Laurence Oliphant.

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

. (page 19 of 35)
Online LibraryLaurence OliphantThe land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; → online text (page 19 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook



From the nature of the ground it seemed Impos-
sible that they could at any time have been occupied
by a large population, as the area of the two ter-
races on which they are situated Is too limited. The
wood ceases just as we enter the valley, and all
round the ruins themselves was an Irrigated corn-
field. They were somewhat disappointing at first
sight, consisting only of a portion of the wall of the
fortress, composed of blocks of stone of Cyclopean
dimensions. It was built on the verge of a steep
hill which abruptly, almost precipitously, descended
to the Wady Seir, where the stream flowed between
a fringe of trees. The blocks themselves were
twenty feet in length and from three to four in
breadth and height. An amphitheatre of cliffs, ex-
tensively excavated into spacious apartments, stables,
and storehouses, rose abruptly from the rear of the
terrace ; but it was raining so much, and we had
so little time at our disposal, that we were unable
to examine them. An artificial road, 500 or 600
yards long, and flanked by large blocks of stone,
formerly probably a parapet, leads from the principal
terrace, on which are the massive remains I have
described, to the Kasr el Abd, or Castle of the
Slave, which is approached by a causeway across the
remains of a moat, and was entered by a gateway
built of massive blocks of stone. Only a portion of
the wall is standing, but fragments of the columns
which formed the colonnade in front are strewn


around, and the traces of the huge carved animals
mentioned by Josephus are still to be seen indeed
the Jewish historian's description is most accurate.
He says : ** Hyrcanus erected a strong castle, and
built it entirely of white stone to the very roof, and
had animals of a prodigious magnitude engraved
upon it. He also drew around it a great and deep
canal of water. He also made caves of many fur-
longs in length, by hollowing a rock that was over
against him ; and then he made large rooms in it,
some for feasting, and some for sleeping and living in.
He introduced also a vast quantity of waters, which
ran along it, and which were very delightful and orna-
mental in the court. But still he made the entrances
at the mouths of the caves so narrow that no more
than one person could enter by them at once. And
the reason why he built them after that manner was
a good one. It was for his own preservation, lest
he should be besieged by his brethren, and run the
hazard of being caught by them. Moreover, he
built courts of greater magnitude than ordinary,
which he adorned with vastly large gardens ; and
when he had brought the place to this state, he
named it Tyre. This place is between Arabia and
Judea, beyond Jordan, not far from the country of
Heshbon." The Hyrcanus here alluded to lived about
1 80 B.C.; and De Saulcy, who has examined this in-
teresting ruin more thoroughly than any other trav-
eller, is of opinion that the castle was formerly an old


Ammonite temple, the materials of which Hyrcanus
utilised, and decorated with columns which certainly
partake of a comparatively late type of architecture,
by no means in keeping with the Cyclopean stones.
Mr Fergusson is indeed disposed to think that some
portion of the structure must have been erected after
Christ, and therefore not by Hyrcanus at all. How-
ever that may be, there can be no question that, from
an archaeological point of view, Arak el Emir is one
of the most interesting ruins to the east of Jordan.
We had no time in the pouring rain to do more than
take a hurried and most tantalising glance at them,
as a prolonged survey would have involved a night
with some of EHas Daoud's very doubtful-looking
friends in their most untempting and soaking wet
tents. I made an imperfect sketch of a fragment of
the wall in order to sfive some idea of the size of the
stones ; but I would refer the reader who desires to
gain some idea of these curious ruins to De Saulcy's
elaborate work. It is probable that a more thorough
examination of the once inhabited cliffs in which
Canon Tristram found a Hebrew inscription, would
reward the explorer, and that excavations of the
ruins of the public buildings on the high terrace
above the palace would furnish rich results, and
might possibly throw light upon an interesting and
little-known period of Jewish history.

Arak el Emir is about 1500 feet above the
level of the sea, and we had therefore made a



descent of upwards of 1200 feet from Salt. The
valley in which it is situated debouches into the
wide fertile Wady Kefren, and I surveyed it with
interest as a possible line for a railway from the
valley of the Jordan to the plateau of Moab. Im-
mediately on the other side of the Wady Kefren is


the Wady Hesban at the head of which are situated
the ruins of Heshbon, distant in a direct line south
from Arak el Emir about eight miles. This latter
ruin was the most southerly point I was destined to
reach ; and I looked wistfully towards Mount Nebo,
not more than ten miles off, from the summit of
which I had hoped to obtain a view over the plains
of Moab as far south as the Arnon.

The weather had partially cleared, and our route


back, though longer, afforded us fine views over the
broken country to the south, over the Dead Sea,
nearly 3000 feet below us, and over the luxuriant
Seisaban, that semi-tropical tract in the Jordan
valley which lies between the mouth of the river
and the mountains from which we were looking,
and which has been fully described by Canon
Tristram. We were skirting a small valley with
our faces turned westward, and looking directly
down upon Jericho, with the highlands upon which
Jerusalem is situated beyond, and we were able to
form a contrast between their barren aspect and the
luxuriance of the vegetation amid which we were rid-
ing. Rounding a projecting spur we found ourselves
once more approaching the Wady Shaib, and our
zaptieh was triumphant. This was the route he said
that he had intended from the first to bring us ; and
while we were glad he had not succeeded for we
had seen a most picturesque region by following our
own devices we allowed him the benefit of the
doubt as to the sincerity of his intentions.

In the course of our ride I endeavoured to pene-
trate the mystery of our guide, Elias Daoud. He
informed me that he was a native of Bethlehem,
which I afterwards found to be untrue ; that in early
life he had determined to travel and see the world ;
that he had peddled sacred relics through Russia,
had been the servant of an archbishop, and could
read and chant the responses in Latin ; that he had


accompanied the British expedition to Abyssinia, and
he mentioned the names of several officers by whom
he had been employed ; that he had visited Paris, and
he aired his French as evidence of the fact ; that he
had been in Rome and Athens, and he showed me a
Greek passport to prove the truth of his assertion ;
that after his return to Palestine from Greece he had
crossed the Jordan on some trading speculation; that
here he had fallen in love with and married a Bedouin
girl ; that he had travelled with her all through these
regions, residing for some time at Kerak, where he
had officiated as a schoolmaster ; that he was the
owner of a mill, and at present made his livelihood
by grinding corn for the Arabs ; that his wife was
living with her relatives at an encampment to which
he intended to return after piloting us back to Salt ;
that he was tired of her and of the life he was leading;
and finally, that he wished to return to civilisation
in the capacity of my servant. As he spoke Turk-
ish, Arabic, and Italian perfectly, and had a smatter-
ing of French, Russian, and Greek, and was thor-
oughly familiar with the various Arab tribes, and
their leading characteristics, the proposal was a
tempting one provided he could be trusted ; so I
gave him a qualified answer, and told him if he liked
to be our guide to Jerusalem I should then deter-
mine whether I should engage him or not. When
we got within a few miles of Salt he turned off to
the encampment where he said his wife was expect-


ing him, and promised to meet us at the same spot
the following morning and be our guide to Jericho ;
for we had reluctantly determined to curtail our trip,
and return to regions where the value of bank-notes
was known. The unusually high price of horse-feed,
and the delay involved by so much wet weather, had
reduced our finances to so low an ebb that it be-
came absolutely necessary to replenish the exchequer;
and a trip into Moab, except in the capacity of men-
dicants, was an impossibility. We had, however,
become so fascinated by the country to the east of
the Jordan, that we felt strongly inclined, circum-
stances permitting, to return to it after a visit to




I HAD now seen enough of the land to the east of the
Jordan to satisfy myself that it contained agricuhural
resources susceptible in the highest degree of de-
velopment, and that the local conditions were pecu-
liarly favourable to the introduction of immigrants,
through whose capital and industry these fertile
regions might once more be rendered vastly pro-
ductive, and become a source of considerable revenue
to the Turkish Government, and at the same time of
profit to those who should decide to settle here and
invest their money and labour. The popular impres-
sion of Palestine is derived from the observation of
tourists in the country to the west of the Jordan, where
the land is rocky and barren, and the few fertile spots
which exist are already under cultivation by the resi-
dent population. Canon Tristram, in his ' Topogra-
phy of the Holy Land' (p. 312), says truly: *' No


one can fairly judge of Israel's heritage who has not
seen the luxuriant exuberance of Gilead, as well as
the hard rocks of Judea, which only yield their abun-
dgmee to reward constant toil and care : to compare
the two is to contrast nakedness and luxuriance." The
fact that this rich and luxuriant country should be
only sparsely inhabited by a wandering population,
possessing no legal title whatever to the soil, specially
adapts it to settlement by a fixed and permanent
population who could be established here without
injury to the Arabs ; for regulations might easily be
devised under which the interests of both could be
safeguarded and secured. In point of fact, how-
ever, the Arabs have very little claim to our sym-
pathy. They have laid waste this country, ruined
its villages, and plundered its inhabitants, until it
has been reduced to its present condition ; and if
they were driven back to the Arabian deserts from
which they came, there is abundant pasture in its
oases for their camels and goats. In Ajlun there
are large tracts of fertile land which the Arabs have
forced the peasants to abandon, but which they them-
selves rarely visit. The most respectable and seden-
tary tribe in that country, although they would not
allow us to visit them, seem to be the Beni Hassan ;
but they are not numerous, and probably an arrange-
ment could be come to with them by which certain
lands which they have been accustomed to cultivate
should be reserved to them. The most lawless, de-


structive, and powerful tribe who infest *' the lands
of Gilead and Moab," are the Beni Sukhr. They
are invaders, who should be driven back across the
Hadj road, where a small cordon of soldiers, posted
in the forts which now exist upon it, would be suf-
ficient to keep them in check. The Hamideh, Beni-
Atiyeh, and Belka Arabs, occupying corners of the
Belka, have been reduced by the Beni Sukhr to the
position of tributary tribes, and cultivate their lands
for them as tebda or feudal subjects. They would
rejoice at the expulsion of their masters, who have
appropriated the lands which they had originally occu-
pied ; and they are so far sedentary and agricultural
in their habits that they could be reduced to the con-
dition of peaceable villagers without difficulty, and
form a valuable labouring population, to be employed
by immigrant capitalists. The Adwan would be
more difficult to deal with, being lawless and preda-
tory in their habits ; but they are so entirely depend-
ent upon the produce of the lands which they culti-
vate, that their good behaviour might be secured by
reserving them possession of these. In fact, the
same system might be pursued which we have
adopted with success in Canada with our North
American Indian tribes, who are confined to their
"reserves," and live peaceably upon them in the
midst of the settled agricultural population.

The Ajermeh Arabs cultivate the lands quite on
the southern frontier of the Belka, bordering upon

KERAK. 287

Kerak, but the cultivation of all these nomads con-
sists in scratching up the easiest and most fertile-
looking patches once in every three or four years.
To the south of the Belka lies Kerak, a most fertile
province, in which there is only one town, of the
same name, which is the residence of a Caimakam,
who is at the same time the sheikh of the Arab
population, and until lately retained his practical
independence, refusing to be taxed, or to acknow-
ledge the authority of the Government, except so far
as it suited him. Within the last few months troops
have been sent to Kerak, and the central power has
made itself felt. Nothing, however, would tend so
effectually and speedily to convert this unprofitable
and lawless district into a thriving and peaceable
community as the settlement and organisation, under
special regulations, of the neighbouring provinces of
the Belka and Ajlun. The resources of Kerak are
totally undeveloped, but are quite equal to those of
the other provinces ; while the climate of the plateau
on which the town stands, at an elevation of nearly
4000 feet above the level of the sea, would adapt it
to European constitutions.

It is worthy of note that when I submitted a
scheme for colonising this region to the Government
at Constantinople, the difficulty of dealing with the
Arabs was never once suggested as an objection,
nor did the nomad population seem in the eyes of
the Government to possess any prescriptive rights


which should interfere with the purchase of this
country by immigrants. The fact that colonies of
Circassians were being established at Kuneitereh
and Rabbath-Ammon ; that a few soldiers and an
energetic Caimakam had cleared the province of
Ajlun of the Beni Sukhr, and recovered the arrears
of taxes from the most refractory of the local Arab
sheikhs, as we could ourselves testify ; that we had
been able to visit Kalat Zerka, Rabbath-Ammon,
and Arak el Emir without paying a farthing of
black-mail ; and that a Protestant farmer was already
settled in security in the wildest part of the country,
and making a large income out of land for which he
had never paid, and for which he held no title,
afforded abundant evidence that the Arabs were be-
coming reduced to order, and that the Government
could, if it chose, protect any settlers who should
come to colonise the country under its auspices.

The region which I should propose for settle-
ment, in the first instance, would be the entire dis-
trict of the Belka, from the Arnon on the south, to
the Jabbok on the north, extending eastwards as far
as the Hadj road, or at all events to the limit of the
good land, and, if necessary, including such portions
of the province of Ajlun to the north of the Jabbok,
as might be deemed the most desirable making a
tract of at least a million, or possibly a million and
a half acres. The western boundary would be the
Jordan and the western shore of the Dead Sea, thus


including that singular sheet of water within its
limits. As I was prevented from extending my trip
as far south as the Arnon, I will refer to the testi-
mony of Canon Tristram as a proof that, in recom-
mending the plains of Moab as well as the land of
Gilead for settlement, I have good authority for
dwelling upon their advantages. Indeed, the uni-
versal opinion of those familiar with them at Salt
would have been sufficient evidence, were none other
forthcoming, that for pastoral and agricultural pur-
poses the tribe of Reuben occupied the most favour-
ed region in Palestine. The whole of their territory
was a vast alluvial deposit of the richest character,
out of which rise the knolls and ridges on which the
old cities stood, and which are to this day abundantly
supplied with the reservoirs and cisterns which had
been hewn in them in old time. " Had the country
been without these excrescences of rock," says Canon
Tristram, "affording unlimited facilities for cistern ex-
cavation, and for the storing of water-supplies, it is
utterly impossible that it could ever have sustained as
it has done a vast resident and agricultural population.
With them there is nothing requisite beyond a settled
government, and the reparation of the old cisterns and
conduits, to enable a population as dense as of old to
resume the occupation of these alluvial plains." ^

For particulars of these reservoirs, I must refer the
reader to Canon Tristram's book, merely calling at-

^ Land of Moab, p. 197.


tention to the fact that at Um Rasas he found three
large ones one measuring 30 yards by 18, and
very deep, two containing water, and all more or less
in good repair; at M'Seitbah, one 30 yards by 14,
with plenty of water at the bottom, 30 feet below the
surface. Describing the view from which, he says,
" Not a bit of desert or barren land was visible in
this grand panorama, and the camels, sheep, and goats
marked the whole sweep of the glass with patches,"
At Ziza he found " an immense tank of solid masonry
measuring 140 yards by no, with water 17 feet 6
inches from the rim, and the construction quite per-
fect." At Medeba is another tank quite perfect, 120
yards square ; and he goes on to say, *' Everywhere
is some artificial means of retaining the occasional
supplies of rain - water." The soil of all Moab he
describes "as wonderfully rich, a fine red sandy
loam, which year after year grows successive crops of
wheat without manure, and into which one can with
ease thrust a stick for at least two feet." I could
quote many other passages to the same effect, but
the above will suffice to show that this fine country
is only waiting the judicious application of capital
and enterprise to be restored to its former condition.
Notwithstanding all these advantages, the charms
of Gilead to the north of the Jabbok are superior
in my eyjss to the plains here described, while the
country is far more free from Arabs and law-abiding.
The objection to including the whole of Ajlun as far


north as the Yarmuk within the Hmits of the colony
in the first instance, Hes in the fact that a large por-
tion of it is still village property, held under tapoo
papers, whereas not an acre is so held in the Belka ;
and it would be necessary, therefore, for a land com-
pany undertaking the resettling of the country, to
purchase it by private sale. The Belka being all
Crown property, can be disposed of by the Govern-
ment en bloc without infringing upon any private
rights, excepting possibly at the town of Salt, which,
with the cultivated land surrounding it, should be
dealt with separately. There can be no doubt that
if the Belka became the property of a land company
formed under the sanction of the Turkish Govern-
ment, with a charter for a bank enabling it to lend
money on mortgage to the villagers at a reasonable
rate, instead of at the usurious percentage at present
charged by money-lenders who now virtually hold
the peasantry in bondage by liens on their crops,
the whole country would soon become more or less
dependent on the colonial administration, which
could thus gradually and beneficially extend the
sphere of its operations, at the same time that they
could be rendered pecuniarily highly profitable.

Perhaps the difference in the luxuriance of the
vegetation between Eastern and Western Palestine
is brought into the most striking contrast on the
Dead Sea itself. Nothing can be more barren or
uninviting than the rugged waterless mountains on


its western shore, while the wadies opposite teem
with an almost tropical vegetation. Here are palms
in profusion, and jungles of terebinths, wild almond
and fig trees, poplars, willows, hawthorn, and olean-
ders covering the steep hillsides and fringing the
streams of such picturesque ravines as those in
which are situated the fountains of Callirrhoe and
the wells of Moses. In the spring especially, these
glens, adorned with a rich semi-tropical flora, are
in their full beauty. There can be little doubt
that the celebrated healing qualities of the hot
springs of Callirrhoe, and the romantic scenery by
which they are surrounded, would render them a
popular resort for tourists and health-seekers, if ever
this country should be reclaimed, and proper accom-
modation for travellers and visitors was provided.
Included within the territory which I should propose
for colonisation, would be the Ghor Seisaban, or
plains of Shittim, which Canon Tristram describes
as " by far the most extensive and luxuriant of any
of the fertile lands bordering on the Dead Sea."
" This abundantly-watered and tree-covered district,"
he continues, " extends six miles from east to west,
and ten or twelve from north to south." I crossed
it myself at its northern extremity, and rode through
an extensive tract of young wheat-fields, cultivated
by the Adwan.

A few Ghawarini Arabs and other marauders at
present haunt the tamarisk and acacia thickets of


this region, but there would be no difficulty in clear-
ing them out. Nearly 1 300 feet below the level of
the sea, this plain is never visited by frost, and its
winter climate is even more temperate than that
of Egypt, while its intense summer heats adapt it
to the cultivation of tropical productions. The
average minimum of the thermometer registered by
Canon Tristram in the fifteen days between the
30th December to 13th January was 53 5' at 10 p.m.,
and 43 the average minimum during the night ;
whilst during the day It ranged as high as 85, aver-
aging 72, "with a radiancy of atmosphere that con-
verted the eastern mountains of Moab and the Dead
Sea into a fairy land of glowing softness." That
this Jordan valley district is capable of maintaining
a large population may be gathered from the fact
that it was selected by Lot, when he parted from
Abraham, because " it was well watered everywhere,
even as the garden of the Lord ; like the land of
Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar." And accordingly,
on this plain of Shittim, sprang up the four " cities
of the plain," of which two were Sodom and Gomor-
rah. For it has been established, I think beyond a
doubt, both by Canon Tristram and Mr Grove, that
the site popularly given to Sodom and Gomorrah on
the south-eastern shores of the Dead Sea is errone-
ous, and that the real position of those cities was in
the rich and fertile Ghor Selsaban.

Ascending from the fervid subtropical valley of


the Jordan, we gradually, before reaching the plains
of Moab and highlands of Gilead, pass through
another zone of vegetation, until we finally attain
an elevation of about 4000 feet above the level
of the sea, and more than 5000 feet above the
Ghor Seisaban ; but the difference in feet does
not really convey an adequate notion of the differ-
ence in climate, owing to the peculiar conditions
of the Jordan valley, which, being depressed below
the level of the sea, produces a contrast in vege-
tation with the mountains of Gilead corresponding
rather to a difference of 10,000 feet than of only
half that elevation. The consequence is, that in
no part of the world could so great a variety of
agricultural produce be obtained compressed within
so limited a space. The valley of the Jordan would
act as an enormous hothouse for the new colony.

Online LibraryLaurence OliphantThe land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; → online text (page 19 of 35)