Laurence Oliphant.

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

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owing to a want of drainage, a very feverish and un-
healthy tract, very sparsely inhabited, in consequence
of the predatory incursions of the Arabs, but suscep-
tible in the highest degree of improvement. About
200,000 acres of the best land in Palestine are now
lying waste in this neighbourhood, and in the ad-
joining Sandjak of Tiberias, which would all doubt-
less be brought into cultivation in the event of the
formation of a colony in Gilead, as the proposed rail-
way would pass through the centre of it, and would
bring with it the sense of security which would en-
courage emigration and capital. An essential pre-
liminary, however, would be a thorough system of
drainage. We turned aside from the direct route to
Nazareth on the following day, and scrambled up to
the top of the isolated mountain of Gilboa. From its
rocky summit, upwards of 1 700 feet above the level
of the sea, we obtained a most commanding view of
the topographical features of the country. Below us,
and running north-west for a distance of twenty-four
miles, lay the fertile plain of Esdraelon, now almost
entirely in the hands of Mr Sursuk, a Greek, of
whose farming operations I shall speak presently.
From the village of Jezreel, which was at our feet,


the ground trends gradually down to Beisan, which,
from our lofty elevation, seemed also almost imme-
diately beneath us.

Following the brook Kishon from the port of
Haifa a railway could traverse the plain of Esdrae-
lon to the summit level, which is only about 250 feet
above the sea, and thence passing through the gap
between the hills at Jezreel, descend into the valley
of the Jordan, by a gentle incline the whole way,
without a cutting or embankment of any sort. The
best line, however, would probably be by the val-
ley of Alammalech, the modern Melik, a tributary
of the Kishon, and so through the fertile plain
of El Buttauf to Tiberias. We looked down upon
this line afterwards from the top of the Jebel es Sikh
behind Nazareth ; it presents no greater engineering
difficulties than that by way of Esdraelon, and the
advantage of going to Tiberias is, that a branch
could more easily be taken from that point to Da-
mascus than from Beisan. However, that is a point
upon which competent engineers would have no
difficulty in deciding. It is certain that either line
could be constructed at a most trifling cost as far as
the valley of the Jordan.

The most interesting agricultural feature of all this
country is unquestionably Esdraelon. This plain was
formerly raided over by the Beni Sukhr, who claimed
a sort of prescriptive right to it, and were rapidly
reducing it to the condition of the valley of the J or-


dan and the country round Beisan, when it fell into
the hands of Mr Sursuk, a Greek banker, in 1872,
who now owns about seventy square miles of some
of the finest land in Palestine. For this I was in-
formed that he paid ^^ 18,000, only ;/^6ooo of which
ever found its way into the treasury of the Govern-
ment. The distinguished Turkish statesman now
no more who is popularly charged, either rightly
or wrongly, with having pocketed the remaining
;^ 1 2,000, it is not necessary to name. The invest-
ment has turned out eminently successful ; indeed
so much so, that I found it difficult to credit the
accounts of the enormous profits which Mr Sursuk
derives from his estate. In the first place, he is his
own tithe-farmer. He has over twenty villages on
his property, which contain a population of 4000
peasants. He is, perhaps, rather a feudal superior
than a proprietor in the ordinary sense of the term,
for the peasants exercise a sort of ownership. They
pay one-tenth of the crop to the Government, one-
tenth to him, and ten mejidies for every feddan of
land besides : a feddan is as much as a yoke of oxen
can plough in a day, and a mejidie is equal to about
4s. 6d. Besides this, as the peasantry are all in his
debt, he is able to lend them money at his own rate
of interest, and has complete control of his security.
When the village tithes are offered for sale by the
Government, nobody is able to compete for their
purchase with so powerful a rival, who is at the


same time part owner. He therefore becomes the
farmer of them, and is in a position, should either he
or the local government officials wish to lend them-
selves to any such practice, which I by no means
wish to insinuate is the case, to make arrangements
which would be far more profitable to themselves
than to the Government. It is popularly asserted
on the spot that considerably over ^^ 20,000 a-year is
extracted from this plain of Esdraelon, in one form
or other, by this fortunate speculator. I once heard
it put as high as ;^ 40,000. On the whole, I should
say that the country has nevertheless benefited by
his operations ; the Arabs have been driven out : and
although I confess I did not observe that those of
his villapfes which I visited seemed more comfort-
able or well-to-do than other villages in the neigh-
bourhood, they owe it in some measure to the power-
ful protection which one rich man can command, that
they exist at all. The facts are instructive in many
ways. They show how profitable farming in Pales-
tine may be made. They prove how quickly capital
brings protection, and how easy the Arabs really are
to deal with, if they have any proprietor other than
a half-starved fellah to deal with ; and it also illus-
trates how open the present system of tithe-farm-
ing is to possible abuse, and how desirable it would
be to substitute for it one of assessment. It is also
important to observe that the great success of Mr
Sursuk has been due to his employing native labour.


and to associating the peasants with him as copart-
ners on a principle which very soon reduced them to
being his absolute dependants and slaves.

There is a good carriage-road, about twenty-two
miles long, from Nazareth to Haifa, which has been
constructed by the German colonists established at
the latter place. They supply the monks and other
residents of Nazareth with butter, vegetables, and
other garden produce, and convey tourists sometimes
between the two places ; altogether their enterprise
is telling in many ways on the country, and notably
in the construction of roads in the immediate neigh-
bourhood of Haifa, where the country is flat, and
they can be easily made, and in the introduction of
wheeled vehicles. Their immediate influence on the
town of Haifa itself is very perceptible. The colony
is situated about a mile beyond the old town, which
contains a population of over 4000, of whom 1 000 are
Jews. It is a thriving, growing place, thanks to the
proximity of the German colony; and since their
establishment about eighty substantial stone houses
have been built. We took up our quarters at an
excellent little hotel, kept by one of the colonists,
and might have imagined ourselves in a small neat
German town. Every where the signs of thrift and
industry were apparent. The village consists of
two streets, of well-built stone houses, each stand-
ing separately in its own garden, the streets lined
with young trees ; and the most scrupulous tidiness


was everywhere apparent. We called on the head of
the rival spiritual schism, and found him perfectly-
satisfied with the prospects of the colony, and with
the progress it had made so far. The number of
Germans at present established under the shadow of
Mount Carmel is 400, and they cultivate about 1000
acres of fair land, lying between the Mount and the
sea ; while up its steep slopes vineyards are terraced,
turning its bare rocky flanks into verdure, and giving
evidence of what the barren hillsides of Palestine
must once have been. These colonists seem to be on
perfectly good terms with the natives, whose language
many of them speak, and to have no difficulty with the
Government Mr Conder, R.E., considers that Haifa
possesses capabilities as a harbour superior to any
other port upon the coast of Syria. It is the only place
at which the Austrian Lloyd's steamboats touch in
winter ; and although it is exposed to winds from the
north-west, he is of opinion that a mole, at a compar-
atively trifling expense, might be run out in continu-
ation of the Carmel ridge, constructed of the lime-
stone of which the mountain is composed. There
are still ruins of an ancient port near this headland.
In a recent article in * Blackwood's Magazine,' called
" The Haven of Carmel," the subject has been very
fully treated ; and it would seem, from the judgment
of those who have carefully studied the question, that
no better terminus could be found for a railway
which should enter the heart of the country, than


this point. The bay of Acre, on the southern shore
of which Haifa is situated, is an indention of the
coast about three miles in depth ; while exactly
opposite to it, on a projecting point, is the town of
Acre, distant about eight miles.

As I was anxious to look over the high-rolling
country to the south of Carmel, we made an expedi-
tion to Esfia, a Druse village situated at the high-
est point of the range, at an altitude of about 1800
feet above the sea-level. For this purpose we had
to retrace our steps for a few miles out of Haifa,
passing through the rich gardens which lie east-
ward of the town, and the grove of palm-trees which
is its most characteristic and distinguishing feature.
Then we turned up a wild gorge in the ridge, forc-
ing our way by an almost imperceptible goat-track
through the dense jungle with which the steep sides
of the hill are here clothed. We had sent our
servants direct to Acre, and were quite alone, so
we were not long before we succeeded in losing
ourselves. However, we were rescued from our
dilemma by hearing the notes of a reed-pipe be-
tokening the presence of a shepherd, whom we
bribed to leave his flock and serve as our guide.
Behind him we clambered by steep and devious
paths to a spot which well repaid the exertions we
made to reach It, so wild and romantic was it, hidden
away in the recesses of the mountain the vineyards,
olive-groves, and gardens, all crowded into a charm-

ESFIA. 335

ing glen, where there was a picturesque fountain,
round which were a group of Druse women filHng
their water -jars, who seemed startled by the sud-
den bursting in upon their seclusion of strangers ;
for the village is one never visited by the ordinary
tourist, and is doubly interesting from the fact that
it contains an isolated Druse community who have
been located here for hundreds of years, far removed
from their co-religionists in the Lebanon and Hau-
ran, with whom, nevertheless, they informed us they
maintained occasional relations. From here we
could look over " The Breezy Land," warmly re-
commended by Conder for colonisation purposes ;
and a tempting land it looked, accessible to the sea,
and, from all accounts, fertile and well watered ; but
as there is comparatively little of it actually owned
by the Government, it would nearly all require to
be purchased from the peasant proprietors, who,
although they only cultivate it partially, hold tapoo
papers, or would put in claims of ownership. No
doubt it could be bought cheap, and would be a
desirable district for development, but any attempt
at colonisation here would be on a much smaller
scale, and would not be susceptible of the same
administrative autonomy as the unoccupied country
to the east of the Jordan.

The whole population of the village gathered
round us when we dismounted in the middle of it,
to refresh ourselves with the food we had brought


in our pockets, and we at once observed a marked
difference in the type and manner of the peasantry
from that of the other villages. There were, how-
ever, a few Christians resident in Esfia. On our way
back we had a magnificent view over the plain and
bay of Acre, with the ranges of the Galilee moun-
tains beyond ; and plunging down to it by a very
precipitous descent, were once more thrown upon
our own instinct of locality to find our way. This
led us into a perfect wilderness of sand-dunes, amid
which, to the great distress of our poor horses, we
floundered knee-deep in the loose sand in what
seemed likely to be a vain attempt to reach the
sea-shore. This, however, we at last succeeded in
doing, and were only too thankful to cool ourselves
by plunging into the waves. Then spurring on our
jaded steeds, we reached Acre almost as tired as
they were about sunset.

Acre is the seat of government of the Mutes-
sariflik ; and the governor, even more empress^
than his colleague at Nablous, no sooner heard of
our arrival, than he sent to announce his intention
of paying us a visit. We received him at the
French convent, at which we had put up, with all
the state we could muster, and were on the whole
favourably impressed by his apparent desire to do
his duty, and improve the condition of his province.
The appearance of an Englishman in search of in-
formation, and with letters enjoining civility on the


authorities, suggests to their minds, in the existing
state of relations between Turkey and England, a
reform inspector of some kind, and they are conse-
quently extremely anxious to impress upon him their
determination to remedy abuses, abolish corruption,
and introduce a new order of administration. With
a suppressed and somewhat mysterious air of official
dignity, the casual traveller might exercise a very
wholesome influence on the minds of the more
timid and impressionable functionaries. Now and
then, doubtless, he would come across one of the old
school, who would resent his interference fiercely,
and treat him with the most profound contempt, if
not insult ; but the general tone of those with whom
I came in contact led me to believe that, under
the apprehension which exists of the English Gov-
ernment being likely to exercise an active, and, if
necessary, forcible supervision over the internal ad-
ministration of the country, a very decided impres-
sion might be produced upon the local authorities
by properly authorised English officials, the more
especially as the people of all classes, religions, and
races, have fixed their hopes on England as their
deliverer from the evils of the administration under
which they are now suffering ; but the conviction
must be produced that if remonstrances are disre-
garded, stronger measures will be resorted to.

The Mutessarif told us that the combined effects of
the withdrawal for the war of so large a proportion of



the labouring population of the cattle disease, which
had been raging virulently in some parts of his pro-
vince of the unusual drought and of the necessity
of squeezing taxes out of the people for the pur-
pose of supplying the demands from Constantinople,
had produced an unparalleled amount of misery,
which he had found himself powerless in any way
to mitigate. He was extremely anxious to see a
railway constructed from the bay of Acre into the
interior, and considered that Haifa would be a better
terminus for it than Acre, not merely because the
harbour was superior, but because, owing to Acre
being a fortress, it was incapable of extension. In-
side the walls, three-fourths of the town are taken
up by barracks and Government buildings ; and out-
side, no building is allowed to be built which would
interfere with the fortifications. He had applied for
permission to extend the town beyond the walls,
but it had been refused. Nevertheless Acre remains
from old tradition the emporium of the grain trade
from the Hauran, and during the season from 4000
to 5000 camel-loads of grain arrive daily. Tyre
and Tripoli are also great grain emporia, but Acre
far surpasses either of them. If a railway, such as
I propose, existed, Haifa would become the great
depot on the coast for the whole of the interior. No
doubt great quantities of sheep and cattle would also
be sent down to it from Jaulan and the grazing-
lands in the interior for exportation to Egypt and

TYRE. 339

Other markets. Another curious article of traffic for
which a railway is eminently adapted, are basalt
grindstones from the Lejah. These now come on the
backs of camels, principally to Tyre, where I saw
a collection of them ; but as one forms a camel-load,
they become pretty expensive by the time they
reach their destination. The Mutessarif was strongly
in favour of the line going by the plain of El Buttauf
rather than by the plain of Esdraelon.

Tyre, which we reached on the following day,
is a most attractive little town, with a charming
back country; but it does not possess the same
elements of commercial prosperity, nor is its port
so easily capable of reconstruction as its neighbour
and ancient rival Sidon. Here the mercantile
community is more active, and has struggled man-
fully with the commercial difficulties with which
they have had to contend. In former days the
great industries were tobacco and silk, which they
produced and exported in large quantities. The
trade of Sidon in both articles has now been almost
completely extinguished. The heavy duties put
by the Government upon tobacco, even when ex-
ported from one port in Turkey to another, has
entirely ruined the tobacco cultivation, and Sidon
now only grows enough for its own consumption.
The silk trade has been seriously checked by the
opening of the Suez Canal, which brought Eastern
silk into ruinous competition with that which the


Sidonians were able to produce. They now chiefly
depend for their exports upon the lovely and exten-
sive gardens which surround the town, and in which
olives, oranges, bananas, and apricots are the prin-
cipal objects of cultivation. All fruit, however,
grows magnificently in the neighbourhood of Sidon ;
and its annual export to Egypt alone, chiefly of fresh
and dried fruit, is over 2,000,000 piastres. It is esti-
mated that the port could be reconstructed at an
expenditure of only ;^30,ooo, and there can be no
doubt, if this be so, that it would well repay some
enterprising English capitalist to undertake the work ;
for in spite of the factitious prosperity of Beyrout,
which has no harbour at all, Sidon would then, from
its proximity to some of the most fertile regions in
the Lebanon, spring into importance and attract a
shipping trade on which dues could be levied which
would amply repay the investment.

Though not included within the ancient limits of
Palestine, Sidon will probably be comprised within
the future boundaries of this interesting country as
its destiny begins to unfold itself.

I have touched but lightly on my return journey
from Jerusalem to Beyrout, for I scarcely diverged
from the beaten track of tourists ; and the whole of
Western Palestine has now been so thoroughly ex-
plored and examined by the officers engaged in its
recent survey, that little remains to be said about it.
There can be no doubt that, in spite of its barren


and unpromising aspect in parts, this country is
capable of great development ; indeed it is, with the
exception of the Lebanon, the only province of the
Turkish empire in which, of late years, a certain
progress has been made ; and I believe that the
successful creation of a colony to the east of the
Jordan, connected with the sea-coast by a railway,
would infallibly bring a stream of immigrants and a
flow of capital into Western Palestine, under the in-
fluence of which it would speedily become one of the
most productive and fertile provinces of the Turkish




The traveller whose experience of Syria has been
confined to its seaboard, and who has been con-
tented to gaze at the snow-clad summits or barren-
looking spurs of the Lebanon from the deck of a
steamer or the veranda of a Beyrout hotel, can form
no conception of the gems of scenery which lie
buried in the wildest recesses of the range, and of
the peculiar charm which its more remote and inac-
cessible valleys possess. Even the road which tra-
verses the mountains from Beyrout to Damascus
fails to convey any adequate idea of the country
which is to be found on either side of it, and which
can only be explored by those prepared to encounter
the hardships and discomforts which must always
attend travel in a region where highways and hotels
are unknown. In the first journey which I under-


took in the Lebanon these inconveniences were,
however, reduced to a minimum, and I was fortu-
nate in visiting one of its most interesting and beau-
tiful districts under auspices exceptionally favourable.
One of the most powerful and well known of the
Druse chiefs invited me to pay him a visit ; and as
he was about to entertain Mr Eldridge, H.M.'s
Consul-General for Syria, the latter was so good as
to propose that I should form one of his party an
offer which I thankfully accepted.

It was on a hot April afternoon, two days after
my arrival from Sidon, that we left Beyrout by
the Damascus road in two carriages, traversing
for a couple of hours the productive and beauti-
ful gardens which surround the city, until we came
to the spot where further progress in wheeled ve-
hicles became impossible, and we found our horses
waiting to carry us up the steep mountain -path
which led to our night -quarters. We wound up-
wards through groves of olives and mulberries,
through gardens where peaches and apricots were
in full bloom, where the fig-trees gave promise of a
luscious harvest, where the whole atmosphere was
redolent of the delicious odours of orange and lemon
trees white with blossom ; along terraces where grain
crops were waving, and the dark green of scattered
pine-trees contrasted with the brighter foliage ; across
sparkling rills of purest water gushing from the hill-
sides, where women were filling their water -jars


before nightfall ; while the view of the rich plain we
had left, bathed in a sunset haze, grew ever more
extended as we mounted higher, and the tints which
played over it more exquisitely soft and varied, as
the rays became more widely diffused.

We were now entering the essentially Druse dis-
trict of Esh-shuf, which is governed by a Caimakam
appointed by the Governor-General of the Lebanon,
selected from among the leading Druse families, and
who is recognised as the official head of the Druses
in the Lebanon. The present occupant of this im-
portant position is the Emir Mustapha Ruslan,
still a young man, and the head of a family which,
if it does not wield the most powerful influence in
the Lebanon, enjoys the distinction, where questions
of precedence are involved, of ranking above all
others by virtue of the title of Emir which is vested
in the head of the house a circumstance which no
doubt largely influenced the Governor- General in
making the appointment.

We were to pass the night at the residence of this
high functionary ; and as we approached the village
of Ain Anub, or " Fountain of Palms," in which his
house is situated, he came out to meet us riding a
handsome Arab gaily caparisoned, and accompanied
by about twenty mounted retainers and village

The path was so rocky and narrow that we could
only scramble along it in single file ; and as we


approached the village, it was bordered with roses
and pomegranates. The villagers came out to meet
us in the dusk, standing in a row, and touching the
ground in low salutation as we passed, until we
pulled up at the archway which formed the entrance
to our host's abode an extensive two-storeyed edi-
fice, built against the steep hillside, the flat roofs
of the lower apartments forming terraces on which
the upper or principal rooms opened. These ter-
races commanded a wonderful view of coast -line
and fertile valleys, and of Beyrout itself, with its
gardens on one side and sand-hills on the other,
stretching out on its promontory seaward.

The reception-room, fitted with divans, was soon
filled with a crowd of visitors, consisting of the
sheikhs of the neighbouring villages, who had come

Online LibraryLaurence OliphantThe land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; → online text (page 22 of 35)