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


L E T T E R   X V I.


      FROM Sidon our course ran nearly due southeast to Cæsarea-Philippi, which we reached by two short days' travel. We camped the first night at Nabatí'yeh, a mountain village in the southern extremity of Phœnicia, occupied by Greek Christians. Our tents were pitched in an orchard of large fig-trees, which was also a stubble-field, the wheat having been but recently harvested. Here an old man came to us with "antiques" to sell, consisting of ancient gold and copper coins, earrings, and earthenware lamps. We asked him where he found them, and he said he dug them out of graves in a sepulchre near by. We asked him to show us the sepulchre, and he led us to a place in the corner of a field, where, by crawling feet foremost, we entered a rock-hewn chamber about 20 feet square, from which eight other smaller [540] chambers opened, two on each side and four in the rear. In the floor of each of these chambers but one there were two graves side by side, and in the one there was a single grave. Here a family of 15 persons had been carefully buried at great expense, both the chambers and the individual graves being dug in the solid rock, and here the dead had rested quietly for more, perhaps, than 2000 years, when these Ar'abs, having accidentally discovered the sepulchre while ploughing in their field, had opened the graves and scattered the bones in search of the jewelry and coins which were buried with them. Pieces of human bones from every part of the body lay scattered about the rifled graves, and I remarked to my companions that I felt almost like a grave-robber myself, in that I was encouraging the old man by buying some of his relics. I made a pencil draft of the sepulchre, and from this was copied the cut on page 131. Here was a tomb but recently robbed, illustrative of a work which has been going on in these old countries for thousands of years. It has resulted from the unwise practice, prevalent among the ancients, of burying dead persons personal ornaments, weapons, and other valuables with the dead body. As it was only the rich who were buried in rock-cut sepulchres, while the poor were put away in the ground as they now are, sepulchres offered prizes which have led to the rifling of all that have been found. By-the-bye, the Saviour's body would not have been laid in a sepulchre had it not been a rich man who undertook his burial.

      About four miles on our way from Nabatî'yeh, we came to the renowned castle of Belleforte, one of the most loftily perched and strongly built of all the castles which witnessed the conflicts between Ar'abs and Christians, Saracens and Crusaders. It covers the summit of a conical hill, 500 feet above the plain which surrounds it on every side except the east. On that side there is a perpendicular precipice descending about 2000 feet to the bed of the river Litâ'ny. From its lofty battlements the Litâ'ny can be traced for many miles, and it looks like a small creek not over three feet wide, and of a pea-green color, though it is a deep river from 40 to 60 feet across. A few miles south of the castle this remarkable stream turns due west and cuts its way through the mountains, very much as New River in West Virginia cuts its way through the Alleghanies. It forms part of the dividing-line between Phœnicia and the Land of Israel, and reaches the sea six miles above Tyre.

      After descending from Belleforte and crossing the Litâ'ny on an ancient bridge, we came into a series of elevated plains which anciently belonged to the kingdom of Tyre: after crossing these there opened [541] before us one of the most beautiful little valleys that we saw in all our travels. It is called Iyun', and it is the Ijon of the Scriptures, the most northern possession of the tribe of Naphtali. It is about five miles long from north to south, and about two miles wide.

      It was covered, when we saw it, with alternate sections of yellow grain and green dûr'rah, and it is surrounded in every direction except the south with a rim of smooth mountain ridges. It seemed at first sight to have no outlet; but when we reached its southern end, we found that a little stream which drains it cuts through the low ridge at this end, and descends through a narrow gorge which it has made, into the valley of the upper Jordan. From the top of this ridge we saw the valley of the upper Jordan for the first time. We could see Lake Hûleh,--anciently called The Waters of Merom,--occupying the centre of the plain, and far beyond it the chasm in the hills through which the Jordan descends into the Lake of Galilee. At our right, on a hill overlooking the lake, is the site of Hazor, the city of Jabin, king of Canaan, who was conquered by Joshua. Nearer to us, and beautifully situated on a rounded hill-top, we saw the village of Abîl, the ancient Abel-beth-Maachah, where Sheba took refuge when pursued by David's army under Joab, and over whose walls his head was thrown to Joab by the advice of a wise woman in the city.1

      The valley before us is about 20 miles long, running nearly due north and south, and about 5 miles wide. It is completely surrounded by hills, most of which are 1000 feet high. Only a small portion of the plain is in cultivation, the remainder being wet and unhealthy, but furnishing fine grazing through the dry season.

      Our route led us eastward along the northern end of this valley across the river Hasbâ'ny, which enters it through a narrow and deep chasm, thence to the ancient city of Dan, and thence to Cæsarea-Philippi. The slight elevation on which Dan stood is now called Tell el Kâdi, Hill of the Judge, which is the same as the Hill of Dan; for dan in Hebrew and kâdi in Arabic are the same as judge in English. The rim left by its crumbled walls marks the limits of the ancient town, inclosing a space about 330 yards long and 270 wide. Near the south-west corner of this space bursts forth from the ground one of the largest and finest springs in the world. Its water is icy cold, making your teeth ache as you drink it, and it flows away a full-grown river, furnishing nearly half the water of the Jordan. The surrounding soil is exceeding rich, and, being well watered, it puts forth a vegetation so [542] rank that it is impossible to break through the briers, bushes, and low growing fig-trees which surround the fountain-head. This rank growth is not confined to the fountain-head, but extends along the course of the stream until it is lost in Lake Hûleh. There are no ruins left in Dan except the rim made by the crumbled walls, and a few building stones lying about in confusion. It was the most northern city of ancient Israel, and when we reached it, though we had not gone "from Dan to Beersheba," we had explored the country all the way from Beersheba to Dan.

      About three miles due east of Dan, and situated on a little higher elevation, we found the ruins of Cæsarea-Philippi. It was originally a heathen town called Pan'eas. It had gone to ruin in the days of the Herods, probably on account of its unhealthy locality, and Herod Philip rebuilt it, giving it the name Cæsarea-Philippi, in joint honor of himself and Tiberius Cæsar. After the Roman dominion passed away, it resumed, in the language of the people, its original name, and it has come down to the present day under the name Ban'ias, an Arabic corruption of Pan'eas.

      Our camp was pitched under some magnificent shade-trees north of the town, and there flowed between us and it a rushing, roaring stream of water, spanned by a rudely-built stone bridge. As soon as we were settled in our tents I walked out and followed this stream to its fountain-head, not more than 200 yards eastward of our camp, and there I found another magnificent spring, second only, among all that I had yet seen, to the one at Dan. It rises from under a ledge of solid rock, but makes its way to the surface through a mass of loose stones, large and small, which have fallen into it. A narrow shelf of rock about 50 feet high lies back of the spring, and from this there springs a perpendicular precipice not less than 100 feet high. In the face of this precipice is a yawning cavern, whose dark recesses are suggestive of fear and superstition, while to the right of the cavern several niches for statues, and one little chapel with an altar in it, are cut in the face of the cliff. These have every appearance of being relics of the heathen worship once conducted here in honor of the imaginary gods who sent forth this copious stream to bless the land.

      The water of this spring, like that of the spring of Dan, is remarkably cold. They are both supplied by the melting snows of Mount Hermon, at whose base they lie. The fountain of Ban'ias constitutes the most eastern source of the Jordan; that at Dan the central and principal source; and the river Hasbâ'ny, which also rises in a large spring about 20 miles northwest of the other two, the western source. [543] Nearly all of the water which the Jordan carries into the Lake of Galilee, and much the greater part of all that it carries into the Dead Sea, is drawn from these three sources. It is astonishing to behold such volumes of water coming forth from the earth, when the surface is everywhere as dry as a powder-house, and when you know that not a drop of rain has fallen for three months.

      The stream which issues from the great spring of Cæsarea-Philippi sweeps along the entire base of its northern wall, and then, making an abrupt turn, washes in the same manner the base of the western wall. At the southwest corner of the city it is met at right angles by a deep, narrow fissure in the natural rock, by the precipitous side of which the southern wall was built, so that on every side except the east the city is surrounded by a natural moat. On the east side the ground rises gradually toward a spur of Mount Hermon, on the foot of which spur the city was built. Some parts of the ancient wall still exist on every side, but chiefly on the south, where we rode out, through a well-preserved gateway, upon a stone bridge spanning the rocky chasm on that side. A picture of this bridge and gateway is given on page 335.

      Within the circuit of the walls is a small village, the one-story houses of which are constructed of ancient material, and some of them are perched on the massive foundations of ancient buildings. Scattered about in every direction are seen broken columns, capitals, pedestals, and large blocks of hewn stone, which would declare to the most careless observer that here once stood a city of no mean pretensions.

      About one mile east of the town the mountain spur culminates in a precipitous rock at least 1000 feet above the town. Its top is completely covered by an old castle about one-fourth of a mile long, 250 yards wide at its west end, and 150 at its east end. Its outer walls are still preserved almost entire, and after a laborious climb of three-fourths of an hour up the most accessible side of the hill, we rode in through its southern and only gate. It is an astonishingly strong, massive, and elaborate fortification, and, previous to the invention of gunpowder, it must have been impregnable. Lieutenant Conder is doubtless right in pronouncing it "one of the most magnificent ruins in Syria."

      I think that if the Saviour's figure of a rock, in the statement to Peter, "On this rock I will build my church," was suggested by anything about Cæsarea-Philippi, near which the remark was made, it was suggested by the situation of this castle rather than by that of the city. True, the city was situated on a rock, but the rock is not so conspicuous as to arrest especial attention. The castle, however, is loftily and strongly built on a naked and imperishable mass of rock, and frowns [544] so defiantly upon all who would attempt to assail it that it might well suggest the majestic imagery of the ever memorable and precious words, "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it."

      The locality was full of interest to us on account of its association with the sixteenth chapter of Matthew; but when our eyes were lifted up to the still loftier spurs of majestic Hermon, which rose before us to the north, we were reminded of that grandest of all the scenes in the life of Jesus, his transfiguration, which occurred on some of those heights. If the apostle Peter, looking back many years after that glorious vision, could style its locality "the holy mount,"2 the modern pilgrim to the Holy Land may be excused for regarding it with veneration. Filled with this emotion, I was determined to accomplish what few excursionists attempt,--the ascent of Mount Hermon to its topmost summit. For this purpose, instead of taking the most direct route from Cæsarea-Philippi to Damascus, which would have led us along the southern side of Mount Hermon, we took the more circuitous route around its northern slopes. In regard to the most available point from which to make the ascent, there was a palpable conflict between the wish of our dragoman, backed by that of the muleteers, and the advice contained in our most reliable guide-book. We found that by following the guide-book (Baedeker's) we would accomplish our purpose, and reach Damascus one day sooner than by following our living guide; so, at the risk of a threatened rebellion among the muleteers, who were incapable of thinking that anything should be done differently from what it had been done, we gave positive orders that the ascent should begin from the village of Hasbe'ya. We also ordered that while we, with the dragoman and our attendant servant, were making the excursion, the camp should move forward to the village of Rashe'ya, about 15 miles farther on, at which point we were to complete the descent of the mountain.

      With this plan in view we rode, on the 18th of June, from Cæsarea-Philippi to Hasbe'ya, a distance of about 18 miles. At Hasbe'ya we were introduced to a new phase of social life. The population is chiefly Christian, of the Greek Church, and the village was the scene of one of the most fiendish outrages which occurred during the attempt at a universal massacre of the Syrian Christians in the year 1860. About 1000 of these unfortunate people took refuge from their persecutors in a castle occupied by the Turkish governor, where they had promise of [545] protection. But the garrison of Turkish soldiers, under whose protection they had placed themselves, fell upon them and murdered them in cold blood. Men, women, and children were indiscriminately butchered, and their bleeding bodies, covered with gaping wounds, were heaped together in great masses where they fell. When we rode into the open court of about an acre in extent, which lies in front of this castle, our dragoman, who remembered well the time of the slaughter, and was himself under arms at Beirût with his fellow-Christians, called a halt, and, solemnly pointing to the building, said, "In there the blood was not less than three feet deep, and all over this court it was not less than four inches." Of course this was an exaggeration, but he told the story as it had been told to him, and the fact that it is believed shows how deep an impression on the public mind was made by the fearful tragedy. I was the more impressed with the scene of this awful massacre from having met, at Tyre, a lady whose parents and immediate relatives were all among the victims. She was left a helpless orphan, only 10 years of age, but Mrs. Mott, an English lady in Beirût, who had, and still has, a school for girls, received her into it, supported her, educated her, taught her the Protestant faith, and sent her forth to be a missionary teacher. She was teaching a school in Tyre, and such was her interest in Christian people that when we were there she made a visit to our camp and related to us the story of her life and labors. Long may she continue to show her gratitude for the blessings bestowed on her by spreading the light among the children of her benighted people. I thought, while conversing with her, of our own orphan school at Midway, Kentucky, and I would commend her example to the dear girls of that institution.

      I said that we were introduced at Hasbe'ya to a new phase of social life. It was new in contrast to that of the Ar'ab population amid which we had hitherto traveled. Here the houses, though cheap and plain, had about them an air of cleanliness and home-comfort. Women, in clean garments, were sitting on the door-steps or on the cheap verandas, engaged in sewing or knitting, and a number of plainly but decently dressed women, with white veils thrown gracefully over their heads, but not drawn down over their faces, freely came about our camp to sell little articles of their handiwork. The ease, comfort, and freedom everywhere apparent presented a pleasing contrast with the bondage, filth, and shrinking reserve which we had everywhere seen in Mohammedan communities.

      Having a long and laborious ride before us for the 19th, we were up before daylight. We ate breakfast by the light of candles, and ere [546] the sun had gilded the hill-tops we were in the saddle. From six o'clock till noon we were continually ascending the steep slopes which led toward the summit of Mount Hermon. Our starting-point, the village of Hasbe'ya, is 2200 feet above the level of the sea, and our ascent included nearly 7000 feet more. We encountered nothing of special interest in the way, except one most remarkable sarcophagus. It was situated some 5000 or 6000 feet above the sea, remote from any town or permanent habitation, and consisted of a mass of natural rock about 8 feet wide by 10 in length, and rising about 7 feet above the ground. In the flat top of this rock were two graves, side by side, with a thin rock partition left between, and in the bottom of each a narrow vault like those in modern graves, for the immediate resting-place of the body. They were the graves, in all probability, of a man and his wife, dug here under the impulse of some strange caprice, and supposed to be a secure resting-place for their dust until the resurrection morning. But the stone slabs which covered them are gone, the graves have been rifled of all their contents, and there is nothing to tell the story of the dead man's hopes except the empty and silent rock.

      Mount Hermon is not a rocky mountain, although some very bold and majestic masses of naked rock are seen at intervals; but its surface is composed chiefly of smooth slopes covered with soil, and in the spring it is clothed with verdure. Even as late as June 19th, the date of our ascent, the melting masses of snow supply sufficient moisture to keep alive a considerable amount of vegetation, and the shepherds, in search of green pasture, lead their flocks of goats to its very summit. Here they watch over the flocks by night as well as by day, and their food is brought to them from the distant villages below. Nor is their business unattended with danger; for in these uninhabited mountain regions ravenous beasts that would devour the flocks are still found. Of this we had ocular demonstration; for while we were standing on the summit of the mountain a large brown bear started up not far from us, galloped leisurely off, and just before he disappeared turned around, sat down, and gazed at us for a few moments as if in doubt as to our identity, or of our right to invade his dominions. I know not how he gets his food unless he lives upon kids which he steals from the shepherds.

      The top of the mountain contains evidence that it was not always the uninhabited region that it now is; for on it are the ruins of an ancient heathen temple, and a dwelling-place chiseled in the solid rock. The latter is a circular room about 24 feet in diameter, and its ceiling, which is about 8 feet high, is supported by a pillar of the [547] natural rock left standing not far from the centre. Before its doorway, which is now nearly blocked up with earth, are two broken granite columns about 15 inches in diameter, one prostrate, but the other still erect. Who inhabited this singular dwelling, whether the heathen priests of the temple near by, some hermit of the Dark Ages, or the shepherds of some former period, cannot now be determined. But it was certainly a very suitable dwelling for a mountain-top which is covered with snow during the principal part of the year.

      The fall of snow and rain in this entire country was much lighter than usual last winter, and consequently we found on the mountain only a few small fields of snow, and these will disappear before the summer is over; but usually the snow remains in large fields throughout the summer.

      Notwithstanding the masses of unmelted snow that were about us, and our elevation of more than 9000 feet above the sea level, the thermometer stood at 71°, and we were constrained to shelter ourselves from the sun with our umbrellas.

      The view from the top of Hermon was of course the most extensive that we enjoyed in all of our tour. Our eyes were very naturally turned first toward Damascus. It was too far away for the houses to be distinguished, even with a glass. It appeared like a small yellow field of irregular outline in the midst of a vast field of green. The oasis in which it lies, and which is made such by the waters of the famous rivers Abana and Pharpar, was all in view, and the surrounding desert of yellow sand was seen to stretch away in every direction until it was lost in the dim distance.

      Our eyes were next turned southward, over the region which we had recently traversed. Far down in a deep depression lay the Lake of Galilee, almost hid by the mist which the heated atmosphere is constantly lifting from its surface. Beyond the lake the farthest point that we could distinguish was Mount Tabor; and farther to the west the horizon was bounded by the long ridge of Mount Carmel. Westward, and to the northwest, the mountains of Lebanon hid all more distant objects from the view, and between them and the Hermon range lay spread the long, narrow valley called by the Romans Cœle-Syria. The atmosphere was exceptionally clear and throughout the wide circuit of our horizon the various objects were unusually distinct.

      In regard to the atmosphere of Palestine I was seriously disappointed. All the tourists whose writings I had read united in one unbroken chorus to extol the marvelous clearness of the Syrian atmosphere, and the brilliancy of a Syrian sky by night. My expectation was therefore [548] keyed up very high, and I anticipated rare enjoyment from this source. In one respect I was not disappointed. During the 86 days of our sojourn in Palestine and Southern Syria, there were not more than eight or ten, I think, in which the sun did not shine all the day, and the stars all the night. And when looking at distant objects, we almost invariably underestimated their distance from us. But I accounted for this latter circumstance by our want of experience in estimating long distances, rather than by an unusual transparency of the atmosphere, because in almost every instance we found distant objects covered with a haze which prevented us from seeing them distinctly, and almost every time that we climbed a height for the purpose of obtaining a far-reaching view the haziness of the atmosphere was a tantalizing hindrance. I was led to make frequent comparisons with the atmosphere of our own country; and although in America we have many rainy, cloudy, and misty days, I am sure that I have seen distant objects there with as much distinctness as I have in Palestine; and although our nights are often dark, I have looked up from my own door-steps in the summer-time, with my wife and children about me, to as clear a sky and to stars as bright as I have seen in Palestine, Egypt, Greece, or Italy. And then, on a frosty night in winter, if the stars and moon ever shone more brightly in the wide world than they shine on the free-born people of America, I have yet to see it, or to read of it in authentic records. I think it must be English writers, in whose sea-girt home a clear day and a bright night are seldom seen, who have given to Palestine its reputation for transparency of atmosphere.

      Our descent of Mount Hermon was far more rapid, and along far steeper slopes, than our ascent. It had barely begun when we passed a flock of goats grazing beside a bank of snow. A shepherd-boy filled a bowl with fresh goats milk, thickened it with snow, and offered it to us to drink. We stirred in some sugar, and made a very refreshing kind of ice-cream, the nearest to the genuine article which we had tasted for many a day. We then moved on toward the plains below, walking down the steepest slopes, and riding down others where the danger of slipping, saddle and all, over our horses heads seemed imminent, and completed an excursion of 12 hours by reaching our tents at Rashe'ya about sunset. Men and horses were all prepared for a good night's rest, and this they all enjoyed. [549]

      1 2 Sam. xx. 1-22. [542]
      2 2 Peter i. 18. [545]


[LOB 540-549]

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

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