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Road To Damascus - Through The Land Of The Druses

( Originally Published 1908 )

YOU may go to Damascus now by rail, if you like, and have a choice between two rival routes, one under government ownership, the other built and managed by a corporation. But to us encamped among the silvery olives at Baniyas, beside the springs of Jordan, it seemed a happy circumstance that both railways were so far away that it would have taken longer to reach them than to ride our horses straight into the city. We were delivered from the modern folly of trying to save time by travelling in a conveyance more speedy than picturesque, and left free to pursue our journey in a leisurely, independent fashion and by the road that would give us most pleasure. So we chose the longer way, the northern path around Mount Hermon, through the country of the Druses, instead of the more frequented road to the east by Kafr Hawar.

How delightful is the morning of such a journey!

The fresh face of the world bathed in sparkling dew; the greetings from tent to tent as we four friends make our rendezvous from the far countries of sleep; the relish of breakfast in the open air; the stir of the camp in preparation for a flitting; canvas sinking to the ground, bales and boxes heaped together, mule-bells tinkling through the grove, horses refreshed by their long rest whinnying and nipping at each other in play—all these are charming variations and accompaniments to the old tune of "Boots and Saddles."

The immediate effect of such a setting out for a day's ride is to renew in the heart those "vital feelings of delight" which make one simply and inexplicably glad to be alive. We are delivered from those morbid questionings and exorbitant demands by which we are so often possessed and plagued as by some strange inward malady. We feel a sense of health and harmony diffused through body and mind as we ride over the beautiful terrace which slopes down from Baniyas to Tel-el Kadi.

We are glad of the green valonia oaks that spread their shade over us, and of the blossoming haw-thorns that scatter their flower-snow on the hill-side. We are glad of the crested larks that rise warbling from the grass, and of the buntings and chaffinches that make their small merry music in every thicket, and of the black and white chats that shift their burden of song from stone to stone beside the path, and of the cuckoo that tells his name to us from far away, and of the splendid bee-eaters that glitter over us like a flock of winged emeralds as we climb the rocky hill toward the north. We are glad of the broom in golden flower, and of the pink and white rock-roses, and of the spicy fragrance of mint and pennyroyal that our horses trample out as they splash through the spring holes and little brooks. We are glad of the long, wide views west-ward over the treeless mountains of Naphtali and the southern ridges of the Lebanon, and of the glimpses of the ruined castles of the Crusaders, Kal'at esh-Shakif and Hūnin, perched like dilapidated eagles on their distant crags. Everything seems to us like a personal gift. We have the feeling of ownership for this day of all the world's beauty. We could not explain or justify it to any sad philosopher who might reproach us for unreasoning felicity. We should be defenceless before his arguments and indifferent to his scorn. We should simply ride on into the morning, reflecting in our hearts something of the brightness of the birds' plumage, the cheerfulness of the brooks' song, the undimmed hyaline of the sky, and so, perhaps, fulfilling the Divine Intention of Nature as well as if we chose to becloud our mirror with melancholy thoughts.

We are following up the valley of the longest and highest, but not the largest, of the sources of the Jordan: the little River Hasbant, a strong and lovely stream, which rises somewhere in the northern end of the Wadi et-Teim, and flows along the western base of Mount Hermon, receiving the tribute of torrents which burst out in foaming springs far up the ravines, and are fed underground by the melting of the perpetual snow of the great mountain. Now and then we have to cross one of these torrents, by a rude stone bridge or by wading. All along the way Hermon looks down upon us from his throne, nine thousand feet in air. His head is wrapped in a turban of spotless white, like a Druse chieftain, and his snowy winter cloak still hangs down over his shoulders, though its lower edges are already fringed and its seams opened by the warm suns of April.

Presently we cross a bridge to the west bank of the Hasbant, and ride up the delightful vale where poplars and mulberries, olives, almonds, vines and figs, grow abundantly along the course of the river.

There are low weirs across the stream for purposes of irrigation, and a larger dam supplies a mill with power. To the left is the sharp barren ridge of the Jebel ez-Zohr separating us from the gorge of the River Litant. Groups of labourers are at work on the watercourses among the groves and gardens. Vine-dressers are busy in the vineyards. Ploughmen are driving their shallow furrows through the stony fields on the hillside. The little river, here in its friendliest mood, winds merrily among the plantations and orchards which it nourishes, making a cheerful noise over beds of pebbles, and humming a deeper note where the clear green water plunges over a weir.

We have now been in the saddle five hours; the sun is ardent; the temperature is above eighty-five degrees in the shade, and along the bridle-path there is no shade. We are hungry, thirsty, and tired. As we cross the river again, splashing through a ford, our horses drink eagerly and attempt to lie down in the cool water. We have to use strong persuasion not only with them, but also with our own spirits, to pass by the green grass and the sheltering olive-trees on the east bank and push on up the narrow, rocky defile in which Hasbeiya is hidden. The bridle-path is partly paved with rough cobblestones, hard and slippery, which make the going weariful. The heat presses on us like a burden. Things that would have delighted us in the morning now give us no pleasure. We have made the greedy traveller's mistake of measuring our march by the extent of our endurance instead of by the limit of our enjoyment.

Hasbeiya proves to be a rather thriving and picturesque town built around the steep sides of a bay or opening in the valley. The amphitheatre of hills is terraced with olive-orchards and vineyards. There are also many mulberry-trees cultivated for the silkworms, and the everpresent figs and almonds are not wanting. The stone houses of the town rise, on winding paths, one above the other, many of them having arched porticoes, red-tiled roofs, and green-latticed windows. It is a place of about five thousand population, now more than half Christian, but formerly one of the strongholds and capitals of the mysterious Druse religion.

Our tents are pitched at the western end of the town, on a low terrace where olive-trees are growing. When we arrive we find the camp surrounded and filled with curious, laughing children. The boys are a little troublesome at first, but a word from an old man who seems to be in charge brings them to order, and at least fifty of them, big and little, squat in a semicircle on the grass below the terrace, watching us with their lustrous brown eyes.

They look full of fun, those young Druses and Maronites and Greeks and Mohammedans, so I try a mild joke on them, by pretending that they are a class and that I am teaching them a lesson. "A, B, C," I chant, and wait for them to repeat after me. They promptly take the lesson out of my hands and recite the entire English alphabet in chorus, winding up with shouts of "Goot mornin'! How you do ?" and merry laughter. They are all pupils from the mission schools which have been established since the great Massacre of 1860, and which are helping, I hope, to make another forever impossible.

One of our objects in coming to Hasbeiya was to ascend Mount Hermon. We send for the Druse guide and the Christian guide; both of them assure us that the adventure is impossible on account of the deep snow, which has increased during the last fortnight. We can not get within a mile of the summit. The snow will be waist-deep in the hollows. The mountain is inaccessible until June. So, after exchanging visits with the missionaries and seeing something of their good work, we ride on our way the next morning.

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