INTRODUCTORY. THE COUNTRY OF WESTERN PALESTINE. GENERAL FEATURES
This little book will make no attempt to tell all that could be said of its subject, but we hope that its selection of things to tell will be gratifying to you. Our wish is that not many of its pages may be condemned as dry, but that most of them may have interest and refreshment. If sometime when you are tired you can sit down and be pleased with some of these pages, here or there, you will know a little of how the trudging peasant of the village feels as, going over hill after hill, from each top he gazes off towards the west and sees the evening mists thickening and looking like good, cool mountains in the sea. It is pleasant to see the face of the native light up as he catches sight of the clouds heavy with blessings of moisture. Perhaps fierce sirocco days have followed one another for some time, longer than usual. Such days are usually looked for in trios at least, but often they hold for a longer time. Their peculiarly enervating heat is very trying, and when they have passed one welcomes eagerly an evening that brings the heavy mist. This announces that the succession of hot days is broken and that some days of respite are coming. The welcome moisture blesses the vineyards, the fig orchards, the tomatoes, squashes and melons, and it is sure to bring out ejaculations of blessing from the fervent peasant, praising the Father of all, whose favoring mercy he feels.
Look out on a morning early and you will see the mists scudding, drifting, veiling and dissevering like masses of gauze, like streamers of truant hair. Perhaps some near mountain may be cut off from the little hill half-way down by a moat filled with billowing fog. Soon the sun cuts it and scatters it away and the hot, dry day sets in. The roads and rocks are powdered with lime dust, the somber morning tones on the hills are touched with whitening brightness. Here and there is the dusty gray of an olive-orchard or the bright green of vineyards. Overhead, the brightest blue is set with one yellow gem of fire that creeps up and up until noon, and then the toiling peasantry, who have watched this timepiece of the heavens, sit down in the nearest shade to eat their food and chat. That done, they roll over for the luxury of a nap and forget a hot, dry hour in a healthy doze. The click of the chisel in the quarry ceases, the hoe is cast aside, the driver is lying on his face, fast asleep, while the donkey nibbles and rolls his load-sore back deliciously in the dust. The camel sits like a salamander, apparently minding no change of weather. Little birds pant for breath. All is very still and hot.
But work-time comes again before the heat goes, and the workmen half sit up, looking around, perhaps playfully tossing a stick or clod on the head of a lazier comrade. The work-saddles are roped on the backs of the animals. The camel, long habituated to complaining, whether made to kneel or rise again, utters grating gutturals from his long throat. He is the Oriental striker, objecting, vocally, at least, to every new demand upon him. Well waked, the countryside begins to be busy again and work goes on until sundown. As the afternoon slips into the evening you will see traveling peasants hastening to make their villages. The hills are touched with pinks and purples that shade into dark blue. The gray owl calls, the foxes reconnoiter the fields, the village
dogs bark, lights straggle out from the settlements. One may hear the song of a watcher in a vineyard or the bang of his musket as he shoots at a dog or fox meddling with the vines. As we hastened one evening through a village two hours distance from our own, the people, sitting about the doors and in the alleys, seemed astonished and urged us to stop overnight, not understanding our preference to travel on in the growing dusk. But we went on, passing possible sites for Ai, then Bethel and Beeroth, and so to our own Râm Allâh. The way was precarious and stony, with only the starlight to help us, and the evening was chilly.
We might call Palestine, even the western part of it, which is more familiar to us, a world in little, so much has been packed into this little space between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Sometimes it has been a kingdom and sometimes kingdoms. As a province or provinces it has acknowledged masters on the south, east, north and west.
Far back in time the country was the range of numerous unruly tribes. To-day it contains several districts within the Asiatic holdings of the Turkish Empire. As one looks inland from the Mediterranean on the Judean country, first comes the straight unindented coast line of sand, then a fertile strip of land parallel to it in which the orange and the grains flourish. Next comes the secondary ridge of Judean hills; then its primary ridge of mountains. These latter are thirty-five miles from the sea and three fifths of a mile above its level. Now, as we stand on the mountain range, we have only twenty miles between us and the country of the Dead Sea, but a rapid fall in levels which, in so short a distance, makes the sand-hills seem to drop down and away from us in a precipitous stairway to one of the lowest spots on earth, the basin in which the Jordan River and the Dead Sea lie, the so-called Ghôr. This depression is a quarter of a mile below sea-level and hence three quarters
of a mile below the high country in the neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Western Palestine is a limestone country that is, geologically speaking, new. Faulting, erosion and earthquake as well have been hard at work in comparatively recent geological times to make a most diversified surface in a land of short distances. Its rocks are peppered with nodules of flint. The weather wear on the country rocks of some districts allows the flint nodules to drop out, thus leaving a peculiar worm-eaten look in the stones and cliffs. In other localities the cherty material runs in ribbon-like bands within the limestone. The lime rock is often beautified by geode-like recesses of lime crystal, and the slabs of lamellar stone so much used for flooring, window-seats and roofing are frequently penciled with exquisite dendritic markings. Often the face of cleavage between blocks of building material is glazed with a native pink. There are a few houses in the villages whose external walls are constructed of regular blocks so arranged as to alternate in a manner resembling checkerwork of pink and white squares.
One thought that may occur to an American or European as he looks at the numerous hills and mountains up and down the middle and back of Western Palestine is that never before has he had such a fine opportunity to see the shapes of hills and valleys. For at home he seldom sees the whole, real shape of a hill or a mountain, so covered is it with trees or smaller growth. But here there is very little clothing on the hills. Their knobs and shoulders, cliffs and ribs, are almost as naked of trees as the blue skies above them. The rock layers stand out at the worn edges very plainly. Some hills are banded round and round horizontally with successive layers of rock. Others are made up of layers slightly inclined, and some look like giant clam-shells set down on the land. In yet other hills the twistings and heavings have given the sedimentary layers a vertical position up and
down over the mountains, as if they had been tipped over. These bands of rock are usually of limestone interspersed with chunks of chert. Ordinarily the tops of the hills assume a long, sloping, rounded shape because of the soft nature of the rock and the wearing power of the deluging rains.
All around the highland country of Western Palestine are mellow plains and fertile valleys. Up and down the western border between the highlands and the Mediterranean is the Maritime Plain, from eight to fifteen miles wide. Along the eastern edge is the great depression of the Ghôr, the low fertile basin that separates Western from Eastern Palestine and provides a bed for the plunging current of the Jordan and a sink for the Dead Sea. These two fertile strips are barely connected toward the north by an arm of the Ghôr, formerly called the Valley of Jezreel, that reaches to the site of ancient Jezreel, and a succession of plains formerly called the Plain of Esdraelon, that touch the Maritime Plain around the nose of Carmel. The highland country is pierced by many a cut called, in the language of the country, wâd, or wâdy, the equivalent ordinarily of our valley, though the climate of Palestine is such as to make it almost always the case that a wâdy is a brook in the rainy weather of winter and a dry gully during the rest of the year. Some of these wâdys are of considerable breadth and offer arable lands; others are narrow, deep gorges. Into some of these gorges the débris from the hillsides has tumbled so as to make it impossible to use the valley bed as a road even in dry weather.
Many of the passes mentioned in the literature of Palestine are really highland paths. Valleys must often be avoided as impassable during the winter rains and as stiflingly hot in summer. Invading armies would seldom risk using narrow valleys for their approach, as they would be easily assailable from the hillsides.
The limestone is full of holes and caves varying in size from a pocket to a palace. The caves may be near the surface or far in the secret places of the deep-chested mountains. They make reservoirs for the catching of the rain from the surface and hold it through the long dry season, giving some of it in springs and probably losing floods of it in lower and lower caverns. Sometimes the caves are like small rooms, let into the sides of the cliffs, as at ‛Ayn Fâra in the Wâdy Fâra, a few hours northeast of Jerusalem, where there is a suite of four connecting rooms in the side wall of the valley, thirty feet above the path. In front of the rooms is a narrow ledge overhanging the path, and up through this natural platform is a manhole which offers the one way of access from below. All up and down this wâdy are caves, some having been improved, probably for purposes of hermit dwelling. In Wâdy es-Suwaynîṭ, that is, the valley of Michmash, there are a good many such cliff dwellings which seem to be approachable only by a rope let down from the top of the precipice above. All through the wild gorges of the country one is apt to come upon these caves with signs of use in some previous age by troglodytes and hermits. When possible they are now used as goat-pens, and thus offer unclean but dry quarters to any one caught in a rain. At the cave near Kharayṭûn the entrance is difficult to reach, up in the side of a precipitous mountain. It is a narrow passage leading to a large, high, vaulted room, a sort of natural cathedral, with a large side chamber. Thence one may go through a low, tortuous passage to other smaller rooms as far as most of the adventurous care to go, the natives say to Hebron, but the guide-books, something over five hundred feet. About Jeba‛, east of er-Râm, the ground sounds hollow under foot because of caves to which one may descend, in some
cases by cut stairs, to find that the caves have been enlarged and cemented. About two thirds of the way from el-Bîreh to Baytîn, on the left of the path, is a cave which has been made to do service as a catch-basin for the water from the spring above. The mouth of the spring has been enlarged artificially and connected by a rock-cut channel with the cave. This channel has little grooves branching from it and there seem to be here the conveniences of an ancient laundering or fulling place. In the cave are two supporting columns cut from the rock. The interior is well adorned to-day with a pretty growth of delicate maidenhair ferns.
There are many caves in the hillsides of what is called the Samson Country, through which the railway from Jaffa to Jerusalem passes. In and about Jerusalem are caves the discussion of which does not belong here, though they can hardly have failed, in their long association with the history of that city, of having much significant connection with the political and religious history of the people of the country. Such are the caves about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the little one under the great rock beneath the Dome of the Rock, the artificially enlarged caves on the south side of the Valley of Hinnom, the huge cave of Jeremiah, north of the city, under the hill where the Moslems have a cemetery, not to mention its counterpart across the road and under the city, called Solomon’s Quarry or the Cotton Grotto.
Near the village of Ḳubâb, but nearer the tiny village of Abu Shûsheh, is a large cave now used as a sheep and goat pen. It is called by the neighboring Moslems Noah’s Cave. The top of it has evidently at some time fallen in, thus diminishing its size, but giving it an immense mouth, quite conspicuous all about the neighboring country to the north. The peasantry, in their double desire to account for it and also to say something against the Jews, tell this story about
the cave. They say that Noah was making war against the Jews who, being hard pressed, ran into this cave for shelter. Thereupon Noah brought up his heavy guns and bombarded the cave with such effect as to crush in the top, which fell on the Jews, killing them all.
In connection with caves the peasants tell certain stories of hyenas. To the peasant any story that has to do with these creatures is gruesome. The hyena, they say, will accost a lone pedestrian, rub up against him and cast a spell over him until, in a dazed way, the man follows the animal to its cave, where the hyena will despatch him. The tale is continued to describe how the hyena is captured. They say that a man strips himself naked and crawls into the cave of the hyena, carrying one end of a rope which is held by his companions outside. Once inside, his condition deceives the hyena, as does also a cajoling tone which he uses until the creature, quite unsuspecting, begins to fawn and roll over. The man at once secures a leg of the hyena with his rope, whereupon the men outside draw out the beast and kill it with their clubs.
New graves are usually loaded with heavy stones and watched at night to prevent the hyenas from exhuming the dead bodies.
As the rock of the country is of a quickly dissolving kind, the torrential force of the winter rains greatly facilitates soil-making. The ground is strewn with loose stones, in some places so thickly that the soil cannot be seen a few rods away. Soil is carried rapidly about, so that where there are no terraces or pockets to catch it the shelving rock is soon denuded and the only deep earth is found in the valleys or hollow plains.
The Jordan and the ‛Aujâ (Crooked) are the two largest rivers of Palestine; Ḥûleh (Merom), Tiberias (Galilee) and Baḥret Lût (the Dead Sea), its three lakes. There are many streams, brooks and winter ponds that disappear with the
rainy season. In a few deep-cut beds, where strong springs supply the brooks, water flows in a current all the year.
The watershed of Western Palestine is considerably nearer to the Jordan than to the Mediterranean, being about thirty-five or forty miles from the Sea, but scarcely more than twenty miles on the average from the river. The valley courses of the streams generally take a southeasterly direction from the watershed to the Jordan basin, and a northwesterly direction towards the Mediterranean Sea. Those on the east are narrower and more precipitous, since they have on that side of the country the shorter distance and the more remarkable fall in levels.
Fertility and population have generally favored the western side of the watershed, with some notable exceptions. This western slope is flanked by the low-lying hills of the Shephelah and comes gradually down to the Maritime Plain. The hills and plain on this side have very great historical interest and have formed the bridge of the civilizations to the north and to the south of Palestine. At the present time, when travel comes by sea from the Western world, this country is a threshold to the shrines and ancient sites of Syria and the East.
The only ponds in the country are the winter ponds called by the native name, balû‛a. These are formed by the winter rains. They stand for about five months in low places, and then disappear until the next rainy season. Robinson, in 1838, passed by one of these on his way from el-Bîreh to Jifnâ. As his journey that way was on June 13, the pond was then dry. But this same pond may now be seen every winter and spring full of water. The new carriage road cuts the eastern end of it at a point a little over a mile north of el-Bîreh. Another of these ponds may be seen just under the village of Baytûnyeh, towards Râm Allâh. Were it not for such short-lived ponds many of the country people would
have little idea of any body of water larger than a rainwater cistern. The Dead Sea may be seen from the high hills to the east of these ponds and the Mediterranean from those to the west, but only a small proportion of the peasantry ever get to see either one of them. A distant view gives the unexperienced no adequate notion of their size. People living in Jaffa, on the sea, have been known to poke fun at the upland folk and bewilder them with yarns about the sea. One story that they impose on the credulous countryman is that every night, at dark, a cover is put over the sea, as one would cover over a jar of water, or a bowl of dough. One man, on reaching Jaffa late in the afternoon for his first visit, hastened down to the beach in order to see the water before the cover should be put on for the night. Perhaps the best known winter ponds are in the extensive sunken meadows of the Plain of Esdraelon, athwart the way from Jenîn to Nazareth.
The springs of Palestine are its eyes, as the Arabs put it, and when they are sparkling with life the whole face of the country lights up with a wholesome expression. In places where the springs are remote from the present settlements, and now used only for the flocks or by travelers, there are often to be seen remains of former buildings. Sometimes villas or even villages may be traced; old aqueducts also, and ruined reservoirs, showing how great pains were once taken to utilize the water supply. At ‛Ayn Fâra is a copious supply of water forming one of the few perennial brooks. In its deeper pools the herdsmen water and wash their flocks. There is a very feeble attempt at gardening in the vicinity, but for the most part the precious treasure flows away unused. The valley sides show ancient masonry belonging to more thrifty times. On the hill ‛Aṭâra, a mile south of el-Bîreh, are ruined reservoirs to which the waters of the spring now called ‛Ayn en-Nuṣbeh were carried by stone
conduits, of which only small pieces remain. So may similar indications be seen at ‛Ayn Ṣôba, at ‛Ayn Jeriyût, ‛Ayn Kefrîyeh, all of which are west of Râm Allâh. Present-day villages are often a considerable distance from the spring on which they depend for drinking water. Many large places are provided with but one spring. Nazareth and Jerusalem are thus limited to one good spring each. Around the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are warm, even hot, springs once much prized as watering-places. They are generally sulphurous in character. Those at Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, are used now as baths.