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Ch. 6: The Hill Country of Palestine


Leaving Jerusalem--The Tombs of the Kings--El Bireh--The Hill-Country--First View of Mount Hermon--The Tomb of Joseph--Ebal and Gerizim--The Gardens of Nablous--The Samaritans--The Sacred Book--A Scene in the Synagogue--Mentoi and Telemachus--Ride to Samaria--The Ruins of Sebaste--Scriptural Landscapes--Halt at Genin--The Plain of Esdraelon--Palestine and California--The Hills of Nazareth--Accident--Fra Joachim--The Church of the Virgin--The Shrine of the Annunciation--The Holy Places.


"Blest land of Judea! thrice hallowed of song,
Where the holiest of memories pilgrim-like throng:
In the shade of thy palms, by the shores of thy sea,
On the hills of thy beauty, my heart is with thee!"

~John Greenleaf Whittier.


Latin Convent, Nazareth, Friday May 7, 1852.


We left Jerusalem by the Jaffa Gate, because within a few months neither travellers nor baggage are allowed to pass the Damascus Gate, on account of smuggling operations having been carried on there. Not far from the city wall there is a superb terebinth tree, now in the full glory of its shining green leaves. It appears to be bathed in a perpetual dew; the rounded masses of foliage sparkle and glitter in the light, and the great spreading boughs flood the turf below with a deluge of delicious shade. A number of persons were reclining on the grass under it, and one of them, a very handsome Christian boy, spoke to us in Italian and English. I scarcely remember a brighter and purer day than that of our departure. The sky was a sheet of spotless blue; every rift and scar of the distant hills was retouched with a firmer pencil, and all the outlines, blurred away by the haze of the previous few days, were restored with wonderful distinctness. The temperature was hot, but not sultry, and the air we breathed was an elixir of immortality.

Through a luxuriant olive grove we reached the Tombs of the Kings, situated in a small valley to the north of the city. Part of the valley, if not the whole of it, has been formed by quarrying away the crags of marble and conglomerate limestone for building the city. Near the edge of the low cliffs overhanging it, there are some illustrations of the ancient mode of cutting stone, which, as well as the custom of excavating tombs in the rock, was evidently borrowed from Egypt. The upper surface of the rocks, was first made smooth, after which the blocks were mapped out and cut apart by grooves chiselled between them. I visited four or five tombs, each of which had a sort of vestibule or open portico in front. The door was low, and the chambers which I entered, small and black, without sculptures of any kind. The tombs bear some resemblance in their general plan to those of Thebes, except that they are without ornaments, either sculptured or painted. There are fragments of sarcophagi in some of them. On the southern side of the valley is a large quarry, evidently worked for marble, as the blocks have been cut out from below, leaving a large overhanging mass, part of which has broken off and fallen down. Some pieces which I picked up were of a very fine white marble, somewhat resembling that of Carrara. The opening of the quarry made a striking picture, the soft pink hue of the weather-stained rock contrasting exquisitely with the vivid green of the vines festooning the entrance.

From the long hill beyond the Tombs, we took our last view of Jerusalem, far beyond whose walls I saw the Church of the Nativity, at Bethlehem. The Jewish synagogue on the top of the mountain called Nebbee Samwil, the highest peak in Palestine, was visible at some distance to the west. Notwithstanding its sanctity, I felt little regret at leaving Jerusalem, and cheerfully took the rough road northward, over the stony hills. There were few habitations in sight, yet the hill-sides were cultivated, wherever it was possible for anything to grow. The wheat was just coming into head, and the people were at work, planting maize. After four hours' ride, we reached El Bireh, a little village on a hill, with the ruins of a convent and a large khan. The place takes its name from a fountain of excellent water, beside which we found our tents already pitched. In the evening, two Englishmen, an ancient Mentor, with a wild young Telemachus in charge, arrived, and camped near us. The night was calm and cool, and the full moon poured a flood of light over the bare and silent hills.

We rose long before sunrise, and rode off in the brilliant morning--the sky unstained by a speck of vapor. In the valley, beyond El Bireh, the husbandmen were already at their ploughs, and the village boys were on their way to the uncultured parts of the hills, with their flocks of sheep and goats. The valley terminated in a deep gorge, with perpendicular walls of rock on either side. Our road mounted the hill on the eastern side, and followed the brink of the precipice through the pass, where an enchanting landscape opened upon us. The village of Yebrood crowned a hill which rose opposite, and the mountain slopes leaning towards it on all sides were covered with orchards of fig trees; and either rustling with wheat or cleanly ploughed for maize. The soil was a dark brown loam, and very rich. The stones have been laboriously built into terraces; and, even where heavy rocky boulders almost hid the soil, young fig and olive trees were planted in the crevices between them. I have never seen more thorough and patient cultivation. In the crystal of the morning air, the very hills laughed with plenty, and the whole landscape beamed with the signs of gladness on its countenance.

The site of ancient Bethel was not far to the right of our road. Over hills laden with the olive, fig, and vine, we passed to Ain el-Haramiyeh, or the Fountain of the Bobbers. Here there are tombs cut in the rock on both sides of the valley. Over another ridge, we descended to a large, bowl-shaped valley, entirely covered with wheat, and opening eastward towards the Jordan. Thence to Nablous (the Shechem of the Old and Sychar of the New Testament) is four hours through a winding dell of the richest harvest land; On the way, we first caught sight of the snowy top of Mount Hermon, distant at least eighty miles in a straight line. Before reaching Nablous, I stopped to drink at a fountain of clear and sweet water, beside a square pile of masonry, upon which sat two Moslem dervishes. This, we were told, was the Tomb of Joseph, whose body, after having accompanied the Israelites in all their wanderings, was at last deposited near Shechem. There is less reason to doubt this spot than most of the sacred places of Palestine, for the reason that it rests, not on Christian, but on Jewish tradition. The wonderful tenacity with which the Jews cling to every record or memento of their early history, and the fact that from the time of Joseph a portion of them have always lingered near the spot, render it highly probable that the locality of a spot so sacred should have been preserved from generation to generation to the present time. It has been recently proposed to open this tomb, by digging under it from the side. If the body of Joseph was actually deposited here, there are, no doubt, some traces of it remaining. It must have been embalmed, according to the Egyptian custom, and placed in a coffin of the Indian sycamore, the wood of which is so nearly incorruptible, that thirty-five centuries would not suffice for its decomposition. The singular interest of such a discovery would certainly justify the experiment. Not far from the tomb is Jacob's Well, where Christ met the Woman of Samaria. This place is also considered as authentic, for the same reasons. If not wholly convincing to all, there is, at least, so much probability in them that one is freed from that painful coldness and incredulity with which he beholds the sacred shows of Jerusalem.

Leaving the Tomb of Joseph, the road turned to the west, and entered the narrow pass between Mounts Ebal and Gerizim. The former is a steep, barren peak, clothed with terraces of cactus, standing on the northern side of the pass. Mount Gerizim is cultivated nearly to the top, and is truly a mountain of blessing, compared with its neighbor. Through an orchard of grand old olive-trees, we reached Nablous, which presented a charming picture, with its long mass of white, dome-topped stone houses, stretching along the foot of Gerizim through a sea of bowery orchards. The bottom of the valley resembles some old garden run to waste. Abundant streams, poured from the generous heart of the Mount of Blessing, leap and gurgle with pleasant noises through thickets of orange, fig, and pomegranate, through bowers of roses and tangled masses of briars and wild vines. We halted in a grove of olives, and, after our tent was pitched, walked upward through the orchards to the Ras-el-Ain (Promontory of the Fountain), on the side of Mount Gerizim. A multitude of beggars sat at the city gate; and, as they continued to clamor after I had given sufficient alms, I paid them with "Allah deelek!"--(God give it to you!)--the Moslem's reply to such importunity--and they ceased in an instant. This exclamation, it seems, takes away from them the power of demanding a second time.

From under the Ras-el-Ain gushes forth the Fountain of Honey, so called from the sweetness and purity of the water. We drank of it, and I found the taste very agreeable, but my companion declared that it had an unpleasant woolly flavor. When we climbed a little higher, we found that the true source from which the fountain is supplied was above, and that an Arab was washing a flock of sheep in it! We continued our walk along the side of the mountain to the other end of the city, through gardens of almond, apricot, prune, and walnut-trees, bound each to each by great vines, whose heavy arms they seemed barely able to support. The interior of the town is dark and filthy; but it has a long, busy bazaar extending its whole length, and a café, where we procured the best coffee in Syria.

Nablous is noted for the existence of a small remnant of the ancient Samaritans. The stock has gradually dwindled away, and amounts to only forty families, containing little more than a hundred and fifty individuals. They live in a particular quarter of the city, and are easily distinguished from the other inhabitants by the cast of their features. After our guide, a native of Nablous, had pointed out three or four, I had no difficulty in recognising all the others we met. They have long, but not prominent noses, like the Jews; small, oblong eyes, narrow lips, and fair complexions, most of them having brown hair. They appear to be held in considerable obloquy by the Moslems. Our attendant, who was of the low class of Arabs, took the boys we met very unceremoniously by the head, calling out: "Here is another Samaritan!" He then conducted us to their synagogue, to see the celebrated Pentateuch, which is there preserved. We were taken to a small, open court, shaded by an apricot-tree, where the priest, an old man in a green robe and white turban, was seated in meditation. He had a long grey beard, and black eyes, that lighted up with a sudden expression of eager greed when we promised him backsheesh for a sight of the sacred book. He arose and took us into a sort of chapel, followed by a number of Samaritan boys. Kneeling down at a niche in the wall, he produced from behind a wooden case a piece of ragged parchment, written with Hebrew characters. But the guide was familiar with this deception, and rated him so soundly that, after a little hesitation, he laid the fragment away, and produced a large tin cylinder, covered with a piece of green satin embroidered in gold. The boys stooped down and reverently kissed the blazoned cover, before it was removed. The cylinder, sliding open by two rows of hinges, opened at the same time the parchment scroll, which was rolled at both ends. It was, indeed, a very ancient manuscript, and in remarkable preservation. The rents have been carefully repaired and the scroll neatly stitched upon another piece of parchment, covered on the outside with violet satin. The priest informed me that it was written by the son of Aaron; but this does not coincide with the fact that the Samaritan Pentateuch is different from that of the Jews. It is, however, no doubt one of the oldest parchment records in the world, and the Samaritans look upon it with unbounded faith and reverence. The Pentateuch, according to their version, contains their only form of religion. They reject everything else which the Old Testament contains. Three or four days ago was their grand feast of sacrifice, when they made a burnt offering of a lamb, on the top of Mount Gerizim. Within a short time, it is said they have shown some curiosity to become acquainted with the New Testament, and the High Priest sent to Jerusalem to procure Arabic copies.

I asked one of the wild-eyed boys whether he could read the sacred book. "Oh, yes," said the priest, "all these boys can read it;" and the one I addressed immediately pulled a volume from his breast, and commenced reading in fluent Hebrew. It appeared to be a part of their church service, for both the priest and boab, or door-keeper, kept up a running series of responses, and occasionally the whole crowd shouted out some deep-mouthed word in chorus. The old man leaned forward with an expression as fixed and intense as if the text had become incarnate in him, following with his lips the sound of the boy's voice. It was a strange picture of religious enthusiasm, and was of itself sufficient to convince me of the legitimacy of the Samaritan's descent. When I rose to leave I gave him the promised fee, and a smaller one to the boy who read the service. This was the signal for a general attack from the door-keeper and all the boys who were present. They surrounded me with eyes sparkling with the desire of gain, kissed the border of my jacket, stroked my beard coaxingly with their hands, which they then kissed, and, crowding up with a boisterous show of affection, were about to fall on my neck in a heap, after the old Hebrew fashion. The priest, clamorous for more, followed with glowing face, and the whole group had a riotous and bacchanalian character, which I should never have imagined could spring from such a passion as avarice.

On returning to our camp, we found Mentor and Telemachus arrived, but not on such friendly terms as their Greek prototypes. We were kept awake for a long time that night by their high words, and the first sound I heard the next morning came from their tent. Telemachus, I suspect, had found some island of Calypso, and did not relish the cold shock of the plunge into the sea, by which Mentor had forced him away. He insisted on returning to Jerusalem, but as Mentor would not allow him a horse, he had not the courage to try it on foot. After a series of altercations, in which he took a pistol to shoot the dragoman, and applied very profane terms to everybody in the company, his wrath dissolved into tears, and when we left, Mentor had decided to rest a day at Nablous, and let him recover from the effects of the storm.

We rode down the beautiful valley, taking the road to Sebaste (Samaria), while our luggage-mules kept directly over the mountains to Jenin. Our path at first followed the course of the stream, between turfy banks and through luxuriant orchards. The whole country we overlooked was planted with olive-trees, and, except the very summits of the mountains, covered with grain-fields. For two hours our course was north-east, leading over the hills, and now and then dipping into beautiful dells. In one of these a large stream gushes from the earth in a full fountain, at the foot of a great olive-tree. The hill-side above it was a complete mass of foliage, crowned with the white walls of a Syrian village. Descending the valley, which is very deep, we came in sight of Samaria, situated on the summit of an isolated hill. The sanctuary of the ancient Christian church of St. John towers high above the mud walls of the modern village. Riding between olive-orchards and wheat-fields of glorious richness and beauty, we passed the remains of an acqueduct, and ascended the hill The ruins of the church occupy the eastern summit. Part of them have been converted into a mosque, which the Christian foot is not allowed to profane. The church, which is in the Byzantine style, is apparently of the time of the Crusaders. It had originally a central and two side-aisles, covered with groined Gothic vaults. The sanctuary is semi-circular, with a row of small arches, supported by double pillars. The church rests on the foundations of some much more ancient building--probably a temple belonging to the Roman city.

Behind the modern village, the hill terminates in a long, elliptical mound, about one-third of a mile in length. We made the tour of it, and were surprised at finding a large number of columns, each of a single piece of marble. They had once formed a double colonnade, extending from the church to a gate on the western side of the summit. Our native guide said they had been covered with an arch, and constituted a long market or bazaar--a supposition in which he may be correct. From the gate, which is still distinctly marked, we overlooked several deep valleys to the west, and over them all, the blue horizon of the Mediterranean, south of Cæsarea. On the northern side of the hill there are upwards of twenty more pillars standing, besides a number hurled down, and the remains of a quadrangular colonnade, on the side of the hill below. The total number of pillars on the summit cannot be less than one hundred, from twelve to eighteen feet in height. The hill is strewn, even to its base, with large hewn blocks and fragments of sculptured stone. The present name of the city was given to it by Herod, and it must have been at that time a most stately and beautiful place.

We descended to a valley on the east, climbed a long ascent, and after crossing the broad shoulder of a mountain beyond, saw below us a landscape even more magnificent than that of Nablous. It was a great winding valley, its bottom rolling in waves of wheat and barley, while every hill-side, up to the bare rock, was mantled with groves of olive. The very summits which looked into this garden of Israel, were green with fragrant plants--wild thyme and sage, gnaphalium and camomile. Away to the west was the sea, and in the north-west the mountain chain of Carmel. We went down to the gardens and pasture-land, and stopped to rest at the Village of Geba, which hangs on the side of the mountain. A spring of whitish but delicious water gushed out of the soil, in the midst of a fig orchard. The women passed us, going back and forth with tall water-jars on their heads. Some herd-boys brought down a flock of black goats, and they were all given drink in a large wooden bowl. They were beautiful animals, with thick curved horns, white eyes, and ears a foot long. It was a truly Biblical picture in every feature.

Beyond this valley we passed a circular basin, which has no outlet, so that in winter the bottom of it must be a lake. After winding among the hills an hour more, we came out upon the town of Jenin, a Turkish village, with a tall white minaret, at the head of the great plain of Esdraelon. It is supposed to be the ancient Jezreel, where the termagant Jezebel was thrown out of the window. We pitched our tent in a garden near the town, under a beautiful mulberry tree, and, as the place is in very bad repute, engaged a man to keep guard at night. An English family was robbed there two or three weeks ago. Our guard did his duty well, pacing back and forth, and occasionally grounding his musket to keep up his courage by the sound. In the evening, François caught a chameleon, a droll-looking little creature, which changed color in a marvellous manner.

Our road, next day, lay directly across the Plain of Esdraelon, one of the richest districts in the world. It is now a green sea, covered with fields of wheat and barley, or great grazing tracts, on which multitudes of sheep and goats are wandering. In some respects it reminded me of the Valley of San José, and if I were to liken Palestine to any other country I have seen, it would be California. The climate and succession of the seasons are the same, the soil is very similar in quality, and the landscapes present the same general features. Here, in spring, the plains are covered with that deluge of floral bloom, which makes California seem a paradise. Here there are the same picturesque groves, the same rank fields of wild oats clothing the mountain-sides, the same aromatic herbs impregnating the air with balm, and above all, the same blue, cloudless days and dewless nights. While travelling here, I am constantly reminded of our new Syria on the Pacific.

Towards noon, Mount Tabor separated itself from the chain of hills before us, and stood out singly, at the extremity of the plain. We watered our horses at a spring in a swamp, were some women were collected, beating with sticks the rushes they had gathered to make mats. After reaching the mountains on the northern side of the plain, an ascent of an hour and a-half, through a narrow glen, brought us to Nazareth, which is situated in a cul-de-sac, under the highest peaks of the range. As we were passing a rocky part of the road, Mr. Harrison's horse fell with him and severely injured his leg. We were fortunately near our destination, and on reaching the Latin Convent, Fra Joachim, to whose surgical abilities the traveller's book bore witness, took him in charge. Many others besides ourselves have had reason to be thankful for the good offices of the Latin monks in Palestine. I have never met with a class more kind, cordial, and genial. All the convents are bound to take in and entertain all applicants--of whatever creed or nation--for the space of three days.

In the afternoon, Fra Joachim accompanied me to the Church of the Virgin, which is inclosed within the walls of the convent. It is built over the supposed site of the house in which the mother of Christ was living, at the time of the angelic annunciation. Under the high altar, a flight of steps leads down to the shrine of the Virgin, on the threshold of the house, where the Angel Gabriel's foot rested, as he stood, with a lily in his hand, announcing the miraculous conception. The shrine, of white marble and gold, gleaming in the light of golden lamps, stands under a rough arch of the natural rock, from the side of which hangs a heavy fragment of a granite pillar, suspended, as the devout believe, by divine power. Fra Joachim informed me that, when the Moslems attempted to obliterate all tokens of the holy place, this pillar was preserved by a miracle, that the locality might not be lost to the Christians. At the same time, he said, the angels of God carried away the wooden house which stood at the entrance of the grotto; and, after letting it drop in Marseilles, while they rested, picked it up again and set it down in Loretto, where it still remains. As he said this, there was such entire, absolute belief in the good monk's eyes, and such happiness in that belief, that not for ten times the gold on the shrine would I have expressed a doubt of the story. He then bade me kneel, that I might see the spot where the angel stood, and devoutly repeated a paternoster while I contemplated the pure plate of snowy marble, surrounded with vases of fragrant flowers, between which hung cressets of gold, wherein perfumed oils were burning. All the decorations of the place conveyed the idea of transcendent purity and sweetness; and, for the first time in Palestine, I wished for perfect faith in the spot. Behind the shrine, there are two or three chambers in the rock, which served as habitations for the family of the Virgin.

A young Christian Nazarene afterwards conducted me to the House of Joseph, the Carpenter, which is now inclosed in a little chapel. It is merely a fragment of wall, undoubtedly as old as the time of Christ, and I felt willing to consider it a genuine relic. There was an honest roughness about the large stones, inclosing a small room called the carpenter's shop, which I could not find it in my heart to doubt. Besides, in a quiet country town like Nazareth, which has never knows such vicissitudes as Jerusalem, much more dependence can be placed on popular tradition. For the same reason, I looked with reverence on the Table of Christ, also inclosed within a chapel. This is a large, natural rock, about nine feet by twelve, nearly square, and quite flat on the top. It is said that it once served as a table for Christ and his Disciples. The building called the School of Christ, where he went with other children of his age, is now a church of the Syrian Christians, who were performing a doleful mass, in Arabic, at the time of my visit. It is a vaulted apartment, about forty feet long, and only the lower part of the wall is ancient. At each of these places, the Nazarene put into my hand a piece of pasteboard, on which was printed a prayer in Latin, Italian, and Arabic, with the information that whoever visited the place, and made the prayer, would be entitled to seven years' indulgence. I duly read all the prayers, and, accordingly, my conscience ought to be at rest for twenty-one years.


Bayard Taylor