Springs Of Jordan - Waters Of Merom
( Originally Published 1908 )
ALL day we ride along the hills skirting the marshy plain of Huleh. Here the springs and parent streams of Jordan are gathered, behind the mountains of Naphtali and at the foot of Hermon, as in a great green basin about the level of the ocean, for the long, swift rush down the sunken trench which leads to the deep, sterile bitterness of the Dead Sea.
Was there ever a river that began so fair and ended in such waste and desolation ?
Here in this broad, 'level, well-watered valley, along the borders of these vast beds of papyrus and rushes intersected by winding, hidden streams, Joshua and his fierce clans of fighting men met the Kings of the north with their horses and chariots, "at the waters of Merom," in the last great battle for the possession of the Promised Land. It was a furious conflict, the hordes of footmen against the squadrons of horsemen; but the shrewd command that came from Joshua decided it: "Hough their horses and burn their chariots with fire." The Canaanites and the Amorites and the Hittites and the Hivites were swept from the field, driven over the western mountains, and the Israelites held the Jordan from Jericho to Hermon. (Joshua xi:1-15.)
The springs that burst from the hills to the left of our path and run down to the sluggish channels of the marsh on our right are abundant and beautiful.
Here is `Ain Mellaha, a crystal pool a hundred yards wide, with wild mint and watercress growing around it, white and yellow lilies floating on its surface, and great fish showing themselves in the transparent open spaces among the weeds, where the water bubbles up from the bottom through dancing hillocks of clean, white sand and shining pebbles.
Here is `Ain el-Belata, a copious stream breaking forth from the rocks beneath a spreading terebinthtree, and rippling down with merry rapids toward the jungle of rustling reeds and plumed papyrus.
While luncheon is preparing in the shade of the terebinth, I wade into the brook and cast my fly along the ripples. A couple of ragged, laughing, bare-legged Bedouin boys follow close behind me, watching the new sport with wonder. The fish are here, as lively and gamesome as brook trout, plump, golden-sided fellows ten or twelve inches long. The feathered hooks tempt them, and they rise freely to the lure. My tattered pages are greatly excited, and make impromptu pouches in the breast of their robes, stuffing in the fish until they look quite fat. The catch is enough for a good supper for their whole family, and a dozen more for a delicious fish-salad at our camp that night. What kind of fish are they?
I do not know: doubtless something Scriptural and Oriental. But they taste good; and so far as there is any record, they are the first fish ever taken with the artificial fly in the sources of the Jordan.
The plain of Huleh is full of life. Flocks of water-fowl and solemn companies of storks circle over the swamps. The wet meadows are covered with herds of black buffaloes, wallowing in the ditches, or staring at us sullenly under their drooping horns. Little bunches of horses, and brood mares followed by their long-legged, awkward foals, gallop beside our cavalcade, whinnying and kicking up their heels in the joy of freedom. Flocks of black goats clamber up the rocky hillsides, following the goatherd who plays upon his rustic pipe quavering and fantastic music, softened by distance into a wild sweetness. Small black cattle with white faces march in long files across the pastures, or wander through the thickets of bulrushes and papyrus and giant fennel, appearing and disappearing as the screen of broad leaves and trembling plumes close behind them.
A few groups of huts made out of wattled reeds stand beside the sluggish watercourses, just as they did when Macgregor in his Rob Roy canoe attempted to explore this impenetrable morass forty years ago. Along the higher ground are lines of black Bedouin tents, arranged in, transitory villages.
These flitting habitations of the nomads, who come down from the hills and lofty deserts to fatten their flocks and herds among unfailing pasturage, are all of one pattern. The low, flat roof of black goats' hair is lifted by the sticks which support it, into half a dozen little peaks, perhaps five or six feet from the ground. Between these peaks the cloth sags down, and is made fast along the edges by intricate and confusing guy-ropes. The tent is shallow, not more than six feet deep, and from twelve to thirty feet long, according to the wealth of the owner and the size of his family,—two things which usually cor-respond. The sides and the partitions are some-times made of woven reeds, like coarse matting. Within there is an apartment (if you can call it so) for the family, a pen for the chickens, and room for dogs, cats, calves and other creatures to find shelter. The fireplace of flat stones is in the centre, and the smoke oozes out through the roof and sides.
The Bedouin men, in flowing burnous and kef jiyeh, with the 'agal of dark twisted camel's hair like a crown upon their heads, are almost all handsome: clean-cut, haughty faces, bold in youth and dignified in old age. The women look weatherbeaten and withered beside them. Even when you see a fine face in the dark blue mantle or under the white head-dress, it is almost always disfigured by purplish tattooing around the lips and chin. Some of the younger girls are beautiful, and most of the children are entrancing.
They play games in a ring, with songs and clapping hands; the boys charge up and down among the tents with wild shouts, driving a round bone or a donkey's hoof with their shinny-sticks; the girls chase one another and hide among the bushes in some primeval form of "tag" or "hide-and-seek."
A merry little mob pursues us as we ride through each encampment, with outstretched hands and half-jesting, half-plaintive cries of "Bakhshish! bakhshish!" They do not really expect anything. It is only a part of the game. And when the Lady holds out her open hand to them and smiles as she repeats, "Bakhshish! bakhshish!" they take the joke quickly, and run away, laughing, to their sports.
At one village, in the dusk, there is an open-air wedding: a row of men dancing; a ring of women and girls looking on; musicians playing the shepherd's pipe and the drum; maidens running beside us to beg a present for the invisible bride: a rude charcoal sketch of human society, primitive, irrepressible, confident, encamped for a moment on the shadowy border of the fecund and unconquerable marsh.
Thus we traverse the strange country of Bedouinia, travelling all day in the presence of the Great Sheikh of Mountains, and sleep at night on the edge of a little village whose name we shall never know. A dozen times we ask George for the real name of that place, and a dozen times he repeats it for us with painstaking courtesy; it sounds like a compromise between a cough and a sneeze.