Laurence Oliphant.

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

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selves in a labyrinth of intersecting streamlets and
rope- walks. Higher up, where the valley becomes
narrow, enterprising purveyors of public recreation


have erected cafis, where the citizens resort in the
cool of the evening, and, perched on stages over the
torrent, sip " mastic " or raki^ and eat raw gherkins
to stimulate their palates, singing their uproarious and
discordant native songs while they play draughts or
dominoes. The streets are so steep and rough that
it is far easier to walk than to ride ; but there is, in
fact, nothing of interest to see in Zahleh beyond the
extreme beauty of its position, and its general air of
prosperity and comfort.

As Zahleh does not boast of any place of enter-
tainment for strangers, we were put up by a private
family ; and from the roof of the house, or rather the
house below ours, revelled in a charming view while
the ladies of the establishment were preparing our
repast. They were two good-looking sisters, both
married ; but she who was our hostess blushed at the
disgrace which she felt attended her admission, when,
in answer to our inquiries, she told us she had no
children. Her sister, who was ostentatiously nursing
a fat baby, looked at her with compassion, and I
think tried to make some excuse for this omission ;
but although my friend and travelling companion
was a tolerable Arabic scholar, he felt hardly up to
pursuing the subject. They gave us an excellent
dinner, and the neighbouring gossips gathered round
to see us eat, sitting on their heels, and gazing at
us admiringly. The furniture of a Syrian house is
limited to mats, and quilts, and cushions ; and the


attitude of its occupants, when they are not on their
heels, is necessarily more or less recumbent. Ours
was invariably so as, until one is accustomed
to it, heels are uncomfortable to sit upon perma-
nently. So far as the charms of female society are
concerned, a Christian's house is a more amusing
one to lodge in than a Moslem's, but then you have
to pay for it. It is much more difficult to satisfy the
pecuniary expectations of Christians than of Mos-
lems : indeed, one would imagine that it was rather
the Koran than the Bible which denounced the love
of money as being the root of all evil so much
keener are Christian than Moslem cupidities ; but as
the result of a more enligfhtened financial selfishness
is a higher state of civilisation, I suppose it should
be encouraged. Unless we can stimulate the Moslem
to devote his whole energies to preying upon his
neighbour, and can increase his greed for money
and his necessities generally, the cause of reform in
Turkey is hopeless. I am not now speaking of the
bureaucratic class, who have been either educated in
Europe or taught by contact with enlightened for-
eigners how " to turn an honest penny," but of the
simple peasantry and provincial folk generally, who
are not mixed up in administrative vices, and who
suffer from the absence of those avaricious instincts
which enable Christians to thrive and prosper when
the Moslem earns but a scanty living not because
he is less industrious, but because he is less covet-

2 G


ous and astute. These considerations occurred to
me on the following morning, as my charming and
agreeable hostess pouted indignantly at the ridicu-
lously large present she received in proportion to
the service she had rendered. The unsophisticated
Moslem where Cook's tourists have not penetrated
and introduced civilised ideas would have been
bowed down with gratitude with half the amount.
Zahleh stands at an elevation of about 3000 feet
above the sea -level, and from it we immediately
began to rise ; for we were clambering up the shoul-
der of the Jebel Sennin, the snow-clad mountain so
familiar to those who gaze at the Lebanon range
from the balconies of the hotels at Beyrout, and
which attains an altitude of over 8300 feet. We
soon left the vineyards behind us for Zahleh is
the most important wine-growing place in the Leb-
anon and toiled up the steep grassy slopes for an
hour and a half, until we found ourselves among
patches of snow, and over 6000 feet above the sea.
Here rhododendrons in full bloom were abundant,
while violets and forget-me-nots peeped out from
between the rocks. From the ridge we had a mag-
nificent view back over the Buka'a and Ccelesyria ;
while at our feet lay stretched the wild gorges and
valleys of the Kasrawan district, which we were
about to explore, with the sea in the dim distance.
We kept along this ridge in a northerly direction,
with snowy Jebel Sennin towering above us on our


right, for some time before we began to descend
into the grand amphitheatre of the Wady Sennin.
Here rocks rose precipitously all round, and streams
dashed tumultuously down them, ultimately to join
the Nahr-el-Kelb or Dog River. We scrambled
along the narrow ledges, looking down giddy heights,
until we came to a precipice formed by an extra-
ordinary mass of cracked limestone : it was rent by
deep fissures to its base, while it projected in crags
and pinnacles of the strangest form, amid which our
path led. These crags were curiously fluted and
honeycombed by the action of the weather; and
here and there a crevasse yawned beneath our feet
with apparently no bottom. The grey of the rock,
and the fantastic forms of its gigantic masses, con-
trasted wonderfully with the dark-green of the pine-
foliage which mingled with it; while lower down,
expanses of light -green mulberry cultivation indi-
cated that we were once more approaching the abode
of man. After a delicious bath in a crystal stream,
we crossed another ridge, and over the whole side of
the hill we were descending, we saw well-built, com-
fortable-looking houses scattered, peeping out of
masses of luxuriant vegetation, and inviting us to a
mid-day halt, of which we began to stand in need.
This was the village of Bestimka. We had scarcely
entered it before we were most warmly but not dis-
interestedly pressed by a well-to-do householder to
dismount in his garden. He spread mats for us


under the shade of his fruit-trees, supphed us with
sour milk, which, together with the viands we had
brought with us, served for our lunch ; and we could
not help contrasting the ease and comparative wealth
with which we were surrounded, with the more pov-
erty-stricken and squalid aspect of the villages in
which we had been lately sojourning in the Anti-

For the remainder of the afternoon our ride was
enchanting : along terraces covered with mulberry,
amid crags down which cascades dashed and to
which pine-trees clung, between hedges of roses, and
under the shade of wide-spreading walnut-trees, till
we found ourselves in another noble amphitheatre,
the lower portion of which was richly cultivated ;
and in the midst of its gardens we looked with in-
terest on our night-quarters the village of Mezra'a.
We had not met many travellers during our day's"
march, but our first question had always been when
we did meet one, " How far is it to Mezra'a ?" and
our second, " Who is the best man there to go to for
lodging ? " We never received two replies in the
least degree similar to the first query; while every
one seemed to concur in the opinion that for hospi-
tality there was no one to compare with Abdulla, the
son of Jirius the priest. So, on entering the village,
we immediately made inquiry for Abdulla, and half-
a-dozen volunteers to find him were soon forthcom-
ing ; for it seemed well known that at that moment


he was not at home. Soon he appeared, a hand-
some, pleasant -featured man, delighted at the im-
portance with which our arrival invested him, and
well pleased, no doubt, to show us the magnificence
of the accommodation which he could place at our
disposal. It turned out to be nothing less than an
entire mansion, newly built, and which, though it
was neatly furnished with mats, had never been
occupied. We stabled our horses in the lower floor,
while we ascended to the upper by a flight of steps
on the outside, leading to a veranda commanding
a delightful view. Three or four spacious rooms
opened out of this, and of one of these we took
possession, while Abdulla, the son of Jirius the
priest, sent for some women-kind from his father's
house, which seemed to be his present abode. After-
wards, when we became more intimate with him,
he explained to us that he was to be married next
year to a young lady in the neighbourhood, and
that he had built this house in anticipation of the
happy event. In the meantime, he introduced us
to his sister, who came carrying a basket of ten-
der mulberry-leaves for the whole female popula-
tion was engaged in providing for the wants of the
young silk-worms ; and having seen our room made
comfortable, we started off under our host's escort to
pay a visit to Jirius the priest himself

There is no street or collection of houses grouped
closely together in these higher Lebanon villages.


but they are for the most part scattered among
mulberry -plantations over the hillsides. Mezra'a
contained about 1500 inhabitants, and its gardens
and vineyards covered a considerable area. The
silk -culture forms the principal industry of the in-
habitants. At the period of our visit the worms
were just out, and infinitesimally small. Only the
youngest and tenderest leaves were being gathered
for them, which girls were neatly and tightly pack-
ing away in hand -baskets, while others were en-
gaged in the less elegant occupation of smearing
large flat trays with cow -dung; and before each
house numbers of these trays were drying in the
sun, preparing to be the first home of silk-worms.
When we arrived at the house of Jirius the priest,
his daughter brought us out a trayful to inspect.
The old man himself was seated on his balcony
smoking a narghiU, and enjoying the soft evening
air and the lovely view. He was a venerable patri-
arch, retired from active sacerdotal functions, and
apparently spending a peaceful old age in the bosom
of his family. The whole population of this village
was Maronite ; and strolling through it we came
upon one of the churches a massive square building,
which had been in old time a Metawaly fort. We
were joined here by the priest who officiated in it,
a jovial, middle-aged man, who turned out somewhat
of a wag, and who appeared to be esteemed not so
much for his saintly character as for his wealth


Abdulla informing me, in an undertone of the
deepest respect, that he was worth a sum equivalent
to ^4000, and was the richest man in the village.
Indeed Maronite clergy as a rule, unlike the priest-
hoods elsewhere, are the richest class in the country ;
and it is doubtless largely owing to this fact that
they exercise so powerful a political influence on
their flocks. When, in addition to controlling the
consciences of their congregations, they can also
control their pockets, it is evident that, by a judici-
ous system of spiritual and temporal squeezing, they
may increase both their capital and their influence
to any extent. Individually, they are often large
landed proprietors ; while, collectively, the Church
owns a most undue proportion of territory.

From the ridge on which we sat under the shadow
of the village church, we could see one episcopal
residence, and several convents and monasteries, all
occupying the most beautiful sites ; for it must be
owned the Church has an eye for the picturesque,
and all representing large landed possessions, and
accumulated wealth. To live upon their flocks like
leeches, and to stimulate their religious bigotry and
fanaticism, seems to be the principal function of the
Maronite priesthood. No doubt there are excellent
and devoted men among them, but all the practical
difficulty of administering the Lebanon is created by
the Church ; and a turbulent bishop, whom it had
been found necessary to exile, was, at the time of


my visit, keeping the whole country in a ferment.
The priest took me into the lower part of the curious
old building which was now used as a church, and
showed me the vault which in old times served as a
place of refuge for the defenders. It had been sup-
plied with water by a subterranean passage, which
had fallen into disrepair, and it communicated with
the room above, which was now the church, by a
trap-door. The walls were several feet thick, and
composed of huge blocks of stone. My reverend
guide, who had been smoking and laughing some-
what boisterously at his own jokes, now took me
round to the door of the church, laid his cigarette
temporarily on the door -sill, and with an instan-
taneous change of manner, proceeded to kneel and
pray vigorously while I inspected the internal decora-
tions, which were of the rudest description. Out of
consideration for his cigarette I did not stay long, so
as to enable him to finish his prayers and return to
it before it went out a feat he succeeded in achiev-
ing, picking it up as well as his jokes at the point
where he had been temporarily obliged to suspend
them for devotional purposes.

On our return to our lodging we found a sumptu-
ous repast prepared for us ; and Abdulla, the son of
Jirius the priest, had provided wine of the best, and
turned out to be of a most convivial temperament,
and much discomposed at the comparative rapidity
with which we despatched our meal ; for he had evi-


dently anticipated making a night of it in feasting
and drinking. He ate principally with his fingers,
which was possibly one reason why he could not
keep up with us ; but then he also talked incessantly,
and was extremely interested in political matters, and
especially desirous to know whether Syria was not
about to be occupied by England or France, or pos-
sibly by both. Throughout the Lebanon, the idea
seems firmly fixed in the minds of the people that
they are to pass shortly under the domination of a
Western Power, a prospect they look forward to
with great eagerness. The Maronites would natu-
rally, for the most part, prefer that that Power should
be France ; but the Greek orthodox and the Druses
would hail with delight the advent of a British army
of occupation. The entire Maronite population of
the Lebanon does not exceed 150,000. Abdulla
told us that there were many persons in the village
who owned property to the amount of ^1000 ; and,
indeed, gave us to understand that he had more
than that himself. On the whole, he professed him-
self satisfied with the regime under which he lived,
admitting that he enjoyed protection of life and
property, and had nothing to complain of. His idea
of a French occupation was merely based upon the
vague notion that it would bring more money into
the country; but it seemed to me that the Maronites
had quite as much money as was good for them, con-
sidering how fond they were of it, and how easily.


notwithstanding, they allowed themselves to be
robbed of it by the Church.

A small boy came and danced and sang before us
ere we finally turned in ; and the usual group of ad-
miring females lingered to the last moment, while
Abdulla disappeared reluctantly, evidently feeling
that it might be long ere he should be able again to
provide himself with such a good dinner, in his own
house, at somebody else's expense. For his hospi-
tality was equal to that of a first-class hotel, so far
as prices went, though they took the form, not of
paying a bill, but of making presents ; so that in our
cordial adieux the next morning, we were able to
keep up the fiction that we had been indebted to
him for a generous and disinterested hospitality, and
parted from him as from one who had conferred
upon us deep and lasting obligations.




For an hour and a quarter after leaving Mezra'a,
we continued to ascend through vineyards, mulberry-
plantations, and wheat-fields carefully irrigated upon
the steep hillsides, till we reached an elevation of
above 6000 feet, when the cultivation nearly ceased,
and on its verge, amid a pile of limestone crags,
came upon the ruins of Kalat Fakra, which, con-
sidering their extent and importance, do not seem to
have received the attention they deserve. A few
hundred yards to the left of the limestone rocks, and
standing by itself, was a large square tower, partly
ruined, which was possibly an old Roman fort, on
the portal of which appears an inscription that
contains the name of the Emperor Claudius. The
huge masses of rock that separate this tower from
the temple, which has been carved out of them,
are most fantastic in form, and in places one is


almost at a loss to know what is natural and
what artificial. The temple, the walls of which are
composed of the solid rock, is twenty yards by forty,
and its area is now filled with fragments of columns,
carved blocks, and square masses of stone. The
facade apparently consisted of a portico supported
by six massive columns. The carved pedestals of
three of these are still standing, but the columns
themselves are broken and prostrate. The outer
court was thirty yards square, and a portion of the
side walls was composed of the natural rock in situ.
A row of smaller columns, all in fragments, formed
the fa9ade. About a hundred yards to the south,
near a small stream, were the remains of another
smaller building, the lower portion of the massive
walls of which were still standing. It was divided
by a transverse wall, one enclosure, which was pro-
bably the inner temple, being seven yards square ;
the other was the outer court, ten yards square. On
the borders of the stream were massive stones in
such a position as to suggest that a reservoir had
in ancient times existed here ; and all round were
strewn fragments of columns and carved blocks.
We lingered longer over these interesting remains
than we should have done had we realised the
length and difficulty of the journey before us, and
we suffered for it later in the day ; but my com-
panion could not resist a sketch, and I found abun-
dant occupation in making the rough measurements.


which, however, are only approximative, as I had no
tape, and it was impossible to pace areas so filled up
with huge masses of rock that it was necessary liter-
ally to climb across them ; and I did not then know
that they had been examined and described by M.
Ernest Renan. The temple, according to an inscrip-
tion which he copied, is dedicated to ^eo5 /xeytcrro?,
" The Great God," and dates from the year a.d. 43.
Kalat Fakra was supplied with water led over a
low hill from the Neba-el-Leben, or milk spring,
about two miles distant. We followed the conduit to
this spot, and found a magnificent stream gushing
out of the base of the precipitous limestone range
with a force and volume sufficient to turn a dozen
mills. From here it dashes down in a roaring cata-
ract till it disappears from view in a limestone chasm,
where it precipitates itself in a fall of about a hun-
dred feet. One can walk up to this fall from below,
but the rocks almost meet overhead, approaching
each other so closely just below the fall, that an
active man with good nerves could easily spring
across. It was, in fact, a feat which would have
been eminently tempting in the days of one's youth ;
and even at a more mature period of life, I felt
doubtful whether one ought to resist the instinct
which seems implanted by nature of risking one's
neck for the fun of the thing. But the object which
from this point riveted our attention was the Jisr el
Hajar, a huge natural bridge which spanned the


gorge a hundred yards or so below the chasm, at an
elevation of about a hundred feet from the bed of
the torrent. The gorge here is about a hundred and
fifty feet across, and the bridge itself is so broad and
level that a good carriage-road could be made over
it. It is, in fact, a flat piece of limestone rock, from
ten to fifteen feet thick, but on the under side it is
so perfectly arched as almost to seem artificial. The
regular path leads across this bridge, but we had
deviated from it in order to visit the spring above.
Below the bridge the stream dashes down between
precipitous walls of limestone by a series of cascades
until it reaches the valley far below, where it is divided
into streamlets for irrigating purposes ; and the luxu-
riant hillsides bear testimony to its fertilising influ-
ence. The whole scene was inexpressibly grand and
interesting, and well worth a journey in itself. I am
indebted to Mr Chirol for the accompanying sketch.
When we add to this wonder of nature and the ro-
mantic scenery which surrounds it, the interest that
attaches to the remains of an ancient civilisation
which lie thickly strewn in the immediate vicinity, it
is a matter of surprise that the attractions which they
afford should have been allowed to remain so neg-
lected, and that, in these days of enterprising travel,
this part of the Lebanon should still be compara-
tively so little known and explored. For half an
hour after leaving the natural bridge we traverse a
wild rocky country to the Neba-el-Asal, or honey



spring, a magnificent jet of water which gushes out
from below the road. It is neither so full in volume
nor so picturesque in its source as the milk spring,
but it contributes a copious water-supply to the rich
valley below. Both these springs are sources of the
Dog River, or Nahr-el-Kelb, which was called by
the Greeks the Lycus, or Wolf River, and which
empties itself into the sea about ten miles to the
north of Beyrout.

We now traversed a wild desolate region till we
came to a patch of cultivation surrounded on all sides
by precipitous craggy hills called Shobrah. There
are no houses here, but the peasants come up and
cultivate it from the nearest village, frequently camp-
ing overnight. We scarcely see how we are to get
out of this walled-in vale, so steep are the hills all
round ; and although we are at an elevation of about
6000 feet above the sea, the mid-day sun is blazing
down upon us, and glaring upon the white rocks up
which we are to scramble. It is not a tempting
prospect, but there is evidently no escape, except by
sheer climbing ; so we dismount and reluctantly brace
ourselves to the effort. For nearly an hour do we
toil up the abominable apology for a path, driving
our ponies before us the flat plates of iron with
which they are shod scraping and slipping over the
smooth sloping surface of the rock till we reach
the crest, and then are blandly informed by our
guide that he has lost his way. This would have


been excusable in a guide whom we had brought
from a distance for goat - paths are not easily-
distinguishable from real ones on these wild moun-
tain - sides ; but inasmuch as we had taken great
trouble at Mezra'a to find a man who knew the
country, and as we were now not above six hours
distant from his permanent home, we felt justly-
indignant, perhaps more so because we were so
excessively tired and hot with a climb, part of
which we now began to find was unnecessary; so
we had to hark back, passing two very curious
punch-bowls, which were perfectly round and looked
like craters of extinct volcanoes. We had actually
reached the snow, but we were rewarded by a mag-
nificent view over the valley of the Adonis or Nahr
Ibrahim, and slightly consoled by a curious and
very picturesque bit of scenery which we should
not otherwise have seen. When we got back to
the place where the right path diverged we had a
second climb to the crest, and then commenced a
descent more villanous if possible than the road by
which we had mounted. We now began to long for
signs of a habitation and a halting-place : there can
be no doubt that the most exquisite scenery to a
certain extent loses its charm if one looks at it on
an empty stomach.

In places during our journey to-day there had
been almost a carpet of wild flowers. Where the
rocks gave them room they bloomed luxuriantly.


Online LibraryLaurence OliphantThe land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; → online text (page 30 of 35)