Narrative Of The United States Expedition To The River Jordan And The Dead Sea/12

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CHAPTER XII.


FROM PILGRIM’S FORD TO AIN EL FESHKAH



AT 1:45, started with the boats, the caravan making a direct line for Ain el Feshkah, on the north-west shore of the Dead Sea, the appointed place of rendezvous.

The course of the river was at first S. W. In about half an hour, we were hailed from the right bank, when we stopped and took in sheikh Helu, of the tribe Huteim, his name the same as that of the ford.

From 1:50 to 1:57, course varying from N.W. to S.S.W. Stopped to fill the India-rubber water-bags, having passed a small island thickly wooded. Weather close and sultry. At 2:22, started again, course from N.N.E. to S. by W.; the right bank red clay, twenty-five feet high; left bank low, with high canes and willows. 2:25, a quantity of drift-wood; and 2:36, a camel in the river, washed down by the current in attempting to cross the ford last night.

Weather cloudy at intervals, river forty yards wide, twelve feet deep, bottom blue mud. The banks alternating high and low highest at the bends and lowest at the opposite points.

At 2:41, passed another camel in the river, the poor beast leaning exhausted against the bank, and his owner seated despondingly above him. We could not help him!

From 2:42 to 2:54, course from S. to S.E. and back; many pigeons flying about. At this time, there was a nauseous smell on the left or eastern shore-traced it to a small stream running down the Wady Hesbon; the banks very low, and covered with cane and tamarisk. The river here fifty yards wide, eleven feet deep, muddy bottom, current four knots. 2:59, sand and clay banks, with some pebbles on the right; everything indicating the vicinity of the Dead Sea.

At 3, course S.E. by S., water very smooth, discoloured but sweet. Saw a heron, a bulbul, and a snipe. 3:04, a foetid smell, proceeding from a small stream on the right or western shore. At 3:07, low and sedgy banks, high mountains of the Dead Sea in sight to the southward and westward; saw many wild ducks. 3:09, both banks, about twelve feet high, bore marks of recent overflow. 3:10, a small round red clay hill on the right, bearing S.W. by S. 3:11, passed a bare channel, left by the freshet. 3:12, course south a long stretch, river seventy yards wide, left bank very low, covered with tamarisk, willow, and cane; right bank fifteen to eighteen feet high, red clay, with weeds and shrubs — the mala insana, spina Christi, and some of the agnus cactus — a few tamarisk at the water’s edge.

At 3:13, the mountains to the S.E. over the Dead Sea presented a very rugged, iron-like appearance. Water of the river sweet. 3:15, the left bank low, running out to a flat cape. Right bank low with thick canes, some of them resembling the sugar-cane; twenty feet back the bank twelve feet high, red clay. 3:16, water brackish, but no unpleasant smell; banks red clay and mud, gradually becoming lower and lower; river eighty yards wide, and fast increasing in breadth, seven feet deep, muddy bottom, current three knots. Saw the Dead Sea over the flat, bearing south-mountains beyond. The surface of the water became ruffled. 3:22, a snipe flew by — fresh wind from north-west — one large and two small islands at the mouth of the river; the islands of mud six to eight feet high, evidently subject to overflow; started a heron and a white gull.


ENCOUNTER A GALE


At 5:40, finding that we were losing every moment, and that, with the lapse of each succeeding one, the danger increased, kept away for the northern shore, in the hope of being yet able to reach it; our arms, our clothes and skins coated with a greasy salt; and our eyes, lips, and nostrils, smarting excessively. How different was the scene before the submerging of the plain, which was “even as the garden of the Lord!”

At times it seemed as if the Dread Almighty frowned upon our efforts to navigate a sea, the creation of his wrath. There is a tradition among the Arabs that no one can venture upon this sea and live. Repeatedly the fates of Costigan and Molyneux had been cited to deter us. The first one spent a few days, the last about twenty hours, and returned to the place from whence he had embarked, without landing upon its shores. One was found dying upon the shore; the other expired in November last, immediately after his return, of fever contracted upon its waters.

But, although the sea had assumed a threatening aspect, and the fretted mountains, sharp and incinerated, loomed terrific on either side, and salt and ashes mingled with its sands, and foetid sulphurous springs trickled down its ravines, we did not despair: awe-struck, but not terrified; fearing the worst, yet hoping for the best, we prepared to spend a dreary night upon the dreariest waste we had ever seen.


ASPECT OF THE SHORES


At 5:58, the wind instantaneously abated, and with it the sea as rapidly fell; the water, from its ponderous quality, settling as soon as the agitating cause had ceased to act. Within twenty minutes from the time we bore away from a sea which threatened to engulf us, we were pulling away, at a rapid rate, over a placid sheet of water, that scarcely rippled beneath us; and a rain-cloud, which had enveloped the sterile mountains of the Arabian shore, lifted up, and left their rugged outlines basking in the light of the setting sun. At 6:10, a flock of gulls flew over, while we were passing a small island of mud, a pistol-shot distant from the northern shore, and half a mile west of the river’s mouth. At 6:20, a light wind sprung up from S.E., and huge clouds drifted over, their western edges gorgeous with light, while the great masses were dark and threatening. The sun went down, leaving beautiful islands of rose-coloured clouds over the coast of Judea; but above the yet more sterile mountains of Moab, all was gloomy and obscure.

The northern shore is an extensive mud-flat, with a sandy plain beyond, and is the very type of desolation; branches and trunks of trees lay scattered in every direction; some charred and blackened as by fire; others white with an incrustation of salt. These were collected at high-water mark, designating the line which the water had reached prior to our arrival. On the deep sands of this shore was laid the scene of the combat between the knight of the leopard and Ilderim, the Saracen. The north-western shore is an unmixed bed of gravel, coming in a gradual slope from the mountains to the sea. The eastern coast is a rugged line of mountains, bare of all vegetation, — a continuation of the Hauran range, coming from the north, and extending south beyond the scope of vision, throwing out three marked and seemingly equidistant promontories from its south-eastern extremity.

At 6:25, passed a gravelly point, with many large stones upon it. It is a peninsula, connected with the main by a low, narrow isthmus. When the latter is overflowed, the peninsula must present the appearance of an island, and is doubtless the one to which Stephens, Warburton, and Dr. Wilson, allude.


NIGHT UPON THE DEAD SEA


We were, for some time, apprehensive of missing the place of rendezvous; for the Sheikh of Huteim, never having been afloat before, and scarce recovered from his fright during the gale, was bewildered in his mind, and perfectly useless as a guide. The moon had not risen; and in the starlight, obscured by the shadow of the mountains, we pulled along the shore in some anxiety. At one moment we saw the gleam of a fire upon the beach, to the southward; and, firing a gun, made for it with all expedition. In a short time it disappeared; and while resting on the oars, waiting for some signal to direct us, there were the flashes and reports of guns and sounds of voices upon the cliffs, followed by other flashes and reports far back upon the shore which we had passed. Divided between apprehensions of an attack upon our friends and a stratagem for ourselves, we were uncertain where to land. Determined, however, to ascertain, we closed in with the shore, and pulled along the beach, sounding as we proceeded.

A little before 8 P.M., we came up with our friends, who had stopped at Ain el Feshka, fountain of the stride. The shouts and signals we had heard had been from the scouts and caravan, which had been separated from each other, making mutual signals of recognition; they had likewise responded to ours, which, coming from two points some distance apart, for a time disconcerted us. It was a wild scene upon an unknown and desolate coast the mysterious sea, the shadowy mountains, the human voices among the cliffs, the vivid flashes and the loud reports reverberating along the shore.

Unable to land near the fountain, we were compelled to haul the boats upon the beach, about a mile below; and, placing some Arabs to guard them, took the men to the camp, pitched in a cane-brake, beside a brackish spring, where, from necessity, we made a frugal supper; and then, wet and weary, threw ourselves upon a bed of dust, beside a foetid marsh; — the dark, fretted mountains behind-the sea, like a huge cauldron, before us — its surface shrouded in a lead-coloured mist.


ANCIENT CAVERNS


Towards midnight, while the moon was rising above the eastern mountains, and the shadows of the clouds were reflected wild and fantastically upon the surface of the sombre sea; and everything, the mountains, the sea, the clouds, seemed spectre-like and unnatural, the sound of the convent-bell of Mar Saba struck gratefully upon the ear; for it was the Christian call to prayer, and told of human wants and human sympathies to the wayfarers on the borders of the Sea of Death.

The shore party stated that, after leaving the green banks of the Jordan, they passed over a sandy tract of damp ravines, where it was difficult for the camels to march without slipping. Ascending a slight elevation, they traversed a plain encrusted with salt, and sparsely covered with sour and saline bushes, some dead and withered, and snapping at the slightest touch given them in passing. They noticed many cavernous excavations in the hill-sides, — the dwelling-places of the Israelites, of early Christians, and of hermits during the time of the Crusades.*, They at length reached a sloping, dark-brown sand, forming the beach of the Dead Sea, and followed it to El Feshkha. Our Arabs feared wild beasts, but there is nothing for one to live on, in these untenanted solitudes. The frogs alone bore vocal testimony of their existence.

In descending the Ghor, Lieut. Dale sketched the topography of the country, and took compass bearings as he proceeded. The route of the caravan was on the bank of the upper terrace, on the west side, every day, except one, when it travelled on the eastern side. That elevated plain was at first covered with fields of grain, but became more barren as they journeyed south. The terrace was strongly marked, particularly in the southern portion, where there was a continuous range of perpendicular cliffs of limestone and conglomerate. This terrace averaged about 500 feet above the flat of the Jordan, the latter mostly covered with trees and grass. They were each day compelled to descend to the lower plain, to meet the boats.



  • “And because of the Midianites, the children of Israel made them the dens which are in the mountains, and caves, and strongholds.”

— Judges; xi. 2



FOUNTAIN OF THE STRIDE


WEDNESDAY, APRIL 19. I was first recalled to consciousness this morning by rays of light, the pencilled messengers of the early dawn, shooting above the dark and fretted mountains which form the eastern boundary of the sea. This day I had assigned to rest and preparation for future work, and intended to let all hands sleep late, after the great fatigue of yesterday; but, soon after daybreak, we were startled with the intelligence that the boats were nearly filled with water. The wind had risen towards morning, and a heavy sea was tumbling in. We hastened to the beach to secure the boats, and dry our effects. With all our discomfort, we had slept better than usual, having been undisturbed by fleas. The wind was fresh from the south, and the brawling sound of the breakers was reverberated from the perpendicular face of the mountains. We were encamped just above the spring, in a clearing made in the cane-break, under a cliff upwards of a thousand feet high-old crumbling limestone and conglomerate of a dull ochre colour.

The fountain is a shallow and clear stream of water, at the temperature of 84°, which flows from a cane-break, near the base of the mountain. It is soft yet brackish, and there is no deposit of silicious or cretaceous matter, but it has a strong smell of sulphur. We had no means of analyzing it. A short distance from its source, it spreads over a considerable space, and its diagonal course to the sea is marked by a more vivid line of vegetation than that which surrounds it.


BIRDS UPON THE SHORE


Between the cane-break and the sea is the beach, covered with minute fragments of flint. In the water of the sea, near the shore, are standing many dead trees, about two inches in diameter. We could neither find nor hear of the ruins mentioned by Dr. Robinson, and looked in vain for sulphur. The pebbles of bituminous limestone of which he speaks, are in great abundance.

Our Arabs finding it impossible to sustain their horses on the salt and acrid vegetation of this place, and Ain Jidy being represented as no better, I discharged them and the camel-drivers, and applied to the Pasha at Jerusalem for a few soldiers, to guard the depot I intended forming at Ain Jidy, while we should be exploring the sea and its shores.

’Akil and his followers were to leave us here, but Sherîf, with his servant, would remain. Sent Sherîf to Jerusalem, to assist in superintending the transportation of stores, and to make arrangements for supplies of provisions from Hebron. Sent with him everything we could dispense with-saddles, bridles, holsters, and all but a few articles of clothing.

At 1 P.M., made an excursion along the base of the mountain, towards Ras es Feshkhah (cape of the stride), and gathered some specimens of conglomerate and some fresh-water shells in the bed of the stream. We were struck with the almost total absence of round stones and pebbles upon the beach-the shore is covered with small angular fragments of flint. Started two partridges of a beautiful stone-colour, so much like the rocks, that they could only be distinguished when in motion. Heard the notes of a solitary bird in the cane-brake, which we could not identify. The statement that nothing can live upon the shores of the sea, is, therefore, disproved. The home and the usual haunt of the partridge may be among the cliffs above, but the smaller bird we heard must have its nest in the thicket.


UNRELIEVED DESOLATION


But the scene was one of unmixed desolation. The air, tainted with the sulphuretted hydrogen of the stream, gave a tawny hue even to the foliage of the cane, which is elsewhere of so light a green. Except the cane-brakes, clustering along the marshy stream which disfigured, while it sustained them, there was no vegetation whatever; barren mountains, fragments of rocks, blackened by sulphureous deposit, and an unnatural sea, with low, dead trees upon its margin, all within the scope of vision, bore a sad and sombre aspect. We had never before beheld such desolate hills, such calcined barrenness. The most arid desert has its touch of genial nature.


“But here, above, around, below, in mountain or in glen,
Nor tree, nor plant, nor shrub, nor flower,
Nor aught of vegetative power,
The wearied eye may ken;
But all its rocks at random thrown,
Black waves, bare crags, and banks of stone?”


There was an unpleasant sulphureous smell in the air, which we attributed to the impregnated waters of the fountain and marsh. ’Akil, to whom we were all much attached, came to see us prior to his departure. To our surprise and great delight, we learned, in the course of conversation, that he was well acquainted and on friendly terms with some of the tribes on the eastern shore. I therefore prevailed upon him to proceed there by land; apprise the tribes of our coming, and make arrangements to supply us with provisions. In ten days he was to be in Kerak, and have a look-out for us stationed upon the eastern shore near the peninsula. It was a most gratifying arrangement, for we might now hope to avoid difficulty where it had been most anticipated, and to visit the country of Moab, so little known to the world.


THE WORD OF OUR ARAB


Sometime after the agreement was made, ’Akil returned and expressed a wish to be released. I ascertained that some of his timid followers had been dissuading him, and held him to his obligation. He is a high-toned savage. At our former meeting I advanced him money for his expenses and the purchase of provisions, for which he refused to give a receipt or append his seal (an Arab never subscribes his name, even when he can write) to the contract. I had, therefore, nothing but his word to rely upon, which I well knew he would never break. “The bar of iron may be broken, but the word of an honest man never,” and there is as much honour beneath the yellow skin of this untutored Arab, as ever swelled the breast of the chivalrous Coeur de Lion (Lion Heart). He never dreamed of falsehood.

During the early part of the day the weather was pleasant, with passing clouds; but when unobscured the sun was warm. Towards the afternoon the wind subsided, and the calm sea, when the sun shone upon it, verified the resemblance which it has been said to bear to molten lead. In the forenoon it had looked as yesterday, like a sheet of foam.

The night was clear, a thin mist hung over the southern shore, and the moon was nearly at the full. Near us, when all was still, the sea had the exact hue of absinthe, or that peculiar blue of the grotto of “Azzura,” described in the “Improvisatore.” Until 2 A.M. the night was serene and lovely. Although the earth was fine and penetrating as ashes, and the miasma from the marsh anything but agreeable, there were no fleas, and the bites which had so smarted from the spray yesterday, are now healing up.


AN ARAB MESS


To-night our Bedouin had a farewell feast, characteristic alike of their habitual waste and want of cleanliness. A huge kettle, partly filled with water, was laid on a fire made of wood gathered on the beach and strongly impregnated with salt; when the water boiled, a quantity of flour was thrown in and stirred with a branch of driftwood, seven feet long, and nine inches in circumference. When the mixture was about the consistence of paste, the vessel was taken from the fire and a skin of rancid butter, about six pounds, in a fluid state, was poured in; the mixture was again stirred, and the Bedouin seated round it scooped out the dirty, greasy compound, with the hollow of their hands — ’Akil not the least voracious among them. He is a genuine barbarian, and never sleeps even beneath the frail covering of a tent. In his green aba, which he has constantly worn since he joined us, he is ever to be found at night, slumbering, not sleeping, near the watchfire — his yataghan by his side — his heavy mounted, wide-mouthed pistols beneath his head. Before retiring, the Arabs took an impressive leave of us; for it was evident that they anticipated encountering some peril in their route along the eastern shore.

The Arab bard sang nearly the whole night. Stopping a little after midnight, he commenced again in less than an hour, and at 2 A.M. was giving forth his nasal notes and his twanging sounds in most provoking monotony; the discordant croaking of the frog is music in comparison. An occasional scream or yell would be absolute relief.

At midnight, again heard the bell of the convent of Mar Saba. It was a solace to know that, in a place wild and solitary in itself, yet not remote from us, there were fellow Christians raising their voices in supplication to the Great and Good Being, before whom, in different forms, but with undivided faith, we bow ourselves in worship.


ARABS AT PRAYER


THURSDAY, APRIL 20. Awakened very early by one of the Arabs, more pious or more hypocritical than the rest, constituting himself a Mueddin, and calling the rest to prayer. But the summons was obeyed by very few. An Arab, when he prays, throws his mat anywhere, generally, in obedience to the injunctions of the Koran, in the most conspicuous place. He puts off his shoes; stands upright; leans forward until his hands rest upon his knees; bends yet farther in prostration, and touches the earth with his forehead: he then rises erect, recites a sentence from the Koran, and goes through with similar genuflections and prostrations. In the intervals of the prostrations, he sits back, his knees to the ground, and his feet under him, and recites long passages from the Koran. Sometimes they are abstracted, but not always; we have seen them, in the intervals between the prostrations, comb their beards and address others in conversation, and afterwards, with great gravity, renew their orisons.

The most extraordinary thing is, that some of the Turkish soldiers we have seen, who were seemingly pious and really fanatical, did not understand one word of the Arabic passages of the Koran they recited with so much apparent devotion. Except those who accompanied us from Acre, we have not seen a single Muslim with beads: — there, as well as at Beruit, Smyrna and Constantinople, every one we met, from the Pasha down, had them in his hands, apparently as play things only.

The morning was pleasant; a light breeze from the southward; temperature of the air, 82°. After taking double altitudes, sent Lieut. Dale and Mr. Aulick in the boats to sound diagonally and directly across to the eastern shore. They started at 10:30; the wind had died away; the sea was as smooth as a mirror towards either shore, but slightly ruffled in the middle, where there seemed to be a current setting to the southward. Thermometer, 89° in the tent, our only shelter, for the sun shone fiercely into every crevice of the mountain behind us. Employed in making arrangements for the removal of the camp farther south to-morrow.


MORE BIRDS


P.M. A short distance from the camp, saw a large brown or stone-coloured hare, and started a partridge; heard another in the cliffs above, and a small bird twittering in the cane-brake beneath me. We discovered that these shores can furnish food for beasts of prey. Found some of the sea-side brache, supposed to be alluded to in Job, and translated mallows in the English version. Also the sida Asiatica.

At 5 P.M., temperature 80°; as the day declined, the wind sprang up and blew freshly from the north, and I began to feel apprehensive for the boats. Towards sunset, walked along the base of the mountains to the southward to look for, but could see nothing of them. Startled a snipe, and saw, but could not catch, a beautiful butterfly, chequered white and brown. To-day a duck was seen upon the water, about a mile from the shore; — his home, doubtless, among the sedges of the brackish stream.

Soon after sunset, some Arabs of the tribe Rashayideh came into camp, and proffered their services as guides along the western coast, and guards to our effects while absent in the boats. They were the most meagre, forlorn, and ragged creatures I had ever seen. The habiliments of Falstaff’s recruits would have been a court costume compared to the attire of these attenuated wretches, whose swarthy skins, in all directions, peered forth through the filthy rags, which hung in shreds and patches, rather betraying than concealing their nudity.

Some of them would have answered as guides; but it would not do to employ them in any other capacity. Their abject poverty would tempt them to steal, and their physical weakness prevent them, even if they were courageous, from defending our property. Since the Battle of Cressy, (26 August 1346 near Crécy; northern France) history does not tell of lean and hungry men having ever proved valiant.

As night closed in, we lighted fires along the beach and around the camp as guiding signals to the boats.


SOUNDINGS OF THE DEAD SEA


At 8 P.M., went down to the beach and looked long and anxiously but could see nothing of them, although a dark object could have been discerned at a great distance, for the surface of the sea was one wide sheet of phosphorescent foam, and the waves, as they broke upon the shore, threw a sepulchral light upon the dead bushes and scattered fragments of rock. Returned to the camp and placed every one on guard, for all our men but one being absent in the boats, our weakness, if coupled with want of vigilance, might invite an attack from the strange Arabs, who, we knew, were upon the cliffs above.

At 9:30, the Fanny Mason, and at 10:45, the Fanny Skinner, returned. They had been retarded by the fresh wind and corresponding heavy swell of the sea. The distance in a straight line from this to the Arabian shore measured seven nautical, or nearly eight statute miles. The soundings directly across from this place gave 116 fathoms, or 696 feet, as the greatest depth-ninety fathoms, 540 feet, within a fourth of a mile from the Arabian shore. Mr. Aulick reports a volcanic formation on the east shore, and brought specimens of lava. Another line of soundings running diagonally across to the S.E. Lieut. Dale reports a level plain at the bottom of the sea, extending nearly to each shore, with an average depth of 170 fathoms, 1020 feet, all across. The bottom, blue mud and sand, and a number of rectangular crystals of salt, some of them perfect cubes. One cast brought up crystals only. Laid them by for careful preservation. The diagonal line of soundings was run from this place to a black chasm in the opposite mountains. The soundings deepened gradually to twenty-eight fathoms a short distance from the shore; the next cast was 137, and the third 170 fathoms, and the lead brought up, as mentioned, clear cubical crystals of salt. The casts were taken about every half mile, and the deep soundings were carried close to the Arabian shore.


GROUP OF RAGGED ARABS


It was a tedious operation; the sun shone with midsummer fierceness, and the water, greasy to the touch, made the men’s hands smart and burn severely.

In the chasm they found a sweet and thermal stream, coming from above and emptying into the sea. It is, doubtless, the “Zerka Main,” the outlet of the hot springs of Callirohoe. We trust to give it a thorough examination.

By dark the sea had rolled up dangerously, and the boats took in much water, the crests of the waves curling over their sides. It was a dreadful pull for the men, and when they arrived their clothes were stiffened with encrustation.

The Rashayideh were grouped in a circle a short distance from our tents. In their ragged brown abas, lying motionless, and apparently in profound slumber, they looked by moonlight like so many fragments of rock, and reminded one of the grey geese around the but of Cannie Elshie, the recluse of Mucklestane Muir. They were not all asleep, however, for when I approached, one instantly arose and greeted me. Retired to rest at 1 A.M., the sea brawling and breaking upon the shore.