Narrative Of The United States Expedition To The River Jordan And The Dead Sea/10
FRIDAY, APRIL 14: A beautiful morning; but several of us quite sick. Took leave of the caravan for the day, and, with Sherîf and the Emir, descended to the boats by the aid of the gnarled and tangled roots which protruded from the face of the bank; and, with a “push off,” “let fall,” and “give way,” we shot into the current, and swept away before the eyes of the wondering Ghaurineh. Their astonishment at beholding our boats, and our strange appearance, had in it something extremely ludicrous. On rising at an early hour this morning (for we were generally up and stirring long before the lagging sun), we found the whole bank lined with these wondering barbarians, who were lying at full length upon the bluff, with their heads projecting over the bank, and looking upon the floating wonders beneath; turning, from time to time, to regard the race to whom belonged such rare inventions, such famous mechanism, as boats and six-barrel revolvers.
The boats had little need of the oars to propel them, for the current carried us along at the rate of from four to six knots an hour, the river, from its eccentric course, scarcely permitting a correct sketch of its topography to be taken. It curved and twisted north, south, east, and west, turning, in the short space of half an hour, to every quarter of the compass, — seeming as if desirous to prolong its luxuriant meanderings in the calm and silent valley, and reluctant to pour its sweet and sacred waters into the accursed bosom of the bitter sea.
For hours in their swift descent the boats floated down in silence, the silence of the wilderness. Here and there were spots of solemn beauty. The numerous birds sang with a music strange and manifold; the willow branches were spread upon the stream like tresses, and creeping mosses and clambering weeds, with a multitude of white and silvery little flowers, looked out from among them; and the cliff swallow wheeled over the falls, or went at his own wild will darting through the arched vistas, shadowed and shaped by the meeting foliage on the banks; and, above all, yet attuned to all, was the music of the river, gushing with a sound like that of shawms and cymbals.
There was little variety in the scenery of the river today. The stream sometimes washed the bases of the sandy hills, and at other times meandered between low banks, generally fringed with trees and fragrant with blossoms. Some points presented views exceedingly picturesque — the mad rushing of a mountain torrent, the song and sight of birds, the overhanging foliage and glimpses of the mountains far over the plain, and here and there a gurgling rivulet pouring its tribute of crystal water into the now muddy Jordan. The western shore was peculiar, from the high calcareous limestone hills, which form a barrier to the stream when swollen by the efflux of the sea of Galilee during the winter and early spring; while the left or eastern bank was low, and fringed with tamarisk and willow, and occasionally a thicket of lofty cane, and tangled masses of shrubs and creeping plants, giving it the character of a jungle. At one place, we saw the fresh track of a tiger on the low clay-like margin, where he had come to drink. At another time, as we passed his lair, a wild boar started with a savage grunt and dashed into the thicket; but, for some moments, we traced his pathway by the shaking cane and the crashing sound of broken branches.
The birds were numerous, and at times, when we issued from the shadow and silence of a narrow and verdure-tented part of the stream into an open bend, where the rapids rattled and the light burst in, and the birds sang their wildwood song, it was, to use a simile of Mr. Bedlow, like a sudden transition from the cold, dull-lighted hall where gentlemen hang their hats, into the white and golden saloon, where the music rings and the dance goes on.
The hawk, upon the topmost branch of a blighted tree, moved not at our approach, but “Stood with the down on his beak, and stared with his foot on the prey;” and the veritable nightingale ceased not her song, for she made day night in her covert among the leaves; and the bulbul, whose sacred haunts we disturbed when the current swept us among the overhanging boughs, but chirrupped her surprise, calmly winged her flight to another sprig, and continued her interrupted melodies.
Unable to obtain one alive, we startled the solitude of the wilderness with a gun-shot, and secured the body of a brown-breasted, scarlet-headed and crimson-winged bird, the eastern bulbul. The Arabs call a pretty bird a bulbul, but Sherîf , who was with me in the boat, insisted upon it that it was the specific name of the bird we had killed. We were less successful with others of the feathered race, for although the sharp crack of the rifle and the louder report of the carbine awoke the echoes of the Jordan wilds, no other trophy than this unhappy bulbul could be produced when we met at night. The gentle creatures seemed each to bear a charmed life, for when we fired at them, they would spread their wings unhurt, and dart into the thick and tangled brushwood, and burst forth again in song from a more hidden covert; or sometimes just rise into the air and wheel above the broken sprig, or torn leaf, to settle once more as calmly as if the noise which had startled them were but the familiar sound of the breaking of a dried branch, or the plunge of a fragment of the soil from the water-worn banks into the current below.
Our course down the stream was with varied rapidity. At times we were going at the rate of from three to four knots the hour, and again we would be swept and hurried away, dashing and whirling onward with the furious speed of a torrent. At such moments there was excitement, for we knew not but that the next turn of the stream would plunge us down some fearful cataract, or dash us on the sharp rocks which might lurk unseen beneath the surface.
For the reasons I have before stated, the Fanny Mason always took the lead, and warned the Fanny Skinner when danger was to be shunned or encountered. When the sound of a rapid was distinct and near, the compass and the note-book were abandoned, and, motioning to the Fanny Skinner to check her speed, our oars began to move like the antennae of some giant insect, to sweep us into the swiftest, which is ever the deepest, part of the current; when it caught us, the boat’s crew and our Arab friend Jumah (Friday) leaped into the angry stream, accoutred as they were, and, clinging to her sides, assisted in guiding the graceful Fanny down the perilous descent. In this manner she was whirled on, driving between rocks and shallows with a force that made her bend and quiver like a rush in a running stream; then, shooting her through the foam and the turmoil of the basin below, where, in the seething and effervescing water, she spun and twirled, the men leaped in, and, with oars and rudder, she was brought to an eddying cove, from whence, by word and gesture, she directed her sister Fanny through the channel.
Beyond these interruptions, the river flowed broad and deep, yet maintaining much of the features of a torrent.
Many islands, some fairy-like, and covered with a luxuriant vegetation, others mere sand-bars and sedimentary deposits, intercepted the course of the river, but were beautiful features in the general monotony of the shores. The regular and almost unvaried scene of high banks of alluvial deposit and sand-hills on the one hand, and the low swamp-like shore, covered to the water’s edge with the tamarisk, the willow, and the thick, high cane, would have been fatiguing without the frequent occurrence of sand-banks and verdant islands. High up in the sand-bluffs, the cliff swallow (‘asfûr) chattered from his nest in the hollow, or darted about in the bright sunshine, in pursuit of the gnat and the water-fly.
A little before twelve o’clock we stopped to take a Meridian observation. This requiring but a short time, we were soon on our way again, to encounter more trials in this difficult navigation. As the evening shadows lengthened more and more upon the stream, we repeatedly stopped to look out for the caravan. The Sherîf was evidently very uneasy. On each occasion the faithful Jumah was our scout, but he never landed without putting on a belt with a brace of pistols. He returned, at last, with the intelligence that he had seen the caravan pursuing its march in the distance, and we continued on our way.
The loud report of a carbine presently echoed among the cliffs, and a flock of storks rose from the margin of the river, and flew past us. The Sherîf had wounded one poor fellow, and his leg hung shattered and dangling, as he strove to keep up with his frightened companions. His efforts were unavailing; the movement of his wings was but a spasm of his agony, and he fell in the water before us. The stream carrying him down, threw him on a low marshy bank, where the poor creature was making desperate efforts to drag himself from the water, as we dashed by on the rapid out of sight. I could not refrain from telling Sherîf that it was a pity to shoot a bird unfit to eat, and not required as a specimen, and which, by the Muhammedan law, was regarded as a sacred one.
For an hour or more we swept silently down the river, and the last tints of sunset were resting on the summits of the eastern mountains; wet and weary, without a change of clothes, and with neither tents nor provisions, we began to anticipate a night upon the river, separated from our friends, when, at a turn, we beheld a horseman on the crest of a high hill, his longabaand his koofeeyeh streaming in the wind. To our great delight we recognised him to be our gallant ’Akil. He descended rapidly the almost perpendicular hill-side! None but an Arab steed and rider could have done it!
The brief remainder of our day’s journey was rendered more perilous even than the commencement, from the frequency of rapids and the difficulty of navigation in the fast-fading light. The swift current, as we sometimes turned a point of land, would seize us and send us off at a salient angle from our course, as if it had been lurking behind that point like an evil thing, to start out and clutch us suddenly and dash us upon the opposite bank, or run us under the low hanging boughs, as if for the purpose of rubbing ua all out, or injuring us against the gnarled and projecting roots, where skulked the long clammy earth-worm and the green lizard.
The scenery became also more wild as we advanced; and as night, like a gloomy Rembrandt, came throwing her dark shadows through the mountain gorges, sobering down the bright tints upon their summits, the whole scene assumed a strange and savage aspect, as if to harmonize with the dreary sea it held within its midst, madly towards which the river now hurried on.
But, altogether, the descent to-day was much less difficult than those which had preceded it. The course of the river formed a never-ending series of serpentine curves, sometimes dashing along in rapids by the base of a mountain, sometimes flowing between low banks, generally lined with trees and fragrant with blossoms. Some places presented views extremely picturesque, the rapid rushing of a torrent, the song and sight of birds, the overhanging trees, and glimpses of the mountains far over the plain. Here and there a gurgling rivulet poured its tribute of pure water into the now discoloured Jordan. The river was falling rapidly; the banks showed a daily fall of about two feet, and frequently we saw sedge and drift wood lodged high up on the branches of overhanging trees — above the surface of the banks — which conclusively proves that the Jordan in its “swellings” still overflows the lower plain, and drives the lion from his lair, as it did in the ancient time.
In some places the substratum of clay along the banks presented the semi-indurated appearance of stone. For the first time we saw to-day sand, gravel, and pebbles, along the shores, and the cane had become more luxuriant, all indicating the approach to the lower Ghor. The elevated plain or terrace, on each side, could be seen at intervals, and the high mountains of Ajlun were visible in the distance.
At 6:40 P.M., hauled up just above an ugly rapid, which runs by Wady Yabes (dry ravine).
It looking too hazardous to “shoot” without lightening the boats of the arms, instruments, &c., and there being no near place of rendezvous below, we pitched our tents immediately against the falls and opposite to the ravine.
We have, to-day, passed through-the territories of the Emir Nassir el Ghuzzawy, which are two hours in extent, but more than twice the distance along the tortuous course of the river. The tribe musters 300 fighting men. His territory, in size and fertility, surpasses some of the petty kingdoms of Europe.
The Emir and some of his people have wiry hair and very dark complexions, but no other feature of the African. His brother and some of the tribe are bright, but less so than ’Akil and his followers. The darker colour of the skin may, perhaps, be attributed to the climate of the Ghor.
The hills, forming the banks of the upper terrace, have, to-day, assumed a conical form, with scarped and angular faces, marked with dark bands, and furrowed by erosions. These hills, and the high banks of alluvial deposit, with abrupt and perpendicular faces, indicate that the whole valley has once been covered with water. The prevailing rock seen has been siliceous limestone and conglomerate, — much of the last lying in fragments in the river, covered with a black deposit of oxide of iron and manganese. Towards the latter part of the day, rock was less abundant, alluvion began to prevail, and pebbles, gravel, and sand, were seen beneath the superincumbent layers of dark earth and clay. Just above where we had secured the boats, were large blocks of conglomerate in the stream.
The prevailing trees on the banks have been the willow, the ghurrah, and the tamarisk; the last now beginning to blossom. There were many flowers, of which the oleander was the most abundant, contrasting finely with the white fringe blossom of the asphodel. Where the banks were low, the cane was ever at the water’s edge. The lower plain was covered with a luxuriant growth of wild oats and patches of wild mustard in full flower.
In our course, to-day, we have passed twelve islands, all, but three, of diminutive size, and noted fourteen tributary streams, ten on the right and four on the left bank. With the exception of four, they were but trickling rivulets.
We saw many fish, and a number of hawks, herons, pigeons, ducks, storks, bulbuls, swallows, and many other birds we could not identify — some of them of beautiful plumage. At one time, there were a number of moths flitting over the surface of the stream, and we caught one of them. Its body was about the size of a goose quill, was an inch in length, and of a cream colour, widest at the head, and its wings, like silver tissue, were as long as the body. After frightening the wee thing by our close inspection, we let it go. Just before coming in sight of camp, we observed several tracks of wild boars.
The surface of the hill behind us was thickly covered with boulders of quartz and conglomerate. Dr. Anderson found the remains of walls at the summit; and one large stone, dressed to a face, and marked. He distinguished two separate formations, one an early and the other a late conglomerate. The bank opposite was high and rocky, and consisted of the same pudding stone, with layers of indurated marl.
In our route of upwards of twenty miles to-day, we saw the scouts but twice; and, in consequence of the nature of the country, the caravan was compelled to diverge so far from the river, that the guns we fired from time to time at the wild-fowl were unheard.
As we were now approaching the territories of the bad Arabs, and were not far from the place where the boat of poor Molyneux was attacked, every precaution was taken. Our tent was pitched beside a brawling rapid, while all around were lances and tethered horses, betraying the position of the Arabs for the night. On the crest of the hill behind us, the Sherîf was looking out upon the vast plain to the southward, although I had just seen the old man asleep on the ground near our tent. He was the counsellor, and ’Akil the warrior.
It was a strange sight: collected near us lay all the camels, for security against a sudden surprise; while, in every direction, but ever in close proximity, were scattered, lances and smouldering fires, and bundles of garments, beneath each of which was a slumbering Arab, with his long gun by his side. The preparations for defence reminded one of Indian warfare.
At night, Sherîf and ’Akil came to our tent to consult about to-morrow’s journey. They stated their-suspicions of the tribes through whose territories we were about to pass, and how necessary it would be for the land and the river parties to keep close together.
They gave it as their opinion, that it would be impossible for the caravan to proceed on the western shore to-morrow, and advised that early in the morning it should cross over to the eastern side. This course was adopted; and it was agreed that ’Akil and his scouts should keep along the western, while the caravan took the eastern side, thus having the boats between, so that one or other of the land parties might be within hearing, and hasten to their rescue, if attacked. It was further agreed, that whenever, by the intervention of the mountains, the land parties were long out of sight of the boats, scouts should be sent to the summits to look out for them, and that two gun-shots, in quick succession, should be the signal, if attacked.
They both said that there was not the slightest danger to the land parties, but expressed great solicitude for the boats. Sherîf thought it best for him to be with the caravan to-morrow, as his influence might be of service with the sheikhs of tribes, should they be inclined to hostilities. From the tortuous course of the river, it was supposed that the caravan on the eastern side would be ever in advance of, while the scouts on the western shore would keep pace with, the boats.
Stationing the sentries, we then retired, — some of us quite exhausted, from frequent vomiting throughout the day. I thought that our Bedouin magnified the danger, to enhance their own importance. But it was well to be prepared.
The course of the river varied to-day from N. E. by N. and N.N.W. to S., — the true course, from the place of departure this morning to our present camp, S.S.W. The width of the river was as much as seventy yards, with two knots current, and narrowed again to thirty yards, with six knots current: — the depth ranging from two to ten feet. The trees and flowers the same as yesterday. We struck three times upon sunken rocks during the day, and the last time nearly lost the leading boat: with everything wet, we were at length extricated, in time to direct the channel-way to the Fanny Skinner. The water was slightly discoloured. When we left the camp, the thermometer stood at 76°; but in a few hours the weather was oppressive.
About five miles nearly due west from the camp, were the supposed ruins of Succoth. To get to this place, Jacob must have made a retrograde movement after meeting Esau, and crossed the Jordan, or recrossed the Jabok.
SATURDAY, APRIL 15, 1849. We were up and off at an early hour this morning, with less than the usual disturbance between the camel-drivers and their insufferable beasts. Of all the burden-bearing beasts, from the Siam elephant to the Himmaleh goat, this “ship of the desert,” as he has been poetically termed, — this clumsy jointed, splay-footed, wry-necked, vicious camel, with its look of injured innocence, and harsh, complaining voice, is incomparably the most disagreeable.
Loud have been the praises of its submissive and self-sacrificing spirit, all gentleness and sagacity; its power of enduring hunger and thirst for an indefinite period, and its unwearied tramp day after day through the smiting sun and over the burning sands of the desert; but this animal is anything but patient or uncomplaining. As to the enormous weight it can carry, we have heard it growl in expostulation at a load which the common “kadish” (Syrian pack-horse) would be mortified to have allotted to him as suited to his thews and sinews.
The steady little donkey, with preposterous ears and no perceptible hair on his hide, that leads the trudging caravan, and eats his peck of barley, and travels stoutly all day long, is a model for him in endurance; and the most unhappy mule that ever bore pack, or, blindfold, turns the crank of Persian water-wheel, is an example to him of patient meekness and long-suffering. While on the road, they do not loiter by the way, dropping their loads and committing trespasses upon the fields of grain, and rarely need to be urged on by the unceasing cry of “yellah,” “hem-she,” and the application of the belabouring cudgel of the mukris. While the “djemmel” (camel), with his hypocritical, meek look, his drunken eye, and sunken nether lip, begins to expostulate in a voice discordant with mingled hatred and complaint, from the moment he is forced upon his callous knees, until he clumsily rises with his burden and goes stalking lazily on his road.
The meek enduring look of the camel is a deception; we have seen it refusing the load, or, shaking it off, rise with a roar, and dash furiously at its master, even while its lip was reeking with the fresh and juicy herb he had just gathered for it.
It is a pity to contradict the pleasing accounts given of this friend of the wandering Bedouin, but our opinions have been formed after close observation of its manners and habits in the desert. Much of the ill nature and obduracy of the camel is doubtless attributable to the almost entire neglect of its owner in providing food and cleansing its hide, so subject to cutaneous diseases.
In the neighbourhood of towns, where it cannot graze, straw is given to it; but in the desert it must crop the thistle or the parched herbage as it passes, straying from side to side in its march, like the yawing of a stately ship before the wind. At night, if it be necessary to keep the camels within the encampment for security, the mukris gather thistles, herbage, and dwarf bushes for them, but otherwise turn them loose to graze. There is no question that if the camel were well fed and gently treated, it would sustain the character ascribed to it by partial writers.
The soft, spongy, india-rubber looking foot of the camel is eaten by the Arabs, and considered a great luxury. Perhaps it is the same dish to which “rare Ben Jonson” alludes, when he describes our ancestors of the sixteenth century as eating, “The tongues of carps, dormice, and camel’s heels, boiled in the spirit of sol.”
Leaving the place of encampment for the ford Wacabes, the caravan wound round the base of a low conical sand-hill, and traversed a small grove of oak and arbutus and a thick and matted undergrowth of brush and briers, with long, keen, penetrating thorns. Here, as had been arranged, ’Akil and his Bedouin scouts separated from the caravan and proceeded down the western shore; while the latter crossed over to the eastern side.
A little barren island divided the stream at the ford, and the current swept by with such rapidity as to render it doubtful whether the passage could be effected. Mr. Bedlow, however, made the attempt, and succeeded in reaching the island with no greater inconvenience than dripping extremities and a moist saddle. The rest were soon in the stream, clumsy camels and all, breasting and struggling, with various success, against the foaming current. There was a singular mixture of the serious and the grotesque in this scene, and the sounds that triumphed above the “tapage” of the boisterous ford, were the yells of the camel-drivers and the cries of the Arabs, mingled with shouts of unrestrained laughter as some impatient horse reeled and plunged with his rider in the stream, and the water was scattered about in froth and spray like a geyser.
The depth and impetuosity of the river caused us some apprehensions for the safety of our cook, Mustafa, who, being mounted on an ill-favoured, scrubby little beast, already laden to the ears with the implements and raw materials of his art, was in danger, donkey and all, of being snatched from us, like another Ganymede, by the Epicurean river-gods, or borne away by some deified Apicius, disguised as a donkey, for the little brute looked at times as if he were swimming away, not fording the stream. The tiny animal, as soon as it had achieved the passage, clambered, dripping, up the sloping bank, and convulsively shaking his eminently miscalculated ears, signalised his triumphant exploit by one prolonged, hysterical bray, which startled the wilderness, and seemed to be a happy imitation of a locomotive whistle, and the sound of sawing boards, declining gradually to a sob.
From the river, the banks sloped gradually to the terrace above; presenting a broad and undulating surface of sparse wild oats and weeds, and a few fields of grass, intermingled with low bushes, and a slender brown fringe of such light and frail structure, as to bend low with the faintest breath of air.
Among this scanty herbage, and yet hidden by it in the distance, the earth was covered with a luxuriant growth of crimson flowers (the anemone), so thickly matted together, that, to the eye, the ground at times seemed covered with a crimson snow. Here and there, among this sea of scarlet bloom, were patches of yellow daisy, looking like little golden islands in the incarnadined and floral ocean; while the bases of the hills were fringed with a light purple blossom, which not inaptly represented the foam of this preternatural sea. When the wind, sweeping down the gorges of the hills, passed over the plain, a broad band of crimson marked its course; for the wild grain, light and elastic, bent low, and revealed the flowers beneath it, — presenting the appearance of a phantom river of blood, suddenly issuing, from the earth, and again lost to sight, to reappear elsewhere, at the magic breath of the breeze.
This plain was bounded towards the south by a deep ravine, and on its eastern and western sides it rose, in slight and irregular undulations, to a higher terrace or plateau, which blended with the hills in the distance, and seemed like the slopes of mountains, instead of the elevated plain which we knew it to be. Except upon the banks of the river, there was not a tree to be seen; the sun poured down upon hill, and valley, and stream, a flood of heat and splendour, though as yet it was but early day.
Shortly after passing the rapid, immediately below our place of encampment, the boats were whirled along with great velocity, and barely escaped a rock near the water’s edge, and directly in the channel. The stream was fringed with trees of the same variety as have been heretofore noticed, and we began to meet with many false channels, which rendered our navigation more tedious and difficult.
In order that no feature of the river might be omitted, I noted every turn in the course, the depth, the velocity, and temperature of the river; the islands and tributary streams; the nature of its banks; the adjacent scenery, when visible; the trees, flowers, weeds, birds, and tracks of wild beasts. As all this would be tedious in perusal, however necessary for the construction of a chart and an accurate knowledge of the river, I have deemed it best to embody it in an Appendix to the official report.
At 8:34, started from below the rapid. Air, 750; water, 71°. At 9:28 A.M., we passed Wady el Hammam (ravine of the bath), with a small stream coming down on the right or western side. It is a slender thread of water finding its way down a chasm, a world too wide for its little stream; but, joined here and there in its meandering descent by tiny tributaries, it comes rattling down its pebbly bed, with the brawling joyousness of a mountain stream. At 9:34, came to a rather ugly rapid, — by Wady el Malakh (ravine of salt), with a small stream of clear but brackish water running down from W.N.W. Beheld ’Akil and some of the scouts upon a hill beyond it. Stopped to examine the rapid for a passage. Saw tracks of a tiger upon the shore, and found some plants of the ghurrah, its leaves triangular-shaped, of a light green colour, their inner surfaces coated with a saline efflorescence: the other parts of the stem purple, the new growth a light green: the taste of the stem and leaves salt and bitter. The fennel was also quite abundant, the stalks of which, Jumah, our Arab friend, ate greedily. There were some large blocks of fossil rock on the right bank, and in the bed of the river, of which we collected specimens. The temperature of the brackish stream was 70°.
At 11:30 A.M., we stopped to take a meridian observation of the sun. Temperature of the air, 82°; that of the river, at twelve inches below the surface, at which depth it is always taken, 74°. The heat was exceedingly oppressive for the thermometrical range; for, the wind being excluded by the lofty hills and overhanging trees, it was ever a perfect calm; except when, at times, it came in squalls down the yawning ravines.
The plain above the ravine was much broken, presenting abrupt mounds and sand-hillocks, covered with varieties of the thistle, some of which were peculiar from the sabre shape of their thorns, and the rough and hairy coating of the leaves; the latter emitting a milky fluid when broken. The thorn-bushes were so large and so abundant as to look like apple-orchards. The sides of the ravine exposed conglomerate rocks.
Before starting again, we gathered some flowers for preservation, and a plant with which we were unacquainted. It bears clusters of seeds, eight or ten together, on the extremity of the stamen, resembling in appearance those of the melon; the main stem is five feet high, with thirty-five stamens, each ten inches long. It grows like the castor bean, and is called, by the Arabs, kelakh.
The hills preserved their conical shapes, with bald faces, and the water was becoming of a light mud; approaching a milk colour.
Except during the heat of mid-day, when every living thing but ourselves had sought refuge in the thicket or in the crevices of the banks, there were birds flying about in all directions.
At 12:42, we saw the mountains of Salt and Belka ahead, from a turn of the river.
At 1:32 P.M., we stopped to take a sketch of the extraordinary appearance of the terraces of the Jordan. At 2:23, Wady Ajlun in sight on the left. The land of Faria begins here. The tribe El Firia numbers 100 fighting men. Their territory was on both sides of the river, for one hour in extent. We have, to-day, passed through the territory of Es Sukr el Ghor, the tribe numbering 200 warriors.
The mountains towards the east assumed a gloomy aspect to-day, and stood out like rough and verdureless crags of limestone. Yet, when the eye could withstand the bright glare of the illuminated cliffs and jagged ridges, it detected many portions which seemed susceptible of cultivation; and when breaks in the calcined rocks caught the intense brilliancy, and reflected it into the deep gorges, patches of verdure relieved the arid monotony; but the scene, from the blinding light, permitted no minute investigation.
At 2:34, saw the caravan halted on the bank. Came to and pitched our tents at the ford of Sek’a, on the left or eastern bank, abreast of two small islands. The plain extended six or eight miles on the eastern, and about three-fourths of a mile on the western side. The place of encampment takes its name from a village of the Sukrs, two miles distant.
’Akil was on friendly terms with this tribe, and some of them, who had just come in, stated that their village was last night attacked by about two hundred Bedouin, who killed several of their men, and carried off nearly all their horses, cattle, and sheep.
About eighteen miles E. by N. are the ruins of Jerash, supposed to be the ancient Pella, to which, Eusebius states, the Christians were divinely admonished to fly, just before the siege of Jerusalem by Titus. With Gadara (Um Keis), it was one of the cities of the Decapolis. It has magnificent ruins, many of them churches, and we deeply regretted our inability to visit them. Its situation is said to be the most beautiful, and its ruins the, most interesting, in all Syria. What a field the Hauran presents for exploration!
This was a most solitary day’s travel. We had not seen the caravan from the time of starting until now, and ’Akil and his party were visible but once.
With the last exception, we did not see a human being. The caravan was a little more fortunate. Shortly after crossing the wady El Malakh (salt ravine), they discovered a solitary plane tree (dilbeh), gnarled and twisted by the action of the winds, its only companions the crimson poppy and the golden daisy, which clustered round its protruding roots like parasites. Their attention was instantly drawn to this solitary tree, for beneath its scanty shade, they saw the glitter of a spear-head, and soon after, two Bedouin horsemen, who came forth, and, hastening in another direction, were soon lost in the thick copse-wood which lined the ravine. For an instant, our Arabs drew the rein and consulted among themselves, when four or five started off at headlong speed in pursuit. Making a long detour to intercept the strange horsemen, they plunged into the ravine, and, like those they pursued, were soon lost to sight in the thick foliage that skirted its sides.
This incident created more excitement than one so trifling would seem to justify; but we were wanderers in an unknown and inhospitable wilderness, among barbarous tribes of warlike Arabs, where the only security against rapine and murder is strength of numbers and efficiency of weapons, and where the sight of a stranger to the party prompts each one instinctively to feel for his carbine, or grasp unconsciously the handle of his sword.
The strange horsemen proved to be friendly Beni Sukrs on their way to Beisan.
Crossing the ravine of Ajlun, with a considerable stream running down, they met some agricultural Arabs, one of whom kissed Sherîf ’s hand. From the southern side of the ravine, they saw an immense plain stretching towards the Dead Sea. Far off was also visible the village of Abu Abeidah, containing the tomb of a general of Muhamhammed, some say of a great sultan of Yemen, who died on his way from Arabia Felix to Damascus. While crossing an extensive plain before halting, they saw many very large thistles in full bloom, the flowers various and beautiful; and a prevailing yellow flower, called “murur” by the Arabs. Just before camping, they passed large fields of wheat and barley, fast ripening.
Although the day was some hours past its meridian, the weather was exceedingly sultry, and the eye ached from the reverberated glare of light it had encountered since morning.
There was something in this solitude — in these spots, forsaken and alone in their hopeless sterility and weird silence — that begat reflection, even in the most thoughtless. In all this dreary waste there was no sound; for every living thing had retired, exhausted, from the withering heat and blinding glare. Silence, the fit companion of desolation, was profound. The song of a bird, the chirrup of a grasshopper, the drone of a fly, would have been out of harmony. The wind, without which even solitude is incomplete, sounded mournfully as it went sweeping over the barren plain, and sighed, even in the broad and garish day, like the blast of autumn among the marshy sedge, where the cold toad croaks, and the withered leaf is spotted like a leprosy.
Here, the eye looked in vain for the soft and tender sky, so often beheld in utter listlessness in our own far-distant land, and yet, dull and ungrateful that we were, we remained untouched with the beauty of its transparent and penetrable blue-pure azote and oxygen — into the immeasurable depths of which the eye pierced and wandered, but to return to earth again, dazzled and unfixed, as though it had caught a glimpse of infinity, and, wearied and overpowered, sought the finite and the tangible, the comprehensible reality of laminated hills, broad plains, deep valleys, and the mountains, broad of girth and firmly rooted. The heavens of more favoured climes, — climes as yet uncursed of God; skies, tender, deep, and crystalline, so profound in their unfathomableness, and, with their lightning and black thunder-cloud, so terrific in their wrath, — such skies are never seen here.
Here, there is no shifting of the scenes of natural beauty; no ever-varying change of glory upon glory; no varied development of the laws of harmony and truth, which characterise her workings elsewhere; no morning film of mist, or low, hanging cloud of unshed dew; no clouds of feathery cirrus, or white and wool-like pinnacles of cumuli; or light or gorgeous tints, dazzling the eye with their splendours; no arrowy shafts of sunlight streaming through the rifts of drifting clouds; no silvery spikes of morning shooting up in the east, or soft suffusion of evening in the west: but, from the gleam of dawn, that deepens at once into intensity of noon, one withering glare scorches the eye, from which, blood-shot and with contracted pupil, it gladly turns away.
Here, night but conceals and smoulders the flame which seems to be consuming earth and heaven. Day after day, there is no change. Nature, which elsewhere makes a shifting kaleidescope with clouds, and sunshine, and pure azure, has here the curse of sameness upon her, and wearies with her monotony.
Beneath a sky hollowed above us like a brazen buckler, and refracting the shafts of smiting sunlight, we journeyed on, heeding neither light nor heat, hunger nor thirst, danger nor fatigue; but each day looked cheerfully forward to the time when we should be gathered on the margin of the river, the tents all spread, the boats fastened to the shore, the watch-fires blazing, and the sound of human voices breaking the tyrannous silence, and giving a home-like aspect to the wilderness.
The character of the whole scene of this dreary waste was singularly wild and impressive. Looking out upon the desert, bright with reverberated light and heat, was like beholding a conflagration from a window at twilight. Each detail of the strange and solemn scene could be examined as through a lens.
The mountains towards the west rose up like islands from the sea, with the billows heaving at their bases. The rough peaks caught the slanting sunlight, while sharp black shadows marked the sides turned from the rays. Deep-rooted in the plain, the bases of the mountains heaved the garment of the earth away, and rose abruptly in naked, pyramidal crags, each scar and fissure as palpably distinct as though within reach, and yet we were hours away; the laminations of their strata resembling the leaves of some gigantic volume, wherein is written, by the hand of God, the history of the changes he has wrought.
Towards the south, the ridges and higher masses of the range, as they swept away in the distance, were aerial and faint, and softened into dimness by a pale transparent mist.
The plain that sloped away from the bases of the hills was broken into ridges and multitudinous cone-like mounds, resembling tumultuous water at “the meeting of two adverse tides;” and presented a wild and chequered tract of land, with spots of vegetation flourishing upon the frontiers of irreclaimable sterility.
A low, pale, yellow ridge of conical hills marked the termination of the higher terrace, beneath which swept gently this lower plain, with a similar undulating surface, half redeemed from barrenness by sparse verdure and thistle-covered hillocks.
Still lower was the valley of the Jordan — The sacred river! Its banks fringed with perpetual verdure; winding in a thousand graceful mazes; its pathway cheered with songs of birds and its own clear voice of gushing minstrelsy; its course a bright. line in this cheerless waste. Yet beautiful as it is, it is only rendered so by contrast with the harsh, dry, calcined earth around. The salt-sown desert!
There is no verdure here that can vie, in intensity or richness, with that which June bestows upon vegetation in, our own more favoured but less consecrated land; where the margins of the most unnoticed woodland stream are decked with varieties of tree and shrub in almost boundless profusion.
Here are no plumy elms, red-berried ash, or dark green hazel; no linden, beach or aspen; no laurel, pine, or birch; and yet, unstirred by the wind, the willow and the tamarisk droop over the glittering waters, with their sad and plume-like tresses; the lily bending low, moistens its cup in the crystal stream, and the oleander blooms and flowers on the banks. Amid the intricate foliage cluster the anemone and the asphodel, and the tangled copse is the haunt of the bulbul and the nightingale. There is a pleasure in these green and fertile banks, seen far along the sloping valley; a tracery of life, amid the death and dust that hem it in; —
so like some trait of gentleness in a corrupt and wicked heart.
Soon after camping, Sherîf brought to me a fruit or nut which was described by the land party as growing upon a small thorny tree. The fruit is somewhat like a small date, but of an olive-green colour, the bark of the tree smooth, the leaves thin, long, and oval, and of a brighter green than the bark or fruit. It is bitter and acrid to the taste, and is called by our Arabs the “zukkum,” which is declared by the Koran to be the food of infidels in hell. Dr. Robinson, quoting Maundrell and Pococke, describes it as the “balsam tree,” from the nut of which the oil of Jericho is extracted — called by the pilgrims Zaccheus’ oil, from the belief that the tree which bears it was the one climbed by Zaccheus. Scripture, as Dr. Robinson states, renders it, with more probability, the sycamore or plane tree. The “zukkum” is little more than a shrub in height, and its branches are covered with thorns.
One of the land party brought in a leaf of the osher plant, which bears the Dead Sea fruit. It is oval, thick, and of a deep green colour, very much resembling that of the caoutchouc or India-rubber plant; the flower a delicate purple, growing in pyramidal clusters. The fruit was not yet formed. The centre of the stalk is pithy, like the alder, and discharges a viscous milky fluid when cut or broken. The land party also saw the nubk or sidr tree, bearing a fruit about the size of a cherry, but its colour more yellow than red. It looks very much like a withered crab-apple, has a large kernel or stone, and is slightly acid, but not juicy. The Arabs are fond of the fruit in its present state, and frequently pulverize the meat for flour. The nubk is the “spina Christi” of Hasselquist, from the pliant, thorny branches of which, it is supposed, was made the mock crown of the Redeemer.
At sunset, bathed in the refreshing waters of the Jordan. Sherîf says that the Muhammedans are divided into two sects, the Shiahs, believing in the Koran only, and the Sunnites, in both the Koran and tradition. In the strict sense of the term they are all Unitarians, and hold Christians as idolaters, for their belief in and worship of the divinity of the Saviour and the Paraclete. They believe in the interposition of angels in human affairs, and in the resurrection and final judgment. They are divided in opinion with regard to purgatory, or an intermediate state after death, and bold Moses, the Saviour, and Muhammed, to have been prophets of God, the last the greatest. And yet in his absurd night journey to heaven, Muhammed makes Moses and the other prophets desire his prayers, but asks himself for those of the Saviour. They believe that another, in the semblance of the Redeemer, was crucified in his stead. When I asked Sherîf if he did not think that a good Christian might get to heaven, he answered, “How can you hope it, when you insult the God you believe in, by supposing that He died the ignominious death of a criminal?”
This people, sensually imaginative, are incapable of a refined, spiritual idea; and the arch-impostor, Muhammed, well understood the nature of his countrymen.
Heretofore, we have been lulled to sleep by the hoarse sound of a rapid; all, except those who, having to encounter it, felt naturally solicitous for the result. The noise of a rapid is much louder by night; and one a mile off, sounds as if it were madly rushing through the camp. We were now, however, comparatively quiet.
As the attack upon the neighbouring village, last night, showed that bad Arabs were about, and there had been many strangers in the camp during the evening; after all but the sentries had retired to rest, I went round to see that each one had his ammunition-belt on and his weapons beside him; and repeated the injunction to rally round the blunderbuss in the event of an alarm. But the night passed away quietly.
Late in the first watch, an interesting conversation was overheard between ’Akil and the Nassir.
Last year, while in rebellion against the government, ’Akil, at the head of his Bedouin followers, had swept these plains, and carried off a great many horses, cattle, and sheep; among them the droves and herds of the Nassir. There had, in consequence, been little cordiality between them since they met at Tiberias; but, to-night, Nassir asked ’Akil if he did not think that he had acted very badly in carrying off his property. The latter answered no; that Nassir was then his enemy, and that he, ’Akil, had acted according to the usages of war among the tribes. The Nassir then asked about the disposition made of various animals, and especially of a favourite mare. ’Akil said that he had killed so many of the sheep, given so many away, and sold the rest; the same with the cattle and horses. As to the mare, he said he had taken a fancy to her, and that it was the one he now rode. This the Emir knew full well.
After some further conversation, Nassir proposed that they should bury all wrongs and become brothers. To this ’Akil assented. The former, thereupon, plucked some grass and earth, and lifting up the corner of ’Akil’s aba, placed them beneath it; and then the two Arabs embracing, with clasped hands, swore eternal brotherhood.
When questioned, immediately after, upon the subject, ’Akil stated that so obligatory was the oath of fraternity, that should he hereafter carry off any thing from a hostile tribe, which had once, no matter how far back, been taken from the Emir, he would be bound to restore it.
As an instance, he mentioned that when he was in the service of Ibrahim Pasha, there were nine other tribes besides his own; and that in one of their expeditions they carried off a number of sheep, forty of which were assigned as his portion: that shortly after, an Arab came forward and claimed some of them on the ground of fraternization. ’Akil told him that he did not know and had never seen him before; but the man asserted and proved that their fathers had exchanged vows, and the sheep claimed were consequently restored. These Bedouin are pretty much in the same state as the barons of England and the robber knights of Germany were, some centuries back.
We have, to-day, descended ten moderate and six ugly rapids, and passed three tributaries to the Jordan, two quite small, and one of respectable size. Also four large and seventeen small islands. We have now reached a part of the river not visited by Franks, at least since the time of the crusades, except by three English sailors, who were robbed, and fled from it, a short distance below. The streams have all names given them by the Arabs, but the islands are nameless and unknown.
The course of the river, to-day, has varied from northwest to south, and from thence to east; but the prevailing direction has been to the southward and westward. The velocity of the current has ranged from two to eight knots per hour; the average about three and a half knots. The depth has been in proportion to the width and velocity of the stream. At one place the river was eighty yards wide and only two feet deep. The average width has been fifty-six yards, and the average depth a little more than four feet.
Where the river was narrow, the bottom was usually rock or hard sand, and in the wider parts soft mud. In the narrowest parts, also, the river flowed between high banks; either bald-faced alluvial hills, or conglomerate, in one place, fossil rock. Where the stream was wide the banks were low alluvion; towards the latter part of the day, resting upon sand or gravel. Where the stream was wide and sluggish, running between alluvial banks, the water was discoloured; in some places of a milky hue. Where narrow, and flowing between and over rocks, it was comparatively clear. At starting, in the morning, the temperature of the air was 78°, and of the water, twelve inches below the surface, 71°. In the course of the day, the former rose eight and the latter three degrees. Excepting once, early in the afternoon, when a light air from the eastward swept through an opening, it was a perfect calm, and the heat felt oppressive; yet less so, than the dazzling glare of light. We have twice, to-day, struck on rocks, but suffered no material damage.
Our encampment was close to the river’s edge, where the banks were thickly wooded and the soil sandy. In front, the stream was divided by a small island, below which was the ford of Scka.
The scene of camping for the night is ever a busy one. The uprearing of tents, the driving of the tent-pins, the wearied camels standing by, waiting to be disburdened, all remind one forcibly of the graphic descriptions of the Bible. There are other features, too, illustrative of our brotherhood with the children of the desert-Sherîf , seated beneath a tree, or under the shadow of a rock, issuing commands to his immediate followers, and ’Akil reconnoitering from the summit of a hill, or scouring about the plain, stationing the outposts.
With us, too, everything bore the aspect of a military expedition through a hostile territory. The boats, when practicable, were securely moored in front, and covered by the blunderbuss; the baggage was piled between the tents, and the sentries paced to and fro in front and rear.
Among, the trees which bordered the river-bank, the horses of our Arab friends were this evening tethered, while our own luxuriously enjoyed a clandestine supper in the wheatfield near at hand.
At this time, our benign and ever-smiling Mustafa, with his bilious turban and marvellous pants, wide and draperied, but not hiding his parenthetical legs, seemed almost ubiquitous. At one time, he was tearing something madly from his laden donkey; and the next, he was filling pipes, and, hand on breast, presenting them with low salaams; or, like a fiend, darting off after the Doctor’s horse, which, having evaded the watchful Hassan, was charging upon the others, and frightening “the souls of his fearful adversaries” with the thunder of his nostrils.
The day had been one of intense heat, and the physical relaxation, caused by fatigue and exposure, made us extremely sensitive to the chilly atmosphere of evening.
The pale light of the rising moon, and the red flush of sunset, made the twilight linger, and gave to the east and the west the appearance of an auroral ice-light. The dew fell early and heavily, and the firm white sand of the river-bank was cold to the feet. As night advanced, the blaze of our watch-fires dispelled, to a great extent, the chill of the air around us. Our Arab scouts were posted on the hills which overlooked the camp, and our own guards, with glittering carbines and long, keen bayonets, were pacing in front and rear of the baggage and the tents. The scene was wild and picturesque.
Around the blazing fires, which shot long, flickering tongues of flame into the night, and seemed to devour darkness, were gathered in circles, groups of Franks and wild Bedouin, solemnly smoking the chibouque, drinking coffee, or listening eagerly, as, with wild gesticulations, one related an adventure of the day, or personal incident of times gone by. Who, in the desert or the wilderness, would not listen to the veriest idle legend that ever beldame croaked over the blaze of “Yule,” on Christmas eve?
The camels were lying here and there about the camp, silent and motionless, utterly unconscious of their merit as objects in the picturesque.
The tents were pitched upon a sandy bank, in a small opening, flanked by groves of willow and tamarisk, with an inner edging of acacia. The ford ran diagonally from bank to bank, across the most impetuous, but shallow part of the stream. The bright watch-fires threw bars of red and trembling light over the shadowed waters, and illuminated the sombre willow groves beyond, among which, as if entangled in their boughs, hung motionless, as clouds hang in the chasms of mountains, a long and silvery film of unfallen dew; while the purple shadows of the distant hills mingled with the cold grey of the evening, rendering all beyond dim and mysterious; and the peaked and jagged outlines of the lofty range, cut sharp and black against the sky, now faint and pale, yet relieved by the beautiful swell and regular waving curvature of the lower hills.
Before the blue tent of Sherîf were gathered our Arab friends, a large circle of swart faces, illuminated by the light of a crackling fire, listening to ’Akil’s bard, who sang Arabic love-songs, to the accompaniment of his rebabeh, or viol of one string.
As we drew near to enjoy this wild romantic concert, the Sherîf and ’Akil, stepping forth from the circle, invited us among them, with an urbanity and kindness of manner, unsurpassed by the courtesy of highest civilization. Mats were spread for us at the opening of the tent, and the Tourgiman having interpreted their many expressions of welcome, the bard was requested to continue the music, which had been interrupted by our approach.
Without affecting a slight cough, or making vain excuses, he immediately complied. With his semicircular bow he began a prelude, “fashioning the way in which his voice should go,” and then burst forth in song. The melody was as rude as the instrument which produced it, a music, not such as Keats describes — “Yearning like a God in pain;” but a low, long-drawn, mournful wail, like the cry of the jackal set to music. He sang of love, but had it been a dirge, the wail of the living over the dead, it could not have been more heart-rending and lugubrious. There was no passion, no mirthfulness, no expression of hope or fear; but a species of despairing, chromatic anguish; and we could not refrain from regarding the instrument as an enchanted sexton’s spade, singing of the graves it had dug, and the bodies it had covered with mould.
And yet, these children of the desert enjoyed the performance, and from under the dark brows, made darker by the low, slouching koofeeyeh, their eyes glistened, and the red light gleamed on glittering teeth displayed in smiles of approbation.
These demonstrations of enjoyment appeared strange to us; for the song, to our ears, told only of mattocks and shrouds and the grave-digger’s song in Hamlet;
- “A pickaxe and a spade, a spade,
- For —, and a winding-sheet.”
- “A pickaxe and a spade, a spade,
The bard was not a true Bedouin, but of Egyptian parentage, and resembled more our ideas of a ghoul than, a human being. Low of stature and lightly built, he was thin, even to attenuation; and his complexion of a pale, waxy, cadaverous hue. His eyes were small, black, and piercing, shadowed by thick pent-house brows, which, like his straggling beard, was nearly red; his lips livid, his teeth white and pointed, and the nails of his skinny hands as long as talons. His whole appearance assisted materially in sustaining the ideas of coffins and palls, mildew and worms, and other grave-yard garniture.
The costume of the minstrel was not materially different from that of his Bedouin companions. His head, like theirs, was closely shaven above the temples, and covered with a small red skull-cap or tarbouch, over which was thrown the koofeeyeh, a coarse cotton shawl or kerchief, triangularly folded, with broad stripes of white and yellow, the ends ornamented with a plaited fringe, hung on each side of the face down to the shoulders, and was confined over the tarbouch by two bands of the akal, a roughly twisted, black cord of camel’s hair. An aba, or narrow cloak made of camel’s hair, of extremely coarse texture, broadly striped white and brown, and fashioned like the Syrian burnoose, or horseman’s cloak, hung negligently about his person.
Beneath the aba he wore a long, loose cotton shirt, of very equivocal white, confined at the waist by a narrow leathern belt; a pair of faded red buskins, “A world too wide for his shrunk shanks,” and fearfully acute at the toes, where they curved like a sleigh-runner, completed his costume.
While the bard and his rebabeh discoursed most melancholy music for our entertainment, the black and aromatic kahweh* (coffee) was handed round by an attendant of ’Akil Aga, — a tall, wiry-framed Nubian, with keen white teeth, and a complexion as black as Orcus, — black even to the surface of the heavy lips, and with a skin drawn with extreme tension over the angular facial bones, giving it the dry and embalmed appearance of a Memphian mummy.
Each of us having drunk his little cup of coffee and smoked a pipe, the stem of which had run the gauntlet of every pair of lips in that patriarchal group, we were about to retire, when the Emir Nassir, the wild old blackguard, seizing (he never took anything) the “sexton’s spade (the rebabeh), to our unfeigned astonishment commenced a song as if he too were a ghoul and could give us in character some church-yard stave in honour of his ghostly trade.
(* Kahweh is an old Arabic term for wine; Turkish, kahveh; Italian, cam; English, coffee. Can it be that the Muslims, in their affection, preserved the name of the beverage interdicted by their prophet? )
Translated by the Tourgiman, and versified by Mr. Bedlow, his song ran thus:
- “At her window, from afar,
- I saw my love, my Bedawiyeh,
- Her eyes shone through her white kinas.
- It made me feel quite faint to see her.”
- “At her window, from afar,
While singing, the Ogre Prince looked with grotesque devotedness and an inimitable languishing air upon Sherîf Musaid, sitting near him, who for the nonce he had idealized into his “love,” his “Bedawiyeh.” The song was evidently a foreign one, perhaps derived from Persia. An Arab poet would have placed his love at the opening of the tent, or beside the fountain. A Bedawiyeh, the fawn of the desert, and a window; the loop-hole of what they consider a prison, accord but ill together.
The amateur musician surpassed the professional one, and the prince transcended the bard, as well in execution as in the quality of his voice. The music, although more varied in character and, modulation, was essentially the same in its prevailing sadness. Truly “all the merry. hearted do sigh” in this strange land; a land from which “gladness is taken away,” and mirth, where it doth exist, hath a dash of grief and a tone of desperate sorrow. The sound of tabret and harp, of sackbut and psaltery, the lute, the viol, and the instrument of two strings, are heard no more in the land; and the “rebabeh,” with its sighing one string, befits the wilderness and the wandering people who dwell therein.
Not even the Emir, although he threw all the mirth he could command into his voice, and touched the string with quick, elastic fingers, striking out notes and half-notes with musical precision; — although his dark eyes flashed and his white teeth glistened, as he smiled seductively upon Musaid, and swayed his body to and fro, and nodded his head to the measure of his minstrelsy, and triumphed over the bard, and won applause with every verse, he could not change the tone, — there was the same sad minor running through the song. Those low, complaining tones lingered in our ears long after the sound had ceased, and the Arabs were gathered in sleep around the smouldering watch-fires. Towards morning, the wind swept down upon us from the mountain gorges, and caused some of us to dream of snow-drifts and icicles, and unseasonable baths in cold streams.