by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books


Chapter 27 | Contents | Chapter 29

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


The Road to Jericho—A Khan where Jesus must have RestedThe Wady Kelt and the Monastery of St. John; The "Swelling" of JordanThe "Pool of Moses"The Spina ChristiA Land of ThornsThe Sultan's SpringSite of Jericho; History of the City; Its Modern SuccessorWhat Eastern Christians are thought ofMountain of the TemptationBeth-Hogla


The road to Jericho goes past Bethany, beyond which the ground rises into a new height. This surmounted, a steep descent leads to a deep valley shut in by hills. A well with a small basin, in which leeches are abundant, stands at the side of the track; the only one between Bethany and the Jordan Valley. Very probably this was the "Spring of the Sun," En Shemesh, mentioned as one of the boundaries of Judah (Josh 15:7), and it may once have been a stirring spot, from the excellence of the water, and its being necessarily a halting place for all travellers, to quench their thirst. From this point the road stretches on for a considerable distance over level ground, between high hills, absolutely desolate, and with no sign of human habitation anywhere. The slopes are covered with thorny bushes and beds of stones, fallen from above. The silence of death reigns on all sides. Yet even in this desolate and wretched tract small flocks of sheep and goats find, here and there, scanty pasture on the hill-sides. Gnarled and stunted trees occasionally dot the plain. Was it through this barren tract that the grey-haired David rode, when fleeing to the Jordan, from Absalom? It must have been either through this or some parallel valley north of it, and one can easily fancy how Shimei could run along the top of the hills, at the side, and hurl stones down the steep at the fugitive king and his attendants, mingling with his violence showers of curses: "Out with you, out with you, thou bloody man, thou man of Belial; the Lord hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned" (2 Sam 16:3,7).

Somewhere here, also, lay the village of Bahurim, where the king's spies were so dexterously hidden in the empty cistern (2 Sam 17:19. See also p. 514). A small valley on the right, and a low hill on the track, lay between us and the Valley of the Sidr-tree—the Spina Christi—where lie the ruins of the old Hathrur Khan. These may not themselves be ancient, but it is quite probable that there may have been a khan here in olden times for the benefit of travellers. There are now only some tumble-down buildings, quite uninhabited. The whole region is painfully desolate, and the water in the cisterns, from the surface and from rain, is bad, but the position is a three hours' journey from Jerusalem, and thus half way to Jericho, so that a shelter for wayfarers may well have stood here in all ages. The road from the Jordan to the capital was a very busy one in the days of our Lord, since the Jews from Galilee usually took this road to the Holy City. The khan to which the good Samaritan guided the wounded Jew may very possibly, therefore, have stood on this spot. There is seldom a caretaker of caravanserais in desolate places in the East, but some offer this advantage, as did the one on this road in the time of Christ, which had a "host," who could even be trusted with the care of the sick (Luke 10:35). It is touching to think that our Lord must Himself often have rested for the mid-day hour at the Khan Hathrur, on His journeys to and from Jerusalem; above all, that He rested here for the last time when on His way to the Holy City, on the Friday before His death. What thoughts must have filled His soul, as He thus paused, before beginning the last three hours' journey towards Calvary!

The road from this point was for a time tolerably level, but its framework of wild, desolate hills, ever more bare and stony, grew increasingly repulsive in its gloom and sternness. At one part the road climbed forward by a narrow path hewn in the rock, and the view, till close to the plains of the Jordan, was simply that of a dark mountain gorge. At times the track led along the edge of sheer precipices, at others down rocks so steep and rough that it needed every care to prevent a fall. Yet, as a whole, it is not perhaps worse than the camel track from Joppa to Jerusalem.

The last spur of the mountains was, however, after a while, left behind, and then the scene changed in a moment; a magnificent view over the plains of the Jordan lying at our feet, and the mountains surrounding them, bursting on the sight. The Wady Kelt had surfeited us with its gloomy horrors, and made the open landscape so much the more charming. Through the deep clefts past which we had ridden, a winter torrent foams wildly in its season, though there is no water in its bed in summer. This gully has been supposed to be identical with that of the brook Cherith of Elijah (1 Kings 17). But the words used respecting that famous torrent—the name of which means "the cutter into" (the hills)—preclude this idea, for its is said that Elijah was to go from Samaria, where he was, eastward, and hide himself in the brook Cherith; the expression (nahal) translated "brook" in our version being that used elsewhere for the streams in the deep gorges of the Amon and Jabbok, and for wadys or valleys worn by rain-floods. Yet it is impossible to determine from the Hebrew text whether it lay "towards" the Jordan, or "east" of it, though the latter is the more probable sense; and if this be accepted, the Wady Ajlun, on the other side of the river, almost exactly east of Samaria, appears to have special claims, as its lower course is still called Fakarith, which sounds very like Cherith, or, to write the name more in accordance with the Hebrew—Crith.

The whole of Wady Kelt is singularly wild and romantic, for it is simply a deep rent in the mountains, scarcely twenty yards across at the bottom, filled with tall canes and beds of rushes, to which you look down over high perpendicular walls of rock. Its cliffs are full of caves of ancient hermits; and the ruins of the small monastery of St. John nestle beneath a lofty dark precipice on its north side. At this place, a fine aqueduct, leading off the waters of a great spring, crosses the wady by what has been a splendid bridge seventy feet high, and runs on for three miles and three-quarters to the opening of the Jericho plain. White chalk hills rise in the wildest shapes on each side, forming strange peaks, sharp rough sierras, and fanciful pyramid-like cones; the whole seamed in all directions by deep torrent beds. Not a tree is to be seen on the bare slopes. Nor is the end of the pass less striking, for it is guarded, as it were, by two tall sloping peaks of white chalk, with each of which special traditions and legends are connected.

Looking away from the gloomy gorge beneath, and the forbidding hills on each side, the view of the Jordan plains was very pleasant. Their apparently level surface stretched for miles north and south, dry and barren, but amidst the uninviting yellow, treeless waste, there rose, immediately in front, a delightful oasis of the richest green. The banks of the Jordan are fringed, for the most part, with beds of tall reeds, oleanders, and other luxuriant growths, and only here and there is a rift in the verdure to be seen. It was this green border to which Jeremiah gave the name of the "glory" of Jordan, mistranslated "swelling" in our version (Jer 12:5, 49:19, 50:44; translated "pride" in RV). The attack of the assailants from Edom, and afterwards of those from Babylon, is painted by the prophet—a native of Anathoth, in the tribe of Benjamin, near Jerusalem—with the graphic force of one who knew the locality, as like that of the lion "forsaking his covert" (Jer 4:7, 25:38), and "coming up from his thicket,"—the jungle which was the "glory" of Jordan, against the perennial pastures* of the hills; where the flocks awaited his hunger. On the east of the plains were the Moabite hills, cut into numberless ravines and clefts; and at the southern end of the oasis rose a tower, for the protection of a hamlet whose wretched earth-roofed huts were hard to recognise in the distance.

* Translated "permanent pastures" in RV.

The last part of the way was very steep and tiresome, though occasional traces showed that it had been the road to Jerusalem for thousands of years. At this part water flowed down the dark gorge of the Wady Kelt, apparently in a permanent stream. Two ruined castle-like buildings stood at the sides of the way, perhaps marking the sites of the ancient castles of Thrax and Tauros, which once defended the pass, and of the towers of the later times of the Khalifs, or of the Christian kings of Jerusalem, when the plains of the Jordan, under their protection, enjoyed a rich and varied prosperity. We were now in the "circle" of the Jordan, known as the "ghor," or hollow, nearly four hundred feet below the level of the Mediterranean, so that we had descended nearly three thousand feet since leaving Jerusalem. We were still, however, nearly seven miles, in a straight line, from the Jordan, which lay more than eight hundred feet still lower down,* so that we had a constant slope before us.

* Depth at the foot of the hills, 385 feet; at the Jordan, 1,187 to 1,254 feet (Great Map of Palestine).

About half a mile to the right, and a little farther than that from the mountains we had left, lay what is known as "The Pool of Moses," an ancient reservoir, 188 yards long and 157 broad, constructed, it may be, by Herod, in connection with his great palace and gardens at Jericho. If, however, it be not the work of the great Edomite, it at least shows, in the remains of an aqueduct from the hills, by which it was fed, and by its own great size, how perfect the arrangements for the irrigation of the place must have been in antiquity, and fully explains how the desert around us had once been an earthly paradise. Remains of aqueducts, indeed, run across the whole region in all directions, indicating that water was once distributed freely to all parts of it, thus everywhere securing the vital condition of its fertility.

The Sultan's Spring, which is also known as the Spring of Elisha, a mile and a half north of the road from Jerusalem, is the usual place for travellers to pitch their tents, affording in the abundant water and pleasant verdure a much more agreeable site than the dirty modern village of Jericho. Many small brooks flowing from it, and giving life to some patches of grain and dark-green bean-fields, had to be crossed to reach it; the Judæan hills running along on the left hand in long broken walls of bare rock, frightfully desolate and barren, and seamed and cut into by deep clefts and ravines, offering a striking contrast to the living forces of nature around. The climate is so hot that when water is abundant, as it is here, we have the luxuriance of the tropics. The harvest ripens at this level some weeks earlier than in the hill-valleys, and hence the first-fruits needed for the Temple altar, at the Passover, could be obtained from this plain (Lev 23:10). At its source, the fountain is full and strong; and it is to rivulets flowing from it and from the still larger Duk Fountain, a mile and a half further north, at the foot of the mountains, that the ground as far as the village on the south owes its strong vegetation, while all the rest of the plain for miles in every direction is utterly barren. Yet Josephus tells us that in his day the whole was "a divine region, covered with beautiful gardens, and groves of palms of different kinds, for seventy stadia north and south, and twenty from east to west, the whole watered by this fountain" (Jos. Bell. Jud, iv. 8, 3.). It springs from under rocks, and at once forms, at the foot of the hill from which it bursts, a large pool, surrounded by thickets of nubk-thorn or sidr, oleanders, and tall reeds.

The nubk-tree (Spina Christi) is found round Jerusalem and in all the warmer parts of Palestine, especially along the sides of the narrow bed of the Jordan, much of which it has converted into an impenetrable thicket. It gets its Latin name from the belief that from it was made the crown of thorns forced on the brow of our Lord; and the flexible twigs, with their tremendous spines, which bend backwards, are assuredly well fitted to make an awful instrument of torture if twisted into a mock diadem. Small round Jerusalem, it becomes a fine tree in hotter places, one or two at the fountains in the plain of the Jordan being especially large. The leaves are bright green and oval, the boughs crooked, the blossom white and small, and it bears, from December to June, a yellow fruit, like a very small apple, or, rather, like a gooseberry. This is eaten by the Arabs under the name of "dhom," or jujubes, and is very agreeable, either fresh or dried, especially when mixed with "leben," or sour milk. Fences of the nubk are to be seen round all the grain or bean patches of the Arabs in the Jordan depression, a few branches laid one on the other, to the height of about a yard, forming a protection through which no animal ventures to break, and soon getting so interlaced by the thorns that they become virtually one solid whole.

Palestine is, indeed, pre-eminently the land of thorns, the dry heat arresting the development of the leaves in almost all plants, and making them merely the abortive growths which we call spines or prickles. The bramble which was summoned by the trees in Jotham's parable to be their king (Judg 19:14), seems to have been the rhamnus, a thorny bush found in all parts of the country, and often used for hedges, like our hawthorn, which it somewhat resembles. Another plant, translated in our version "bramble," "thistle," and "thicket" (Isa 34:13; 1 Sam 13:6; 2 Kings 14:9; Prov 26:9; Song 2:2), is different from the rhamnus in Hebrew, but it is not known what is particularly intended by it. It must have been a comparatively weak shrub or plant, however—perhaps a thistle—for the wild beast in Lebanon is said to have passed by and trodden it down. The thistles of Palestine are very numerous, and in some places, for instance on the plain of Esdraelon, threaten, at many spots, to choke the crops.

But to quote a text or two in which different thistly or thorny plants of Scripture are named will give a better idea of their number than any mere attempt at describing them singly. "Do men gather figs of thistles?" asks our Lord (Matt 7:16). In this text we can identify the plant meant, by its name in the Greek Testament—the "tribolos"—from which an iron ball, used in warfare, got its name, spikes protruding from it, like those of the plant, in four directions, so that whichever way it fell, when thrown on to the ground, one spike stood upright, and thus stopped the advance of cavalry. The centaurea, or star thistle, is exactly like this, and is sadly abundant in the fields and open ground of Northern Palestine. "The way of the slothful man is a hedge of thorns," says Proverbs (15:19), using a word which refers, it is thought, to a class of plants the name of one of which at least, the miscalled "apple of Sodom" (see post, p. 623), is well known in poetry, and as a proverbial expression for anything which promises fair but utterly disappoints on trial. This plant, which is really a kind of potato, grows everywhere in the warmer parts of Palestine, rising to a widely branching shrub from three to five feet high, the wood thickly set with spines, the flower like that of the potato, and the fruit, which is larger than a potato apple, perfectly round, and changing from yellow to bright red as it ripens. That it is filled with ashes is merely a fable; its seeds are black, like those of a potato. Still another kind of thorn is mentioned as that with which Gideon proposed "to tear the flesh" of the men of Succoth, who refused to help him against the Midianites (Judg 8:7,16). But it is needless to show at greater length what every traveller in the Holy Land knows only too well—that wherever you turn, "brambles," "briers," "thorns," "thistles," and "pricks" of all kinds abound.*

* Six Hebrew words are translated "briers"; two, "brambles"; twelve, "thorns"; two, "thistles"; and one, "pricks"; most of them being rendered by more than one of these English words.

The Sultan's Spring is the only one in the plain of Jericho, except that at Duk, and hence it was very probably the scene of the miracle of Elisha, when he cast salt into the water and cured its previous bitterness (2 Kings 2:19-22). Separated into many rills, it now serves, as I have said, to water the patches of maize, millet, indigo, wheat, barley, or beans, grown by the Arabs. The waters of the still more copious Duk Fountain are brought along the base of the Judæan hills, to the top of the slope behind the Sultan's Spring, from which point they were formerly distributed to several mills and used for irrigating the upper part of the plain, an aqueduct carrying them over a gully towards the south. The mills, however, are all gone, except the ruins of one for grinding sugar-cane, which still look down from the steep side of the hill.

The top of the mound above the Sultan's Spring commands a fine view over the plain, which needs only water and industry to become again one of the most fruitful spots in the world. The ever-flowing waters of the two fountains spread rich fertility for several miles in every direction, but almost all this verdure is nothing more than useless shrubs and bushes. Nature is ready, but man is idle and neglectful. Desolation reigns when the water ceases to moisten the soil; and when it rains the showers feed only worthless rankness. Once, however, it was very different. When our Saviour journeyed through these parts, groves of palms covered the plain far and hear. The Bible, indeed, calls Jericho "the city of palm trees" (Deut 34:3; Judg 1:16); and Josephus speaks of those graceful trees as growing to a large size, and as very numerous, even along the banks of the Jordan.* Cotton also was grown here as early as the days of Joshua (Josh 2:6), if Thenius be right, though that is doubtful. Jericho, moreover, was famous for its honey; and its balsam was a highly prized article of commerce. So valuable, indeed, were the groves from which the latter was made, that Herod farmed them from Cleopatra, when they had been handed over to her as a present by Mark Antony; Arabia and the plain of Jericho being transferred together to her, as if they had been a trifle for such a mistress! The tree from which henna is obtained—the dye till used by the women of the East to stain their nails—also grew here. The Son of Sirach makes Wisdom say that she is lofty as the palm trees of Engedi, and like the roses of Jericho (Eccl 24:14). Sycamores formed alleys alongside the roads, as they now do in the suburbs of Cairo (Luke 19:4). Even yet, the zukkum, a small, thorny tree, yields from the minute kernels of its nuts an oil which is highly prized by the Arabs and pilgrims, as a cure for wounds and bruises.

* Jos.: Ant., iv. 6, 1, xiv. 4, 1, xv. 4, 2; Bell. Jud., i. 6, 6, iv. 8, 2, 3.

The few feeble and lazy inhabitants of the plain trouble themselves little with the cultivation of the soil. Fig-trees grow luxuriantly and need little care, but any large fields of grain there may be are sown and reaped by strangers; peasants who come down from the hills for the purpose receiving half the produce for their own share, and paying the other half to the villagers and the Government, for rent of the land, and taxes. A few patches of tobacco, cucumbers, or millet, seemed all the local population could stir themselves to raise. Yet maize is said to be here a biennial plant, yielding two crops from the same roots. Cotton flourishes well, but is rarely planted; and indigo, though very little grown now, was raised freely so long ago as the twelfth century, in the time of the Crusades; while the sugar-cane was not only cultivated widely round Jericho in those days, but grew over large tracts on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, from Tripolis to Tyre. Sugar was then unknown in Europe, but the Crusaders, naturally liking the sweet juice and other products of the cane, adopted the word zuccara, which is now our word "sugar." The Saracens, in fact, in the centuries before the Crusades, had introduced the growth and manufacture of sugar on a large scale, and it was they, apparently, who built at least some of the large aqueducts round Jericho, for irrigation, and raised the sugar mills of which the remains are still seen on the slope above the Sultan's Spring.

From the time we reached the level of the Mediterranean, in descending from Jerusalem, a notable change had been visible in the flora around, all the plants being new and strange; and the same change was noticeable in the fauna. Almost every creature has the tawny colour of the soil; the only exceptions being a few parti-coloured birds, and the beetles. The desert sand-partridge takes the place of its more strongly marked counterpart of the hills; the hare is tamed down to the prevailing russet, and the foxes, larks, and, indeed, all forms of animal life, are of a light brown colour. The very foliage, and most of the blossoms, are brownish-yellow or yellowish-white.

The Sultan's Spring has a special interest, since it marks the site of the Jericho of our Lord's day. It bursts out, in a volume of clear and delightful water, from the shingle at the foot of a great mound, under which lie the remains of part of the once famous city. A large fig-tree shades the pool, which has a temperature of 84o Fahrenheit, and swarms with fish. The hill above is simply the rubbish of old houses, temples, and palaces, full of bits of pottery and glass. The ruins of a small Roman shrine still rise behind the Spring, like part of an old enclosing wall; and fragments of pillars and capitals lie around. From this point Jericho stretched away to the south and north, tapping, by aqueducts, the great Duk Fountain, to which the water of a third, far off in the uplands, was brought in conduits. As the town lay close to the hills, it is easy to see how the spies of Joshua could have escaped up the hollow of the ravine leading to the Duk Fountain, and thence to the hills (Josh 2:22), though there may not have been the same wild cover of jungle and corn-brake to hide them that there is now. Of ancient Jericho we know nothing, except that it was a walled city, with gates shut at sundown (Josh 2:5), and houses on the line of the town walls, over which some of the windows projected (Josh 2:15). It could not, however, have been a vary large place, since the Hebrew ark was carried round it seven times in one day (Josh 6:4). Finally, it stood on rising ground, for when the walls fell, the assailants had to "ascend" to the town. Like other Eastern cities, it had numbers of oxen, sheep, and asses within the walls (Josh 6:21); and the population, in its different grades, had not only the pottery common to all ages, but vessels of brass, iron, silver, and gold (Josh 6:24). Notwithstanding the curse denounced on anyone who rebuilt it, it soon rose from its ashes; the prohibition appearing only to have been against its being restored as a fortified place, for it was assigned by Joshua himself to the tribe of Benjamin (Josh 18:21)—certainly not to lie a heap of ruins. Hence we find it flourishing in the time of the Judges, under Eglon, the King of Moab (Judg 3:12,13), and it was still prosperous when David ordered his ambassadors to stay in it after they had been outraged by the Ammonites (2 Sam 10:5).

The curse of Joshua was fulfilled, for the first time, in the reign of Ahab, when Hiel of Bethel fortified the city (1 Kings 16:34). It was here that Zedekiah was seized in his flight by the Chaldæans, to be taken to Riblah and blinded by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:7; Jer 39:7, 52:11). After the return from Babylon a new settlement was begun by 345 men, no doubt with their families—children or descendants of captives taken from Jericho (Ezra 2:34; Neh 7:36, 3:2); but they did not attempt to fortify it, for this was first done by the Syrian general Bacchides in the Maccabæan wars (1 Macc 9:50). Herod the Great, in his earlier career, assaulted and sacked it, but at a later time, when he had bought it from Cleopatra (see p. 587), he lavished wealth on its defences and embellishment. To command it he built the fortress Kypros on the height behind, erected different palaces which he called after various friends, and built a great circus for horse-racing and heathen games (Jos. Ant., xvi. 5, 2; 6, 5). It was at Jericho that this splendid but unfortunate and bad man ended his life, in terrible agony, passing away with a command, worthy of his worse nature, that his sister Salome, as soon as he was dead, should massacre all the chief men of the Jews, whom he had previously summoned to Jericho and shut up in the circus. He would make his death to be lamented by the people in some way, he said—for their own sakes if not for his. Salome was prudent enough, however, to leave the savage injunction unfulfilled. The great palace in which Herod had so often resided was burnt down a few years after his death, in one of the fanatical risings of the population, led by a fancied Messiah, but Archelaus restored it with more than its former splendour.

Very different from this city of palaces is its present successor Eriha, one of the foulest and most wretched villages of Palestine. Rude walls of stone, often dilapidated, with roofs of earth heaped on layers of reeds, maize stalks, or brushwood; no windows; one room for all purposes; the wreck of old huts breaking the rude line of those still inhabited,—these are the features of modern Jericho. As if to point the contrast with the past, a solitary palm-tree rose from amidst the squalor. The villagers bear a very bad character, especially the women, who are worthy, for morals, of their ancestors of Sodom and Gomorrah, once the cities of this very plain. There are about sixty families in Eriha.

The wheat harvest here is ripe early in May, three weeks after the barley harvest, while the cornfields at Hebron and Carmel are still green; and it is reaped, as I have said, by bands of peasants from the hills, who also sow the grain. There is no need of its lying in the field to dry, for the sun is so hot that the sheaves can be carried at once to the threshing-floor, on camels, or on small asses, which look like mounds of moving grain beneath great loads that well-nigh hide them. The earth on a round spot about fifty feet across has already been trodden and beaten hard, as a threshing-floor. On this the grain is thrown, and trodden out by oxen or cows, which are often driven round it five abreast. No sledges are used on the plains of the Jordan, the feet of the animals sufficing to tread out the corn and break the straw into "teben"; the whole contents of the floor being frequently turned over by a long wooden fork with two prongs, to bring all, in turn, to the top. When trodden enough, it is winnowed by being thrown against the wind with the fork which is alluded to by the Baptist, when he says of the coming Messiah that "His fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly cleanse His threshing-floor" (Matt 3:12). The waste in this primitive husbandry is very great, much of the corn falling from the backs of the asses or camels, much getting trodden into the cracks of the ground, and not a little of the straw, with all the chaff, flying off before the wind. Elsewhere, the process varies in some features, though everywhere the same in its leading characteristics. The oxen or cows used to tread out the grain are still unmuzzled on the plains of the Jordan (Deut 25:4), especially among the Mahommedans. Some Christians, I regret to say, are not so humane. Our co-religionists, as a whole, have not, indeed, a very high reputation in the East, as may be judged from a story told me by the steamship captain on my first trip up the Mediterranean many years ago. Wishing to land some goods at a spot on the Red Sea, where there was no provision for putting them under lock and key, he hesitated to leave them on the naked shore. "You don't need to fear," said a turbaned functionary: "there is not a Christian within fifty miles!"

The heat of the Jordan plains is very great in summer, and oppressive even in spring, while in autumn it becomes very unhealthy for strangers. In May the thermometer ranges from about 86o in the early forenoon to over 100o in the beginning of afternoon, standing, even in the shade, at over 90o. The delight of sitting under one's own vine and fig-tree in such a land can be imagined.

A band of Turkish soldiers, encamped near the village to keep the wandering Arabs in awe, enlivened the landscape by their moving life. As the sun sank in the west, long shadows lay on the plain, while the hills beyond the river were dyed in the richest purple. North of the village and fountain, the mountains of Judæa stretched, north and south, in a huge arc, contrasted with which the Moabite hills seemed a straight line. The bold, picturesque form of Jebel Quarantania, the mountain of the Forty Days' Temptation (Matt 4:1), rose a mile behind the Sultan's Spring, more marked than any other. Numerous hermits made themselves cells in the steep sides of this height in the early Christian centuries, and a church once stood on its barren top, but the whole region has been forsaken by man for ages.

Now that Easter was approaching, the plains, however, were for a time alive with visitors. The trumpets of the Turks blew unmelodious signals. Horsemen moved hither and thither. Natives were busy pitching tents for some travellers. Bands of pilgrims set up their tents, lighted blazing fires, and amused themselves by firing off guns, listening to gossip, or making sport—for they were of all ages. Oxen, horses, sheep, and goats, fed as they could, around. Yet beyond the immediate neighbourhood, and especially to the south, stretched out a dismal wilderness. When night fell, the stars shone out with a lustre peculiar to such regions, but sleep, when found, was not any the sounder for the yelping and barking of the village dogs and the screams of the jackals. The Bedouins lay down round their fire in their thick "abbas," for without such a protection the night is dangerous. It was the same in Bible times, as we learn from the kindly words of the old Mosaic law: "If thy debtor be poor, thou shalt not sleep with his pledge: in any case thou shalt deliver him the pledge again when the sun goeth down, that he may sleep in his own upper garment, and bless thee" (Deut 24:12,13). It is surprising how men can sleep without injury in the open air, as the natives very often do, for the dew, or, rather, sea-moisture, frequently falls so heavily as to soak the canvas of tents like rain. Perhaps their safety lies in the fact that Orientals always cover the head in sleeping. I have frequently seen such copious moisture on everything, in the early morning, that one can readily picture to himself how the Beloved, in Canticles, wandering through the night, could say, "My head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night" (Song 5:2).

The ride from Eriha to the Jordan is about five miles over a stony plain, which swells, at intervals, into flat mounds of salt marl, on which there is no vegetation. Year by year the winter-rains sweep down the slope, and wash away a layer of the wide surface, carrying it to the Jordan, there being little to check them but copses of the zukkum tree and Spina Christi. Yet seven monasteries once stood on this now desolate tract, three of them still to be identified by their ruins. Till we reach the edge of the Jordan, only the stunted bushes I have mentioned, unworthy of the name of trees, and a few shrubs with dwarfed leaves, are to be seen after leaving the moisture of the Sultan's Spring. Not a blade of grass softens the dull yellow prospect around, and yet the whole region needs only water to make it blossom like a garden. The track ran along the last miles of the Wady Kelt as it stretches on to the Jordan—a broad watercourse, strewn with waterworn boulders and shingles, with banks twenty to thirty feet high, and from fifty to a hundred yards apart, fringed with straggling, stunted, thorny bushes, kept in life by the evaporation from what water may flow in the torrent bed below during the year, and boasting in one spot a solitary cluster of palm-trees. The way led to the site of the ancient Beth-Hogla—"the home of partridges"—which belonged to Benjamin, and marked the division between its territory and that of Judah (Josh 15:6, 18:19,21). Names cling to localities with strange tenaciousness in the East, and that of Beth-Hogla still remains in the modern Arabic form of Ain Hajilah—the Fountain of Hoglah. This spring, the water of which is reputed the finest in the whole "ghor," bubbles up in a clear pool, almost tepid, enclosed by an old wall about five feet round and only a little above the ground; the sparkling stream flowing over it, and carrying life wherever it goes. A grove of willows skirts it for a good distance in its course; but, after all, this is only a spot of verdure in the wide desolation. Offering the means of gaining rich harvests far and wide, the fountain is, nevertheless, utterly unused by man; the birds and wild creatures alone frequent it.

That the plain to the west, which lies higher, was once richly fertile, is certain, but it might be difficult to realise how this was possible, did we not find the wreck of an aqueduct which stretched all the way from the Sultan's Spring to Ain Hoglah. Nearly two miles from this "living water" there was till lately a ruin called Kusr Hajilah—the House or Tower of Hoglah—the remains of one of the monasteries, once filled by fugitives from the busy world. Some figures of Greek saints, some patches of fresco, and some inscriptions, used to be visible on its roofless and crumbling walls; but in 1882 these ancient remains were destroyed, to make room for a new monastery. How long ago it is since the first matins and evensong rose from this spot no one can tell, but it seems probable that they were heard in these solitudes fifteen hundred years ago; and from that remote day till about the time of our Henry the Eighth, monks of the order of St. Basil offered a refuge here to the pilgrims who visited the banks of the Jordan.

Chapter 27 | Contents | Chapter 29


Notes on Revelation | Judeo-Christian Research

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