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Going Up To Jerusalem - Strength Of The Hills

( Originally Published 1908 )



IT is no hardship to rise early in camp. At the windows of a house the daylight often knocks as an unwelcome messenger, rousing the sleeper with a sudden call. But through the roof and the sides of a tent it enters gently and irresistibly, embracing you with soft arms, laying rosy touches on your eyelids; and while your dream fades you know that you are awake and it is already day.

As we lift the canvas curtains and come out of our pavilions, the sun is just topping the eastern hills, and all the field around us glittering with immense drops of dew. On the top of the ruined arch beside the camp our Arab watchman, hired from the village of Latrûn as we passed, is still perched motionless, wrapped in his flowing rags, holding his long gun across his knees.

"Salam `aleikum, ya ghafîr!" I say, and though my Arabic is doubtless astonishingly bad, he knows my meaning; for he answers gravely, "`Aleikum essalam !—And with you be peace!"

It is indeed a peaceful day in which our journey to Jerusalem is completed. Leaving the tents and impedimenta in charge of Youssouf and Shukari the cook, and the muleteers, we are in the saddle by seven o'clock, and riding into the narrow entrance of the Wadi `Ali. It is a long, steep valley leading into the heart of the hills. The sides are ribbed with rocks, among which the cyclamens grow in profusion. A few olives are scattered along the bottom of the vale, and at the tomb of the Imam `Ali there is a grove of large trees. At the summit of the pass we rest for half an hour, to give our horses a breathing-space, and to refresh our eyes with the glorious view westward over the tumbled country of the Shephelah, the opalescent Plain of Sharon, the sand-hills of the coast, and the broad blue of the Mediterranean. Northward and southward and eastward the rocky summits and ridges of Judea roll away.

Now we understand what the Psalmist means by ascribing "the strength of the hills" to Jehovah; and a new light comes into the song:

"As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, So Jehovah is round about his people."

These natural walls and terraces of gray limestone have the air of antique fortifications and watchtowers of the border. They are truly "munitions of rocks." Chariots and horsemen could find no field for their manoeuvres in this broken and perpendicular country. Entangled in these deep and winding valleys by which they must climb up from the plain, the invaders would be at the mercy of the light infantry of the highlands, who would roll great stones upon them as they passed through the narrow defiles, and break their ranks by fierce and sudden downward rushes as they toiled panting up the steep hillsides. It was this strength of the hills that the children of Israel used for the defence of Jerusalem, and by this they were able to resist and defy the Philistines, whom they could never wholly conquer.

Yonder on the hillside, as we ride onward, we see a reminder of that old tribal warfare between the people of the highlands and the people of the plains. That gray village, perched upon a rocky ridge above thick olive-orchards and a deliciously green valley, is the ancient Kirjath-Jearim, where the Ark of Jehovah was hidden for twenty years, after the Philistines had sent back this perilous trophy of their victory over the sons of Eli, being terrified by the pestilence and disaster that followed its possession.

The men of Beth-shemesh, to whom it was first returned, were afraid to keep it, because they also had been smitten with death when they dared to peep into this dreadful box. But the men of Kirjath-Jearim were at once bolder and wiser, so they "came and fetched up the Ark of Jehovah, and brought it into the house of Abinadab in the hill, and set apart Eleazar, his son, to keep the Ark of Jehovah."

What strange vigils in that little hilltop cottage where the young man watches over this precious, dangerous, gilded coffer, while Saul is winning and losing his kingdom in a turmoil of blood and sorrow and madness, forgetful of Israel's covenant with the Most High ! At last comes King David, from his newly won stronghold of Zion, seeking eagerly for this lost symbol of the people's faith. "Lo, we heard of it at Ephratah; we found it in the field of the wood." So the gray stone cottage on the hilltop gave up its sacred treasure, and David carried it away with festal music and dancing. But was Eleazar glad, I wonder, or sorry, that his long vigil was ended ?

To part from a care is sometimes like losing a friend.

I confess that it is difficult to make these ancient stories of peril and adventure, (or even the modern history of Abu Ghôsh the robber-chief of this village a hundred years ago), seem real to us today. Every-thing around us is so safe and tranquil, and, in spite of its novelty, so familiar. The road descends steeply with long curves and windings into the Wadi Beit Hanina. We meet and greet many travellers, on horseback, in carriages and afoot, natives and pilgrims, German colonists, French priests, Italian monks, English tourists and explorers. It is a pleasant game to guess from an approaching pilgrim's looks whether you should salute him with "Guten Morgen," or "Buon' Giorno," or "Bon jour, m'sieur." The country people answer your salutation with a pretty phrase: "Neharak said umubarak—May your day be happy and blessed."

At Kalôniyeh, in the bottom of the valley, there is a prosperous settlement of German Jews; and the gardens and orchards are flourishing. There is also a little wayside inn, a rude stone building, with a ter-race around it; and there, with apricots and plums blossoming beside us, we eat our lunch al fresco, and watch our long pack-train, with the camp and baggage, come winding down the hill and go tinkling past us toward Jerusalem.

The place is very friendly; we are in no haste to leave it. A few miles to the southward, sheltered in the lap of a rounding hill, we can see the tall cypress-trees and quiet gardens of `Ain. Karim, the village where John the Baptist was born. It has a singular air of attraction, seen from a distance, and one of the sweetest stories in the world is associated with it. For it was there that the young bride Mary visited her older cousin Elizabeth,—you remember the exquisite picture of the " Visitation " by Albertinelli in the Uffizi at Florence,—and the joy of coming motherhood in these two women's hearts spoke from each to each like a bell and its echo. Would the birth of Jesus, the character of Jesus, have been possible unless there had been the virginal and expectant soul of such a woman as Mary, ready to welcome His coming with her song ? "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour." Does not the advent of a higher manhood always wait for the hope and longing of a nobler womanhood ?

The chiming of the bells of St. John floats faintly and silverly across the valley as we leave the shelter of the wayside rest-house and mount for the last stage of our upward journey. The road ascends steeply. Nestled in the ravine to our left is the grizzled and dilapidated village of Lifta, a town with an evil reputation.

"These people sold all their land," says George the dragoman, "twenty years ago, sold all the fields, gardens, olive-groves. Now they are dirty and lazy in that village,—all thieves!"

Over the crest of the hill the red-tiled roofs of the first houses of Jerusalem are beginning to appear. They are houses of mercy, it seems: one an asylum for the insane, the other a home for the aged poor. Passing them, we come upon schools and hospital buildings and other evidences of the charity of the Rothschilds toward their own people. All around us are villas and consulates, and rows of freshly built houses for Jewish colonists.

This is not at all the way that we had imagined to ourselves the first sight of the Holy City. All here is half-European, unromantic, not very picturesque. It may not be "the New Jerusalem," but it is certainly a modern Jerusalem. Here, in these comfortably commonplace dwellings, is almost half the present population of the city; and rows of new houses are rising on every side.

But look down the southward-sloping road. There is the sight that you have imagined and longed to see: the brown battlements, the white-washed houses, the flat roofs, the slender minarets, the many-coloured domes of the ancient city of David, and Solomon, and Hezekiah, and Herod, and Omar, and Godfrey, and Saladin,—but never of Christ. That great black dome is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The one beyond it is the Mosque of Omar. Those golden bulbs and pinnacles beyond the city are the Greek Church of Saint Mary Magdalen on the side of the Mount of Olives; and on the top of the lofty ridge rises the great pointed tower of the Russians from which a huge bell booms out a deep-toned note of welcome.

On every side we see the hospices and convents and churches and palaces of the different sects of Christendom. The streets are full of people and carriages and beasts of burden. The dust rises around us. We are tired with the trab, trab, trab of our horses' feet upon the hard highroad. Let us not go into the confusion of the city, but ride quietly down to the left into a great olive-grove, outside the Damascus Gate.

Here our white tents are pitched among the trees, with the dear flag of our home flying over them. Here we shall find leisure and peace to unite our hearts, and bring our thoughts into tranquil harmony, before we go into the bewildering city. Here the big stars will look kindly down upon us through the silvery leaves, and the sounds of human turmoil and contention will not trouble us. The distant booming of the bell on the Mount of Olives will mark the night-hours for us, and the long-drawn plaintive call of the muezzin from the minaret of the little mosque at the edge of the grove will wake us to the sunrise.



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