by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books


Chapter 14 | Contents | Chapter 16

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


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Vineyards in Palestine—Treading the Wine PressFamous Wine-growing DistrictsWhere was Eshcol?WallsThe Grape HarvestRed and Green GrapesGrape "Honey"An Injudicious Mixture; A Sober CountryThe Road from Adullam to HebronThe Russian Hospice at Hebron; "Abraham's Oak"Interviewing the Governor; Filthy StreetsConventional GreetingsThe "Scrip"Glass WorksHouses at Hebron"Othniel's Pool" and "Abraham's Pool"; Splendid CursersThe Cave of Machpelah and the Mosque of Abraham; Mock TombsCommercial Transactions in the East; The Consummation of a BargainHistorical Reminiscences


The vineyards of Palestine disappoint those who have poetical ideas of spreading branches and hanging clusters. The vines are planted in wide rows, and are simply so many single stems, bent at a sharp angle with the ground, and cut off when four or five feet long, the end being supported by a short forked stick, so that the shoots may hang clear of the soil. A vineyard is as prosaic a matter at Hebron as on the Rhine; the vines looking like so many dirty sticks, with a few leaves on the shoots from the top or sides. There are towers for the "keepers of the vineyards" (Song 1:6); stone buildings, of no great size, by which a look-out can be kept on all sides; there is also a shelter for the husbandmen, the vineyards in many parts being far from any village. In Canticles, Sulamith has the task of caretaker assigned to her,* so that women, at times, did this duty among the ancient Hebrews; but it is a hard and menial task, exposing one to the fierce sun, which, in Sulamith's case, burned her "black" (Song 1:6). In most cases, the protection for the watcher is only a rude wooden hut, covered with boughs, so that Job could say of the frailness and instability of the hopes of the wicked, "He buildeth his house as a moth, and as a booth that the keeper maketh" (Job 27:18), and Isaiah could compare Jerusalem, made desolate by war, to a "booth in a vineyard" (Isa 1:8 [Heb.]). The watchmen employed are generally armed with a club, and are very faithful, often risking their lives in the protection of the property they are set to guard. But it is not always easy to get men to undertake the task, since it not only involves danger, but requires wakefulness through the whole night, making even the most loyal weary for the light. It is to this that the Psalmist refers when he says that "his soul looketh out for the Lord, more than watchmen [or keepers] for the morning" (Psa 130:6). To guard against drowsiness and to frighten away thieves, they call out from time to time through the darkness, a practice to which the prophet refers when he describes the Chaldæans as encamped round Jerusalem, and calling out like keepers of a field (Jer 4:16). Cain insolently asks, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen 4:9). So it is said that "the Lord keepeth all the bones of the righteous, not one of them is broken; He keepeth the souls of His saints; He keepeth the simple"; and, unlike keepers among men, "He that keepeth Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps" (Psa 34:20, 97:10, 116:6, 121:4).

* The word for "keeper" in this case is feminine.

The wine of Hebron is still famous, and is very cheap, a bottle costing about sixpence. On the hill-side, among the vineyards, an ancient wine-press fortunately stood near the road, so that I was able to inspect it at leisure. It consisted of two troughs, hewn out of the rock, one higher than the other, and both well cemented on the sides and at the bottom. The grapes are cast into the upper one, and trodden with the feet, so that the juice flows out into the lower; the old practice, so often introduced in Scripture, being followed at this day. The length of the trough was only about four feet, and it was not quite two feet broad, and very shallow. The treading of the grapes is left to the poor, as in Job's day, when the lawless rich "took away the sheep from the hungry, who make oil within their walls, and tread their wine-presses, and suffer thirst" (Job 24:11). The vintage, however, was always, as it still is, a time of general gladness, merry songs accompanying it at times, while, as in all joint work among Orientals, the labourers encourage each other by shouts. Hence, even now, a period of national trouble, such as war, could not be more vividly painted than in the words of Isaiah, that "in the vineyards there shall be no singing, neither joyful noise; no treader shall tread out wine in the presses; the vintage shout shall cease" (Isa 16:10). "The shouting," says Jeremiah, in a similar passage, "shall be no shouting" (Jer 48:33); no shout of joy, but the shout of battle. The jubilant exultation when the ruddy grape was yielding its wine was, in those days, apparently, even more ardent and clamorous than now, for the same prophet compares it to the cry of an attacking host, telling us that Jehovah will give a shout, as they that tread the grapes, against all the inhabitants of the earth (Jer 25:30). The presses are generally large enough for several treaders to crush the grapes in them at once, and to this circumstance, as will be remembered, there is an indirect allusion in the awful picture of Him who is mighty to save returning from the destruction of His enemies. The treading of them down is like the treading out of the blood of the wine-fat, but He had trodden it alone; He trod them (by Himself) in His "fury," and as the person and clothing of the treaders are stained with the red juice, so, He says, "their life-blood is sprinkled upon My garments, and I have stained all My raiment" (Isa 63:2,3 [R.V.]): words spoken in answer to the question of the prophet, "Wherefore art Thou red in Thine apparel, and Thy garments like him that treadeth in the wine-fat?"

The vine has been cultivated in Palestine from the earliest times, and during the Hebrew period flourished everywhere over the land. Palestine is, indeed, peculiarly fitted for the grape, its sunny limestone slopes, through which the rains quickly percolate, leaving a dry subsoil. The heat by day and the heavy mists by night make it the very home in which the plant delights. Hence, long before the time of Moses, it was not only a land "flowing with milk and honey," but also famous for its wine, as we read in the annals of Thothmes III, of Egypt, who reigned 1,600 years before Christ.* With the green and silver olive, and the dark-green fig-tree, the vine was the characteristic glory of the hill-country (Gen 49:11; Deut 6:11, 7:8; Num 16:14; Josh 24:13; 1 Sam 8:14; Jer 39:10; 2 Kings 25:12; Neh 5:3). Every hill-side was covered with vineyards, terrace above terrace, while wine-presses and vats were in great numbers hewn in the rocks. Especially famous were the vineyards of Engedi, "the Fountain of the Kid," by the Dead Sea (Song 1:14), where, on the hill-sides north of the spring, the terraces on which they were situated are still as perfect as in Bible times; large rock-hewn, carefully-cemented cisterns, also, still remaining on each terrace, with a network of cemented pipes running from them in all directions, to bear water to the root of each vine. But the grape has long since vanished from that locality.

*Records of the Past, ii. 44.

Hebron, still famous above all other parts of the land for its vines, had a great name for them in the earliest times. The men of the valley of Shechem used to go out, in the time of the Judges, and gather their vineyards, and tread the grapes, and hold merry meetings over the vine-harvest (Judg 9:27). The vineyards of Shiloh were equally flourishing (Judg 21:20). Uzziah drew part of his revenue from his vines at Carmel (2 Chron 26:10); and the vineyard of Naboth, at Jezreel, is only too sadly commemorated (1 Kings 21:1). Outside Palestine, Lebanon yielded wine which was greatly praised (Song 8:11; Hosea 14:7), and the vines of north Moab, especially those of the now unknown Sibmah, were in very high repute (Isa 16:8-10; Jer 48:32,33), as were also those of Helbon, near Damascus (Eze 27:18), which are still highly esteemed. On the Lake of Galilee, Josephus tells us, the plain of Gennesareth, warm as Egypt, yielded grapes for ten months in the year,* which one can hardly realise when he looks at it now, bearing nothing more valuable than thistles. So general, indeed, was the diffusion of the vine that, as we have seen, even the now desolate valleys south of Beersheba show long swathes of stone heaps, over which vines grew in ancient times. Eshcol, from which the spies brought the wonderful cluster, must, in fact, have been in that region, not, as often supposed, near Hebron; for Israel, as has been noticed, was then encamped at Kadesh, and the prize must have been found comparatively near that place, since the spies could not have dared to carry it for any distance through a hostile and alarmed population. Kadesh, however, lay just to the east of the grape-mound region, and could easily be reached with the precious burden without notice being attracted, the desert lying near the valley that yielded it. Yet Eshcol does not appear to have grown finer grapes than southern Judæa, to the north of it, appear to have grown finer grapes than southern Judæa, to the north of it, if we may judge from the dying blessing of Jacob, which paints Judah as "washing its garments in wine, and its clothes in the blood of the grape" (Gen 49:11).

*Jos. Bell. Jud., iii. 10,8.

A vineyard needs to be carefully fenced, to keep sheep, goats, or cattle from eating it down; and hence the "gadair," or loose stone wall, round it, is constantly mentioned, as are the clearing off of the loose surface stones, and the building of a tower in it, and the hewing out of a wine-press (Isa 5:2; Psa 80:12; Matt 21:33; Mark 12:1), which are still necessary, as of old. Private malignity, in ancient as in modern times, might be tempted to let flocks or herds into an enemy's vineyard; but against this the law made provision, by enacting that if a man shall cause a vineyard to be eaten, "of the best of his own vineyard shall he make restitution" (Exo 22:5). After the vintage, however, the owner, even now, turns in his own beasts to browse; and when the vines are pruned, in the spring, the trimmings are carefully gathered as forage. The jackal, which differs from the fox in liking fruit as well as flesh, is a foe to the vine-grower in every part of the country, and in Lebanon the wild boar sometimes breaks through and does much damage—"the boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast doth devour it" (Psa 80:13). The foxes—that is, the jackals—still need to be "taken," as much as when the Beloved, in Canticles, longed for their capture (Song 2:15).

Though vineyards, as has been said, are prosaic-looking enough, I found at Damascus and elsewhere, trained over lattice-work in the courtyards of houses, or against the walls, some vines which were more in keeping with our preconceived ideas, since they covered a broad space or adorned the whole breadth of a dwelling, as it is clear they must have done also, in some cases, in Bible times, from the comparison of the mother of a large and beautiful family to a "fruitful vine by the sides of a house" (Psa 128:3). In vineyards, however, the vines are rigorously pruned back each year, only three or four shoots being left at the top of the short black stem, as in the time of our Lord: "Every branch that beareth fruit, the husbandman purgeth"—that is, prunes—"that it may bring forth more fruit" (John 15:2; Isa 5:6).

Grapes are sold in Jerusalem as early as the end of July, but the regular grape-harvest does not begin, even in warm situations, till the opening of September, and in colder positions it continues till the end of October, while the sowing-time for corn is in November. Thus, when there is a rich grape-harvest, and an early fall of the first rains, the image of plenty pictured by Amos is realised: "Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed" (Amos 9:13). It is not uncommon to find a vine trained over a fig-tree in a garden, for the shade it affords, as in old times, when it was a favourite image of peaceful security that a man should be able to sit "under his vine and under his fig-tree," and no one should make him afraid (Micah 4:4; Zech 3:10; 1 Kings 4:25; 1 Macc 14:12). This may mean either a trellised vine, shading the court of the house, or a fig-tree growing near, or the two growing together.

Red grapes were grown much more than green, and thus the wine in common use readily supplied our Lord, on the occasion of the Last Supper, with an emblem of His blood shed for the salvation of mankind (Matt 26:28); hence, too, we so often read of the "blood" of the grape (Isa 63:3,6; Ecclus 39:26). At present, however, at Hebron and Bethlehem, green grapes are grown almost exclusively, and it may also have been so in olden times. Indeed, it is quite possible that the famous cluster from Eshcol was green, as this variety is still famous for its huge berries and clusters, many of the latter being three pounds in weight, while they occasionally reach from nine to twelve.

Wine-presses cut in the rocks are found in nearly every part of the country, and are the only sure relics we have of the old days of Israel before the Captivity. Between Hebron and Beersheba they are found on all the hill-slopes: they abound in Southern Judæa; they are no less common in the many valleys of Carmel, and they are numerous in Galilee. With such an abundance, it was natural that there should be liberality; and hence the law permitted the traveller to eat at his will as he passed, though he was not to carry off any grapes in a vessel (Deut 23:24). In the same spirit the right of gleaning was legally reserved to the poor (Lev 19:10; Deut 24:21).

The use of wine having been prohibited by Mahomet, the vine is not now much cultivated in Palestine; the products of the grape are, however, to be found in every market. Raisins are still dried, as they were in Southern Judæa when Abigail, among other gifts, carried a hundred bunches of them to make peace with David (1 Sam 25:18). They must also have been seen on the fruit-stalls in all the Israelitish cities and towns, as they are frequently mentioned in Scripture (1 Sam 30:12; 1 Chron 12:40; 2 Sam 16:1)—sometimes, indeed, when readers of the English would not suspect it, for the word translated "flagons of wine" in several passages should really be rendered "cakes of raisins" (2 Sam 6:19; 1 Chron 16:3; Song 2:5; Hosea 3:1). The ancient Hebrews likewise used the syrup of grapes, or "dibs," which, with raisins, is the only product a Mahommedan takes from his vineyard. It is made by boiling down the juice of ripe grapes to a third of its bulk, thus making it like treacle, though of a lighter colour. It was, perhaps, used in Bible times, as it is now, either in making sweetmeats, or mixed with water, to be eaten with bread. It is called "honey" in Scripture ("debash"), so that in many passages it is impossible to tell whether the honey of bees, or this syrup, is intended. It would seem, however, that that which Jacob sent with spices, &c., to the great man in Egypt was "dibs," and not bees' honey, and that it was "dibs" which Ezekiel speaks of as being sent largely to Tyre (Gen 43:11; Eze 27:17).

It was the custom in ancient times, as it still is in the East, to mix spices and other ingredients with wine, to give it a special flavour, or make it stronger, or the reverse. This is the "strong drink" of which Isaiah speaks (Isa 5:22), and the "spiced wine" of the Canticles (Song 8:2), and it is likewise the wine which Wisdom "mingled," and to which she invites the wise; but it is also that "mixed wine" to look on which, the Book of Proverbs tells us, is to bring on oneself woe (Prov 9:5, 23:30); and it is to this that the awful verse refers, "In the hand of the Lord there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is full of mixture" (Psa 75:8). Another kind of wine, generally translated "vinegar" in our version, also in the Revised Version, is the common sour wine used by the poor. It was this into which Ruth was to dip her bread as she sat beside the reapers (Ruth 2:14). In all probability, moreover, it was this which was offered to our Saviour on the cross (Matt 27:48), since it was part of the daily allowance of a Roman soldier, and was given, not in derision, but in pity, to quench His thirst or dull His agony, the soldiers having more sympathy with Him than the priests or the Jewish people. When Isaiah speaks of "wine on the lees, well refined" as part of the great feast in the day of the triumph of God's people, he alludes to the custom of leaving new wine for a time on its lees, after fermentation, to improve its strength and colour. It being thus left, all impurities settle, and it is drawn off clear and bright (Isa 25:6). Palestine in our day is a very sober country, a drunken person being very seldom seen; but I fear as much could not be said for olden times, since drunkenness is mentioned, either metaphorically or literally, more than seventy times in the Bible.

The road from Beit Jibrin to Hebron has few places of historical importance in its long dreary ascent; but it is otherwise with that from Adullam, which lies about fifteen miles north of Hebron, in a straight line—nearly the same distance as the road we came. I have already spoken of the number of ruin-covered sites on the other side of Adullam; they are equally numerous as you ride southward. Indeed, Captain Conder reckons that there are three in every two square miles, so dense was the population in early times. Hebron lies over 2,000 feet higher than Beit Jibrin; but though Adullam is on a higher level than Beit Jibrin, the road from it to Hebron is a continual ascent also. The Hill of Adullam is, as we have seen (see p. 97), in a region of caves, which, in some of the valleys, are still inhabited by veritable cave-dwellers, like those in the south. To the north-west, beyond the hills, lie the charming olive-groves through which we passed before. On the other side of these the road winds, roughly enough, up a confusion of small glens—hollows green with corn in spring—though the peasants who have planted it are nowhere to be seen, as they live in distant villages. On every side are stony hills, bright with cyclamen and anemone, but without a human habitation. A bare plateau is at last reached, like that met with in coming from Beit Jibrin, and the track soon begins to descend, about 300 feet, to reach Hebron. The hills, in fact, are about that height above the ancient town, by both approaches. Bare rocks, tracts of brushwood, and stretches of meagre pasture, gradually give place to vineyards and orchards, and we ride on longing to see Abraham's city, but doomed to be disappointed till the last moment, for only then does it come in sight.

A mile from Hebron, on a slope to the right of the narrow, stony path, between vineyards and their great loose "gadairs," stands the Russian hospice, built to provide accommodation for the pilgrims of the Greek Church, who flock to Hebron in great numbers each year to visit Juttah, the reputed birthplace of St. John the Baptist, which is a few miles off. It is a large, flat-roofed, stone building, and must be a great blessing to the poor wanderers from the wide regions of the Russian Empire. Abraham's Oak Just before it stands a magnificent old evergreen holm oak, which is venerated as the very tree under which Abraham's tent was pitched at Mamre. But it is easier to make this assertion than to prove it; for it is quite certain that this particular tree, though it has been worshiped for at least 300 years as "Abraham's Oak," is only of yesterday compared with the long ages since the patriarch's day. Moreover, it is not destined to continue very much longer an object of veneration, as it is growing old, and has lost more than half its branches during the last twenty-five years. Still, it looks vigorous in parts, though some of its boughs are apparently dead; and perhaps it may yet weather some generations. At the ground its trunk measures thirty-two feet in circumference, and at the height of about twenty feet it divides into a number of huge limbs—some vigorous, some dry and leafless—spreading out to a distance of about ninety-five steps round. Josephus tells us that the Tree of Abraham stood three-quarters of a mile from Hebron, and was a very great and very ancient terebinth; but in the fourth century a similar tree was shown two miles north of Hebron as that of the patriarch. It is hard, therefore, to decide which is the true spot, though the Russian hospice, I fear, enjoys only an apocryphal glory from its great oak. The vines on the slope were partly lying along the ground, and partly propped on low forked sticks; the soil of one vineyard was well cleared of stones and weeds, while that of another was rough and foul. The stems of the vines were on an average six to eight inches round, with shoots thick enough, at times, for such sceptres as Ezekiel tells us could be made from the "strong rods" of the vine of Israel (Eze 19:11). From my own experience I could once and again repeat, as my horse stumbled on over the stone-heaped path, the words of Proverbs (Prov 24:30,31): "I went by the vineyard of the man void of understanding, and lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down." This vineyard, indeed, lay well-nigh across the whole path, in a steep slope. A spring ran at the side of the road, from below a small canopy, as we approached Hebron, making the borders of its channel bright with grass and flowers.

The Great Pool at Hebron At last we rode down a slope between stone walls, interrupted by a few two-storey stone houses at the sides of a broader road, figs and olives filling most of the space on either hand, and, turning sharply to the right, were before one of the gates of Kiriath Arba, as the ancient Hebron was once called. This old name probably meant "the City of Arba," some old Canaanite hero; but it was explained by the Jews as meaning "the City of Four"—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Adam, who were all alleged to have been buried here—Arba standing for "four" in Hebrew. The Arabs of to-day call the city El-Khalil—"the Friend"—in memory of the universally-honoured patriarch Abraham, "the friend of God" (James 2:23). The gate was a solid building, blocking up the street, with an arch for entrance. Loungers sat on the low walls leading to it; women and men were busy drawing water from a stone-covered well with steps, just before it, the stone mouth deeply furrowed by the ropes of centuries; and on the other side of the left wall lay one of the pools of Hebron, over which, perhaps, nearly 3,000 years ago, men saw hung up the hands and feet of the murderers of Ishbosheth, Saul's son, who were slain by order of David (2 Sam 4:12). A strip of olive-trees lay behind, on each side, a very suitable spot for pitching our tents upon, but unfortunately they had not come. Happily for us, however, the German medical missionary, who lived close to the gate, kindly invited us to stay with him, so that we had the luxury of a house instead of the wretchedness of canvas. Having rested and taken some refreshment, it was necessary to make inquiries about our missing asses, and for this purpose we had to go to the governor's quarters.

The streets were filthy beyond description, and some of them were sunk in the middle, for cattle and beasts of burden, as some of those in Jerusalem still are, and as all, probably, once were. At last we reached the house of the commanding officer for Southern Palestine, who is governor of the town. The room into which we were conducted was furnished with a cushioned divan, or sofa, on one side, and a lower seat on another. The German medical man who had come with us sat down on this, cross-legged; the great man motioned my friend and me to the higher seat of honour. First, however, came the salutation of my friend, who, being known to the governor, was kissed by him on both cheeks, his beard stroked, and his knee patted after he had sat down. So Joab took Amasa by the beard with the right hand, to kiss him (2 Sam 20:9), though with treacherous designs not entertained by the governor. The chamber was carpeted, and there was some pretence to neatness in the decoration of the walls; but the approach to the house, and even the entrance, were like a wynd in Sunderland or Edinburgh; indeed, not half so respectable as such places are now, for no slum in the East-End of London can be imagined so offensive. Coffee and cigarettes were of course handed round, and the subject of our visit broached. Nothing could be more courteous than the governor's bearing. "He would instantly send soldiers off after the asses." The man who brought the coffee took the order; a sergeant presently appeared, and the patrol was off on horseback within a few minutes.

Many of the streets through which we passed are arched like tunnels, with dwellings over them, out of sight, the approaches being through the dens which serve as shops. A wall three feet high and two broad, running in front of these, forms a counter on which the tradesman exposes his goods for sale, he himself often taking his seat, cross-legged, among them. The shops were only small recesses, without any light except from the front, and very little coming even from that direction, for the street in many parts was nothing more than a long stone archway: a delightful place for an unscrupulous shopkeeper, for no one can see defects. The Jewish quarter has gates, which are shut at night, and so with the other parts of the town. In the Jewish district the filth was simply distressing.

Our greeting in the governor's house was only a sample of what was to be seen when any neighbours happened to meet, for the greatest care is taken to observe every detail of conventional good manners. When two men meet they lay the right hand on the heart, then raise it to the brow, or the mouth, and only after this take hold of each other's right hand. Then follows a string of sounding words, expressive of intense mutual interest in each other's fathers, grandfathers, and ancestry generally, with numberless other inquiries before they bid good day and pass on. The insincerity of such protracted greetings, the waste of time, and above all the distraction from the mission of the disciples which would inevitably arise, sufficiently explain our Lord's command to His messengers to "salute no man by the way" (Luke 10:4). An Oriental cannot forbear from a long gossip as often as he stops, and is delighted with nothing so much as mixing himself up with the settlement of any business transaction which he may casually encounter on his journey.

The directions not to carry either purse, scrip, shoes, or staff (Matt 10:9,10; Mark 6:8; Luke 9:3, 10:4, 22:35), were as strange to Eastern habits as the forbidding of salutations. When journeying any distance from home, the Oriental puts some of the thin leathery bread of the country, some dried figs, a few olives, and perhaps a little cheese, into his "scrip" or "wallet"—a leather bag made of the whole skin of a kid—which hangs from his shoulders, and with this simple fare, and some water from a fountain, he satisfies his hunger and thirst. In Christ's day, however, an additional motive led the Jews to carry with them this "scrip" filled with eatables legally "clean." On every side they were among heathen—or among Samaritans, which they thought almost worse—and to taste food prepared by persons so utterly "unclean" was defilement. Hence each individual of the thousands whom our Lord twice miraculously fed had a "basket," which was just this scrip, that he might always avoid what had been prepared by anyone who was not a Jew. This "basket," indeed, was so invariable a part of a Jew's outfit, wherever he was found, that Juvenal, the Roman satirist, notices it as familiar in Italy.* That the disciples were not to take this inseparable accompaniment of their countrymen with them was a deadly blow at the Levitical purism of the day, only to be compared, in our own times, with an injunction by a Brahmin to his disciples no longer to pay attention to caste, though hitherto it has been their supreme concern. To take no money with them threw these first missionaries directly on the good feeling of those to whom they were sent: a more likely means, surely, of awaking personal interest, and opening a way for the Gospel, than if they had borne themselves independently, as those who made at least their living by their office, and could pay for their sustenance. They were to go forth with empty girdles—that is, penniless, the girdle being still the purse of the Oriental; it was to be their trust that love would beget love, as it always does, and they were to show that they sought the sheep rather than the fleece. Nor were they to encumber themselves in any way. They were to show by their poverty that they believed what they preached when they said that their kingdom was not of this world; and that they were fired by an enthusiasm which threw aside every encumbrance, and trusted to their heavenly Father for daily bread and friendly aid.

* Juv. Sat, iii. 14, vi. 541; see also Wahl, Clavis 278 b.

Some of the streets of Hebron were shielded from the sun by straw or palm mats. The fruit market was especially good. There were piles of oranges from Joppa, of dates from Egypt, of raisins and figs grown in Hebron itself, as well as in other places. Besides these, glass ware formed one of the chief articles for sale, Hebron having once enjoyed almost a monopoly of vitreous productions in the markets of Egypt and Syria, and still filling those of Jerusalem and other towns with them. Many camel-loads of glass bracelets and rings are sent to Jerusalem at Easter, and they seem to be the sole articles sold by some large establishments near the Holy Sepulchre. The glassworks in which these trinkets, so peculiar to Hebron, are made, seem strange to Western eyes, for they consist of only a low, miserable, earth-floored room, wretched in every sense, with three or four small furnaces in it, filled with melted glass; primitive bellows being used to raise sufficient heat, with charcoal for fuel. An iron rod thrust into the glowing mass brings out a little of it, which is quickly twisted and bent into a circle, and simply ornamented by the clever use of a long metal blade, like a butcher's knife. Thrust a second time into the furnace, it is then, by means of a second rod, lengthened and finished; the whole time required for the manufacture of a bracelet being only a minute or two. The colours on those seen in Jerusalem and elsewhere are mingled in the furnace, or added by such manipulations as are practised by the glass-blowers of Venice. Among the other staple industries of Hebron is the manufacture of leather bottles from goats' skins, of earthen pottery, and of light woollen fabrics; while a steady succession of caravans brings to the city, by way of the desert, the produce and manufactures of Egypt. The weavers' quarter is near one of the bazaars, and is very poor, the workshops being only so many halves of cellars, in which the workmen sit on the ground, cross-legged. Nothing could be more primitive than the looms, but the weaving seems no longer to be done by women as it used to be in ancient times (Prov 31:13; 2 Kings 23:7; see ante, p. 154), for only men were driving the shuttle, as was the case with the ancient Egyptians.

The houses at Hebron are of stone, many being of two, and some of three, storeys; but owing to the scarcity of wood, each floor is really a set of vaults, with arches meeting overhead from the corner of each room, the domes being hidden, on the upper storey, by a parapet, within which, round the top of the arch, is a flat space, such as Orientals delight in. Built on the slopes of a hill, the houses rise above each other, terrace over terrace, with a fine effect. The great mosque over the Cave of Machpelah stands out above all, as the chief building of the town. Drainage, the lighting of the streets, water supply brought to the houses, any system of cleaning the streets, are of course unknown; indeed, there never seem to have been any such Western impertinences in an Eastern town or city, except perhaps in Cæsarea, which Herod drained in the Roman manner. The population was said by the German missionary to be 17,000, of whom 2,000 are Jews, and the rest bigoted Mahommedans, there being only five Christians in the whole city.

A part of Hebron, the western, is still called Eshcolah, from Eshcol, the king in Abraham's day, and a small wady near is called Wady Eshcol.* There are two pools, with stairs leading down to the water; they are not often full, but sometimes, after long-continued rains, they overflow. One, some distance down the valley, is called "Othniel's Pool," by a mistake as to the scene of Caleb's gift of the upper and lower springs to his daughter (Josh 15:19; Judg 1:15). The sides are cemented, but the water was green, and, as Westerns would think, unfit for use. The other pool, which I passed on entering the town, is "Abraham's Pool." Both are of a good size, the lower one 133 feet square, and about twenty-two feet deep; the other, at the town, eighty-five feet by fifty-five, and nineteen feet deep. Men and women are constantly ascending and descending the steps inside, the former with great black skin bottles on their backs, the women with large water-jars. On the open ground round the other pool naked and half-naked Mahommedan children were wrangling and playing—fierce shoots from a fierce stock. Till within a few years a Christian was certain to be insulted, or even stoned, by them; but latterly they have confined their hostility to the Jews, the sight of a boy of this race being a signal for cursing him and his whole people, from his father backwards. The Orientals are, indeed, mighty in cursing, and always have been. They will curse the fathers and mothers, the grandfather, and all the ancestors of anyone with whom they have a dispute, imprecating all kinds of evils on everyone related to the object of their rage. We can see the same custom in different parts of the Old Testament—for it needed Christ to teach men love. An example is offered in David's curse on Joab for the murder of Abner. "Let the dead man's blood rest on the head of Joab, and on all his father's house, and let there not fail from the house of Joab one that hath an issue, or that is a leper, or that leaneth on a staff, or that falleth on the sword, or that lacketh bread" (2 Sam 3:29). So, too, we read that Saul's anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said unto him, "Thou son of the perverse, rebellious woman" (1 Sam 20:30), thus cursing his son's mother—his own wife.

* This is a corruption of Ain Kashkaleh, north of the town.

The great Mosque of Abraham, built over the Cave of Machpelah, where the patriarchs are supposed to lie buried, is on the eastern edge of the town, with houses of all sizes close round it on every side, so that you come upon it before you are aware. Except a few royal personages, our Prince of Wales and his sons among them, no one, if not a Mahommedan, has in modern times been allowed to enter it. It is enclosed on three sides by an outer wall of Arab construction. The mosque itself is a quadrangle, of grey stone, 197 feet long by 111 feet broad, and strengthened at intervals by buttresses, the masonry of the walls showing, throughout, a bevel on the four edges of each stone, as in the older masonry of the Haram at Jerusalem. The thickness, apart from the buttresses, is no less than eight and a half feet, which, again, is just the same as that of the Haram walls at Jerusalem. The mosque is built on a hill, so that the paved floor of the inner space between these ancient walls and the modern Saracenic walls enclosing them is about fifteen feet above the street, while the height of the ancient wall, with its simple projecting cornice, is about forty feet; but a modern wall, with battlements, is built on the top of the original one. We were led to the eastern side, which is reached by ascending a filthy land, and found a door—the only one there is—opening into the court. Through this we were permitted to go and look at the great old wall; but we could only stand inside the door; to go down to the area, and touch the wall, was not permitted. Even for this privilege, moreover, we had to pay a good "bakshish."

The interior of the mosque, it appears, was used, at least in the time of the Crusades, as a Christian church; a portion at the south end, seventy feet long, being divided into a nave and two aisles, lighted by windows in a clerestory raised from the centre of the roof along its whole length. The roof itself was groined, and nearly flat, with a lead covering outside, and rested within on four great pillars, with capitals set off with thick leaves, in the mediæval style.

The only known entrances to the Cave of Machpelah, which lies underneath the church, are unfortunately covered by the stone floor, and are never opened, to avoid the displacement of the pavement, which would be regarded as a desecration of so sacred a spot. The sheikh of the mosque, however, describes the cave as being double, which agrees with its name Machpelah—"Division in Half"—and also with the uniform tradition which led it, in the Middle Ages, to be spoken of as "the Double Cave."

Of the spots under which the three entrances to this venerable resting-place of the patriarchs are said to be, one is covered with stone slabs, clamped with iron; the second simply with stone flags, forming part of the floor of the church; while the third, close to the west wall of the church, is a shaft, rising slightly above the level of the church-floor, and covered, like a well, with a stone, the hole in which is more than a foot across. A strong light having been let down through it, the door, walls, floor, and sides of the chamber beneath are seen; but this is not, after all, either of the two caves, but a room which is said to lead to the western cavern, with a doorway at the south-east of it, very much like the square doorways to ancient rock-cut tombs in Palestine. Strange to say, the floor is thickly covered with written prayers to the patriarchs, thrown down by the Mahommedans through the well-like shaft in the church-floor. From these and other details, Captain Conder, after personal examination, thinks that Machpelah "probably resembles many of the rock-cut sepulchres of Palestine, with a square ante-chamber carefully quarried, and two interior sepulchral chambers, to which access has been made, at a later period, through the roofs."* There was, no doubt, an entrance, in Abraham's time, from the "field of Mamre, before the cave," but this has long ago been blocked up by buildings.

* Pal. Fund Reports, 1881, p. 200.

The space outside the part of the edifice once used as a church, and anciently forming the courtyard, is now filled up with various Arab structures connected with the mosque. The church itself was outside the ancient end wall of the sanctuary, through which there are two openings, to permit passing from the church to the inner space. In the building as a whole there are six monuments, or mock tombs, to the illustrious dead who are assumed to be below, each being supposed to lie immediately under the cenotaph bearing his or her name. Those of Isaac and Rebekah are in the church half, lying in the direction of the nave, so that they are not placed as Mahommedan custom requires, for in that case they would be at right angles with their present position; and it is the same with the cenotaphs in the other half of the mosque. The monuments to Isaac and Rebekah are enclosed in oblong walls with gable roofs, rising about twelve feet above the church-floor, the material being alternate bands of yellowish and reddish limestone, from the neighbouring hills. At the gable ends are brass crescents, and there are windows in the sides and roofs, with heavy iron bars, through which the imitation tombs are visible, a door of wood ornamented with brasswork giving access to each. The tombs themselves are covered with richly-embroidered silk hangings—green for Isaac, crimson for Rebekah—and have cloths hung as canopies over them, while manuscript copies of the Koran lie open around on low wooden rests. The same colours mark the two sexes in the coverings over the other cenotaphs, which are more or less like these. All claim, as I have said, to be spread over the spots where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with their wives, Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah, rest. The walls of the church are veneered with marble to the height of six feet, and have a band of Arabic writing running along above, the rest of the wall being whitewashed, as are the great pillars, and the piers corresponding to them in the end walls. The floor is covered with carpets throughout.

The cenotaph of Abraham, in the mosque half of the building, is about eight feet long, eight feet high, and four feet broad, and is covered with green and white silk, embroidered with Arabic texts in gold thread. Two green banners with gold lettering lean against the tomb, the shrine and walls round which are pierced with open-barred gates, said to be of iron plated with silver; an inscription on one bearing the date of AD 1259, and containing an invocation to Abraham. Silver lamps and ostrich egg-shells hang before the cenotaph, and copies of the Koran, on low rests, surround it. The walls of the shrine in which it stands are cased with marble. The shrine of Sarah is much the same, with open-barred gates and a domed roof. Besides the cenotaphs to Jacob and Leah, there is one, outside the inner wall, to Joseph, with a passage from it to a lower one to the same patriarch.

The fullest account of Machpelah as it was in past ages is that of Benjamin of Tudela, by whom it was visited in or about the year 1163, when it was held by the Christians. He speaks of it as "a large place of worship, called St. Abraham," and adds that "the Gentiles or Christians have erected six sepulchres in this place, which they pretend to be those of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. The pilgrims are told that they are the sepulchres of the fathers, and money is extorted from them. But if any Jew comes, who gives an additional fee to the keeper of the cave, an iron door is opened which dates from the times of their forefathers, who rest in peace, and, with a burning candle in his hands, the visitor descends into a first cave, which is empty, traverses a second which is in the same state, and at last reaches a third, which contains six sepulchres—those of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah—one opposite the other."

"All these sepulchres," the writer proceeds, "bear inscriptions, the letters being engraved. Thus, upon that of our father Abraham, we read (in Hebrew), 'This is the tomb of Abraham our father: upon him be peace.' A lamp burns in the cave and upon the sepulchres continually, both night and day, and you there see tubs, filled with the bones of Israelites; for to this day it is a custom of the House of Israel to bring thither the bones of their forefathers, and to leave them there." Such tubs, or arks, of bones, bearing rude Hebrew inscriptions, have again and again been found in tombs near Jerusalem.

The stones of the ancient wall of the mosque are marvellously finished and fitted to their places, which was no slight task, since one of them is thirty-eight feet long and three and a half feet high. Everywhere the chiselling is very fine, and all, as I have said, have the old Jewish bevel at the edges, broad, shallow, and beautifully cut. Of the age of this noble piece of architecture, various opinions have been formed, many thinking that it dates from before the Captivity, others that it was built by Herod the Great. It certainly existed in the days of Josephus, for he speaks of its being "of beautiful marble and admirably worked," and it has been forcibly said that if it had been one of the creations of Herod, whose magnificence the historian so delighted to extol, it would have been mentioned as one of his works. Tradition assigns it to King Solomon, and it may be as old as the Jewish monarchy.

The entrance to the mosque is by a flight of broad steps, which, in my innocence, I approached, without thinking of the fact that Christians are not allowed to enter the sacred building. I had only got up two or three steps, however, when my ambitious career was brought to a stop, and I had to content myself with looking at a hole in the wall through which the poor Jews are permitted to thrust pieces of paper on which their names are written, in the hope that Abraham may see them and intercede in their behalf. What a strange thing is human faith!

Entrance to the Mosque of Machpelah But are the bodies of the patriarchs really at Hebron? St. Stephen, in his defence, tells us that "Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, himself, and our fathers; and they were carried over into Shechem, and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a price, in silver, of the sons of Hamor in Shechem" (Acts 7:15,16 [R.V.]). But as Genesis tells us expressly that the burial-place bought by Abraham was in Hebron, not at Shechem, and also that Joseph and his brethren buried Jacob at Hebron, in the "cave of the field of Machpelah," it is clear that, in the excitement of his position before his judges, Stephen had confused the buying of a sepulchre at Shechem by Joseph, and the burial in it of Joseph and possibly his brethren, with the provision of a cave-tomb at Hebron, in which Joseph afterwards laid his father (Gen 50:13; Josh 24:32; Gen 33:19).

It is striking to find how exactly the narrative of Abraham's purchase of the grave and his sorrow at Sarah's death (Gen 23), is in keeping with what would even now follow two such incidents in ordinary life. The patriarch, we are told, "came to mourn" for his dead wife—that is, to hold a public mourning—which, in the case of "the princess" of such a powerful emir as her husband, would even now be a great event. He, himself, would sit for a time in his tent beside the corpse; but the climate made speedy burial necessary, so that he would very soon have to "stand up from before his dead." The mourning women, the dirge music, and the lamentations general in the demonstrative East, must have engrossed all Hebron for the time. Even for one in a much humbler position the loud weeping, the beating of the breast, the cries, and wailing music, are well-nigh overpowering; for one so distinguished as Sarah, they must have been irresistibly affecting.

The story of the purchase of the tomb is intensely Oriental. It was of the utmost moment to Abraham that no dispute should, at any time, arise as to the right of property in the tomb where his wife was to be laid, and where he, himself, in due time was to rest by her side. He comes before the sons of Heth, therefore, at the gate of the town (Gen 23:10), and tells them that he is, as they know, only a stranger and a sojourner with them, and therefore owns no ground in Hebron: will any of them sell him a piece suitable for the grave Exterior of the Mosque of Machpelah of his dead wife, and others of his family afterwards?—for it was usual with such a man to have a hereditary burial-place.* A number of the townsmen were, as usual, in the open space at the gate—the great gossiping haunt of Eastern buyers to-day; and the crowd which the patriarch gathered round were ready to entertain his proposal, though, with true Oriental dexterity, prompt to veil their keenness to sell under an air of courteous liberality. "He was 'a chief of God' among them; the choice of their sepulchres was at his disposal: none of them would withhold his sepulchre from him." But he knew too well what all this meant. He was aware that it was only a flourish preliminary to a keen bargain. He had already fixed his heart on the Cave of Machpelah, and so, after bowing grateful acknowledgments of their politeness, he begged that if they would, indeed, be so good as to help him, they might mediate between him and Ephron, the son of Zohar, for the purchase of Machpelah, which lay in the end of Ephron's field. Mediators are always employed in such transactions, even at the present day; indeed, no bargain can be made without all the crowd around having something to say to it. Abraham would pay full value for the property; let them intercede for him—that was all he would ask.

* Winer, i. 144.

Ephron, who all this time was among (Hebrew) the good folks gathered to this colloquy, and who were seated, like himself, cross-legged on the ground, instantly responded, just as a Hebron man in a similar case would to-day. Sell it!—that be far from him! He would give it to the great stranger—yes, he would give it! In the same way the Arab at Gaza, as I have already said, gave me his spear (see p. 223); and so Orientals, generally, upon meeting you, might profess to give you their house and all that was in it. Ephron had three times in a breath vowed that he would give Abraham the field, calling the "sons of his people" to witness his doing so; but the patriarch knew what the gift was worth, and, gravely bowing his thanks, went on with his proposals to buy it. "If thou wilt indeed show kindness to thy servant, I will give thee money for the field, and I will bury my dead there." This brought Ephron to the point, and forced him to name his terms. "The land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that betwixt me and thee?" Anyone who wishes to buy a piece of land, or anything else, in Palestine to-day, will hear the very same words. But Abraham was a shrewd man of business; he knew what all these generous professions meant, and forthwith closed the bargain by weighing out the silver to Ephron, there being no coins as yet, although there were traders as keen as their descendants of the nineteenth century. Indeed, Abraham would have needed, even in our time, to weigh the money, for every "merchant" carries scales with him to guard against light weight, coins sometimes being "sweated" or clipped by Jews.

The mere payment of the money was not, however, enough. Then, as now, a formal act was requisite, by which all the details of the purchase—"the field, and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, and that were in all the borders round about"—were recited and duly acknowledged by Ephron. In Abraham's time this legal completion of the sale apparently consisted in a recapitulation of every item before the assembled burghers at the city gate; no document being drawn up. But in our day every particular must be duly stated in a written deed, as prolix and minute as a conveyance by a Western lawyer, so that no possible loophole be left for a future evasion of the bargain.

The hills round Hebron, one of the few towns in Palestine that lie in a hollow, look utterly barren, except the one to the south, which appears covered with olives as one looks up from below. But when you climb to the top of the hills behind the city, on the north-east, the whole valley lies at your feet, with the hills on all sides, and you then receive a very different impression. Behind the town the slopes are, indeed, barren; but towards the south they stretch away in soft outlines, till they fade into a blue mist towards the wilderness of Edom. A small but well-cultivated valley lies behind on the east, dotted thickly with olives. To the west lay the long valley of Hebron and the slopes on its further side, covered with glorious olive-woods and vineyards, and rich olive-grounds and gardens reached away to the south also. On the north, hills rose beyond hills, covered with vineyard above vineyard, on countless terraces, the loose stones carefully built into walls, step above step, to catch all the soil brought down by the winter storms.

The famous valley in which the patriarchs fed their flocks in ages long gone by, and in which they now rest in their deep sleep, was all before me (Gen 13:18, 23:2, 37:14). The city at my feet had been a busy hive of men during a period dating back seven years before Zoan-Tanis, the old capital of the Delta, was founded in Egypt, in the grey morning of the world. For seven years and a half David, the Shepherd King and the Psalmist of Israel, had held his rude court before the very gate under my eyes (2 Sam 5:5). The pool over which the hands and feet of the murderers of Ishbosheth had been nailed up lay in the afternoon sun. It seemed as if one could see Joab once more stalking through the narrow streets; as if one could hear the wail over the chieftain Abner, foully murdered by him, perhaps in that very gateway (2 Sam 3:27). In the country around David had for years led an unsettled life, at the head of a band of men made up of all who were "in distress, or debt, or who were discontented" (1 Sam 22:2)—a wandering Arab, in fact, living by requisitions on the wealthy, in return for protecting their property from others like himself, and for not taking what he wanted by violence (see his demand from Habal of Carmel [1 Sam 25:5]). An outlaw, he had lived as best he could, with his rough followers, in the woods and caves a few miles off (1 Sam 22:1-5, 23:15). The hills around Hebron are still covered, often for miles together, with scrub of all kinds, and are therefore much frequented by charcoal-burners, who export from this region most of the charcoal used in Jerusalem. The defeat of Saul at Gilboa was the beginning of David's rise. Recognised as king by the elders of Hebron, after he had propitiated them by gifts, the son of Jesse came hither with his braves and was accepted by Judah as ruler (1 Sam 30:26,31; 2 Sam 2:1-4). We are apt to forget his long residence at Hebron, on account of the splendour of his subsequent reign in Jerusalem; but his contemporaries regarded the town with the greatest reverence as the home of Abraham, and the cradle of David's empire.

Many years after the latter had been joyfully greeted in it as king, the streets rang with rejoicing over the accession of Absalom, his treacherous son, who here raised the banner of revolt. Idumæans, Greeks, Romans, Saracenes, Crusaders, and Turks, had since then ruled the destinies of Hebron, in long succession; but the changeless features of the landscape, of the climate, and even of the human life around me, veiled the immense gulf between long-vanished ages and the present, and seemed to bring up again before my eyes the moving life of the distant past.

Chapter 14 | Contents | Chapter 16


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