John William De Forest.

Oriental acquaintance, or, Letters from Syria online

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J. w.Ide forest.



Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1856, by


In the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the United States

for the Southern District of New York.

Printers & Sterootypers, N. Y.



Harbor of Smyrna Go Ashore Passport-ofBce Smyrniote
Othello Threadbare Delusions and Jackets A Kind Host-
Donkey Locomotion Undiscoverable Houris Disappointment
in Love A Dose of Ba?Jc An Escaped Shipwreck The Doc-
tor Leave Smyrna.


The Steamer Voyaging Qualities of Fleas Hungry Pilgrims
Conversation under Difficulties A Eussian Pilgrimess Piety
in Sheepskin Thoughts on Pilgrimism Scotch Engineer
A Discovered Houri Harbor of Khodes A Worn-out City A
Disrespectable Guide Scenery around Rhodes Cyprus
Thoughts on Beaiity Harbor of Beirut Squabbling Boatmen
Old Friends.


A Beirut House Charley JiJ'apier's Cannon-balls S}Tian Calls-
Beirut Upper-Ten Female Magnificence Druse Visitors
Raheel, Khazma, and Lulu A Ride An Arab Dinner Call on
a Syrian Family An Arab Poet A Specimen of his Verses
The Bait Susa Sultana of the Bait Susa.


To Jerusalem Our Party-Clamorous Departure Scene of Jonah's
Disembarkation A Troublesome Elder Concerning Fleas
Tented Slumber Jackal Melodies Arab Ditto Humiliation of
Habeeb Jacob's Well Our Russian Friend again Exterior of
Jerusalem Quarters for Om-selves, and no Quarters to the




Holy and Unholy Places The Church Militant, or a Row in the
Holy Sepulchre The LepersStart for the JordanThe Pilgrim
Host_Ugly and Pretty Women Handsome Armenian- .Beda-
ween Opinion of a Revolver Turkish Soldiers Encampment
at Jericho An Abused John Bull A Ballet of Sodom Night
at Jericho.


To the Jordan View of the River The Ablutions A Death and
a Bii-th The Frankness of Modesty The Dead Sea ;Involun-
tary Swimming Arab Mirth at Prank Wrath Redboots
Night at Mar Saba The Holy Fire That Blessed Baby-
Concerning Oriental Infancy Anakims Jaffa To Beirut
How the Yorkshireman took Suez How he saw the Mosque of
Omar IT(nv ho toasted the Flea How he bagged the Crab.


Invitation to iMt. Lebanon- Our Party A Small Desert Moun-
taineers Benedictions Lebanon Scenery Bhamdun The
Hakeem's House A Cat's Mistake A Schoolmaster's Mistake
Knowing Swallows Uncle Khalil His Speculations in Grain^
Sheep, and Silk Business Offers An American Plow Vint-
age and its Fruits Mercantile Character of the Syrians Manu-


Character of the Syrians. -Conversational SubjectsPoliteness
A Jump over a Mule- -A Sample of Syrian Talk Commentaries
thereonDelicacy concerning Hogs, Jews, and Women The
Syrians as Linguists A-ids to Conversation A Tax-gatherer in
Trouble Unmentionable Enormities Fatal Dandyism East-
ern Contempt of Western Breeches Head-shaving Syrian

Opinion of Hats Thin Dressing Matrimonial Ornaments

Wives and Marriages Family Government _. The Neuralgic
Pasha's Hatred of Noise His Persecutions of Babies, Butchers,
liirds, Donkeys, and Frogs.


Population and Position of the Druses Their Religious Ideas
Druse Manifest Destiny.-.The Abd cl-MeleksRcspect for the


Sheikhs Visit to Druse Palaces Blood Horses Tlie Old and

Young Sheikhs The " Sick Man' The Hareera Druse Hypo
crisy Adventures of Sheikh Ali A Four-legged Medical Fee
Howaja Sharley Sensation caused by Geese Escape of
HoAvaja Sharley Sheep Seventy-pounder Tails Innocent
Wonder concerning Sheep's Tails American Wheat on Leba-


A Moral whereby hangs a Tale, or the JNIulo of Abu-Hamood

Start for the Cedars Cold Fountains Natural Bridge Grand
Scenery The Cedai-s The Hermit Getting Holy by Degrees
of Latitude The Hakeem's Observations on Solomon's Temple
A Pastoral Luncheon- ..The Summit of Lebanon Lebanon


Eeligious Phraseology of the East "To the Door of God"

The Fated Hawk A Curative Stone Cutting off a Disease

Breaking a Malign Influence The Evil Eye_ Syrian Lying. _

The Wooden Mule The Lie of the Devout Trooper Lying to

Sick People Excuses for Lying Precautions against Poison

Dislike of saying No A Sulky Fellah Gay Beggar Girl

A Bargaining Sheikh The Damascus Customs Officer _ A
Moslem Family.


Vakeel Aasa_His Style of Pumping_His Arithmetical Problem

His Pretty Daughter Abu Nasr of Nazareth His Office

Seeking Philanthropy " The Smallest Favors thankfully re-
ceived" The Learned Saada_Her Fancy for our Chaplain

A Desert Wanderer A Howaly's Plans and Fancies Syrian

Ideas on Frank Customs Buried Treasures Troglodytes A

Palace of Damascus.


Ruins in Syria Temples in Lebanon The Cavern City_Lake
and Temple of Yemmoneh_Other TemplesTemples in Anti-
LebanonTemple of Medjel_Site of ApameaImmense Colon-
nadesRuins of Barah_Their Resemblance to PompeiiTombs
and Church Present Inhabitants.





The trim Boston bark which had brought

me safely, though tediously tempest-beaten,

from the low green shores of Massachusetts,

at last lay at anchor in the Bay of Smyrna.

Before my western eyes were spread out, in

oriental strangeness, the shabby wharves, the

fragile minarets, and the rough, red-tiled roofs

of the Queen of Ionia. A huge, ruinous, glum-

visaged castle sat on the lofty hill behind the

city, and vainly strove to wrap its brown

nakedness in a dilapidated robe of winter

misrt* High J bare, sombre mounteins looked


down from the opposite side of the bay with
a solemn stillness, which made one think of
icy fingers on granite lips, forbidding them to
reveal the secrets of ages. To the east^ opened
a long gentle valley, verdurous with gardens
and cypresses, and populous here and there
with the roofs of Turkish villages.

Straggling orientals, evidently for the most
part porters, sailors, and loafers, were moving
about the quays in gay-colored raiment, which
distance divested of its real tatters and thread-
bareness. A negro, who had tastefully reheved
the intense jet of his skin by setting it in a
frame-work of white robes and turban, shone
on me like an eclipsed sun with a halo of
glory around its edge. A downcast donkey
marched by with a long procession of loaded
camels attached to his tail, reminding me of
an insignificant president at the head of a
mighty confederation.

Our vessel, wMch until then I had seldom
Keen except in a state of hysterical agitation,
now reposed as tranquilly as the air, the moun-
tains, and the city. The black steward, no
longer perturbed lest some mischievous sea


should "Upset his person and his tureen into
the scuppers, and bring upon his woolly head
the wrath of the " old man," was muttering
and chuckling to himself, probably about
some by-gone flirtation in the colored circles
of Boston. The mulatto cook, having spent
his leisure hours on the voyage in making a
fiddle, had taken out his pieces of maple, and
was hopefully whittling at his unfinished task.
The Greek boy sailor, an unfortunate mortal,
who had been kicked and cuffed all the way
across the ocean for not intuitively understand-
ing English, now leaned his greasy face upon
the bulwarks and stared with joyous black
eyes at his native city.

The boat was let down from the side, and,
in my solitary dignity as only passenger, I
descended the ladder with the captain, and
was rowed ashore. The failing timbers of a
ruinous wooden quay. S3Tiibolical, in their rot-
tenness, of the people and government of the
country, gave me footing on the shore of Tur-
key. A tottering shed-like building served as
passport office ; and there the captain intro-
duced me as a true-blue, home-spun American


citizen. I had left home in a hurry ; my pass-
port had been sent on by mail, and it was then
reposing obscurely in the drawers of our resi-
dent consul. But police regulations are not
enforced with troublesome strictness in the
East ; and I was allowed to pass without a
word of grumbling, or the expense of a piastre
in bribes. I wondered at several sleepy offi-
cials, who sat cross-legged on tables, holding
papers awkwardly in one hand, whilst they
leisurely wrote with the other. But what
most struck me, was a negro, who, dressed
handsomely in the Turkish style, lounged qui-
etly on a bench near the door, 'and occupied
himself with smoking a meditative pipe. " Do
you see that fellow?" said the captain. "He
is as good as any of them here." Coming from
a country where individuals of this color bear
all the marks of a depressed and despised peo-
ple, I saw in this man the first of a species.
No sneaking, no grinning, no small imperti-
nences ; but self-possession, self-respect in
every feature, dignity and ease in every mo-
tion. No Turk in the room had more calm-
ness, gravity, and intelligence in his air; or


looked more like the gentleman, Hamlet, than
he did like the gentleman, Othello. I saw at
once that he had been treated like a man all
his life, and that not the least suspicion had
ever entered his brain that he was not a man.
He gave me new ideas of the possibilities of
the African race, and made me look forward to
a supposable time when negroes shall have a
chance with the rest of us. Since then, I have
seen in Constantinople a black captain drilling
a company of white soldiers, and black officials
on horseback, grandly attended by gorgeously
dressed and blood-mounted white servants.

Before reaching Turkey, my imagination was
possessed by an idea which I knew to be ab-
surd, but which I could not shake out of it.
The fat Turk in the geography, and the wealth
of the Arabian Nights, formed the warp and
Woof of my Eastern expectations. I fancied
that each oriental possessed an independent
fortune, and smoked interminable pipes, seat-
ed on luxurious cushions, and attired magnifi-
cently in purple and fine linen. I was ex-
tremely shocked, therefore, to find the greatest
part of the population at work, and dressed in


very ancient and seedy clothing. The age of
gold has run its sands in the East ; and, with
their ancestral character, the Turks have worn
out their ancestral jackets.

I had a letter of introduction to a South
Carolinian resident at Smyrna. He met me
at the landing with a hospitable invitation to
his roof. I never yet saw a, South Carolinian
who vvas not a gentleman, and a most intelli-
gent and well-informed one. I could fill a
page or two with the good qualities and the
civilities of my host and his charming wife;
but I do not choose to introduce the public
to their courteous and amiable privacy. We
had rides to the old Genoese castle on the hill ;
rides to the schools of the American missiona-
ries ; rides to the country-seats of some of their
wealthy Smymiote friends. Never shall I for-
get my shame and indignation, when, at the
tall age of twenty years, I found myself mali-
ciously obliged to cross, for the first time, the
back of a donkey. The biggest biped in the
party, they had provided me with the smallest
Quadruped. It was a creature that the king
of Lilliput might have ridden without much


danger to his Serene Littleness from too lofty
a fall. His legs associated themselves in my
mind with pipe-stems ; and I should have been
agonized with a fear of their breaking, had I
not discovered that my own toes were within
reaching distance of the ground. I felt like a
big ass mounted on a little one ; like a moun-
tain taking a ride on a molehill. How I en-
vied my companions in the dignity of horse-
back ! and how they laughed as they surv^5i^
my absurd appearance from the rear, or can-
tered ahead until I was almost hopelessly out
of sight ! A bare-legged Greek ran behind
me and administered moving persuasions to
my sluggish beast, in the form of maniac
grunts and yells, and innumerable punches
from a sharp-pointed stick. At every fresh
poke came a whisk of the bare tail, a discon-
tented shake of those ignominious ears, a
spasmodic scramble of the hind legs ; and
then everything went on as before. The
donkey was evidently used to his master's
troublesome ways, and had learned to treat
these impertinent personalities with proper


While at Smyrna, I kept a sharp look-out
for houris and odalisques ; but if I saw any, I
never knew it. The Turkish women con-
founded my inquisitive eyes with their vexa-
tious veils and swaddlings, and left a great
deal more to my imagination than was satis-
factory. They seemed to be absurdly con-
tented with their ghostly way of life ; not a
soul of them ever solicited me to carry her
off from the harem of a tyrannical husband
or father. Accordingly, I consoled myself by
looking at the bare-faced Greek girls, who
stood all day in the door-ways, watching the
passers-by, and gossiping vociferously with
each other across the street. I found more
than my match here, for they beat me hollow
at staring, and looked me out of countenance
so often that I got positively ashamed of my-
self. Right opposite my entertainer's house
lived a remarkably pretty one a girl, in fact,
whose face would be considered attractive in
any country. We soon struck up a sort of
intimacy of eyes, and carried it on for some
time without any results that I ever heard of.
Whenever I came home, or went out, I usually


found her standing in her own door, as if Ijmg
in wait for an3rthing that could divert her idle
brain. Accordingly, like a very young tra-
veler, I would saunter up and down, staring
and stared at, until her audacious black eyes
would get the victory and send me off, ad-
miring, but exceedingly discomfited. She very
often had a little girl by the hand, steadying
its uneasy and captious diminutiveness on the
threshold. There was likewise a certain sal-
low young Greek who haunted the house,
walking independently in and out at plea-
sure, and, to all appearance, making himself
comfortably at home. After much jealous
cogitation, I began to be afraid that my Ionian
enchantress was the wife of said Greek, if not
also the mother of said baby. I accordingly
became somewhat cautious in my advances ;
not on account of any particular aversion to
babies, but because I felt a singular respect
for those long knives which nearly all the
Smymiote Greeks carry in their girdles. In
short, not a word ever came of it; not so
much as an action for a breach of promise.
The only other natives of the place whose


faces strongly impressed themselves upon my
memory, were three rascally Smyrniote dogs.
Having been on a v^alk up the hill with one of
the American missionaries, we were returning
at a killing pace with the intention of getting
home in time for dinner. My friend took what
he supposed to be a short cut through a mass
of Turkish houses ; and we drove on rejoicing,
until we found ourselves in a little court, sur-
rounded by the back doors of various respecta-
ble Moslem dwellings. Out rushed the three
dogs aforesaid, from as many gateways, and,
with masterly generalship, seized the narrow
pass by which we had entered, and thus cut
off our retreat. I verily expected to be bitten
to death ; for we had not an arm of any kind,
not a cane, not so much as an umbrella. The
dogs yelled, and leaped, and snapped at us,
very much after the fashion of our Indians,
who enjoy themselves gymnastically around a
prisoner before disemboweling him or knock-
ing out his brains. " There you are," they
seemed to observe in their snarling way.
" You're in for it now. How are you going
to get out again ? Don't you wish you were


in some other country?" May all the dei-
ties and demi-deities and demi-semi-deities of
chance be praised for having strewed some
loose pebbles, of two or three pounds weight
each, about that detestable little inclosure!
Seizing these munitions, we commenced a
disorganizing cannonade upon our enemies,
and routed them from their position so far as
to enable ns to make a rapid exit from our
trap. They chased us into the street, where
we rallied by the side of a pile of rubbish, and
gave them such another volley as sent them
back in a hurry to their ambush. I pause
to make an observation, drawn from this ad-
venture and divers others similar, that dogs are
much more afraid of stones than of sticks,
knowing by personal experience, or perhaps
by currish tradition, that they hit harder, and
at a greater distance.

Without being aware of it at the time, I
escaped one other danger, not exactly during
my stay at Smyrna, but previous to it. A few
days before my arrival, an American steamer,
the first in these waters, had sailed out of the
bay on its maiden trip down the coast towards


Eg3rpt. That very night, the watchful captain
ran his vessel stern on to the island of Scio,
and gave his bewildered passengers an un-
pleasant and unexpected opportunity of visit-
ing that famous island. Head winds and a
long voyage had prevented me from sharing
in this adventure. My detention also secured
me a pleasant traveling companion to Beirut,
and, indeed, through much of Palestine. An
American Doctor of Divinity, recruiting in the
Old World a body which had been somewhat
fatigued in the New, arrived from Athens at
Smyrna. A man whose kindly countenance
was the window of his genial spirit, and whose
well-rounded frame was a symbol of his capa-
cious intellect and largely-stored conversation.
A man of easy and sincere friendliness ; of
quick sympathies with every human mood,
from a joke to a tear ; of natural ingenuity
for extracting happiness from every chance
wayside flower, and for discovering the sub-
stance of every shadow which darkened the



Together the Doctor and I bade farewell to
our kind friends at Smyrna, and together, in
sudden comradeship, we marched away to the
embarking place of the Austrian steamer.
Laden with three solid trunks and a fat carpet-
bag, a Turkish porter preceded us at a fast
walk. Kewarding this man with the reasonable
sum of ten cents, we got into a low, gondola-
like boat, and reached the black sides of the
Austrian packet. A fine vessel one of the
best in the Mediterranean with handsome
cabins fore and aft, and a spacious quarter-deck.
Everything about her was on a large scale,
even to the fleas, which were Brobdignagian.
These animals were chiefly smuggled on board,
I suspect, by a devout-minded rabble which
was going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. As
the said rabble was furnished by many differ-
ent nations, so the fleas probably came from


many different countries. There were Greek-
ish, Turkish, Persian, Armenian, Maltese, He-
brew, and Kussian ; and all of them seemed
to be vivaciously happy, and to enjoy an ex-
cellent appetite, in spite of the motion of the
vessel. In fact, wherever I met these animals,
they appeared to me remarkably fitted as
travelers, possessing uncommon cheerfulness
and toughness, great powers of insinuation,
and extraordinary tact in securing board and

All about the main-deck, and even over one-
half of the quarter-deck, lay the pilgrims
men, women, and children, folded in a name-
less variety of costumes, picking out the soft
planks, chatting and smoking. There were
also two or three families of Turks, who pre-
tended to a higher position in life, and had a
little pen of boards and spars around them to
keep out the unbelievers. Here and there,
individuals were engaged in preparing frugal
meals from family stocks of provisions ; and,
in an hour or two after our departure, all these
modern crusa-ders were gravely eating their
dinners. I was struck with the meagre econo-


my of one poor wretch, who had wandered
thus far, from I know not what portion of
earth, on his pilgrimage to the Holy City. He
was a man, ghastly and beggarly, dressed in
ragged cotton, the chilliness of which was
somewhat relieved by an old shaggy capote.
He took from his pocket a wooden bowl, a
wooden spoon, and a lump of coarse, black,
hard bread. He broke half the bread into the
bowl, mingled it with water, and, when it was
somewhat softened, ate it to the last crumb
with a famished eagerness. Then, wiping the
bowl, he replaced it in his pocket, with the
rest of the bread, and gazed around with a
stolid contentedness, rather like hopelessness,
as if he had nothing more to ask of bountiful
nature. Unused, in our abundant land, to
human want, it was shocking to me to behold
such poverty and such hunger ; but it was
still more painful to look in the man's white
face, and read there that he hoped for nothing
more, and that he had felt and knew he
might still feel a yet keener misery. It may
be, indeed, that I was mistaken in his case,
and that he was simply an ascetic, qualifying


himself for joy in heaven by wretchedness on
earth ; or perhaps only an invalid putting his
stomach on short allowance as a remedy for
colic or dyspepsia.

The Doctor and I walked up and down
among the sprawling groups of pilgrims. Puff-
ing thin wreaths of smoke through their mus-
tachios, they answered our earnest eyes with
grave looks of languid curiosity. " Oh, the
curse of Babel!" said the Doctor. "How I
want to talk to these men, and how I can't!"
Stopping before an aquiline-visaged Oriental,
who was lighting his interminable pipe for the
twentieth time, he gave vent to his social long-
ings. *'How you smoke!" said the Doctor,
in undisguised English. The man shook his
head indolently, and from his odorous seventh
heaven replied, for aught I know, in the lan-
guage of the Milky Way or the lost Pleiad.
The Doctor pointed to the well-used pipe,
and then to the funnels of the steamer, now
sending out clouds of dusky vapor. The
lounger answered with a delighted grin of
comprehension, and passed the joke on among
his appreciating eomrades. After that, my


friend had an interesting interview with a
vivacious, good-looking, well-dressed young
fellow, whom we found to be a Syrian. As
mj friend spoke not a word of Arabic, and the
Syrian spoke nothing else, it took a long time
to execute a very short conversation. The
Doctor, however, imagined he had discovered
that the man was from Tripoli, and not from
Beirut; and that he was a merchant, and did
not own any camels. Nothing could exceed
the good humor of these people, nor the de-
lighted eagerness with which they would say a
thing twenty times over, and surround the dim
idea with a halo of dumb show.

But our most intimate and favorite acquaint-
ances were a couple of curious beings from
Russia. One of them was a woman, fat, fair,
and fifty; rosy, respectable, and wonderfully
communicative. That is to say, she would
have been communicative, had we possessed so
much as the tatter of a language in common.
She used to treat us to long and valuable obser-
vations, in Russian, on some unknown topic,
gesturing earnestly, smiling in the right place,
I have no doubt, and seeming to think that


we understood and appreciated every word.
Then the Doctor or I would make a reply in
English; no matter on what subject; holding
forth just as long as we pleased, and always
certain of a patient and attentive hearing. She
would listen eagerly to the end, smile with a
perplexed air, shake her head, and recommence
with as much vivacity and hopefulness as be-
fore. Whether she were talking religion, or
matrimony, or politics, or scandal, I never had
the slightest idea. Day after day, we com-
muned in this style ; and, in the course of a
thousand years, should, I suppose, have formed
a language of our own. Stephens speaks of
a similar incident which occurred to him,
I believe, on his journey from Moscow to
St. Petersburgh. I related my own and Ste-
phens's experiences to a Russian nobleman
whom I met in France. " Yes," he said, laugh
ing, "it is very natural. It is just like our
common people. They never understand why
a foreigner does not speak Russian. They say :
this man has a mouth like a Christian ; he has
a nose like a Christian ; a throat like a Chris-

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Online LibraryJohn William De ForestOriental acquaintance, or, Letters from Syria → online text (page 1 of 14)