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


L E T T E R   X V I I.


      ON leaving Mount Hermon, our next objective point was Damascus. Starting from Rashe'ya on the morning of June 20th, we rode in one way to Mejelûn, a station on the turnpike from Beirut to Damascus, distant from the latter city about 12 miles. Here we struck the first good artificial road which we had seen in Syria; and, indeed, it is the only one in Western Asia. I will give some account of it hereafter. Our camp was pitched by the side of a fine spring which bursts from under the embankment of the turnpike; and near by, along the bank of the stream which ran from the spring, there was a little grove of poplar-trees under whose shade we enjoyed a refreshing rest. It was refreshing, too, to see wagons and carriages passing along the turnpike, and especially so to hear the horn of the stage-driver as he approached the station, and to see the large diligence drawn by six horses dash up to the stable, change horses, and dash away again. It reminded me of scenes often witnessed in the West, and it made us feel as if we were once more within the region of civilization. Our route the next day lay along this turnpike, and we were annoyed no little by the foolishness of our horses. I suppose they had seldom or never seen a wagon or carriage before, and they were positively afraid of them. My horse, in spite of my utmost efforts to control him, would shy off to the edge of the road every time we met a vehicle. The sight of these conveniences of civilized life was as strange to him as it was familiar to me.

      We were traversing the elevated valley which lies between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon Mountains. The former range lies along the entire seacoast from Sidon northward, while the latter, with a valley from 8 to 10 miles wide between the two, lies along the border of the great Arabian Desert. The southern extremity of the latter range, and its highest elevation, is Mount Hermon. This mountain extends about 20 miles northward; and beyond it the range gradually descends until it approaches the Euphrates, where it reaches the level of the desert. Across this mountain range we had to make our way in approaching Damascus, and as we rode for miles with its unbroken wall before us, we felt interested to see how a passage would be effected. [550]

Page 551.      

At last we entered upon a straight stretch of the turnpike road which seemed to terminate against the base of the mountain; but on nearing the mountain, a narrow, winding gap opened before us, whose bed was filled with the verdure of silver poplars and sparkling with the bright waters of a little stream. No one who has not ridden for many days under a scorching sun, with the glare of bare rocks or of a desert plain in his face, can realize how refreshing it was to ride under the shade of those overhanging trees and listen to the constant murmuring of that little stream.

      We had not ridden far before the rippling rivulet crossed our road and emptied its waters into a swift-rolling river, and we found ourselves on the right bank of the famous Ab'-a-na of Scripture, called the Bar'-a-da by the Ar'abs. The valley through which it flows is as narrow as the one by which we had approached it, being often not more than 100 yards wide, while a naked mountain wall, several hundred feet high, rises above it on either hand. By this pass the Ab'-a-na makes its way through the mountain. Its descent is very rapid and its current remarkably swift, but so few are the obstructions in its bed that it rolls on in silence, and one might ride along its bank in the night and hear scarcely a sound to indicate its presence. It passes from side to side of its narrow valley, and we crossed it frequently on well-constructed stone bridges. We noticed, too, that in many places the side of the road was guarded against it by walls of wood or stone, lest, in high water, it should wash the road away. The growth along its banks is almost exclusively the silver poplar, which is planted in clumps and made to grow tall and slim in order to furnish long poles rather than heavy timber. Occasionally, however, we saw groves of apricots and other fruit-trees.

      Before we passed through the mountains we noticed that the river was much reduced in size, and that fully half of its water was drawn into an artificial channel which is carried along the side of the mountain on our left. Having a more gradual descent than the bed of the river, this artificial channel finally gained an ascent of 30 or 40 feet above our road, and occasionally a little stream was allowed to escape from its side to water a narrow garden along the hill-side, or to ripple through the beautiful grounds of dwellings which began to appear as we advanced.

      Finally the mountain gap through which we had ridden for about six miles opened upon a boundless plain, and half a dozen tall minarets stood before us, rising high above the intervening fruit-gardens, and declaring that Damascus was at hand. As we approached the city we [551] passed, on our left, well-constructed buildings surrounded by ample grounds and shade-trees, the barracks and hospitals of the Turkish garrison. Richly-dressed officers on handsome horses were going and coming. On our right, and across the river from us, lay a smooth lawn on which the dyers of the city had spread carpets and other goods, and were sprinkling them with water from the river. This lawn extends to the wall of the city, and the first building within the wall at that point is a vast mosque covering 8 or 10 acres of ground. It belongs to the Howling Dervishes, a fanatical order of Mohammedans, corresponding to the monks of the Roman Catholic Church. It was once a magnificent suite of buildings, as its many domes and minarets still declare, but like the order to which it belongs it is now in a state of ruin.

      Passing into the city along the bank of the river, and then turning a little to the left, we halted before a door in a high wall, which rose abruptly from the side of the street, and were told that this was our hotel. We had decided to occupy the hotel instead of our tents during our stay in Damascus. The door was a large and heavy one, about 8 feet wide, 12 feet high, and 3 inches thick. We expected to see it thrown open to admit us, and thought it likely that we would ride through it into an inner court. But we were requested to dismount; a little door about four feet high and two feet wide, cut through the large door, was thrown open, and we entered one at a time. We had to stoop to get in. The little door reminded me of cat-holes that I had seen through the bottom of cabin doors, by which the cat could go in and out when the door was shut. I afterward saw many of them in Damascus, and some in other cities of the East. After passing through the cat-hole we found ourselves in a small court, about 20 feet square, its floor paved with marble, a circular fountain in the centre, a tall lemon-tree, covered with yellow fruit, growing near the fountain, two or three doors of apartments occupied by servants opening into the court, and before us an arched opening through a wall leading into an inner and larger court. We passed into the latter, and found it about 60 feet square. A marble tank 30 feet long, 10 feet wide, 3 feet deep, and rising about 20 inches above the pavement, occupied a position near the centre of the court. It was kept full of water by a stream constantly pouring into it from a metallic pipe, while the water ran off through another pipe underground. Lemon- and orange-trees were scattered about the court, and the doors of the surrounding apartments of the hotel opened into it. The following cut represents one side of a similar court. There are many such in the large houses [552] of Damascus. On entering the apartments we found the floors all laid with stone, tiles, or cement, and covered with pieces of thick Turkish carpet laid loose upon them. The furniture was European, because it was provided for European guests. Such is the style of all the large houses in Damascus, varying only in the costliness of the material and the gorgeousness of the ornamentation. A few houses belonging to Jews of enormous wealth are so splendidly furnished and so gorgeously


ornamented as to remind one of the splendor characteristic of Arabian and Moorish palaces when Mohammedanism was in the height of its glory. We found the hotel a comfortable and pleasant abode during the four days of our stay in the city. It is called the Dimî'tri Hotel, from the name of its first proprietor, and it is now kept by his widow. It is the only hotel in a city of 110,000 inhabitants, and it owes its existence to the visits of Europeans.

      The objects in Damascus which most interest the tourist are the bazaars, the ancient mosque, and the street called Straight. The bazaars [553] are only a repetition, on a larger scale, of those which we had seen in every city of Palestine. They are little rooms, 8 or 10 feet square, with the whole front open to the street. A large wooden door, made of several separate shutters, closes it at night, and is put out of sight during the day. The goods are packed on shelves around the other three sides of the little room, and the dealer sits on a rug in the middle of the floor. If business is dull he goes to sleep, or visits some of the adjoining shops to chat with his neighbors. He always asks you about three prices for his goods, and expects you to quarrel with him loud and long in making a bargain. After offering him the most that you are willing to give, which he most positively refuses to take, you walk away; but before you get out of sight he calls to you, or runs after you, to say that he will take it. If he takes your offer without this ado, you may be sure that you have paid him too much.

      The shops of the blacksmiths, coppersmiths, carpenters, etc., are constructed after the same model as those of the merchants, and the workmen always remain seated, except when the kind of work they are doing compels them to stand. I have seen blacksmiths seated on the ground and hammering away at their anvils.

      The old mosque, once a heathen temple, then reconstructed into an immense Christian church, and afterward remodeled into a Mohammedan mosque, is in a good state of preservation, but there is less sanctity attached to it than in former years. We had to leave our boots at the door, but were allowed to walk through it in slippers. We saw men asleep on the floor, and others were laughing and talking, while some were peddling little things to eat. Few, if any, were going through the long and ostentatious formula of Mohammedan prayers. We ascended one of the three minarets which rise from three corners of the mosque, and obtained from its lofty balcony a complete view of the city. The walls, of dingy limestone, unrelieved by wood-work of any kind, and the flat, cemented roofs of the houses, presented that same dull appearance with which we had been familiar in looking at Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. The only relief to the eye was in the minarets and domes rising from many mosques, in the green trees filling the interior courts of the larger houses, and the rich verdure of the poplar-trees and fruit-orchards which surround the city on every side. Beyond these the brown mountains on the north and west, and the yellow desert on the south, add a sombre variety to the landscape.

      Within the mosque is a very costly marble tomb, ornamented with silver, in which the head of John the Baptist is said to be buried. [554] Most likely the tomb was erected and this tradition invented while the building was yet a church, and the Mohammedans, having received the tradition with the building, have only perpetuated it. The tomb is regarded by the Moslem with the greatest veneration, and our cut represents a company of them worshiping before it.


      We found, in the structure of the houses of the city, an explanation of the careful rearing of tall poplars which we had observed, and of the absence from the poplar-groves of any trees large enough for the saw-mill. The roofs and floors of the houses are supported, not by joists of sawed timber, but by naked poplar poles laid close together. This leads to the cutting of the young trees as soon as they are large enough and tall enough for this purpose. There are no saw-mills in this country, and the only plank used is brought, at great expense, from the ports of Russia on the Black Sea.

      The street called Straight, in which Saul of Tarsus spent three days in fasting and prayer, and where he was found by Ananias, runs entirely through the city from east to west, and is about a mile long. It has five slight crooks in it, and would not be called a straight street in Philadelphia; but in Damascus it is remarkably straight, for it is the only one in which you can see 100 yards before you. A fire has recently swept along one side of it for a considerable distance, destroying the silk bazaar, and compelling the dealers in silk to find temporary quarters elsewhere. The hand-made silk of Damascus, much of it interwoven with threads of gold and silver, is very rich, serviceable, [555] and cheap. The eastern end of Straight street passes through the Christian quarter, and there you are shown the house of Ananias (?),
the man who baptized Saul of Tarsus. This quarter of the city was burned to the ground in 1860, during the massacre of Christians in Syria, and 6000 of the inhabitants butchered in cold blood. Our local guide, who showed us about the city, was then a boy, and he barely escaped with his life, nearly all of his relatives being involved in the slaughter. The French army of 10,000 men, which marched to Damascus and hung and beheaded many of the leaders of the persecution, taught the fanatical Mohammedans a lesson which they have not forgotten, but Damascus still contains an intensely bigoted Mohammedan population. As we were stepping over the countless dogs that lay asleep in the streets, and occasionally kicking one to make him get out of the way, with no other result than to have him look up at us, merely to see who was disturbing him, I asked Michael, our guide, why the authorities did not have these dogs thinned out by killing some of them. He answered "That would be a great sin. It is all right to kill a Christian, but a great sin to kill a dog." I asked him what would be done if I should kill one of them, and he said I would be arrested and brought before the city courts. The lives of both dogs and cats are held sacred by the Moslem.

      Another proof of the bigotry prevalent here was given me by Mr. Phillips, an Irish Presbyterian missionary in the city. He said that if a Mohammedan deserts his religion and becomes a Christian, it is held to be the duty of other Mohammedans to kill him. A few years ago one of them became a convert to the Protestant faith, and after fleeing [556] from the city twice to escape plots that were laid to assassinate him, and making preparations to flee a third time, he was found, one morning, hung in the mosque, near the tomb of John the Baptist's head. When the guardians of the mosque were called upon to give an account of the hanging, they answered that the man was hung by John the Baptist, and this answer was so satisfactory to the city authorities that no further effort was made to detect the murderers. From this the reader can form some idea of the obstacles in the way of missionary work in Mohammedan countries.

      I met with another incident in Damascus illustrative of the sacrifices made by the families of missionaries who labor in this half-heathen country. On Lord's day we attended the services of the English Church. They were held in a large room of a dwelling-house occupied by the family of the missionary. Before the services began we met the missionary and were introduced to him. He was an old man, of modest and humble demeanor, and he received us with cordial expressions of good will. There was nothing striking about his reading of the Liturgy or about his sermon, but he read a hymn which I could but construe as expressive of the hard struggle of his own soul, and that of other members of his family, to be resigned to their lonely life of unpromising labor in the midst of an unsympathizing community. It was the excellent hymn beginning,--

"My God, my Father, while I stray
      Far from my home in life's rough way.
 Oh, teach me from my heart to say
            Thy will be done."

      He read it with feeling, and the singing was led by his eldest daughter, a young lady not yet twenty years of age, and appearing--from her dress, which was tasteful in the extreme--as if she were just from her home in England. I supposed that she had been educated at home, and had now come to Damascus to assist her aged father in his mission. As she sang the touching verses with a clear, sweet voice and correct expression, I saw the color coming and going in her face, and occasionally I detected a slight tremor in her voice. When the song was concluded and she had taken her seat, she buried her face in her hands and wept convulsively. I knew that the song had stirred up all the deep fountains of her heart, and it stirred mine almost as deeply; I wept with her. I did not look around to see whether any one else was weeping, but there was a deathlike stillness in the little audience, as if every soul was drawn very near to God. I blessed in my heart all the brave women [557] in foreign lands who are denying themselves the pleasures of society and home in order that they may lend a helping hand to husbands and fathers as they preach Jesus to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. That song and that sweet voice have rung in my ears for many a day and night since then, and have brought many a tear to my eyes. It has made the missionary spirit stronger and deeper within me than ever before.

      The old walls of Damascus are now the limit of the city only on its eastern and southern sides. On the west the city has grown far beyond the wall, and a portion of it stands entire in the midst of the houses. On the eastern side there is a single gate, and this a small one, while near it is one much more massive, which is now walled up. The latter is seen in the left of the following cut, and the former in the right.


      Just within the gate is a fountain of pure water, at which both man and beast are supplied. Similar fountains, with a stream issuing from a stone trough or a metallic pipe and falling into a watering-trough, are met with in all parts of the city. The river Ab'-a-na, ere it reaches the city, is diverted into six artificial channels, leaving but a small portion of the stream in the original bed. The last flows entirely through the city under arches, and forms a natural sewer of the best kind; while the other streams are led, some of them through pipes laid in every part of the city, and some through irrigating channels, which supply water to the surrounding oasis and keep it verdant in the midst of a desert. [558]

      Near the southeastern corner of the city, and on the southern side, is another old gate, now walled up, over which tradition says Paul made his escape when he fled from Damascus. A certain George, so the story goes, was keeper of this gate, and a friend of Paul. When the governor was watching the city with a garrison to apprehend Paul, George let him out over this gate after it had been shut at night; and now the tomb of the said George, who is known, of course, as "St. George," is shown to travelers in a very old graveyard not far from this gate. I preferred to believe the Scriptures rather than this tradition. Knowing that Paul "through a window in a basket was let down by the wall," I looked for a window suited to this mode of exit, and I saw many of them. All along the eastern wall there are houses inside, whose upper stories overlap the wall, and out of the windows of these it would be easy to let a man down outside in a basket. Of course this wall and these houses were not standing in Paul's day, but their predecessors were, and they were built, most probably, in the same way, and it is not unlikely that they were built on the same foundations.

      Damascus is now noted for its growth and exportation of fruits, and especially of apricots. The groves in the oasis around bear these in immense quantities. They are dried or cured in sugar, or prepared in what we in America would call "apricot leather," because it is precisely like "peach leather." The annual export of this fruit is estimated at from 3000 to 4000 tons. The city also exports from 2000 to 2500 tons of raisins.1

      On account of the method by which the city is supplied with water, and the constant irrigation of the entire surface for several miles around, it is a very unhealthy place in the summer. It is necessary for travelers to guard themselves with great care against indulging too freely in its rich fruits, or exposing themselves to night air, or becoming excessively heated during the hot days; otherwise they are almost certain to be prostrated with fever. The families of missionaries are compelled, during the hot months of the year, to save their lives by removing to the mountains.

      The stories told about the beauty of Damascus are not exaggerated when they refer to its appearance from the adjacent mountains, where it is seen in contrast with a parched and naked desert all around it; but the thought of beauty is dissipated the moment one enters the streets, for dirt and dust abound there on every side, and none of the [559] houses, even the finest, has any external ornamentation. "Fair without, but foul within," might be appropriately written under the name Damascus.

      1 Baedeker, 46. [559]


[LOB 550-560]

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

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