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


L E T T E R   X I I I.


      OUR route from She'chem to the Lake of Galilee was the very crooked one through Samaria, Cæsarea, Haifa, Jenîn', Beisan', and thence up the bank of the Jordan.

      After a morning ride to the top of Mount Geri'zim, we left She'chem, May 29th, and rode in two hours to Samaria, the ancient capital of the Ten Tribes. The well-posted student of sacred history will remember that this city was never taken except by starving its inhabitants into a surrender. Situated on an isolated hill, 400 feet high, with a valley all round it, it was impregnable when defended by a competent force.

      In the reign of Herod the Great the city had fallen into decay, and he undertook to rebuild it. Among other magnificent structures which he erected was a colonnade of granite columns, 16 feet high, all around the brow of the hill, and about 50 feet perpendicular below its summit. They stood on a terrace leveled for the purpose of a chariot drive, and the circuit around which they extended is supposed to have been about 1000 yards. Many of these columns are still standing, and in their loneliness they speak mournfully of the departed glory of him who erected them.1 The entire hill is now terraced and cultivated in grain, except a small space on the northern slope, occupied by a little village of low huts, and by an old church of the crusading period, in which it is foolishly claimed that John the Baptist was buried. We took our lunch on the top of the hill under the shade of an olive-tree, in the midst of a ploughed field, and I meditated much on the utter desolation of a city so conspicuous in sacred history.

      From Samaria we continued our course to the northwest until we came to the ruins of Cæsarea, which we reached at noon on the 30th of May. Not a human being inhabits this city, once the political capital of Judea and the chief commercial point on the Syrian coast. Built by Herod the Great, 13 years before the birth of Jesus, it was finally destroyed in the year 1265.

      Its walls are still traceable, and in some places they stand 20 or 30 [510] feet high. They inclose about 400 acres of ground. The ruins of an old church, with parts of its wall retaining almost their original height, are seen in the southwestern part of the city, and on a ledge of rock extending into the sea are the ruins of an old citadel, once an apparently impregnable stronghold. But all of these walls and buildings belong to the period of the Crusaders, during which the city was several times destroyed and rebuilt; and there is nothing left of the city known to Peter, Philip, Paul, Felix, Festus, and Agrippa, except the granite columns which were taken from amid the ruins of the earlier city, and built crosswise into the more recent walls. Many of these were seen in the city wall. I counted 75 in the walls of the old citadel, and a still greater number of them lie, like rafts of saw-logs, in the shallow water north of the citadel, where some similar structure stood, but has crumbled away and dropped these imperishable columns. The disintegration of the soft sandstone of the shore and of the walls of these citadels has gradually filled up the harbor, which was made at great expense by Herod, and now no ship touches where once the commerce of this entire coast was centered. We rode into the city through its gateway, and finding a shaded recess in the wall, not far from the gate, we spread there our noonday meal and took our usual rest. A mournful stillness pervaded the place, interrupted only by the arrival of some shepherds with a herd of small black cattle, who came through the same gate and watered their stock at an ancient well of good water.

      From Cæsarea we continued our ride in the afternoon up the sea-coast to Tantûra. We had been in the saddle nine hours, and had spent several hours walking among the ruins of Cæsarea, so we were much fatigued; but a delightful sea-bath reinvigorated us and prepared us for a hearty dinner. On the next day we continued up the coast to Mount Carmel, thus completing our view of the Maritime Plain. We had now crossed this plain four times, had ridden along its coast for many miles, and had surveyed its broad expanse from many mountain-tops. We had seen almost every square mile of its surface.

      Mount Carmel rises from the sea as a promontory about 500 feet high, with a narrow beach at its foot. Thence it stretches away to the southeast about twelve miles. It rises to a height of 1800 feet about eight miles from the shore, and then descends to 1600 feet at its farther extremity. On its top near the sea is a Roman Catholic monastery, from which is obtained a magnificent view of the surrounding country. The Bay of A'cre lies under the northern slope of this part of the mountain, with the town of Haifa on its southern shore, and that of [511] A'cre, or Akka as it is now called, on the opposite side. After spending a Lord's day at Haifa, and attending the meeting of the German colony located there, we went to the spot at the southeast end of Mount Carmel where Elijah called down fire from heaven and gave the death-blow to Baal-worship in Israel. It took us an hour and ten minutes to reach the spot from the plain below, and an hour to descend. A part of the way was so steep that it tried the strength of our horses. The place is identified beyond reasonable doubt by its complete correspondence with the details of the Scripture narrative. We sat upon a bare rock on the top of the mountain, under the shade of an oak-tree, and studied the scenery before us. Mount Gil'boa, with the town of Jezreel at its foot, was in full view to the east, with a plain sixteen miles wide between us and it. Across this plain we could trace every step of the course along which Elijah ran before the chariot of Ahab, when the heavens were growing black with clouds, and the rain for which he had prayed was about to fall.

      We could also see Shunem and Nain; and the summit of Mount Tabor towered conspicuously above the Nazareth hills, which hid its base from our view. The plain before us was the celebrated Plain of Jezreel, as it is called in the Scriptures, and of Esdra'elon, as it is now called. It has witnessed many battles of both ancient and modern times. The river Ki'shon winds its crooked way through it, and we could trace its course by the line of verdure along its banks, made more conspicuous by contrast with the yellow surface of the fields of grain just yielding to the sickle.

      From Mount Carmel we went to Migdol, where king Josiah was slain in battle. Here we camped for the night of June 2d, and were much interested in examining the scanty ruins to see if we could find any remnant of Solomon's fortification here. We saw none that we could identify. The next day, June 3d, we rode to Jenîn by noon, where our tents were pitched for the night, and in the afternoon we made an excursion to Do'than, where Joseph was sold by his brethren. Few places that we visited interested us more than this. From the rounded hill-top where Do'than stood, we looked out to the south and the southwest over a valley of the very kind to attract a company of shepherds like Joseph's brethren. The biblical scene was brought still more vividly to view by the two wells in the valley which gave the name Do'than to the place, and by a company of shepherds engaged in washing their sheep at one of the wells preparatory to shearing them.

      At Do'than our circuitous route had brought us back again within 10 miles of Samaria, which we had left five days before. It was over this [512] 10 miles, running nearly due south from Do'than, that Elisha led the mentally blinded squadron of Syrian horsemen who had surrounded Do'than in the night to arrest him.2

      From Do'than we returned to our camp at Jenîn', six miles distant, and found that a company of Jews, male and female, on their way from Sa'fed to Jerusalem, were camped near by us. Our dragoman, for fear of thieves in the night, had taken the precaution to secure a guard of two or three Turkish soldiers from the garrison of Jenîn'. After dinner I felt disinclined to my usual task of writing till bedtime, so I strolled away to the edge of the olive grove in which our tents were pitched, and sat down on the roots of an old tree to meditate. The light of the full moon, scattered by the straggling tree-tops, fell upon the white tents on my right hand, while to the left the plastered tombs of a Mohammedan graveyard were gleaming in the unbroken light. The hum of voices in the Jewish camp, the hooting of owls, the chirping of crickets, the tinkling of small bells on our pack-mules, and the cry of jackals not far away, mingled together in pleasing confusion, and threw a spell over me which was at last interrupted by the sight of a jackal slyly creeping along within a few steps of me. A hurried call for the shot-gun from the camp, and a vain effort to get a shot at the cunning animal broke up my revery.

      From Jenîn' we rode to Jezreel, made famous by its association with the history of Ahab and Jezebel. Only a few miserable huts built from the ruins of ancient structures now constitute the village, but well-built walls just showing themselves above the ground, many rock-cut cisterns now unused, and half-buried sarcophagi on the slope near by, declare plainly that it was once an important city. From its site we obtained our nearest view of Shunem, four miles due north across an interesting valley. It is a larger village than Jezreel, but it is only a small collection of brown huts with no shade about them.

      Our route led us from Jezreel down the Valley of Jezreel, nearly due east, along the base of Mount Gil'boa to Beisan'. We were astonished at the copiousness of the springs in this valley and the luxuriance of the vegetation, and we found the ruins of Beisan', the ancient Beth-she'an, much more extensive and interesting than we had been led to suppose. We spent several hours of a very hot afternoon, June 4th, wandering among these ruins, and last of all we climbed the top of the conical hill on which the original city, or perhaps only its acropolis, was built. As we stood on the ruined wall near the gateway [513] and looked westward, I observed that the sun was sinking behind Mount Carmel, and I watched it until it was gone. The scene before me riveted my attention. Just to the left of the setting sun stood out distinctly the place of Elijah's prayer on Mount Carmel, where we had rested at noon two days before, now 28 miles away. A little farther to the left, and about 12 miles distant, the ruins of Jezreel stood above the horizon, with Shunem over against it to the right. Between them was fought Saul's last battle, and somewhere on the long slope of Mount Gil'boa, which bounded the horizon southwest of us, were found the dead bodies of himself and his three sons, including the beloved Jonathan. On the same part of the wall on which I stood the four bodies were gibbeted until the brave and grateful Gileadites rushed in by night, took them down, and bore them away. As darkness drew on we descended the precipitous hill and climbed another to our camp. The full moon was now rising above the mountains of Gilead. I sat down on a stone between my tent and an irrigating stream which murmured along its pebbly bed close by, and indulged for a long time the trains of thought which had been started by the scenes of the day. Finally, the gentle murmuring of the brook at my feet, the singing of numberless frogs who found a paradise in its waters, and the soft light of the moon, together with the fatigue of a hot and toilsome day, invited to repose, and I joined my sleeping companions in the tents.

      We expected a hot ride along the Jordan Valley from Beisan' to the Lake of Galilee, so we arose at three o'clock in the morning, and were in the saddle a few minutes after four. Day was just beginning to dawn over the mountains of Gilead, and the light of the descending moon in the west had not yet faded out, when we rode through the village of Beisan' amid the barking of innumerable dogs, who saluted us from the house-tops as well as from the streets. Dogs (barking, not biting dogs) are a specialty with the Ar'abs.

      Our route lay along the direct road from Jerusalem to Damascus until we reached the river at what is called the Mejamî'a bridge. This is a massive stone bridge which spans the Jordan by one large arch over the principal bed of the stream, and two of less size over side channels, which are filled at high water. The bridge is rudely but strongly built, and for many centuries it has been the only bridge over the river in actual use. It is built of black basalt, and was once guarded by a large fortified caravanserai of the same material, the ruins of which lie a short distance from it on the western side. The stream is contracted here by the masses of rock which form the shores, and just below the bridge there is a rapid, in which the river dashes and roars over a [514] descent of 8 or 10 feet. Here the Damascus road crosses. Here Paul and Naaman crossed, and it is quite likely that the latter here dipped himself as directed by the prophet, and was healed. Here also, I think, must have been one of John's principal places of baptizing, for, being a principal crossing-place, routes of travel concentrated here, and it was one of the most convenient places on the river for the gathering together of the people. I need scarce add that there is water here, at any possible stage of the river, admirably suited for immersing. Indeed, I may say, once for all, that at the time of this writing I have now seen the Jordan from its mouth to its source; I have ridden many miles along its banks; I have crossed it on horseback, on a bridge, and in a boat; I have swum in it repeatedly, and have often ridden in it to try its depth; and I affirm, with the assurance of positive knowledge, that there is no section of it in which a man seeking a place for baptism would encounter much inconvenience in finding one; and that there are few places at which its water can be approached without finding such a place immediately at hand. Although in many places, as in all rivers, the banks are too precipitous or too muddy for the purpose, and in many the current is too deep or too swift at the bank, yet not far from all such places other spots are found in which none of these obstacles are encountered, and the farther you ascend from the mouth of the stream the fewer obstacles of the kind do you encounter. The field of John's preaching and baptism included the whole length of the river below the Lake of Galilee.3

      Leaving the Mejamîa bridge, we ascended the valley, with the river almost continually in view, until we reached the southern end of the Lake of Galilee. The river all along this part of its course has rocky banks and bed, and its water is clear. It leaves the lake from the point of a narrow bay at the southern end of the lake, and at first it runs westward nearly a mile, after which it turns abruptly to the south. Between this westward course of the river and the main shore-line of the lake, which is parallel to it, there is a ridge about 50 feet high, the entire surface of which is covered with ruins. These are the ruins of Tarichea, a town which anciently stood here. From this ridge we obtained our first full view of the famous lake, and we gazed upon it with deep interest for a long time. The view was in two respects disappointing; the lake appeared smaller than it really is, and the mountains all around seemed to rise abruptly from the water's edge without the sloping beaches and narrow valleys which we knew were there in [515] many places. But the deep blue sheet of water itself, widening as it stretches away toward the north, and the tawny hills, 1500 feet high on the west and 1800 on the east, were there as I expected to see them. After satisfying ourselves with the view from the southern shore we went on our way toward Tiberias, whither our pack-train had preceded us.

      The thermometer stood at about 90°, but a refreshing breeze swept over the lake from the north, and we scarcely felt the heat. Just as we rounded the corner of the lake, however, there came down suddenly upon us from the western hills the hottest wind that I have ever felt. Its first effect on the body was cooling, as it rapidly evaporated the perspiration which had been flowing; but it was burning to our faces, and we involuntarily closed our mouths against it. The mercury went up in a few minutes to 100°. When we had ridden in it a short distance I remarked that it would be dangerous to endure it long without relief, so we rode into the lake and wet our heads, and the rapid evaporation of the water from our faces and hair kept our heads cool until the temperature of the wind was reduced. It was really a sea-breeze which had set in. It first blew down upon us the hot air from the hillsides, and afterwards brought to us the cooler air of the Mediterranean. The thermometer came down to about 80° before sunset.

      Tiberias, now known by the more euphonious name of Tabirî'yeh, is about four miles from the southwestern curve of the lake. About a mile below it are the celebrated hot springs. The temperature of the water is 137° and it is supposed to have medicinal properties. Several rude stone buildings are constructed about the springs for bathing purposes, and it is a place of much resort.

      From the hot springs begin the ruins of ancient Tiberias, which extend up the lake shore to the present town, and include it. The present town is surrounded by walls, with large round towers at intervals, and a gate on every side. The eastern wall stands in the water, and the gate on that side is the landing-place for boats. Walls, towers, and dwellings are all built of basalt, and the place has a most gloomy appearance. An old crumbling mosque, with a beautiful minaret built of yellowish limestone with an occasional band of black basalt, tells of the former glory and present decay of Mohammedanism, while a clean and neatly built convent, with a pretty chapel adjoining it, speaks of the efforts which the Romanists are here making to gain control of both Jews and Ar'abs. The population of the town is about 3000, principally Jews. Here lived and died and was buried the famous Jewish rabbi Maimon'ides, and here, for several centuries after the fall [516] of Jerusalem, was the greatest seat of Hebrew learning. The Sabbath is kept here strictly; the Lord's day is but little observed. The town suffered severely from an earthquake in 1837.

      On the evening of our arrival at Tiberias, we chartered, for our use the following day, one of the three fishing-boats which now supply the town with fish. We were to pay eight dollars for the boat with six boatmen, and were to have the privilege of directing its course. The next morning at eight o'clock we set sail from the water-gate of the town, and directed our course toward the mouth of the Jordan, at the northern end of the lake. The boat was about seven feet wide in the middle and about twenty-four feet long. At each end was a little deck about six feet long, and soft rugs were spread on these for our use. I took my position at the bow, and spreading my shawl, thickly folded, along the rug, with one end covering the coiled-up chain of the anchor, I used the latter for a pillow, and rested very comfortably in a reclining posture as the boat glided slowly along. There was wind to fan our faces and keep us cool under our umbrellas, but not enough to fill our sail, though it was spread and ready for the breeze. The boatmen steadily plied the two large oars, relieving one another in pairs, and we moved along at the rate of two and a half miles to the hour. The surface of the lake was rising and falling with a very gentle swell, but its glassy surface was not broken by a single ripple. For an hour or two scarcely a word was spoken, the silence being broken only by the regular splash of the oars and an occasional humming of an Ar'ab song by some of the boatmen. Everything invited to repose, and but for the tender memories which were softening my heart and occasionally filling my eyes with tears, I certainly should have fallen asleep. I was floating on the water where Jesus so often floated with his disciples. Our six boatmen, our own number, four, our dragoman, and a little boy, made twelve in the boat, only one less than were here when Jesus was asleep on the deck of a similar boat, and I felt that the absent one could not be far away. We had gone but a short distance when there came into view, to the westward, the unmistakable "Land of Gennesaret," where Jesus wrought so many cures, and where the people flocked so confidingly around him.

      The huts of the little village of Mejdel, at the southern extremity of this plain, pointed out the locality of Magdala, and brought to mind all the tender love and gratitude lavished on Jesus by Mary of Magdala, than whom there was none more devoted among his earthly friends.

      Farther on we came in sight of the rude huts which the Ar'abs have [517] built from the ruins of Capernaum. For half a mile along the lake shore, and nearly as far back, these ruins are scattered about, and the Ar'ab huts built among them are now deserted. How strikingly have been fulfilled the words of Jesus: "Thou Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be brought down to hades"! And there, too, lies what is left of Bethsaida,--a few heaps of black building-stones, scattered about over a little cape a half-mile northeast of Capernaum. Chorazin is equally desolate, but it lies two and a half miles inland, and is hid from the view by an intervening ridge. All of these places have been clearly identified by Captain Wilson, acting under the auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund of Great Britain.

      Our boat landed at noon on the northern shore of the lake, about half a mile west of the mouth of the Jordan. There, under the shade of a dom-tree, we took our noonday meal. In this part of the lake, as the boatman assured me, at least three-fourths of the fishing is done, the fish being attracted thither by the fresh food which the Jordan constantly supplies. Here, then, most probably, is the place where the four disciples were fishing when Jesus called them, and the place where the seven returned to fishing after the resurrection. That the place is not far from Bethsaida, serves to confirm this supposition. We ate our lunch, I think, not far from the place where the seven ate the broiled fish prepared by Jesus.

      From the place at which we had landed we skirted the remainder of the northern end of the lake, eastward, and one-half of the eastern shore. The Jordan enters the northern end of the lake nearer the western than the eastern side. For about one mile back it flows through a valley, having broken down to it through high hills by a very rapid descent. This valley extends around the northeastern curve of the lake, and is probably five miles long, and two wide at the widest place. At its farthest extremity along the eastern shore must have occurred, I think, the feeding of the five thousand. There is the smooth, grassy plain for the people to sit down upon; the lake shore on which the boat was tied up is close at hand; and there rises the mountain-slope up which Jesus ascended when the disciples had entered the boat and he had dismissed the multitude.

      Captain Wilson is the first explorer, I think, who claims to have identified the place where the herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea and were drowned. He asserts that there is only one place on the eastern shore where the steep sides of the hills come down close to the water, and that elsewhere there is a valley between the hills and water never less than a quarter of a mile wide. [518]

      I was anxious to verify this identification. I had carefully scanned that shore from the southern end of the lake where I first came to it, and as far as I could see distinctly the valley of which Wilson speaks was there. I had now sailed down several miles from the northern end, and had found the valley thus far not less than half a mile wide in the narrowest place. We sailed slowly on, and just at five o'clock in the afternoon, when we had reached the cape formed by what is called Wâd'y Semak', I saw the steep place about a mile away. It was so distinct as not to be mistaken. I was now satisfied with the day's excursion. We were nearly opposite Tiberias, a south wind had arisen of sufficient force to help us on our way if our bow were turned westward, and I told the boatmen that they might cross to Tiberias. I had scarcely uttered the word when they all began to gaze at the western sky and chatter with one another in Arabic in a most excited manner. In their excitement they dropped their oars, and the boat began to drift before the wind. I inquired of the dragoman the cause of the excitement, and he said they saw signs of a coming storm from the west which alarmed them, and they thought it necessary to pull as fast as possible for the northeastern shore. We felt annoyed at the thought of thus turning at a right angle to our intended course when the sun was getting low, and it appeared to us that their fears were ill grounded. One of our party began to remonstrate, but I remembered how treacherous the winds had been to others on this lake, and I insisted that the judgment of the boatmen should prevail. It was well that we so decided, for before we had gone one-third of the way across we were in the midst of a storm fully as severe as our boat could safely ride. By a skillful management of the boat we succeeded in reaching, about sunset, the little bay above the ruins of Bethsaida, as far from our camp as we were at noon. There we anchored for a short time, and the boatmen stopped a leak which had started in the side of the boat. By hugging the lee shore we next managed to work our way to a point just below Capernaum, but farther than this it was decided not to go until the wind abated. It was now after dark. The anchor was cast, and all hands, weary and hungry, went to sleep. I happened to be lying with my face to the east; and when the moon, just past the full, arose over the hills of Bashan, her bright light fell full upon my face and awoke me. I looked around and saw that the wind had somewhat fallen, and that the lake was less agitated. I called the dragoman, and he the boatmen, and soon we were again in motion. It was a hard pull against wind and wave, reminding us of the night when the apostles were "toiling in rowing, because the wind was contrary [519] to them;"4 but we reached the gate of Tiberias at two o'clock A. M., and by three o'clock we had eaten the dinner which should have been eaten at six the previous evening. We were afloat on the lake 18 consecutive hours, and it was a wearisome day; but we were well recompensed by the information gained, and by having entered somewhat into the experience of Jesus and the twelve.

      The next day we made a horseback excursion up and down the western shore of the lake; but of this I cannot now speak in detail. It was full of interest. The following day (Lord's day, June 8th) we spent in our camp, there being no place of public worship for us to attend in Tiberias. We bade farewell to this town gladly, because it was the hottest place we had seen. During our stay of three days the average temperature was 82° at sunrise, 93° at noon, and 85° at dark. The coolest place we could find was the western gate, either on the shady side of the wall, or under the arch of the gateway itself. While sitting there and watching the almost constant stream of comers and goers, I thought of Lot sitting in the evening at the gate of Sodom.

      1 See the cut and description, page 295. [510]
      2 2 Kings vi. 8-23. [513]
      3 Luke iii. 3. [515]
      4 Mark vi. 48. [520]


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

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