for the better. The zaptiehs were trium-
phant ; they had predicted a week's rain, and their
prediction was likely to be verified. The spring
equinox had burst upon us prematurely, and it was
useless to think of visiting Arab encampments, and
living with nomads in their tents, under these cir-
cumstances. All tents are disagreeable in bad
weather; but an Arab tent, with one side partially


Open, through which the rain drives, and with ver-
min of all sorts seeking shelter from the wet next
one's skin, is the most disagreeable of all.

F"rom our present position Heshbon lay about six-
teen miles off to the south-west, while Salt was the
same distance to the north-west. Thither we de-
cided to return with all speed, making our visit to
Heshbon, if possible, the object of another expedi-
tion; so, leaving servants and baggage to come on
as fast as they could with Suleiman, we started off
at a gallop, under the guidance of the youngest zap-
tieh. Our way led across undulating plains, waving
with luxuriant herbage : here and there we came
across wheat-fields planted by the Arabs. Once or
twice we passed heaps of stones which indicated the
site of a ruined village : one of these was Jubeihat,
the ancient Jogbehah ; and another, Fuheis. Then
we came into wooded wadies, where they begin
to break the high plateau, and form gorges which
descend to the valley of the Jordan, just above the
Dead Sea. We could see little of the country,
for the rain was pelting in our faces. The wind
sweeping over these elevated plains was bitterly
cold, and the weather was altogether much more
like what one would expect in the Highlands of
Scotland in November than on the plains of Moab
in April for we were now on the northern verge of
that country. From here southwards those plains
extended from which the Moabites drove the giant


race that occupied them in primitive times, thus
coming into possession of one of the richest and
most fertile plateaux in the world, and which stretch-
ed from the border of Gilead for about fifty miles
southwards. From the northern and finest section
of this region, usually called, par excellence, " the
land of Moab," they were driven out by the Amor-
ites, and their northern frontier then became the
Arnon, while their more circumscribed area, the
home of Ruth, seems to have been known as the
" field of Moab." The Reubenites took possession
of the " land of Moab " to the north of the Arnon :
this is the land which is now included in the modern
Belka, and which affords, without doubt, the finest
territory for agricultural and pastoral purposes in
the whole of Palestine, while it is the only province
where there are no legal occupiers of the soil, and
no settled population.

The country became more broken and hilly as we
approached Salt ; and about an hour before arriving
at that town we joined the road by which we had
left it two days before, and making a steep descent
into the Wady Shaib, we reached it, dripping wet,
about mid-day.

We were storm-stayed several days in Salt, and
congratulated ourselves upon being in the comfort-
able house of Mr Halil instead of under the goat-
hair tents of Sheikh Goblan. We now heard, how-
ever, for the first time, of a settler in Moab whom


we much regretted we knew nothing of when we
were at Ammon. This is a Protestant Syrian, by
name Abou Jabr, who has got a farm about two
hours' distant from Ammon, in a southerly direction.
This man farms about sixty feddans in other words,
an area of land which sixty yoke of oxen could
plough in a day for which he pays the Government
an amount equivalent to ^20 sterling a-year as his
tithe. He has no title-deeds or other proof of legal
possession, but seems to take as much land as
he likes, securing himself from aggression from the
Arabs by payment of a certain proportion of his crops,
they acting the part of landlord, and reserving to
themselves the right of quartering themselves upon
him ad libitum. He stores his grain away in the large
underground vaults which were used for the same
purpose in ages gone by, and either sells it at Jerusa-
lem, transporting it there himself on his own camels, or
to travelling merchants, who come and buy it of him.
His agricultural operations are already so successful
that he is enabled yearly largely to increase his pro-
perty, and in spite of the exactions of the Arabs he
has succeeded in accumulating great wealth. He
employs as labourers fellahin or peasants from West-
ern Palestine, to whom he gives one-fourth of his
crop in return for their labours. 1 saw this man's
children, who were at school at Salt ; and had we
known of his existence when at Ammon, we should
have undoubtedly taken refuge with him instead of


going to the Adwan or coming back to Salt, as the
amount of information which must have been sup-
plied by his practical experience would have been
in the highest degree valuable and interesting, and
with him we should have been relieved of the great
difficulty attending our visit to Arabs of procuring
grain for our horses.

^That he should have been able to build himself a^
house, and live in it unmolested, in the heart of the
Beni Sukhr Arabs, and distant a day's journey from /
Salt, is an evidence of the rapid strides which this
country is making towards order and good govern-
ment. And there can be little doubt that an experi-
ment which has proved so successful, might be repeat-
ed on a larger scale, with equally favourable results.
Excepting the inhabitants of the town of Salt, Abou
Jabr is the only man who lives in a house in the whole
province of the Belka. The fact that he is a per-
manent resident, and not a nomad, involves his paying
tithes on his crops. The Arabs, although they culti-
vate the land, pay nothing on their crops, and the Gov-
ernment loses therefore the entire revenue it would de-
rive from this source if there were a settled population.
One day we determined, in spite of the wet, to
make a dash for the ruins of Arak el Emir, and
return to Salt the same night. Arak el Emir lies
due south of Salt, and we should therefore see en-
tirely new country, and a ruin which possesses excep-
tional interest from the fact that it is purely Jewish in


its origin, Suleiman, the zaptieh, to whom we had
refused the usual baksheesh, while we liberally re-
warded his colleague, had excited a strong spirit of
opposition against us among the zaptiehs ; and al-
though one was ordered by the Caimakam to place
himself at our disposal, it was evident that he did so
with a predetermination to make himself as disagree-
able as possible. Even the promise of abundant
remuneration in case of good behaviour failed to
produce it, and there was manifestly a strong objec-
tion on the part of the whole corps to accompany
us anywhere. This may possibly have arisen from
the fact that it would make them unpopular with
the Arabs to be escorting travellers through their
country, thus depriving the sheikhs of the oppor-
tunity of levying black-mail. And as there is a
thorough understanding usually between the zaptieh
and the Arab, by which the former gets his share of
the latter's plunder, the remuneration which we were
likely to pay would not compensate for the possible
loss which might be involved through a quarrel with
an influential sheikh, when an opportunity occurred
for arranging a scheme for defrauding the Govern-
ment in the matter of taxes.

It seemed, moreover, that either the power or the
inclination of the Caimakam to punish his police in
case of misbehaviour was limited, as they laughed
when we threatened them in this sense. So we had
to make the best of it, as it was absolutely necessary


to have a guide, and it was certainly expedient that
he should be a man in authority.

Our way lay down the Wady Shaib, and we passed
the mills to which I have already alluded, and a
large cave on the left-hand side, which had appa-
rently been used as a place of worship, as there were
a number of niches carved in the rock for lamps, and
a recess in which the object of worship or shrine may
have been placed. After descending for about an
hour, I began to suspect that our zaptieh was play-
ing us false, and did not intend to take us to Arak
el Emir at all. It was raining hard, and he had
been steadily impressing upon us the impossibility, in
such weather, of getting to those ruins and back in
one day ; but from the information we had received
at Salt, we felt satisfied it could be done ; and after
an examination of the map, I felt equally certain we
were now going in a wrong direction. We there-
fore, on our own responsibility, turned off by a path
to the left, and in spite of the remonstrances of our
guide, who followed grumblingly in the rear, pressed
up the steep hillside, and passing out of the Wady
Shaib altogether, crossed into another most romantic
gorge called the Wady Azrak, or Blue Valley, the
sides of which were rocky and precipitous, but
covered with fine timber wherever the trees could
find holding ground. Our path wound round the
head of this and again ascended until it reached a
grassy wooded plateau, like a well -laid -out park,



when it disappeared, or rather became separated
into a multitude of goat -tracks, leaving us utterly
at a loss which to follow. To add to our difficulty
a driving mist partially obscured the surrounding
country, opening now and then so as to afford us
most tantalising glimpses of its beauty and fertility,
and then closing down upon us like a pall. The
zaptieh was triumphant in his ignorance of the way,
and we had to fall back upon our compass ; but the
country was too wooded, rocky, and precipitous to
make a straight line possible. Suddenly we reached
a magnificent spring bursting forth from beneath
a sheer rock, above and around which were noble
trees and glades of rich pasture. Here we deter-
mined to rest until the weather should clear a little,
for it seemed impossible that a spot possessing such
advantages should not attract to its vicinity shep-
herds or wanderers of some sort. Our guide, though
he tried to sham ignorance, evidently knew where he
was, and was surprised into asking me how I knew
the way, and whether I had ever been here before.
Just then I heard the tinkle of a bell, and going a
little way from the spring, came across an Arab
watching some goats. This individual, who looked
one of the wildest specimens of his race, as he
loomed out of the fog in his scanty attire, cut short
my imperfect attempt to explain in Arabic where I
wanted to go, by blandly remarking, with a most
engaging smile, " Dove volete andare, caro mio ! "


If he had knocked me down I should have felt
infinitely less surprised than to hear myself thus
addressed in excellent Italian by a Bedouin shep-
herd in the wilds of Gilead. This mysterious per-
sonage now politely offered to conduct us to some
tents, which had been concealed by the fog, a few
yards off, and which were pitched amid the ruins
of an ancient village. Our sudden and unexpected
arrival seemed rather to startle the women, children,
and dogs. But the men, of whom there were six or
eight grouped round a wood-fire, received us hos-
pitably, and immediately proceeded to make some
coffee for us. They told us we were on the shortest
but not the usual road from Salt to Arak el Emir,
but that in such thick weather it was extremely im-
probable we should find it without a guide ; and after
a whispered consultation with his friends, my new-
made acquaintance offered to act in that capacity.
They said that there was a large encampment of
Abad Arabs in the immediate neighbourhood, but
that they themselves were not nomads, but people
from Salt watching their flocks, and that among
them were some Christians. Our new guide seemed
anxious to impress upon us that he himself was a
Roman Catholic, and engaged in teaching the chil-
dren. He subsequently said that he was only tem-
porarily in the camp collecting a bad debt. In fact
his account of himself was not altogether consistent,
and there was something puzzling about the whole


party, who in outward appearance could in no way
be distinguished from the ordinary Bedouin by the
uninitiated eye.

However, we were only too glad to be helped out
of our dilemma by having come across them, whoever
they might be ; and after spending half an hour with
them, during which it cleared a little, we started with
our guide, who told us his name was Elias Daoud.
The ruined village and spring were called Ain Mahis.

Our way led through scenery more lovely, if pos-
sible, than that which we had already traversed.
Indeed the ride from Ain Mahis to Arak el Emir
was more beautiful than anything we had yet seen
in Gilead, though from the first the scenery of the
country generally had so far surpassed our expecta-
tions that we ceased to be surprised at anything.
Except where now and then a gorge commenced,
where the combination of rock and wood was most
picturesque, and where the ground was carpeted
with anemones, cyclamens, asphodels, iris, and many
flowering shrubs, we rode knee-deep through the
long, rich, sweet grass, abundantly studded with noble
oak and terebinth trees. Here and there the Arabs
had planted an acre or so of wheat or barley which
invariably promised a heavy crop ; it was now a foot
or more high. At last, after winding down a long
verdant glade, we entered by an easy descent the
amphitheatre, in the midst of which the ruins are

Online LibraryLaurence OliphantThe land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; → online text (page 18 of 35)