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J. W. McGarvey
Lands of the Bible (1881)


L E T T E R   X.


      ON Saturday, May 10th, we started on a tour intended to include all of Palestine south of the parallel of Jerusalem. Leaving our camp, we rode up close to the Joppa gate, then descended the eastern side of the Valley of Hinnom a short distance, and crossed it on the bridge which supports the aqueduct from Solomon's Pools. We were on the road to Bethlehem. As I crossed I rode up to the aqueduct wall and looked into a hole which I had found in the top of the aqueduct a few days before, and saw that the water was still flowing. At intervals all the way to Bethlehem we saw the aqueduct winding round the hillsides, and a woman gave me a drink of water from it just at the edge of that town. On the south side of the town it flows through a cistern, keeps it full, and affords a perpetual supply of water to the Bethlehemites, to be used when their rain water cisterns are exhausted.

      The road to Bethlehem was once covered with a pavement of flat stones, and remnants of it are still seen. The road-bed was 16 or 18 feet wide. The present road is nothing but three or four bridle-paths made by the constant tramp of camels and donkeys and their human companions. The amount of travel over it is second to that over no road leading out of Jerusalem, except the one to Joppa. We met many camels loaded with lime, each carrying about a cart-load in immense sacks which were swung across his back like saddle-pockets, other camels and many donkeys loaded with brush and roots for fuel, and some loaded with charcoal. We also met some two-legged donkeys, walking along with their turbaned heads uplifted, while their wives, trudging behind them, bowed their heads under heavy burdens which they were taking to market. I even saw two or three riding on little donkeys which they could carry on their shoulders, while their wives went before on foot with heavy packs on their heads. I never let one of these fellows pass without giving him a tongue-lashing which would make him warm if he could only understand English.

      When within about two miles of Bethlehem we passed the tomb of Rachel, so called; but it is evidently a Mohammedan structure, and it stands, as we have shown before,1 some miles away from the spot where [488] Jacob set up a pillar over the grave of Rachel. I pay but little attention to traditionary sites which, like this, are contrary to the Scriptures.

      He who approaches Bethlehem with the expectation of seeing a handsome place will be disappointed. It is built of limestone, which has grown dingy from exposure, and the houses have neither visible roofs, nor cornices, nor shutters, nor wood-work of any kind on the outside, except the doors. Many of them have no windows other than little square holes in the wall. The old church of the Nativity, at the east end of the town, is no exception to the general rule. It is unsightly outside, and going to wreck inside. It deserves to go to wreck for keeping up the false pretense of showing, down in a cave, or a cistern, the manger in which Jesus was laid. But at the west end of the town there are some new and modern buildings, and along the Jerusalem road, running north from this point, many new buildings are now in course of erection. It is claimed by the inhabitants that Bethlehem now numbers 10,000 inhabitants, though it is usually put down at 5000, and they are nearly all nominal Christians; but I could see no difference between their outward appearance and that of the Mohammedans, except that the women have a different style of head-dress.

      On leaving Bethlehem, instead of going directly to Solomon's Pools, on the road to Hebron, we struck off to the southeast, and visited what is called "The Frank Mountain," about four miles toward the Dead Sea. Its principal interest is derived from the fact that here, on a conical hill 400 feet above its base on every side, and so steep that even a Syrian horse can climb only halfway, Herod the Great had a palace whose ruins are still there, and that here he was buried, his body being brought hither from Jericho, where he died.

      From this mountain we struck for the pools, and our track for the last two miles of the way was along the bench made for the aqueduct. On reaching the pools we found our tents pitched by the side of the upper pool, and there we remained in camp from Saturday afternoon till Monday morning.

      There are few objects in Palestine which I have felt more anxious to see than these pools and the aqueduct connected with them, and few that are so insufficiently described in the books which I have read. I examined them with the greatest care, and they filled me with more admiration than ever before. Previous to their construction Jerusalem had within it no running water, but was dependent on rain-water caught in cisterns or in wells outside the walls. Such a dependence was too precarious for the capital of a kingdom, and Solomon was too [489] wise a king to be contented with it; so he determined to bring in a constantly-flowing stream by means of an aqueduct. But in order to do this, a sufficiently copious spring must be found at an elevation above Jerusalem; and as Jerusalem is from 2400 to 2500 feet above the sea level, and as springs generally burst out, not at the tops of hills, but far down their slopes, it is clear that such a spring was not to be found at random. The nearest, and the only one within a reasonable distance, was found two miles southwest of Bethlehem, and about eight miles by the nearest road from Jerusalem. I have described the aqueduct and the pools near its fountain-head on pages 222-229, and will not here repeat the description.

      We left Solomon's Pools on Monday morning, May 12th, for Hebron. The distance is about 12 miles, and, though the road passes up hill and down almost continually, there is a general ascent; so that the highest elevation in all Southern Palestine is reached about three miles north of Hebron. It is 3300 feet above the sea. When we were within a mile of Hebron we turned to the right and crossed over to the Plain of Mamre, in order to visit Abraham's Oak. Of this we have given a description and a picture on pages 51, 52. The vines which now cover this plain are an innovation as respects Abraham's time, for the plain was then a pasture; but vines had already taken possession of the soil when the twelve spies were sent into Canaan 300 years later. It was probably in this very plain, then called the Valley of Eshcol, that the spies cut the bunch of grapes which was borne on a staff between two. Such bunches grow there still. I saw many bunches with the grapes just forming, that were 10 or 12 inches long, and were destined to be nearly two feet long when the grapes are ripe. Hebron is represented as the best district for grapes in all Western Asia, with the single exception of Damascus, and its vineyards are far superior to any others that I have seen. The grapes are not utilized to the extent that they would be by an enterprising people, but many of them are made into raisins. I wanted some of the raisins to take home as a specimen, so I told our dragoman to buy me a franc's worth, and I was surprised to receive about four pounds.

      Our tents at Hebron were pitched on the slope of a hill west of the town, and as the town lies on the opposite slope it was in full view from our tent door. It claims about 8000 inhabitants and is a stirring place, though intensely Mohammedan. We could see from our camp the ancient stone wall, supposed to have been built by Solomon, which surrounds and conceals the Cave of Machpelah, wherein lie buried Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. We could [490] see the roof and part of the wall of the church built within the inclosure during the Christian period of Palestine, and afterward turned into a mosque by the Mohammedans. We were also permitted, under the escort of the sheikh of the city, to walk round the inclosure itself and examine its exterior, while the women and boys were cursing us in Arabic and wishing that they dared to stone us.

      From Hebron we made an excursion to En-gedi, an oasis on the desolate western shore of the Dead Sea. Our object was not only to visit the place, conspicuous in Old Testament history, but to see the barren hills which form the western shore of the Dead Sea and the country westward about ten miles. The path which we followed was very direct, and the greater part of it was a much better road than I expected to see; but at two places we had a trial of mountain riding more severe than any in our previous experience. Our road, for a mile or two, was a mere goat-path on the side of a mountain whose slope was so steep that if man or beast should fall, there would be no stopping short of the rocky bed of the ravine, and that was at least 1000 feet by the slope below us. The path in many places was not more than 12 inches wide, and it had a little slant in the wrong direction. I could not look down without being nervous; but, though I tried to keep my eye fixed on the path before me, I could not resist the inclination to look downward occasionally. To add to my nervousness, my horse persisted in walking on the outer edge of the path, while I leaned and drew the rein in the opposite direction. He reminded me of many young Christians who are constantly treading on the very verge of propriety, as if to show how near they can approach destruction and yet escape it. I spoke of dismounting, but the dragoman insisted that it was safer for both the horse and myself that I remain in the saddle, and he closed by saying, "The horse is very wise:" so I trusted to horse wisdom, and passed through in safety. The other place was the cliff which rises above En-gedi. When we reached the mountain-top overlooking the Dead Sea, we found that we were on an almost perpendicular cliff of brown and rugged rock, 2000 feet above the spring, and it appeared impossible for a horse to descend it. But we dismounted, the Ar'ab attendants led our horses, and we followed. By a series of very short zigzags, over rough stones, over smooth slanting rock, and down steps from one to two feet perpendicular, we slowly and carefully picked our way, while the grandeur of the scenery continually increased as the dark, frowning precipice rose higher and higher above us. In half an hour the 2000 feet of descent were passed, and we stood on a bench of the mountain, 600 feet yet above [491] the sea, by the side of a rushing stream of pure and sparkling water. It gushes forth from under mountains which look as if they had never received a drop of rain; it makes verdant a few acres of ground; it rushes down the remainder of the precipice, turning a mill when the mill is in repair, and, although it has only a half-mile of beach to cross after completing the descent, so thirsty are the sands of that beach that the stream is lost before it reaches the sea.

      After a brief rest Frank and I walked down to the sea to take a bath. There was a stiff breeze from the north, and the waves were rolling two or three feet high. This delighted us, for we expected to have a wave-bath after the fashion at Cape May; but when we tried it we found that our feet would go up and our heads down. The first we knew, our eyes were full of the water and smarting so that we could not open them until the tears washed out the brine. Meantime, we were learning how to keep our feet under, and were getting farther and farther from shore. When we learned to keep our equilibrium, and could open our eyes, the ride over the waves as they came in was delightful.

      After enjoying this to our satisfaction we turned toward the shore, and experienced the old difficulty in a new form. There was an undercurrent drawing us out to sea, and as we tried to swim against it every wave that overtook us threw our feet out of water, so we were compelled to swim with our hands alone. The exertion was so great that by the time I reached water in which I could touch bottom the strength of my arms was almost exhausted. No one who is not a good swimmer should venture into the Dead Sea beyond his depth when the waves are rolling. After our bath we started for the mouth of an enormous fissure in the mountains, a short distance to the right, whose grandeur had excited our admiration. As we approached it we came to a feeble stream of water just sinking in the sand. The farther we went the broader and stronger this stream became, and when we entered the mouth of the gorge we saw before us a fine cascade leaping over a perpendicular ledge of rock 25 feet high. It had scooped out, where it fell, a round basin in the solid rock 6 feet deep and about 30 feet in diameter, which was full to the brim with sparkling water. We were soon plunging about in this to wash away the gummy coating which the Dead Sea water had left on our bodies. This coating made one feel, to use Brother Taylor's expression, as if he had been "smeared all over with molasses."

      The hills composing the wilderness along the western shore of this sea consist chiefly of a soft limestone, which varies in color from a [492] tawny to a dark brown when long exposed, but is almost as white as snow when freshly uncovered. Nothing grows there except two little bushy shrubs, one of which is called by the Ar'abs the blacksmith-bush and the other the bachelor-bush. The last is well named, for you never see two of them growing together. A ride through this region is usually attended with great discomfort and some danger to health, on account of the glare of the white hillsides in the hot sun, but we were favored with a cloudy day and a north wind, for which we were truly thankful.

      On our return from En-gedi to Hebron we made a detour to the southward in order to see Ziph, near which David and his men were lurking when the Ziphites betrayed them to Saul, and Carmel, where were the possessions of the churlish Nabal.2

      The town of Ziph stood on the summit of a rounded hill, five miles southeast of Hebron, with broad, rich valleys at its base and a beautiful country spreading far away to the south and southwest, a part of the Negeb. There is nothing left of the town except its cisterns and sepulchres and the broken pottery that is intermixed with the soil. The terraced sides of the hill and its leveled summit are cultivated in grain. As I stood there and looked around where the dust of David's betrayers had enriched the soil, I felt like saying, "You Ziphites, you were a mean set, and you deserved the fate which has befallen you; for you betrayed the innocent to make favor with the powerful. May such be the fate of all who follow your detestable example!"

      In coming from Ziph to Hebron we saw, perched on a high hill to the west of us, the ancient town of Juttah, supposed to have been the birthplace and early home of John the Baptist. No other city of Judah answers the natural requirements of the case so well. The Roman Catholics, however, with their usual disregard of evidence, long ago fixed on a village about four miles west of Jerusalem as the place of John's residence, and there they have erected extensive convent buildings, with beautiful gardens and orchards around them.

      In returning to Hebron we rode against a strong north wind which was so cold that we took our shawls from our saddles and wrapped them around us. In the camp that evening we took seats by George's charcoal-fire at the kitchen-tent, and the next morning the thermometer was down to 42°. This was the coldest weather we felt in Palestine. [493]

      1 Page 216. [488]
      2 1 Sam. xxiii. 19-29; xxv. [493]


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J. W. McGarvey
Lands of the Bible (1881)

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