The Garden of Jaffa--Breakfast at a Fountain--The Plain of Sharon--The Ruined Mosque of Ramleh--A Judean Landscape--The Streets of Ramleh--Am I in Palestine?--A Heavenly Morning--The Land of Milk and Honey--Entering the Hill-Country--The Pilgrim's Breakfast--The Father of Lies--A Church of the Crusaders--The Agriculture of the Hills--The Valley of Elah--Day-Dreams--The Wilderness--The Approach--We see the Holy City.
--"Through the air sublime,
Over the wilderness and o'er the plain;
Till underneath them fair Jerusalem,
The Holy City, lifted high her towers."
~John Milton, Paradise Regained.
Jerusalem, Thursday, April 29, 1852.
Leaving the gate of Jaffa, we rode eastward between delightful gardens of fig, citron, orange, pomegranate and palm. The country for several miles around the city is a complete level--part of the great plain of Sharon--and the gray mass of building crowning the little promontory, is the only landmark seen above the green garden-land, on looking towards the sea. The road was lined with hedges of giant cactus, now in blossom, and shaded occasionally with broad-armed sycamores. The orange trees were in bloom, and at the same time laden down with ripe fruit. The oranges of Jaffa are the finest in Syria, and great numbers of them are sent to Beyrout and other ports further north. The dark foliage of the pomegranate fairly blazed with its heavy scarlet blossoms, and here and there a cluster of roses made good the Scriptural renown of those of Sharon. The road was filled with people, passing to and fro, and several families of Jaffa Jews were having a sort of pic-nic in the choice shady spots.
Ere long we came to a fountain, at a point where two roads met. It was a large square structure of limestone and marble, with a stone trough in front, and a delightful open chamber at the side. The space in front was shaded with immense sycamore trees, to which we tied our horses, and then took our seats in the window above the fountain, where the Greek brought us our breakfast. The water was cool and delicious, as were our Jaffa oranges. It was a charming spot, for as we sat we could look under the boughs of the great trees, and down between the gardens to Jaffa and the Mediterranean. After leaving the gardens, we came upon the great plain of Sharon, on which we could see the husbandmen at work far and near, ploughing and sowing their grain. In some instances, the two operations were made simultaneously, by having a sort of funnel attached to the plough-handle, running into a tube which entered the earth just behind the share. The man held the plough with one hand, while with the other he dropped the requisite quantity of seed through the tube into the furrow. The people are ploughing now for their summer crops, and the wheat and barley which they sowed last winter are already in full head. On other parts of the plain, there were large flocks of sheep and goats, with their attendant shepherds. So ran the rich landscape, broken only by belts of olive trees, to the far hills of Judea.
Riding on over the long, low swells, fragrant with wild thyme and camomile, we saw at last the tower of Ramleh, and down the valley, an hour's ride to the north-east, the minaret of Ludd, the ancient Lydda. Still further, I could see the houses of the village of Sharon, embowered in olives. Ramleh is built along the crest and on the eastern slope of a low hill, and at a distance appears like a stately place, but this impression is immediately dissipated on entering it. West of the town is a large square tower, between eighty and ninety feet in height. We rode up to it through an orchard of ancient olive trees, and over a field of beans. The tower is evidently a minaret, as it is built in the purest Saracenic style, and is surrounded by the ruins of a mosque. I have rarely seen anything more graceful than the ornamental arches of the upper portions. Over the door is a lintel of white marble, with an Arabic inscription. The mosque to which the tower is attached is almost entirely destroyed, and only part of the arches of a corridor around three sides of a court-yard, with the fountain in the centre, still remain. The subterranean cisterns, under the court-yard, amazed me with their extent and magnitude. They are no less than twenty-four feet deep, and covered by twenty-four vaulted ceilings, each twelve feet square, and resting on massive pillars. The mosque, when entire, must have been one of the finest in Syria.
We clambered over the broken stones cumbering the entrance, and mounted the steps to the very summit. The view reached from Jaffa and the sea to the mountains near Jerusalem, and southward to the plain of Ascalon--a great expanse of grain and grazing land, all blossoming as the rose, and dotted, especially near the mountains, with dark, luxuriant olive-groves. The landscape had something of the green, pastoral beauty of England, except the mountains, which were wholly of Palestine. The shadows of fleecy clouds, drifting slowly from east to west, moved across the landscape, which became every moment softer and fairer in the light of the declining sun.
I did not tarry in Ramleh. The streets are narrow, crooked, and filthy as only an Oriental town can be. The houses have either flat roofs or domes, out of the crevices in which springs a plentiful crop of weeds. Some yellow dogs barked at us as we passed, children in tattered garments stared, and old turbaned heads were raised from the pipe, to guess who the two brown individuals might be, and why they were attended by such a fierce cawass. Passing through the eastern gate, we were gladdened by the sight of our tents, already pitched in the meadow beside the cistern. Dervish had arrived an hour before us, and had everything ready for the sweet lounge of an hour, to which we treat ourselves after a day's ride. I watched the evening fade away over the blue hills before us, and tried to convince myself that I should reach Jerusalem on the morrow. Reason said: "You certainly will!"---but to Faith the Holy City was as far off as ever. Was it possible that I was in Judea? Was this the Holy Land of the Crusades, the soil hallowed by the feet of Christ and his Apostles? I must believe it. Yet it seemed once that if I ever trod that earth, then beneath my feet, there would be thenceforth a consecration in my life, a holy essence, a purer inspiration on the lips, a surer faith in the heart. And because I was not other than I had been, I half doubted whether it was the Palestine of my dreams.
A number of Arab cameleers, who had come with travellers across the Desert from Egypt, were encamped near us. François was suspicious of some of them, and therefore divided the night into three watches, which were kept by himself and our two men. Mustapha was the last, and kept not only himself, but myself, wide awake by his dolorous chants of love and religion. I fell sound asleep at dawn, but was roused before sunrise by François, who wished to start betimes, on account of the rugged road we had to travel. The morning was mild, clear, and balmy, and we were soon packed and in motion. Leaving the baggage to follow, we rode ahead over the fertile fields. The wheat and poppies were glistening with dew, birds sang among the fig-trees, a cool breeze came down from the hollows of the hills, and my blood leaped as nimbly and joyously as a young hart on the mountains of Bether.
Between Ramleh and the hill-country, a distance of about eight miles, is the rolling plain of Arimathea, and this, as well as the greater part of the plain of Sharon, is one of the richest districts in the world. The soil is a dark-brown loam, and, without manure, produces annually superb crops of wheat and barley. We rode for miles through a sea of wheat, waving far and wide over the swells of land. The tobacco in the fields about Ramleh was the most luxuriant I ever saw, and the olive and fig attain a size and lusty strength wholly unknown in Italy. Judea cursed of God! what a misconception, not only of God's mercy and beneficence, but of the actual fact! Give Palestine into Christian hands, and it will again flow with milk and honey. Except some parts of Asia Minor, no portion of the Levant is capable of yielding such a harvest of grain, silk, wool, fruits, oil, and wine. The great disadvantage under which the country labors, is its frequent drouths, but were the soil more generally cultivated, and the old orchards replanted, these would neither be so frequent nor so severe.
We gradually ascended the hills, passing one or two villages, imbedded in groves of olives. In the little valleys, slanting down to the plains, the Arabs were still ploughing and sowing, singing the while an old love-song, with its chorus of "ya, ghazalee! ya, ghazalee!" (oh, gazelle! oh, gazelle!) The valley narrowed, the lowlands behind us spread out broader, and in half an hour more we were threading a narrow pass, between stony hills, overgrown with ilex, myrtle, and dwarf oak. The wild purple rose of Palestine blossomed on all sides, and a fragrant white honeysuckle in some places hung from the rocks. The path was terribly rough, and barely wide enough for two persons on horseback to pass each other. We met a few pilgrims returning from Jerusalem, and a straggling company of armed Turks, who had such a piratical air, that without the solemn asseveration of François that the road was quite safe, I should have felt uneasy about our baggage. Most of the persons we passed were Mussulmen, few of whom gave the customary "Peace be with you!" but once a Syrian Christian saluted me with, "God go with you, O Pilgrim!" For two hours after entering the mountains, there was scarcely a sign of cultivation. The rock was limestone, or marble, lying in horizontal strata, the broken edges of which rose like terraces to the summits. These shelves were so covered with wild shrubs--in some places even with rows of olive trees---that to me they had not the least appearance of that desolation so generally ascribed to them.
In a little dell among the hills there is a small ruined mosque, or chapel (I could not decide which), shaded by a group of magnificent terebinth trees. Several Arabs were resting in its shade, and we hoped to find there the water we were looking for, in order to make breakfast. But it was not to be found, and we climbed nearly to the summit of the first chain of hills, where in a small olive orchard, there was a cistern, filled by the late rains. It belonged to two ragged boys, who brought us an earthen vessel of the water, and then asked, "Shall we bring you milk, O Pilgrims!" I assented, and received a small jug of thick buttermilk, not remarkably clean, but very refreshing. My companion, who had not recovered from his horror at finding that the inhabitants of Ramleh washed themselves in the pool which supplied us and them, refused to touch it. We made but a short rest, for it was now nearly noon, and there were yet many rough miles between us and Jerusalem. We crossed the first chain of mountains, rode a short distance over a stony upland, and then descended into a long cultivated valley, running to the eastward. At the end nearest us appeared the village of Aboo 'l Ghosh (the Father of Lies), which takes its name from a noted Bedouin shekh, who distinguished himself a few years ago by levying contributions on travellers. He obtained a large sum of money in this way, but as he added murder to robbery, and fell upon Turks as well as Christians, he was finally captured, and is now expiating his offences in some mine on the coast of the Black Sea.
Near the bottom of the village there is a large ruined building, now used as a stable by the inhabitants. The interior is divided into a nave and two side-aisles by rows of square pillars, from which spring pointed arches. The door-way is at the side, and is Gothic, with a dash of Saracenic in the ornamental mouldings above it. The large window at the extremity of the nave is remarkable for having round arches, which circumstance, together with the traces of arabesque painted ornaments on the columns, led me to think it might have been a mosque; but Dr. Robinson, who is now here, considers it a Christian church, of the time of the Crusaders. The village of Aboo 'l Ghosh is said to be the site of the birth-place of the Prophet Jeremiah, and I can well imagine it to have been the case. The aspect of the mountain-country to the east and north-east would explain the savage dreariness of his lamentations. The whole valley in which the village stands, as well as another which joins it on the east, is most assiduously cultivated. The stony mountain sides are wrought into terraces, where, in spite of soil which resembles an American turnpike, patches of wheat are growing luxuriantly, and olive trees, centuries old, hold on to the rocks with a clutch as hard and bony as the hand of Death. In the bed of the valley the fig tree thrives, and sometimes the vine and fig grow together, forming the patriarchal arbor of shade familiar to us all. The shoots of the tree are still young and green, but the blossoms of the grape do not yet give forth their goodly savor. I did not hear the voice of the turtle, but a nightingale sang in the briery thickets by the brook side, as we passed along.
Climbing out of this valley, we descended by a stony staircase, as rugged as the Ladder of Tyre, into the Wady Beit-Hanineh. Here were gardens of oranges in blossom, with orchards of quince and apple, overgrown with vines, and the fragrant hawthorn tree, snowy with its bloom. A stone bridge, the only one on the road, crosses the dry bed of a winter stream, and, looking up the glen, I saw the Arab village of Kulonieh, at the entrance of the valley of Elah, glorious with the memories of the shepherd-boy, David. Our road turned off to the right, and commenced ascending a long, dry glen between mountains which grew more sterile the further we went. It was nearly two hours past noon, the sun fiercely hot, and our horses were nigh jaded out with the rough road and our impatient spurring. I began to fancy we could see Jerusalem from the top of the pass, and tried to think of the ancient days of Judea. But it was in vain. A newer picture shut them out, and banished even the diviner images of Our Saviour and His Disciples. Heathen that I was, I could only think of Godfrey and the Crusaders, toiling up the same path, and the ringing lines of Tasso vibrated constantly in my ear:
"Ecco apparir Gierusalemm' si vede;
Ecco additar Gierusalemm' si scorge;
Ecco da mille voci unitamente,
Gierusalemme salutar si sente!"
The Palestine of the Bible--the Land of Promise to the Israelites, the land of Miracle and Sacrifice to the Apostles and their followers--still slept in the unattainable distance, under a sky of bluer and more tranquil loveliness than that to whose cloudless vault I looked up. It lay as far and beautiful as it once seemed to the eye of childhood, and the swords of Seraphim kept profane feet from its sacred hills. But these rough rocks around me, these dry, fiery hollows, these thickets of ancient oak and ilex, had heard the trumpets of the Middle Ages, and the clang and clatter of European armor--I could feel and believe that. I entered the ranks; I followed the trumpets and the holy hymns, and waited breathlessly for the moment when every mailed knee should drop in the dust, and every bearded and sunburned cheek be wet with devotional tears.
But when I climbed the last ridge, and looked ahead with a sort of painful suspense, Jerusalem did not appear. We were two thousand feet above the Mediterranean, whose blue we could dimly see far to the west, through notches in the chain of hills. To the north, the mountains were gray, desolate, and awful. Not a shrub or a tree relieved their frightful barrenness. An upland tract, covered with white volcanic rock, lay before us. We met peasants with asses, who looked (to my eyes) as if they had just left Jerusalem. Still forward we urged our horses, and reached a ruined garden, surrounded with hedges of cactus, over which I saw domes and walls in the distance. I drew a long breath and looked at François. He was jogging along without turning his head; he could not have been so indifferent if that was really the city. Presently, we reached another slight rise in the rocky plain. He began to urge his panting horse, and at the same instant we both lashed the spirit into ours, dashed on at a break-neck gallop, round the corner of an old wall on the top of the hill, and lo! the Holy City! Our Greek jerked both pistols from his holsters, and fired them into the air, as we reined up on the steep.
From the descriptions of travellers, I had expected to see in Jerusalem an ordinary modern Turkish town; but that before me, with its walls, fortresses, and domes, was it not still the City of David? I saw the Jerusalem of the New Testament, as I had imagined it. Long lines of walls crowned with a notched parapet and strengthened by towers; a few domes and spires above them; clusters of cypress here and there; this was all that was visible of the city. On either side the hill sloped down to the two deep valleys over which it hangs. On the east, the Mount of Olives, crowned with a chapel and mosque, rose high and steep, but in front, the eye passed directly over the city, to rest far away upon the lofty mountains of Moab, beyond the Dead Sea. The scene was grand in its simplicity. The prominent colors were the purple of those distant mountains, and the hoary gray of the nearer hills. The walls were of the dull yellow of weather-stained marble, and the only trees, the dark cypress and moonlit olive. Now, indeed, for one brief moment, I knew that I was in Palestine; that I saw Mount Olivet and Mount Zion; and--I know not how it was--my sight grew weak, and all objects trembled and wavered in a watery film. Since we arrived, I have looked down upon the city from the Mount of Olives, and up to it from the Valley of Jehosaphat; but I cannot restore the illusion of that first view.
We allowed our horses to walk slowly down the remaining half-mile to the Jaffa gate. An Englishman, with a red silk shawl over his head, was sketching the city, while an Arab held an umbrella over him. Inside the gate we stumbled upon an Italian shop with an Italian sign, and after threading a number of intricate passages under dark archways, and being turned off from one hotel, which was full of travellers, reached another, kept by a converted German Jew, where we found Dr. Robinson and Dr. Ely Smith, who both arrived yesterday. It sounds strange to talk of a hotel in Jerusalem, but the world is progressing, and there are already three. I leave to-morrow for Jericho, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea, and shall have more to say of Jerusalem on my return.
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