by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books

 

Chapter 13 | Contents | Chapter 15


The Holy Land and the Bible
A Book of Scripture Illustrations gathered in Palestine

Cunningham Geikie D.D.

With a Map of Palestine and Original Illustrations by H. A. Harper
Special Edition

(1887)

CHAPTER 14—FALUJEH TO BEIT JIBRIN AND HEBRON

Arak—A Ticklish Descent—Beit JibrinTaking Refuge in the Sheikh's House—How the Turks GovernRoughing itThe Site of GathArtificial Caverns—Cave-Dwellers of To-dayEvading ConscriptionA Relic of Byzantine Times—The Crescent Victorious over the CrossOriental SalutationsThrough the "Desert"Stone Walls

The plain east and north of Flujeh stretches unbroken for miles. Half-way to the hills we passed on our right the village of Arak, on the top of a hill 578 feet high, and then reached Zeita, about the same height above the sea, at the entrance to the hill-region. It was only a poor hamlet, as indeed was Arak, but there were no other communities for miles around; the country, rich as it was, lay without population. Relics of better days were to be seen, however, even in such paltry collections of hovels. Herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, belonging to the Arabs, fed on the common. Finely-built cisterns marked every ancient site or modern hamlet, often with marble pillars lying round, their sides grooved with the well-ropes of hundreds of years. Fragments of tesselated pavements, Corinthian capitals, stone channels connecting wells with plastered stone tanks—built, who knows how long ago?—spoke of a very different state of things from the present. In one place, a colony of sparrows had taken possession of an ancient dry cistern, and chirped lustily. The sides of a wady, here and there, showed pieces of ancient walls, built strongly across the valley, to check the rush of the winter torrents, and save them for irrigation; but all was now in ruins. Little girls at the village rain-pond, flying about with dirty faces and streaming hair; boys playing round, or bathing in the pond; women drawing water from it for the household; all alike, women and children, with no clothing but a longer or shorter smock; men lounging on the village dust-heap, their favourite place of assembly—were the ever-recurring sights at each widely-separated cluster of mud huts.

Beit Jibrin lies in a valley, approached by a steep track over bare sheets or rock, loose stones, boulders, and every variety of roughness. It had grown quite dark before we reached the beginning of the long descent, so that there was nothing for it but to let my horse have its own way, over, round, or between the stones and bare rocks, as it chose. A false step might have thrown me over the side of the hill, I knew not into what abyss. Such a ride brings before one, as perhaps nothing else could, the force of the Bible promises that the people of God will be kept from sliding and falling; and the terribleness of the threats that the workers of iniquity shall be set in slippery places, and that their feet shall slide in due time (Prov 3:23; Jer 31:9; Deut 32:35). I could realise what Jeremiah said of the wicked of his days, that "their way should be unto them as slippery ways in the darkness" (Jer 23:12. See also Psa 35:6, 73:18). At last, however, we reached Beit Jibrin, a village of 900 or 1,000 inhabitants. But here a new trouble awaited us. The men with the tents had not arrived. We went hither and thither in search of them, but it was of no use; they had evidently taken some other road, and had stayed for the night where darkness overtook them. Nothing was left for us but to seek shelter in the sheikh's house, a huge, rough building, constructed of stones taken from the ruins of the ancient castle of the town, a massive wreck, near which we had alighted from our horses. The way to the house was as dark as midnight, and full of turnings, past dust-heaps, decayed mud hovels, sunken courtyards, and much else, which covered the slope, while fierce dogs barked and snarled on every side, just as they "compassed" the Psalmist long ago (Psa 22:16). It needed my own stick and that of my friend to protect us from these savage brutes. Quiet by day, they make a fierce noise at night, as in the old Hebrew villages (Psa 59:6).

At last we reached the sheikh's house, to which a large patched and broken gate, standing open, gave entrance, under a rough arch. An old pillar lay across the threshold, requiring one to make a high step to get over it—a matter all the more difficult as there was no light inside, while the ground was uneven and thick with dry mud and manure. Walking on under the arch for twenty or thirty feet, a chamber, with a wall up to the entrance-arch, opened to the left—a large place, lighted by only one small lamp, high up, at the far end. The floor was raised about two feet, excepting a horse-shoe space, which was unpaved. On the ground in the middle of this glimmered a wood fire, round which sat fifteen or twenty men on rude benches and stones,some smoking, others gazing idly at the embers. On the dais, at the head of this oblong pit, stood the great man, who, with all the rest, rose to receive us, beckoning to me and my friend to sit down on a small carpet and some cushions, at his side. It was a repetition of the experience of Job in his prosperity. "When I prepared my seat in the street, the aged arose and stood up" (Job 29:7). When we sat down, they did the same. Opposite me, along the wall of the dais, sat a number of men, and just before the sheikh squatted a Turkish soldier, in blue and white, with a "kefiyeh" on his head. We had chanced to come on a "town council" meeting, the subject being worthy of the place. The Governor of Jerusalem had sent two soldiers to arrest one or more offenders at Beit Jibrin, and this gathering of the elders had been summoned to arrange with these military bailiffs what they would accept in the way of bribe to go back and say they could not find the men they sought. My friend found this out as we sat listening.

The town has an evil name, its population of well-grown, muscular men, who are thus very different from the peasants of other parts, being bold and insolent, though industrious, as a whole, and comparatively well-to-do. The father of the sheikh at whose side I sat had been a ruffian of the worst kind, the terror of the neighbourhood and of the townsmen. Tales of monstrous crimes committed by him were rife. It is said that if he heard of a man having married a handsome wife, he would invite the two to his house, and if he fancied the girl, would stab the husband on the spot, and make the widow marry him forthwith. Till his death no traveller dared visit Beit Jibrin, and the traders from Hebron could not venture to come near it with their goods. The Turks, however, have brought down the pride of the house since his death, for the family are now much reduced, as the ruinous condition of parts of the rough mansion showed.

After a while it was time to rest, and we proceeded to our room. Led out to the roofless, earth-floored entrance, we mounted a terribly rickety stair—the carpentry of which may have dated, for its rudeness, from any time since the Flood—to a plaster-floored chamber, with an open hole in one corner, over the yard, large enough to be a peril to any baby. This was the discharge-gap for refuse from this particular room. On the way up-stairs, I could see into the place I had left, where the men were sitting; the wall next the court being built up only to the spring of the arches on which the second storey rested. A high outer wall enclosed the court, making it part of the mansion, and the stair to my dormitory clung, on one side, to this; but, though the wall ran up thus, there was no roof; the court was open to the sky. A narrow passage projecting from the side of our room faced the court—a mere shaky bridge of rough wood, leading to the women's apartments, which looked out on the high wall. Half the space apparently occupied by the house, as seen from the outside, was thus really a yard, only the front and one side having a roof, which, of course, was flat. Our room was arched, or rather, four arches met in the centre, overhead, as in the "council chamber," below us. Two pairs of old mill-stones lay in one corner; one of them, the lower, in a wooden tray with edges as high as the top of the stone, to catch the flour. A thin carpet, the size of a large hearthrug, and a quilted coverlet, large enough to cover one person, were the only furniture. Ere long, however, the colporteur, who seemed quite at home, brought me a pillow of red cloth, on seeing me lie down quite worn out, and this was supplemented a little later by two thick quilts as mattresses, for my companion and myself, and a thin quilt for bed-clothes. The door, of sycamore, may have been of any age, so clumsy and primitive was it. One of its hinges was gone, but it could be closed after a fashion, with the help of two men to lift it. To shut it exactly was, however, an impossible feat. The only bolt was a rough cut of a thick branch, which we propped against the door, but only to see it knocked down, soon afterwards, by some intruder. There were two windows, without glass, but with lattices, the openings between the laths being of the size of small panes. The windows were closed by shutters of half-inch wood, one of them kept in its place by a great piece of timber laid against it. As to their fitting the window-spaces, no such idea had troubled the genius who made them. You could see through the gaping chinks in pretty nearly every direction. A small recess in the wall was lighted by a little tin paraffin lamp, with no glass—a dismal affair, giving a light like that of a tallow candle, and spreading a rich perfume round.

To get any supper was the difficulty. Nothing whatever was offered by our host. After a time I managed to secure a little hot water, and infused some compressed tea, in a small tin. We had sugar, but no milk; bread, made at Gaza, in flat "bannocks"; some hard-boiled eggs; and, I believe, the wreck of a cold chicken. There was no table, no chair, no anything; so we sat on the floor and did our best. Then came the almost hopeless attempt to sleep. One of the many wolf-like, long-muzzled, yellow town dogs, prowling through the open gateway, had wandered up to us, and, smelling the food, darted into the room, knocking down our ingenious prop behind the gaping door. The colporteur, however, was a match for him. My long-legged friend had composed himself to sleep with his back against the wall, and his lower members stretched out far across the floor, but he gathered them up in a moment, and, with a volley of fierce Arabic, drove the quadruped at a gallop down the rickety outside stair; then settled down at the same right angle as before, for his night's enjoyment. As to myself, sleep danced round my pillow, but would not do me the kindness of mesmerising my tired brain. Indeed, it would have been hard to get into oblivion, in any case, under the fierce attacks of regiments, brigades, and army-corps of fleas which presently marched or leaped over me, like the myriad Lilliputians over Gulliver. What a night! I never spent such another, I think, except once, twenty-five years ago, when I bivouacked on the shore of Lake Huron, on a missionary visit to the Indians with an excellent friend, who is now Vicar of Ogbourne St. George's in Wiltshire. The sand-flies and mosquitoes there were even worse than the hosts of fleas here, for they bit Mr. Pyne's nose till it was a great deal thicker at the bridge than at the nostrils; inverted it, in fact, as to shape. Morning, however, in this instance as in that, broke at last; we had no clothes to put on, for we had not undressed; the women were already astir, carrying brushwood to their room, for firing; children came and looked in on us; breakfast was easily made on the scraps of last night's feast, and we gladly sought the open air, to take a survey of the town and neighbourhood. Arab hospitality had done very little in our case.

Beit Jibrin is thought by Dr. Tristram to be the successor ancient Gath; by others, to be that of the old city of Eleutheropolis or Bethogabra, "the House of Gabriel." The ancient name, Beit Jibrin—"the House of Giants"—now restored to it, seems to point to the survivors of the race to which Goliath belonged, as being once settled here, and we know that they lived in Gath. Conder, however, as we have seen, believes Tell es Safieh to have been the ancient Philistine city; but which opinion is right must be left to others for future discussion. At the foot of the rising ground on which the sheikh's mansion stood are the remains of a great fortress, with tremendous walls, still cased, in parts, with squared stones, and, in places, thirty-two lengths of my foot thick. There is nothing in Palestine so extensive and massive, except the substructions of the ancient Temple at Jerusalem, or the Mosque at Hebron. A ruined wall of large squared stones, laid on each other without mortar, encloses the fortress at a good distance; a row of ancient massive vaults, with fine round arches, running along, inside, on the west and north-west, many of them buried in rubbish, but some still serving as houses. The space thus shut in to form the ancient castle-yard is about 600 feet square; the fortress itself being a square of 195 feet, and showing the magnificent architecture of the Crusaders. Beyond the enclosure, remains of the town wall, or fortifications, extend, in all, to about 2,000 feet, with a ditch in front—a defence strong enough, in all its parts, one would have thought, to keep out the Saracens for ever, as indeed it would have done had the Crusaders been united among themselves.

Outside the walls are three wells, two with water, one dry, the masonry apparently Crusading, though both they and the fortress have been patched up in later times, the last repairs seeming to have been made, if we may judge from an inscription, about 300 years ago. Since then everything has fallen to ruin, the very enclosure of the castle, where the rubbish allows, being used for mud hovels, or for patches of tobacco or vegetables. One of the wells, of great size, and probably 100 feet deep, full to overflowing after rain, is of itself enough to show what the place might be made under a good government. Ornaments on the marble capitals found here and there show that Beit Jibrin has had a long, eventful history, one of them exhibiting such purely Jewish devices as the seven-branched candlestick, a relic, probably, of Maccabæan times.

The fortifications of Beit Jibrin are not, however, so remarkable as the artificial caverns found in its neighbourhood. There are fourteen in all, rudely circular, and connected together; their diameter from twenty to sixty feet, and their height from twenty to thirty. Crosses are cut on the walls of all the caves, and early Arabic inscriptions, of which one is the name of Saladin. In some of the caverns there are also many niches for lamps; in others, rows of larger niches, probably for urns containing the ashes of the dead after cremation. There are, besides, spaces cut for bodies, marking the change from burning to burial. Altogether, the caverns are very remarkable, but it is hard to form any safe judgment either as to their origin or the purpose for which they were first used. They are about a mile south of the town, in a hill which is completely honeycombed with them. You enter by a perpendicular shaft in the hillside, into which you have to creep after your guide, letting yourself down as he directs. Candles for light, and a cord to show the way back, are necessary. Pressing through the briars and loose pieces of stone at the mouth, you reach the bottom after a time, and then lighting your candles, creep on all fours along a winding passage, to the bottom of a circular dome-shaped cavern, about sixty feet high, and solid at the top. A flight of stone steps winding round the sides leads, about half-way up, by a twisting tunnel, through which it is again necessary to creep, to another cavern; but there are smaller chambers on the way, and passages branch off in all directions in a perfect maze. To visit all these strange caves would be a difficult, and indeed almost impossible, task; but one or two are a fair sample of all.

In their present size and condition they are evidently of comparatively late origin; but the fact that many Jewish tombs have been more or less destroyed in enlarging them shows that they must, in their earlier state, be at least as old as the time when the Hebrews ruled over this district, in the Maccabæan age, or earlier. The entrances are sometimes at the top, sometimes at the bottom; and there is no provision for lighting. Nor are they in any measure on the same level: bottoms and tops alike go up and down without plan or regularity. It is impossible for them to have been intended for tombs; but they may have been a vast system of underground reservoirs of water to provide against the contingencies of a siege, all the caverns being, as I have said, connected. That there are no openings at the top of most of them seems, however, to militate against such a theory in these particular excavations, though there are others to which it may apply. Were they originally caves of the Horites, who lived in such excavations in the rocks as these must originally have been; or are they a counterpart of the subterranean cities still to be found in some regions east of the Jordan?* Consul-General Wetzstein and Herr Schumacher are, so far as I know, the only persons who have fully explored one of these subterranean cities, and as the narrative of the former is much more vividly written than that of his fellow-countryman, I quote it:—

"I visited old Edrei—the subterranean labyrinthine resident of King Og—on the east side of the Zamle hills. Two sons of the sheikh of the village—one fourteen, the other sixteen years of age—accompanied me. We took with us a box of matches and two candles. After we had gone down the slope for some time, we came to a dozen rooms which, at present, are used as goat-stalls and store-rooms for straw. The passage became gradually smaller, until at last we were compelled to lie down flat, and creep along. This extremely difficult and uncomfortable process lasted for about eight minutes, when we were obliged to jump down a steep wall, several feet in height. Here I noticed that the younger of my two attendants had remained behind, being afraid to follow us; but probably it was more from fear of the unknown European than of the dark and winding passages before us.

"We now found ourselves in a broad street, which had dwellings on both sides of it, whose height and width left nothing to be desired. The temperature was mild, the air free from unpleasant odours, and I felt not the smallest difficulty in breathing. Further along, there were several cross-streets, and my guide called my attention to a hole in the ceiling for air, like three others which I afterwards saw (now) closed up from above. Soon after we came to a market-place, where, for a long distance on both sides of a pretty broad street, there were numerous shops in the walls, exactly in the style of the shops that are seen in Syrian cities. After a while we turned into a side-street, where a great hall, whose roof was supported by four pillars, attracted my attention. The roof, or ceiling, was formed of a single slab of jasper, perfectly smooth, and of immense size, in which I could not perceive the slightest crack. The rooms, for the most part, had no supports; the doors were often made of a single square stone; and here and there I also noticed fallen columns. After we had passed several cross-alleys or streets, and before we had reached the middle of this subterranean city, my attendant's light went out. As he was lighting again by mine, it occurred to me that possibly both our lights might be put out, and I asked the boy if he had any matches. 'No,' he replied, 'my brother has them.' 'Could you find your way back if the lights were put out?' 'Impossible,' he replied. For a moment I began to be alarmed at this under-world, and urged an immediate return. Without much difficulty we got back to the market-place, and from there the youngster knew the way well enough. Thus, after a sojourn of more than an hour and a half in this labyrinth, I greeted the light of day."

* Wetzstein, Reisebericht uber Hauran, ii. 47, 48; Schumacher, Across the Jordan, p. 136.
No wonder that it needed swarms of hornets to drive the population out of such a stronghold as this, and bring them within reach of the swords of the Hebrews (Exo 23:28; Deut 7:20; Josh 24:12).

The caverns of Beit Jibrin are certainly very inferior to such a city, but they may represent a different stage of civilisation. A great proportion of the inhabitants of the Hauran still live in caves, and I have already described a cave-village near Beersheba (see p. 237).

Half-way between the caverns and the town is an interesting ruin, the Church of St. Anne, one of the finest Byzantine churches in Palestine. The path to it runs south, across the fine valley from which rises the low hill on which Beit Jibrin stands. Many olive-trees in avenues shade the way towards the gentle acclivity, shutting in the town on the south; the town, by the way, is quite surrounded with hills of sufficient elevation to conceal it from view till their crest is reached. On the road I learned that here also, as in other parts of Southern Judæa, and in most districts of the Turkish Empire, men frequently mutilate themselves, that they may be unfit for military service, which they profoundly dread, from its carrying them so far from home. One man was pointed out to me who had hacked off his thumb to escape conscription, inflicting on himself voluntarily the injury to which, in Joshua's time, seventy local chiefs had been subjected by a ferocious Canaanite kinglet, to make them incapable of holding the sword or the spear, and thus quite powerless for war (Judg 1:7). To strengthen the empire, it is a custom with the Sultan to send recruits to distant countries; Arabs, perhaps, being sent to guard Constantinople, while Turks, or Kurds, garrison Palestine. The soldiers I saw the night before proved to be Kurds. The blinding of an eye is more frequent than the cutting off of a thumb, some burning liquid being used for the purpose; but the sight of both eyes is often lost in the process.

The Church of St. Anne stands half-way up the slope, and at once carries the thoughts back to the old Byzantine times, though it has been "restored" by the Frank Crusaders in the Gothic style, perhaps when far gone in decay. The east end is still perfect, and there are a few courses above the foundation along the whole nave, which extended to a length of 124 feet, with a width of thirty-two feet, while the breadth of the church, as shown by remains of the walls, was 154 feet; so that the building was, originally, not far from square. Two tiers of windows, five feet broad, ran along the sides, and at the east end was a semi-circular projection, or apse, in which were three windows. The height of the apse had originally been forty-three feet, but a piece of the roof of the nave is ten feet lower, so that a dome or other construction must have been used to join the two. It is touching to see such a ruin in a land now given up to Mahommedanism. The conquests of the Cross have shrunk as well as expanded. Countries once Christian are so no longer. The crescent has taken the place of the Cross all over the East, and along the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Let the West carry back the standard of our faith to these once Christian lands!

Between the Church of St. Anne and Beit Jibrin there are many more caverns, but, unlike the others, all are more or less open at the top. In some cases, a circular hole still exists, about six feet in diameter, such as one might expect in cisterns; and of others portions of the roofs have fallen in. Many Christian symbols cut out of the soft rock on the sides of these strange vaults show that the region was once zealous for the Cross, and carry the date of the caverns back to an age at least earlier than the invasion of the Saracens. But how much earlier, who can tell? The sides have been dressed with picks diagonally, and great pillars of rock have, in some cases, been left to support the roof. It is touching to find that in some cases there are recesses at the east side, as if these subterranean halls, so rude and strange in their lofty circular hollow, had been used as chapels—"caves of the earth," where the friends of the Saviour often met together. They may, however, as Dr. Thomson suggests, have been used in earlier times as reservoirs for water in case of a siege, so that the city, which he thinks was identical with Gath, should never be taken because of a failure of the supply. This theory is strengthened by the fact that at Zikrin, six miles north-west of Beit Jibrin, there are vast excavations beneath a platform of hard rock which is pierced by forty openings into the reservoirs below, whence water is even now drawn daily by the villagers. The excavations at Zikrin closely resemble those of Beit Jibrin, both in shape and size, and are all connected by passages, so that the water stands at the same level in each.*

* Land and Book, p. 566.
Carpet-weaving is followed extensively in Beit Jibrin. On the flat tops of the mud houses, women engaged in this industry were busy at the most primitive looms, with their fingers for shuttles, producing work at once firm and thick in its substance. Wilton and Axminster would be horrified if set to rival them and restricted to the use of such appliances; but the East does wonders under amazing difficulties. Outside the town, long strips of ground beside the paths were used by the yarn-makers and dyers in preparing the threads before handing them to the dusky weavers. There were a good many flocks and herds, and the shepherds were all armed, with both guns and axes, to protect their charge from the wolves, which plunder the folds in the hills, as the Bedouins do those in the plains. One shepherd-boy was lamenting, with tears, that a wolf from one of the caves had just carried off a kid.

The sheikh, as I have remarked, has been so thoroughly humbled by the Turks since his hateful father's death that he is now quite poor. His hereditary authority, however, retains for him great formal respect from those who approach him, which they do kneeling on one knee, and kissing his hand. His equals do not seem to pay this form of homage, but only the humbler people. So, the Son of Sirach tells us, "till he hath received, the borrower will kiss a man's hand." Such formal kissing is common in the East. They kiss the beard, the mouth, and even the clothes. Niebuhr, on one occasion, was allowed, as a great honour, to kiss both the back and the palm of an Arab Ymram, and also the hem of his clothing; and kings, in Bible times, required conquered chiefs or princes to kiss their feet, or, as the prophet expresses it, to "lick up the dust from them" (Isa 49:23; so in Psa 72:9). It was, therefore, unconsciously, a nobly symbolical acknowledgment of lowly reverence to our Lord, as her King, when the poor sinful but penitent woman came behind Him and kissed His feet, after having washed off the dust with her tears (Luke 7:45). The sheikh's castle or mansion has apparently belonged for centuries to the same family, which is one of the highest in the country, its chief holding the hereditary dignity of sheikh over sixteen villages of this region, in return for which he is required, if necessary, to supply the Government with 2,000 soldiers ready for war. The brother of our host ruled at Tell es Safieh.

The view from the hill, south-west of the Church of St. Anne, was striking. Its top is a flat plain, about 600 feet across; but as it is nearly 1,100 feet above the sea, the great Philistine plain lay spread out at our feet on the west, a blue strip of the Great Sea shutting in the horizon. To the east rose the mountains of Hebron. South-west and east the hills were strewn with ruins of many places, of which the very names have long ago perished. Tombs and cisterns in the white chalk were numerous. Less than half a mile on the south-west a ruined heap, on the top of gently-sloping hills, marks the site of Mareshah, where King Asa defeated Zera, the Ethiopian King, who brought against him an army of a hundred thousand men and three hundred chariots (2 Chron 14:9).

As the asses with our tents had not even now come, we were forced to start for Hebron without them. The road lay through a beautiful plain, girt in by gentle hills, here and there stony, elsewhere green with olives or grain, or showing yellow ploughed land. Carved stones lay around, among them a Corinthian capital, half buried in the grass. Pits were open in several places, for digging out dressed stones of ancient buildings. A marble pillar was built into a water-trough; and a mound of earth showed, by a slip of the soil at one part, that it was all masonry underneath. There must have been a great population here in Jewish times, if only from the vast number of Hebrew tombs in the plain and in the hills. The two soldiers who had caused such a commotion in the sheikh's dovecote the night before, were returning to Hebron, and formed our improvised escort. One—the Kurd—had on a blue military jacket, trimmed with orange and blue braid; the other wore an old grey coat, pink-and-blue striped cotton tunic, big boots, and sword. The first had on his head a fez, the second a flowing "kefiyeh." As to the men they were sent to bring back, their answer to the governor was ready: "They won't come, and we can't fetch them"; but their pockets told the true reason.

The valley was lovely as we rode on. Fences of squared stones from the ruins divided the fields of different owners. Rows of beautiful olive-trees, patches of green barley, lentils, beans, and wheat, diversified the plain, through which a small dry water-course, with green slopes, wound its way. The white limestone cropped out at places on the hill-sides, along which were numerous marks of ancient terrace cultivation. Smoke, at more than one point, showed where charcoal-burners were at work, using the stunted bushes and dwarf-trees of some of the hills as material. A poor fellah passed, with his wife and children and all his household goods—some pots and miserable "traps"—on a camel, which he led. They were removing from one part to another.

The road soon began to change as we got higher, for the whole way to Hebron is an ascent. The valley became often very stony and barren, till one wondered, when a plough was seen slowly moving through such fields of ballast, whether the land could be worth the labour of cultivation. As we approached the famous hill of Judæa the slopes were covered with olives, grey stone gleaming out amidst them. Soon, however—not more, indeed, than two hours after the time we started, 8 a.m.—the route became desolate in the extreme. One ravine succeeded another, and the path was a chaos of stones, over which it seemed next to impossible for horses to travel. But by dint of winding about, stepping high, and almost climbing, they did contrive to make way, which they certainly could not have done had they not been born in the land. Only here and there was the semblance of a track to be discerned. The hills on each side of the valley we were ascending were grey as a chalk cliff, but set off with thickets of myrtle, low thorny bushes, and various shrubs. Stone dams ran across the wady and formed terraces, by which the soil brought down by the rains was prevented from being swept away, and spread out into small fields or patches. Dam after dam thus paved successive terraces with fertile earth, which was green with crops. The wady had now shrunk to very narrow limits, being only a stone's-throw across; the hills, grey and barren except for the myrtles and bushes, slanted up steeply, on either side, to their rounded tops. About noon we came, at last, to water, at a spot which seemed the picture of desolation but for the artificial shelves of verdure secured by dams, which now reappeared after a long interval of hideous desolation. We were on the old Roman road; but it had not been repaired for 1,500 years. I should think, indeed, that it must have been only a few feet broad at first, and certainly one would not now dream that it had ever been a road, were it not for odd traces at wide intervals.

The soldiers had kept ahead of us up this wild defile, which, by the way, has in all ages been the only high road, awful as it is, between Hebron, Beit Jibrin, and Gaza. Having at last reached a spot where water burst out of the rocks on the left, they stopped, and we gladly did the same. A peasant had raised a miserable house for himself at the side of the wady, above the reach of the torrent that sweeps downward after rain, and had fenced in a few yards with a stone wall, and planted some fig-trees, which were in full leaf. The path was on the other side of the dry water-course, but it needed good management to get across the few yards of rocky shelves and boulders to the spring. Once safely over, the horses were allowed to graze as they could on patches of grass in the wady where the water of the spring reached, and in the shadow of the rocks (Isa 32:2) we sought what shelter was to be had from the burning sun. One of the soldiers, meanwhile, betook himself to the very opposite occupation of washing his face and his "abba," of course without soap. We sought what refreshment was procurable from a cup of cold tea, a hard egg, some dry bread, and a little watercress gathered below the spring, which leaped out of the bare hill-side like a full stream from a large hose. The road from Jerusalem strikes into this wady at its worst part, and if this be the route taken by St. Philip the Evangelist when he fell in with the eunuch, I don't wonder at the statement that it was "desert" (Acts 8:26).

When fairly rested, we set out once more, the road continuing much the same, but the weariness of it relieved by wild songs from the soldiers—the subjects known only to themselves. I was greatly refreshed by a cup of cold water brought me by one of them before starting; its coolness at such a time forcibly reminding me of the value set by the Saviour on such a gift bestowed on His little ones in these very hills of Palestine, so hot and dry in their chalky greyness (Matt 10:42; Mark 11:41). At some places there was a little fertility, and we even found some peasants ploughing on an artificial terrace in the wady, while other spots were ploughed at its sides where, for a time, it grew wider. The ploughers had left their overcoats at home, as was noticed of those in His day by our Lord (Matt 24:18), and they followed their ploughs with eager joy, preparing for summer crops. Two oxen dragged one plough; another was pulled along by an ox and an ass, in vivid contravention of the old Hebrew law (Deut 22:10). Sometimes even an ass and a camel are yoked together to this task—a union sufficiently comical. Black goats, on the steep sides of the ravine, were feeding on the gnarled dwarf-oak scrub, a few feet high, the dwarf-pistachio and arbutus, with tufts of aromatic herbs, some especially fragrant beds of thyme, myrtle-bushes, and the like, which were springing out of the countless fissures of the rocks. Such a region was, in fact, a paradise for goats, which delight in leaves and twigs, and care little for grass. Their milk in every form—sour, sweet, thick, thin, warm, or cold—forms, with eggs and bread, the main food of the people, a state of things illustrating very strikingly the words of Proverbs: "Thou shalt have goats' milk enough for thy food, for the food of thy household, and for maintenance for their maidens" (Prov 27:27). Shepherds, with long flint-guns, were watching the flocks.

There could be no hunting-ground for robbers more suitable than these lonely hills, and it was well for us that we had the soldiers in our company. As we advanced, the path led over a broad desolate plateau, the watershed of the district; streams moving on one side towards the east, and on the other towards the west. Gradually descending, we reached, at last, the wide skirt of vineyards which borders Hebron for miles. The ground was very stony, but had been cleared partly to get materials for walls five or six feet thick, which were in every direction; and partly to form paths, a few feet broad, between these ramparts. The name for such walls, in Palestine, is "yedars"; the Hebrew counterpart of which, "gadair," often occurs in the Old Testament. Thus Balaam is said to have been riding in just such a narrow "path between vineyards, with a 'gadair' on this side, and a 'gadair' on that side" (Num 22:24), so that it was no wonder the ass crushed his foot against one of them. Ezra uses the "gadair" as a symbol of the peaceful enjoyment of the land, when he thanks God for having given his people "a 'gadair' in Judah and Jerusalem" (Ezra 9:9). These rough constructions of dry, unmortared stones of all sizes are the fences of gardens, orchards, vineyards, sheepfolds, and all other enclosures, and are therefore employed as a symbol of rural life.

Such masses of loose stones, however, are not so stable as they look. Rising gradually after each clearing of the surface inside, to a height of from four to six feet, they readily give way, more or less, if one attempt to climb them, while the swelling of the ground by rain often throws them off the perpendicular, or they bulge out in the middle from the pressure of the mass of stone against an ill-built portion of the outer coating. At Hebron, I came frequently upon a "gadair" which, from some of these causes, had rushed in promiscuous ruin into the path, and left hardly any space to get past its confused heaps. The Psalmist, therefore, used a telling illustration of the ruin awaiting his enemies when he said, "as a bowing wall shall ye be, and as a tottering 'gadair'" (Psa 62:3). Of the vineyard of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, the inspired writer of the 80th Psalm cries, "Why has thou then [O God] broken down her 'gadairs,' so that all they which pass by the way do pluck her? The boar out of the 'yaar' doth waste it, and the wild beast of the open country doth devour it" (Psa 80:13; see also Isa 5:5). Ezekiel compares the lying prophets of his day to the foxes or jackals which hid in the gaps of the "gadair" of Israel, helping to throw them down, when it should have been the duty of true men to repair them, that Israel might stand safely behind them in the day of battle (Eze 13:4,5; see also 22:30). With a like familiar knowledge of these structures, Ecclesiastes tells us that "whoso breaketh a 'gadair,' a serpent shall bite him" (Eccl 10:8); many kinds of serpents delighting in the crevices of such open walls as their lurking-place. The sheepfold of loose stones, so common in many parts of the country, is called a "gedairah," a feminine form of "gadair," so that we can understand what the tribes beyond the Jordan meant when they said, "We will build 'gideroth' for the flocks" (Num 32:16). They had stone in their territory, while the shepherds of the stoneless plains do not use this word, but substitute for it another.

 

Chapter 13 | Contents | Chapter 15

 

Notes on Revelation | Judeo-Christian Research

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