Grand Hotel De Damas
( Originally Published Mid 1800's )
Sunday Evening, December 3, 1865.
DEAR FATHER, — Here I am in Damascus. I have reached the most easterly point of all my travels. I am in the oldest city of the world, and will write you how I reached here and what it looks like. My last, which I suppose was sent from Beyrout, was written on the steamer from Smyrna. We landed at Beyrout a week ago today, and went to church in the morning at the American mission, and in the afternoon at the English consulate. We had a host of dragomans about us, and selecting one, we set him at work to make his preparations for our long Syrian journey. We engage him to take us to Jaffa, paying all charges at an expense of five pounds ten shillings per day for the party. Monday we spent in making our arrangements, trying horses, getting our contract with the dragoman certified before the American consul, etc., etc.
Tuesday morning early our party might have been seen mounting and making ready for departure at the door of the Hotel de l'Orient, surrounded by a great crowd of curious natives. Let me tell you of what our caravan consists. Remember, we are to travel thirty days or more, dependent almost wholly upon what we carry with us. First, of the animals : there are six horses, six mules, and two donkeys. The six horses are ridden by Dr. Leeds, Mr. Appleton, and François his French courier ; by P. B., and Ibrahim Amatury, our native dragoman, an invaluable person, who speaks many languages and does all sorts of things ; and Achmet, the muleteer, who owns the horses and goes with us to look after their welfare. Scattered about among the animals come our other attendants, namely, Antonio, the cook, a native of Bagdad, and Luin his waiter, Ibrahim, Luttuf, a boy from Damascus who sings Arabic love songs, Hoseim, and Elias, these last four, mule drivers and general servants. So our whole corps, you see, is twelve. Our baggage always starts off first, and we follow in an hour or two. Then we stop to lunch at midday, and let them get ahead again, and arrive at our camping-place for the night to find the tents all pitched and dinner ready. Our horses are good. I am mounted on a bay horse (not quite as big as Robin), which wouldn't make much show on the Mill Dam, but has stood it splendidly, so far, over these hard roads.
We left Beyrout early this morning on the road which a French company have built all the way to Damascus. We kept this road all day. We wound up Mt. Lebanon by slow degrees, through olive groves and mulberry-trees, with the snowy summits of the highest peaks looking down upon us, passing several monasteries, which swarm all along these hills. At noon we made our first halt, and lunched at the Khan Sheik Mahmoud, a rude sort of lodging-place halfway up. About three in the afternoon, we reached the top of the range, and began to descend into the valley between Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon, called, of old, Coele-Syria. Here Mt. Hermon first loomed in sight, with its great round snow-covered top off to the southeast. At the foot of Lebanon we came to the little village of Mecseh, just outside of which we pitched our first camp and spent the night. We were a very picturesque group, I assure you, by our night fire, with our Syrians in their striking costumes and the wild mountain rising behind us. We have two large tents : Dr. Leeds, Appleton, and I sleep in one, and the rest of the company in the other. We live well, our cook is first rate, and provisions are plenty. The middle of the day is intensely warm, the nights very cold, but the weather so far splendidly clear.
Wednesday morning we were off again early, and leaving the French road soon struck off through the town of Zahleh, and so along up the valley towards Baalbec. We stopped a few minutes at a little village to see what they call " Noah's Tomb," which is a queer thing in a long house; a kind of grave, about fifty yards long, in which they say the patriarch was buried. He must have been about as long as St. Paul's church. It is a sacred place and covered all over with offerings. We stopped this day to lunch by an old mill on the river Litany, and then, after a long, hot afternoon ride, about five o'clock we saw before us the ruins of Baalbec. We galloped in, pitched our tents in the great court of the Temple of the Sun, and ate our dinner in sight of the grand remains. I can-not describe to you the splendor of the moonlight that night, as we roamed about and saw the Temple of the Sun, with its enormous columns, and the Temple of Jupiter close by it, both in ruins, but both sublime. We slept well in the old temple court. Our guides told us of a jackal prowling around at night, but I cannot boast of having seen him. I wish I had. Right opposite we saw the snowy hills on which the Lebanon cedars grew, but had no time to visit them.
Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, we thought much of America and home. We spent the forenoon in carefully going over the ruins, which are immense and very beautiful. At noon we took horses, and now began, striking for Damascus, to cross the Anti-Lebanon range. We lunched under a fine old walnut-tree, two hours from Baalbec, in the midst of a hot and stony plain. Then crossing another ridge, on the top of which we saw the mosque which contains the tomb of Seth, the son of Adam, we came by a steep, zigzag Roman road into the loveliest little green valley, up which we rode to the town of Sigâya, where we encamped that night, and while our Thanksgiving dinner was getting ready roamed about the little town, to the great wonder and bewilderment of the people, who came about us in crowds. These Syrian villages are the most miserable places on earth. As soon as you enter one, the children turn out at your heels, crying, " Backsheesh," and the squalid, half-dressed men and women creep to the doors and gaze vacantly at you. The houses are of mud and stones, one story high, so that you see the tops of the houses as you ride, with sometimes a Moslem on them saying his prayers towards Mecca, or a lazy group cooking themselves in the sun. Our Thanksgiving dinner was a great success. We had brought a turkey especially from Beyrout, and a choice bottle of wine. Antoine made us a superb plum pudding, we drank everybody's health at home, and were supremely patriotic. Then we smoked our pipes and went to bed, and I for one dreamed I was in America.
Friday morning early, off again up the valley of Sigâya, past several little villages, over hot stones, till we lunched by a heap of rocks in an open field, the only shade for miles and miles. Then in the afternoon we began to get into a deep gorge, and soon came to a fine waterfall, and so felt we were getting somewhere near Damascus, because this was the river Barada, formerly the Abana. (" Are not Abana and Pharphar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel ? ")
We kept along this stream, passed the old town of Abila, the scenery growing finer and finer all the afternoon. On a hilltop close by we saw the old tomb of Abel, the son of Adam, and so about dusk came to the beautiful fountain of El Fijeh, where we camped. It is a spring gushing out of the rock, over which stand two ruined temples, surrounded by deep groves. It is one of the sources of the Ahana. We slept here, and the next morning left early, crossed the last range of Anti-Lebanon, and, as we climbed the final peak and stood beside a little ruined dome upon its top, there was Damascus in the valley, with its beauty all about it. No city ever looked so lovely ; a broad girdle of gardens encircles it, and its domes and minarets fill up the picture within, while the Abana on one side and the Pharphar on the other come bringing their tribute of waters to it. We were soon down the hill, and a quick trot carried us through the gardens, thick with pomegranates, oranges, and citrons, into the town itself, where for a day or two we exchanged tent life for that at the Grand Hotel.
Now about the town. This is the most picturesque of Oriental cities, where you see nothing but Orientals, no Frank hat but your own ; where Bedouins fresh from the desert crowd you in the streets ; where you sit in the courtyard of your hotel, hear the fountain splashing in the centre, and see the orange-trees around it ; where the promenade is on the house-top, and the narrow streets are full of dogs, donkeys, and camels. It is a delightful town ; and then its history ! Here is the street called " Straight," where Judas lived, keeping its old name (see Acts ix). They show you the house of Judas, where Paul lodged, and the house of Ananias. On the wall you see the place where Paul was let down in the basket, and even the place of his conversion is kept by a tradition ; nay, more, the old house of Naaman the Syrian is shown, with a hospital for lepers close by it. The poor creatures came and begged alms of us as we were looking. And the old mosque which was once a Christian church is said to have been, further back, the " House of Rimmon " of the old Testament. At any rate here is the old town, and all these things were here, and the life in this old stagnant East is just about the same today that it was then.
This morning I went to the Greek church and saw a miserable mummery. This was my only church-going. There are not enough English here to keep up an English service. The English consul, Mr. Rogers, called on us last night, and says he is almost alone here.
You will wonder why I have written you all this. The truth is, I have written partly for myself. I don't dare to hope that it will all interest you, but I want to keep a pretty full account of this Syrian trip, and so put it down day by day. Please keep my letters. To-morrow we leave for Caesarea and Tyre. You will see our route is somewhat changed since I wrote to mother. I hope to get letters from you all at Jerusalem at Christmas. I am perfectly well, with good spirits and lots of appetite, but sometimes I think how good it will be to get home again and think this over. I wonder how you all do, and I pray you are well. Good-by ; I don't know when you will get this, probably not till after New Year's, when I shall be in Egypt or in Greece. I am thirty years old next week. God bless and keep you all.