Laurence Oliphant.

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

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elevation of a little over 2000 feet above the sea-
level. The ancient name of Irbid was Arbela.
Eusebius mentions it as a city of Gilead, and as
being in the district of Pella, beyond Jordan. It
may possibly be identical with the Beth-arbel men-
tioned in Hosea as the scene of a sack and mas-
sacre by Shalman (Hos. x. 14). When the Assyrian
monarch Shalmaneser came up to attack Samaria,
he would naturally have passed through this country;
but the notice is too vague to found anything defi-
nite upon. There is another Irbid, formerly called
Abila, about three miles west of Magdala, on the
Sea of Tiberias, and which was doubtless the Abel-
meholah, or " meadow of the dance," mentioned in

ABILA. 107

I Kings Iv. 12, and which has also been supposed
to be Beth-arbel ; but there seems to be no war-
rant for this, and it is important to discriminate
between Arbel and the numerous places which have
Abel for a prefix, signifying plain or meadow, and
which have been converted into Abila. One of
these, the modern village of Abil, I have already
referred to, near the Huleh (p. 21); another is
the site of the city of Abila, the capital of the
tetrarchy of Abilene, situated in Suk Wady Barada,
between Damascus and Baalbec, and the traces of
which I saw at a later period ; and another is the
Abil, situated about two hours and a half distant to
the north of the Arbela I was now visiting. This
Abil or Abila seems to be identical with the Abel
Ceramim, or " plain of the vineyards," mentioned in
Judges xi. 33 as the scene of the battle between
Jephthah and the children of Ammon, whom he
smote "from Aroer, even till thou come to Min-
nith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the
vineyards, with a very great slaughter." As Jeph-
thah is said to have passed over Gilead and Man-
asseh in his pursuit of the Ammonites, and as this
city was on the northern borders of Gilead, but in
the territory of Manasseh, it may safely be assumed
to be the battle-ground in question. This is doubt-
less the Abila alluded to by Eusebius when he calls
it nine miles distant from Ashtaroth Karnaim, it
being in reality about fourteen English miles distant


from Tel Asherah, the possible identification of
which with Ashtaroth Karnaim I have already in-
dicated. It was one of the cities of the Deca-
polis, and is further mentioned in another place by
the same writer as " Abila the wine-bearing, twelve
miles east of Gadara" a definition so exact as
almost to place the matter beyond a doubt. Abila
was one of the episcopal cities of Palestine, and was
captured by Antiochus the Great, along with Pella
and Gadara, in the year 218 B.C., and was first dis-
covered by Seetzen in 1805, who describes it as
being situated in the angle of a mountain formed by
two bases, the higher slopes of which are full of
caverns. The town was completely deserted, but
the ruins attest its ancient splendour. Some beau-
tiful remains of the ancient walls were discovered,
toofether with a number of arches and of columns of
marble, basalt, and grey granite. On the outside of
these walls Mr Seetzen found a great many columns,
two of which were of extraordinary magnitude, from
which he conceived that there must have been
formerly on this spot a temple of considerable mag-
nitude. Mr Wetzstein is, I think, the only traveller
who has visited Abil since Seetzen.

The present village of Irbid is the seat of gov-
ernment for the province of Ajlun, and contains
a population of about 300 souls. Their dwellings
consist generally of one, or at most two rooms,
excavated from the side of the hill : the outside


walls are composed of ancient blocks of dolerite
stone, on which are often traces of carving ; the
roofs are flat, and covered with clay, and form
the principal lounge of the population, who collect
there to gossip and inspect each other's heads. The
dogs also seemed to prefer the house-tops to bark
from. This semi-subterranean mode of existence
was evidently a continuation of the habits of the
population from ancient times. We entered the
house of one peasant, which was an old dwelling
vault. It was a spacious chamber excavated out of
the hill, and bearing the marks of extreme antiquity.
The front was composed of immense blocks of
stone, admirably jointed without cement, the frame-
work of the door was all carved stone ; and there
were sockets in the lintels and thresholds for pivots
to work in, showing that formerly the door was a
slab of stone turning on a stone hinge. On many
of the stones were inscriptions in Greek, but they
were too much effaced to read. The columns of the
mosque were old, with carved capitals, but the
remains of a Roman or Byzantine civilisation were
comparatively modern. The real interest which
attached to these hoary relics was one which con-
nected them with the race anterior to that whose
traces were self-evident.

It is highly probable that the Jefuides and Ghas-
sanides the Arab emigrants from Yemen, who
occupied this country for the first five centuries of


the Christian era, who adopted Christianity, and
attained a certain degree of civilisation lived in
these stone dwellings, and left their words carved
in Greek on the stones ; but it is not likely that
they were the first to introduce this remarkable and
unique style of habitation, of which, so far as I am
aware, we have no traces in the region in the south
of Arabia, from which they migrated. It seems
more probable that they imitated the structure of
the dwellings which had been the abodes of that
ancient people who astonished the Israelites by the
hugeness of their stature and the substantiality of
their cities, if they did not actually adopt them, as
Dr Porter supposes. In this very region we are
told " that giants dwelt in old time ; and the Am-
monites call them Zamzummims ; a people great,
and many, and tall, as the Anakims " (Deut. ii. 20,
21). This was "the coast of Og, King of Bashan
which was the remnant of the giants that dwelleth
at Ashtaroth and at Edrei," of whose sixty cities
it is said that " they were fenced with high walls,
gates, and bars ; " and again, they are described
as "threescore great cities with gates and brazen
bars" (i Kings iv. 13). It is not likely that all
traces of them should have disappeared before the
arrival of the Ghassanides, but more probable that
the latter adapted themselves to the mode of life
and dwelling that they found in their new country ;
and it is by no means impossible that many of the


massive blocks amongst which we stood, and which
now sheltered the miserable population of Irbid, had
been originally hewn by the possessors of the land
more than three thousand years ago.

As the same Hebrew word is sometimes render-
ed " Rephaim," sometimes " giants," and sometimes
" dead," it has been suggested that the Rephaim
were troglodytes, and hence that they came to be
identified with the dead. That these excavations
should have impressed the invading Israelites as far
more resembling tombs than dwellings is in the high-
est degree probable, for the traveller nowadays has
no small difficulty in distinguishing one from the
other ; and it is very possible, therefore, that when
they saw their enemies rising apparently out of the
earth, the Jews should have given them the name
which, according to Gesenius, may mean "buried
giants." At the same time, I think with Freshfield
and others, that it is a decided misnomer to call
these stone villages, which were undoubtedly built
by the Ghassanide Arabs after the Christian era,
"giant cities," if by that term it is intended to
assume that they were the identical cities built by
the Rephaim.

There were a few Christians at Irbid, but the
greater part of the population were Mussulman.
There was nothing, however, in their dress or ap-
pearance to distinguish the professors of one re-
ligion from those of the other, or from the sur-


rounding Bedouins. The women wore the single
robe like a night-gown, and left their faces un-
covered ; and the men wore the abeih or Arab
cloak, and kufeiyeh or head-dress, but their general
aspect was ragged and uncouth. We were assured
that on retiring to rest at night it was the custom
of both sexes to dispense altogether with their gar-
ments, and to sleep in primitive simplicity. There
seems to be no trace of religious fanaticism amongst
them, but, on the contrary, a tendency on the part
of the professors of both religions to assimilate
as much as possible their domestic habits and
customs. Thus it is not an uncommon thing for a
Christian to have two wives. I know that this is
an assertion likely to be disputed : but I took some
trouble in verifying it, and upon a future occasion
met a man who assured me that he had been
married again, while still living with his first wife,
by the Greek priest ; and he mentioned the names
of several others similarly situated, and appealed to
the bystanders to confirm his statements. Living
in daily proximity with Mohammedans, who are con-
stantly in the habit of supplementing their wives,
and being removed from the supervision of a large
Christian community, it is possible in these out-of-
the-way places, where the Christians sometimes are
in a great minority, and there is often no resident
priest, that they find it difficult to resist the force
of example. Then the priest, when it comes to his

IRBID. 113

knowledge, is puzzled what to do, if the man reso-
lutely refuses to put either his first wife or the later
addition away. So, as the less of the two evils, and
possibly stimulated thereto by a small pecuniary
gratification, he makes things square, so far as in
him lies, by a marriage ceremony ; and the biga-
mist feels more at ease in his conscience, while
probably the priest does not think it necessary to
mention so trifling a circumstance to his bishop.
From all I could learn, this is an irregularity con-
fined to the Christian Arab population to the east
of the Jordan.

Civilisation had actually attained to such a pitch
at Irbid that there was an attempt at education ; and
we looked in at the schoolroom, where there was
a portal with an old inscription on it, and the chil-
dren came trooping out to kiss our hands, after the
manner of the juvenile population in these parts
generally. Just below the village there was a large
oblong tank, evidently very old. Some portions of
the well - built walls were still remaining, while
around it were strewn some sarcophagi of basalt,
with sculptured figures and garlands in bas-relief
upon them. The Caimakam was having some new
houses built, or rather partially excavated, which
were intended to be shops ; and there were a few
stores in which the Arab necessaries of life were to
be obtained, tlis own house was almost the only
one which had been built throughout. It stood in



a courtyard, and consisted of two rooms, of which
one was his bedroom, while we occupied the other.
Here we received sundry visits from the two or
three functionaries who assisted him in his adminis-
tration. Among others, was the officer in command
of the zaptiehs. He was a Tunisian, had been at
the siege of Kars, and was very proud of the medal
which he wore commemorating that event, and spoke
of his experience of English officers on that occasion
in terms which were highly complimentary to them.

We had decided to wait at Irbid until we received
an answer to our letter from the Caimakam, and, in
order to fill up the time, rode over to the village of
Beit-Ras, at which, we were told, there were some
ruins. It was only about three miles distant to the
north, and situated on a high hill of chalk and lime-
stone. The intervening country was fairly cultivated
with wheat and lentils. Here we found the remains
of what had once been a temple of some importance.
It was approached from the east by a colonnade,
more than 200 yards in length, of basalt columns,
only the bases of which were visible, while their
fragments lay strewn on both sides in great pro-
fusion. This was probably the via recta or main
street of the town. A carved archway forming one
of the entrances to the temple was still standing,
and near it was a singular excavation 100 yards
long by 20 yards broad, and about 15 in depth.
Opening into this were large vaulted chambers,


which may in old times have served either as
dwelHngs or as storehouses. At present they were
inhabited by the natives, who penned their sheep
in some, lived themselves in others, or had con-
structed for themselves huts out of the fragments
of columns and carved capitals and architraves with
which the place was strewn. It is not impossible
that in old time the whole of this excavation was
roofed over and formed a subterranean dwelling ;
otherwise one scarcely sees how it could have been
kept free from water. Indeed my first impression,
until I saw the vaulted chambers opening on to the
floor, was that it had originally been intended as a
reservoir. This clearly could not have been the
case ; and the probability is that the columns, of
which the fragments remain strewn on the floor,
once supported a stone roof A little distance
from the temple to the west, are the remains of
an aqueduct and a bath. Here were two stone
slabs on which two eagles were carved, both in
excellent preservation, and measuring three feet
between the tips of their wings. The whole popu-
lation of Beit-Ras, which consisted of some forty or
fifty souls, who all lived in the excavation, were
very puzzled and interested in our proceedings, and
followed us most good-humouredly about, trying to
discover why we were so attentively examining the
old stones amid which they lived. At last a bright
thought seemed to strike one of them, and he


beckoned to us to follow him down the side of
the hill. After going about a hundred yards, he
stopped at a hole which was apparently the entrance
to a cave, and invited us to crawl in. The aperture
was so small, that in order to achieve this feat we
had to lie down and wriggle our bodies through
the opening. I doubt whether a very stout man
could have succeeded in squeezing through. But
once inside, we found ourselves in a circular cham-
ber about twenty feet in diameter, supported by a
column in the centre, which had been cut out of the
limestone rock. As we saw that there were passages
leading out of this room, we sat down and sent for

The Arabs were highly delighted at this indica-
tion of our intention to continue our exploration,
and soon returned with some feeble lamps. Fol-
lowing a short passage which turned off to the
left, we entered a room in which was a carved
slab of stone that seemed to have been used as a
door. The aperture which it may possibly once have
closed, was now built up. We therefore returned
to the first chamber, and made our way along a
passage about four feet high and three broad, which
opened on the right. This was in places par-
tially blocked with fallen earth, and the heat was
stifling. There were niches cut in the sides about
a foot apart, apparently for purposes of illumi-
nation. After following this gallery for nearly


fifty yards, we entered another chamber similar to
those we had already seen. Out of this another
passage led to the right The opening to it, how-
ever, was nearly choked with fallen earth, and we
could only have entered it by great exertion and
uncomfortable squeezing. Near it was another en-
trance, which had been completely built up with
large blocks of stone, and at its base was a passage,
descending apparently into the bowels of the earth
by a flight of steps, which, however, were so covered
with earth as to make any attempt at descent impos-
sible. We might, perhaps, have scrambled into the
passage on the right ; but by this time we were
streaming with perspiration, our lamps were grow-
ing dim, and the sensation which we had once or
twice experienced of sticking in a hole, without any
positive certainty whether one could squeeze through
it or not, was so disagreeable, that we were not
tempted to pursue our investigations, more especially
as the result would probably have been a series of cor-
ridors and chambers similar to those we had already
explored. As far as we went, the passage was lead-
ing steadily uphill, and in the direction of the temple
at the top of it, so that it is not improbable that this
was a subterranean means of communication between
the temple and the outside of the town. The whole
place is well worthy of a far more thorough examina-
tion than we were able to give it ; and so far as I am
aware, the excavations have not been described by


any previous traveller, while there can be no doubt
from their position that the ruins are those of the
city of Capitolias, mentioned in the 'Itinerary' of
Antoninus as being between Neve and Gadara,
sixteen miles from the latter, and thirty-eight from
the former. Capitolias, which must have been a
place of some importance, is placed, in the Peutinger
tables, at sixteen Roman miles from Gadara, and the
same from Adraha, the modern Der'a. This would
exactly locate it at Beit-Ras. It was an ancient
episcopal city, and was the connecting-point of the
two great Roman roads, one of which led from the
west, eastwards through the Hauran, to Bozra and
the Euphrates and the other from the north, south-
wards to Gerasa or Jerash, and Rabboth Ammon or
Philadelphia, traces of which still remain.

We sat down near the Roman bath to rest after
our labours, and the peasants brought us coffee, and
seemed quite delighted with the novelty and excite-
ment of our visit. They were an amiable, harmless
race, and refused, with some indignation, the money
we offered them for the trouble they had taken to
show us the cave, and the coffee they gave us after-
wards. A few more British tourists to Beit-Ras will
soon cure them of this ignorance of the world, and
initiate them into the manners of their countrymen
elsewhere. It seemed a greater discovery to find
a native of Palestine who did not know the mean-
ing of the word backsheesh^ than it was to identify


the site of an ancient city. While we were enjoy-
ing the magnificent view which we obtained from
the top of the hill, which is the highest point
of the surrounding country, we suddenly became
aware of a cavalcade winding along the valley at
our feet. This consisted of a posse of soldiers,
some of them mounted on mules; half-a-dozen
Bedouin prisoners with their hands tied behind
their backs ; twelve donkeys and twenty sheep, the
spoils of the Caimakam's raid on the Beni Sukhr,
and a certain indication that he might soon be ex-
pected at Irbid. We therefore wended our way
back to that village without delay, and arrived
almost at the same moment as the Caimakam.
We found that the letter we had sent him had
been returned to Irbid without having been de-
livered, the courage of the sheikh having failed
him. It was now evident that he was anxious
for us to accompany him in order that we might
act as intercessors ; but that, failing our personal
presence, he had deemed it the safest course to
keep out of the Caimakam's way altogether, and to
retire into the recesses of the desert.

We found the Caimakam an exceptionally zealous
and intelligent functionary. He had travelled in
Europe, spoke French and a little English, and
seemed quite determined to introduce reform and
good government into his district. His account of
the origin of his dispute with the Arabs furnished


a characteristic illustration of the nature of the
abuses with which he had to grapple. It seemed
that a member of the local Medjliss, or provincial
council, had assumed to himself the functions of tax-
gatherer, and had been in the habit, without proper
authority, of collecting the sheep-tax from the Arabs.
The method of his procedure was not an uncommon
one in these parts, and was modelled very much on
that of the unjust steward. He allowed the Arabs
to make a return of about half the sheep they really
owned, on condition that they paid him the tax on
the other half, and insured them against any further
trouble in the matter. Half of this he gave the
Government, and the other half he kept himself,
bribing troublesome colleagues or superiors to keep
their mouths shut. The Government, by these
means, was robbed of three-quarters of the tax. The
present Caimakam, on discovering the fraud, deter-
mined to put a stop to it, and warned the Arabs that
they were not to pay the sheep-tax except to the
zaptiehs whom he would send to collect it. This
warning the member of the Medjliss, who was a rich
and influential man, persuaded them to disregard ;
and when the zaptiehs were sent, the Arabs not only
refused to pay the tax, but fired upon them. The
Caimakam upon this instantly started himself, with
about a hundred men of an infantry regiment mount-
ed on mules a most useful corps for the purpose for
which it is now being used in these provinces sur-


prised the Arabs by night, and seized the spoil which
we had seen brought into Beit-Ras. He calculated
that he had captured enough to pay the tax, and he
intended to keep his prisoners as hostages until cer-
tain members of the tribe, who were the ringleaders
in the resistance, and had taken the most active share
in it, should be brought in.

The Beni Sukhr, or " Children of the Rock," are
notorious for their predatory propensities, and have
long been the terror of travellers to the east of the
Jordan demanding heavy black-mail, and ruthlessly
plundering all who do not consent to pay it. It
was most fortunate for us that they had just received
this chastisement, as it insured our safety in the
country through which we were about to travel, and
which, under ordinary circumstances, can never be
traversed except under their escort. They had now
betaken themselves to the deserts to the east of the
Hadj road ; and so far as they were concerned, we
were pretty secure, though of course there were other
tribes to be taken into consideration.

We had a great deal of most interesting conversa-
tion with the Caimakam on the subject of the Arabs,
his experience of them having been very extensive.
It was his opinion as, indeed, it is of every,
intelligent man who has any knowledge of the
subject that the country to the east of the Jordan
could easily be brought into order if the pilgrimage
to Mecca by the Hadj road from Damascus was dis-


continued. This is a drain upon the Government,
in one form or other, of nearly ;!{^ 100,000 a-year, of
which a very large proportion goes into the pockets
of the Arabs, who supply the camels, and who are
paid black-mail. If any attempt is made to reduce
them to order or punish their robberies, they retali-
ate on the Government by refusing to supply camels
to the Hadj, or by delaying its passage at points
where it is comparatively defenceless until the requi-
site amount is paid, to atone for whatever grievance
they may consider that they have against the au-
thorities. This gives them a sense of independence
which makes them extremely difficult to manage ;
but if they were once deprived of the opportunity
which is thus afforded them of putting a screw on the
Government, they are so dependent for pasturage,
at certain seasons of the year, on lands which are
completely under military control, that they would
be obliged to submit to discipline.

I am now only speaking of those tribes who Infest
Palestine Immediately east of the Jordan. Of course,
the traveller who wishes to explore the country to the
east of the Hauran, where It Is not possible to send
troops, and where the Influence of the Hadj, as a
means of levying black-mall, does not exist, would
find the other tribes as lawless as ever; but they do
not, to so great an pxtent, prevent a rich and pro-
ductive country from being developed by honest
industry, as Is the case in Jaulan, Ajlun, and the Belka.


Once expelled from here, the tribes might be left to
roam over their deserts, and fight among themselves
for its oases, without seriously retarding the pros-
perity of the country. It may with safety be pre-^
dieted that the abolition of the Hadj would before j
very long lead to the redemption of eastern Palestine \

Online LibraryLaurence OliphantThe land of Gilead, with excursions in the Lebanon; → online text (page 9 of 35)