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Mountains Of Samaria - Jordan Ferry

( Originally Published 1908 )



LOOK down from these tranquil heights of Jebel Osha, above the noiseful, squalid little city of Es Salt, and you see what Moses saw when he climbed Mount Pisgah and looked upon the Promised Land which he was never to enter.

"Could we but climb where Moses stood,
And view the landscape o'er,
Not Jordan's stream, nor death's cold flood,
Should fright us from the shore."

Pisgah was probably a few miles south of the place where we are now standing, but the main features of the view are the same. These broad mountain-shoulders, falling steeply away to the west, clad in the emerald robe of early spring; this immense gulf at our feet, four thousand feet below us, a huge trough of gray and yellow, through which the dark-green ribbon of the Jordan jungle, touched with a few silvery gleams of water, winds to the blue basin of the Dead Sea; those scarred and wrinkled hills rising on the other side, the knotted brow of Quarantana, the sharp cone of Sartoba, the distant peak of Mizpeh, the long line of Judean, Samarian, and Galilean summits, Olivet, and Ebal, and Gerizim, and Gilboa, and Tabor, rolling away to the northward, growing ever fairer, with the promise of fertile valleys between them and rich plains beyond them, and fading at last into the azure vagueness of the highlands round the Lake of Galilee.

Why does that country toward which we are looking and travelling seem to us so much more familiar and real, so much, more a part of the actual world, than this region of forgotten Greek and Roman glory, from which we are returning like those who awake from sleep ? The ruined splendours of Jerash fade behind us like a dream. Samaria and Galilee, crowded with memories and associations which have been woven into our minds by the wonderful Bible story, draw us to them with the convincing touch of reality. Yet even while we recognise this strange difference between our feelings toward the Holy Land and those toward other parts of the ancient world, we know that it is not altogether true.

Gerasa was as really a part of God's big world as Shechem or Jezreel or Sychar. It stood in His sight, and He must have regarded the human souls that lived there. He must have cared for them, and watched over them, and judged them equitably, dividing the just from the unjust, the children of love from the children of hate, even as He did with men on the other side of the Jordan, even as He does with all men everywhere to-day. If faith in a God who is the Father and Lord of all mankind means any-thing it means this: equal care, equal justice, equal mercy for all the world. Gerasa has been forgotten of men, but God never forgot it.

What, then, is the difference ? Just this : in the little land between the Jordan and the sea, things came to pass which have a more enduring significance than the wars and splendours, the wealth and culture of the Decapolis. Conflicts were fought there in which the eternal issues of good and evil were clearly manifest. Ideas were worked out there which have a permanent value to the spiritual life of man. Revelations were made there which have become the guiding stars of succeeding generations. This is why that country of the Bible seems more real to us: because its history is more significant, because it is Divinely inspired with a meaning for our faith and hope.

Do you agree with this ? I do not know. But at least if you were with us on this glorious morning, riding down from the heights of Jebel Osha you would feel the vivid beauty, the subduing grandeur of the scene. You would rejoice in the life-renewing air that blows softly around us and invites us to breathe deep, in the pure morning faces of the flowers opening among the rocks,—in the light waving of silken grasses along the slopes by which we steeply descend.

There is a young Gileadite running beside us, a fine fellow about eighteen years old, with his white robe girded up about his loins, leaving his brown legs bare. His head-dress is encircled with the black `agal of camel's hair like a rustic crown. A long gun is slung over his back; a wicked-looking curved knife with a brass sheath sticks in his belt; his silver powder-horn and leather bullet-pouch hang at his waist. He strides along with a free, noble step, or springs lightly from rock to rock like a gazelle.

His story is a short one, and simple,—if true. His younger brother has run away from the family tent among the pastures of Gilead, seeking his fortune in the wide world. And now this elder brother has come out to look for the prodigal, at Nablūs, at Jaffa, at Jerusalem,—Allah knows how far the quest may lead! But he is afraid of robbers if he crosses the Jordan Valley alone. May he keep company with us and make the perilous transit under our august protection ? Yes, surely, my brown son of Esau; and we will not inquire too closely whether you are really running after your brother or running away yourself.

There may be a thousand robbers concealed along the river-bed, but we can see none of them. The valley is heat and emptiness. Even the jackal that slinks across the trail in front of us, droops and drags his tail in visible exhaustion. His lolling, red tongue is a signal of distress. In a climate like this one expects nothing from man or beast. Life de-generates, shrivels, stifles; and in the glaring open spaces a sullen madness lurks invisible.

We are coming to the ancient fording-place of the river, called Adamah, where an event once happened which was of great consequence to the Israelites and which has often been misunderstood. They were encamped on the east side, opposite Jericho, nearly thirty miles below this point, waiting for their first opportunity to cross the Jordan. Then, says the record, "the waters which came down from above stopped, and were piled up in a heap, a great way off, at Adam, . . and the people passed over right against Jericho." (Joshua iii: 14-16.)

Look at these great clay-banks overhanging the river, and you will understand what it was that opened a dry path for Israel into Canaan. One of these huge masses of clay was undermined, and slipped, and fell across the river, heaping up the waters behind a temporary natural dam, and cutting off the supply of the lower stream. It may have taken three or four days for the river to carve its way through or around that obstruction, and meantime any one could march across to Jericho without wetting his feet. I have seen precisely the same thing happen on a salmon river in Canada quite as large as the Jordan.

The river is more open at this place, and there is a curious six-cornered ferry-boat, pulled to and fro with ropes by a half-dozen bare-legged Arabs. If it had been a New England river, the practical Western mind would have built a long boat with a flat board at each side, and rigged a couple of running wheels on a single rope. Then the ferryman would have had nothing to do but let the stern of his craft swing down at an angle with the stream, and the swift current would have pushed him from one side to the other at his will. But these Orientals have been running their ferry in their own way, no doubt, for many centuries; and who are we to break in upon their laborious indolence with new ideas ? It is enough that they bring us over safely, with our cattle and our stuff, in several bands, with much tugging at the ropes and shouting and singing.

We look in vain on the shore of the Jordan for a pleasant place to eat our luncheon. The big trees stand with their feet in the river, and the smaller shrubs are scraggly and spiny. At last we find a little patch of shade on a steep bank above the yellow stream, and here we make ourselves as comfortable as we can, with the thermometer at 110°, and the hungry gnats and mosquitoes swarming around us.

Early in the afternoon we desperately resolve to brave the sun, and ride up from the river-bed into the open plain on the west. Here we catch our first clear view of Mount Hermon, with its mantle of glistening snow, hanging like a cloud on the northern horizon, ninety miles away, beyond the Lake of Galilee and the Waters of Merom; a vision of dis-tance and coolness and grandeur.

The fields, watered by the full streams descending from the Wadi Farah, are green with wheat and barley. Along our path are balsam-trees and thorny jujubes, from whose branches we pluck the sweet, insipid fruit as we ride beneath them. Herds of cattle are pasturing on the plain, and long rows of black Bedouin tents are stretched at the foot of the mountains. We cross a dozen murmuring water-courses embowered in the dark, glistening foliage of the oleanders glowing with great soft flames of rosy bloom.

At the Sergi on the hill which watches over this Jiftlīk, or domain of the Sultan, there are some Turkish soldiers saddling their horses for an expedition; perhaps to collect taxes or to chase robbers. The peasants are returning, by the paths among the corn-fields, to their huts. The lines of camp-fires begin to gleam from the transient Bedouin villages. Our white tents are pitched in a flowery meadow, beside a low-voiced stream, and as we fall asleep the night air is trembling with the shrill, innumerable brek-ek-dc-co'cix-coeix of the frog chorus.



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