[Table of Contents]
[Previous] [Next]
J. W. McGarvey
Lands of the Bible (1881)


C H A P T E R   V.


§ I.


      THE American traveler in Palestine sees nothing which contrasts more strongly with the aspect of his own country than the appearance of the houses, both inside and out. He sees no wooden houses nor shingled roofs. There is at present only one framed house in all Palestine, and that is a small school-house in Joppa occupied by an American lady. It was made in America and transported in pieces to Joppa. Neither does he see a single house built of bricks. Burnt bricks are unknown in the country, from the fact that fuel is too scarce and costly to justify the burning. It is a sufficient draft on it to burn a small amount of pottery and the smallest quantity of lime that can be made to answer the necessities of builders. Chimneys are likewise unseen, and both fireplaces and stoves are unknown. If you were to speak to a Syrian of the "family fireside" you would speak in an unknown tongue. All the houses of the country are built either of stone or of sun-dried bricks. Among the rocky hills where stone is abundant it is employed almost exclusively, and everywhere it is the material of the better class of houses. Not only the walls of the houses, but the stair-steps and the roofs are built of stone. The floors themselves are stone or cement, or tiles laid upon cement. Wood is used only where it is indispensable. In the stone houses the doors and windows are often the only parts made of wood, though sometimes wooden joists are employed to support the second floor. The walls of the better class of stone houses are built of hewed stone, but those of the inferior class are built of rough stones picked up from the surface of the earth and laid in a large amount of mortar. The mortar used is often little more adhesive than mud, it being a capital point with builders to use as little lime as possible. But the lime itself is beautifully white, and the plastering is very durable. The cement which is to be exposed to the weather or to the tramping of feet is also very hard, and impervious to water. [103]

      The sun-dried bricks are nothing more than masses of mud, thickly intermixed with the short straw from the threshing-floors, pressed by hand into a wooden mould, and then laid in the sun to dry. The author saw a brick-yard, if it might be dignified with the name, in operation on the Plain of Sha'ron. Two or three women were working up the dark surface-soil at the edge of a puddle of water into a stiff mud, and stirring into it the short straw of the threshing-floor. They operated with their naked feet and some rude hoes. Another carried the mud in her hands, when properly prepared, to the moulder. The mould had spaces for only two bricks at a time, each about twelve inches long, eight wide, and six deep. When the mould was filled it was lifted up, leaving the bricks on the ground, and placed at a distance in front, ready for another supply of mud. The bricks are turned over occasionally while drying. The straw helps to keep them in shape while drying, and tends to prevent them from wasting in the rain and from crumbling in the dry weather. Such were the bricks made by Israel for Pharaoh in the time of the Egyptian bondage.

      Tiles, which were used to some extent for roofing houses in the New Testament period,1 are not now seen in Palestine. Doubtless the increasing scarcity of fuel for baking them, and of timber for supporting them on the roof, has led to their disuse.

§ II.


      All the houses in the cities of the hill country are built of stone; and most of those in the cities of the plains, such as Joppa, Haifa, and A'cre, are of the same material. Gaza, however, is an exception, being situated where stone is not easily procured.

      All the better class of city buildings are two stories high. They are built compactly against each other, no open spaces being left except the streets; and, in case of the largest houses, an open court in the centre. Such a thing as a yard about a house is unknown. The lower stories are usually occupied for business purposes of some kind, and the upper stories by the families. The windows are chiefly in the upper stories. They are usually very small, and are often covered with an unpainted wooden lattice, or a network of iron bars. Windows of the lower stories are invariably protected in the latter way for the purpose of guarding against burglars. The doors are heavy and strong, and by [104] no means ornamental. They are seldom painted. The ceilings are seldom supported by wooden joists; they are usually vaulted with stone, the vaults being plastered on the under side and levelled on top for the second floor. The vault of the uppermost story is levelled on top for a flat roof, though sometimes the highest part of the vault is left to project in the centre of the roof, and is finished as a plastered dome. Such domes are especially common in Jerusalem. The thickness of the walls, ceilings, and roofs renders the houses comparatively cool in summer.

      The space left for streets is very narrow, often not more than six feet, and seldom more than twelve. Sometimes there is a narrow sidewalk, a little elevated above the street, but usually there is none. The streets are usually paved with stones whose tops have worn smooth and round so that they are very slippery. Both man and beast must tread carefully on them to avoid a fall, and the care taken renders walking on them quite fatiguing. In a few instances the streets are paved for short distances with smooth flag-stones, and streets not much used are sometimes not paved at all.

      The narrowness of the streets was intended for the double purpose of keeping out the hot rays of the sun and of economizing space within the walls of the city. The former purpose is still further secured by covering the streets in many places with matting stretched across on poles from the roofs of the houses on either side, and sometimes by turning arches of stone across the streets from the walls of the houses. Sometimes these arches serve the additional purpose of supporting rooms above them which are connected with the houses. In all such places the streets are considerably darkened; but the exchange of some light for a cooler temperature is a good bargain in that hot country.

      These street coverings are nearly always found along those portions of the streets occupied by the bazaars, or the rows of small shops for the transaction of business. Each of these shops is a small room in the front of the house, from six to ten feet square, the side next to the street entirely open during business hours, but entirely closed with wooden shutters at other hours. The other three sides, without doors or windows, are entirely occupied with shelves and goods. The floor is elevated about two feet above the street, and the dealer sits on a mat in the middle of it ready to wait on his customers. He smokes his pipe if not busy, and sometimes, in dull days, he falls asleep. He can reach the articles most frequently called for without rising, and he never rises if he can avoid it. All the shops on the same street for the sale of the same article are grouped together, and often all in the entire [105] city. There is the silk bazaar, the cotton bazaar, the shoe bazaar, the grocers' bazaar, etc. But sometimes, as in Jerusalem, there are many persons of different nationalities or religions doing business in the same city, and then the bazaars take the names of these, as the Turkish, the Jewish, the Christian bazaar, etc. The blacksmiths, coppersmiths, carpenters, and other craftsmen, have also their bazaars, and their shops differ in size but little from those of the merchants.

      The walls of the walled cities are built in the manner prevalent four hundred years ago, before the general use of heavy artillery, and from that period back to remote antiquity. They are now utterly useless, except to regulate the ingress and egress of citizens and soldiers; and they obstruct these while they regulate them. No guards are stationed on them, no special care is taken to preserve them, and persons are allowed to walk about on them at will. Jerusalem, indeed, is the only city in Palestine whose wall is yet preserved entire, those of the other cities having either totally disappeared, or been preserved, as in Nab'lus and Haifa, only on one or two sides of the city. That of A'cre has been displaced on the land side by a strictly modern fortification, intended to resist an attack from artillery.

      A city gate is not a mere opening in the wall, with a heavy shutter to close it; but it is a square tower, usually twenty or thirty feet square, and projecting beyond the wall both without and within. The outer entrance is through one side of this tower, and the inner through the side at right angles to it; so that after entering the tower you turn either to the right or the left--usually to the left--to enter the city. This made it more difficult for an enemy to force his way into the city, and it prevents one who is outside from seeing in or shooting in when the gate is open. A'cre is the only city whose gates are now closed at night. Wherever there are gates there is an armed guard both day and night, but there is no hindrance to the passage of the people. The open spaces about the gates and that within the tower are the resort, as they have ever been, of idlers, beggars, and news-gatherers, and they naturally serve the purpose of meeting-places for friends. Here men exchange greetings, engage in conversation, or transact business, as the occasion may suggest.

§ III.


      As we have remarked in the foregoing section, the better houses of the villages are built of stone, like those in the cities, and in those villages that are situated in rocky districts all the houses are of the same [106] material. But the inferior houses are built of stones picked up from the surface, of every shape and almost every size. They are rudely built into the walls, and the walls themselves are usually not more than from eight to ten feet high. The house contains but a single room, and the flat roof is made of poles plastered together with a cement made of clay mixed with straw. This cement is put on in layers, and beaten and rolled with a stone roller until it is hard enough to walk upon and impervious to water. The eaves extend about two feet beyond the walls on every side, in order to throw the water away from the walls in winter. On account of the great weight of this roof, if the room is of any considerable size, one or more rude props are placed under it at its weakest points, making a cumbrous obstruction within the room. These houses are usually the merest huts, with none of the comforts or conveniences of civilized life. They afford a dry and warm shelter from the cold rains of winter, and they afford a hiding-place for household goods; but they have no attractions, and their owners prefer to spend all of their time out of doors, except when the weather or the necessities of life compel them to remain within. As habitations they are superior only to the huts of sun-dried brick which are occupied by the poorest villagers in the plains.

      These huts are commonly called by writers on the country "mud houses," an expression which is somewhat misleading. The walls are never run up more than six or eight feet high, and the roofs are made of sticks and long coarse weeds, matted together with a cement made of the same material as the brick, and usually laid on about a foot thick. The roofs have a self-supporting strength far above what one would imagine, and persons are often seen walking about on them. They are favorite resorts for the barking dogs, when a company of strangers are riding by. There they can bark in safety, out of reach of the traveler's dog, and in no danger of being run over by the traveler's horse. Moreover, they can see the whole troup of the invaders at a glance, and dogs love to see as well as to bark.

      Sometimes the walls of these huts, for their better protection against the weather, are plastered outside with a brown mortar, and in rare instances this mortar is ornamented with a white or colored wash. They are also sometimes plastered inside. The floor within is of clay, and is seldom elevated above the surface of the street. Indeed, the narrow street is so constantly receiving accretions of filth and trash that its surface is often elevated above the floors of the huts. If the stone huts are uncomfortable and unattractive, still more so are those made of mud. They have no windows at all, the only light and [107] ventilation being received through the door. The people have invented two devices to escape the intolerable heat and bad air within them at night,--one is to construct, adjoining the outer wall and close to the door, a kind of plastered platform on which to spread their mattresses. Only those who have a little door-yard inclosed with a mud-wall can sleep in this way without too much exposure. Such yards are not uncommon in the larger villages. The other device is to build little booths out of reeds or the branches of trees, on top of the houses, and sleep there during the hottest weather. Even people who live in stone houses and in the cities very often resort to the housetop for a cool place to sleep; and houses of the better class are usually supplied with battlements around the eaves, which hide the sleepers from the eyes of their neighbors.

      The streets in the villages are scarcely worthy of the name. It seems as if every man has built his house where he chose, without regard to others, except that he left a space wide enough to reach his own door. Consequently the streets have no regularity in regard either to width or direction. They are often not more than four feet wide, and seldom wider than six feet; but open spaces of all shapes are found here and there. The streets run in all directions, and they often terminate abruptly at the door of a habitation. A stranger is easily lost in trying to ride through them.

      Nearly all the villages of the country are built on elevated spots. Some of them are perched on the tops of high hills, and such situations were anciently selected more frequently than at present, as is proved by the frequency with which deserted ruins are found on these lofty sites. But the modern village is usually built on a bench of the mountain, or on the rounded summit of a more moderate elevation. Even those in the Plains of Sha'ron and Philis'tia are nearly all situated on elevations either natural or artificial.

§ IV.


      Every American who visits Palestine is interested in visiting mosques and churches, and he finds both quite different from what he would suppose if he were to judge from the sacred buildings of his own country.

      These buildings, like all others in Palestine of any considerable size, are of stone. The Roman Catholic churches (called Latin in [108] that country) are usually small rectangular chapels, not materially different from the small houses of the same sect in this country. Only in Nazareth and Jerusalem have they churches of any pretensions as regards style and extent. They have some chapels or places of saying mass in grottos, and one at the place now called Aceldama, near Jerusalem, in an ancient sepulchre. All of their places of worship are supplied more or less with pictures of the saints and of Jesus, but none are supplied with seats for the congregation. The people who come in at the hours of mass are expected merely to pray and then retire. While praying they are on their knees, and if they remain to witness the procession of the priests they stand or sit on the floor. This church has several monastery buildings of some magnitude, but they are all plain stone buildings without external ornamentation.

      The Greek chapels are not unlike the Latin in external appearance. Inside they are usually supplied with a single row of rudely-constructed seats around the wall, intended for the comfort of old persons. The altar is at the end opposite the door, and is shut off by a partition extending entirely across the room. This partition is usually hung with tawdry pictures, possessing no merit at all as works of art, and it is gilded and painted in a fantastic style. A door in front of the altar is thrown open for the ingress and egress of the priests, and through it the people have glimpses of the ceremonies performed within. One of the finest sacred buildings in Palestine is a church of this order erected at the expense of the Russian government within the Russian possessions near Jerusalem. The Greek Church has monasteries also at various sacred places, many of which have been recently built, but, like the Latin structures of the kind, they are very plain buildings outside and very bare inside.

      The Mohammedan mosques are still plainer structures than the churches, either Latin or Greek. They are usually square buildings, with little or no ornamentation either outside or inside. No pictures nor statues are ever seen about them, the use of both, either in sacred edifices or private houses, being forbidden by the Koran on account of their connection with idolatry and saint-worship. Sometimes a rude fresco is seen on the inner walls, and the roof is often supported by handsome columns. An arcade forming a kind of portico sometimes extends across the front of the building, and there is often a paved space in front or entirely around the building. Every mosque is provided with a tank of pure water, in which the feet, hands and faces of the worshipers are washed before they pray. The floors within are usually covered with matting, on which the worshipers kneel to say their prayers or [109] sit to hear the sermon, which is preached on Friday. There are no seats of any kind. The most distinguishing feature of the mosque is its minaret. This is a tall shaft built of stone, rising from one corner of the mosque, with a balcony near the top, around which the Muezzin walks as he utters his call to prayer. The shaft is usually circular, but sometimes octagonal. It is sometimes built of hewed stones and sometimes of rough stones plastered outside. A winding stone stairway ascends inside, by which the Muezzin climbs to the balcony. These minarets rising above a town or city give a pleasing relief to the monotony of the unornamented stone buildings and flat roofs. They are more picturesque than the church spires and steeples of the Western world.

      Another class of sacred structures peculiar to Mohammedan countries are the tombs of the Mohammedan saints. These are nearly all built after one model, being cubical stone buildings from ten to twenty feet in length, width and height, surmounted by domes of the same material, plastered and whitewashed. Sometimes there is attached to one side a room whose front is an open archway, and which serves as a sheltered place of prayer for those who visit the saint. They are usually built in conspicuous places, and they are often seen on the tops of the highest mountains. Being whitewashed, they are seen at a great distance, and the traveler is nearly always in sight of one or more of them. They are variously called Kub'beh (dome), Mazâr' (shrine), and Mukâm' (a station). The last is the Hebrew name for the "high places" of the Canaanites which Israel was required to destroy.2 They are also called Wel'y, "beloved of God;" but this is the title of the person rather than of the tomb. Sometimes they are called Neb'y (prophet) so-and-so, the person again being put for the place. [110]

      1 Luke v. 19. [104]
      2 Conder, Tent-Work, ii. 219. See also Part Second, Chapter VIII., § 3 of this work. [110]


[LOB 103-110]

[Table of Contents]
[Previous] [Next]
J. W. McGarvey
Lands of the Bible (1881)

Back to BibleStudyGuide.org.

These files are public domain. This electronic edition was downloaded from the Restoration Movement Texts.