Laurence Oliphant.

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

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cultivation ceased, and ascended the barren and
somewhat rocky slopes, covered with small grey
prickly bushes of poterium^ until we reached the
crest, from which a lovely coast - view was ob-
tained, with Sidon embowered in gardens, and
situated on a jutting promontory, in the distance.
Traversing this range, which is of a chalk forma-
tion, we descended into the valley of the Zaherani,
or flowery vale, and crossed the stream by a ford.
This valley was sparsely cultivated, but sustained
its reputation in the matter of flowers, among the
most abundant and beautiful of which were cycla-
mens of various hues, besides Iris, asphodels, and
anemones. Here the steeper ascent of the second
range began, and when we reached Its summit we
stopped at the Khan Mohammed AH for luncheon.
From this point we obtained our last view of the


sea, and our first of Mount Hermon ; while immedi-
ately above us, on our left, the Jebel Rihan reared
its highest peak to an elevation of over 6000 feet.
We now entered upon a very dreary, uninhabited,
and uncultivated tract of country indeed, we seemed
to have left the population behind us when we left
the coast; and from an agricultural point of view,
there was nothing tempting in the district we were

Nabatiyeh was a dry uninviting-looking village,
containing about two hundred houses inhabited by
Metawalies, and thirty or forty by Christians : the
latter lived in a quarter by themselves. The
houses are built of blocks of stone a foot square,
generally without cement, and large masses lie
strewn about in all directions, so that it is alto-
gether a hard rocky-looking place, giving one the
feeling of living in a quarry. Nevertheless there
is a square in the middle, surrounded by arched
storehouses and granaries ; and here every Sunday
and Monday a fair is held. A fortnight before
our arrival, the visitors at the fair, who camp out
for the night between the Sunday and Monday,
woke to find themselves in presence of an unusual
and startling spectacle ; and it still formed the
staple topic of conversation in a village where
events are rare. Hanging by the neck in the
midst of them was a certain notorious character,
by name Harab, a robber and murderer of some


celebrity. He was a Metawaly, a man who en-
joyed some consideration among his own people,
and inspired great terror among those who did not
share his religious views. In consequence of the
weakness of the central administration at Damas-
cus, this man had been for long allowed to pursue
his career of violence with impunity ; but when
Midhat Pasha assumed the reins of government,
he determined to create a wholesome respect for
law and order in the country by making a few
examples. Therefore, when Harab shot a Druse,
because some Metawaly women got alarmed at the
presence of some Druses in their village, who were
proved to have no evil intentions, Midhat Pasha
hung him in the midst of his friends and relations ;
and the result was, that we were enabled to travel
through a country not usually famed for its tran-
quillity, in peace and safety. Nevertheless there
is a feud in consequence between the Metawalies
and Druses or rather, an old-standing quarrel has
been exacerbated ; but it will probably only sim-
mer, and seems to be necessary as a sort of vent
to let off superfluous steam.

We took up our quarters in the house of a
certain Hadji Mousa, who spread quilts and mats
for us on his mud-floor. The windows were on a
level with it, and the doors are often made very
small and low, so as to prevent tax - gatherers,
zaptiehs, or other enemies, from stabling their horses


inside. After establishing ourselves here, and mak-
ing arrangements for dinner, we went out to look
about us, and scrape acquaintance with the people.
We found the whole male population playing a
game of ball in the square ; but we were informed
that they only represented a small proportion of
what there should have been, as they had been
drafted off in large numbers for the war, where
they formed part of the regiments which had been
sacrificed by Suleiman Pasha at the Shipka Pass,
so that few were ever expected to return. We
walked down to a fine spring which supplies the
town with water, and which is full of sacred fish.
Here were picturesque groups of Metawaly women,
in the bright-coloured skirts which are a distinguish-
ing characteristic of their attire, filling water-jars,
and careless about covering their handsome faces
beyond holding a corner of their veils in their
mouths. They were, for the most part, tall and
graceful in figure, and their carriage was perfect.
The Metawalies are much despised, and a good
deal persecuted, by the Turks, on account of the
heresy of their faith. They, like the Persians, are
Shiites, but of a purer and more bigoted type.
They are supposed by some to be the descendants
of the aboriginal races formerly inhabiting Galilee
of the Gentiles. In fact, they are, par excellence,
the Gentiles, and still occupy in large numbers the
extreme north of Palestine, which is called by the


modern name of Belad Beshara, and of which Tib-
nin, which was formerly the Metawaly capital, is
the chief town. In the days of their comparative
greatness this was the seat of their leading family,
called the house of Ali es Sughir. According to
the Shia doctrine, they assign to Ali, the son-in-
law of Mohammed, a rank equal or even superior
to that of the prophet himself, considering him an
incarnation of the Deity, and believing in the
divine mission of the Imaums descended from him.
Mehdi, the last of these. Is believed by them not to
have died, but to be awaiting in concealment the
coming of the last day. In common with some of
the Sunnis, they do not consider this event very
remote, the orthodox Moslem doctrine being that on
that day Christ will reappear to establish El Islam
as the religion of the world ; with Him will re-
appear Mehdi, the twelfth Imaum who will then
be known by the name of " The Guide " and Anti-
christ, or the beast of the earth ; while the peoples
of Gog and Magog whom some suppose to be
the Russians will burst the barrier beyond which
they were banished by Alexander the Great. The
end of all things will begin with the trumpet-blasts
of the angel Asrafil. The first of these blasts will
kill every living being, a second will waken the
dead. In regard to their final expectation of what
is likely to happen to them, the Shiites and Sunnis
do not seem to differ very materially, though they


are very bitter in respect of their difference of
opinion as to the past.

I am indebted to Dr Wortabet of Beyroiirt,
whose book on the religions of Syria is now un-
fortunately out of print, for the following particu-
lars of some of the peculiar customs of the Meta-
walies : In prayer they perform their ablutions in
a different way from the Mohammedans, using very
little water. When they bow to the ground their
heads are made to touch a small cake of earth,
which they constantly carry with them for the pur-
pose, made from the very spot where El Hosain,
the son of Ali, and the Shiite martyr, was killed.
If this cake happens to be lost, or not obtainable,
they use a stone or some other material to remind
them of the holy earth on which his . blood was
shed. Unlike the Moslems, each prays singly.
At the hour of prayer all articles of clothing in
which gold is wrought, and gold or silver rings
and watches, are laid aside. Many of these rites
and ceremonies are also practised by the Persian
Shiites ; but they have a remarkable form of
marriage peculiar to themselves, which they call
the " marriage of privilege." It is a legal and
regular engagement, with the usual gift of dowry,
but on the strange condition that the marriage tie
shall continue for a specified time only say a year
or a month. When the stipulated term expires,
the conjugal relation ceases absolutely, unless it be


renewed according to the ordinary and permanent
form. The engagement takes place generally with
a widow, the thing being impossible with a married
woman whose husband is yet alive, and quite im-
possible with a virgin, who cannot be blind to the
disadvantages of such an arrangement. When chil-
dren are the fruit of such a rharriage, the father is
bound in every case to maintain them. They have
also a form of nominal marriage, which they call the
" engagement of interdiction." The proceedings are
regular throughout, except the definite stipulation
that the husband can have the privilege of only
seeing his wife the design of this being to gain
free access to a young woman, and her immediate
female relatives, in order to wait upon them, confer
with them on matters of business, &c., which a
stranger could not otherwise obtain. The nominal
or interdicted wife can marry at any time without a
permission or divorce from her quondam husband.
By these convenient modes of marriage, facilities are
offered for a man and a widow to go together on a
pilgrimage to Mecca, or some other travelling tour,
at the termination of which the bond is dissolved ;
and so, when a man goes with a female who will
not consent to be his wife of " privilege," the matter
can be easily arranged by his nominal marriage with
her daughter or mother. They avoid, however,
these marriages as far as possible, in order to
escape the sarcasm and odium of other sects


especially the Mohammedans on their way to the
Holy Places.

In the course of our ramble we got into con-
versation with a Christian youth or, to speak more
accurately, a youth who professed the dogmas of
the Melchite sect calling itself Christian. They are
schismatics from the "orthodox" Greek Church,
who joined the Church of Rome about a hundred
years ago. They, however, still retain their inde-
pendence in some particulars ; they celebrate Mass
in Arabic, administer the sacrament in both kinds,
and their priests may be married men, though
they may not marry after ordination. They are
governed by a patriarch at Damascus, and to this
sect belong the wealthiest and most aristocratic of
the Christians. Our informant told us that all the
Christians at Nabatiyeh were Melchites, and that
they lived on terms of perfect harmony with the
Metawalies ; indeed. Christian sects as a rule, both
in European and Asiatic Turkey, hate each other
far more than they do the Mohammedans. At
the same time, the Metawalies were very strict in
protecting themselves against defilement, and are
far more particular in this respect in their rela-
tions with Christians than Sunnis. For instance,
they will not eat meat or bread or anything
damp, or drink water that has been touched by a
Christian. Our Melchite friend told us that if he
asked for a drink from one of his Metawaly fellow-


townsmen, he was not allowed to take the pitcher
by the handle or to touch the spout with his lips,
but was compelled to hold it with both hands by
the bottom, and then pour the water down his
throat. The Metawalies do not allow the bread of
the Gentiles to be baked in the same ovens which
they use. They will not touch a stranger if his
clothes happen to be wet with water, nor even
allow him to enter their houses while in this state,
except in cases of extreme urgency, and then often
not without considerable difficulty. In eating with
others, which they are sometimes compelled to do,
they are careful not to eat from the same side of
the plate; and after the meal is over, they purify
themselves from the contracted defilement by pour-
ing water over their mouths. If the Metawalies
would only carry their principles of purification a
little further, they would derive material, as well
possibly as spiritual, benefits from it, for they are
among the dirtiest and most squalid of religious
sects in the East, and that is saying a good deal.
The men have a particular way of shaving under the
cheek-bone and chin, leaving the rest of the beard to
grow. This, probably, has a religious origin, though
their love of bright-coloured garments suggests that
vanity may have something to do with it.

The Metawalies number about 80,000 souls, and
are not by any means confined to this district.
I came across their villages afterwards on the


eastern slopes of the Anti-Lebanon, to the north
of Damascus, and they extend in that direction
even as far as Horns. In former days, Baalbec
was their principal town in the Buka'a, where
they were governed by the family of Harafoost,
notorious for their crimes as highwaymen. I
have also seen their villages on the crests of the
Lebanon, in the Maronite district ; and everywhere
they possess, in spite of the strictness with which
they observe the rites and ceremonies of their re-
ligion, a most unenviable character as thieves and
robbers. I asked my Christian friend why they were
all playing ball instead of working, but he said that
both Metawalies and Christians had no agricultural
work on hand. They had planted their crops, and
they had nothing to do now but idle and amuse
themselves till it was time to reap them. He ad-
mitted that he himself had done no work of any
sort for a month. , The Metawalies feel a strong,
secret dislike to the Turkish Government ; and not-
withstanding the outward professions of loyalty which
they make, all their secret sympathies are with the
Persians, to whose country they look as the strong-
hold of their religion and the bulwark of their faith.
In the Belad Beshara, where we now were, they are
governed by Beys of their own sect, by whom, how-
ever, they are treated in a very arbitrary manner,
and without much regard to the laws of the land.
All cases of civil law among them are settled, by


the sufferance of the Turkish Government, according
to the principles of Shiite jurisprudence, for which
they have lawyers of their own, and a Mufti ap-
pointed by the Governor of Beyrout. They believe
that they have among them the veritable descend-
ants of Hassan and Hosain, the sons of Ali. Both
branches reside in the Belad Beshara, and the valid-
ity of their claims is recognised in Persia. These
families wear the green turban, are extremely sanc-
timonious, and are treated with great respect by the
Metawalies, out of veneration for their illustrious
origin. Indeed, their most illustrious sheikh and
spiritual chief was said to reside not far from

Our beds on Hadji Mousa's mud-floor, though
tolerably free from vermin, were not so soft and
comfortable as to tempt us to prolong the night
unnecessarily, and we had swallowed our coffee and
were in the saddle shortly after daylight. In an hour
and a half we reached the precipitous crest of the
valley of the Litany, upon the edge of which, a few
minutes to the right of the road, stands the old
crusading castle of Belfort, a most picturesque and
commanding feature of the scenery for miles round.
The building is 1 30 yards long from north to south,
and 33 yards wide. The walls are still standing, and
average from 60 to 80 feet in height ; they are built
for upwards of 100 yards along the verge of a cliff,
which rises quite perpendicularly from the bed of the


Litany, 1500 feet below. The castle itself is 2200
feet above the level of the sea, and can be approached
only by a narrow ridge or neck from one direction,
so that under the old conditions of warfare it was
practically impregnable. Nevertheless Saladin, after
a siege of a year, compelled the garrison, under
Raynold of Sidon, to surrender. Other travellers
have, however, described this ruin so fully, that I
will spare the reader any further details.

We were now within the ancient limits of Pales-
tine, and in territory which had been occupied by
the tribe of Asher. Although the portion assigned
to it extended far to the north along the crests of
the Lebanon, they never seem actually to have pos-
sessed land much to the north of Nabatiyeh, which
may have been one of the frontier towns ; but the
northern border of Palestine is extremely undefined,
and it is difficult to determine what were the exact
limits of Asher. The castle of Belfort is supposed
by some to be the Achshaph mentioned in Joshua
as one of the frontier towns. At all events, the
Litany was the dividing line between Asher and
Naphtali, and on crossing that stream we found
ourselves in the heritage of the latter.

There are no means of scrambling down the pre-
cipitous crags upon which the castle of Belfort Is
perched, to the river, and even the circuitous road
by which we descended to the bridge was steep
enough to make walking more desirable than riding.


The view over the stupendous gorge through which
the Litany forces its way to the sea, with Mount
Hermon in the background, the southern spurs of
the Lebanon and Jebel Rihan to the left, and the
castle crowning the giddy height on the right, was
magnificent ; and it was a marvel to me that tourists
on their way from Jerusalem to Damascus, should
continue to wander on a beaten track, amid inferior
scenery, when a day's journey from it would bring
them to a spot where the grandest features of nature
are so intimately blended with the associations of
history and romance. The modern name of Belfort
is Kalat esh Shekif ; and we now left the district, or
Belad esh Shekif, of which Nabatiyeh is the chief
place, and crossed the Litany or " Accursed," now
yellow and turbid, by a picturesque bridge the Jisr
el Khardeli. We turned sharp off to the right,
from the principal road which leads to Hasbeya and
Rasheya, and ascending the other side of the valley,
crossed the ridge into the Merj Ayun, a level plain
surrounded by hills, eight or ten miles long, and from
three to four wide at the period of our visit an
unbroken expanse of wheat, beans, and lentils. It is
one of the richest tracts of country in Syria, and was
formerly cultivated by the tribe of Naphtali, and
was then called Ijon. It was taken on two occasions,
first by Ben-hadad, King of Syria, at the instiga-
tion of Asa, King of Judah ; and on the second
occasion by Tiglath-pileser, King of Assyria. It is



now owned chiefly by Sidonians. On the western
slope is situated the village of Jedeideh. We did
not enter it, but I think I should have made an effort
to do so had I known the peculiar characteristic of
the inhabitants. Let any man who knows enough
of Arabic to be independent of a dragoman, and who
wants a guide, apply to the inhabitants of Jedeideh.
They are the carriers of the country ; and there ig
no remote hamlet in Palestine, and scarcely an Arab
encampment to the east of the Jordan, at any rate
on this side of the Derb el Hadj, with which they
are not familiar. We were perpetually meeting them
trudging* behind their loaded mules, in parties of
two or three, throughout our travels, and came at
last to look upon " Jedeideh men " as a link with

Skirting the southern edge of the Merj Ayun, we
passed out of it at the Druse village of Metulleh.
This, with the exception of two on Mount Carmel,
is the most southerly settlement of the Druses, and
was the scene a few years ago of a tragedy in which
thirty persons were massacred, under circumstances
not very creditable to the Government who, it
appears, feared at the time a Druse rising. The
sheikh who was supposed to be the dangerous
person, and whose capture was the object of the
onslaught, however, effected his escape.

At this point a new and most enchanting view
burst upon us. At our feet lay the plain of the


Huleh, looking far more fertile and productive than
it really is, as much of it is marsh and waste land,
that might, however, easily be reclaimed. But sur-
rounded as it is with a girdle of noble mountains,
with the blue and tranquil waters of Merom gleam-
ing in the midst of a setting of richest green, and
the Jordan winding away in the distance, as seen
from the hills to the north, it is without doubt one
of the most attractive views in Palestine. One can
hardly wonder at the men of Dan, when they came
upon it, being fascinated by the luxuriance of the
landscape and its charm of position, and then and
there deciding to oust the existing peasantry, and
occupy as much of it themselves as had not been
already appropriated by the tribe of Naphtali. I
felt a longing to imitate their example ; for there can
be no question that if, instead of advancing upon
it with six hundred men, and taking it by force,
after the manner of the Danites, one approached it
in the modern style of a joint-stock company (limited),
and recompensed the present owners, keeping them
as labourers, a most profitable speculation might be
made out of the " Ard el Huleh." The lake itself,
which was first sounded and surveyed by Mr
M'Gregor in the Rob Roy canoe, has an average
depth of only eleven feet, and is four miles long by
three and a half wide. It might, together with the
marshy plain above it, be easily drained ; and a
magnificent tract of country, nearly twenty miles


long by from five to six miles in width, abundantly
watered by the upper affluents of the Jordan, might
thus be brought into cultivation. It is only now
occupied by some wandering Bedouins and the peas-
ants of a few scattered villages on its margin. At
present it is unhealthy, and at certain seasons of the
year fever-stricken ; but there can be no doubt that,
with drainage and cultivation, it might be made as
salubrious as any other part of the country. It would
be on by far the most desirable line of railway from
Damascus to the coast, and lies itself at an elevation
of about 270 feet above the level of the sea. A
railway from here to Haifa, by way of Tiberias and
the plain of Esdraelon, might be constructed at a com-
paratively small cost, as it is almost a dead level
the whole way ; while the continuation to Damascus
would only involve one engineering difficulty that
of carrying it from the plain of the Huleh to the
plateau above Banias. The line, however, has re-
cently been carefully surveyed by Mr Charles Austin,
C.E., who considers it a very practicable route for
a railway. There is, Indeed, none other which can
be compared with this for connecting the capital of
Syria and the grain-producing region of the Hauran
with Haifa or Acre, which is the present port of
export. The greater part of the plain of Huleh is
at the disposal of the Government, and the remainder
could be obtained at a price far below its real value.
Any railway company obtaining and reclaiming this


tract would be in possession of a property, after the
railway was made, which would go far towards cover-
ing the original cost of the line.

Descending from Metulleh, we left the Christian
village of Abil about a mile to our right. This
was Abel of Beth-maachah, where Sheba was over-
taken by Joab (2 Sam. xx. 14, 15), and the city was
saved by the intervention of a wise woman, who
pacified the besieger by throwing the head of his
enemy to him over the wall. The inhabitants of
the city in those days were so celebrated for their
wisdom, that the saying, " Thou shalt surely ask
counsel at Abel," had passed into a proverb. It
is doubtless identical with the Abel-maim, or " the
meadow on the waters," mentioned in 2 Chron. xvi.
4, as having suffered from the raids of the Syrian
and Assyrian kings, and was a place of such im-
portance that it was styled "a city and a mother
in Israel."

We now made for the bridge of El Ghajar, which
crosses the Hasbany, the northern tributary, and by
some considered the chief source of the Jordan. My
friend knew the country so well that, although we
had no guide, we ventured on short cuts, and soon
found ourselves in a Bedouin encampment, which we
came upon unexpectedly, as it was concealed in a
hollow. The country here was somewhat rough and
uncultivated, and is used by the Arabs as grazing-
ground for their sheep and camels. Buffalo are also


largely used in the plain of the Huleh for agricultural
purposes. We found these Arabs, who are of the
Ghawarini tribe, perfectly good-natured and peaceable,
though they bear a somewhat doubtful reputation ;
and in the case of Mr M'Gregor, of Rob Roy celeb-
rity, and more recently of an American lady and

Online LibraryLaurence OliphantThe land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; → online text (page 3 of 35)