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Ch. 16: Through the Syrian Gates


An Inauspicious Departure--The Ruined Church of St. Simon--The Plain of Antioch--A Turcoman Encampment--Climbing Akma Dagh--The Syrian Gates--Scanderoon--An American Captain--Revolt of the Koords--We take a Guard--The Field of Issus--The Robber-Chief, Kutchuk Ali--A Deserted Town--A Land of Gardens.


"Mountains, on whose barren breast
The lab'ring clouds do often rest."

~John Milton.


In Quarantine (Adana, Asia Minor), Tuesday, June 15, 1852.


We left Aleppo on the morning of the 9th, under circumstances not the most promising for the harmony of our journey. We had engaged horses and baggage-mules from the capidji, or chief of the muleteers, and in order to be certain of having animals that would not break down on the way, made a particular selection from a number that were brought us. When about leaving the city, however, we discovered that one of the horses had been changed. Signor di Picciotto, who accompanied us past the Custom-House barriers, immediately dispatched the delinquent muleteer to bring back the true horse, and the latter made a farce of trying to find him, leading the Consul and the capidji (who, I believe, was at the bottom of the cheat) a wild-goose chase over the hills around Aleppo, where of course, the animal was not to be seen. When, at length, we had waited three hours, and had wandered about four miles from the city, we gave up the search, took leave of the Consul and went on with the new horse. Our proper plan would have been to pitch the tent and refuse to move till the matter was settled. The animal, as we discovered during the first day's journey, was hopelessly lame, and we only added to the difficulty by taking him.

We rode westward all day over barren and stony hills, meeting with abundant traces of the power and prosperity of this region during the times of the Greek Emperors. The nevastation wrought by earthquakes has been terrible; there is scarcely a wall or arch standing, which does not bear marks of having been violently shaken. The walls inclosing the fig-orchards near the villages contain many stones with Greek inscriptions, and fragments of cornices. We encamped the first night on the plain at the foot of Mount St. Simon, and not far from the ruins of the celebrated Church of the same name. The building stands in a stony wilderness at the foot of the mountain. It is about a hundred feet long and thirty in height, with two lofty square towers in front. The pavement of the interior is entirely concealed by the masses of pillars, capitals, and hewn blocks that lie heaped upon it. The windows, which are of the tall, narrow, arched form, common in Byzantine Churches, have a common moulding which falls like a mantle over and between them. The general effect of the Church is very fine, though there is much inelegance in the sculptured details. At the extremity is a half-dome of massive stone, over the place of the altar, and just in front of this formerly stood the pedestal whereon, according to tradition, St. Simeon Stylites commenced his pillar-life. I found a recent excavation at the spot, but no pedestal, which has probably been carried off by the Greek monks. Beside the Church stands a large building, with an upper and lower balcony, supported by square stone pillars, around three sides. There is also a paved court-yard, a large cistern cut in the rock and numerous out-buildings, all going to confirm the supposition of its having been a monastery. The main building is three stories high, with pointed gables, and bears a strong resemblance to an American summer hotel, with verandas. Several ancient fig and walnut trees are growing among the ruins, and add to their picturesque appearance.

The next day we crossed a broad chain of hills to the Plain of Antioch, which we reached near its northern extremity. In one of the valleys through which the road lay, we saw a number of hot sulphur springs, some of them of a considerable volume of water. Not far from them was a beautiful fountain of fresh and cold water gushing from the foot of a high rock. Soon after reaching the plain, we crossed the stream of Kara Su, which feeds the Lake of Antioch. This part of the plain is low and swampy, and the streams are literally alive with fish. While passing over the bridge I saw many hundreds, from one to two feet in length. We wandered through the marshy meadows for two or three hours, and towards sunset reached a Turcoman encampment, where the ground was dry enough to pitch our tents. The rude tribe received us hospitably, and sent us milk and cheese in abundance. I visited the tent of the Shekh, who was very courteous, but as he knew no language but Turkish, our conversation was restricted to signs. The tent was of camel's-hair cloth, spacious, and open at the sides. A rug was spread for me, and the Shekh's wife brought me a pipe of tolerable tobacco. The household were seated upon the ground, chatting pleasantly with one another, and apparently not in the least disturbed by my presence. One of the Shekh's sons, who was deaf and dumb, came and sat before me, and described by very expressive signs the character of the road to Scanderoon. He gave me to understand that there were robbers in the mountains, with many grim gestures descriptive of stabbing and firing muskets.

The mosquitoes were so thick during the night that we were obliged to fill the tent with smoke in order to sleep. When morning came, we fancied there would be a relief for us, but it only brought a worse pest, in the shape of swarms of black gnats, similar to those which so tormented me in Nubia. I know of no infliction so terrible as these gnats, which you cannot drive away, and which assail ears, eyes, and nostrils in such quantities that you become mad and desperate in your efforts to eject them. Through glens filled with oleander, we ascended the first slopes of Akma Dagh, the mountain range which divides the Gulf of Scanderoon from the Plain of Antioch. Then, passing a natural terrace, covered with groves of oak, our road took the mountain side, climbing upwards in the shadow of pine and wild olive trees, and between banks of blooming lavender and myrtle. We saw two or three companies of armed guards, stationed by the road-side, for the mountain is infested with robbers, and a caravan had been plundered only three days before. The view, looking backward, took in the whole plain, with the Lake of Antioch glittering in the centre, the valley of the Orontes in the south, and the lofty cone of Djebel-Okrab far to the west. As we approached the summit, violent gusts of wind blew through the pass with such force as almost to overturn our horses. Here the road from Antioch joins that from Aleppo, and both for some distance retain the ancient pavement.

From the western side we saw the sea once more, and went down through the Pylę Syrię, or Syrian Gates, as this defile was called by the Romans. It is very narrow and rugged, with an abrupt descent. In an hour from the summit we came upon an aqueduct of a triple row of arches, crossing the gorge. It is still used to carry water to the town of Beilan, which hangs over the mouth of the pass, half a mile below. This is one of the most picturesque spots in Syria. The houses cling to the sides and cluster on the summits of precipitous crags, and every shelf of soil, every crevice where a tree can thrust its roots, upholds a mass of brilliant vegetation. Water is the life of the place. It gushes into the street from exhaustless fountains; it trickles from the terraces in showers of misty drops; it tumbles into the gorge in sparkling streams; and everywhere it nourishes a life as bright and beautiful as its own. The fruit trees are of enormous size, and the crags are curtained with a magnificent drapery of vines. This green gateway opens suddenly upon another, cut through a glittering mass of micaceous rock, whence one looks down on the town and Gulf of Scanderoon, the coast of Karamania beyond, and the distant snows of the Taurus. We descended through groves of pine and oak, and in three hours more reached the shore.

Scanderoon is the most unhealthy place on the Syrian Coast, owing to the malaria from a marsh behind it. The inhabitants are a wretched pallid set, who are visited every year with devastating fevers. The marsh was partly drained some forty years ago by the Turkish government, and a few thousand dollars would be sufficient to remove it entirely, and make the place--which is of some importance as the seaport of Aleppo--healthy and habitable. At present, there are not five hundred inhabitants, and half of these consist of the Turkish garrison and the persons attached to the different Vice-Consulates. The streets are depositories of filth, and pools of stagnant water, on all sides, exhale the most fetid odors. Near the town are the ruins of a castle built by Godfrey of Bouillon. We marched directly down to the sea-shore, and pitched our tent close beside the waves, as the place most free from malaria. There were a dozen vessels at anchor in the road, and one of them proved to be the American bark Columbia, Capt. Taylor. We took a skiff and went on board, where we were cordially welcomed by the mate. In the evening, the captain came to our tent, quite surprised to find two wandering Americans in such a lonely corner of the world. Soon afterwards, with true seaman-like generosity, he returned, bringing a jar of fine Spanish olives and a large bottle of pickles, which he insisted on adding to our supplies. The olives have the choicest Andalusian flavor, and the pickles lose none of their relish from having been put up in New York.

The road from Scanderoon to this place lies mostly along the shore of the gulf, at the foot of Akma Dagh, and is reckoned dangerous on account of the marauding bands of Koords who infest the mountains. These people, like the Druses, have rebelled against the conscription, and will probably hold their ground with equal success, though the Turks talk loudly of invading their strongholds. Two weeks ago, the post was robbed, about ten miles from Scanderoon, and a government vessel, now lying at anchor in the bay, opened a cannonade on the plunderers, before they could be secured. In consequence of the warnings of danger in everybody's mouth, we decided to take an escort, and therefore waited upon the commander of the forces, with the firman of the Pasha of Aleppo. A convoy of two soldiers was at once promised us; and at sunrise, next morning, they took the lead of our caravan.

In order to appear more formidable, in case we should meet with robbers, we put on our Frank pantaloons, which had no other effect than to make the heat more intolerable. But we formed rather a fierce cavalcade, six armed men in all. Our road followed the shore of the bay, having a narrow, uninhabited flat, covered with thickets of myrtle and mastic, between us and the mountains. The two soldiers, more valiant than the guard of Banias, rode in advance, and showed no signs of fear as we approached the suspicious places. The morning was delightfully clear, and the snow-crowned range of Taurus shone through the soft vapors hanging over the gulf. In one place, we skirted the shore for some distance, under a bank twenty feet in height, and so completely mantled with shrubbery, that a small army might have hidden in it. There were gulleys at intervals, opening suddenly on our path, and we looked up them, expecting every moment to see the gleam of a Koordish gun-barrel, or a Turcoman spear, above the tops of the myrtles.

Crossing a promontory which makes out from the mountains, we came upon the renowned plain of Issus, where Darius lost his kingdom to Alexander. On a low cliff overhanging the sea, there are the remains of a single tower of gray stone. The people in Scanderoon call it "Jonah's Pillar," and say that it marks the spot where the Ninevite was cast ashore by the whale. [This makes three places on the Syrian coast where Jonah was vomited forth.] The plain of Issus is from two to three miles long, but not more than half a mile wide, It is traversed by a little river, supposed to be the Pinarus, which comes down through a tremendous cleft in the Akma Dagh. The ground seems too small for the battle-field of such armies as were engaged on the occasion. It is bounded on the north by a low hill, separating it from the plain of Baļas, and it is possible that Alexander may have made choice of this position, leaving the unwieldy forces of Darius to attack him from the plain. His advantage would be greater, on account of the long, narrow form of the ground, which would prevent him from being engaged with more than a small portion of the Persian army, at one time. The plain is now roseate with blooming oleanders, but almost entirely uncultivated. About midway there are the remains of an ancient quay jutting into the sea.

Soon after leaving the field of Issus, we reached the town of Baļas, which is pleasantly situated on the shore, at the mouth of a river whose course through the plain is marked with rows of tall poplar trees. The walls of the town, and the white dome and minaret of its mosque, rose dazzlingly against the dark blue of the sea, and the purple stretch of the mountains of Karamania. A single palm lifted its crest in the foreground. We dismounted for breakfast under the shade of an old bridge which crosses the river. It was a charming spot, the banks above and below being overhung with oleander, white rose, honeysuckle and clematis. The two guardsmen finished the remaining half of our Turcoman cheese, and almost exhausted our supply of bread. I gave one of them a cigar, which he was at a loss how to smoke, until our muleteer showed him.

Baļas was celebrated fifty years ago, as the residence of the robber chief, Kutchuk Ali, who, for a long time, braved the authority of the Porte itself. He was in the habit of levying a yearly tribute on the caravan to Mecca, and the better to enforce his claims, often suspended two or three of his captives at the gates of the town, a day or two before the caravan arrived. Several expeditions were sent against him, but he always succeeded in bribing the commanders, who, on their return to Constantinople, made such representations that Kutchuk Ali, instead of being punished, received one dignity after another, until finally he attained the rank of a Pasha of two tails. This emboldened him to commit enormities too great to be overlooked, and in 1812 Baļas was taken, and the atrocious nest of land-pirates broken up.

I knew that the town had been sacked on this occasion, but was not prepared to find such a complete picture of desolation. The place is surrounded with a substantial wall, with two gateways, on the north and south. A bazaar, covered with a lofty vaulted roof of stone, runs directly through from gate to gate; and there was still a smell of spices in the air, on entering. The massive shops on either hand, with their open doors, invited possession, and might readily be made habitable again. The great iron gates leading from the bazaar into the khans and courts, still swing on their rusty hinges. We rode into the court of the mosque, which is surrounded with a light and elegant corridor, supported by pillars. The grass has as yet but partially invaded the marble pavement, and a stone drinking-trough still stands in the centre. I urged my horse up the steps and into the door of the mosque. It is in the form of a Greek cross, with a dome in the centre, resting on four very elegant pointed arches. There is an elaborately gilded and painted gallery of wood over the entrance, and the pulpit opposite is as well preserved as if the mollah had just left it. Out of the mosque we passed into a second court, and then over a narrow bridge into the fortress. The moat is perfect, and the walls as complete as if just erected. Only the bottom is dry, and now covered with a thicket of wild pomegranate trees. The heavy iron doors of the fortress swung half open, as we entered unchallenged. The interior is almost entire, and some of the cannon still lie buried in the springing grass. The plan of the little town, which appears to have been all built at one time, is most admirable. The walls of circuit, including the fortress, cannot be more than 300 yards square, and yet none of the characteristics of a large Oriental city are omitted.

Leaving Baļas, we travelled northward, over a waste, though fertile plain. The mountains on our right made a grand appearance, with their feet mantled in myrtle, and their tops plumed with pine. They rise from the sea with a long, bold sweep, but each peak falls off in a precipice on the opposite side, as if the chain were the barrier of the world and there was nothing but space beyond. In the afternoon we left the plain for a belt of glorious garden land, made by streams that came down from the mountains. We entered a lane embowered in pomegranate, white rose, clematis, and other flowering vines and shrubs, and overarched by superb plane, lime, and beech trees, chained together with giant grape vines. On either side were fields of ripe wheat and barley, mulberry orchards and groves of fruit trees, under the shade of which the Turkish families sat or slept during the hot hours of the day. Birds sang in the boughs, and the gurgling of water made a cool undertone to their music. Out of fairyland where shall I see again such lovely bowers? We were glad when the soldiers announced that it was necessary to encamp there; as we should find no other habitations for more than twenty miles.

Our tent was pitched under a grand sycamore, beside a swift mountain stream which almost made the circuit of our camp. Beyond the tops of the elm, beech, and fig groves, we saw the picturesque green summits of the lower ranges of Giaour Dagh, in the north-east, while over the southern meadows a golden gleam of sunshine lay upon the Gulf of Scanderoon. The village near us was Chaya, where there is a military station. The guards we had brought from Scanderoon here left us; but the commanding officer advised us to take others on the morrow, as the road was still considered unsafe.


Bayard Taylor