Narrative Of The United States Expedition To The River Jordan And The Dead Sea/8

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Bright was the day, gay our spirits, verdant the hills, and unruffled the lake, when, pushing off from the shelving beach, we bade adieu to the last outwork of border civilization, and steered direct for the outlet of the Jordan. The Fanny Mason led the way, followed closely by the Fanny Skinner; and the Arab boatmen of the Uncle Sam worked vigorously at the oars to keep their place in the line. With awnings spread and colours flying, we passed comfortably and rapidly onwards.

Our Bedouin friends had many of them exchanged their lances for more serviceable weapons, long-barrelled guns and heavily mounted pistols.’Akil alone wore a scimetar. The priestly character of the Sherîf forbade him to carry arms. With the addition of Emir and his followers, they amounted in all to thirty horsemen. Passing along the shore in single file, their line was long and imposing. Eleven camels stalked solemnly ahead, followed by the wild Bedouin on their blooded animals, with their abas flying in the wind, and their long gun-barrels glittering in the sun; and Lieutenant Dale and his officers in the Frank costume brought up the rear. Gallantly marched the cavalcade on the land, beautiful must have appeared the boats upon the water. Little did we know what difficulties we might have to encounter! But, placing our trust on high, we hoped and feared not.


We started at 2 P.M., the temperature of the air 82°, of the water 70°. For the first hour we steered S.E., then S.E. by S., and E.S.E., when, at 3:40, we arrived at the outlet. The same feeling prevented us from cheering as when we launched the boats, although before us was the stream which, God willing, would lead us to our wondrous destination.

The lake narrowed as we approached its southern extremity. In its south-west angle are the ruins of ancient Tarrichaea; opposite, on the eastern shore, a lovely plain sweeps down to the lake, and on the centre of the waterline a ravine (wady) comes down. Due west from it, across the foot of the lake, the Jordan debouches shortly to the right. The right or western shore descends in a slope towards the lake; the left is somewhat more depressed, and much washed with rains.

The scenery, as we left the lake and advanced into the Ghor, which is about three-quarters of a mile in breadth, assumed rather a tame than a savage character. The rough and barren mountains, skirting the valley on each hand, stretched far away in the distance, like walls to some gigantic fosse; their southern extremities half hidden or entirely lost in a faint purple mist.

At 3:45, we swept out of the lake; course, W. by N. The village of Semakh on a hill to the south, and Mount Hermon brought into view, bearing N.E. by N.; the snow deep upon its crest, and white parasitic clouds clinging to its sides. On the extreme low point to the right are the ruins, called by the Arabs, Es Sumra, only a stone foundation standing. A number of wild ducks were upon the water, and birds were flitting about on shore. 3:55, our cavalcade again appeared in sight, winding along the shore. The Bedouin looked finely in their dark and white and crimson costumes.


At 4:30, course W.S.W. abruptly round a ledge of small rocks; current, two knots. Our course varied with the frequent turns of the river, from N.W. by W. at 4:35, to S. at 4:38. The average breadth about seventyfive feet; the banks rounded and about thirty feet high, luxuriantly clothed with grass and flowers. The scarlet anemone, the yellow marigold, and occasionally a water-lily, and here and there a straggling asphodel, close to the water’s edge, but not a tree nor a shrub.

At 4:43, we passed an inlet, or bay, wider than the river, called El Mûh, which extended north a quarter of a mile. We lost sight of the lake in five minutes after leaving it. At 4:45, heard a shot from the shore, and soon after saw one of our scouts. 4:46, passed a low island, ninety yards long, tufted with shrubbery; left bank abrupt, twenty-five feet high; a low, marshy island, off a point on the right, which runs out from the plain at the foot of the mountains. Water clear and ten feet deep. 4:55, saw the shore party dismounted on the right bank. Mount Hermon glittering to the north, over the level tract which sweeps between the mountain, the lake, and the river. When the current was strong, we only used the oars to keep in the channel, and floated gently down the stream, frightening, in our descent, a number of wild fowl feeding in the marsh grass and on the reedy islands. At 4:56, current increasing, swept round a bend of the shore, and heard the hoarse sound of a rapid. 4:57, came in sight of the partly whole and partly crumbled abutments of “Jisr Semakh,” the bridge of Semakh.

picturesque ruins of the bridge of Semakh.

The ruins are extremely picturesque; the abutments standing in various stages of decay, and the fallen fragments obstructing the course of the river; save at one point, towards the left bank, where the pent-up water finds an issue, and runs in a sluice among the scattering masses of stone.


From the disheartening account we had received of the river, I had come to the conclusion that it might be necessary to sacrifice one of the boats to preserve the rest. I therefore decided to take the lead in the Fanny Mason; for, being made of copper, quite serious damages to her could be more easily repaired; and if dashed to pieces, her fragments would serve to warn the others from the danger. After reconnoitering the rapid, at 5:05, we shot down the sluice. The following note was made on shore:

“We halted at the ruins of an old bridge, now forming obstructions, over which the foaming river rushed like a mountain torrent. The river was about thirty yards wide. Soon after we halted, the boats hove in sight around a bend of the river. The "Fanny Mason" attempts to shoot between two old piers! She strikes upon a rock! She broaches to! She is in imminent danger! Down comes the "Uncle Sam" upon her! Now they are free! The "Fanny Skinner" follows safely, and all are moored in the cave below!”

As we came through the rapids, ’Akil stood upon the summit of one of the abutments, in his green cloak, red tarbouch and boots, and flowing white trousers, pointing out the channel with a spear. Over his head and around him, a number of storks were flying disorderly.

What threatened to be its greatest danger, proved the preservation of the leading boat. We had swept upon a rock in mid-channel, when the Arab crew of the Uncle Sam unskilfully brought her within the influence of the current. She was immediately borne down upon us with great velocity; but striking us at a favourable angle, we slid off the ledge of rock, and floated down together. The Fanny Skinner, drawing less water, barely touched in passing.


The boats were securely moored for the night in a little cave on the right bank, and were almost hidden among the tall grass and weeds which break the force of the eddy current.

From a boat drawing only eight inches water striking in mid-channel at this time of flood, I was inclined to think that the river must be very shallow in the summer months, particularly if much snow has not fallen among the mountains during the preceding winter. We found the tents pitched on a small knoll, commanding a fine view of the river and the bridge. Over the ruins of the latter were yet hovering a multitude of storks, frightened from their reedy nests, on the tops of the ruined abutments, by the strange sights and sounds. There were two entire and six partial abutments, and the ruins of another, on each shore. The snowy crest of Mount Hermon bore N.E. 1/2 N. The village of Semakh, lying in an E.N.E. direction, was concealed by an intervening ridge.

Our course, since leaving the lake, has varied from south to N.W. by N., — the general inclination has been west; river, twenty-five to thirty yards wide; current, two and a half knots; water clear and sweet. We passed two islands, one of them very small.

We were upon the edge of the Ghor. A little to the north, the Ardh el Hamma (the land of the bath) swept down from the left. The lake was concealed, although, in a direct line, quite near; and a lofty ridge overlooked us from the west. The soil here is a dark rich loam, luxuriantly clothed three feet deep with flowers, — the purple bloom of the thistle predominates, and the yellow of the marigold and pink oleander are occasionally relieved by the scarlet anemone. The rocks nowhere crop-out, but large boulders of sandstone and trap are scattered over the surface. Some flowers were gathered here, which equal any I have ever seen in delicacy of form and tint. Among them, besides those I have named, were the Adonis or Pheasant’s eye; the Briony, formerly used in medicine; the Scabiosa Stellata, in great luxuriance, and which is cultivated at home; and two kinds of clover, — one with a thorny head, which we have never seen before, and the other small but beautiful, with purple flowers.


From the eminence above, our encampment beside the rapids looked charming. There were two American, one Arab, and one Egyptian (Dr. Anderson’s) tents, of different colours, — white and green, and blue and crimson. In the soft and mellow light of the moon, the scene was beautiful.

On this side is the land of Zebulon; that of the tribe of Gad lies upon the other.

The sheikh of Semakh holds a tract of land on a singular tenure. The condition is that he shall entertain all travelers who may call, with a supper, and barley for their horses. Our Bedouin determined to avail themselves of the privilege. Nothing could be more picturesque than their appearance as they forded the stream in single file, and galloped over the hill to Semakh. And what a supper they will have! A whole sheep, and buckets of rice! Usually, when the sheikh is not wealthy, the tents of the tribe take it in turn to entertain strangers.

Our friends returned late at night, splashing the water, shouting, and making such a clatter that we sprang to our arms expecting an attack. Repeatedly afterwards during the night we were disturbed by Dr. Anderson’s horse, which, since the moment he joined us at Turan, had kept the camp in constant alarm, getting loose at night and rushing franticly over the tent-cords, attacking some slumbering Arab steed, his bitter enemy.


TUESDAY, APRIL 11. Very early this morning culled for our collection two varieties of flowers we had not before seen. At 6 A.M., called all hands, and prepared for starting. To avoid stopping in the middle of the day, we were necessarily delayed for breakfast in the morning.

8:10 A.M., started, the boats down the river, the caravan by land. The current at first about 2 1/2knots, but increasing as we descended, until at 8:20 we came to where the river, for more than three hundred yards, was one foaming rapid; the fishing-weirs and the ruins of another ancient bridge obstructing the passage. There were cultivated fields on both sides. Took everything out of the boats, sent the men overboard to swim alongside and guide them, and shot them successively down the first rapid. The water was fortunately very deep to the first fall, where it precipitated itself over a ledge of rocks. The river becoming :more shallow, we opened a channel by removing large stones, and as the current was now excessively rapid, we pulled well out into the stream, bows up, let go a grapnel and eased each boat down in succession. Below us were yet five successive falls, about eighteen feet in all, with rapids between, — a perfect breakdown in the bed of the river. It was very evident that the boats could not descend them.

On the right of the river, opposite to the point where the weirs and the ruined bridge blocked up the bed of the stream, was a canal or sluice, evidently made for the purpose of feeding a mill, the ruins of which were visible a short distance below. This canal, at its outlet from the river, was sufficiently broad and deep to admit of the boats entering and proceeding for a short distance, when it became too narrow to allow their further progress.

Bringing the boats thus far, we again took everything out of them, and cleared away the stones, bushes and other obstructions between the mill sluice and the river. A breach was then made in the bank of the sluice, and as the water rushed down the shallow artificial channel, with infinite labour, our men, cheerfully assisted by a number of Arabs, bore them down the rocky slope and launched them in the bed of the river, — but not below all danger, for a sudden descent of six or seven feet was yet to be cleared, and some eighty yards of swift and shallow current to be passed before reaching an unobstructed channel.


1 P.M. We accomplished this difficult passage, after severe labour, up to our waists in the water for upwards of four hours. Hauled to the right bank to rest and wait for our arms, instruments, &c. We were surrounded by many strange Arabs, and had stationed one of our men by the blunderbuss on the bows of the Uncle Sam, and one each by the other boats, while the remainder proceeded to bring down the arms.

We lay just above an abrupt bend from S. to N.E. by E. The left bank, in the bend, is sixty feet high, and precipitous, of a chocolate and cream-coloured earth. The river continues to descend, lessened in rapidity, but still about five knots per hour. It breaks entirely across, just below. There were thick clusters of white and pink oleander in bloom along the banks, and some lily-plants which had passed their season and were fading away. Here we killed an animal having the form of a lobster, the head of a mouse, and the tail of a dog: the Arabs call it kelb el maya, or water-dog.

1:20 P.M., started again. 1:46, descended a cascade at an angle of 30°, at the rate of twelve knots, passing, immediately after, down a shoal rapid, where we struck, and hung, for a few moments, upon a rock. Stopped for the other boats, which were behind. The course of the river had been very circuitous, as reference to the chart will show.


At 2:06, saw some of our caravan on a hill, in the distance. Wet and weary, I walked along the difficult shore to look for the other boats, when, seeing a cluster of Bedouin spears on the bank above, I went up to see to whom they belonged. It was a party of nine strange Arabs, who were seated upon the grass, their horses tethered near them. They examined my watch-guard and uniform buttons very closely; and eagerly looked over my shoulder, uttering many exclamations, when I wrote in my note-book. They repeatedly asked for something which I could not understand, and as they began to be importunate, I left them. Shortly after, while walking further up, I came upon their low, black, camel’s hair tent, almost concealed by a thicket of rank shrubbery.

At 2:40, came to two mills, the buildings entire, but the wheels and machinery gone, with a sluice which had formerly supplied them with water. As in the morning, we turned the water from the upper part of the sluice into the river, carried the boats along, and dragged them safely round these second series of rapids.

The soil is fertile, but the country about here is wholly uncultivated. The surface of the plain is about fifteen feet above the river, thence gradually ascending a short distance to a low range of hills; beyond which, on each side, the prospect is closed in by mountains.

At 4:45, stopped to rest, after descending the eleventh rapid we had encountered. The velocity of the current was so great that one of the seamen, who lost his hold (being obliged to cling on outside), was nearly swept over the fall, and, with very great difficulty, gained the shore. The mountains on the east coast of Lake Tiberias were visible over the left bank. The summit of Mount Hermon (the snowy summit could alone be seen) bore N.E. by N.

At 5 P.M., passed a ravine (wady) on the left, in a bend between high, precipitous banks of earth. We here saw canes for the first time, growing thickly. On the right are lofty, perpendicular banks of earth and clay. The river winding with many turns, we opened, at 5:04, an extensive uncultivated plain on the right; a small, transverse; cultivated valley, between high banks, on the left; the wheat beginning to head. The river fifty-five yards wide and two and a half feet deep. Current, four knots; the water becoming muddy. We saw a partridge, an owl, a large hawk, some herons (hedda), and many storks, and caught a trout.


At 5:10, rounded a high, bold bluff, the river becoming wider and deeper, with gravelly bottom. A solitary carob tree, resembling a large apple tree, on the right. At 5:40, the river about sixty yards wide, and current three knots, passed the village of ‘Abeidiyeh, a large collection of mud huts, on a commanding eminence on the right; — the people, men, women, and children, with discordant cries, hurrying down the hill towards the river when they saw us. It was too late to stop, for night was approaching, and we had seen nothing of the caravan since we parted with them, at the ruined bridge, this forenoon.

If the inhabitants intended to molest us, we swept by with too much rapidity for them to carry their designs into execution. 5:44, passed a small stream coming in on the right. 5:46, another small stream, same side, 150 yards below the first; some swallows and snipes flying about. 5:48, passed a bank of fullers’ earth, twenty feet high, on the left; a beautiful bank on the right, clothed with luxuriant verdure; the rank grass here and there separated by patches of wild oats.

The mountain ranges forming the edges of the upper valley, as seen from time to time through gaps in the foliage of the river banks, were of a light brown colour, surmounted with white.


The water now became clearer, — was eight feet deep; hard bottom; small trees in thickets under the banks, and advancing into the water-principally Turfa (tamarisk), the willow (Sifsaf), and tangled vines beneath.

We frequently saw fish in the transparent water; while ducks, storks, and a multitude of other birds, rose from the reeds and osiers, or plunged into the thickets of oleander and tamarisk which fringe the banks, — beyond them are frequent groves of the wild pistachio.

Half a mile below ‘Abeidiyeh the river became deeper, with a gentle descent, — current, three and a half knots. 6:15, passed a small island covered with grass: started up a flock of ducks and some storks; a small bay on the left, a path leading down to it from over the hills; canes and coarse tufted grass on the shores. 6:19, another inlet on the left; 6:21, one on the right. The left shore quite marshy, — high land back; the water again became clear, and of a light green colour, as when it left the lake; many birds flying about, particularly swallows.

At 8 P.M., reached the head of the falls and whirlpool of Buk’ah; and finding it too dark to proceed, hauled the boats to the right bank, and clambered up the steep hill to search for the camp. About one-third up, encountered a deep dyke, cut in the flank of the hill, which had evidently been used for purposes of irrigation. After following it for some distance, succeeded in fording it, and going to the top of the hill, had to climb in the dark, through briars and over stone walls, the ruins of the village of Delhemiyeh. A short distance beyond, met a Bedouin with a horse, who had been sent to look for us. Learned from him that the camp was half a mile below the whirlpool, and abreast of the lower rapids. Sent word to Mr. Aulick to secure the boats, and bring the men up as soon as they were relieved, and hastened on myself to procure the necessary guards, for our men were excessively fatigued, having been in the water without food since breakfast. A few moments after, I met ’Akil, also looking for us. At my request, he sent some of his men to relieve ours, in charge of the boats.


The village of Delhemiyeh, as well as that of Buk’ah opposite, were destroyed, it is said, by the Bedouin, the wandering Arabs. Many of the villages on and near the river are inhabited by Egyptians, placed there by Ibrahim Pasha, to repress the incursions of the Bedouin — somewhat on our plan of the military occupation of Florida. Now that the strong arm of the Egyptian “bull-dog,” as Stephens aptly terms him, is withdrawn, the fate of these villages is not surprising. The Bedouin in their incursions rob the fellahin of their produce and their crops. Miserable and unarmed, the latter abandon their villages and seek a more secure position, or trust to chance to supply themselves with food (for of raiment they seem to have no need,) until the summer brings the harvest and the robber. Once abandoned, their huts fall into as much ruin as they are susceptible of, which is nothing more than the washing away of the roofs by the winter rains.

Although I knew it to be important to note everything we passed, and every aspect of the country, yet such was the acute responsibility I felt for the lives placed in my charge, that nearly all my faculties were absorbed in the management of the boats-hence the meagreness of these observations. As some amends, I quote from the notes of the land party.

“Our route lay through an extensive plain, luxuriant in vegetation, and presenting to view in uncultivated spots, a richness of alluvial soil, the produce of which, with proper agriculture, might nourish a vast population. On our route as we advanced, and within half an hour (distance is measured by time in this country) from the last halting-place, were four or five black tents, belonging to those tribes of Arabs called fellahin, or agriculturists, as distinguished from the wandering warrior Arab, who considers such labour as ignoble and unmanly.


“Enclosing these huts was a low fence of brush, which served to confine the gambols of eight or ten young naked barbarians, who, together with a few sheep and a calf, were enjoying a romp in the sunshine, disregarding the heat. We declined the invitation to alight, but accepted a bowl of camel’s milk, which proved extremely refreshing.

“A miserable collection of mud huts upon a most commanding site, called ‘Abeidiyeh, attracted our attention as we passed it. The wild and savage looking inhabitants rushed from their hovels and clambered up their dirt heaps to see the gallant sight — the swarthy Bedouin, the pale Franks, and the laden camels. Still further on, we passed the ruins of two Arab villages, one on each side of the Jordan, and upon elevations of corresponding height, ‘Delhemiyeh’ and ‘Bak’ah.’

“Below these villages, and close upon the Jordan’s bank, where the river in places foamed over its rocky bed with the fury of a cataract, we pitched the camp. Here we were to await the arrival of the boats. At 2:30 we encamped, and at 5 they had not yet arrived. The sun set and night closed upon us, and yet no signs of them. We became uneasy, and were about mounting to go in search of them, when the captain made his appearance.”

About 9 P.M., Emir Nasser, with his suite, came to the tent. After the customary cup of coffee he said that he would go with us to Bahr Lut (Dead Sea), or wherever else I wished, from pure affection, but that his followers would expect to be paid, and requested to know how many I required; how far they were to go, and what remuneration to receive. I replied that I was then too weary to discuss the matter, but would tell him in the morning, and he retired. Either from exposure, or fatigue, or the effect of the water, one of the seamen was attacked with dysentery. I anxiously hoped that he would be better in the morning, for each one was now worth a host.


Our encampment was a romantic one. Above was the whirlpool; abreast, and winding below, glancing in the moonlight, was the silvery sheen of the river; and high up, on each side, were the ruined villages, whence the peaceful fellahin had been driven by the predatory robber. The whooping of the owl above, the song of the bulbul below, were drowned in the onward rush and deafening roar of the tumultuous waters.

We were now approaching the part of our route considered the most perilous, from the warlike character of the nomadic tribes it was probable we should encounter. It therefore behoved us to be vigilant; — and notwithstanding the land party had been nearly all day on horseback, and the boats’ crews for a longer period in the water, the watches could not be dispensed with; and one officer and two men, for two hours at a time, kept guard around the camp, with the blunderbuss mounted for immediate use in front.

Everyone lay down with his cartridge-belt on, and his arms beside him. It was the dearest wish of my heart to carry through this enterprise without bloodshed, or the loss of life; but we had to be prepared for the worst.

Average width of river to-day, forty yards; depth from two and a half to six feet; descended nine rapids, three of them terrific ones. General course, E.S.E.; passed one island.


It was a bright moonlight night; the dew fell heavily, and the air was chilly. But neither the beauty of the night, the wild scene around, the bold hills, between which the river rushed and foamed, a cataract, nor moon-light upon the ruined villages, nor tents pitched upon the shore, watch-fires blazing, and the Arab bard singing sadly to the sound of his rebabeh, could, with all the spirit of romance, keep us long awake. The rebabeh is shaped like a miniature spade, with a short handle; the lowest and widest part, covered with sheepskin on both sides, is about one inch thick and five wide. The ghoss (bow) is simply a bent stick, with horse-hair for strings. This instrument is, perhaps, a coarser specimen of the nokhara khana, which is played before the gateways of palaces in Persia.

With our hands upon our firelocks, we slept soundly; the crackle of the dry wood of the camp-fires, and the low sound of the Arab’s song, mingling with our dreams; dreams, perchance, as pleasant as those of Jacob at Bethel; for, although our pillows were hard, and our beds the native earth, we were upon the brink of the sacred Jordan!