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A Journey To Jerash - Through The Land Of Gilead

( Originally Published 1908 )

I NEVER heard of Jerash until my friend the Archæologist told me about it, one night when we were sitting beside my study fire at Avalon. "It is the site of the old city of Gerasa," said he. "The most satisfactory ruins that I have ever seen."

There was something suggestive and potent in that phrase, "satisfactory ruins." For what is it that weaves the charm of ruins ? What do we ask of them to make their magic complete and satisfying ? There must be an element of picturesqueness, certainly, to take the eye with pleasure in the contrast between the frailty of man's works and the imperishable loveliness of nature. There must also be an element of age; for new ruins are painful, dis-quieting, intolerable; they speak of violence and disorder; it is not until the bloom of antiquity gathers upon them that the relics of vast and splendid edifices attract us and subdue us with a spell, breathing tranquillity and noble thoughts. There must also be an element of magnificence in decay, of symmetry broken but not destroyed, a touch of delicate art and workmanship, to quicken the imagination and evoke the ghost of beauty haunting her ancient habitations. And beyond these things I think there must be two more qualities in a ruin that satisfies us: a clear connection with the greatness and glory of the past, with some fine human achievement, with some heroism of men dead and gone; and last of all, a spirit of mystery, the secret of some unexplained catastrophe, the lost link of a story never to be fully told.

This, or something like it, was what the Archeologist's phrase seemed to promise me as we watched the glowing embers on the hearth of Avalon. And it is this promise that has drawn me, with my three friends, on this April day into the Land of Gilead, riding to Jerash.

The grotesque and rickety bridge by which we have crossed the Jordan soon disappears behind us, as we trot along the winding bridle-path through the river-jungle, in the stifling heat. Coming out on the open plain, which rises gently toward the east, we startle great flocks of storks into the air, and they swing away in languid circles, dappling the blaze of morning with their black-tipped wings. Grotesque, ungainly, gothic birds, they do not seem to belong to the Orient, but rather to have drifted hither out of some quaint, familiar fairy tale of the North; and indeed they are only transient visitors here, and will soon be on their way to build their nests on the roofs of German villages and clapper their long, yellow bills over the joy of houses full of little children.

The rains of spring have spread a thin bloom of green over the plain. Tender herbs and light grasses partly veil the gray and stony ground. There is a month of scattered feeding for the flocks and herds. Away to the south, where the foot-hills begin to roll up suddenly from the Jordan, we can see a black line of Bedouin tents quivering through the heat.

Now the trail divides, and we take the northern fork, turning soon into the open mouth of the Wadi Shaib, a broad, grassy valley between high and tree-less hills. The watercourse that winds down the middle of it is dry: nothing but a tumbled bed of gray rocks, the bare bones of a little river. But as we ascend slowly the flowers increase; wild holly-hocks, and morning-glories, and clumps of blue anchusa, and scarlet adonis, and tall wands of white asphodel.

The morning grows hotter and hotter as we plod along. Presently we come up with three mounted Arabs, riding leisurely. Salutations are exchanged with gravity. Then the Arabs whisper something to each other and spur away at a great pace ahead of us—laughing. Why did they laugh ?

Ah, now we know. For here is a lofty cliff on one side of the valley, hanging over just far enough to make a strip of cool shade at its base, with ferns and deep grass and a glimmer of dripping water. And here our wise Arabs are sitting at their ease to eat their midday meal under "the shadow of a great rock in a weary land."

Vainly we search the valley for another rock like that. It is the only one; and the Arabs laughed because they knew it. We must content ourselves with this little hill where a few hawthorn bushes offer us tiny islets of shade, beset with thorns, and separated by straits of intolerable glare. Here we eat a little, but without comfort; and sleep a little, but without refreshment; and talk a little, but restlessly. As soon as we dare, we get into the saddle again and toil up through the valley, now narrowing into a rugged gorge, crammed with ardent heat. The sprinkling of trees and bushes, the multitude of flowers, assure us that there must be moisture under-ground, along the bed of the stream; but above ground there is not a drop, and not a breath of wind to break the dead calm of the smothering air. Why did we come into this heat-trap ?

But presently the ravine leads us, by steep stairs of rock, up to a high, green table-land. A heavenly breeze from the west is blowing here. The fields are full of flowers—red anemones, white and yellow daisies, pink flax, little blue bell-flowers—a hundred kinds. One knoll is covered with cyclamens; another with splendid purple iris, immense blossoms, so dark that they look almost black against the grass; but hold them up to the sun and you will see the imperial colour. We have never found such wild flowers, not even on the Plain of Sharon; the hills around Jerusalem were but sparsely adorned in comparison with these highlands of bloom.

And here are oak-trees, broad-limbed and friendly, clothed in glistening green. Let us rest for a while in this cool shade and forget the misery of the blazing noon. Below us lies the gray Jordan valley and the steel-blue mirror of the Dead Sea; and across that gulf we see the furrowed mountains of Judea and Samaria, and far to the north the peaks of Galilee. Around us is the Land of Gilead, a rolling hill-country, with long ridges and broad summits, a rounded land, a verdurous land, a land of rich pasturage. There are deep valleys that cut into it and divide it up. But the main bulk of it is lifted high in the air, and spread out nobly to the visitations of the wind. And see—far away there, to the south, across the Wadi Nimrin, a mountainside covered with wild trees, a real woodland, almost a forest!

Now we must travel on, for it is still a long way to our night-quarters at Es Salt. We pass several Bedouin camps, the only kind of villages in this part of the world. The tents of goat's-hair are swarming with life. A score of ragged Arab boys are playing hockey on the green with an old donkey's hoof for a ball. They yell with refreshing vigour, just like universal human boys.

The trail grows steeper and more rocky, ascending apparently impossible places, and winding perilously along the cliffs above little vineyards and cultivated fields where men are ploughing. Travel and traffic increase along this rude path, which is the only highway: evidently we are coming near to some place of importance.

But where is Es Salt? For nine hours we have been in the saddle, riding steadily toward that mysterious metropolis of the Belka, the only living city in the Land of Gilead; and yet there is no trace of it in sight. Have we missed the trail? The mule-train with our tents and baggage passed us in the valley while we were sweltering under the hawthorns. It seems as if it must have vanished into the pastoral wilderness and left us travelling an endless road to nowhere.

At last we top a rugged ridge and look down upon the solution of the mystery. Es Salt is a city that can be hid; for it is not set upon a hill, but tucked away in a valley that curves around three sides of a rocky eminence, and is sheltered from the view by higher ranges.

Who can tell how this city came here, hidden in this hollow place almost three thousand feet above the sea? Who was its founder ? What was its ancient name? It is a place without traditions, without antiquities, without a shrine of any kind; just a living town, thriving and prospering in its own dirty and dishevelled way, in the midst of a country of nomads, growing in the last twenty years from six thousand to fifteen thousand inhabitants, driving a busy trade with the surrounding country, exporting famous raisins and dye-stuff made from sumach, the seat of the Turkish Government of the Belka, with a garrison and a telegraph office—decidedly a thriving town of to-day; yet without a road by which a carriage can approach it; and old, unmistakably old !

The castle that crowns the eminence in the centre is a ruin of unknown date. The copious spring that gushes from the castle-hill must have invited men for many centuries to build their habitations around it. The gray houses seem to have slipped and settled down into the curving valley, and to have crowded one another up the opposite slopes, as if hundreds of generations had found here a hiding-place and a city of refuge.

We ride through a Mohammedan graveyard-unfenced, broken, neglected—and down a steep, rain-gulleyed hillside, into the filthy, narrow street. The people all have an Arab look, a touch of the wildness of the desert in their eyes and their free bearing. There are many fine figures and handsome faces, some with auburn hair and a reddish hue showing through the bronze of their cheeks. They stare at us with undisguised curiosity and wonder, as if we came from a strange world. The swarthy merchants in the doors of their little shops, the half-veiled women in the lanes, the groups of idlers at the corners of the streets, watch us with a gaze which seems almost defiant. Evidently tourists are a rarity here—perhaps an intrusion to be resented.

We inquire whether our baggage-train has been seen, where our camp is pitched. No one knows, no one cares; until at last a ragged, smiling urchin, one of those blessed, ubiquitous boys who always know everything that happens in a town, offers to guide us. He trots ahead, full of importance, dodging through the narrow alleys, making the complete circuit of the castle-hill and leading us to the upper end of the eastern valley. Here, among a few olive-trees beside the road, our white tents are standing, so close to an encampment of wandering gypsies that the tent-ropes cross.

Directly opposite rises a quarter of the town, tier upon tier of flat-roofed houses, every roof-top covered with people. A wild-looking crowd of visitors have gathered in the road. Two soldiers, with the appearance of partially reformed brigands, are acting as our guard, and keeping the inquisitive spectators at a respectful distance. Our mules and donkeys and horses are munching their supper in a row, tethered to a long rope in front of the tents. Shukari, the cook, in his white cap and apron, is gravely intent upon the operation of his little charcoal range. Youssouf, the major-domo, is setting the table with flowers and lighted candles in the dining-tent. After a while he comes to the door of our sleeping-tents to inform us, with due ceremony, that dinner is served; and we sit down to our repast in the midst of the swarming Edomites and the wandering Zingari as peacefully and properly as if we were dining at the Savoy.

The night darkens around us. Lights twinkle, one above another, up the steep hillside of houses; above them are the tranquil stars, the lit windows of unknown habitations; and on the hill-top one great planet burns in liquid flame.

The crowd melts away, chattering down the road; it forms again, from another quarter, and again dissolves. Meaningless shouts and cries and songs resound from the hidden city. In the gypsy camp beside us insomnia reigns. A little forge is clinking and clanking. Donkeys raise their antiphonal lament. Dogs salute the stars in chorus. First a leader, far away, lifts a wailing, howling, shrieking note; then the mysterious unrest that torments the bosom of Oriental dogdom breaks loose in a hundred, a thousand answering voices, swelling into a yapping, growling, barking, yelling discord. A sudden silence cuts the tumult short, until once more the unknown misery, (or is it the secret joy), of the canine heart bursts out in long-drawn dissonance.

From the road and from the tents of the gypsies various human voices are sounding close around us all the night. Through our confused dreams and broken sleep we strangely seem to catch fragments of familiar speech, phrases of English or French or German. Then, waking and listening, we hear men muttering and disputing, women complaining or soothing their babies, children quarrelling or calling to each other, in Arabic, or Romany—not a word that we can understand—voices that tell us only that we are in a strange land, and very far away from home, camping in the heart of a wild city.

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