Mountains Of Samaria - Nablus And Sebaste
( Originally Published 1908 )
ABOUT a mile from Jacob's Well, the city of Nablus lies in the hollow between Mount Gerizim on the south and Mount Ebal on the north. The side of Gerizim is precipitous and jagged; Ebal rises more smoothly, but very steeply, and is covered with plantations of thornless cactus, (Opuntia cockinillifera), cultivated for the sake of the cochineal in-sects which live upon the plant and from which a red dye is made.
The valley is well watered, and is about a quarter of a mile wide. A little east of the city there are two natural bays or amphitheatres opposite to each other in the mountains. Here the tribes of Israel may have been gathered while the priests chanted the curses of the law from Ebal and the blessings from Gerizim. (Joshua viii: 30-35.) The cliffs were sounding-boards and sent the loud voices of blessing and cursing out over the multitude so that all could hear.
It seems as if it were mainly the echo of the cursing of Ebal that greets us as we ride around the fierce little Mohammedan city of Nablūs on Friday afternoon, passing through the open and dilapidated cemeteries where the veiled women are walking and gossiping away their holiday. The looks of the inhabitants are surly and hostile. The children shout mocking ditties at us, reviling the "Nazarenes." We will not ask our dragoman to translate the words that we catch now and then; it is easy to guess that they are not "fit to print."
Our camp is close beside a cemetery, near the eastern gate of the town. The spectators who watch us from a distance while we dine are numerous; and no doubt they are passing unfavourable criticisms on our table manners, and on the Frankish custom of permitting one unveiled lady to travel with three husbands. The population of Nablūs is about twenty-five thousand. It has a Turkish governor, a garrison, several soap factories, and a million dogs which howl all night.
At half-past six the next morning we set out on foot to climb Mount Ebal, which is three thousand feet high. The view from the rocky summit sweeps over all Palestine, from snowy Hermon to the mountains round about Jerusalem, from Carmel to Nebo, from the sapphire expanse of the Mediterranean to the violet valley of the Jordan and the garnet wall of Moab and Gilead beyond.
For us the view is veiled in mystery by the haze of the south wind. The ranges and peaks far away fade into cloudlike shadows. The depths below us seem to sink unfathomably. Nablūs is buried in the gulf. On the summit of Gerizim, a Mohammedan wźli, shining like a flake of mica, marks the plateau where the Samaritan Temple stood. Hilltop towns, Asiret, Tallūza, Yasid, emerge like islands from the misty sea. In that great shadowy hollow to the west lie the ruins of the city of Samaria, which Caesar Augustus renamed Sebaste, in honour of his wife Augusta. If she could see the village of Sebastiyeh now she would not be proud of her namesake town. It is there that we are going to make our midday camp.
King Omri acted as a wise man when he moved the capital of Israel from Shechem, an indefensible site, commanded by overhanging mountains and approached by two easy vales, to Shomron, the "watch-hill " which stands in the centre of the broad Vale of Barley.
As we ride across the smiling corn-fields toward the isolated eminence, we see its strength as well as its beauty. It rises steeply from the valley to a height of more than three hundred feet. The en-circling mountains are too far away to dominate it under the ancient conditions of warfare without cannons, and a good wall must have made it, as its name implied, an impregnable "stronghold," watching over a region of immense fertility.
What pomps and splendours, what revels and massacres, what joys of victory and horrors of de-feat, that round hill rising from the Vale of Barley has seen. Now there is nothing left of its crown of pride, but the broken pillars of the marble colonnade a mile long with which Herod the Great girdled the hill, and a few indistinguishable ruins of the temple which he built in honour of the divine Augustus and of the hippodrome which he erected for the people. We climb the terraces and ride through the olive-groves and ploughed fields where the street of columns once ran. A few of them are standing up-right; others leaning or fallen, half sunken in the ground; fragments of others built into the stone walls which divide the fields. There are many hewn and carven stones imbedded in the miserable little modern village which crouches on the north end of the hill, and the mosque into which the Crusaders' Church of Saint John has been transformed is said to contain the tombs of Elisha, Obadiah and John the Baptist. This rumour does not concern us deeply and we will leave its truth uninvestigated.
Let us tie our horses among Herod's pillars, and spread the rugs for our noontide rest by the ruined south gate of the city. At our feet lies the wide, level, green valley where the mighty host of Benhadad, King of Damascus, once besieged the starving city and waited for its surrender. (II Kings vii.) There in the twilight of long ago a panic terror whispered through the camp, and the Syrians rose and fled, leaving their tents and their gear behind them. And there four nameless lepers of Israel, wandering in their despair, found the vast encampment deserted, and entered in, and ate and drank, and picked up gold and silver, until their conscience smote them. Then they climbed up to this gate with the good news that the enemy had vanished, and the city was saved.