A Journey To Jerash - Over The Brook Jabbok
( Originally Published 1908 )
AFTER such a night the morning is welcome, as it breaks over the eastern hill behind us, with rosy light creeping slowly down the opposite slope of houses. Before the sunbeams have fairly reached the bottom of the valley we are in the saddle, ready to leave Es Salt without further exploration.
There is a general monotony about this riding through Palestine which yet leaves room for a particular variety of the most entrancing kind. Every day is like every other in its main outline, but the details are infinitely uncertain—always there is something new, some touch of a distinct and memorable charm.
Today it is the sense of being in the country of the nomads, the tent-dwellers, the masters of innumerable flocks and herds, whose wealth goes wandering from pasture to pasture, bleating and lowing and browsing and multiplying over the open moorland beneath the blue sky. This is the prevailing impression of this day: and the symbol of it is the thin, quavering music of the pastoral pipe, following us wherever we go, drifting tremulously and plaintively down from some rock on the hillside, or floating up softly from some hidden valley, where a brown shepherd or goatherd is minding his flock with music.
What quaint and rustic melodies are these ! Wild and unfamiliar to our ears; yet doubtless the same wandering airs that were played by the sons and servants of Jacob when he returned from his twenty years of profitable exile in Haran with his rich wages of sheep and goats and cattle and wives and maid-servants, the fruit of his hard labour and shrewd bar-gaining with his father-in-law Laban, and passed cautiously through Gilead on his way to the Promised Land.
On the highland to the east of Es Salt we see a fine herd of horses, brood-mares and foals. A little farther on, we come to a muddy pond or tank at which a drove of asses are drinking. A steep and winding path, full of loose stones, leads us down into a grassy, oval plain, a great cup of green, eight or ten miles long and five or six miles wide, rimmed with bare hills from five to eight hundred feet high. This, we conjecture, is the fertile basin of El Buchaia, or Bekaa.
Bedouin farmers are ploughing the rich, reddish soil. Their black tent-villages are tucked away against the feet of the surrounding hills. The broad plain itself is without sign of human dwelling, except that near each focus of the ellipse there is a pile of shattered ruins with a crumbling, solitary tower, where a shepherd sits piping to his lop-eared flock.
In one place we pass through a breeding-herd of camels, browsing on the short grass. The old ones are in the process of the spring moulting; their thick, matted hair is peeling off in large flakes, like fragments of a ragged, moth-eaten coat. The young ones are covered with pearl-gray wool, soft and al-most downy, like gigantic goslings with four legs. (What is the word for a young camel, I wonder; is is camelet or camelot ?) But young and old have a family resemblance of ugliness.
The camel is the most ungainly and stupid of God's useful beasts—an awkward necessity—the humpbacked ship of the desert. The Arabs have a story which runs thus: "What did Allah say when He had finished making the camel ? He couldn't say anything; He just looked at the camel, and laughed, and laughed ! "
But in spite of his ridiculous appearance the camel seems satisfied with himself; in fact there is an ex-pression of supreme contempt in his face when he droops his pendulous lower lip and wrinkles his nose, which has led the Arabs to tell another story about him: "Why does the camel despise his master? Because man knows only the ninety-nine common names of Allah; but the hundredth name, the wonderful name, the beautiful name, is a secret revealed to the camel alone. Therefore he scorns the whole race of men."
The cattle that feed around the edges of this peaceful plain are small and nimble, as if they were used to long, rough journeys. The prevailing colour is black, or rusty brown. They are evidently of a de-generate and played-out stock. Even the heifers are used for ploughing, and they look but little larger than the donkeys which are often yoked beside them. They come around the grassy knoll when our luncheon-tent is pitched, and stare at us very much as the people stared in Es Salt.
In the afternoon we pass over the rim of the broad vale and descend a narrower ravine, where oaks and terebinths, laurels and balsams, pistachios and almonds are growing. The grass springs thick and lush, tall weeds and trailing vines appear, a murmur of flowing water is heard under the tangled herbage at the bottom of the wadi. Presently we are following a bright little brook, crossing and recrossing it as it leads us toward our camp-ground.
There are the tents, standing in a line on the flowery bank of the brook, across the water from the trail. A few steps lower down there is a well-built stone basin with a copious spring gushing into it from the hillside under an arched roof. Here the people of the village, (which is somewhere near us on the mountain, but out of sight), come to fill their pitchers and water-skins, and to let their cattle and donkeys drink. All through the late afternoon they are coming and going, plashing through the shallow ford below us, enjoying the cool, clear water, disappearing along the foot-paths that lead among the hills.
These are very different cattle from the herds we saw among the Bedouins a couple of hours ago; fine large creatures, well bred and well fed, some cream-coloured, some red, some belted with white. And these men who follow them, on foot or on horseback, truculent looking fellows with blue eyes and light hair and broad faces, clad in long, close-fitting tunics, with belts around their waists and small black caps of fur, some of them with high boots—who are they ?
They are some of the Circassian immigrants who were driven out of Russia by the Czar after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, and deported again after the Bulgarian atrocities, and whom the Turkish Government has colonized through eastern Palestine on land given by the Sultan. Nobody really 'knows to whom the land belongs, I suppose; but the Bedouins have had the habit, for many centuries, of claiming and using it as they pleased for their roaming flocks and herds. Now these northern invaders are taking and holding the most fertile places, the best springs, the fields that are well watered through the year.
Therefore the Arab hates the Circassian, though he be of the same religion, far more than he hates the Christian, almost as much as he hates the Turk. But the Circassian can take care of himself ; he is a fierce and hardy fighter; and in his rude way he understands how to make farming and stock-raising pay.
Indeed, this Land of Gilead is a region in which twenty times the present population, if they were industrious and intelligent and had good government, might prosper. No wonder that the tribe of Gad and Reuben and the half-tribe of Manasseh, on the way to Canaan, "when they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, that, behold, the place was a place for cattle," (Numbers xxxii) fell in love with it, and besought Moses that they might have their inheritance there, and not westward of the Jordan. No wonder that they recrossed the river after they had helped Joshua to conquer the Canaanites, and settled in this high country, so much fairer and more fertile than Judea, or even than Samaria.
It was here, in 1880, that Laurence Oliphant, the gifted English traveller and mystic, proposed to establish his fine scheme for the beginning of the restoration of the Jews to Palestine. A territory extending from the brook of Jabbok on the north to the brook of Arnon on the south, from the Jordan Valley on the west to the Arabian desert on the east; railways running up from the sea at Haifa, and down from Damascus, and southward to the Gulf of Akabah, and across to Ismailia on the Suez Canal; a government of local autonomy guaranteed and protected by the Sublime Porte; sufficient capital sup-plied by the Jewish bankers of London and Paris and Berlin and Vienna; and the outcasts of Israel gathered from all the countries where they are op-pressed, to dwell together in peace and plenty, tending sheep and cattle, raising fruit and grain, pressing out wine and oil, and supplying the world with the balm of Gilead—such was Oliphant's beautiful dream.
But it did not come true; because Russia did not like it, because Turkey was afraid of it, because the rest of Europe did not care for it,—and perhaps because the Jews themselves were not generally enthusiastic over it. Perhaps the majority of them would rather stay where they are. Perhaps they do not yearn passionately for Palestine and the simple life.
But it is not of these things that we are thinking, I must confess, as the ruddy sun slowly drops toward the heights of Pennel, and we stroll out in the evening glow, along the edge of the wild ravine into which our little stream plunges, and look down into the deep, grand valley of the Brook Jabbok.
Yonder, on the other side of the great gulf of heliotrope shadow, stretches the long bulk of the Jebel Ajlûn, shaggy with oak-trees. It was somewhere on the slopes of that wooded mountain that one of the most tragic battles of the world was fought.
For there the army of Absalom went out to meet the army of his father David. "And the battle was spread over the face of all the country, and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured." It was there that the young man Absalom rode furiously upon his mule, "and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between heaven and earth." And a man came and told Joab, the captain of David's host, "Behold I saw Absalom hanging in the midst of an oak." Then Joab made haste; "and he took three darts in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak." And when the news came to David, sitting in the gate of the city of Mahanaim, he went up into the chamber over the gate and wept bitterly, crying, "Would I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son!" (II Samuel xviii.)
To remember a story like that is to feel the pathos with which man has touched the face of nature. But there is another story, more mystical, more beautiful, which belongs to the scene upon which we are looking. Down in the purple valley, where the smooth meadows spread so fair, and the little river curves and gleams through the thickets of oleander, somewhere along that flashing stream is the place where Jacob sent his wives and his children, his servants and his cattle, across the water in the darkness, and there remained all night long alone, for "there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day."
Who was this "man" with whom the patriarch contended at midnight, and to whom he cried, "I will not let thee go except thou bless me" ? On the morrow Jacob was to meet his fierce and powerful brother Esau, whom he had wronged and out-witted, from whom he had stolen the birthright blessing twenty years before. Was it the prospect of this dreaded meeting that brought upon Jacob the night of lonely struggle by the Brook Jabbok ? Was it the promise of reconciliation with his brother that made him say at dawn, "I have seen God face to face, and my life is saved" ? Was it the unexpected friendliness and gentleness of that brother in the encounter of the morning that inspired Jacob's cry,
"I have seen thy face as one seeth the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me" ?
Yes, that is what the old story means, in its Oriental imagery. The midnight wrestling is the pressure of human enmity and strife. The morning peace is the assurance of human forgiveness and love. The face of God seen in the face of human kindness—that is the sunrise vision of the Brook Jabbok.
Such are the thoughts with which we fall asleep in our tents beside the murmuring brook of Er Rumman. Early the next morning we go down, and down, and down, by ledge and terrace and grassy slope, into the Vale of Jabbok. It is sixty miles long, beginning on the edge of the mountain of Moab, and curving eastward, northward, west-ward, south-westward, between Gilead and AjIûn, until it opens into the Jordan Valley.
Here is the famous little river, a swift, singing current of gray-blue water—Nahr ez-Zerka "blue river," the Arabs call it—dashing and swirling merrily between the thickets of willows and tamaracks and oleanders that border it. The ford is rather deep, for the spring flood is on; but our horses splash through gaily, scattering the water around them in showers which glitter in the sunshine.
Is this the brook beside which a man once met God ? Yes—and by many another brook too.