Going Down To Jericho
( Originally Published 1908 )
IN the memory of every visitor to Jerusalem the excursion to Jericho is a vivid point. For this is the one trip which everybody makes, and it is a convention of the route to regard it as a perilous and exciting adventure. Perhaps it is partly this flavour of a not-too-dangerous danger, this shivering charm of a hazard to be taken without too much risk, that attracts the average tourist, prudently romantic, to make the journey to the lowest inhabited town in the world.
Jericho has always had an ill name. Weak walls, weak hearts, weak morals were its early marks. Sweltering on the rich plain of the lower Jordan, eight hundred feet below the sea, at the entrance of the two chief passes into the Judean highlands, it was too indolent or cowardly to maintain its own importance. Stanley called it "the key of Palestine"; but it was only a latch which any bold invader could lift. The people of Jericho were famous for light fingers and lively feet, great robbers and runners-away. Joshua blotted the city out with a curse; five centuries later Hiel the Bethelite rebuilt it with the bloody sacrifice of his two sons. Antony gave it to Cleopatra, and Herod bought it from her for a winter palace, where he died. Nothing fine or brave, so far as I can remember, is written of any of its inhabitants, except the good deed of Rahab, a harlot, and the honest conduct of Zacchaeus, a publican. To this day, at the tables d'hôte of Jerusalem the name of Jericho stirs up a little whirlwind of bad stories and warnings.
Last night we were dining with friends at one of the hotels, and the usual topic came up for discussion. Imagine what followed.
"That Jericho road is positively frightful," says a British female tourist in lace cap, lilac ribbons and a maroon poplin dress, "the heat is most extr'ordinary ! "
"No food fit to eat at the hotel," grumbles her husband, a rosy, bald-headed man in plaid knickerbockers, "no bottled beer; beastly little hole!"
"A voyage of the most fatiguing, of the most perilous, I assure you," says a little Frenchman with a forked beard. "But I rejoice myself of the adventure, of the romance accomplished."
"I want to know," piped a lady in a green shirt-waist from Andover, Mass., "is there really and truly any danger?"
"I guess not for us," answers the dominating voice of the conductor of her party. "There's always a bunch of robbers on that road, but I have hired the biggest man of the bunch to take care of us. Just wait till you see that dandy Sheikh in his best clothes; he looks like a museum of old weapons."
"Have you heard," interposed a lady-like clergy-man on the other side of the table, with gold-rimmed spectacles gleaming above his high, black waistcoat, "what happened on the Jericho road, week before last ? An English gentleman, of very good family, imprudently taking a short cut, became separated from his companions. The Bedouins fell upon him, beat him quite painfully, deprived him of his watch and several necessary garments, and left him prostrate upon the earth, in an embarrassingly denuded condition Just fancy! Was it not perfectly shocking ?" (The clergyman's voice was full of delicious horror.) "But, after all," he resumed with a beaming smile, "it was most scriptural, you know, quite like a Providential confirmation of Holy Writ!"
"Most unpleasant for the Englishman," growls the man in knickerbockers. "But what can you expect under this rotten Turkish government ?"
"I know a story about Jericho," begins a gentle-man from Colorado, with a hay-coloured moustache and a droop in his left eyelid—and then follows a series of tales about that ill-reputed town and the road thither, which leave the lady in the lace cap gasping, and the man with the forked beard visibly swelling with pride at having made the journey, and the little woman in the green shirt-waist quivering with exquisite fears and mentally clinging with both arms to the personal conductor of her party, who looks becomingly virile, and exchanges a surreptitious wink with the gentleman from Colorado.
Of course, I am not willing to make an affidavit to the correctness of every word in this conversation; but I can testify that it fairly represents the Jericho-motif as you may hear it played almost any night in the Jerusalem hotels. It sounded to us partly like an echo of ancient legends kept alive by dragomans and officials for purposes of revenue, and partly like an outcrop of the hysterical habit in people who travel in flocks and do nothing without much palaver. In our quiet camp, George the Bethlehemite assured us that the sheikhs were "humbugs," and an escort of soldiers a nuisance. So we placidly made our preparations to ride on the morrow, with no other safeguards than our friendly dispositions and a couple of excellent American revolvers.
But it was no brief Ausflug to Jericho and return that we had before us: it was the beginning of a long and steady ride, weeks in the saddle, from six to nine hours a day.
Imagine us then, morning after morning, mounting somewhere between six and eight o'clock, ac-cording to the weather and the length of the journey, and jingling out of camp, followed at a discreet distance by Youssouf on his white pony with the luncheon, and Faris on his tiny donkey, Tiddlywinks. About noon, sometimes a little earlier, sometimes a little later, the white pony catches up with us, and the tent and the rugs are spread for the midday meal and the siesta. It may be in our dreams, or while the Lady is reading from some pleasant book, or while the smoke of the afternoon pipe of peace is ascending, that we hear the musical bells of our long baggage-train go by us on the way to our night-quarters.
The evening ride is always shorter than the morning, sometimes only an hour or two in the saddle; and at the end of it there is the surprise of a new camp ground, the comfortable tents, the refreshing bath tub, the quiet dinner by sunset-glow or candle-light. Then a bit of friendly talk over the walnuts and the "Treasure of Zion "; a cup of fragrant Turkish coffee; and George enters the door of the tent to report on the condition of things in general, and to discuss the plan of the next day's journey.