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Bethlehem

( Originally Published 1908 )



A SPARKLING morning followed a showery night, and all the little red and white and yellow flowers were lifting glad faces to the sun as we took the highroad to Bethlehem. Leaving the Jaffa Gate on the left, we crossed the head of the deep Valley of Hinnom, below the dirty Pool of the Sultan, and rode up the hill on the opposite side of the vale.

There was much rubbish and filth around us, and the sight of the Ophthalmic Hospital of the English Knights of Saint John, standing in the beauty of cleanness and order beside the road, did our eyes good. Blindness is one of the common afflictions of the people of Palestine. Neglect and ignorance and dirt and the plague of crawling flies spread the germs of disease from eye to eye, and the people submit to it with pathetic and irritating fatalism. It is hard to persuade these poor souls that the will of Allah or Jehovah in this matter ought not to be accepted until after it has been questioned. But the light of true and humane religion is spreading a little. We rejoiced to see the reception-room of the hospital filled with all sorts and conditions of men, women and children waiting for the good physicians who save and restore sight in the name of Jesus.

To the right, a little below us, lay the ugly railway station; before us, rising gently southward, extended the elevated Plain of Rephaïm where David smote the host of the Philistines after he had heard "the sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry-trees." The red soil was cultivated in little farms and gardens. The almond-trees were in leaf ; the haw-thorn in blossom; the fig-trees were putting forth their tender green.

A slowly ascending road brought us to the hill of Mar Elyas, and the so-called Well of the Magi. Here the legend says the Wise Men halted after they had left Jerusalem, and the star reappeared to guide them on to Bethlehem. Certain it is that they must have taken this road; and certain it is that both Bethlehem and Jerusalem, hidden from each other by the rising ground, are clearly visible to one who stands in the saddle of this hill.

There were fine views down the valleys to the east, with blue glimpses of the Dead Sea at the end of them. The supposed tomb of Rachel, a dingy little building with a white dome, interested us less than the broad lake of olive-orchards around the distant village of Beit Jala, and the green fields, pastures and gardens encircling the double hill of Bethlehem, the ancient "House of Bread." There was an aspect of fertility and friendliness about the place that seemed in harmony with its name and its poetic memories.

In a walled kitchen-garden at the entrance of the town was David's Well. We felt no assurance, of course, as we looked down into it, that this was the veritable place. But at all events it served to bring back to us one of the prettiest bits of romance in the Old Testament. When the bold son of Jesse had become a chieftain of outlaws and was besieged by the Philistines in the stronghold of Adullam, his heart grew thirsty for a draught from his father's well, whose sweetness he had known as a boy. And when his three mighty men went up secretly at the risk of their lives, and broke through the host of their enemies, and brought their captain a vessel of this water, "he would not drink thereof, but poured it out unto Jehovah."

There was a division of opinion in our party in regard to this act. "It was sheer foolishness,'," said the Patriarch, "to waste anything that had cost so much to get. What must the three mighty men have thought when they saw that for which they had risked their lives poured out upon the ground ?" "Ah, no," said the Lady. "It was the highest gratitude, because it was touched with poetry. It was the best compliment that David could have given to his friends. Some gifts are too precious to be received in any other way than this." And in my heart I knew that she was right.

Riding through the narrow streets of the town, which is inhabited almost entirely by Christians, we noted the tranquil good looks of the women, a distinct type, rather short of stature, round-faced, placid and kind of aspect. Not a few of them had blue eyes. They wore dark-blue skirts, dark-red jackets, and a white veil over their heads, but not over their faces.

Under the veil the married women wore a peculiar cap of stiff, embroidered black cloth, about six inches high, and across the front of this cap was strung their dowry of gold or silver coins. Such a dress, no doubt, was worn by the Virgin Mary, and such tranquil, friendly looks, I think, were hers, but touched with a rarer light of beauty shining from a secret source within.

A crowd of little boys and girls just released from school for their recess shouted and laughed and chased one another, pausing for a moment in round-eyed wonder when I pointed my camera at them. Donkeys and camels and sheep made our passage through the town slow, and gave us occasion to look to our horses' footing. At one corner a great white sow ran out of an alley-way, followed by a twinkling litter of pink pigs. In the market-place we left our horses in the shadow of the monastery wall and entered, by a low door, the lofty, bare Church of the Nativity.

The long rows of immense marble pillars had some faded remains of painting on them. There were a few battered fragments of mosaic in the clerestory, dimly glittering. But the general effect of the whitewashed walls, the ancient brown beams and rafters of the roof, the large, empty space, was one of extreme simplicity.

When we came into the choir and apse we found ourselves in the midst of complexity. The owner-ship of the different altars with their gilt ornaments, of the swinging lamps, of the separate doorways of the Greeks and the Armenians and the Latins, was bewildering. Dark, winding steps, slippery with the drippings from many candles, led us down into the Grotto of the Nativity. It was a cavern perhaps forty feet long and ten feet wide, lit by thirty pendent lamps (Greek, Armenian and Latin): marble floor and walls hung with draperies; a silver star in the pavement before the altar to mark the spot where Christ was born; a marble manger in the corner to mark the cradle in which Christ was laid; a never-ceasing stream of poor pilgrims, who come kneeling, and kissing the star and the stones and the altar for Christ's sake.

We paused for a while, after we had come up, to ask ourselves whether what we had seen was in any way credible. Yes, credible, but not convincing. No doubt the ancient Khan of Bethlehem must have been somewhere near this spot, in the vicinity of the market-place of the town. No doubt it was the custom, when there were natural hollows or artificial grottos in the rock near such an inn, to use them as shelters and stalls for the cattle. It is quite possible, it is even probable, that this may have been one of the shallow caverns used for such a purpose. If so, there is no reason to deny that this may be the place of the wondrous birth, where, as the old French Noel has it:

"Dieu parmy les pastoreaux,
Sous la crêche des toreaux,
Dans les champs a voulu naistre;
Et non parmy les arroys
Des grands princes et des roys,—
Lui des plus grands roys le maistre."

But to the eye, at least, there is no reminder of the scene of the Nativity in this close and stifling chapel, hung with costly silks and embroideries, glittering with rich lamps, filled with the smoke of incense and waxen tapers. And to the heart there is little suggestion of the lonely night when Joseph found a humble refuge here for his young bride to wait in darkness, pain and hope for her hour to come.

In the church above, the Latins and Armenians and Greeks guard their privileges and prerogatives jealously. There have been fights here about the driving of a nail, the hanging of a picture, the sweeping of a bit of the floor. The Crimean War began in a quarrel between the Greeks and the Latins, and a mob-struggle in the Church of the Nativity. Underneath the floor, to the north of the Grotto of the Nativity, is the cave in which Saint Jerome lived peaceably for many years, translating the Bible into Latin. That was better than fighting.



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