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


L E T T E R   X I V.


      ON Monday, June 9th, we broke up our camp at Tiberias and started in the direction of the Mediterranean Sea. Our first objective point was Mount Tabor, which is about 12 miles, on an air-line, southwest from Tiberias. When we had gone about five miles we turned a little to the right in order to ascend the hill called the Mount of Beatitudes, or the scene of the Sermon on the Mount. It rises about 200 feet above a plain which lies to the south and southeast of it, and it is quite a conspicuous object in the vicinity; but it is too steep and rugged to have answered well for the scene with which it is associated, while there are hundreds of others that would have answered better. It was selected without reason in the period of the crusades.

      We approached Mount Tabor on its northeastern side, and in passing around to its northwestern side, where the ascent takes place, we rode through the finest grove of oak-trees in all Palestine. It covers an area of several square miles at the base of the mountain, and an [520] inferior growth of the same wood covers the mountain on that side to its summit, while its other sides are bare, or nearly so. The trees have too low a growth to be valuable for timber, but they would furnish an immense amount of valuable firewood. The grove belongs to a rich merchant in Beirût', who has had the good sense to preserve it from destruction.

      We climbed to the top of Mount Tabor by a zigzag pathway so steep in many places as to try the strength and agility of our horses. From the plains below, and from surrounding heights, the mountain's sides and top have a rounded appearance; but when you reach the top you find an almost level area about half a mile in extent in every direction. Tradition, at an early period, fixed on this as the Mount of the Transfiguration, and consequently the Greeks and the Latins have each a monastery here, and each building covers the exact spot where the transfiguration took place! The conclusion reached by all scholars of the present day, that this grand event occurred, not on Mount Tabor, but on Mount Hermon, disturbs not in the least the tranquillity of these stupid monks, nor the faith of the superstitious pilgrims who go to these convents to pray.

      The view from the summit of Mount Tabor, 2018 feet above the sea level, is one of the finest that we enjoyed in Palestine. It includes many of the places made familiar by the gospel narratives, and as we gazed upon them from our perch on a ruined tower of the ancient wall which once inclosed the mountains top, memory was busy with the scenes of the Saviour's toilsome life. It added something to the impressiveness of the scene to remember that the wall on which we stood was erected by the historian Josephus, in preparation for that final struggle against the Romans which led, as Jesus had predicted, to the downfall of the Jewish nation. The names Jesus and Josephus must ever be intimately connected in the Christian mind, from the fact that the latter, though an unbeliever, recorded with fidelity so many events which were plainly predicted by the former.

      South of Mount Tabor, across a beautiful valley about four miles wide, rises a mountain called by the Ar'abs Jebel Dûhy and by Christians Little Hermon. Looking toward it from Mount Tabor you see at its foot on your left the village of Endor, where lived the witch consulted by Saul, and on your right the village of Nain, in which Jesus raised from the dead the widow's son. How different in character these two events to have occurred in two adjacent villages! Thus the good and the evil are crowded together the world over. We visited those two villages in order to look around and meditate upon the events [521] they commemorate. Endor never was, perhaps, much more than it is now, a village of huts inhabited by the poorest of people; but Nain, in the time of Jesus, was a walled town, and there are ruins in it, as well as some interesting rock-hewn sepulchres just west of it, which prove it to have been a place of some importance. It was probably toward the sepulchres just mentioned that the widow's son was being borne when Jesus, coming into the town by the western gate, met the procession and gave life to the widow's heart by giving life to her only son.1

      From Nain we rode directly to Nazareth, distant about seven miles in a northwesterly direction. The first five miles led across a more western part of the same plain we had crossed in coming from Mount Tabor to Endor, a section of the Plain of Esdra'elon. From the edge of this plain our path led up a hill 1000 feet high, and so steep that it took us twenty-five minutes to climb it. In a half-hour more we reached the city wherein Jesus spent much the greater part of his short life.

      Nazareth is built along the southeastern slope of a ridge which is not less than 300 feet high. It is a long and narrow town, stretching from northeast to southwest along the foot of the ridge, and rising about halfway to its summit. Its population numbers about six thousand, nearly all Christians; that is, they are Greek and Latin Catholics, with a very few Protestants. At the northeastern end of the town the Greeks have a convent in which they show the very place where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus. She had gone to the spring to get some water, and the spring is under the stone floor of the convent. They prove this to you by letting down a little silver bucket through a round opening, and drawing for you a drink of cool water. At the opposite end of the town the Latins have their convent, and in it they too show the very spot where Gabriel appeared to Mary. It was in the kitchen where she did her cooking. You can see the place where she built the fire, and the place where the smoke escaped through the ceiling; and of course you ought to believe what is told you. They also show you Joseph's carpenter-shop; and if you will give enough bûckshish I think they will show you any place you can call for connected with the life of Jesus.

      There is only one object at Nazareth which I was especially anxious to see, and this is the precipice down which the Nazarenes attempted to cast Jesus. The tradition-mongers, with their usual disregard of Scripture statements, have located this incident near the steep hill [522] mentioned above, which we climbed in coming to Nazareth; but this is more than two miles from the town, while the Scripture states that "they led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong."2 "The hill on which the city is built," then, is the one on which we must look for the place in question; and if it cannot be found there, honesty must compel us to admit that it cannot be found at all. Some writers have come so near making this admission that I felt quite solicitous on the subject, and I searched that hill from top to bottom, from side to side, and from end to end. I did so, not because all this was necessary to find a place suited to the event, but because I desired to know all the places where it could have occurred, and to speak on the subject with full assurance. I found only two such places. One is near the northeastern end of the town, and about one-third the way up the hill. It is a perpendicular precipice sixty feet high, made by the falling in of the roof of a deep cavern which once extended along the face of the hill at this point, and part of which still exists close by the precipice. I think, however, from the appearance of the rock, that this precipice has been formed in comparatively recent times; and for this reason I do not suppose that the attempt at precipitation occurred here. But near the opposite end of the town, and at about the same elevation up the hill, the same ledge of rock forms a natural precipice, which has every appearance of having existed from time immemorial. Its perpendicular height is now about forty feet, abundantly sufficient to kill a man if dashed headlong from its top. It is high enough up the hill to justify the Scripture statement that it was on "the brow of the hill;" and it was probably outside the ancient city. Lieutenant Conder thinks, from the appearance of ruins higher up, that the ancient city was situated, like most of the towns of Palestine, near the top of the hill. If this supposition is correct, then the Nazarenes, in taking Jesus out of the town, took him down hill to the precipice below the town, and this precipice constituted the brow of the hill as seen from the valley below. I am entirely satisfied that here is where the awful attempt was made; but I know not how to realize the feelings of Jesus, when his own neighbors, former friends and lifelong companions, thus attempted to take his life.

      There are two missionary enterprises located at Nazareth with which I was very favorably impressed. One is a medical mission, supported by a society in Edinburgh. It is furnished with a dispensary, where [523] medicine is given without charge to those who are unable to pay for it, and with an infirmary, capable of accommodating a limited number of sick persons who are without homes or away from home. Dr. Vartan, the superintendent, is both a preacher and a physician, and while ministering to the bodies of his patients, he invariably imparts to them religious instruction. I think this the most direct method of access to the adult minds of this benighted population, and the supply of medical treatment for them is a most benevolent thing in itself. They sicken, and suffer, and die, from all the maladies that flesh is heir to, without the use of any remedies whatever, unless it be some that are worse than the disease. My heart bled for them on more than one occasion. Once there was brought to me a woman who was afflicted with a deep cough, and who was evidently a victim of consumption. They said that the doctor of the village had cauterized her, but that she had grown worse instead of better. On inquiry I learned that the cauterizing consisted in applying a red-hot iron to her back, and the terrible wound which it caused was not yet healed up. She will carry it to her grave, and the time will not be long.

      The other enterprise at Nazareth is a female orphan school. On a bench of the hill, perched high above the city, is a large and handsome stone building, two stories high, the most conspicuous and the finest house in the place. It accommodates about 40 girls as boarders, who receive an elementary education, and are taught all the domestic arts of civilized life, such as cooking, washing, sewing, etc. It is impossible to imagine a people more in need of all this instruction than the native women of this country. Their usual mode of washing is to sit down by a smooth stone near a pool of water, dip the garment to be washed in the water, lay it on the stone, and then beat it with another stone, or with a heavy wooden paddle. As a consequence of the method, their clothes are never clean except when they are new. Of the art of cooking they know nothing except to boil mutton and rice together, and to bake a kind of bread which a white man cannot eat. They can seldom afford to eat mutton or rice, and their standing diet is cold bread and sour goat's milk. To these they add cucumbers, tomatoes, and melons in their season, eating the two former, as the last, without salt or vinegar, or any mode of preparation.

      It seems to me impossible to make good Christians out of a people thus benighted until you teach them something in the line of domestic economy.

      While our camp was in Nazareth we rode over to Kefr Kenna (village of Kenna), the Cana of the New Testament. It is a little over [524] three miles northeast of Nazareth, a convenient distance for Mary and her family to attend the wedding. Here the Greeks have a very old building consisting of a single room, in which they say the water was turned into wine. They have turned the room into a chapel, and in one side of it stand two large stone mortars, about two and a half feet high and twenty inches across, now used for immersing infants. Our local guide, in explaining their use to us, said, "De Greeks put de babies under; not sprinkle 'em, like de Latins and de Protestants." The priest told us that these two mortars were two of the six stone water-pots which held the water that was turned into wine. The simple-minded old man was not aware that the six water-pots held each two or three firkins apiece,--about 20 gallons,--whereas his mortars hold only about six gallons. If he had known this he might have chiseled his mortars out a little deeper. When we came out of the room, I saw near by a 20-gallon oil-jar, and I said to the priest, "You ought to take that and paint it to imitate stone, and then put it in the place of your two jars; it would look more like the thing." His only answer was, "That is made to hold oil." I don't think he saw the point. I never met with a Syrian who could appreciate a joke.

      I had read a great deal in books of travel about the beauty of the women of Nazareth, and I was glad, when we reached our camp there, to find our tents pitched close by the celebrated spring of the city, where I could see nearly all the women as they came to the spring for water. There was almost a continuous stream of them coming and going, from Tuesday at noon, the time of our arrival, until Thursday morning, when we departed. I several times stood near the spring for half an hour or so to watch their movements. They certainly have smoother features, a richer complexion, and a more engaging expression of countenance than the women of any other town which we had visited, but it is only in comparison with the extreme ugliness elsewhere prevalent that they can be called handsome. Being of the Christian faith they avoid the hideous practice of tattooing their faces, which is universal with the Ar'ab village women, and this is greatly in their favor as to comeliness. But those of them who come under the traveler's eye are coarse and illiterate creatures, with very rude manners, and they wear their dresses lower and more open about the bosom than would be tolerated in America even in a ball-room. Many of them, if well dressed, educated, and trained to good manners, would present a very pleasing appearance, but as they are at present, I would not exchange, for beauty, one average Kentucky woman for all the women in Syria. [525]

      Nazareth is somewhat of a manufacturing place. The clay pipes which are used all through the country by all classes of men are made here in large quantities, and the stems are made of straight twigs from one to two feet in length, with a hole bored through them lengthwise. A very rude kind of pocket-knife is also made, and many smiths are employed exclusively in this business. The knife has a single blade and a rude goat's-horn handle. The blade is hammered out on a small anvil, the smith sitting on the floor by the side of his anvil as he continues his work; and when reduced to the proper shape it is finished with a file. The knives sell at from 20 to 50 cents, and they are very serviceable. The Fellahin and Bedawin all through the country use them, and carry them suspended to their girdles by a string through a ring near the rivet end of the blade. There are also some European mechanics in the city pursuing their avocations in a small way.

      From Nazareth we went across Southern Galilee to A'cre, distant about 24 miles. The direction is almost due northwest. The first half of the ride was over the hills through a country almost as poor as the hills around Nazareth, and containing very few villages. As we passed over hill-tops and ridges, however, we could see to our right for many miles a rich country thickly set with villages, yellow with fields of grain, and dotted with small groves of trees. About halfway to A'cre we passed the town of Shefá Amr, a flourishing place, with massive ruins in the midst of it. It stands on the verge of the hill country and overlooks the Plain of A'cre. The town derives its support from very rich lands in the edge of the plain, and its chief supply of water is from a shallow, exhaustless well at the western foot of the hill, half a mile or more from the town. When we reached this well our animals were very thirsty, and our pack-train was in company with us. The women who were drawing water at the well seemed unwilling to let us use the water, and utterly refused, at first, to let the muleteers use their buckets and ropes. A loud and fearful quarrel ensued, during which I expected every moment to see a general fight between our muleteers and the men and women who gathered around. But finally, by dint of perseverance, and by quarreling louder than the villagers, the muleteers succeeded in getting the use of one bucket, and our animals were watered. The woman who had led the quarrel on the other side, walked away in a towering passion.

      Near this well was the only apple-orchard which I saw in all Syria. There were 40 or 50 trees, apparently about 10 years old, and they bore a moderate crop of fruit. An Ar'ab gave us a few of the apples, refusing to take money for them, and we found them very sound and [526] handsome fruit, but small and not quite ripe. They had the appearance of the yellow June apple grown in the United States.

      In our ride across the Plain of A'cre we encountered some of the marshes made by the overflow of the river Belus in the rainy season. In most places the surface was now dry, hard, and cracked open, but there were still some muddy spots, and at one place we rode for a considerable distance on a stone causeway made for crossing during the wet season. There are but few villages on this plain, except along its eastern border near the hills, where they are abundant.

      Our camp at A'cre was immediately east of the city, close to the highway leading into the only gate. It was a hot and dusty place, with only the wide sandy road between us and the bay. We had to walk a long distance on the level beach to find a place sufficiently retired to take a sea-bath, as was our daily custom when opportunity offered, and we found the water near the shore so shallow that we had to wade out a long distance for pleasant swimming. In going and coming we met many parties of both men and women from the city strolling along the smooth beach to enjoy the evening air, and I noticed one little child, about two years old, neatly dressed, wearing silver anklets hung with tiny bells. It was accompanied by its father, and it took great delight in running into the edge of the water and allowing the little ripples which were flowing in to break upon its bare feet. It was the most pleasing sight that I had seen among the infants of Palestine.

      Another sight that was pleasing to our American eyes was that of two or three spring-wagons, with white covers over them, used for carrying passengers between this city and Haifa. They were owned and driven by Germans of the latter city, and I observed that the natives, though none of them ever aspires to the ownership of a wagon, were all very willing to ride in one. By a passenger in one of these we sent to the post-office in Haifa the letters which we had written since we passed through that place.

      We spent several hours wandering about the crooked streets of A'cre, and found it the most cleanly city that we had seen in Palestine. We visited its famous mosque, by far the most costly and best preserved mosque in Palestine, and we were received by the attendants and bystanders with marked expressions of good-will.

      We loitered in the city to so late an hour that when we reached the gate it was closed for the night, and we had to pass out through the kind of opening which has served the old commentators a convenient purpose in explaining the Saviour's remark about a camel passing [527] through a needle's eye. It is a small door, just large enough for a man to pass through by stooping, opening through the middle of one of the shutters which close up the gateway. No camel could pass through it at all, even after his burden has been removed from his back.

      When we arose on the morning of June 13th we found the air obscured by a heavy fog, and our tents dripping almost as if it had rained. The muleteers had to let the tents remain standing until the sun dried them, so as to avoid folding them wet and exposing them to mildew. A similar fog, or a dew almost as heavy, had occurred some four or five times during our tent-life, but with these exceptions the ground and the tent-roofs were as dry when the sun arose in the morning as when it set in the evening. There have been very exaggerated stories told about the heavy summer dews of Palestine.

      We left A'cre on the morning of the 13th of June, intending to see Tyre and Sidon and then cross Phœnicia to the northern extremity of Palestine. Our road lay near the coast all the way to Sidon. A few miles out from A'cre we passed under the arches of the aqueduct which supplies the city with water, and we passed by some very handsome villas, about which the irrigated soil produces a luxuriant growth of trees for fruits and shade.

      Twelve miles north of A'cre we reached the northern terminus of the plain, where the mountains, which stand back some eight or nine miles from the sea below, come out to the waters edge and form a perpendicular promontory, called Râs en Nakû'rah, the Promontory of Nakû'rah. The name is derived from the village of Nakû'rah, perched on a high hill to the right of the road. We ascended this promontory on a well-graded road, and when we reached the top we looked back over the entire Plain of A'cre, with the long ridge of Mount Carmel bounding the southern horizon. We looked far out at sea also, but there was nothing visible on the waste of waters except a solitary fishing-boat here and there.

      After climbing for six miles over rocky hills, many of which are so white and bare that the heat from them is scorching to the face and the glare painful to the eyes, we reached what is called the White Promontory, a perpendicular wall of snow-white rock rising out of deep water to a height of four or five hundred feet. The road is cut in the solid rock along the face of this cliff with a precipice of 200 feet at its side, at the foot of which the deep blue water is in almost perpetual motion. The road is broad enough and smooth enough for the passage of wagons, and ruts made by wheels in former times are occasionally [528] seen on the surface of the rock. You ride along the pass in perfect safety, yet you are kept constantly mindful of the appalling danger just at hand. It would require a stout heart and steady nerve to venture along that road in a dark night.

      After descending from the cliff we were within about seven miles of Tyre, and the remainder of the road followed a smooth coast plain about a mile wide with the mountains rising several hundred feet high on the right. When within about three miles of the city we passed Râs el Ain, the Promontory of the Spring. It is a slightly elevated ridge projected from the mountains nearly to the sea-shore, and conveying a copious stream of water in an artificial channel. At the terminus of the channel part of the water passes through a mill and propels it, while the remainder falls in a cascade over the dam and runs away to the sea, in a stream almost large enough to be called a river. This artificial channel once extended to the city, and it supplied ancient Tyre with an abundance of cool and sparkling water. Indeed, it is now believed that the continental part of the city once extended along the coast to this point, while only the island city stood on the cape which is now partly covered by modern Tyre.

      Of the original Tyre known to Solomon and the prophets of Israel, not a vestige remains except in its rock-cut sepulchres on the mountain sides, and in foundation walls which are occasionally reached by digging. Even the island, which Alexander the Great, in his siege of the city, converted into a cape by filling up the water between it and the mainland, contains no distinguishable relics of an earlier period than that of the Crusades. The modern town, all of which is comparatively new, occupies the northern half of what was once the island, while nearly all the remainder of the surface is covered with undistinguishable ruins, and the line of the coast is marked by the remains of the crumbled city wall. The buried foundations of walls in this part of the island constitute a rock quarry, and we saw men engaged in procuring building stones from excavations 15 or 20 feet deep. The only building whose construction dates as far back as the Crusades, any considerable portion of which is still erect, is an immense church one end of which stands almost entire, while the other walls are a few feet above the ground. Within its area is a confused mass of prostrate columns which once supported its roof, some of them of immense size, and some of red granite which must have been imported from Egypt. It was one of the most splendid edifices ever constructed on this coast.

      In the total disappearance of ancient Tyre the predictions contained [529] in the 26th and 27th chapters of Ezekiel meet with as nearly a literal fulfilment as is possible with language so highly figurative. The modern city contains about 5000 inhabitants, and is favorably represented in the following cut, which is copied from a photograph taken from a house-top.


      There is one monument of ancient Tyre which possesses the deepest interest, yet the uncertainty that hangs about its design detracts much from the pleasure of beholding it. It is the so-called Tomb of Hiram.
It stands on a hill about six miles southeast of Tyre, among the mountains, and it is certainly an ancient Phœnician structure. It is also surrounded by ancient tombs, yet it is unlike any other in the entire country, indicating something peculiar in its design, or in the taste of the person who constructed it. It is built of unpolished limestone slabs. The pedestal, as seen in the cut on the opposite page, consists of two courses of stone two feet thick, and a third projecting beyond them all around. On this lies a much thicker slab, supposed to be the [530] sarcophagus, and above this another, which serves as a lid. The monument is 20 feet high, 13 feet long, and 9 feet wide.

      Hiram, who was "ever a lover of David," and who befriended Solomon for his father's sake, is one of the most interesting characters in Bible history, among those who were neither Jews nor Christians. If it could be certainly known that this is his tomb there are few monuments of antiquity that would possess more interest; but, unfortunately, there is no evidence on this question except a native tradition of doubtful antiquity.

      1 See Luke vii. 11-17. [522]
      2 Luke iv. 29. [523]


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

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