Narrative Of The United States Expedition To The River Jordan And The Dead Sea/16
SUNDAY, APRIL 30. This morning, like the land we are in, we enjoyed our Sabbath, and slept until the sun and flies compelled us to get up. There were light airs from the west. At 6:30 A.M., thermometer 84°, and quite warm. The wind had been fresh in the night, and the boats were driven by the surf broadside on the beach. The atmosphere of the tent being oppressive, we breakfasted outside in its shade. Some of us spent the forenoon in the quiet recesses of the ravine, endeavouring to observe the day.
Thus far, all, with one exception, had enjoyed good health, but there were symptoms which caused me uneasiness. The figure of each one had assumed a dropsical appearance. The lean had become stout, and the stout almost corpulent; the pale faces had become florid, and those which were florid, ruddy; moreover, the slightest scratch festered, and the bodies of many of us were covered with small pustules. The men complained bitterly of the irritation of their sores, whenever the acrid water of the sea touched them. Still, all had good appetites, and I hoped for the best.
There could be nothing pestilential in the atmosphere of the sea. There is little verdure upon its shores, and, by consequence, but little vegetable decomposition to render the air impure; and the foetid smell we had frequently noticed, doubtless proceeded from the sulphur-impregnated thermal springs, which were not considered deleterious. Three times, it is true, we had picked up dead birds, but they, doubtless, had perished from exhaustion, and not from any malaria of the sea, which is perfectly inodorous, and, more than any other, abounds with saline exhalations, which, I believe, are considered wholesome. Our Ta’amirah told us that, in pursuance of the plan he had adopted with regard to the settlement of the Ghor, Ibrahim Pasha sent three thousand Egyptians to the shores of this sea, about ten years since, and that every one died within two months. This is, no doubt, very much exaggerated.
There was, most probably, much mortality among the poor wretches, forced from their fertile plains to this rugged and inhospitable shore; but dejection of spirits, and scarcity of food, must have been the great destroyers.
At 12:15, started for the eastern shore, leaving Sherîf again in charge, with directions to move the camp to Ain Turabeh, on Wednesday. This was the day appointed to meet ’Akil , and I felt sure that he would not fail us.
A light air from the south induced me to abandon the awning and set the sail, to spare the men from labouring at the oars. A light tapping of the ripples at the bow, and a faint line of foam and bubbles at her side, were the only indications that the boat was in motion. The Fanny Skinner was a mile astern, and all around partook of the stillness of death. The weather was intensely hot, and even the light air that urged us almost insensibly onward had something oppressive in its flaws of heat. The sky was unclouded, save by a few faint cirri in the north, sweeping plume-like, as if the sun had consumed the clouds, and the light wind had drifted their ashes. The glitter from the water, with its multitude of reflectors, for each ripple was a mirror, contributed much to our discomfort; yet the water was not transparent, but of the colour of diluted absinthe, or the prevailing tint of a Persian opal. The sun, we felt, was glaring upon us, but the eye dared not take cognizance, for the fierce blaze would have blighted the powers of vision, as Semele was consumed by the unveiled divinity of Jove.
The black chasms and rough peaks, embossed with grimness, were around and above us, veiled in a transparent mist, like visible air, that made them seem unreal, and, 1300 feet below, our sounding-lead had struck upon the buried plain of Siddim, shrouded in slime and salt.
While busied with such thoughts, my companions had yielded to the oppressive drowsiness, and now lay before me in every attitude of a sleep that had more of stupor in it than of repose. In the awful aspect which this sea presented, when we first beheld it, I seemed to read the inscription over the gates of Dante’s Inferno — “Ye who enter here, leave hope behind.”
Since then, habituated to mysterious appearances in a journey so replete with them, and accustomed to scenes of deep and thrilling interest at every step of our progress, those feelings of awe had been insensibly lessened or hushed by deep interest in the investigations we had pursued.
But now, as I sat alone in my wakefulness, the feeling of awe returned; and, as I looked upon the sleepers, I felt “the hair of my flesh stand up,” as Job’s did, when “a spirit passed before his face;” for, to my disturbed imagination, there was something fearful in the expression of their inflamed and swollen visages. The fierce angel of disease seemed hovering over them, and I read the forerunner of his presence in their flushed and feverish sleep. Some, with their bodies bent and arms dangling over the abandoned oars, their hands excoriated with the acrid water, slept profoundly; — others, with heads thrown back, and lips cracked and sore, with a scarlet flush on either cheek, seemed overpowered by heat and weariness even in sleep; while some, upon whose faces shone the reflected light from the water, looked ghastly, and dozed with a nervous twitching of the limbs, and now and then starting from their sleep, drank deeply from a breaker and sank back again to lethargy. The solitude, the scene, my own thoughts, were too much; I felt, as I sat thus, steering the drowsily-moving boat, as if I were a Charon, ferrying, not the souls, but the bodies, of the departed and the damned, over some infernal lake, and could endure it no longer; but breaking from my listlessness, ordered the sails to be furled and the oars resumed — action seemed better than such unnatural stupor.
Prudence urged us to proceed no farther, but to stop, before some disaster overtook us; but the thought of leaving any part of our work undone was too painful, and I resolved to persevere, but to be as expeditious as possible without working the party too hard.
At 4:10 P.M., reached “Point Costigan,” north end of the peninsula, and steered S.S.E. across the bay, to search for water and for signals from ’Akil .
The heat was still intense, rendered less endurable by the bright glare from the white spiculae of the peninsula, and the dazzling reflection from the surface of the sea. At 4:45, sounded in twenty-four fathoms, hard bottom, about gunshot distance from the land. 5:05, saw an Arab on the shore among the low canes and bushes, and shortly after several others. Preparing for hostilities, yet in the hope of a friendly reception, we pulled directly in and hailed them. To our great delight, one of them proved to be Jum’ah (Friday), sent by ‘Akil, who yesterday arrived at Kerak. We immediately landed, and bivouacked upon the beach, a short distance from a shallow stream descending the Wady Beni Hamed.
’Akil , on leaving us at ‘Ain el Feshkah, endeavoured, according to agreement, to find his way to the eastern shore and thence to Kerak. On his way he stopped with some of his friends, a portion of the tribe of Beni Sukrs from Salt. In the night they were unexpectedly attacked by a party of Beni ‘Adwans. At first, being much inferior in numbers, they retreated, ’Akil losing his camel and all his baggage. Subsequently they were strongly reinforced, and became assailants in their turn. The action lasted several hours; they had twelve wounded, including two of ’Akil ’s followers, and twenty-two of the Adwans were reported to be killed and wounded, among the former the son of the skeikh. ’Akil ’s Nubian was twice wounded in the arm, once by a gun-shot, and once by the thrust of a spear. The rifle of the hostile young sheikh was given to Sherîf Musaid, nephew of Sherîf Hazaa, for his gallantry in the action.
We learned from Jum’ah that there were two sheikhs or governors in Kerak, a Christian one, who could muster 250 riflemen, and a Muslim one, whose followers were mostly mounted, and far more numerous; — the former wholly subservient to the latter.
At 7:30 P.M., Sulieman, the son of Abd ’Allah, Christian sheikh of Kerak, with four followers, arrived with a welcome and an invitation from his father to visit him in his mountain fortress, seventeen miles distant, saying that he would have come himself if certain of meeting us. They had been despatched at ’Akil’s instance at early daybreak, and from the mountains, on their way down, saw us crossing the sea.
An invitation was also received from the Muslim sheikh. I accepted it with a full sense of the risk incurred; but the whole party was so much debilitated by the sirocco we had experienced on the south side of the peninsula, and by the subsequent heat, that it became absolutely necessary to reinvigorate it at all hazards. I felt sure that Jum’ah would carefully guard our boats in our absence, and therefore sent to ’Akil , through whom alone I had resolved to hold transactions with this people, for horses and mules for the party. He had sent an apology for not coming in person on account of his wounded followers, and in consequence of all their horses being foundered.
Lieut. Dale, like myself, found it difficult to keep awake to-day, while steering the boat across. We are on the eastern side, a little north of the neck of the peninsula. Wady Kerak is at the S.E. extremity of the bay. Between it and us is the village of Mezra’a, and in the near vicinity of the latter are the supposed ruins of Zoar. To-morrow we will continue the exploration of this deep and interesting bay.
On our return here, in consequence of the sun having been pouring on my unsheltered back for some hours while steering the boat, I was heated excessively, and sick even to faintness; but a bath wonderfully refreshed me.
On all occasions, when weary, faint, and almost exhausted, a bath has been the great restorative, and I recommended it to all. On the banks of the stream were oleanders eighteen feet high, and in full bloom. Here, too, as on the Jordan, it is quite fragrant. Between the camp and the stream, and scattered on the plain, are, groves of acacia, and many osher trees as large as half-grown apple-trees, and with larger fruit than any we had seen. We gathered some of the size of the largest October peach, but green, soft, and pulpy; emitting, like the branches, a viscous milky fluid when cut, which the Arabs told us would be extremely injurious to the eyes if it touched them. There was some of the dried fruit too, as brittle as glass and flying to pieces on the slightest pressure. Within the last was a very small quantity of a thin, silky fibre, which is used by the Arabs for gun matches. The rind is thinner, but very much in colour like a dried lemon, and the dried fruit has the appearance of having spontaneously bursted.
An Arab from Mezra’a brought us some detestable sour leban and some milk, but of which few could endure the smell, caused by the filthy goat-skins which contained them, and which, it seems, are never washed. He also brought some flour made of the dhom apple, dried and pulverized, which was very palatable.
The sheikh of Mezra’a, with some of his people, also came in. Together with the fellahin tribes at the south end of the sea, they are generally denominated Ghaurariyeh. They are much darker, and their hair more wiry and disposed to curl instead of any Arabs we have seen. Their features as well as their complexion are more of the African type, and they are short and spare built, with low receding foreheads, and the expression of countenance is half sinister and half idiotic. Their only garment is a tunic of brief dimensions, open at the breast and confined round the waist by a band or leathern belt.
The sheikh has rude sandals, fastened by thongs; the rest are barefooted. The women are even more abject-looking than the men, and studiously conceal their faces. They all, men and women, seem to bear impressed upon their features the curse of their incestuous origin.
Their village, Mezra’a, is on the plain, about half an hour, or one mile and a half distant. Their houses are mere hovels plastered with mud. They cultivate the dhoura (millet), tobacco, and some indigo, a specimen of which we procured.
The deputation from Kerak expressed great delight at beholding fellow-Christians upon the shores of this sea, and said that if they had known of our first arrival on the western shore, they would have gone round and invited us over. It was a strange sight to see these wild Arab Christians uniting themselves to us with such heartfelt cordiality. It would be interesting to trace whether they are some of the lost tribes subsequently converted to Christianity; or the descendants of Christians, who, in the fastnesses of the mountains, escaped the Muhammedan alternative of the Koran or the sword; or a small Christian remnant of the Crusades. At all events their gratification at meeting us was unfeigned and warmly expressed. They felt that we would sympathize with them in the persecutions to which they are subjected by their lawless Muslim neighbours. They had, indeed, our warmest sympathies, and our blood boiled as we listened to a recital of their wrongs. We felt more than ever anxious to visit Kerak, and judge for ourselves of their condition. Their mode of salutation approaches nearer to our own than that of any other tribe we met; they shake hands, and then each kisses the one he had extended. They had never seen a boat, which, in the language of the country, is called “choctura,” and supposing that ours must have feet, examined them with great curiosity. They could not believe that anything larger could be made to float. In the course of the evening one of the fellahin from Mezra’a, when he first beheld them, stood for some time lost in contemplation, and then burst forth in joyful shouts of recognition.
He was an Egyptian by birth, and stolen from his home when quite young, had forgotten everything connected with his native country, until the sight of our boats reminded him of having seen things resembling them; and the Nile, and the boats upon its surface, and the familiar scenes of his childhood, rushed upon his memory. It was interesting to see the dull and clouded intellect gradually lighten up as the remembrance of the past broke in upon it; yet it was sad, for the glad smile of the Egyptian died away, and left a sorrowing expression upon his features — for from the Nile his dormant affections had, perhaps, reverted to the hovel upon its banks — and he thought of his mother and young barbarian playmates.
These Christian Arabs are of the tribe Beni Khallas (Sons of the Invincible), a name inappropriate to their present condition. Their features are fuller and more placid in expression, and they seem more vigorous, manly, and intelligent than the Raschayideh and Ta’amirah of the Judean shore. After dinner, partaken by the light ofthe camp-fires, we set the watch and threw ourselves upon the shelving beach, each one wrapping up his head to screen it from the fresh wind. Our Christian Arabs kept watch and ward with us through the night, for they had reason to know that the Mezra’a people were dangerous neighbours.
Although the wind was fresh from the north-west during the night, the thermometer, which was taken hourly, ranged from 82° down to 70°. At 70° the air felt uncomfortably cold, so much had we been relaxed by the sirocco. During the day the weather became warmer, not only from the direct rays of the sun, but the reflected heat from the barren cliffs which hem in this sea. There were several meteors in the night, shooting from the zenith towards the north. One was peculiar; instead of darting along the sky, it seemed to drop directly down, with less than the usual velocity. It was very bright, and resembled falling fire-flakes from a discharged rocket.
MONDAY, MAY 1. A calm and warm but not unpleasant morning; thermometer, 83°. At 7, sent Lieut. Dale and Mr. Aulick in the Fanny Skinner to complete the topographical sketch of the shore-lines of the bay, to verify the position of the mouth of Wady Kerak, and to sound down the middle on their return. About mid-day they came back; the weather oppressively warm.
Overhauled the copper boat, which wore away rapidly in this briny sea. Such was the action of the fluid upon the metal, that the latter, as long as it was exposed to its immediate friction, was as bright as burnished gold, but whenever it came in contact with the air, it corroded immediately.
Put up specimens of the flower and fruit of the ocher tree in spirits of wine, and procured some indigo, raised in the vicinity of Zoar, the ruins of which, a short distance hence, I purposed visiting in the evening. At 9, a wild boar was brought in. A horse, taken into the bay, could, with difficulty, keep himself upright. ‘Two fresh hens’ eggs floated up one-third of their length. They would have sunk, in the water of the Mediterranean or the Atlantic.
When one of our party inquired if there were stores in Kerak, describing a place where articles were sold, the Christian Arab replied, — “What we have we give: do you think that we would sell you any thing? You are our friends.” While waiting for the horses, we made this a feast-day; and, anticipating the usual hour, dined sumptuously, at 2 P.M., on wild boar’s meat, onions, and the last of our rice.
The stones on the beach before me, as I wrote, were encrusted with salt, and looked exactly as if whitewashed. It was well that we dispatched ’Akil in advance to the Arabian tribes, for the Sheikh of Mezra’a told Jum’ah that, when he first saw us coming, he hastened to collect his followers, with the determination of attacking us, and only changed his purpose when he heard him greet us as friends. It would have been a matter of regret had they fired upon us; for, although we would most certainly have defeated them, there must have been blood shed, and it was my most earnest wish to accomplish the objects of the expedition without injury to a human being.
P.M. Rode out upon the plain, with two Arabs on foot, to look for the ruins of Zoar. Pursuing a S.E. direction, up the peninsula, passed, first, some dhoura (millet) fields, the grain but a few inches above the ground — many of the fields yet wet from recent irrigation. Thence rode through many tangled thickets of cane and tamarisk, with occasional nubk and osher trees, and came, at length, upon an open space, with many large heaps of stones in regular rows, as if they had once formed houses. They were uncut, and had “never known iron;” but there were no other vestiges of a building about them so I concluded that they were the larger stones which had encumbered the soil, and were gathered by the fellahin. Proceeding a little more to the south, we came to many more such mounds or heaps, and, among them, to the foundation of a building of some size. It was in the form of a main building, with a smaller one before or behind it; the first being a quadrangular wall, and the other in detached pieces, like the pedestals of columns. The stones were large, some of them one and a half feet in diameter, uncut, but roughly hewn, and fitted on each other with exactness, but without mortar. There were many minute fragments of pottery scattered about on the soil; and among the rubbish I found an old hand-mortar, very much worn, which I brought away. The ruined foundation bore the marks of great antiquity; and the site corresponds to the one assigned by Irby and Mangles as that of Zoar. But I could see no columns and no other vestiges of ruins than what I have mentioned.
Returning, saw the horses and mules for which we had sent, coming down the mountains, and waited for them in the plain. They were accompanied by Muhammed, the son of Abd’el Kadir, the Muslim Sheikh of the Kerakiyeh, and by Abd’ Allah, the Christian sheikh of the Beni Khallas; the latter residing in the town of Kerak, the former living mostly in black tents, about half a mile distant from it.
On our way to camp, Muhammed endeavoured to display his horsemanship; but the animal, wearied by the rough mountain road he had travelled, fell to the ground, and his rider was compelled to jump off to save himself. In mounting again, not finding any thing more convenient, he arrogantly ordered one of the fellahin to stoop, and, placing his foot upon the abject creature’s back, sprung upon his horse.
This Muhammed is about thirty years of age, very short but compactly built, with a glossy, very dark-mahogany skin, long, coarse black hair, and a thick, black beard and moustache. His eye, fiery, but furtive, was never fixed in its gaze, but, rolling restlessly from one object to another, seemed rather the glare of a wild beast than the expression of a human eye. Altogether, we thought that he had the most insolent and overbearing countenance and manner we had ever seen.
Abd’ Allah, the Christian sheikh, about twenty years his senior, was a very different person; robust in frame, he was mild even to meekness. In the bearing of the respective parties towards each other, we could read a long series of oppression on one side and submissive endurance on the other.
They brought me a letter from ’Akil, of which the following is a literal translation:—
“By God’s favour. May it reach Haditheh, and be delivered to the hand of the Excellency of our Beloved. “May God preserve him. Beduah, 1642.”
“To the Excellency of the most honourable, our dear friend — may the Almighty God preserve him.
“We beg, first, to offer you our love and great desire to see the light of your happy countenance. We beg, secondly, to say that in the most happy and honourable time, we received your letter containing your beautiful discourse. We thanked, on reading it, the Almighty God that you are well, and ask him now, also (who is the most fit to ask), that we may be permitted to behold the light of your countenance in a fit and agreeable time.
“The animals which you have ordered will be brought down to you by the Excellency of our brother chief, Muhammed Nujally, and the chief Abd’ Allah en Nahas; and the men necessary to guard the boats will be supplied by the said chiefs.
“The reason of our delay in coming to you was the weakness and fatigue of our horses. The time will be, God willing, short before we see you.
“This being all that is necessary, we beg you will offer our compliments (peace) to all those who inquire after us. From this part, the Excellency of our respected brother, Sherîf, sends you his best compliments. May you be kept in peace.
- Seal of ’Akil Aga el Hassee.
- “KERAK, 28 Jamad Awah.”
- Seal of ’Akil Aga el Hassee.
The boats excited much attention; and, to gratify both the Christian and the Muslim Arabs, we launched one and pulled her a short distance out and back, some of the Arabs being on board; but Muhammed, although he had been the loudest in expressions of wonder and incredulity, declined to go with them; and I was disposed to think that he was a coward after all. On returning from the beach, they stuck plugs of onions into their nostrils, to counteract the malaria they had imbibed from the sea. They call it “the sea accursed of God;” and, entertaining the most awful fears respecting it, looked upon us as madmen for remaining so long upon it.
During the forenoon, the thermometer ranged from 86° to 90°. At sunset, it stood at 83°, and quite pleasant. Sky filled with cumulus and stratus. A little after 8 P.M., we heard the song sung by the tribes when about to meet friends or enemies; in the first instance, a song of welcome; in the last, a war-cry of defiance. The wild coronach was borne upon the wind, long before the party singing it were in sight; but presently, fourteen mounted Arabs, headed by the brother of Muhammed, came proudly into the camp. The camp consisted of two boats’ awnings, stretched over stakes, to screen us from the sun and wind. All carried a long gun and short carbine, the last slung over the shoulders, except one Arab, a kinsman of the sheikh, who bore a spear eighteen feet long, with a large, round tuft of ostrich feathers just below the spear-head. Reining up before us, they finished their song, prior to dismounting or exchanging salutations. The war-cry of the Arabs was the only true musical sound we heard among them, although they frequently beguiled the tedious hours of a march with what they termed a song.
These few notes are uttered in a high, shrill voice, and with a modulation or peculiarity bearing some affinity to the characteristic Yoddle of Tyrolean music. The distance at which this strange, wild war-cry can be heard, is almost incredible.
After nightfall the wind sprang up fresh from the northward. We made a lee by stretching one of the boat’s awnings across, and lying upon the beach with our heads towards it. For myself I could not sleep. The conduct of Muhammed, amounting almost to impudence, filled me with distrust. He had come down with about eight men, his brother with fourteen more, and by two and three at a time they had been dropping in ever since, until, at 9 P.M., there were upwards of forty around us; and, if disposed to treachery, there might be many more concealed within the thicket. It seemed as if Muhammed considered us as already in his power, and it occurred to me at times, that it was my duty, in order to save the lives for which I was responsible, to depart at once; but two considerations determined me not only to remain, but, at all hazards, go to Kerak. The second day after our arrival upon this sea, I had sent ’Akil to the Arabian tribes to announce our coming and to make arrangements with them to supply us with provisions. He had, through great peril, and at considerable loss, made his way along the whole eastern coast, and as directed, announced the coming of a party of Americans, people from another world, of whom they had never heard before. I therefore felt that to retire now would be construed into flight, and the American name be ever after held in contempt by this people, and all who might hereafter sojourn among them. Moreover, to decline an invitation for which we had made overtures through ’Akil, might hazard his safety. In addition to these considerations, I felt satisfied that if not invigorated by bracing air, even for one day, many of the party would inevitably succumb; and I preferred the risk of an encounter with the Arabs to certain sickness upon the sea, with its result, unaccomplished work.
Although the wind was high, too high to take observations of Polaris, the night was sultry; thermometer 81°, the dew so heavy as to filter through the awning and drop upon our faces. This is the second time we have experienced dew upon this sea, each time with a hot wind from the north. It probably betokens some atmospheric change. Then it was succeeded by a sirocco. We shall see what to-morrow will bring forth. This is our fifteenth night upon this sea. Towards morning the wind lulled and the sky became clouded and the weather cool. Tuesday, May 2: Cloudy. Called all hands at 4 A.M., and set off at 5:30, after a hurried and meagre breakfast. The sailors were mounted on most unpromising looking cradles, running lengthwise along the backs of their mules, while our horses were but little better caparisoned. At his earnest solicitation, I left behind Henry Loveland, seaman, who was apparently one of the least affected by the previous heat. To him and our Bedouin friend Jum’ah, who had several Arabs with him, I gave strict charge of the boats and all our effects.
 My misgivings were not unfounded. Just before our final departure from this place, the son of the Christian sheikh told us that the Muslims, with a concealed party amounting in all to sixty, had determined to attack us (of which the Christians dared not give us notice at the time), but as there was always an officer and two men on guard, one of them posted beside the blunderbuss, and I so often came out to look around, they fancied that we suspected their design, and therefore kept quiet. Armed as we were, the odds would have been against them. Each sailor had a carbine which loaded at the breech, and could be fired with great rapidity, and there was attached to it a steel bayonet, three feet long, that could be drawn out at will; and each one carried in his belt a pistol with a deadly bowie-knife attached. The officers had severally a carbine, a revolver pistol, and a sword, three of the last having pistol-barrels attached to the blade near the handle. I rejoice that we had no serious occasion to use them.
We were fourteen in number, besides the interpreter and cook. The first I believed courageous; the latter I knew to be an arrant coward. Our escort consisted of twelve mounted Arabs and eight footmen, the rest having gone in advance.
We struck directly across the plain forming the base or root of the peninsula, towards the lofty ragged cliffs which overlook it from the east, and passed many nubk and osher trees, and fields of dried stalks, some resembling those of the maize and others the sugar-cane. The Arabs said that sugar was not cultivated upon this plain; but these stalks were the product of cultivation, were unlike the dhoura stalks, and very much resembled the sugar-cane. Crossing the stream which flows down the Wady Beni Hamad, and a number of patches of dhoura (millet), artificially irrigated, we passed close under a ruin on an elevated cliff, which overlooks the plain of Zoar. It seemed to be the remains of a fortalice not more ancient than the times of the Crusades. We would have given much to explore the plain and visit the ruin above, but circumstances forbade it. It was essential to inhale the mountain air as soon as possible, and equally important that we should keep together to guard against treachery. We resolved to make an exploration on our return, if satisfied that we could do so with safety.
We thus far passed in succession the loose tertiaries of the peninsula; some ferruginous and friable sandstone, a yellow and shaly limestone, clay-slate, and argillaceous marls.
From Wady Beni Hamad we skirted along the base of the cliffs for about two miles in a south direction, across the neck of the peninsula towards the S. E. inlet of the sea, and. crossing the bed, turned up Wady Kerak, the steepest and most difficult path, with the wildest and grandest scenery we had ever beheld. On one side was a deep and yawning chasm, which made the head dizzy to look into; on the other beetling crags, blackened by the tempests of ages, in shape exactly resembling the waves of a mighty ocean, which, at the moment of overleaping some lofty barrier, were suddenly changed to stone, retwining, even in transformation, their dark and angry hue. In most places the naked rock dipped down abruptly into the deep and gloomy chasm, and it only required a torrent to come tumbling headlong over the rude fragments fallen from the cliffs above to complete the sublimity of the scene. Nor was it wanting.
When we first started, it was so cloudy that we congratulated ourselves upon the prospect of a cool and pleasant instead of a sultry ride. While passing under the ruin, it began to rain lightly but steadily. Before we had half ascended the pass, however, there came a shout of thunder from the dense cloud which had gathered at the summit of the gorge, followed by a rain, compared to which, the gentle showers of our more favoured clime are as dewdrops to the overflowing cistern. Except the slight shower at the Pilgrim’s Ford, this was the first since we landed in Syria. The black and threatening cloud soon enveloped the mountain-tops, the lightning playing across it in incessant flashes, while the loud thunder reverberated from side to side of the appalling chasm. Between the peals we soon heard a roaring and continuous sound. It was the torrent from the rain cloud, sweeping in a long line of foam down the steep declivity, bearing along huge fragments of rocks, which, striking against each other, sounded like mimic thunder. In one spot, where the torrent made its maddest leap, a single palm-tree, bent by the blast, waved its branches wildly above the gorge, seeming to the imagination like the genius of the place bewailing the devastation of its favoured haunt.
During the whole of this storm, our rugged path led along the face of a steep precipice looking into the dark grandeur of the chasm beneath. It was a wild, a terrific, but a glorious sight!
“It more stirs the blood
I rejoiced to witness this elemental strife amid these lofty mountains. How much more exciting and sublime than anything a monotonous plain presents! I have skirted the base of Etna, clothed in the luxuriant verdure of a favoured clime, and looked upon its summit, wreathed in a mantle of perpetual snow, while the smoke from its crater gracefully curled above it. I have clambered the cone of Vesuvius by nightfall, and looked over its brink into the fiery caldron beneath; and in a thunder-storm, I once launched a boat at the foot of Niagara, and rocking in the foam of its cataract, marked with delight the myriads of gems, of every hue and radiance, reflected in the misty vapour at each successive flash; but I never beheld a scene in sublimity equal to the present one.
A meandering river and a fertile plain, with their accompaniments, luxuriant foliage and fragrant odours, interspersed with scenes of domestic peace, captivate the eye and delight the senses. But the boundless ocean or sky-piercing mountains are necessary to the grandeur of sublimity; to embody, as it were, to the mind, and enable it to realize the presence of a great Being — great in all things, but seeming to us most potent when either the “live thunder” leaps from cliff to cliff, or “He rides upon the wings of the mighty wind” across the illimitable waste.
The storm gradually subsided; the cloud which had enveloped the mountain-tops and spread itself far down the chasm, gathered its misty folds and was swept by degrees over the crest towards the desert of Arabia; — to refresh, perchance, the arid plains from its yet copious store.
At 9:15, bending a little from the ridge to the south, we passed a small stream, trickling down in a N.E. course towards the wady. Like the torrent, the stream was doubtless the creation of the shower. The general impression that there is a perpetual stream down the Wady Kerak, is an erroneous one. The Kerakiyeh tell us that it has only water in the rainy season, and for a short period, at other times, after storms like the one which had just passed over. When we crossed the foot of the ravine, there was no water in it; but quite a considerable stream in the Wady Beni Hamad, whence the plain around Mezra’a is irrigated. Except the lone palm, we had not seen a tree or shrub since we turned up the side of the ravine; but all along our zigzag path, the wildest rocks, bare, black, and contorted, presented themselves in detached fragments, and in wondrous strata, — mountainsides tumbled down, perpendicular crags, and deep chasms.
At 9:25, while passing along the edge of a sheer precipice, the weather partly cleared up, and gave us a terrific view down the ravine; it pained the eye to look into its dizzy depths.
At 9:45, stopped to rest at a small spring of pure water, which gushed out of a hill-side. The elements were not yet entirely hushed, the wind sweeping down the ravine in occasional gusts. Here the Kerakiyeh amused themselves by firing at a mark. Approaching to pistol shot distance, and taking rest with their long guns, they rarely hit the mark. Their powder was so indifferent, that one of our sailors contemptuously remarked that a gazelle could run a mile between the flash and the report. They were perfectly astonished at the execution of our rifle. At 10:30, started again, the road leading upon a wide terrace over the valley; the terrace here and there was almost blocked up by huge fragments, severed from the cliffs above, many of them, also, lying in every possible position in the valley beneath. Several of these blocks, and many places in the mountain-side, were hollowed out, sufficient in some places to shelter many persons. These old limestone-rocks are worn into caverns, arches, and the resemblance of houses; an isolated block was exactly like a thatched, moss-grown cottage. One of these may be the cave where Lot and his two daughters dwelt. About two-thirds up, we saw some of the retem, or broom plant, many purple hollyhocks, and, shortly after, some oleanders. The last, which were in full bloom high up the Jordan, and in the plain below, were in this lofty region just beginning to bloom. We saw some partridges, hawks, and many doves; also much of the scarlet anemone, and a blue flower resembling the convolvulus.
At 11:30, the sides and bottom of the ravine betokened some slight cultivation; here and there was a small patch of wheat, and higher up there were a few olive-trees. Gradually, these appearances became more frequent; the patches of wheat were larger, and the olive in occasional groves; sometimes, too, there was a fig-tree, its green more refreshing to the eye than the tawny hue of the olive. When we thought that we were upon the town, we found that we had yet a long, steep hill to clamber up. Here we came to a fork; the main bed of the ravine coming down from the east, and another, broad and steep, from the south-east, with the walled town of Kerak, upon the crown of the hill, overlooking both. We skirted the last ravine, leaving on the left a walled-in fountain and luxuriant olive-groves, and continued ascending, for half an hour; an extensive pile of ruins in sight at the S.W. extremity of the town, and a majestic quadrangular tower at the N.W. angle of its wall.
Looking back, our cavalcade presented a singular sight, winding up the steep and sinuous path. After leaving the peninsula, and turning up the precipitous path along the Wady Kerak, we met with fossiliferous limestone, and the rock continued calcareous all the way to Kerak.
At 12:40, came upon the brow of the hill (3,000 feet above the Dead Sea) at the north-east angle of the town. Instead of a richly cultivated country, there was before us a high, rolling plain, the grass withered, and the grain blighted by the sirocco and the locust. Turning to the north, we passed along the wall, then under the tower, built of flesh-coloured, consolidated limestone, and along the face of the western wall for about 150 yards, when, turning abruptly, we entered an arch cut through the rock, about thirty feet high and twelve wide. Over the gateway was a partly effaced Arabic inscription, recording the building, or repair, of the walls. The passage had two turns, and was about eighty feet long.
From it, we emerged into the town, — a collection of stone huts, built without mortar. They are from seven to eight feet high; the ground-floors about six feet below, and the flat-terrace mud-roofs mostly about two feet above, the streets; but in many places there were short cuts, from street to street, across the roofs of the houses. The people were assembled on the dirt-heaps and mud-roofs to see us pass. We were escorted to the council-house, which is also the Christian school-room, the same in which [Royal Navy Captains Charles Irby and James Mangles], the only Franks who, as Franks, had preceded us since the Crusades, were lodged thirty years ago. Below, was a work-room, and ours was a room for all purposes. Opposite, was a Christian church under construction. Its walls, now about twelve feet high, measured seventy-four by forty feet, and there were pedestals laid for six pillars.
Our room had nothing whatever, except the bare stone floor beneath; the rafters supporting the mud roof above; two windows without glass or shutters, and a crazy door without a fastening. Assigning one side to the men, and taking the adjoining one for ourselves, we left the other two for the Arabs, who flocked in crowds to look upon us. From some cause they did not furnish a sheep, although there were hundreds in the vicinity.
Through the exertions of the priest and Abd’ Allah, the Christian sheikh, we procured some eggs, and, after a scanty breakfast and a hard ride, our dinner consisted of three eggs each.
Determined, at all hazards, to see the place, we went out by turns. We found but one shop, and the only articles for sale were thin cakes of dried and pressed apricots, and English muslin!
The houses, or rather huts, without windows and without chimneys, were blackened inside by smoke; and the women and children were squalid and filthy. Kerak contains a population of about 300 families, three-fourths Christian. By paying an annual tribute, and submitting to occasional exertions, the latter live amicably with the powerful tribe of Kerakîyeh, whose encampment is a short distance without the walls. The latter are so averse to houses, that some, then on a visit to the town, had pitched their tents in the yards of vacant dwellings.
The Muslim inhabitants are wild-looking savages, but the Christians have a milder expression. The males mostly wear sheepskin coats; the women, dark-coloured gowns; the Christian females did not conceal their faces, which were tattooed like the South-Sea islanders. The priest, in his black turban and subdued countenance, acted as our cicerone. He took us to his little church, a low, dark, vaulted room, containing a picture of St. George fighting the Dragon; two half columns of red granite from the ruins of the castle, and a well of cool water in the centre.
The castle, partly cut out of, and partly built upon, the mountain-top; presents the remains of a magnificent structure; its citadel cut off from the town by a ditch-ravine. It seems to be Saracenic, although in various parts it has both the pointed Gothic and the rounded Roman arch. A steep glacis-wall skirts the whole. The walls, now partly standing, are composed of heavy, well-cut stones; and there were seven arched store-houses, one above the other, with narrow slits for defence. The part used as the chapel was evidently built in the times of the crusades; and the east end, where the altar stood, was least demolished; for these buildings have been devastated by the hand of man. Maundrell has remarked that in all the ruined churches he saw, the part appropriated to the altar was ever in the best state of preservation; — which he is at a loss whether to ascribe to bribery on the part of the Christians, to a lingering reverence in the minds of the Turks, or to miraculous interposition. Against the walls were pilasters and pasts of columns with sculptured ornaments, and upon the ceiling were traces of fresco painting, among them one of a female saint. In one place, the pavement had been dug up by the present Christian inhabitants of Kerak for paving slabs for their new church. The vast extent of this magnificent castle filled us with astonishment. It has five gates and seven wells and cisterns, and the whole summit is perforated by subterranean passages. From the narrow embrasures of the vaulted chambers we looked down into the ravine, green with fields of grain and grass, and the shrubbery of oleanders, and upon part of the sea in the distance.
We also visited the structure at the N.W. angle, under which we had passed before entering the arched gateway of the town. It seemed, also, to be Saracenic, with the remains of a handsome cornice.
Returning, we passed through the burial-ground, each grave indicated by a double line of rude, unsculptured stones.
We procured here some of the wheat, which, it is said, retains the prolific quality attributed to it in the Bible. We saw and heard nothing of the immense grapes, “like those brought back by the Hebrew spies,” spoken of by Laborde. The harvests had been swept, the last seven years, by the locusts and the sirocco; the last occurring two or three times a month.
P.M., held a long conversation with ’Akil as to the possibility of proceeding, by land, to Wady es Sâfieh, and its luxuriant delta, at the S.E. extremity of the sea. He thought it impracticable. He said that the southern tribes were in a great state of excitement, and were all coming up; while those along the coast were gathering together, and that a general outbreak might be expected. The Beni ’Adwans and Beni Sukrs having already begun hostilities. He could assign no other reason for this than that the grain would soon be gathered by the fellahin, and the Bedouin were preparing to sweep it off, each tribe from a district remote from its own.
In some respects ’Akil was mysterious; and, at first, I could not comprehend the hints he threw out. His object seemed to be to ascertain whether, under any circumstances, we would aid an association of the tribes in an avowed object. I would not press him for an explanation, but merely told him that, if he had been captured and detained while coming round in our service, we would have felt it our duty to have left every thing else and hasten to his assistance; that I would endeavour to have him remunerated for what he had lost while acting for us; but we could take no part in their petty wars. I half suspected that this barbarian, the most winning and graceful one we had ever seen, generous, brave, and universally loved or feared, contemplated a union of the tribes for the purpose of throwing off the thraldom, here almost nominal, of the Turkish yoke, and establishing a sovereignty for himself.
Exceedingly affable to all, he was more reserved and taciturn than his noisy countrymen, and was often absorbed in thought. Having once reaped profit from rebellion, he might then have been weighing the chances of a bolder speculation. He could not rely much on our party, but might hope that if we were involved our country would sustain us. He little knew how severely, and how justly, too, we should be censured at home if we became voluntarily embroiled either with the tribes or the Turkish government. If he had attempted a rebellion, he would have assuredly failed. The elements were too discordant. The antipathies between the highland Gael and the southron, of the Scottish border, were not more inveterate than the hostile feeling existing between many of the tribes. With some it is the feud of blood, transmitted from generation to generation with increasing rancour. Yet their God is gold, and fifty well-armed, resolute Franks, with a large sum of money, could revolutionize the whole country. The presence of ’Akil was of great service to us; and but for him we should have come in collision with this rude people.
The Christians were as kind and obliging as the Muslims were insolent. In order, as he told me, to secure the good behaviour of the Kerakîyeh, ’Akil brought with him the young prince of the Beni Sukrs, a powerful tribe, of whom even these fierce Arabs stood in awe. The Beni Sukr wore his hair in ringlets, like a girl; but we were told that he behaved gallantly in the fight.
To avoid another encounter with the Beni’Adwans, on his return, ’Akil purposed providing his small party with sufficient flour and water for five or six days’ subsistence, and to strike into the desert, in a direct east course, for a ruined khan, on the Great Hadj, or pilgrim route from Damascus to Mecca. Thence he would proceed north, still keeping east of the Jordan, until he reached the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee.
It being absolutely impossible to ascend the Jordan with the boats, I gave ’Akil a note for Mr. Wiseman, at Tiberias, directing the trucks, &c., we had left in his charge, to be sent to Acre.
Our trip here exhibited the Arab character in a new light. From the first, the manner of Muhammed had been imperious and insolent; and his father, whom he seemed to rule, had neither invited us to his tents nor contributed, in the slightest degree, to our comfort. The reason was because we did not make them a large present. According to the arrangement with ‘Akil, he was to pay for all that we might require; and I held to the course we had heretofore pursued, of making no presents, except for kindness or for services rendered. Muhammed, growling, said that he wanted cloaks, a double-barreled gun, a watch, &c., that other Franks, coming up from Egypt, gave them. Where did we come from, thus out of the sea? For the whole day the room had been crowded; the doorway, sometimes, blocked up. It seemed to be regarded by them in the light of a menagerie.
When, at length, they left us to ourselves, for the first time, in twenty-three days, we lay down beneath a roof, having first enjoyed the unwonted luxury of a draught of sweet milk. Placing a board against the door, that its fall might rouse us at an attempted entrance, we lay down with our arms in our hands, with a feeling of uncertainty as to what the morrow might bring forth; for although ’Akil was there, he had but four followers, one of them wounded; whereas the Kerakîyeh could muster 700 fighting men. Our belief was, that although the Christians might not dare to side with us, yet, so far from acting in combination against, they would give us timely warning. At all hazards, we wished to impress upon these people that we would do nothing which could be construed into the appearance, even, of purchasing forbearance. Were we private travelers, the case would be different; but the time has long past when, even through its meanest representative, our government will consent to pay for forbearance from any quarter.
In the course of a long conversation, to-night, Abd’ Allah gave us a history of the condition and prospects of the Christians of Kerak. He said that there were from 900 to 1000 Christians here, comprising three-fourths of the population. They could muster a little over 200 fighting men; but are kept in subjection by the Muslim Arabs, living mostly in tents, without the town. He stated that they are, in every manner, imposed upon. If a Muslim comes to the town, instead of going to the house of another Muslim, he quarters himself upon a Christian, and appropriates the best of every thing; that Christian families have been two days at a time without food — all that they had being consumed by their self-invited guests. If a Muslim sheikh buys a horse for so many sheep, he makes the Christians contribute until the number be made up. Their property, he said, is seized without there being any one to whom to appeal; and remonstrance, on their part, only makes it worse.
Already a great many have been driven away; poverty alone keeping the remainder. They have commenced building a church, in the hope of keeping all together; and as a safe place of refuge for their wives and children, in times of trouble; but the locusts and the sirocco have for the last seven years blasted the fields, and nearly all spared by them has been swept by the Muslims. They gave me the following appeal to the Christians in our more happy land, which I promised to make known. The following is a literal translation:—
“May it, God willing! reach America, and be presented to our Christian brothers, — whose happiness may the Almighty God preserve! Amen!
- “8642. BEDUAH.
“We are, in Kerak, a few very poor Christians, and are building a church.
“We beg your Excellency to help us in this undertaking, for we are very weak.
“The land has been unproductive, and visited by the locusts, for the last seven years.
“The church is delayed in not being accomplished, for want of funds, for we are a few Christians, surrounded by Muslims.
“This being all that is necessary to write to you, Christian brothers of America, we need say no more.
- “The trustees in your bounty,
- “ABD’ ALLAH EN NAHAS, Sheikh,
- “YÂKÔB EN NAHAS, Sheikh’s brother.
- “The trustees in your bounty,
- “KERAK, Jâmad Awâh, 1264”
WEDNESDAY, MAY 3. It was exceedingly cold last night, the north wind whistling through the casement with a familiar sound of home. We all concurred in the opinion, that for comfort, the sea-beach would have been a preferable couch, the fleas having tormented us through the night. Notwithstanding our disturbed slumbers, however, we did not feel as debilitated as heretofore on rising from sounder sleep. The exercise of riding and the variety of scenery through which we yesterday passed, were of service, and the air was much cooler and more invigorating than below.
We rose early, and breakfasted on eggs and rice. Shortly after, Muhammed came in, very surly; I refused to converse with him, but referred him to ’Akil, whom I had commissioned to procure the horses and make the necessary purchases for us. We would have liked to remain another day for the benefit of the mountain air and to make some examination of the neighbourhood; but we were unanimously of opinion that it would be unsafe, the prospect of difficulty with this insolent people increasing with the lapse of every hour. While we made preparations for our departure in the room above, the Arabs were in consultation beneath the window, Muhammed and several of his tribe gesticulating violently. But ’Akil and the Beni Sukr prince were there, and we knew that they would stand by us. After much difficulty, our horses were procured. As we were about starting, Muhammed again demanded a backshish, which was refused. He then said that he would not go down with us, and sneeringly asked what we should do if we found one hundred men in our path. We replied that we would take care of ourselves. I longed to seize him and carry him with us by force as a hostage, but he was surrounded by too many armed and scowling Arabs.
We started at 6:30 A.M., in battle array, our carbines unslung, and everything ready for immediate use. The Christian sheikh, the kind old man, although he made enemies by doing so, accompanied us, and three or four footmen journeyed along, without absolutely mingling with us. Muhammed, almost furious, remained behind.
I had noted well the ground the day before, and knew that there was no place above the plain where an attack could be advantageously made, My greatest fear, concurred in by the Christian sheikh, was that any one lagging behind would be cut off. Giving to Lieut. Dale, therefore, who ably seconded me, the charge of the front, I kept with the rear. We had scarce left the town a mile, before Muhammed, black and surly, with some horsemen, overtook us. I was never more delighted in my life, for we had now the game in our own hands. Instantly detaching an officer and one of our most trusty men, I directed them to keep by him without regard to his companions, and shoot him at the first sign of flight or treachery.
It was some time before Muhammed realized that he was a prisoner; but observing that whether he rode ahead or tarried behind, he had ever the same companions, and that if he stopped, the march was arrested, and the whole party stopped also, the truth flashed upon him; and from being insolent and overbearing, he became first respectful and then submissive.
The march was delayed at one time by an unmanageable mule. He would not permit the sailor, who had slipped off, to remount, until the latter assumed the koofeyeh and aba of a friendly Arab. We saw a great many black and white storks, in companies, and some black centipedes and grasshoppers.
At 10:15, came in sight of the sea, its surface covered by a thin mist, the garment in which it is ever wreathed during the heat of the day. The weather became warmer and warmer as we descended, — the torrent bed of the ravine (Wady Kerak) perfectly dry. As we approached the plain, I placed myself beside Muhammed to watch him more narrowly. By this time, all but two or three of his followers had ridden ahead and left us. When he first joined us he had demanded a watch, then a double-barreled gun, and a number of articles in succession; but when he saw that we held him as a hostage for the good behaviour of his tribe, he changed his tone. About an hour before reaching the shore, we stopped fifteen minutes to breathe the horses. When we were about to remount, he had become so much humbled, that perceiving my saddle-girth loose, he hastened forward and drew it tight for me. In the morning he would have cut my throat rather than have performed a menial office.
At 1:30, issuing from the thicket upon the beach, we were gladdened with the sight of our boats, lying as secure as we had left them. We launched them and made preparations for immediate departure. There was nothing longer to detain us, and we surmised that, perhaps the Arab horsemen who left us had gone to join others concealed in the plain. At the instance of Abd’ Allah, the Christian sheikh, I wrote to ’Akil by Friday, requesting him to protect the Christian Arabs against the Kerakîyeh; and in order to enlist the Beni Sukr prince in the same cause, I sent him a richly ornamented aba.
Burckhardt, and Irby and Mangles, were kindly received in Kerak; but the first spoke the language, and came disguised as an Arab, and the two last had a letter of introduction to the Muslim Sheikh of Kerak, given to them by the Sheikh of Hebron, without which, they intimated that their reception would have been a cold one. They had to pay down four hundred piastres (equal to 1600 now), and on the second day of their journey, while yet under the protection of the Sheikh of Kerak, one hundred and fifty (equal to 600 piastres) more were exacted from Burckhardt, who had assumed the garb of a poor man, all was extorted that it was thought he could afford to pay. Seetzen was robbed by some of the tribe before he entered Kerak.
Everything being prepared, I had taken leave of Abd ’Allah, after making him a present, and was about stepping into the boat without saying anything to Muhhammed, when he sprang forward, and, taking my hand, begged for some gun-caps. But I refused; for had they been given, perhaps the first use made of them would have been against a Christian. Getting into the boat, therefore, we shoved off, and left him standing upon the shore. Thus far, these were the only Arabs from whom we had experienced rudeness.