by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.
Notes on Revelation Online Books
Chapter 16 | Contents | Chapter 18
Cunningham Geikie D.D.
With a Map of Palestine and Original Illustrations by H. A. Harper
The road from Hebron to Jerusalem is rough and mountainous, but very direct. Our kind host wished us to stay with him longer, but this being impossible, we sent on our donkeys with the tents, the Turkish soldiers having duly found the wanderers and brought them to Hebron. They had been overtaken by night, they said, at Falujeh, and fearing robbers, had slept therethat is, they had lain down beside their beasts in the dress they wore. A spring runs down from the north side of the hill as you leave Hebron, and makes the track for a time muddy; but this is rather a welcome sight in Palestine. A fringe of grass at the sides, below the broad, low walks of loose stones picked off the small fields, vineyards, &c., which skirted our way, was a lovely green. The path soon after was for a time roughly pavedwhen, or by whom, is a very hard question to answer; but the stones are now at such angles, and in such heights and hollows, that they would break the legs of any horses not bred in the country. Before long the road became simply fearful, running in the dry bed of a winter torrent strewn with stones of all sizes, in thick masses. Every patch of soil on the bare hill-sides was in some way utilised. Four camels passed us with bags of tallow, then a man with a very primitive guna shepherd from the hills. We next came to a well, where there were women in blue cotton, with white cloth over their heads, some drawing water, others pounding household linen with a stone at a small pool by the well-side; the linen, I fear, sadly wanting their kind offices.
The road, bad though it was, bore every appearance of having always been the highway between Hebron and Jerusalem, for it is direct, and was evidently made by human labour in a long-past age. It is certain, however, that it could never have been passable for wheels, for they could not be dragged over such a wilderness of boulders and loose stones of all sizes, or up slopes so steep. Nor, indeed, do we hear of wheeled vehicles in the parts south of Jerusalem, except when Joseph sent waggons to bring down his father Jacob to Egypt; and they only came as far as Hebron, whence Jacob, then very old, travelled in them to Beersheba (Gen 45:19,21,27, 46:1). As in olden times, the ass is the main help for a journey, horses still being few, and mules only used for baggage and other burdens. Big men on diminutive donkeys are seen everywhere, and, at times, a woman and child on the family ass, while the husband walks at the side of his wife. Thus Joseph, it is to be supposed, travelled with the Blessed Virgin from Bethlehem to Egypt, and from Egypt to Nazareth (Matt 2:14,21). So, also, rode the ancient kings (Zech 9:9; Matt 21:5), and so rode our Lord, as the Son of David, in fulfillment of the words of Zechariah: "Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass"; and we are told that Saul rode to the field spear in hand, as peasants on their asses now carry their clubs or guns, and with a small water-jar tied to his rude saddle, as in our day (1 Sam 26:11).
About three miles from Hebron a path runs off towards Tekoa; and on this, about five minutes' ride from the road we were following, are two courses of ancient hewn stones, among which one measured fifteen and a half feet long, and three and a third feet thick. There are two such walls, at right angles to each other, apparently the remains of an enclosure, one side of which measures 200 feet, and the other 160. The Jews of Hebron call this "the House of Abraham," regarding it as the spot where the patriarch pitched his tent, and where his famous terebinth-tree grew. Nor is this really improbable, when we see the extreme age of the walls, as shown by their bevel, and by the size of the stones. Besides, the tradition is at least 1,500 years old. When between four and five miles from Hebron, we were shown a ruined mosque on the right, about three miles from the road, bearing the name of Neby Yunas"the Prophet Jonah." There is another with the same name, on the coast below Acre, a place natural enough for it; but why there should be a mosque to Jonah near Hebron is not so easy to understand. It shows, at least, how deep a hold the narrative about the prophet obtained on the popular mind.
Jonah's gourd has also been the subject of much controversy. St. Jerome thought the word should be "ivy"; and many have fancied that the castor-oil tree is intended. This certainly reaches a considerable size, being found twelve or fifteen feet high in Palestine; but it has widely-open branches, and is indifferently fitted for giving shade. Dr. Tristram, on this ground among others, thinks that the bottle-gourd is meanta plant very commonly used in Palestine and elsewhere to cover and give cooling shade to arbours. I have often seen it, both in the Holy Land and in America, trained over such shelters, its rapid growth and large leaves admirably adapting it to such a purpose, while the extreme fragility of its stem exposes it to a striking suddenness of decay, should a storm strike it or a caterpillar gnaw its root. One day it may be seen in its glory; the next, it hangs withered and dried up. This would exactly suit the narrative. The prophet's frail booth covered with soft green, as it were in a night, might, before another sunset, be left bare as at first by the violence of a passing wind, or a chance injury to the stem, even from a cause so insignificant as the tooth of a "worm" (Jonah 4:5-8). Dr. Thomson* agrees with Canon Tristram in rejecting the castor-oil plant for the gourd, and, indeed, the difficulty could only have arisen from the similarity in sound, in the modern languages of Palestine, between the names of the two"kurah" meaning gourd, and "kurwah" castor-oil plant; while in the Hebrew the gourd is "kikayon"; and in Herodotus the castor-oil plant is "kiki."
Tarshish, to which Jonah's ship was bound, seems to have been the name given originally to the Guadalquivir, in Spain, and to a populous town at its mouth. It is an aboriginal Spanish word rather than a Phnician; but a Carthaginianthat is, a Phniciancolony, founded in the neighbourhood, adopted it as the name of the port which became famous as the farthest western harbour of Tyrian sailors in the southern seas of Europe. Ships of large size were hence called "Tarshish ships," whether sailing to that port or not (Isa 2:16, 60:9); their dimensions and splendid finish seeming to the Hebrew prophets one of the supreme illustrations of human power and pride (Isa 23:1; Eze 27:25). Solomon's ships, trading to Ceylon or East Africa, were also called "Tarshish ships"; and so were those of Jehoshaphat, which were built on the Red Sea (1 Kings 10:22, 22:49). But Jonah's ship was apparently about to sail for Tarshish, in Spain, and must have lain out in the roads at Joppa, having only called there for freight or passengers, after starting from the docks at Tyre. The description of such a vessel in Ezekiel (Eze 27) helps us to realise the circumstances of the attempted voyage, though the details given by the prophet may have varied in different ships. The deck was of cypress; the mast, a tall cedar; the helm, oak of Bashan; the oar-benches, of the cypress of Cyprus, inlaid with ivory; the sails, of white Egyptian canvas, gaily embroidered; while the awnings over the quarter-deck, to keep the sun from the cabin-passengers, were of blue and purple. The oarsmen were the famed sea-dogs of Sidon and Aradus; the steersmen, from Tyre, had the care of the sails and rigging, and were under the command of a chief steersman, or "master"; the staff of ship-carpenters was from Gebal; and there were, besides, traders, soldiers attached to the ship, and passengers. A wonderful picture of an ocean-going ship of three thousand years ago!
* Land and the Book, p. 70.
At El-Dirweh, about six miles from Hebron, on the right of the track, a fountain was pouring clear sparkling water into a stone trough, at a short distance from the ruins of a fortress, the scene of brave deeds in the time of the Maccabees, for it is the site of the ancient Bethsur, a tower bearing that name standing on a low height a little way off the road. Only one side of it is left; but some of the stones are drafted, showing that the masonry is at the oldest Byzantine. There are also hewn stones lying around, and foundations of buildings; but there are no marks of a fortified wall round the station. The tower itself is only about twenty feet square, but its position is very strong, and it commanded, in its day, the great road from the south to Jerusalem. Josephus speaks of it as the strongest fortress in Judæa.* Already existing as a village in the time of Joshua, Bethsur was fortified in that of Rehoboam, and its inhabitants, after the exile, helped to rebuild the long-destroyed walls of Jerusalem (Josh 13:58; 2 Chron 11:7; Neh 3:16). A fierce battle once raged all round these hills and gorges, when Judas Maccabæus defeated the Syrian general, Lysias, and was able to strengthen the tower against the Edomites (1 Macc 4:29,61; 2 Macc 11:5; Jos. Antt, xii. 7,5). Nor was this the last time that these rocks were coloured with blood, for the Syrian retook Bethsur, and it was wrested from him once more and made stronger than ever by Simon Maccabæus, the last survivor of the great brothers (1 Macc 6:31,50, 9:52, 10:14, 11:65,66, 14:7,33).
The fountain is only seven minutes' walk from this memorable spot, and issues from beneath a wall of large hewn stones, a runnel from it flowing down the road. On the other side of the track is a small tank lined with cement, as well as a larger and rougher one, uncemented. There are marks of an ancient pavement, now broken and terribly rough, but once, no doubt, very different. The ruins of an ancient church lie near the fountain, with remains of the old wall that enclosed its yard. It has been thought that Bethsur was the scene of the baptism of the eunuch by St. Philip when on the way from Jerusalem to Gaza; but it is much more likely that the incident occurred between Beit Jibrin and Gaza, especially since St. Philip was afterwards found at Ashdod, on the Philistine plain (Acts 8:38). Bethsur lies 3,180 feet above the sea.
* Jos. Antt, xiii. 5,6.
Just after passing it, a wady on the left, with the name Bereikut, recalled the valley of Berachah (2 Chron 20:26), the scene of Jehoshaphat's thanksgiving, which the locality exactly suits, as Tekoa is only about three miles off to the east. On a hill to the left stood the hamlet of Jedur, the ancient Gedor (Josh 12:13). The road lay mostly through a broad valley, with successive swells and hollows, the level still rising, and hills, single or together, shutting in the view east and west. The slopes were mostly covered with scrub-trees and herbs, hiding the bare chalk; and here and there lime-kilns were to be seen, burning or idle. Ruins crowned most of the hill-tops both right and left, and smoke from the charcoal-burners' fires often rose from the bush, but there was nowhere a village on the whole road. Some parts showed ancient terraces, and in one place there were cultivated patches, and even small fields, among the stones; yet, as a whole, the road led through wild desolation. At one point it seemed, indeed, to vanish, leaving only a track, visible perhaps to horses and mules, but beyond my recognition. Climbing the side of a very steep hill, it crept along through a chaos of rocks, with only room enough at some places for my beast to get through without leaving me behind. The valley lay two or three hundred feet below when we reached our highest point; but before us and on both sides the grey barren rocks stretched slowly up, the picture of a desert. To trust the sensible beast I rode, as it climbed the stony roughness or dropped its forelegs over some huge boulder, was the only security. Not seldom the path was hardly broad enough to let the creature pass along without falling over the side; and there was present to my mind the comfortable reflection that, once off, it would roll to an indefinite depth down the wild steep. The broad glen, far below, was at this part more or less cultivated; and no doubt there was some road through it, but my guide had taken a short cut over the mountains, to his own delight perhaps, but certainly not to mine.
Once more on a safe level, we found ourselves in the midst of a great number of Russian pilgrims on their way to Juttah, as the birthplace of St. John the Baptist. There were some priests among them with the strange brimless hat of the Greek Church, and the flowing beard of which its clergy are all so proud. Most of the pilgrims were of middle age, and the two sexes were equally well represented. Fur caps, thick woollen coats, trousers, petticoats, and heavy boots, seemed very ill suited to the climate; but they would at least withstand the wear and tear of the long journey from Russia and back. Many carried pots and cooking vessels; some, bundles of household gear; and all were comfortably, if roughly, equipped. They had no doubt come from Constantinople to Joppa in a Russian steamer, enduring what to us would be intolerable hardships, and were now proposing to return to Jerusalem in time for Easter, and then to go down to the Jordan and dip in its sacred waters, finding their way back to Russia as they best could, after having completed this long pilgrimage. So, in ancient days, had there come to Jerusalem "Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5), to keep the Passover, the Easter of the Hebrew.
The hills on each side of the valley, beyond this, were covered with bushes, through which the remains of ancient terraces showed themselves; but a ruined village, with olive-trees and some ploughed land round it, and a rain-water pond, were almost the only signs that the land was still in some parts inhabited. A little further on, where a valley crossed our path at right angles, making a wide open space, we reached the famous reservoirs known as Solomon's Pools. The three huge cisterns thus designated are built of squared stones, and bear marks of the highest antiquity. They lie one below the other, at a height of 2,600 feet above the sea, at the west end of the narrow Wady Urtas, which runs east and west across the track by which we had come from Hebron. In a place so lonely, these vast structures fill the mind with wonder. They are separated from one another by only a short interval, and the bottom of each is higher than the top of the one below it. The upper pool has the great length of 380 feet, and is 229 feet broad at the west, and 236 at the east end, while its depth is twenty-five feet. The middle pool, however, is no less than 423 feet long, 160 feet broad at the west, and 250 at the east end, and its depth is thirty-nine feet. But the lowest pool is the largest of the three, measuring 582 feet in length, 148 feet broad at the west, and 207 at the east end, with a depth of fifty feet. The depth, I may say, is in each case that of the lower, or eastern, end. Between the surfaces of the upper and middle pools there is a distance of 160 feet, and the lower pool is 248 feet from the middle one, so that this gigantic series of reservoirs extends, in all, to the great distance of 1,793 feet, or more than the third of a mile. The inside and the bed of all three, so far as can be seen, are lined with cement, which, however, has broken away in some places, while in others it has evidently been repaired. Flights of steps at the corners and the middle lead to the water, and huge steps along the sides at the bottom leave a central channel of extra depth, in which the bare rock shows itself in many places. Water stood in the upper and middle pools, but the lower one was dry. The steps at the sides, along the bottom, are cut in the native rock, but I did not attempt to go down to them, as they were largely covered with the jelly of decayed water-weeds, beds of which floated in the pools. The lower pool is connected with the second by a steep channel, through which, however, there was no water running; but a steady flow came into the second pool from an opening connecting it with the first. The walls must be immensely strong to have stood firm for so many centuries; but, of course, they are in reality only a facing to the rock, out of which all the cisterns have been hewn.
Immediately to the north-west of the Pools is an abandoned, straggling fort, built by the Saracens, and known as El-Burak. Two or three men were living in the rude chambers inside the gate, and some poor Arabs had sought temporary shelter in the wide, forsaken interior, which is square and devoid of buildings. Herds and flocks evidently made use of it as a spacious fold. In its day the fort had helped to protect the Pools, but this service is no longer necessary. Grass and flowers sprinkled the ground outside, but the slopes north and south, closing in the valley, were unusually wild and bare; the winter storms, unchecked by trees or shrubs, having washed down all the soil and left the hill-sides strewn with great blocks of stone in the wildest confusion.
The Wady Urtas sinks steeply from west to east, the direction of the Pools; so that, had one pool been made instead of three, the wady must have been dammed by a gigantic wallif, indeed, any structure could have resisted the weight of such a body of water as would thus have accumulated. But even to hew out the three separate pools must have been a wonderful undertaking, especially in an age when science was so imperfect that it has left one end of each excavation broader than the other, apparently from inability to follow a straight line. Indeed, there are many indications of imperfect engineering, though the effect, as a whole, is so striking. Tradition ascribes the enterprise to Solomon, and we know that he had great gardens near Jerusalem, and a pleasure-palace, to which he drove out in royal pomp. These, it may be, were in Wady Urtas, watered by the abundant streams from the Pools. Perhaps it is of these, and in this very place, that the Beloved sings: "Awake, O north wind, and come, thou south, blow upon my garden, that the spices may flow out.* Let my beloved come into his garden and eat his precious fruits." Perhaps it was in these delicious retreats that he sang of his bride as "a garden barred, a spring shut up, a fountain sealed," and compared her to a paradise-garden of pomegranates and all kinds of noble fruits, henna, with spikenard plants, spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all kinds of incense-bearing trees, myrrh and aloes, and all the best of spices (Song 4:12-14). The beauty of the Wady Urtas lower down makes it easy to think that the famous king enjoyed the glories of spring in its bosom. We read of him, "I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards; I made me gardens and parks; and I planted trees in them, of all kinds of fruits; I made me pools of water, to water therefrom the fruit where trees were reared" (Eccl 2:4ff). Why may not these pools be those of Urtas? They may well have been the work of that ancient time; their very defects, in some respects, being an indirect evidence of their antiquity, for while the supreme triumphs of Hebrew architecture were carried out by the help of skilled Tyrian architects and masons, those in which only native skill could be employed would naturally be less perfect. We see an illustration of this in the subterranean rock conduit at Siloam, dating, it is thought, from the reign of Hezekiah, for the workmen, beginning at both ends, have missed each other's approach, so as to need a cross-opening to effect a junction. It is quite possible, then, that these huge excavations are a memorial of the labour exacted by Solomon from his people, the bitterness of which led, under Rehoboam, to the revolt of the Ten Tribes (1 Kings 12).
The supply of these great reservoirs was derived from four springs, one of which flows underground into the west, or upper pool, through a vault; the second is said to bubble up from beneath the bottom of the Pools; the third runs through a small channel, partly of stones, partly of stoneware pipes, from the hill-side south-east of the fort: a clear, bright stream, with which I quenched my thirst, at a gap in the top of its square stone bed. The fourth rises inside the old castle. There was, besides, a high-level aqueduct which brought water down a long wady from the south, partly the flow of a spring now dried up, but also the surface drainage of the hills, for provision was made that nothing should be lost. But the chief of all these sources is that which rises on the hill-side, about 200 paces west of the upper pool, and flows into it, as I have said, through a vault; its subterranean course leading to a popular belief that it is the "sealed fountain" of Solomon's Song.
*Song 4:16: rather "that its fragrance may spread abroad."
In former times, when the whole water system of which the Pools were the centre was perfect, a great aqueduct, the continuation of that which stretched for nearly ten miles form the south, ran under the Pools, receiving additional supplies from them, and was led on, by a winding course, along the hill-sides, past Bethlehem, to the Temple space in Jerusalem. The portion of this great work which lies south of the Pools is apparently very old, the channel being sometimes cut in the rocks, and at one place tunnelled through them. For the most part, however, it is formed of strong masonry, sometimes six or eight feet high, and faced with ashlar; the waterway varying from eighteen inches to two feet in breadth, and from a foot to two and a half feet in depth, lined throughout with strong cement, and covered with loose slabs of stone. Under the Pools the water flowed in stoneware pipes, with air-holes at intervals, to relieve the pressure.
There were, moreover, according to Mr. Drake, four other aqueducts connected with the Pools and the Valley of Urtas: one which entered Jerusalem near the Joppa Gate, at a high level; another, now quite ruined, which stretched in the same direction; a third to supply villages to the eastward; while the fourth was led, apparently by Herod, towards his famous fortress and city of Herodium, now the Frank Mountain, to water the gardens with which he beautified the neighbourhood. The officers of the Palestine Survey think that all these gigantic works date from the Roman period. Some of them, indeed, are very probably the identical conduits of which Josephus speaks, as built by Pontius Pilate with money taken from the Temple treasury, and therefore sacred, as "corban," or devoted to God. This effort, however, to benefit the city involved Pilate in more hatred than all his other acts, it being regarded as a sacrilegious robbery of Church funds. But, though Roman governors may have added to works they found already in existence, and perhaps repaired dilapidations which may have been extensive, why should Josephus have mentioned Pilate as having made only one aqueduct, which was an undertaking so much less magnificent than the Pools, if they themselves were his work or that of any other Roman? From the roofing of portions of the aqueducts with half-formed arches, and from the look of the fragments of the great one, near Jerusalem, being so much more ancient than the Roman style, I cannot refrain from the belief that though the contemporaries of our Lord may have repaired or added to existing structures, the glory of hewing out the huge Pools belongs to the great Hebrew king, Solomon, and that they form a splendid relic of his peaceful greatness.
Such works for the supply of water to Jerusalem and the country east of Urtas may well excite astonishment in the present condition of Palestine. It has been noticed, however, by Canon Tristram that aqueducts are found not only in a district like this, where nearness to the capital might explain their presence, but in places which have, for ages, been unpeopled and desolate. They span in many places the profound gorges between Jerusalem and Quarantania; we find traces of them at Engedi, on the Dead Sea; they are still visible at different parts of the dismal wilderness of Judæa. Indeed, even in the wadys at the south-west corner of the Dead Sea we find traces of carefully-cemented conduits, once supplying cisterns which are still perfect, and may some day restore fertility, after ages of neglect, to regions which need only water to blossom like the rose.*
The village of Urtas lies near the bottom of the valley, about a mile east of the Pools, clinging, in ruin, to the south slope, which is both steep and bare like all the scenery around. There are still some inhabitants, who live, for the most part, in hovels on the hill-side, unfit for human dwellings. A few trees grow amidst the houses, which are flat-roofed, and roughly built of stones, but showing every stage of dilapidation. Except for the climate, such a place would, in fact, be uninhabitable. Yet this seems to have been the site of Etam, where Solomon had his royal gardens, with streams running through them. Rehoboam, also, thought Etam worth fortifying, along with Bethlehem and Tekoa (2 Chron 11:6). There are still, indeed, the foundations of a square towera low, broad wall of large squared stones; and the rocks are in some places hewn and scarped: evidences of a military post, with its defences, in olden days. One attraction yet exists which may account for the importance once attached to a spot now so miserable: a fountain sends forth an abundant supply of fine water, which flows in a bright, murmuring stream, all the year round, down the valley. In such a thirsty land, it may well have delighted both Solomon and his foolish son, and no doubt it might even now, if utilised as it should be, make Wady Urtas a paradise. It is, however, used to some extent, for along its sides are gardens of citrons, pomegranates, figs, oranges, and even pears, apples, and cherries, intermingled with plots in which grow cauliflowers, turnips, potatoes, and other vegetables. Shut in by steep slopes of grey rock, which are sprinkled at one spot with the dilapidated hovels of the village, this greenery is all the more delightful on that account, and serves to show what the place may have been in Solomon's day.
* Pict. Palestine, i. 141.
Insect life was already quickening in the sun, and ants were busy, as always in warm weather, at their multifarious occupations. Was it here that the Wise Man noticed them, and wrote, "Go to the ant, thou sluggard: consider her ways, and be wise; which having no chief (or judge), overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest"? (Prov 6:6-8). Modern science has felt a difficulty in these words, since the ant does not live on grain, but on flesh, insects, and the sweet sap or other exudations of trees, which it could not store up for winter use, and since it sleeps during winter, in all but very hot climates. The truth is, we must not look in Scripture for science, which was unknown in early ages, for it is not the purpose of Revelation to teach it, and the sacred writers, in this as in other matters of a similar kind, were left to write according to the popular belief of their day. We find the same idea in another passage of the same book. "There be four things which are little upon the earth, but they are exceeding wise: the ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer" (Prov 30:24,25). It was universally believed in antiquity that ants did so, and even Dr. Thomson, in "The Land and the Book," and Neil, in his "Palestine Explored," cling to the idea. Ants do, indeed, fill their nests with many things, but it is to pad them warmly, and keep themselves from the damp earth; and hence, though they are undoubtedly assiduous in harvest-time in carrying off grains of corn, chaff, grass, seeds, and vegetable husks of all kinds, they do so to make their underground rooms comfortable, not to lay up food for a season during which, in many parts, they eat nothing. Anyone may see the proof of this for himself by opening an ants' nest. He will find everything to make it warm, but the supposed "stores" are left quite untouched.
It is not certain, indeed, that in Palestine ants hibernate, for they may be seenat least in the warm district round the Dead Seabusy on the tamarisk-trunks, seeking their food, even in January. The mistake is similar to that which prevails very generally, even in our own day, as to ants' eggs, which is the name popularly given, both in England and Germany, to the pupæ, or ants in process of transformation into the perfect insect. They then closely resemble grains of corn, and are carried out daily by their nurses to enjoy the heat of the sun, and taken in again before evening. Who that has broken into an ants' nest, by accident or intentionally, has not seen the workers rushing off with these white, egg-like bodies, in trembling haste, to bear them to a place of security? But if we nowadays make a popular mistake in thinking these to be eggs, how much more natural was it that erroneous ideas, on another point of ant-life, should obtain three thousand years ago. Mr. Neil's experience, indeed, shows how easily a mistake might arise. While encamped, about the middle of March, near Tiberias, on the Lake of Galilee, he noticed a line of large, black ants marching towards their nest, each laden with a grain of barley, larger and longer than itself, so that they looked like a moving multitude of barleycorns. This line, he found, extended to a spot where some of the corn for his beasts had been spilt by the mule-drivers, or had fallen from the nosebags, and was now being appropriated by the ants. That they should carry it off, seemed at once to justify the supposition that they were doing so to lay up food for the winter, and yet, as I have said, nothing is more certain than that ants do not eat dried barley or any other dry grain.
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