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


L E T T E R   X I.


      FROM Hebron to Beer'-sheba is about 30 miles in a southwesterly direction. At about 12 miles we reached the village of Dahirî'yeh, which lies among the last of the hills, the remainder of the distance being through the plain where Abraham and Isaac fed their flocks and dug their wells while sojourning in the country of Abimelech. Here a striking historical coincidence had just occurred. In conversation with the sheikh of the village, who called at our camp, I learned that his people and those of another village farther south had recently had a fight, in which five men were killed, and that the quarrel was about the ownership of a well which lies between the two villages. At once I was reminded of the quarrel which arose between Isaac and the herdsmen of Abimelech in this very vicinity, nearly 4000 years ago, for the very same cause.

      It was with deep and solemn satisfaction that, after visiting the favorite residence of these venerable patriarchs, and their appropriate burial-place, I was now permitted to rest where the grove which Abraham here planted once cast a shade, and to refresh myself with the same water from which he drank. Along the plain above, and close about the wells, cities have risen and fallen since that day, and we rode among their ruins; but now, in these ends of the ages, these silent wells remain as they were when Isaac left them, without a perfect habitation within many miles of them, the property of all who go to them for refreshment, the exclusive inheritance of none.

      Beer'-sheba is the last point in the desert on the route from Egypt to Palestine by way of Mount Sinai, and this is the proper place in which to say something of the region lying between the head of the gulf of Ak'abah and Beer'-sheba.

      This region is divided into three districts,--the Wilderness of the Wandering, including the desert between the base of the Sinaitic peninsula and the first habitable district south of Palestine; the South Country, including all between the desert and the thickly-settled territory of Judah; and Edom, including the mountainous region extending from the southern end of the Dead Sea to the northern end of the Gulf of Ak'abah. Of the first we need only say that it is still, as it was [494] anciently, "a waste, howling wilderness,"1 almost totally uninhabited, and seldom traversed even by the Bed'awin Ar'abs.

      The second, the South Country, was once well settled and well cultivated, as is clear from the ruins of many cities and towns now scattered over its surface. Even now its pasturage is excellent in the early spring, and in many parts of it wheat is grown successfully. But the ruins now found there belong principally to the Christian period of its history, between the destruction of Jerusalem and the Mohammedan invasion. In the period of Jewish history it was occupied, as it is now, by nomadic tribes such as the Am'alekites.

      Between the southern end of the Dead Sea and the northern end of the Gulf of Ak'abah, there is a continuation of that long depression which constitutes the Jordan Valley. It is a narrow, sandy plain, with a perpendicular cliff rising from its western side up to the level of the desert, and the mountains of Edom rising abruptly from it on the east. It is called the Ar'abah, and the march of the children of Israel, when they turned south from Kadesh-Barnea to compass the land of Edom, was along its sandy bed. It was on this march that they came to Mount Hor, where Aaron was required, after climbing to the top of the mountain, to give up his life. This mountain stands near the Ar'abah, and about halfway between its northern and southern extremities. It is more than 4000 feet high above the sea-level, and it requires a very fatiguing climb on foot to reach its summit. On its highest peak stands a Mohammedan wely called Aaron's Tomb, which is greatly revered by the Bed'awin of the surrounding country. They call the mountain Jebel Ha'rûn,--the mountain of Aaron. The structure is 32 by 35 feet in exterior dimensions, and it is well represented in the cut on the following page.

      Its interior is thus described by Dr. Ridgaway, who visited it in 1874: "Pushing aside an old rickety door which scarcely hangs upon its hinges, we entered the open chamber where is the tomb proper. It is like an ordinary Moslem grave, with Arabic characters inscribed upon it, with bits of cloth hanging about it, and ostrich eggs and other simple emblems hanging above it. The room is plain, with arched ceiling, the sides pierced with small windows, and some fragments of tesselated pavement on the floor. The real tomb is below the floor, in the crypt, into which the superstitious Mohammedans are loath to allow infidels to enter. But we went down, pushed through an old iron door, and by aid of a candle and magnesium light saw--nothing."2 As the [495] structure is of Mohammedan origin, it must have been erected, of course, since the Mohammedan invasion; but it may have taken the place of some pre-existing tomb, or it may have been erected without a predecessor, in honor of "the prophet Aaron," for whom the mountain was named.

      Between Mount Hor and the Red Sea (the Gulf of Ak'abah), as Israel was marching along the southern slope of the Ar'abah, occurred the well-known visitation of fiery serpents, whose bite was healed by a look at the brazen serpent suspended on a pole in the camp.3

      A few miles from Mount Hor, in the midst of the mountains eastward of it, is the celebrated city called Petra,--the rock. It is one of the


most curious cities in the world, yet of its early history very little is known, and its very existence was lost sight of for many centuries until its ruins were discovered by Burckhardt in 1812. It was built in a deep basin in the mountains, surrounded on every side by precipitous cliffs, and approached by only one narrow pass between perpendicular ledges of rock. This pass, for nearly a mile as it descends toward the city, is in many places not more than 12 feet wide, and a small stream flows along its bed. It finally opens out into a wider valley called Wâd'y Musa, and this into the area which was occupied by the city. Over this area are scattered the fragments of ancient dwellings, palaces, and temples, while the perpendicular walls of variegated sandstone all around are excavated for tombs and small temples. But the most [496]

Page 497.      

remarkable structure is a temple of large dimensions and elaborate workmanship carved entirely out of natural rock in the face of a perpendicular cliff. It is called by the Ar'abs El Kûs'neh, and it is represented in the cut on the opposite page.

      Its height is about 150 feet, and, as can be seen in the cut, its columns are of the Corinthian order. "The perfection of its preservation," says Dr. Ridgaway, "is marvelous, the finest carving looking as though but a day from the touch of the chisel, and only here and there a column or a figure has perished." It has a single interior chamber, which is without ornamentation, and the design of the entire work is an enigma. It was certainly not carved out by the ancient sons of Esau, who held this country during the period of Bible history, yet the existence of such a work and of such a city as that of which it is a representative shows that the land of Edom was once capable of supporting a rich and powerful people. Its valleys and elevated plains are still exceedingly productive, and should the tide of intelligent emigration once set in upon it, it may yet be made to bloom again as a garden.

      On Saturday afternoon we left Beer'-sheba on our way to Gaza, and our camp for Sunday, May 18th, was on Wâd'y Sharî'a, a perennial stream which flows from the hills west of Hebron across the southern end of the Philis'tine Plain and enters the Mediterranean south of Gaza. We were in the midst of a large tribe of Bed'awin, whose encampments dotted the plains in every direction, while their herds of camels were grazing in groups, or marching in solemn procession to and from the water, and their harvesters, both men and women, were everywhere at work in the unfenced fields of grain. I thought of Samson and his foxes, and could see that a fire once set out in these fields of dead-ripe grain would spread without hindrance over the whole country. The modes of handling grain are the same that they were in the days of Isaac, and we have fully described them elsewhere.4 While some of the men, women, and boys are engaged in harvesting, a detachment of women and boys are at work bringing water to the laborers and to the camps. It is brought partly in goat-skins, the bottles of Scripture, and partly in small-mouthed jars, or large-mouthed jugs, I scarcely know which to call them, holding about five gallons each. These are swung in pairs across the backs of small donkeys, or the jars, if the distance is moderate, are poised singly on the heads of the women. The women have learned to balance them so skillfully that they seldom steady them [497] with their hands. To add to this interesting picture of nomad life, the sheikh of the tribe visited our camp in company with several of his men, and they brought with them a beautiful yearling lamb, led by a cord, as a present to our dragoman. They received presents in return, and remained all night with us. We gave them a hospitable (?) sleeping-place on the bare ground outside of our tents, but the loamy plain did not furnish a single stone for a pillow; for be it known that stones are still used as pillows by the sleepers in the desert, and I know by experience that they are a real comfort. I throw my blanket-shawl on the ground at noon, with one end folded on a stone, and under the shade of a fig- or olive- or carob-tree it is a bed that any weary man would enjoy. So the Bedawi uses his woolen outer garment, which protects him from the sun during the day and serves as his bed and cover by night. This sheikh appealed to me very earnestly in behalf of a cousin of his, who had been held by the Turks as a prisoner in Jerusalem for twenty-two months on account of a fight between his tribe and another. He claimed that his cousin had been guilty of no personal crime, and said that there was no way of getting a case through the Turkish courts except by bribery. He wanted me to induce the American consul to use his influence to effect his cousin's release, and when I promised to do what I could he expressed his gratitude by touching my heart and kissing my hand. I was faithful to my promise, and Colonel Wilson, our consul, assured me that he would use his utmost influence in the case if he could manage to do so without appearing to intermeddle.

      On Monday, the 19th of May, we continued our journey to Gaza, reaching there about noon. It is distant from Beer'-sheba about 30 miles, the latter place being southeast of it. The modern Gaza contains about 15,000 inhabitants, and is a place of considerable business. Its houses are nearly all miserable huts built of sun-dried brick, but it has some respectable buildings, the most respectable of which is an old Christian church turned into a mosque. The ancient Gaza stood between the present town and the sea. Its site is traceable only by the mounds of rubbish formed by the crumbling of its larger buildings, while the sites of all its smaller structures are hidden under heaps of sand. But little is left to interest the Bible student.

      We rode up the coast 12 miles to Askelon, our path lying along the beach, where the waves of the sea frequently washed our horses' feet, and the horses trod continually upon small sea-shells of brilliant colors. We gathered as many of the more beautiful shells as we could well carry, but we rode over thousands of wagon-loads of them that [498] would be acceptable presents at home. The ruins at Askelon are very extensive and interesting, but they are chiefly those of the walls and buildings erected by Richard Cœur de Lion while here as a Crusader in the year 1192.5

      From Askelon we struck across the Philis'tine Plain again, in a line nearly parallel with that by which we had approached Gaza. We found the plain here, as below, a vast grain-field; but, unlike that below, it was dotted by numerous villages instead of the black tents of the Bed'awin. The people here, as everywhere else in Palestine, except among the Bed'awin, live in villages and cultivate the surrounding fields. Near the villages are the vineyards, gardens, and fruit-orchards, all of which, in the plain, are protected by cactus-hedges; while farther out are the fields of grain entirely unfenced. All cattle and sheep are kept constantly in charge of shepherds.

      We spent the night at Mejdel, some three or four miles from Askelon. It is a thriving town, in the midst of the best-cultivated district in all Palestine, except that immediately about Joppa. Here our cook was taken sick, and sent for me to give him medicine. I found him suffering severe pain, and suspected that imprudent eating was the cause; but he insisted that he had eaten nothing unusual. I finally asked the dragoman what he had been eating, and he said he knew of nothing except some cucumbers which the men had bought by the way. The cucumbers were 8 or 10 inches long, and very large. I said, "George, how many of those big cucumbers did you eat?" He innocently answered, "Only nine!" And when I scolded him for eating so many, he said he had eaten nine many a time. I gave him a severe dose of medicine, and he was well enough to cook breakfast the next morning.

      We struck the hills near Bêt Jibrîn' (pronounced Bate Jibreen') which was called in the crusading times Eleutheropolis. It is now a city of ruins, and it is most remarkable for the vast artificial caverns which abound in its vicinity, and which show plainly, by their interior arrangement, that they were made for human habitations. They are cut in a soft white limestone, they have lofty arched ceilings with an opening in the apex to let in light, and they have passages opening from one to the other like the doors from one room to another in a dwelling. It was doubtless in some such cave-dwelling that David and his men made their home near Adullam.

      Our next movement was northward along the dividing-line between Judah and the Philis'tines, as far as Gath. It was Lieutenant Conder [499] who first identified the site of this city, and it is one well worthy of the city's fame. It is the leveled summit of a hill at least 500 feet above the surrounding valleys, and the ascent to it is so steep on every side that it requires a Syrian horse to climb it. From the southern extremity of the summit the view stretches out over the whole country of the Philis'tines, and the signal-fire lighted here could be instantly seen from all the confederated cities. Along its northern base passes the Valley of Elah, here a beautiful plain a mile wide, and rich in waving grain. It was down this valley that the Philis'tines fled after the death of Goliath, and this noted event occurred but a few miles above. Before visiting the spot of this last event, we rode across the mountains northeastward, to visit Timnath, the Valley of Sorek, Zorah, and Beth'-shemesh. After passing Timnath, which is now a village built of ancient ruins, we climbed over the top of a rugged hill, too rough with massive rocks for cultivation, and thickly set between the rocks with scrubby brush. Over this hill Samson had to pass in going from Zorah to see his beloved Timnath, and here he must have met and slain the lion.

      When we reached the northern brow of the same hill, the Valley of Sorek spread before us, and we involuntarily reined in our horses to gaze upon its beauty. From Beth'-shemesh, whose identity is unmistakable, about three miles to our right, the smooth trough of the valley passed by beneath our feet, and stretched away to the west, widening as it went, and variegated everywhere with alternate strips of yellow and green grain and freshly-ploughed ground. For a few miles the hills, with decreasing height, bounded it on either side, and beyond its border was the slightly higher level of the Philis'tine Plain. Far off in the dim distance the eye could barely detect the small village where Ekron once stood, and along the smooth floor of the valley it could trace the entire course of the milch-kine as they brought back the ark of God, followed by the wondering lords of the Philis'tines. The Beth-shemites were then engaged in gathering their harvest, and the harvest was ripe for the sickle as we gazed upon it. Our appreciation of the scene was fully expressed by Frank, who broke the silence by saying, "It looks like one of the valleys that we see in pictures."

      From the Valley of Sorek we made a circuit around to the spot, some four miles south of Beth'-shemesh, where David slew Goliath. The place, and almost the exact spot, where this combat occurred, are easily identified, there being only one in the Valley of Elah suited in every particular to the Scripture narrative. This we have fully described on pages 259, 260.

      From the Valley of Elah we returned to Jerusalem. Our path for [500] the first few miles was along the ancient road from Jerusalem to Gaza; but we turned to the left and climbed the precipitous, rocky hill of Bêt Atâb', which has been identified as the Rock E'tam where Samson took refuge after burning the grain-fields of the Philis'tines.6 We inquired for the large cavern which Conder supposes Samson to have occupied, and a villager led us to a cave very suitable for the purpose, but not answering to Conder's description. I think the fellow misled us, thinking that we would give him more buckshîsh' to lead us to the other cave; but our dragoman was not with us to-day, having gone directly to Jerusalem with one of the men, who was very sick, and we could not communicate freely with the people of the village.

      We next crossed over the hills still farther northward, in order to visit the so-called Philip's Fountain.7 We were much interested in observing the water spouting through a wall 15 feet above the roadside, the massive stone trough into which it fell, the conduit which led it to the large pool below, and the luxuriant garden into which the water was led from the pool. This garden showed what could be accomplished in this warm climate and prolific soil by irrigation. I never saw, in any country, a garden of fruits and vegetables that excelled it.

      We reached Jerusalem on the afternoon of May 22d, having accomplished our southern tour in 12 days. From Hebron to En-gedi, and thence throughout the remainder of our tour, we had been escorted by the young Sheikh Ab'bas, of Hebron, son of old Hamzeh, the principal sheikh of that city, who guided Dr. Robinson 42 years ago, but is now too feeble for such work. We found Ab'bas a lively, cheerful young fellow, but he has a cough which I took to be incipient consumption, and I think he is destined to an early death.

      On this tour we discovered in Assad, our dragoman, a deliberate purpose to protract our stay in the country as much as possible by overstating the length of each coming day's journey. Frequently, when he declared most positively that it would require seven hours' hard riding to reach a certain place, and induced us to select it for the next camp, we would reach it in four hours; and when I would reproach him for deceiving us, he showed no sense of shame and made no apology. I finally took the matter into my own hands, and determined every night, as best I could, where our camp should be the next night, and gave him orders accordingly. [501]

      1 Deut. xxxii. 10. [495]
      2 The Lord's Land, page 156. [495]
      3 Numbers xxi. 4-9. [496]
      4 Pages 94-99. [497]
      5 For description, see page 267. [499]
      6 See description, page 246. [501]
      7 See description, page 261. [501]


[LOB 494-501]

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

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