Laurence Oliphant.

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

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upon the hospitality which was to be liberally paid
for of the owners of the best houses I could find ;
but I received nothing but grunts and scowls, until

AN "educated" SYRIAN. 413

a dirty Greek priest with an eye to the main chance,
came to my rescue, and offered to turn all his women
out of a relatively sweet apartment, have the mud
floor watered, swept, and matted, and abandon it to
me for my sole use and occupation for the night.
I was thankful to close with the offer; and half-a-
dozen women were soon busily engaged sweeping,
cleaning, and cooking, while all the neighbours
came in to stare at so unusual a visitor. As I
had some difficulty, in the absence of any inter-
preter, in making myself understood, the priest, who
was very voluble, and absorbed with a desire for
imparting information, triumphantly announced that
there was a Syrian schoolmaster in the village who
could speak English, or, at all events, had been
educated in a missionary school ; and he shortly
returned with a very ill-favoured and unhealthy
youth, who, on the strength of his advanced state
of civilisation, seized me by the hand, and loudly
exclaimed, " Good morning ! " though the sun was
just then setting ; then pulling out an English and
Arabic pocket dictionary, and studying it for some
time, he said, in a peremptory tone, " Can you
eat a hen ? " I had already, before his arrival, ex-
pressed my willingness to attempt this feat ; but he
was too proud of the tremendous effect his learning
had produced on the bystanders to hide his talent
under a bushel, and kept on repeating the question
from time to time. It was his supreme effort. He


said a good deal more, it is true, apparently under
the impression that it was English, as he repeatedly
referred to the book ; but the sounds which he pro-
duced were inarticulate and vague ; and he after-
wards became so troublesome by his insistance that
I should communicate with him by means of his dic-
tionary, which he had great difficulty in reading, that
I requested him to return to his pupils, if he had
any. So far from his taking the hint, he established
himself in my room for the evening ; and even after
I had politely pointed out the word " kick," as a hint
that there were several ways of leaving a room, he
resolutely declined to move until I showed him the
point of my boot, and indicated, as good-naturedly
as I could, by signs, the method of its application,
when he went out in high dudgeon, and I heard him
abusing me all down the street. I have since learnt
generally to detect at a glance Syrians who have re-
ceived the advantages of a smattering of education,
by the extraordinary insolence which distinguishes
them, and a presumption and familiarity which are
not at all justified by the very limited extent of their
accomplishments. Other visitors I had who were
by no means so offensive ; and they sat and gossiped
as I dined on " hen," and took me out and showed
me the ruins of a Roman temple, in the centre of the
village, manifesting a good deal of intelligent interest
in their inquiries as to what its original use might
have been. The chief industry of Aithi is pottery-


ware ; and jars and pitchers, made of the excellent
clay in the neighbourhood, find a ready market in

As the village is more than 3000 feet above the
level of the sea, and I had still a slight ascent to
make, the keen north wind struck chill when I started
at six o'clock the following morning, though April
was already far advanced. Crossing smooth grassy
hills, I came unexpectedly, in about an hour after
leaving my quarters, upon remains, which I stopped
a short time to examine. They are near a spring
called Ain Kenia, and consist of ruined walls still
standing to a height of three or four feet, composed
of huge blocks of stone, and which apparently en-
closed two temples, each 20 yards by 16. In one
were two prostrate columns and a carved capital ; in
the other, two fragments of columns still standing.
I have not been able to discover the Roman name
of the town of which these ruins were the remains.
Half an hour later, after traversing a pretty but
poorly cultivated country, I reached the village of
Jedeideh, on the Damascus road ; and five hours
afterwards, found myself amid the shady groves on
the banks of the Barada, and surrounded by all the
indications of proximity to that queen of oriental
cities, Damascus.

I was most kindly received at Damascus by Mid-
hat Pasha, then Governor-General of Syria, who en-
tered warmly into the project for the colonisation of


Gilead, which I submitted for his approval. I was
detained three weeks elaborating it under the super-
vision of his Highness ; and I was encouraged, by the
high appreciation which he seemed to entertain of the
advantages of the scheme, to hope that I should find
its merits as cordially recognised at Constantinople.

I was not sorry to avail myself of the oppor-
tunity which my stay at Damascus afforded, of
making some excursions in the neighbourhood.
With my friend Mr Austin, on a geological errand
bent, I started one morning by the Aleppo gate,
and following the broad road which leads to Horns
and Hamath and, if one follows it far enough, to
Aleppo and Constantinople reached in a couple of
hours the large village of Duma. Here we met the
avant-garde of a large caravan which was arriving
from Baghdad ; and I gazed with no little interest
at the uncouth riders, who seemed as joyous as the
crew of a ship just arriving in port after a long voy-
age. They had left the main body of the caravan
behind them, while they went on to make prelimi-
nary preparations, and were, doubtless, eagerly an-
ticipating the pleasure of plunging into the delights
and dissipations of Damascus.

At an empty barrack a little beyond Duma the
road to Aleppo and Palmyra turns to the north,
while we continued on the Baghdad road, through
richly cultivated country, though the gardens and
fruit-orchards which embosom Damascus here ceased;


but the Merj or irrigated plain, thickly populated,
extends away to the " Meadow Lakes," some ten or
twelve miles distant to the south-east. We skirted
its northern margin, our road leading us along the
base of the sterile range of the Jebel Kalamun.

We galloped over the short grass pasture-land
where wild liquorice was growing in great abund-
ance, to the village of Adra, where a large number
of the Agidat Arabs were encamped and pastur-
ing their flocks. They are a sedentary tribe of
amiable herdsmen ; and we sent over to the tents
for a guide to lead us to the particular part of the
Jebel Abu Ata which we wished to investigate.
In an hour and a half after leaving Adra, under
the guidance of the Arab, we crossed an ancient
water-course leading to some extensive ruins which
I had not time to visit, and reached a ruined khan.
All cultivation had ceased, and we traversed a desert
covered with flint, onyx, chalcedony, agate, and other
pebbles which had been subjected to volcanic action.
We scrambled over this diflicult country till night-
fall, along narrow wadies, up dry torrent-beds, and
across serrated ridges. On one of these I perched
myself while the sun was setting my friend was
otherwise engaged and revelled in a bath of colour,
as the slanting rays seemed literally to burnish the
barren hillsides, and their shadows fell encroachingly
on the richly tinted desert, which changed its hues
as it receded, until its horizon was lost in the haze,

2 D


out of which the burning heats of the day were fad-
ing. Below me, a little to the east lay the village
of Dhumayr, the last permanently inhabited spot on
this side of the Euphrates ; beyond it stretched the
illimitable desert ; barely visible in a southerly direc-
tion was the water-line of the marshy lakes called
Bahret el' Atebeh, in which the ancient rivers of
Damascus, the Abana and Pharpar, lose themselves.
Beyond them, again, is the long volcanic range of
Tuhil el Safa, a series of extinct craters, situated in
a district, only portions of which have as yet been
explored at different times by M. Waddington, Mr
Wetzstein, and Captain Burton. They form the
centre of a notoriously wild and lawless region,
which the Government has vainly attempted to re-
duce to order by the establishment of a military post
near a spot called the Derb el Ghazawat, or Road
of the Robberies, on account of its insecurity ; but it
is a road nobody travels, as it leads nowhere : there
is nothing beyond but unexplored desert, excepting
the three interesting ruins of El Diyura, which are
situated on its nearest margin. Looking in a south-
westerly direction, the eye wandered over the broad
green Merj. An expanse of corn-field and pasture,
and dotted with numerous villages and encampments,
it is bounded by the low barren range of the Jebel-
el- Aswad or Black Mountain, far behind which again,
and a little more to the east, the lofty summits of
the Jebel Druse, the home of nearly three-fourths of


the Druse nation, bounded the prospect. To the far
west, the gardens of Damascus concealed all view
of the glittering city which nestles in their shade,
but contrasted wondrously in their soft colouring
with the brilliant copper tints of the desert ranges
by which they are surrounded. Behind all, majestic
Hermon reared its snow -clad crests, glowing with
crimson light, and so completing a panorama un-
rivalled in the richness of its hues, and the striking
contrasts which its principal features presented.

The village of Dhumayr, which lay on the plain
below, two or three miles distant to the eastward,
is the point at which the Arab express courier,
after a nine days' and nights' journey across the
desert, delivers up his mail. The wild Bedouin who
performs this dangerous, solitary, and fatiguing jour-
ney, rarely enters the two centres of Eastern civilisa-
tion, between which he furnishes a means of com-
munication. For him the fragrant gardens and well-
stocked bazaars of Damascus have no attraction ; or
perhaps he fears that he might be seduced by them,
and avoids the temptation. Be that as it may, he
stops on the verge of the desert, at either end of his
route, and swings on his lithe dromedary to and fro
over its arid wastes, catching such snatches of rest
as he may at the scattered oases and widely sep-
arated wells where he stops to refresh his camel.
With the coppery sky scorching him by day, and
the changeless blue above him at night ; rarely


knowing the shelter even of an Arab tent ; carrying
with him the dates and rice sufficient to last him for
his journey ; exposed to perils from thirst and sand-
storms and predatory Arabs, to whom the fleet ani-
mal he rides is a sore temptation, he is, without
doubt, the most bizarre and exceptional postman in
existence. One wonders whether he has really ever
fathomed the mystery of his occupation, or found
out why he should thus be kept constantly oscillat-
ing between the opposite margins of the desert with
a bag ; whether he knows what is in the bag, or, if he
does, can form any conception why people in Da-
mascus should care to know what people are doing
in Baghdad, for he can never have experienced the
sensation of wanting either to receive or to send a
letter. It is probably with a considerable feeling of
scorn and contempt that he ministers to this morbid
craving for imparting and receiving useless informa-
tion. Then, again, what opportunities for profound
reflection he enjoys ! Rarely exchanging a word
with his fellow -man, yet constantly battling with
hidden dangers always on the alert, and yet never
varying the eternal monotony of sky and desert
the mystery of existence must present the problems
which civilisation has failed to fathom, in an entirely
new light to him for ever perched on the back of a
dromedary. For all we know, he may have framed
a theory of evolution depending on '* environment,"
by which, when the fittest is called upon to survive.


he may remain the sole representative of the human
race. Meanwhile the types of the highest state of
civilisation, blasds with its discoveries, are driven to
suicide, and find life monotonous because it is made
up of " buttoning and unbuttoning ; " but he who is
never called upon to do either the one or the other,
serenely leads the most monotonous existence of all.
Yet no thought of self-destruction from ennui ever
enters his mind as he jogs backwards and forwards
over the dreary waste with the bag which he de-
spises. Except, possibly, the gentlemen who prefer
being stage-coachmen to any other existence, and
daily leave the White Horse Cellar in all weathers
throughout the London season, who is there who
is likely to have attained to the calm elevation of
his philosophy ? And even these do not carry a

It is sad to think that the day may not be far dis-
tant when the occupation of this interesting speci-
men of humanity will be gone ; when the shrill
scream of the locomotive, piercing the still air of
night, will scare the jackals who now make it re-
wound with their plaintive cries, and introduce the
Baghdad postman to " the blessings of civilisation,"
of which he has till now been deprived. Flying
across the desert by the Euphrates Valley Railway,
tightly wedged between a set of cardsharpers in a
third-class carriage, he may possibly look back with
a smile of pity to his dromedary days ; but it is a


question whether he will be a better or a wiser man,
especially if, to relieve the monotony of the journey,
his companions initiate him into the mysteries of
their vocation, or make him its victim. Let us hope
that his instinct may teach him, if he would "evolve"
into higher conditions, to telegraph for his drome-
dary to meet him at the next station, and to fly upon
it to the uttermost recesses of his beloved desert,
where, once more encompassed by the serene atmo-
sphere of philosophical contemplation, he may reflect
that, though he heard much among his fellow-pas-
sengers of the "blessings" and the "vices" of civili-
sation, there is still enough honesty left in Christen-
dom to have refrained from the mockery of such a
phrase as the "virtues of civilisation." What re-
lation may exist between its " vices " and its " bles-
sings " is a subject which may be recommended
to the earnest and thoughtful consideration of the
Baghdad postman.

I regretted very much that we had made arrange-
ments with the sheikh at Adra for spending the
night there, for I should have much preferred
sleeping at Dhumayr, where I could distinguish the
outline of a building rising high above the flat tops
of the houses of the village. This was probably the
Corinthian temple described by Dr Porter as being
in a very complete state of preservation, the roof
alone having fallen, and perhaps unique in its de-
sign. It bears an inscription showing it to have


been built in the reign of the two Philips, a.d. 246.
About two miles farther east are the prostrate ruins
of a small town and strong fortress. Indeed there
can be little doubt that the whole of this region is
only waiting a thorough exploration to reveal many-
still unknown relics of its former civilisation. Un-
fortunately, our researches had for their object dis-
coveries more in accordance with the practical and
utilitarian age in which we live, and we had not
time to spare to trouble ourselves about the past ; so
we reluctantly decided to return to Adra, and ulti-
mately reached the house of the sheikh, tolerably
tired after fourteen hours in the saddle, on very
limited sustenance, and quite ready, therefore, for
dinner. What was our dismay to find, as we rode
into the courtyard of his comfortable dwelling for
he was a well-to-do sheikh that he was giving an
entertainment in celebration of his daughter's wed-
ding ! The yard was full of a dancing, yelling crowd
of invitds ; the roofs were thronged with female
spectators, who also squatted on their heels round
the court, and applauded the dances in which they
were not allowed to take part. These consisted in
the men forming a circle, or sometimes a half-circle,
and pressing against each other as closely as pos-
sible, so that the movement of the ring should be
absolutely simultaneous, and then dancing round in
measured and somewhat monotonous step. The
music was composed of drums and pipes, and made


a deafening and most discordant clamour. As the
musicians changed the time, new steps were intro-
duced, but none of them were graceful ; and con-
sidering that it was ten o'clock at night, and we
were famishing for want of food, we did not regard
the performance with the interest and admiration
that we should have shown under the pleasing in-
fluences of digestion.

At last the inevitable pillaff and leben, or sour
milk, made their appearance, and we formed a rival
attraction to the dancers, as we proceeded to dispose
of our meal in the presence of the company. It was
no use attempting to go to sleep until the entertain-
ment was at an end ; and it was past midnight before
we were enabled to stretch our weary limbs on the
coverlets that had been spread on the floor, and seek
repose in peace and quiet, except from fleas.

In the morning there arrived a fantastic dervish
armed with a whip, and a boy dressed as a girl with
castanets, and two musicians with a drum and a sort
of banjo, and their performances soon attracted a
crowd, though they were neither refined nor edify-
ing. The boy was dressed and danced very much
after the manner of a nautch-girl in India, only
rather " more so," while the dervish cracked his
whip and acted the part of a somewhat immoral buf-
foon so we were not tempted to linger longer than
was absolutely necessary to swallow our morning
coffee ; and bidding adieu to the happy father of


the bride, who had treated us with the greatest hos-
pitahty, we turned our faces homewards, and the
same afternoon reached Damascus.

Mrs Burton, in her charming work, ' Inner Life in
Syria,' has described so fully the fascination which
clings to this patriarch among the cities of the earth,
that she has left little to the traveller whose experi-
ences have been limited to weeks instead of years.
But even in that short time he becomes conscious
of an aroma, if one may so express it, peculiar to
itself, a halo of mysticism, as well as of antiquity,
which seems to pervade its fountained courts, its
mazy bazaars, its fragrant groves, its rushing waters,
and surrounding ruins. It is a concentration of what
Kinglake calls "the splendour and the havoc of the
East ; " and if its fading splendour and present havoc
fail to furnish the key to the mystery of its long
existence, they at least invest it with an unrivalled
charm of association, carrying us back to the days
when the traditions of religion are lost in obscurity,
and arts were professed, and mysteries practised,
which in these days would be deemed superstitious,
but which in- olden time formed the foundations upon
which men's theological belief was built. As it has
been at all times a centre of occult knowledge, I was
anxious to learn its existing phase ; and though my
opportunities were too limited to enable me to make
inquiries in the particular direction in which I had
reason to believe facts of interest were to be dis-


covered, I succeeded by means of the police in
making the acquaintance of a personage of some
celebrity in his way. This was a certain Sheikh
Ruslan Aboutou, who lived in a quarter of Damas-
cus known as the Meidan. It is a curious projec-
tion from the city, extending for a mile and a half
in a southerly direction in a long narrow line like
the handle of a frying-pan supposing the pan to
represent the city itself and owes its shape and
existence, doubtless, to the fact that by this road
the Hadj or pilgrimage leaves Damascus for Mecca,
and so shops, and dwellings, and storehouses have
sprung up on each side of it, until they terminate
at the Bawwabet Allah or God's gates. Here dwell
a most strange assortment of characters. There are
dervishes and the hangers-on of the Hadj, Arabs
from the desert, Druses from the Hauran, Mollahs,
and corn merchants for it is a great grain depot
tumble -down dwellings of vast dimensions and
ghostly in their dilapidation, mosques, and low-class
hammams and cheap khans ; while strings of camels
arriving from distant oases, accompanied by wild-
looking Bedouins, mingle with flocks of sheep driven
by Kurd shepherds. On the right-hand side of the
street, which is unusually broad, and about half-way
down it, was situated the house of the sheikh an
unpretentious building with a small courtyard, in
which were two or three orange -trees, and over-
looked by the flat roofs of the neighbouring houses.


We arrived here one afternoon, a somewhat larger
party than was wise, perhaps, considering the nature
of the spectacle that was reserved for us ; but the
attraction proved too tempting for some ladies who
were visiting Damascus to withstand, though it is
not likely they will ever repeat the experiment.
The sheikh received us at the door of his courtyard,
which was already tolerably full of native specta-
tors, and of persons who were to take part in the
performances; while many veiled women, who had
apparently got notice that the sheikh was going to
exhibit his powers, crowded the surrounding roofs.
We took our seats on a divan in an apartment, one
side of which was open to the court, while from the
others doors led into the house ; from their slightly
open chinks and crannies issued the murmur of
women's voices. The sheikh himself was a tall
handsome man of about fifty, with a short, well-
trimmed, iron-grey beard, a bright intelligent eye,
a somewhat hooked nose, and a mouth which, when
he smiled, lighted up his face with a decidedly pleas-
ing expression.

After the usual preliminary politeness of pipes,
sherbet, and coffee, he went into an inner room, and
reappeared with a bundle of iron skewers, very much
resembling those used by cooks for trussing meat.
Beckoning to a wild-looking dervish stripped to the
waist, whose wandering eye had an evil look in it
which the rest of his countenance did not belie in


fact it was only redeemed from being villanous by
a sort of glare of insanity he made him open his
mouth, and proceeded with the utmost coolness to
pass a skewer from the inside through each cheek,
so that the points could be seen plainly protruding.
He then performed a like operation on a remarkably
handsome youth of about sixteen, whom I afterwards
found was his son, and whose large, clear, hazel eye
was calmly fixed on mine while his cheeks were
being pierced, nor did a line of his countenance in-
dicate that he was conscious of the slightest pain.
Not a drop of blood flowed in either case. The two
victims stood before us with their mouths pressed
back, and the projecting skewers showing the points
through their cheeks, with as much apparent com-
fort as if it was the normal condition of their being.
Leaving them in this attitude, the sheikh again dis-
appeared into his room. This time he returned with
a small square box, drawing back the sliding lid of
which he extracted a scorpion of unusual size, its
vicious tail curling and striking its own back as it
writhed between his fingers. This he handed to
another dervish, clothed and looking more in his
right mind than his skewered comrade, who instantly
dropped the lively reptile into his mouth, and crunch-
ed it with great apparent gusto. As he was as large
as an ordinary land-crab, it was a big mouthful, and
seemed to whip up into a sort of lather as he chewed
it. His countenance as he went on munching was


SO impassive that I could not judge whether live
scorpion is nice or not : probably it is an acquired
taste. Another dervish joined in the repast, and dis-
posed of a smaller one with equal equanimity.

I now suggested that we were satisfied in regard
to the skewers, and that the company generally
would feel more comfortable if they were extracted.
It is decidedly unpleasant to have two men with
their cheeks trussed staring at you while others are
eating live scorpions. Their mouths were so pressed

Online LibraryLaurence OliphantThe land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; → online text (page 27 of 35)