Gates Of Zion - Camp In The Olive Grove
( Originally Published 1908 )
THE place of our encampment is peaceful and friendly, without being remote or secluded. The grove is large and free from all undergrowth: the trunks of the ancient olive-trees are gnarled and massive, the foliage soft and tremulous. The corner that George has chosen for us is raised above the road by a kind of terrace, so that it is not too easily accessible to the curious passer-by. Across the road we see a gray stone wall, and above it the roof of the Anglican Bishop's house, and the schools, from which a sound of shrill young voices shouting in play or chanting in unison rises at intervals through the day. The ground on which we stand is slightly fur-rowed with the little ridges of last year's ploughing: but it has not yet been broken this spring, and it is covered with millions of infinitesimal flowers, blue and purple and yellow and white, like tiny pansies run wild.
The four tents, each circular and about fifteen feet in diameter, are arranged in a crescent. The one nearest to the road is for the kitchen and service; there Shukari, our Maronite chef, in his white cap and apron, turns out an admirable six-course dinner on a portable charcoal range not three feet square. Around the door of this tent there is much coming and going: edibles of all kinds are brought for sale; visitors squat in sociable conversation; curious children hang about, watching the proceedings, or waiting for the favours which a good cook can bestow.
The next tent is the dining-room; the huge wooden chests of the canteen, full of glass and china and table-linen and new Britannia-ware, which shines like silver, are placed one on each side of the entrance; behind the central tent-pole stands the dining-table, with two chairs at the back and one at each end, so that we can all enjoy the view through the open door. The tent is lofty and lined with many-coloured cotton cloth, arranged in elaborate patterns, scarlet and green and yellow and blue. When the four candles are lighted on the well-spread table, and Youssouf the Greek, in his embroidered jacket and baggy blue breeches, comes in to serve the dinner, it is quite an Oriental scene. His assistant, Little Youssouf, the Copt, squats outside of the tent, at one side of the door, to wash up the dishes and polish the Britannia-ware.
The two other tents are of the same pattern and the same gaudy colours within : each of them con-tains two little iron bedsteads, two Turkish rugs, two washstands, one dressing-table, and such bag-gage as we had imagined necessary for our comfort, piled around the tent-pole,—this by way of pre-caution, lest some misguided hand should be tempted to slip under the canvas at night and abstract an un-considered trifle lying near the edge of the tent.
Of our own men I must say that we never had a suspicion, either of their honesty or of their good-humour. Not only the four who had most immediately to do with us, but also the two chief muleteers, Mohammed `Ali and Moûsa, and the songful boy, Mohammed el Nasan, who warbled an interminable Arabian ditty all day long, and Faris and the two other assistants, were models of fidelity and willing service. They did not quarrel (except once, over the division of the mule-loads, in the mountains of Gilead); they got us into no difficulties and subjected us to no blackmail from humbugging Bedouin chiefs. They are of a picturesque motley in costume and of a bewildering variety in creed—Anglican, Catholic, Coptic, Maronite, Greek, Mohammedan, and one of whom the others say that "he belongs to no religion, but sings beautiful Persian songs." Yet, so far as we are concerned, they all do the things they ought to do and leave undone the things they ought not to do, and their way with us is peace. Much of this, no doubt, is due to the wisdom, tact, and firmness of George the Bethlehemite, the best of dragomans.
We have many visitors at the camp, but none un-welcome. The American Consul, a genial scholar who knows Palestine by heart and has made valuable contributions to the archæology of Jerusalem, comes with his wife to dine with us in the open air. George's gentle wife and his two bright little boys, Howard and Robert, are with us often. Missionaries come to tell us of their labours and trials. An Arab hunter, with his long flintlock musket, brings us beautiful gray partridges which he has shot among the near-by hills. The stable-master comes day after day with strings of horses galloping through the grove; for our first mounts were not to our liking, and we are determined not to start on our longer ride until we have found steeds that suit us. Peasants from the country round about bring all sorts of things to sell—vegetables, and lambs, and pigeons, and old coins, and embroidered caps.
There are two men ploughing in a vineyard be-hind the camp, beyond the edge of the grove. The plough is a crooked stick of wood which scratches the surface of the earth. The vines are lying flat on the ground, still leafless, closely pruned: they look like big black snakes.
Women of the city, dressed in black and blue silks, with black mantles over their heads, come out in the afternoon to picnic among the trees. They sit in little circles on the grass, smoking cigarettes and eating sweetmeats. If they see us looking at them they draw the corners of their mantles across the lower part of their faces; but when they think themselves unobserved they drop their veils and regard us curiously with lustrous brown eyes.
One morning a procession of rustic women and girls, singing with shrill voices, pass the camp on their way to the city to buy the bride's clothes for a wedding. At nightfall they return singing yet more loudly, and accompanied by men and boys firing guns into the air and shouting.
Another day a crowd of villagers go by. Their old Sheikh rides in the midst of them, with his white-and-gold turban, his long gray beard, his flowing robes of rich silk. He is mounted on a splendid white Arab horse, with arched neck and flaunting tail; and a beautiful, gaily dressed little boy rides behind him with both arms clasped around the old man's waist. They are going up to the city for the Mohammedan rite of circumcision.
Later in the day a Jewish funeral comes hurrying through the grove: some twenty or thirty men in flat caps trimmed with fur and gabardines of cotton velvet, purple, or yellow, or pink, chanting psalms as they march, with the body of the dead man wrapped in linen cloth and carried on a rude bier on their shoulders. They seem in haste, (because the hour is late and the burial must be made before sunset), perhaps a little indifferent, or almost joyful.
Certainly there is no sign of grief in their looks or their voices; for among them it is counted a fortunate thing to die in the Holy City and to be buried on the southern slope of the Valley of Jehoshaphat, where Gabriel is to blow his trumpet for the resurrection.