Narrative Of The United States Expedition To The River Jordan And The Dead Sea/19

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CHAPTER XIX


FROM THE DEAD SEA TO THE CONVENT OF MAR SABA



WEDNESDAY, MAY 10. A clear, warm, but pleasant morning. Soon after daylight, sent Mr. Aulick and Mr. Bedlow to Jerusalem with the chronometers, to make observations for ascertaining their rate. At 7 A.M., the leveling party started. Made preparations for finally breaking up the camp on the Dead Sea.

At 9:30, struck tents, and at 10, started, and ascended the pass of Ain Turabeh. With us were Sherîf , Ibrahim Aga, and the sheikhs of the Raschayideh and Ta’amirah, and six camels. Winding slowly up the steep pass, we looked back at every turn upon our last place of encampment, and upon the silent sea. We are ever sad on parting with things for the last time. The feeling that we are never to see them again, makes us painfully sensible of our own mortality.

At 12, overtook the leveling party, and shortly after the camels with the sections of the boats. At 1:15 P.M., camped in Wady Khiyam Seya’rah (Ravine of the Tents of Seya’rah), so called from a tribe of that name having been surprised and murdered here. It is a rocky glen, over a steep precipice, a thousand feet above the Dead Sea. There are two large caves on the north side of the ravine, in which we prepared to take up our quarters, but the Arabs dissuaded us with the assurance that they abound with serpents and scorpions, which crawl out in the night.


HISTORY OF SHERÎF


Our camp was, properly speaking, in a depression of the extremity of the ridge between the ravines Ghuweir and En Nar. At night, we invited Sherîf to our tent, and prevailed on him to tell his history. His father was Sherîf, or hereditary governor of Mecca, to which dignity, at his death, the eldest brother of our friend succeeded. When Mecca surrendered to Mehemet Ali, his brother was deposed; and a cousin, inimical to them, was appointed in his stead. The deposed Sherîf fled to Constantinople; our friend was carried captive to Cairo, where he was detained ten years a prisoner, but provided with a house, and an allowance of 3000 piastres (126 dollars) per month for his support. When Arabia was overrun by the Wahabees, Mehemet Ali, wisely counting on sectarian animosity, gave our Sherîf a command, and sent him to the war. His person bears many marks of wounds he received in various actions. When Mehemet Ali was compelled by the quintuple alliance to abandon his conquests, our Sherîf went to Egypt to claim his pay, and reimbursements for advances he had made. Put off with vague promises, he proceeded to Stambohl (Constantinople) to sue for redress, and having laid his application before the divan, was now awaiting the decision. His account of himself is sustained by the information we received from our Vice-Consul and Mr. Fingie, H.B.M. Vice-Consul at Acre, respecting him. He is intelligent and much reverenced, and, in consequence, very influential among the tribes. To him and to ’Akil, coupled with our own vigilance, we may in a great measure ascribe our not having encountered difficulty with the Arabs. He was to leave us the next day, and would carry with him our respect and fervent good wishes. We often remarked among ourselves, what should we have done without Sherîf and ’Akil; we have not the slightest doubt that their presence prevented bloodshed.


HOLY SCENES


A monk from the Convent of Mar Saba came in this evening, and brought word that our sick sailors were doing well. There seemed to be a good understanding between these religious and the various tribes; at night, an Arab shared his aba with the monk, and the shaven-crown of the Christian and the scalp-lock of the Muslim were covered by the same garment.

In a few hours we had materially changed our climate, and in this elevated region the air was quite cool. We slept delightfully, drawing our cloaks yet closer as the night advanced. At 4 A.M., thermometer 60°; absolutely cold.

We were in a most dreary country; calcined hills and barren valleys, furrowed by torrent beds, all without a tree or shrub; or sign of vegetation. The stillness of death reigned on one side; the sea of death, calm and curtained in mist, lay upon the other; and yet this is the most interesting country in the world. This is the wilderness of Judea; near this, God conversed with Abraham; and here, came John the Baptist, preaching the glad tidings of salvation. These verdureless hills and arid valleys have echoed the words of the Great Precursor; and at the head of the next ravine lies Bethlehem, the birth-place of the meek Redeemer, — in full sight of the Holy City, the theatre of the most wondrous events recorded on the page of history, — where that self-sacrifice was offered, which became thenceforth the seal of a perpetual covenant between God and man!


LOWER TEMPERATURE


THURSDAY, MAY 11. There is, perhaps, no greater trial to the constitution than sudden changes of atmospheric temperature; in other words, of climate. We were so enfeebled by the heat we had experienced in the chasm beneath us, that, at the temperature of 60°, the air here felt piercingly cold. We had shivered through the night; and so busy had been the sentinels in searching for dried thistles and shrubs, to feed the watch-fires, that, perhaps, in all our wanderings, the guard had never been so remiss.

We began, early, to prepare for work, and sent off three camel-loads of specimens, &c., to Jerusalem. Settled and parted with the good Sherîf .

Breakfasted in the rocky glen, with our backs towards the barren hills of the Desert of Judea; while the rays of the sun, rising over the mountains of Moab, were reflected from the glassy surface of the desolate sea before us.

We levelled, to-day, over parched valleys, and sterile ridges, to the flattened summit of an elevation, at the base of which three ravines meet, called the “Meeting of the Tribes,” — the Dead Sea concealed by an intervening ridge. We were fully 2,000 feet above it, and the wind was fierce and cutting. Strolling from the camp, soon after we had pitched the tents, I felt so cold as to be compelled to return to my tent. The thermometer, at the opening, stood at 69°; but 7° below summer-heat. This place derives its name from a gathering of the tribes, or, council, once held here. We saw, to-day, a light-brown fox, with a white tail.

FRIDAY, MAY 12. The morning and the evening cool; the mid-day warm. Levelled into and up the Wady en Nar (Ravine of Fire) to the Greek Convent of Mar Saba. The ravine was shut in, on each side, by high, barren cliffs of chalky limestone, which, while they excluded the air, threw their reverberated heat upon us, and made the day’s work an uncomfortable one. There was an association connected with the scene, however, which sustained us under the blinding light and oppressive heat of noon. The dry torrent-bed, interrupted by boulders, and covered with fragments of stone, is the channel of the brook Kidron, which, in its season, flows by the walls of Holy City.


CONVENT OF MAR SABA


The approach to the convent is striking, from the lofty, perpendicular cliffs on each side, perforated with a great many natural and artificial excavations. Immense labour, sustained by a fervent though mistaken zeal, must have been expended here.

A perpendicular cliff, of about 400 feet, has its face covered with walls, terraces, chapels, and churches, constructed of solid masonry, all now in perfect repair. The walls of this convent, with a semicircular-concave sweep, run along the western bank of the ravine, from the bottom to the summit. The buildings form detached parts, constructed at different periods.

At 3:30 P.M., coming up from the ravine, we descended an inclined wady, and camped outside of the western gate of the convent, under a broad ledge of rock, forming the head of a lateral ravine, running into the main one. A narrow platform was before us, with a sheer descent from its edge to the bottom of the small ravine, which bore a few scattering fig-trees. We were earnestly invited to take up our quarters inside; but, dreading the fleas, we preferred the open air. There was a lofty look-out tower on the hill above us, to the south.

At the foot of a slight descent, about pistol-shot distance, was a low door, through which we were admitted to visit the convent. By the meagre monk who let us in, we were conducted through a long passage, and down two flights of stairs, into a court paved with flags; on the right centre of which stood a small, round chapel, containing the tomb of St. Saba. On the opposite side was the church, gorgeously gilded and adorned with panel and fresco paintings; the former enshrined in silver, and some of them good; the latter, mere daubs. The pavement was smooth, variegated marble; there were two clocks, near the altar; and two large, rich, golden chandeliers, and many ostrich-eggs, suspended from the ceiling.


INTERIOR OF THE CONVENT

From the court we were led along a terraced walk, parallel with the ravine, with some pomegranate-trees and a small garden-patch on each side; and, ascending a few steps, turned shortly to the left, and were ushered into the parlour, immediately over the chasm. The adjoining room was occupied by our two sick men, of whom admirable care had been taken, and we rejoiced to find that they were convalescent. The parlour was about sixteen by twenty-four feet, almost entirely carpeted, with a slightly-elevated divan on two sides. The stinted pomegranate-trees and the few peppers growing in the mimic garden were refreshing to the eye; and, after a lapse of twenty-two days, we enjoyed the luxury of sitting upon chairs.

From the flat, terrace roofs, are stairways of cut stone, leading to excavations in the rock, which are the habitations of the monks. We visited one of them, high up the impending cliff. It consisted of two cells, the inner one mostly the work of the present tenant. They were then dry and comfortable, but in the rainy season must be exceedingly damp and unwholesome.

Within the convent, we were told that there are seventy wells, and numerous cisterns, with abundance of rainwater. There are many flights of stairs, corridors, and cells; among the last, that of John of Damascus. A lofty tower shoots, shaft-like, from the northern angle, and a lone palm-tree rears its graceful form beside it. Near the chapel of St. Saba, is a singular cemetery, containing a great many skulls, piled against the walls, — a sad memorial of an act of cruelty on the part of the Turks and the Persians; — Chosroes, king of Persia, having, in the sixth century, put to death a number of monks, whose skulls are collected here. The room is excavated in the rock, and may have the preservative qualities such a legend would infer. In times of scarcity, the Arabs throng here for food, which is given to them gratuitously; and to this, doubtless, is attributable the popularity of the inmates of the convent with the wandering tribes. The monks live solely upon a vegetable diet. There are about thirty in the convent, including lay-brothers, and, except a few from Russia, they are all Greeks. They are good-natured, illiterate, and credulous. The archbishop, from Jerusalem, looked like a being of a superior order among them, and, in his pontifical attire, presented an imposing appearance.


EGRESS FROM THE CONVENT


The interior of the convent is far more extensive than one would suppose, looking upon it from the western side, whence only the tower, the top of the church, and a part of the walls, are visible.

There is egress from the convent to the ravine by means of a ladder, which, at will, is let down from a low, arched door. The sight, from the bottom of the ravine, is one well calculated to inspire awe. The chasm is here about 600 feet wide and 400 deep, — a broad, deep gorge, or fissure, between lofty mountains, the steep and barren sides of which are furrowed by the winter rains. There are many excavations in the face of the cliffs, on both sides of the ravine, below the convent. One of them has evidently been a chapel, and on its walls are carved the names of many pilgrims, mostly Greeks, from 1665 to 1674, and, after the lapse of upwards of a century, from 1804 to 1843.

A little above the convent, on the west side, halfway up, on the abrupt face of the precipice, are the ruins of a building, a chapel or a fortress. One story is standing, with a tower, pierced with loop-holes. The numerous excavations present a most singular appearance; and, looking upon them, one expects every moment to see the inmates come forth. It is a city of caverns.


BOTANICAL SPECIMENS


We walked some distance up the bed of the Kidron, and encountered several precipices from ten to twelve feet high, down which cataracts plunge in winter. It will be difficult, but not impracticable, to level this torrent bed. Collected some fossils, and a few flowers, for preservation. Even at this early season, the scanty vegetation, scattered here and there in the ravines of the desert of Judea, was already parched and withered. There were but few flowers within this ravine; the scarlet anemone and the purple blossom of the thistle being the prevailing ones. We gathered one, however, which was star-shaped; the leaves white near the stem, but blue above, and the seed-stalks yellow, with white heads. A few leaves nearest the flower were green, but the rest, with the stalk, were parched and dry. It was inodorous, and, like beauty without virtue, fair and attractive to the eye, but-crumbling from rottenness in the hands of him who admiringly plucks it. In this ravine, from the Dead Sea to the borders of cultivation, we have, besides, gathered for our herbarium, the blue weed, so well known in Maryland and Virginia for its destructive qualities; the white henbane; the dyer’s weed, used in Europe for dyeing green and yellow; the dwarf mallow, commonly called creases, and the caper plant, the unopened flower-buds of which, preserved in vinegar, are so much used as a condiment.

Robert Eglesfield Griffith, M.D., of Philadelphia, with whom our botanical collection has been placed for classification, cites an opinion, supported by strong argument, that the last-named plant is the hyssop of Scripture.

During the night, we had a severe thunder-storm, with a slight shower of rain. One of the camels, in its fright, fell into the ravine before the caverns where we slept, and kept us long awake with its discordant cries. The animal was unhurt; but the Arabs tortured it, by their fruitless endeavours to extricate it in the dark. They were alike deaf to advice, entreaties, and commands, until one of the sentries was ordered to charge upon them, when they hurriedly dispersed, and the poor camel and ourselves were left in quietude.


A ROCK--HEWN CISTERN


SATURDAY, MAY 13. Calm and cloudy. 6 A.M., thermometer 68°. It had been 53° during the night, and 79° at 11 A.M. the preceding day. Deferred levelingany farther, until we had reconnoitred the two routes to Jerusalem. The one up the ravine, although presenting great difficulties, proved more practicable than the route we had come. Let all hands rest until Monday. Extricated the camel from the ravine.

SUNDAY, MAY 14. A quiet day-wind east; weather pleasant. Collected some fossils, and a few flowers, for preservation. At meridian, temperature 76°; at midnight, 58°. While here, several of the bteddin, or coney of Scripture, were seen among the rocks.