Narrative Of The United States Expedition To The River Jordan And The Dead Sea/15

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



SATURDAY, APRIL 29: Awakened at daylight by one of the Arabs calling the rest to prayer. The summons but slightly heeded. Despatched Lieut. Dale, Dr. Anderson, and Mr. Bedlow, with the interpreter, a Turkish soldier, and some Arab guides, to Sebbeh (Masada); they took the camel with them to carry water. Soon after breakfast, sent the Fanny Skinner to sound in a north and south line, between the peninsula and the western shore. A clear, pleasant morning; wind fresh from the N.W. Experienced some difficulty in getting the boat through the surf.

Remained in camp to write a report of proceedings to the Hon. Secretary of the Navy, and to answer the kind letters of H.B.M. Consul at Jerusalem, and Mr. Jasper Chasseaud, U.S. Consul at Beïrût. Every thing quiet; and, towards noon, as the wind subsided, the sea assumed its sombre and peculiar hue.

At noon, fired out at sea, in honour of the illustrious dead, twenty-one minute-guns from the heavy blunderbuss mounted on the bow of the Fanny Mason. The reports reverberated loudly and strangely amid the cavernous recesses of those lofty and barren mountains. This sea is wondrous, in every sense of the word; so sudden are its changes, and so different the aspects it presents, as to make it seem as if we were in a world of enchantment. We were alternately upon the brink and the surface of a huge, and sometimes seething cauldron. Picked up a piece of scoriated lava.


At 1 P.M., Mr. Aulick returned. He reported a gradual decrease of soundings to thirteen fathoms, nearly up the slope to the shallow basin of the southern sea. Everything favours the supposition that the guilty cities stood on the southern plain, between Usdum and the mountains of Moab. The northern part must have been always water, or the plain have sunk at the time of the catastrophe. Protected by our presence from the fear of robbers, some of the Ta’amirah came in to harvest their few scanty patches of barley. They cut the grain, with their swords for reaping-hooks, and threw it upon the threshing floor, — a circular piece of hard, trampled ground, around which were driven three donkeys, abreast. It was a slow and wasteful process. The little unmuzzled brutes were, in their rounds, permitted to nip the upturned ears. We had often noticed the humanity of this people towards the brute creation. In a moment of excitement, Sherîf wounded a stork, but seemed sincerely sorry for it afterwards. The Arab who brought the wild boar pigs to sell, cut their throats rather than turn them adrift, when they would have perished for want of food, which they were too young to procure. These Arabs always express great horror at anything like wanton cruelty towards animals. And yet ’Akil looked upon the woman whose husband he had slain, without the drooping of an eyelid, or the visible relaxation of a muscle. It is for philosophers to account for this trait of humanity towards animals, in a race proverbially reckless of the lives of their fellow-creatures. The small quantity of grain these people could spare, we purchased for distribution at home. In the afternoon, mounted on Sherîf ’s spirited mare, I went up to the fountain of Ain Jidy. It is a clear, beautiful stream, issuing from the rock, skirted by the cane and shadowed by the nubk, four hundred feet up the mountain. The view from it was magnificent, particularly towards Usdum and the southern basin of the sea.


At sunset, the party to Sebbeh returned. The following account I glean from the reports of Lieut. Dale, Dr. Anderson, and Mr. Bedlow:— principally the last.

Their route, at first, led along the shore of the sea to the south, over the debris brought down by the winter torrents, — a road, over which no other but an Arab horse could have travelled a mile without breaking his limbs, or dashing his rider upon the sharp rocks, or disappearing, rider and all, down one of the gulleys which furrowed the delta from the bases of the cliffs to the margin of the sea. After passing a projecting headland, which bounded the shore-line view from the encampment, they beheld, in the distance, most singular formations, resembling a plain covered with towns and villages, marble cities, with columns, temples, domes, and palaces, which, as they advanced, faded away, and finally resolved themselves into curiously-configurated hills, so marked and channelled by the weather, that, although aware of the formation, it was difficult to destroy the first illusion. A little after eight o’clock, they came to Wady Sebbeh, and discovered a distinct road, fifteen feet wide and marked by two parallel rows of stones, which continued, with interruptions, for the space of a quarter of a mile. At nine o’clock, when the heat of the sun began to be oppressive, they reached a low cave in the southern face of the mountain, over Wady Seyal, — a deep ravine, which separates the cliff from the main ridge on the north. Here they dismounted, as it was impossible to proceed farther on horseback. Hence, sometimes upon their hands and knees, they clambered up the steep and rugged cliff, its perpendicular side pierced with apertures, like the Rock of Gibraltar. They were inclined to believe, that the path by which they ascended is the one which Josephus calls the “serpent, as resembling that animal in its narrowness and perpetual windings; for it is broken off at the prominent precipices of the rock, and returns frequently into itself, and, lengthening again by little and little, hath much to do to proceed forward, and he that would walk along it, must first go on one leg and then on the other; there is also nothing but destruction, in case your feet slip, for on each side there is a vastly deep chasm and precipice.”



They crossed the ravine upon a chalky ridge, which, although considerably below the highest point of the cliff, yet connects the southern steep of Seyal to the northern escarpment of Masada, and reached the top a little before 10 A.M. The whole summit was surrounded by the ruins of a wall, built on the brink of the precipice. Passing through a gateway with a pointed arch, the keystone and voissures of which were of hewn stone, curiously marked with Greek delta-shaped figures, and others resembling the planetary symbol of Venus, some upright and some reversed, and others again with rude crosses and the unfinished letter T, they came upon an area of about three-fourths of a mile in length from north to south, and one-fourth of a mile from east to west.

There was very little vegetation, except in the bottoms of a few excavations, which seemed to have been used as cisterns or granaries, and which were half filled with a rank weed and a species of lichen. Elsewhere, the earth was as sterile as if sown with salt; yet Herod spoke of it as being “of a fat soil, and better mould than any valley for agriculture.” Concerning these excavations, Josephus says, “Herod also had cut many and great pits, as reservoirs for water, out of the rocks, at every one of the places that were inhabited, both above and around the palace and before the wall; and by this contrivance, he endeavoured to have water for several uses, as if there had been fountains there.”

Towards the northern and western edge of the cliff, and near the point which is probably the “White Promontory,” mentioned by Josephus, they observed, one of these excavations of considerable extent, much choked with the ruins and rubbish of its own cemented walls, together with the decomposed thistles and rank weeds of many centuries.

In the south-west corner of the rock, they found one still larger, finely stuccoed, with a gallery, a flight of forty stone steps, and lighted by two windows on the southern face of the cliff. This large room was beautifully stuccoed with pebbles, and as smooth and clean as if just finished. This excavated chamber led them to infer that there were numerous others, lighted by the apertures in the cliff they had seen outside on their ascent; but they could find no access to them.

At the distance of about 100 feet below the northern summit, on an inaccessible precipitous ledge, they saw the ruins of a round tower; and forty or fifty feet below that, on another ledge, the foundation walls of a square enclosure, with a triangular wall abutting with the angles of its base upon the walls of the circular tower, and the west side of the square enclosure. They found it impossible to descend to examine these ruins.

Besides the remains of the round tower, or donjon keep, there were, on the summit, the fragments of walls with circular recesses of tessellated brick-work, arched doorways, and mullioned windows, partly surrounding an enclosure which was perhaps the court-yard or quadrangle of the castle, now filled with rubbish, fragments of marble, mosaic and pottery.

The foundations and lower portions of the wall built around the entire top of the hill by Herod, are still remaining on the eastern side. The officers amused themselves by displacing some of the stones and sending them over the cliff, and watching them as they whirled and bounded to the base, upwards of 1200 feet down, with more fearful velocity than the stones from the Roman ballistae when Silva pressed the siege.

One of the windows, apparently a part of a chapel, looked out upon the sea. It was the one appearing as an arch, which we saw when passing in the boats. From thence, the sea could be seen throughout its whole extent, its northern and southern extremities clearly defined, even through the haze which overhung them. The configuration of the peninsula lay distinctly before them, and bore some resemblence to an outspread wing.

Immediately below them, along the base of the cliff, could be traced the wall of circumvallation which “Silva built on the outside, round about the whole place, and had thereby made a most accurate provision to prevent any one of the besieged running away.”

Masada at a distance; notice the Roman ramp built up to it.

Continuing their explorations towards the southern and eastern edge of the cliff, they followed a perilous track along the face of the rock, which could not have been less than 1000 feet in perpendicular height above the chasm, and came upon an extensive shelf or platform encumbered with masses of rubbish and masonry, evidently the ruins of the wall which edged the cliff above. Scrambling over the heaps, they reached an excavation which the Arab guide called a cistern, which is probably correct, for in descending they saw narrow troughs or aqueducts, the inner half scooped in the rock. It was an oblong cell, hewn in the rock, measuring thirty feet in length, fifteen in breadth, and eighteen or twenty in depth, cemented on all sides. At the entrance of the excavation they saw the carcase of an animal recently killed. It resembled the rabbit, and was called by the Arabs “webr” or webeh, the coney of scripture. To the left of the entrance, and within the cell, was a small flight of steps terminating in a platform. Like the walls, the steps were coated with cement. Above this was an aperture not accessible by the steps. By notching the wall, they contrived to reach it. It was the entrance of a low cave, roughly hewn in the rock, with a window looking out upon the steep face of Wady Senin. Around the rough and uncemented walls were rude crosses in red paint, and upon the dust of the floor were the fresh footprints of the “whal,” or the bteddîn.

They attempted to explore the southern face of the mountain, by following a zigzag path along the ledge projecting a few feet from the rough surface of rock, but found it impracticable from the looseness of the rocks and the fearful dizzy depth below. On their return, they observed a singular ruin about the centre of the quadrangle. The square blocks of stone, cemented together with great regularity, were cellular on both sides, so abraded by the weather as to present the appearance of a honey-comb. They supposed it to have been a store-house or barracks for soldiers. Before descending they sketched the sea, and took many bearings. On their return to the cave, the Arabs asked them if their visit had been “acceptable.” These people believe that we come here to search for treasure or to visit places we consider holy. In Wady Sêyâl (Ravine of Acacias) were many seyal or acacia trees. [1]


[1] Acacia Seyal or Alotica furnishes gum Arabic, and probably afforded the shittah or shittim wood, used in building the tabernacle. In Isaiah, the shittah is joined with the myrtle and other fragrant shrubs. The flowers have an agreeable odour. Almost all travelers speak of the acacia seyal as abounding in Palestine and the desert of Arabia. It is sometimes called by Arabs the talk, and camels graze on its leaves and tender branches. —— Griffith.


On their return, they noticed a foetid sulphureous smell in passing Berket el Khulîl (the “tank of Khulîl). Their report seems to confirm the supposition of Messrs. Robinson and Smith that the ruins of Sebbeh are those of Masada. At every step in our route, where these gentlemen have been, we found that accurate and learned observers had preceded us, and in these precursors, with no little satisfaction, we recognised our own countrymen.