Springs Of Jordan - Caesarea Philippi
( Originally Published 1908 )
YES, this little Mohammedan town of Baniyas, with its twoscore wretched houses built of stones from the ancient ruins and huddled within the broken walls of the citadel, is the ancient site of Cæsarea Philippi. In the happy days that we spend here, rejoicing in the most beautiful of all our camps in the Holy Land, and yielding ourselves to the full charm of the out-of-doors more perfectly expressed than we had ever thought to find it in Palestine,—in this little paradise of friendly trees and fragrant flowers,
" at snowy Hermon's foot,
the thought of Jesus is like the presence of a comrade, while the memories of human grandeur and transience, of man's long toil, unceasing conflict, vain pride and futile despair, visit us only as flickering ghosts.
We climb to the top of the peaked hill, a thousand feet above the town, and explore the great Crusaders' Castle of Subeibeh, a ruin vaster in extent and nobler in situation than the famous Schloss of Heidelberg. It not only crowns but completely covers the sum-mit of the steep ridge with the huge drafted stones of its foundations. The immense round towers, the double-vaulted gateways, are still standing. Long flights of steps lead down to subterranean reservoirs of water. Spacious courtyards, where the knights and men-at-arms once exercised, are transformed into vegetable gardens, and the passageways between the north citadel and the south citadel are travelled by flocks of lop-eared goats.
From room to room we clamber by slopes of crumbling stone, discovering now a guard-chamber with loopholes for the archers, and now an arched chapel with the plaster intact and faint touches of colour still showing upon it. Perched on the high battlements we look across the valley of Huleh and the springs of Jordan to Kal'at Hûnin on the mountains of Naphtali, and to Kal'at esh-Shakif above the gorge of the River Litani.
From these three great fortresses, in the time of the Crusaders, flashed and answered the signal-fires of the chivalry of Europe fighting for possession of Palestine. What noble companies of knights and ladies inhabited these castles, what rich festivals were celebrated within these walls, what desperate struggles defended them, until at last the swarthy hordes of Saracens stormed the gates and poured over the defences and planted the standard of the crescent on the towers and lit the signal-fires of Islam from citadel to citadel.
All the fires have gone out now. The yellow whin blazes upon the hillsides. The wild fig-tree splits the masonry. The scorpion lodges in the deserted chambers. On the fallen stone of the Crusaders' gate, where the Moslem victor has carved his Arabic inscription, a green-gray lizard poises motionless, like a bronze figure on a paper-weight.
We pass through the southern entrance of the village of Baniyas, a massive square portal, rebuilt by some Arab ruler, and go out on the old Roman bridge which spans the ravine. The aqueduct carried by the bridge is still full of flowing water, and the drops which fall from it in a fine mist make .a little rainbow as the afternoon sun shines through the archway draped with maidenhair fern. On the stone pavement of the bridge we trace the ruts worn two thousand years ago by the chariots of the men who conquered the world. The chariots have all rolled by. On the broken edge of the tower above the gateway sits a ragged Bedouin boy, making shrill, plaintive music with his pipe of reeds.
We repose in front of our tents among the olive-trees at the close of the day. The cool sound of running streams and rustling poplars is on the moving air, and the orange-golden sunset enchants the orchard with mystical light. All the swift visions of striving Saracens and Crusaders, of conquering Greeks and Romans, fade away from us, and we see the figure of the Man of Nazareth with His little company of friends and disciples coming up from Galilee.
It was here that Jesus retreated with His few faithful followers from the opposition of the Scribes and Pharisees. This was the northernmost spot of earth ever trodden by His feet, the longest distance from Jerusalem that He ever travelled. Here in this exquisite garden of Nature, in a region of the Gentiles, within sight of the shrines devoted to those Greek and Roman rites which were so luxurious and so tolerant, four of the most beautiful and significant events of His life and ministry took place.
He asked His disciples plainly to tell their secret thought of Him—whom they believed their Master to be. And when Peter answered simply: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," Jesus blessed him for the answer, and declared that He would build His church upon that rock.
Then He took Peter and James and John with Him and climbed one of the high and lonely slopes of Hermon. There He was transfigured before them, His face shining like the sun and His garments glistening like the snow on the mountain-peaks. But when they begged to stay there with Him, He led them down to the valley again, among the sinning and suffering children of men.
At the foot of the mount of transfiguration He healed the demoniac boy whom his father had brought to the other disciples, but for whom they had been unable to do anything; and He taught them that the power to help men comes from faith and prayer.
And then, at last, He turned His steps from this safe and lovely refuge, (where He might surely have lived in peace, or from which He might have gone out unmolested into the wide Gentile world), back-ward to His own country, His own people, the great, turbulent, hard-hearted Jewish city, and the fate which was not to be evaded by One who loved sinners and came to save them. He went down into Galilee, down through Samaria and Perea, down to Jerusalem, down to Gethsemane and to Golgotha, fearless, calm,—sustained and nourished by that secret food which satisfied His heart in doing the will of God.
It was in the quest of this Jesus, in the hope of somehow drawing nearer to Him, that we made our pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And now, in the cool of the evening at Cæsarea Philippi, we ask ourselves whether our desire has been granted, our hope fulfilled ?
Yes, more richly, more wonderfully than we dared to dream. For we have found a new vision of Christ, simpler, clearer, more satisfying, in the freedom and reality of God's out-of-doors.
Not through the mists and shadows of an infinite regret, the sadness of sweet, faded dreams and hopes that must be resigned, as Pierre Loti saw the phantom of a Christ whose irrevocable disappearance has left the world darker than ever!
Not amid strange portents and mysterious rites, crowned with I know not what aureole of traditionary splendours, founder of elaborate ceremonies and centre of lamplit shrines, as Matilde Serao saw the image of that Christ whom the legends of men have honoured and obscured!
The Jesus whom we have found is the Child of Nazareth playing among the flowers; the Man of Galilee walking beside the lake, healing the sick, comforting the sorrowful, cheering the lonely and despondent; the well-beloved Son of God transfigured in the sunset glow of snowy Hermon, weeping by the sepulchre in Bethany, agonizing in the moonlit gar-den of Gethsemane, giving His life for those who did not understand Him, though they loved Him, and for those who did not love Him because they did not understand Him, and rising at last triumphant over death,—such a Saviour as all men need and as no man could ever have imagined if He had not been real.
His message has not died away, nor will it ever die. For confidence and calm joy He tells us to turn to Nature. For love and sacrifice He bids us live close to our fellowmen. For comfort and immortal hope He asks us to believe in Him and in our Father, God.
That is all.
But the bringing of that heavenly message made the country to which it came the Holy Land. And the believing of that message, today, will lead any child of man into the kingdom of heaven. And the keeping of that faith, the following of that Life, will transfigure any country beneath the blue sky into a holy land.