Laurence Oliphant.

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

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immediate neighbourhood of Damascus, it is true,
the case is reversed ; but away from the seat of
government the Mohammedan peasantry are decid-
edly, as a rule, less well off, and have more burdens
to bear and oppression to endure than their Chris-
tian neighbours, in whose favour humanitarian sym-
pathy has been so largely and exclusively enlisted.
As, however, the popular candidate, who expounds


on this subject to the ordinary British voter from a
platform, seems to understand it so much better than
people who have lived and travelled in the country,
it would be presumptuous in me to allude to it at
any greater length.

At Baalbec we met Mr Chirol, who arranged to
accompany us on the following day on our ride to

About a mile and a half from Baalbec there is a
beautiful and abundant spring, which is enclosed in
a large basin, and is called Ras el A in. It was the
last inhabited spot we were to see for some hours,
and with a heavy heart I turned my back upon the
majestic ruin, whose most attractive features cannot
long survive the attacks that are being made upon
them. Our way led up a wild desolate wady, which
reminded me of the Pass of Glencoe. We were
travelling almost due east, and were breasting the
western slopes of the Anti-Lebanon, which we were
to cross by a pass at an elevation of about 7000 feet
above the level of the sea. Our day's march pro-
mised to be a long and fatiguing one, so we had
started early, and pushed forward after our nimble
guide with as much expedition as the stony track
which did duty for a road would allow. After a
scramble of an hour and a half we reached the Neby
Kokab, where there was a stream which repeatedly
lost itself and reappeared as it dashed down a gully,
colouring the stones with its strong mineral pro-
perties, and where, in a wild spot, there was the


tomb of a departed saint covered with relics. The
steep hillsides here were not altogether barren, and
in places the scenery was picturesque and even
grand. Arbor-vitse grew abundantly, intermingled
with a few oaks ; while in the crevices of the rocks
grew small, flowering, thorny shrubs and forget-me-
nots, and the Syrian speedwell blended its blue tints
with bright pink and purple flowers, whose name
was unknown to me.

When at last we reached the summit, it was not
to find ourselves on the crest of the rido^e with a
panoramic view beyond, as we expected, but on the
edge of a rocky plateau, covered with broad patches
of snow. We had frequently to dismount in order
to cross these, as the crust was scarcely strong
enough to bear our horses without the riders, and
in places the drifts were deep. The path was
merely nominal, and practically we found our own
way between or across them, coming occasionally
upon patches of green, the result of temporary pools
and streams formed by the melting snow, and fur-
nishing pasture to occasional flocks of sheep, tended
by wild-looking shepherds, who bivouacked in these
cold regions in the summer, and who stared at us
in amazement, as specimens of an unknown race.
We only came across two or three of these herds-
men, and, with that exception, there were no signs
of human life. The country was wild, craggy, and
desolate in the extreme, but it had the immense


merit of being cool ; and we quite regretted finding
ourselves, after an hour and a half of this description
of travel, gradually descending on the other side over
arid wastes, till we reached, in six hours from Baal-
bec, the squalid Metawaly village of Zibdy, perched
in a barren amphitheatre of rocks, perforated with
caves, and of most uninviting appearance. The
peculiar Mohammedan sect which inhabit it were
notorious for their lawless character and thieving
propensities, and we were not tempted to investigate
it closely, as they looked ragged and scowling, but
pushed on over the parched table-land beyond, under
a blazing sun. There seemed no limit to the waste
of desert upon which we had now entered, till sud-
denly, by one of those freaks of natural conformation
which characterise the country, we came unexpect-
edly upon a ravine through which flowed a small
stream, fringed by a margin of green corn-fields. It
was the Wady Zaarur a cleft in the Sahara ; and
when we had dived down into it, watered our thirsty
steeds, and scrambled up on the other side, we could
look back to the mountain-range beyond and see no
sign of verdure or cultivation. Towering behind us,
and a little to the right of the pass by which we
had traversed the Anti-Lebanon, were the peaks of
Nabi Baruch and Tala-al-Musa, rising to a height
of 7900 and 8700 feet respectively; while away to
the north, and just peeping from behind the shoulder
of the low sand-range upon which we stood, we could

2 F


see the trees and orchards of the village of Yabrud
faintly visible in the afternoon haze.

Yabrud is the Jabruda of Ptolemy, and a bishop
of Yabrud is mentioned as having been present at
the Council of Nicsea. There is a Greek church
here of great antiquity, which is said to have been
built by the Empress Helena; and near the town is
the ruined castle of Kasr Berdawil, a colonnade of
which is half preserved. I was sorry to be unable
to visit these interesting and little-known remains,
but they do not lie far off one of the roads leading
from Damascus to Aleppo, by which they are the
most accessible. We crossed this road before
reaching Malula, and from it looked down upon a
rocky sandstone ridge, which had been cleft as if by
a knife. Our guide pointed to it and said *' Malula ; "
but beyond the walls of a monastery at the entrance
to the gorge, we could see no sign of human habi-
tation. The rugged conformation of the sides of
the ruptured rock as seen from this point was strik-
ingly picturesque. We descended towards the mon-
astery, but turned sharply to the right just before
reaching it, and found ourselves on the brink of a
yawning gulf which opened at the base of the cliff.
It seemed impossible to plunge Into the chasm on
horseback, so we dismounted and let our beasts
find their own way. The well-worn steps in the
rock proved that it had been a sort of staircase used
by animals from time immemorial, and our sure-


footed ponies did not hesitate to make the descent,
while we scrambled down after them. We soon
found ourselves in a sort of tunnel, the smooth
rock rising to a height of 150 or 200 feet on each
side, and closing in upon us to such an extent
that we could only here and there see a strip of
sky. The passage in places was not more than
three feet wide, so that two animals could not have
passed ; and side chasms and crevices opened up
into the rock, which was full of caves, while gigan-
tic masses had fallen and got jammed in the huge
cracks. Altogether it was the strangest and most
weird entrance to the abode of man that I had
ever seen ; and my curiosity was excited to the
highest pitch as we followed it for about a hun-
dred yards, when we came to another flight of stone
steps, up which we clambered, and then emerged
upon a scene of singular quaintness and beauty.
The town seemed hived upon the steep jagged
sides of an amphitheatre of rocks ; the houses were
perched one above another, the at roofs of those
below forming the balconies and courts of those
above, and sometimes the most easy mode of access
from one to the other. From the rear of the upper-
most tier of houses the cliff rises precipitously to a
height of about 200 feet. We scrambled now up
steep steps, now through tunnels partly of natural
rock, partly artificial, amid crags, caverns, and fissures,
until we were told that we had arrived at the house



of the sheikh, where a number of women were col-
lected to receive us, and immediately began to bustle
about and prepare a room for our reception.

We stabled our steeds in a cave, and went out to
see the place before it was too dark, threading our
way amid the labyrinthine alleys which wound up
and down and in and out of the rocks and houses.


Below us the gorge expanded into a richly-cultivat-
ed well-watered valley, where fruitful gardens sup-
plied the town with their wealth of produce. We
crossed the clear stream which gushed from the
mountain-side amid the most luxuriant verdure and
under overhanging foliage, and looking back could
gain a better idea of the singular conformation by


which we were surrounded. We found that a fissure
in the range corresponding to the one by which we
had dived into the town, cleft the rocks further to the
north, thus making a craggy precipitous shoulder be-
tween the two, where the rocks and houses mingled
in grotesque confusion. There was a sort of tunnel
entrance by this chasm, similar to the one which
we had traversed, and at its cavernous mouth was
perched the orthodox Greek monastery of Mar
Thecla. In this cave a chapel has been built in
which is shown the spot where St Thecla suffered
martyrdom. She was a disciple of St Paul, accord-
ing to the legends, and fled to this place to escape
from her infidel father. Her picture is in the niche
where they say her body lies. There is a Greek
inscription on it, saying that she was the first martyr
of her sex, and contemporary with the apostles.
The monastery on the top of the rock at the point
we had descended was the Greek Catholic mon-
astery of Mar Serkis. The monks are celebrated
for the excellent wine which they manufacture. All
round were ancient rock-tombs, and the caves which
in old time were occupied by hermits. In the days
of Sir John Mandeville, who visited Malula at the
end of the fourteenth century, it seems to have
been a nest of hermits, who have long since died
out ; but from time immemorial it has been es-
teemed a place of great sanctity, and the monasteries
to this day are much resorted to on certain religious


festivals by pilgrims from all parts of Syria, and
have in consequence become immensely wealthy.
There are only two Moslem families in the town,
which is otherwise exclusively Christian, of the or-
thodox or Greek Catholic persuasion. It is a curi-
ous thing that the women of these two Moslem
families do not cover their faces, thus falling into the
custom of the majority. The converse of this is
to be seen in all Moslem towns where there are
only a few Christian families, and where the Chris-
tian women adopt the Moslem custom of veiling
themselves rather than appear singular in their dress.
Malula contains nearly 2000 inhabitants, and the
whole population, together with that of the two
small neighbouring villages of Bakha and Jubadin,
speak the old Syriac. A few rites peculiar to the
ancient Jacobites are still observed here in marriage
ceremonies, both by Moslems and Christians, though
the latter now belong to the orthodox and Greek
Catholic Churches. In the course of our rambles
we met a priest, who told us that he always per-
formed the service in the Syriac language.

I listened with great interest to the musical sounds
of this almost extinct tongue. It is probably very
nearly identical with that spoken as the colloquial
language of Palestine in the time of our Lord. It
was the language in which He taught, and therefore
possesses associations of a character to which no
other tongue can lay claim. When we returned to


our eyrie for the night, the women were gabbhng
in it with great volubility. They told us that most
of the inhabitants could speak Arabic, but th^t they
always used Syriac in their familiar intercourse,
though it was not taught in the school. It is to be
feared, therefore, that in a few years it will have
taken its place in the list of dead languages. The
sheikh himself was absent, but the door of the
women's apartments opened upon the roof, which
formed our dining-room, and exhibited a curious
domestic scene, the children lying asleep, innocent
of attire and the females, whose relationship to
the sheikh I could not exactly discover, pursuing
their maternal and other avocations, entirely regard-
less of our presence. We lingered long on this in-
teresting house-top, for the light of a brilliant moon
shed its soft lustre over the wild scene, and the
ghostly shadows of projecting crags and pinnacles
melted into the gloom of the cracks and caverns.
At last the glimmering of lamps and the sound of
voices gradually died away into a sort of fantastic
stillness, until we almost expected to see phantoms
emerge, and a life in keeping with the weird sur-
roundings take the place of that which had gone
to rest.

Our way next morning led down the cultivated
valley for a short distance, and then turned to the
right through groves of pistachio-trees, the cultiva-
tion of the nut being one of the principal industries


of the place. The hillsides were also covered with
vine and shumach trees. From the latter is made
the yellow dye with which the leather of slippers or
babooshes is coloured. For three hours we rode
over a dreary but partially cultivated plain, keeping
along the base of a low serrated range of sandstone ;
while to the left, the burning plain stretched away
to the Jebel Abul Ata, from the southern slopes
of which I had already looked across the desert
which extends to the Euphrates. The convent of
Sednaya, perched on a crag, which is surrounded
by the village of the same name, was a welcome
sight, for it was to be our mid-day halt ; and leav-
ing our ponies at the foot of the long flight of stone
steps that leads up the side of the rock to the con-
vent, we obtained admittance from the nuns, and
were shown by the lady superior into the apart-
ment provided for the reception of guests. It was
a delightful, airy room, commanding an extensive
view in all directions ; and from an adjoining roof
we were indiscreet enough to try and peep into the
nuns' quarters, which formed one side of a long,
narrow courtyard. With the exception of two or
three elderly females, our curiosity was not grati-
fied the young ones, if there were any, remaining
in seclusion. The old lady who did the honours,
and gave us some excellent wine and other com-
estibles, informed us that the convent contained
forty nuns ; that it was 1 500 years old ; and that,


at certain times of the year, it was one of the most
frequented resorts for pilgrims in Syria. This is
due to the virtues of a miracle-working Madonna,
whose picture is in the church, and who possesses
the special faculty of increasing the population in
cases where a wife incurs the disgrace of having no
offspring, or only daughters. Hence female dev-
otees, desirous of making their lords happy, flock
hither in great numbers, and, according to popular
account, with great success, and the convent profits
pecuniarily in consequence.

Traffic of this peculiar description is not confined
in Syria to religious establishments, but the exploi-
tation of feminine credulity is successfully carried
on by individual miracle-mongers, who are supposed
to possess the art of dealing with this mysterious
problem of nature. A celebrated professor of it not
long since accumulated a large fortune and acquired
a great reputation by a very simple trick. Upon
being applied to for assistance, he invariably pro-
phesied the wished -for result, at the same time
writing, in an obscure corner of the house, a pre-
diction to the effect that the coming event would
not be a son, but a daughter. If it turned out a
son he said nothing of the written prediction, and
passed for a great seer ; if, on the other hand, a
daughter arrived, he explained that he was well
aware that such would be the case, but not wishing
to hurt the feelings of the parents by an unneces-


sarily premature disappointment, he had contented
himself with writing it secretly, and now trium-
phantly revealed the written prophecy. The con-
vent church contains some wretched pictures, for
the most part too obscene to be described, and ren-
dering it a particularly inappropriate place, one
would imagine, for women to worship in. The
picture of the Virgin, possessing the miraculous
power, is supposed to have been painted by Luke
the evangelist ; and it is popularly believed by those
who reverence it to consist half of stone and half of
flesh ; but nobody cares to verify this statement, as
to look upon the image portrait is said to produce
instantaneous death. The ecclesiastical writers of
the Greek Church identify Sednaya with the ancient
Danaba mentioned by Ptolemy, and also recorded
as the seat of a bishop in the ' Notitiae Ecclesiasticse.'
In a Greek convent which I once visited in Mol-
davia, the comparative seclusion practised by the
nuns of Sednaya did not exist ; and I have no doubt
that, had we been able to prolong our visit, their
coyness here would have worn off We were obliged,
however, to content ourselves with an hour's rest,
during which we entirely exhausted the lady supe-
rior's conversational resources.

On the east side of the rock on which the mon-
astery is situated are some ancient rock-cut tombs,
and further down on the slope is a square tower,
evidently very ancient, probably Roman, and per-

MENIN. 459

haps a tomb ; it is known as Mar Butrus er Rasul,
or the Apostle Peter, and stands on a basement of
three steps. It is 30 feet square and 26 feet high.
Each wall consists of ten courses of finely - hewn
stone. On the south side is a small aperture sur-
rounded by a moulding, and closed with an iron
door, which was locked. After some trouble we
found the guardian, who let us in ; but except a
few poor modern pictures and some goods which
had been put into it, apparently as a warehouse, it
was empty. The roof was vaulted. As we passed
through the somewhat squalid village we saw a wed-
ding-party. The bride was a pretty girl, dressed
in a very becoming jacket, trimmed with gold em-
broidery ; her forehead and neck were hung with
coins and jewellery, and her skirt was of bright
scarlet. Her attendant maidens were similarly dec-
orated and attired, and they formed a bright and
picturesque group.

After an hour and a half of hot ride across the
Sahara we suddenly dived into the refreshing pool of
green verdure, on the edge of which is situated the vil-
lage of Menin. A copious fountain of crystal water
welled from the base of the cliff, with volume enough
to be applied to mill purposes at its source, and to
be subdivided into innumerable streamlets for irri-
gation. Under the shade of a grove of tall poplars
all the women of the village were assembled, each
with a spinning-wheel, chatting in picturesque groups


by the side of the gurgling stream, and very much
interfering with our bathing operations for it was
impossible after our hot ride to resist a plunge into
this delig^htful fountain. In the cliffs overhead were
numerous rock-tombs and chambers ; while the re-
mains of what was probably once a temple, proved
that from ancient times the attractions of the "source"
of Menin had been appreciated. The valley widened
as we rode down it. The temperature had sensibly
changed for the better. In places the road passed
between damp banks on which grew creepers, ferns,
and mosses, while walnut and fruit trees lent a most
grateful shade. We could scarcely realise the fact
that half an hour before we had been on a desert
without a patch of green visible, so potent is the
magic touch of water. We luxuriated in these de-
lightful shades for a couple of hours, and then once
more the scene changed and we entered a savage
gorge, along the rocky side of which the water was
carried in an aqueduct. It is so narrow that we had
to ride along the natural bed of the brook which
carried off in winter the superfluous water. This
romantic chasm, devoid of all vegetation, separates
the range of Jebel Kasiun from that of Jebel Kala-
mun, and at its outlet we reach Berzeh. A Moslem
legend makes this the birthplace of Abraham ; while,
according to another tradition, it is the point to which
he penetrated when he pursued the captors of his
brother Lot " unto Hobah which is on the left of


Damascus," and succeeded in rescuing him. It does
not seem to me in the least to answer the descrip-
tion ; but the whole neighbourhood of Damascus is
so replete with Biblical association that the uncer-
tainty in regard to detail can never deprive it of the
peculiar interest which every salient feature must
possess. As the evening shadows were lengthening
we found ourselves once more on the verp^e of that
vast expanse of green, in the centre of which the
domes and minarets of the brilliant city were glit-
tering in the setting sun ; and spurring our willing
steeds over the well-worn roads which converge to
it as a common centre, we regained, in another hour,
its comparative civilisation.

Having, under the supervision of Midhat Pasha,
elaborated a scheme for the colonisation of that dis-
trict of his vilayet which I had fixed upon to the
east of the Jordan, and received his Highness's
assurances that if I could get it approved at Con-
stantinople he would offer me every assistance in
his power to carry it out, I had nothing more to
detain me at Damascus, and started with Mr Chirol
on my return to Beyrout by way of the Kasrawan,
and some of the wildest and most picturesque valleys
of the Lebanon. In order to avoid the heat of the
day, we rode by moonlight to Shtora, a village and
post-station which lies upon the French diligence
route, half-way between Damascus and Beyrout.
It is situated at the foot of the eastern slope of the


Lebanon, and on the edge of the great valley or
rather plain of the Buka a. A road practicable for
wheeled vehicles leads from here along the plain
to Baalbec, distant about forty miles a pleasant
road, for the first hour skirting the lower Lebanon
spurs, and winding between hedges of roses in
bloom and through richly cultivated country. We
turned off from it before it became hot and dull,
at the village of Muallaka, celebrated as containing
the mortal remains of Noah, whose tomb is shown
to the credulous stranger. Its dimensions are 104
feet long by 10 broad, and it conveys some idea
of the size of the human race before they evolved
backwards as it were to their present dimensions.
We did not, however, visit his tomb, which is
much reverenced both by Christians and Moslems,
but turned into the gorge down which plunges
the brawling Berduni, to the picturesque town of
Zahleh. The towns of Muallaka and Zahleh meet
in this gorge, which is scarce a mile long the
former spreading out at its debouchure, and the
latter clinging to the steep sides of the valley,
where it widens above the gorge. Muallaka is
a purely Moslem village, while Zahleh contains a
population of 15,000 inhabitants, amongst whom
there is only one Moslem family. The narrow
street which separates these contiguous towns forms
also the boundary of the province. Muallaka is in
the vilayet of Syria, and is governed by Midhat


Pasha from Damascus ; while Zahleh is the largest
and most important town in the province of the
Lebanon, and is governed from Baabda, the seat of
administration of Rustem Pasha. As we approach
it, we are at once struck by the absence of minarets,
and the presence of domes and crosses, for it boasts
of no less than eighteen churches, with a fanatical,
fighting population, of whom two-thirds are Greek
orthodox, and one-third Maronite, who all vehem-
ently oppose the introduction of Protestant mission-
ary schools. There is one notwithstanding, presided
over by an English lady. In i860 the turbulent
propensities of the inhabitants were fully gratified,
for the Druses came down upon them, and the place
suffered terribly. It is a lovely, peaceful -looking
spot now, with its well-built whitewashed houses
picturesquely clustering upon the steep hillsides,
their piazzas and balconies with their high columns
perched one above the other ; while the Berduni,
issuing from a romantic chasm in the Lebanon,
plunges down to the second gorge below, turning
in its impetuous course a quantity of corn-mills, and
irrigating a small flat area which is hemmed in by
the steep surrounding hills, and is thickly planted
with tall poplars. Thither we descended to seek a
cool retreat from the noonday sun, and found our-

Online LibraryLaurence OliphantThe land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; → online text (page 29 of 35)