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Road To Damascus - City That A Little River Made

( Originally Published 1908 )

I CANNOT tell whether the river, the gardens, and the city would have seemed so magical and entrancing if we had come upon them in some other way or seen them in a different setting. You can never detach an experience from its matrix and weigh it alone. Comparisons with the environs of Naples or Florence visited in an automobile, or with the suburbs of Boston seen from a trolley-car, are futile and unilluminating.

The point about the Barada is that it springs full-born from the barren sides of the Anti-Lebanon, swiftly creates a paradise as it runs, and then disappears absolutely in a wide marsh on the edge of the desert.

The point about Damascus is that she flourishes on a secluded plain, the Ghûtah, seventy miles from the sea and twenty-three hundred feet above it, with no hinterland and no sustaining provinces, no political leadership, and no special religious sanctity, with nothing, in fact, to account for her distinction, her splendour, her populous vitality, her self-sufficing charm, except her mysterious and enduring quality as a mere city, a hive of men. She is the oldest living city in the world; no one knows her birthday or her founder's name. She has survived the empires and kingdoms which conquered her,—Nineveh, Babylon, Samaria, Greece, Egypt—their capitals are dust, but Damascus still blooms "like a tree planted by the rivers of water." She has given her name to the reddest of roses, the sweetest of plums, the richest of metal-work, and the most lustrous of silks; her streets have bubbled and eddied with the currents of the multitudinous folk

That do inhabit her and make her great.

She is the typical city, pure and simple, of the Orient, as New York or San Francisco is of the Occident: the open port on the edge of the desert, the trading-booth at the foot of the mountains, the pavilion in the heart of the blossoming bower,—the wonderful child of a little river and an immemorial Spirit of Place.

Every time we go into the city, (whether from our tents on the terrace above an ancient and dilapidated pleasure-garden, or from our red-tiled rooms in the good Hôtel d'Orient, to which we had been driven by a plague of sand-flies in the camp), we step at once into a chapter of the "Arabian Nights' Entertainments."

It is true, there are electric lights and there is a trolley-car crawling around the city; but they no more make it Western and modern than a bead necklace would change the character of the Venus of Milo. The driver of the trolley-car looks like one of "The Three Calenders," and a gayly dressed little boy beside him blows loudly on an instrument of discord as the machine tranquilly advances through the crowd. (A man was run over a few months ago; his friends waited for the car to come around the next day, pulled the driver from his perch, and stuck a number of long knives through him in a truly Oriental manner.)

The crowd itself is of the most indescribable and engaging variety and vivacity. The Turkish soldiers in dark uniform and red fez; the cheerful, grinning water-carriers with their dripping, bulbous goatskins on their backs; the white-turbaned Druses with their bold, clean-cut faces; the bronzed, impassive sons of the desert, with their flowing mantles and bright head-cloths held on by thick, dark rolls of camel's hair; the rich merchants in their silken robes of many colours; the picturesquely ragged beggars; the Moslem pilgrims washing their heads and feet, with much splashing, at the pools in the marble courtyards of the mosques; the merry children, running on errands or playing with the water that gushes from many a spout at the corner of a street or on the wall of a house; the veiled Mohammedan women slipping silently through the throng, or bending over the trinkets or fabrics in some open-fronted shop, lifting the veil for a moment to show an olive-tinted cheek and a pair of long, liquid brown eyes; the bearded Greek priests in their black robes and cylinder hats; the Christian women wrapped in their long white sheets, but with their pretty faces uncovered, and a red rose or a white jasmine stuck among their smooth, shining black tresses; the seller of lemonade with his gaily decorated glass vessel on his back and his clinking brass cups in his hand, shouting, "A remedy for the heat,"—" Cheer up your hearts,"—" Take care of your teeth"; the boy peddling bread, with an immense tray of thin, flat loaves on his head, crying continually to Allah to send him customers; the seller of turnip-pickle with a huge pink globe upon his shoulder looking like the inside of a pale water-melon; the donkeys pattering along between fat burdens of grass or charcoal; a much-bedizened horseman with embroidered saddle-cloth and glittering bridle, riding silent and haughty through the crowd as if it did not exist; a victoria dashing along the street at a trot, with whip cracking like a pack of firecrackers, and shouts of, "O boy! Look out for your back ! your foot ! your side ! "—all these figures are mingled in a passing show of which we never grow weary.

The long bazaars, covered with a round, wooden archway rising from the second story of the houses, are filled with a rich brown hue like a well-coloured meerschaum pipe; and through this mellow, brumous atmosphere beams of golden sunlight slant vividly from holes in the roof. An immense number of shops, small and great, shelter themselves in these bazaars, for the most part opening, without any reserve of a front wall or a door, in frank invitation to the street. On the earthen pavement, beaten hard as cement, camels are kneeling, while the merchants let down their corded bales and display their Persian carpets or striped silks. The cook-shops show their wares and their processes, and send up an appetising smell of lamb kibabs and fried fish and stuffed cucumbers and stewed beans and okra, and many other dainties preparing on diminutive charcoal grills.

In the larger and richer shops, arranged in semi-European fashion, there are splendid rugs, and embroideries old and new, and delicately chiselled brasswork, and furniture of strange patterns lavishly inlaid with mother-of-pearl; and there I go with the Lady to study the art of bargaining as practised between the trained skill of the Levant and the native genius of Walla Walla, Washington. In the smaller and poorer bazaars the high, arched roofs give place to tattered awnings, and some-times to branches of trees the brown air changes to an atmosphere of brilliant stripes and patches; the tiny shops, (hardly more than open booths), are packed and festooned with all kinds of goods, garments and ornaments: the chafferers conduct their negotiations from the street, (sidewalk there is none), or squat beside the proprietor on the little platform of his stall.

The custom of massing the various trades and manufactures adds to the picturesque joy of shopping or dawdling in Damascus. It is like passing through rows of different kinds of strange fruits. There is a region of dangling slippers, red and yellow, like cherries; a little farther on we come to a long trellis of clothes, limp and pendulous, like bunches of grapes; then we pass through a patch of saddles, plain and coloured, decorated with all sorts of beads and tinsel, velvet and morocco, lying on the ground or hung on wooden supports, like big, fantastic melons.

In the coppersmiths' bazaar there is an incessant clattering of little hammers upon hollow metal. The goldsmiths sit silent in their pens within a vast, dim building, or bend over their miniature furnaces making gold and silver filigree. Here are the carpenters using their bare feet in their work almost as deftly as their fingers; and yonder the dyers festooning their long strips of blue cotton from their windows and balconies. Down there, on the way to the Great Mosque, the booksellers hold together: a dwindling tribe, apparently, for of the thirty or forty shops which were formerly theirs not more than half a dozen remain true to literature: the rest are full of red and yellow slippers. Damascus is more inclined to loafing or to dancing than to reading. It seems to belong to the gay, smiling, easy-going East of Scheherazade and Aladdin, not to the sombre and reserved Orient of fierce mystics and fanatical fatalists.

Yet we feel, or imagine that we feel, the hidden presence of passions and possibilities that belong to the tragic side of life underneath this laughing mask of comedy. No longer ago than 1860, in the great Massacre, five thousand Christians perished by fire and shot and dagger in two days; the streets ran with blood; the churches were piled with corpses; hundreds of Christian women were dragged away to Moslem harems; only the brave Abd-el-Kader, with his body-guard of dauntless Algerine veterans, was able to stay the butchery by flinging himself between the blood-drunken mob and their helpless victims.

This was the last wholesale assassination of modern times that a great city has seen, and prosperous, pleasure-loving, insouciant Damascus seems to have quite forgotten it. Yet there are still enough wild Kurdish shepherds, and fierce Bedouins of the desert, and riffraff of camel-drivers and herdsmen and sturdy beggars and homeless men, among her three hundred thousand people to make dangerous material if the tiger-madness should break loose again. A gay city is not always a safe city. The Lady and I saw a man stabbed to death at noon, not fifty feet away from us, in a street beside the Ottoman Bank.

Nothing is safe until justice and benevolence and tolerance and mutual respect are diffused in the hearts of men. How far this inward change has gone in Damascus no one can tell. But that some advance has been made, by real reforms in the Turkish government, by the spread of intelligence and the enlightenment of self-interest, by the sense of next-doorness to Paris and Berlin and London, which telegraphs, railways, and steamships have produced, above all by the useful work of missionary hospitals and schools, and by the humanizing process which has been going on inside of all the creeds, no careful observer can doubt. I fear that men will still continue to kill each other, for various causes, privately and publicly. But thank God it is not likely to be done often, if ever again, in the name of Religion !

The medley of things seen, and half understood has left patterns damascened upon my memory with intricate clearness: immense droves of camels coming up from the wilderness to be sold in the market; factories of inlaid woodwork and wrought brasswork in which hundreds of young children, with beautiful and seeming-merry faces, are hammering and filing and cutting out the designs traced by the draughtsmen who sit at their desks like schoolmasters; vast mosques with rows of marble columns, and floors covered with bright-coloured rugs, and files of men, sometimes two, hundred in a line, with a leader in front of them, making their concerted genuflections toward Mecca; costly interiors of private houses which outwardly show bare white-washed walls, but within welcome the stranger to hospitality of fruits, coffee, and sweetmeats, in stately rooms ornamented with rich tiles and precious marbles, looking upon arcaded courtyards fragrant with blossoming orange-trees and musical with tinkling fountains; tombs of Moslem warriors and saints,—Saladin, the Sultan Beibars, the Sheikh Arslan, the philosopher Ibn-el-Arabi, great fighters now quiet, and restless thinkers finally satisfied; public gardens full of rose-bushes, traversed by clear, swift streams, where groups of women sit gossiping in the shade of the trees or in little kiosques, the Mohammedans with their light veils not altogether hiding their olive faces and languid eyes, the Christians and Jewesses with bare heads, heavy necklaces of amber, flowers behind their ears, silken dresses of soft and varied shades; cafés by the river, where grave and important Turks pose for hours on red velvet divans, smoking the successive cigarette or the continuous nargileh. Out of these memory-pictures of Damascus I choose three.

The Lady and I are climbing up from the great Mosque of the Ommayyades into the Minaret of the Bride, at the hour of 'Asr, or afternoon prayer. As we tread the worn spiral steps in the darkness we hear, far above, the chant of the choir of muezzins, high-pitched, long-drawn, infinitely melancholy, calling the faithful to their devotions.

"Allah akbar! Allah akbar! Allah is great! I testify there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah! Come to prayer!"

The plaintive notes float away over the city toward all four quarters of the sky, and quaver into silence. We come out from the gloom of the staircase into the dazzling light of the balcony which runs around the top of the minaret. For a few moments we can see little; but when the first bewilderment passes, we are conscious that all the charm and wonder of Damascus are spread at our feet.

The oval mass of the city lies like a carving of old ivory, faintly tinged with pink, on a huge table of malachite. The setting of groves and gar-dens, luxuriant, interminable, deeply and beautifully green, covers a circuit of sixty miles. Beyond it, in sharpest contrast, rise the bare, fawn-coloured mountains, savage, intractable, desolate; away to the west, the snow-crowned bulk of Hermon; away to the east, the low-rolling hills and slumbrous haze of the desert. Under these flat roofs and white domes and long black archways of bazaars three hundred thousand folk are swarming. And there, half emerging from the huddle of decrepit modern buildings and partly hidden by the rounded shed of a bazaar, is the ruined top of a Roman arch of triumph, battered, proud, and indomitable.

An hour later we are scrambling up a long, shaky ladder to the flat roofs of the joiners' bazaar, built close against the southern wall of the Mosque. We walk across the roofs and find the ancient south door of the Mosque, now filled up with masonry, and almost completely concealed by the shops above which we are standing. Only the entablature is visible, richly carved with garlands. Kneeling down, we read upon the lintel the Greek inscription in uncial letters, cut when the Mosque was a Christian church. The Moslems who are bowing and kneeling and stretching out their hands toward Mecca among the marble pillars below, know nothing of this inscription. Few even of the Christian visitors to Damascus have ever seen it with their own eyes, for it is difficult to find and read. But there it still endures and waits, the bravest inscription in the world : "Thy kingdom, O Christ, is a kingdom of all ages, and Thy dominion lasts throughout all generations."

From this eloquent and forgotten stone my memory turns to the Hospital of the Edinburgh Medical Mission. I see the lovely garden full of roses, columbines, lilies, pansies, sweet-peas, strawberries just in bloom. I see the poor people coming in a steady stream to the neat, orderly dispensary; the sweet, clean wards with their spotless beds; the merciful candour and completeness of the operating-room; the patient, cheerful, vigorous, healing ways of the great Scotch doctor, who limps around on his broken leg to minister to the needs of other folk. I see the little group of nurses and physicians gathered on Sunday evening in the doctor's parlour for an hour of serious, friendly talk, hopeful and happy. And there, amid the murmur of Abana's rills, and close to the confused and glittering mystery of the Orient, I hear the music of a simple hymn:

"Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
"O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity Interpreted by love!

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