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Road To Damascus - Anti-Lebanon And The River Abana

( Originally Published 1908 )

OUR path the next day leads up to the east over the ridges of the slight depression which lies between Mount Hermon and the rest of the Anti-Lebanon range. We pass the disconsolate village and lake of Kafr Kűk. The water which shone so blue in the distance now confesses itself a turbid, stagnant pool, locked in among the hills, and breeding fevers for those who live beside it. The landscape grows wild and sullen as we ascend; the hills are strewn with shattered fragments of rock, or worn into battered and fantastic crags; the bottoms of the ravines are soaked and barren as if the winter floods had just left them. Presently we are riding among great snowdrifts. It is the first day of May. We walk on the snow, and pack a basketful on one of the mules, and pelt each other with snowballs.

We have gone back another month in the calendar and are now at the place where " winter lingers in the lap of spring." Snowdrops, crocuses, and little purple grape-hyacinths are blooming at the edge of the drifts. The thorny shrubs and bushes, and spiny herbs like astragalus and cousinia, are green-stemmed but leafless, and the birds that flutter among them are still in the first rapture of vernal bliss, the gay music that follows mating and pre-cedes nesting. Big dove-coloured partridges, beautifully marked with black and red, are running among the rocks. We are at the turn of the year, the surprising season when the tide of light and life and love swiftly begins to rise.

From this Alpine region we descend through two months in half a day. It is mid-March on a beautiful green plain where herds of horses were feeding around an encampment of black Bedouin tents; the beginning of April at Khan Meithelfin, on the post-road, where there are springs, and poplar-groves, in one of which we eat our lunch, with lemonade cooled by the snows of Hermon; the end of April at Dimas, where we find our tents pitched upon the threshing-floor, a levelled terrace of clay looking down upon the flat roofs of the village.

Our camp is 3,600 feet above sea-Ievel, and our morning path follows the telegraph-poles steeply down to the post-road, and so by a more gradual descent along the hard and dusty turnpike toward Damascus. The landscape, at first, is bare and arid : rounded reddish mountains, gray hillsides, yellowish plains faintly tinged with a thin green. But at El-Hami the road drops into the valley of the Barada, the far-famed River Abana, and we find ourselves in a verdant paradise.

Tall trees arch above the road; white balconies gleam through the foliage; the murmur and the laughter of flowing streams surround us. The rail-road and the carriage-road meet and cross each other down the vale. Country houses and cafés, some dingy and dilapidated, others new and trim, are half hidden among the groves or perched close beside the high-way. Poplars and willows, plane-trees and lindens, walnuts and mulberries, apricots and almonds, twisted fig-trees and climbing roses, grow joyfully wherever the parcelled water flows in its many channels. Above this line, on the sides of the vale, everything is bare and brown and dry. But the depth of the valley is an embroidered sash of bloom laid across the sackcloth of the desert. And in the centre of this long verdure runs the parent river, a flood of clear green; rushing, leaping, curling into white foam; filling its channel of thirty or forty feet from bank to bank, and making the silver-leafed willows and poplars, that stand with their feet in the stream, tremble with the swiftness of its cool, strong current. Truly Naaman the Syrian was right in his boasting to the prophet Elisha: Abana, the river of Damascus, is better than all the waters of Israel.

The vale narrows as we descend along the stream, until suddenly we pass through a gateway of steep cliffs and emerge upon an open plain beset with mountains on three sides. The river, parting into seven branches, goes out to water a hundred and fifty square miles of groves and gardens, and we follow the road through the labyrinth of rich and luscious green. There are orchards of apricots enclosed with high mud walls; and open gates through which we catch glimpses of crimson rose trees and scarlet pomegranates and little fields of wheat glowing with blood-red poppies; and hedges of white hawthorn and wild brier; and trees, trees, trees, everywhere embowering us and shutting us in.

Presently we see, above the leafy tops, a sharp-pointed minaret with a golden crescent above it. Then we find ourselves again beside the main current of the Barada, running swift and merry in a walled channel straight across an open common, where soldiers are exercising their horses, and donkeys and geese are feeding, and children are playing, and dyers are sprinkling their long strips of blue cotton cloth laid out upon the turf beside the river. The road begins to look like the commencement of a street; domes and minarets rise before us; there are glimpses of gray walls and towers, a few shops and open-air cafés, a couple of hotel signs. The river dives under a bridge and disappears by a hundred channels beneath the city, leaving us at the western entrance of Damascus.

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