Laurence Oliphant.

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

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back that they seemed to be grinning inanely ; but
I should think the effect of a real joke would have
been disagreeable. I longed to try and make them
laugh, to see whether it would not hurt them ; but
there is probably no such thing as a dervish with a
sense of humour, and an Arabic joke was beyond
me. The sheikh, too, would probably have been
offended, for he went through the whole performance
with the greatest solemnity, taking long, deep inspir-
ations as he muttered incantations in which the name
of Allah occurred frequently, before he touched the
skewers ; then with a dentist-like twitch he jerked
them out. The points were bloodless, and the out-
side of the cheek showed only a slight induration,
like that of a cicatrised wound ; there was no redness
or inflammation.

The sheikh now once more returned to his room
and brought out a larger box, which he opened, and
drew forth from it several snakes of all sizes. These


began to wriggle about the floor in a disagreeable
manner, with an overpowering attraction apparently
for the legs of foreigners. However, the sheikh
charmed them in the usual manner, and they soon
all curled up submissively ; then taking one about
two feet long by the tail, he held it up in a manner
so tempting that it proved irresistible to a tall, per-
fectly insane-looking dervish, who was afflicted with
a sort of St Vitus's dance, and who, rushing forward
out of the crowd, gave a loud yell, snatched the
twisting snake out of the sheikh's hands with both
of his, gave it a sudden violent jerk which snapped
it in two, and plunged the bleeding and palpitating
end into his mouth. This was a signal for a general
scramble ; the half-naked dervish who had been
skewered seized hold of the other end, and secured
at least six inches all to himself. The men who had
eaten the scorpions joined in voraciously, and in two
minutes the entire animal had disappeared, and the
human beings who had eaten it were wiping their
bloody chops with much apparent relish. The tall
St Vitus's dance man, indeed, seemed to become
intoxicated with delight or some other emotion, and
went into a sort of convulsion, from which he was
only restored by the most intense effort on the part
of the sheikh, who seized his head between his
hands, pressing it violently as he took long breaths,
and the veins swelled in his forehead with the con-
centration of his magnetic or other forces, as he re-


peated the formula of incantation, and finally restored
his disciple, of whom he was evidently proud, to
comparative calm. With the exception of the
skewer affair, there was nothing very wonderful in
all this ; for, after all, the power of a man to make a
beast of himself may be pushed to a very consider-
able length before it becomes inexplicable, so I was
relieved to see preparations for experiments of a
dijfferent nature.

A brazier of burning charcoal was brought in, and
the charcoal fanned into a blaze. The sheikh then
went through an invocation, and suddenly with his
bare feet jumped upon it and stood there for nearly
a minute, the lurid flame curling round them. The
moment he got off, the serpent-eaters rushed forward
and filled their mouths with the red-hot charcoal,
which was again fanned, the smell of burning flesh
becoming powerful and sickening as they crunched
the glowing morsels. Live coals are possibly the
antidote to snakes after you have eaten them ; but
the general effect of all this strange diet was begin-
ning to have a powerful influence upon the nerves of
some of the lady spectators, who protested that they
were unable to witness further horrors. A man now
stepped forward, stripped to the waist, with a skin
almost as fair as a European's. His face had none of
that expression of fanatical insanity which character-
ised some of his fraternity, but was calm and some-
what commonplace. The sheikh reappeared armed


with a skewer of larger dimensions than he had
thrust through the cheeks of the first victims, to the
end of which was attached a heavy iron ball, and pro-
posed to run it through the man's throat from the
front, bringing it out at the nape of his neck. At
this there was a general scream of horror and dis-
may. In vain did the sheikh protest that the opera-
tion would be absolutely painless, and show us the
indurated spots on the opposite sides of the man's
neck through which the instrument was in the habit
of passing, while the man himself smiled with a bland
expression of disappointment at being deprived of
a pleasure to which he was apparently looking for-
ward. The repugnance of some of our party was
not to be overcome, and the sheikh turned with an
expression of contempt to make preparations for
what was to follow. Pushing the same dervish's
waistcloth down an inch or two he revealed a row of
cicatrices which made a semicircle extending round
his body. He then drew a curved knife about eight
inches long and nearly two broad from a sheath,
and proposed to plunge it to the hilt in his stomach.
It had a short wooden handle about four inches in
length, and there was no possibility of the blade
slipping back into the handle. But here again he
was stopped by a cry of horror from the ladies.
This time the man himself earnestly joined his pro-
testations to those of the sheikh ; his credit seemed
at stake, as the women on the house-tops began to


chatter, and there was a general look of dissatisfac-
tion on the part of the spectators in the courtyard.
I examined both the scars and the knife. The
former were thin beautifully healed incisions ; the
latter as sharp as a razor and of the finest steel.
I am very sorry that veracity compels me to leave
this most interesting experiment to the reader's ima-
gination. 'The party had now made up their minds
to leave the place, and seemed to have no other idea
than a hurried escape from its precincts ; so we made
rather an ignominious exit, leaving the sheikh be-
wildered and somewhat indignant at our pusillani-
mous conduct.

I asked him, however, to pay me a visit on the
following day, which he did, and I had a long
interesting conversation with him. He said he
was the hereditary descendant of the founder of
the Order of Bedawi, of which he was now the
spiritual chief, and which numbered about 10,000
dervishes. These were scattered throughout Islam,
and claimed adherents in all classes of society. He
named one of high rank. The order was secret to
a great extent, and there were those who openly
professed to belong to it, as well as those who could
exercise the special powers which attach to it with-
out its being generally known. The founder of the
order was a certain Sheikh Said Ahmed el Bedawi,
who lived about two hundred years ago, was a
Moslem of great reputation for sanctity, and Is

2 E


buried in the Church of the Crusaders at Tantah
in Egypt. The Sheikh el Bedawi had been in-
itiated into these mysteries, having naturally a won-
derful faculty for acquiring them ; but the present
sheikh did not profess that they had originated with
him. He said that the power to perform these
wonders dated back to an unknown period, and
came from still further east; and that it was the
same power which had been exercised by the sages,
seers, and magicians of the Bible and other sacred
books : that such powers were not confined to his
order, though they exercised them in a more won-
derful manner than the other miracle-working sects.
These consisted of the Sukki, founded by the Sheikh
Said Ibrahim ; the Kilani, founded by the Sheikh
Awal-abd-el-Kader ; and the Rifai, founded by the
Sheikh Ahmed el Rifai. He said that these were
good men and devout Moslems, and that the faculty
which their disciples possessed, depended on the
purity and morality of the lives which they led. It
was not, however, necessary to be a Moslem in order
to be a member of the order, though practically none
but Moslems were members of it ; but a belief in
the Sheikh Bedawi as the source of such power
was absolutely necessary so far as his sect was
concerned. I then asked him in regard to the rites
of initiation, and his own experience and training.
He said that from his earliest infancy he had been
educated by his father, as he was then educating


his son, to exercise the powers which were heredi-
tary in the family ; that they were to be cultivated by
much intense prayer and concentration of will. He
then repeated the prayers and modes of invocation.
I think he had some suspicion that I might become
a neophyte, so earnest was he in his definition of the
necessary process. Drawing long and deep breaths,
he muttered, or rather whispered, in an attitude of
the most intense internal concentration, the formulae.
Becoming more and more abstracted as he did so,
he said, as he stopped suddenly, that were he to
go on a little longer he should fall into a trance ;
that when he was in a trance state he saw and
conversed with the Sheikh el Bedawi, but it was
never permitted to him to reveal what passed at
these spiritual interviews ; that those who wished
to become disciples must learn this method of
prayer and concentration ; that they must also swear
to the seven nomothetical precepts of Mohamme-
danism, which are indeed purely ethical, and apply
to all religions and that they must rigidly practise
these virtues ; that they must finally take the in-
itiatory draught which imparted the healing power
to the saliva, whereby incisions could be made, and
the flow of blood prevented, by wetting the finger
with the tongue and instantly pressing it on the
wound. The draught was prepared by a cabalistic
formula, which he wrote for me in my pocket-
book, being inscribed on a piece of sugar, which


was then melted in water, with the proper form of
invocation. He declared that the water became
thus charged with a special virtue, and imparted to
the drinker healing powers, which he retained so
long as he remained faithful to his vows. He ad-
mitted that these practices were not recognised by
the Koran, and were even opposed in theory to the
general teaching of Mohammedanism ; but he said
they were permitted for a special purpose, and
this was to convince unbelievers that the powers
claimed by seers and holy men of old were not
mere fables, but were actual facts and the basis of
the religious belief; that he was specially instructed
never to exhibit his powers for the gratification of
mere idle curiosity ; and that if he attempted these
manifestations from any but the highest motives,
and in obedience to internal directions received from
the Sheikh Bedawi, they would prove fatal ; but that
when done in an orderly manner, and from a reli-
gious motive, they caused no pain and were attended
with no danger. He further said that the pecu-
liar strength of the Bedawi lay in their power of
dealing with fire ; and that if I would stay in Da-
mascus long enough, he would show me men go
into a fiery furnace, which he had in his house
for the purpose, and come out as unscathed as
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego after a similar

I afterwards conversed with a very learned Mos-


lem on the subject, who confirmed what the sheikh
had said in regard to the innovation upon the pure
precepts of his rehgion which such practices in-
volved ; but he remarked, somewhat slyly, " Where
would Christianity be without the belief in the pos-
sibility of such powers ? These men do not claim
more than has been claimed at all times and in all
religions, and they are necessary to prove to unbe-
lievers that their creeds are not built upon fables ;
it is only natural that the Power which established
them upon these supernatural foundations should
keep them alive by manifestations of the same char-
acter. Why should such exhibitions be permitted
to start a religion and not be continued to maintain
its existence ? The only reason why such powers
die out of a religion which once possessed them is
because the faith of its adherents has dwindled away.
Hence Christianity can no longer exercise them,
even though in your Bible it is said they should
be retained ; but Moslems, though no such promise
is made to them, are able to prove to believers in
the Koran that in the degree in which they practise
its virtues can they manifest divine powers. Hence
it is, that though I have nothing to do with such
sects myself, I feel that they have their use, and I
believe in the truth of their miracles."

Mr Chirol, who was with me upon this occasion,
afterwards witnessed a similar performance at Aleppo,
when he saw the knives plunged into the bodies


of dervishes, leaving only a cicatrice without any
effusion of blood, and was unable to discover any
deception in the matter.

) I also met an English medical man afterwards who
had lived all his life in the East, and who told me he
had repeatedly seen both the operations which I had
missed, and had had abundant opportunities of ex-
amining the piercing the throat with the skewer, and
the plunging the knife into the stomach ; and he was
utterly unable to explain how it was done without
causing death, much less the effusion of blood, or to
account for it by any trick or sleight-of-hand opera-
tion. In fact the danger, as my Moslem friend ob-
served, of refusing beyond a certain point to trust
the evidence of one's own senses, is that we believe
in what are termed miracles, and occurrences far
more wonderful, upon the evidence of the senses of
persons probably more easily deceived than our-
selves, who lived ages ago. Thus, if in these days
the curative power of saliva, the subduing of ser-
pents, scorpions, and other " deadly things," the im-
perviousness to fire, and the healing of a sword-cut
by a touch, are nothing more than a trick by which
the most acute and intelligent observer may be de-
ceived, the modern religious sceptic is fairly entitled
to maintain that the same trick was known to fan-
atical religious impostors for the last two thousand
years or more. It is evident, therefore, that there
must be a limit to the scepticism of one's own senses


and those of others, or one would be left without any-
ground for believing in anything.

Among other novelties which have been intro-
duced into Damascus since the arrival there of Mid-
hat Pasha as Governor-General of Syria, is an Arab
theatre upon semi-civilised principles. I went there
one night with his Highness, and was surprised at
the modern aspect of the house. There was a ticket-
seller at 2l guichety and a house neatly arranged with
seats, which were well occupied by an exclusively
male audience. In the front row were the seats re-
served for the Governor-General's party ; while the
orchestra consisting of a man who played an in-
strument like a guitar, another who played one like
a zittern, another who played a native clarionet,
another who sang, and another who drummed were
placed in a recess to the right of the stage. The
curtain was inscribed with an Arabic motto, and rose
and fell with irregular jerks ; the scenes did not
change ; and the actors sang, or rather chanted, their
parts. The play was the original story, which Verdi
has adapted, and the plot of which he has consider-
ably altered, of " Aida." The leading actor, who per-
formed the part of the general, was a man of con-
siderable dramatic power, clad in a coat of mail with
a most fantastic helmet, which at the opening scene
partly concealed his face, and whose lower extrem-
ities were clothed in thick white hose. He stalked
about the stage unceasingly in his stocking-soles.


swaying his body in a measured and not ungraceful
manner, so as to keep time with the cadence of his
voice, which was expressive of his varied emotions
and by no means unmusical. The Egyptian king's
daughter, who was in love with him, and the Abys-
sinian king's daughter, whom he makes a prisoner in
war, and with whom he falls in love, thus nearly
breaking the other one's heart, were both boys
dressed as girls, who acted their parts with great
feeling and cleverness, considering their youth. In-
deed it was difficult to tell that they were not girls.
They were picturesquely attired in oriental costumes,
the one as a slave, the other as a king's daughter ;
but the other female attendants wore semi-Europe-
anised dresses which were by no means becoming.
The king of Egypt was a splendidly arrayed mon-
arch, after the style of the conventional Sardanap-
alus ; and he did the Eastern potentate to perfection.
Indeed the whole performance was far more skilfully
executed than might have been expected, though of
acting, in the strict sense of the word, there was none :
it was recitation, now plaintive, now impassioned,
and, in the case of one character, jocose ; but the per-
petual motion of the players, who move rhythmically
about the stage all the time, grows somewhat mon-
otonous to the foreigner accustomed to more lively
action. The audience, however, seemed thoroughly
to enter into the spirit of the piece, and appreciated
the jokes keenly. During the entr'actes the Arab


band played the wild discordant music with which
all Eastern travellers are familiar, and which is to be
heard any day in the cafis and gardens of the city.
The ballet was of the tamest description, and con-
sisted of the most wearisome repetition of little
steps. It was in every respect strictly proper, and
was danced by the youths who represented the prin-
cess's ladies. The whole affair was an experiment
which seems likely to succeed, and on the whole, was
a pleasing if slightly dull performance.







There lies to the north-east of Damascus, and a
httle to the right of the road which leads from that
city to Aleppo, a town rarely visited by the foreigner,
and which possesses a special interest as being the
only place left in the country where the old Syriac
or Aramaic language is still spoken. It was known
to the ancients as Magluda, and is called in these
days Malula. Finding it could be reached in one
day from Baalbec, by a road which was not generally
known, I was glad to accept the invitation of our
Vice-consul, Mr Jago, to make the trip with him.
We took the usual route to Baalbec, by way of the
picturesque spring of Ain Fijeh, sleeping the first
night at the lofty village of Bludan, which has been
used by Damascus consuls as a retreat from the heat


of the city, ever since Sir Richard Wood first made
it a sanitarium.

The pecuHar characteristic and principal charm
of the scenery which immediately surrounds Da-
mascus, consists in the vivid contrasts which it pre-
sents. At one moment one is riding over an arid
desert, where the eye is wearied with the mon-
otony of desolation, where the rocks scorch and
sand blinds, and the sun glares fiercely down
upon the panting wayfarer; and just when it has
grown almost intolerable you reach the precipitous
edge of the Sahara, and plunge in a few moments
into a perfect bath of the brightest green, where
clear waters are plashing, birds are singing, leaves
are rustling, and the most delightful shade woos you
to its cool recesses. The trees are brilliant with
fruit-blossoms, and the whole atmosphere is fragrant
with their delicious perfume. What wonder if you
linger amid these tempting groves of apricots,
peaches, figs, almonds, pomegranates, mulberries,
walnuts, and tall poplars ? The ground is too val-
uable to be allowed to produce a useless tree ; those
which are not fruit-bearing are almost exclusively
poplars, used for building purposes. Even the
villages are placed on the edge of the desert, so that
people may not waste the ground which it is possible
to irrigate by living on it. Little runnels of water
trickle in every direction in these cool seductive
shades, which, however, like other attractions to the


senses, are not altogether without their danger, for
the sudden change from the heats of the desert to
such enchanting but damp spots, is Hkely to produce
a chill and its attendant fever, a fact which it is
difficult to realise as one plunges into the crystal
fountain where it wells in a full torrent from its
source as at A in Fijeh as cold as ice, and foams
away to give life and sustenance to the thousands
who live upon the abundance produced by the lands
which it waters. For the time, at all events, invig-
orated and refreshed, we scorn all sanitary consider-
ations, and brace ourselves once more to meet the
fatigue and the drowsiness which the desert sun pro-
duces after our relaxation. And so we jog wearily
on to our night quarters, which invite us to a repose
more grateful, if possible, than the last. Bludan is
situated at an elevation of 5000 feet above the sea,
so our night was most refreshingly cool.

On the following day we descended into the burn-
ing plain of the Buka'a, and were not sorry to see at
last the tall trees and abundant vegetation which
surrounds the grandest monument existing of a de-
parted civilisation. The modern tourist, probably
animated by a sentiment of spite at the conscious-
ness of being such a pigmy as compared with the
giants of art in those days, has taken to practising
with a revolver at that more delicate tracery which
is so far above his reach that he cannot destroy it
with a hammer. Why he should of late have be-


come consumed with a passion for putting fragments
of Baalbec upon his mantelpiece when he gets home,
it is difficult to conceive, for the mind of the Cook's
tourist in these matters is unfathomable ; but certain
it is, that within the last three years there has been
such wholesale destruction with pistols going on,
that most of those exquisite medallions, which a few
years ago formed the chief glory of Baalbec, are
completely effaced. The capitals of the Corinthian
columns seem to make good targets for practice of
this sort. You can aim at a particular fluted leaf,
and have the pleasure of chipping the others all
round until you bring down with a crash the par-
ticular piece of moulding you want. Then carved
architraves are nice things to blaze away at, and the
nose of an empress on a medallion forty feet above
your head requires good shooting. I made inquiries
on the spot as to the kind of people who were the
best shots, and was informed that the American
tourist carried all before him. This, however, I
cannot speak of from personal knowledge; but I
think the old practice of decorating the magnificent
remains of a civilisation so superior to ours with
one's name, was a more touching way of paying
homage to them, than battering them to pieces with
firearms and carrying off fragments as the evidence
of one's aesthetic tastes. It is needless to suggest
that it would be very easy to get a piece of stone
anywhere and label it " Baalbec ; " and I venture


to recommend that fragments from a neighbouring
quarry should be carved and kept for this purpose,
and sold to the tourist. It would be an additional
source of revenue to the Turkish Government at
a moment when its finances are sorely in need of
assistance. On my return to Damascus I called
the attention of the Vali to the destruction of Baal-
bec by the appliances of modern civilisation, at the
hands of the race which has taken the reform of
the Turkish empire so much to heart, and sug-
gested that these ** Baalbec atrocities " might be put
an end to if a fee was charged, and a guard put
over the ruins. If the Christian tourist was first
made to pay, and then watched, the " unspeakable
Turk " might possibly keep him in some sort of

The modern town of Baalbec is a more than usually
flourishing place. The Christians are getting all
the land into their hands, and are gradually ousting
the Moslems, who, having no European Powers to
protect them, are generally throughout Turkey the
most hardly used class of the population. In the

Online LibraryLaurence OliphantThe land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; → online text (page 28 of 35)