by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books

 

Chapter 35 | Contents | Chapter 37


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

Cunningham Geikie D.D.

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

(1887)

CHAPTER 36—THE CITY OF SAMARIA
Leaving Shechem—At the City of Samaria—The Church of St. JohnThe Crusaders as Architects—Pagan and Christian: a ComparisonThe Site of Baal's Temple—Herod's TempleFrom the Days of Omri to the Fall of the CityThe Origin and Career of the Northern KingdomThe Southern Slope of the Hill—The Unspeakable Turk again

Breaking up our encampment at Shechem, we took the road to the town of Samaria, up the valley to the west. As we left, some weavers were busy at their looms, flinging the shuttle hither and thither, as they did when Job spoke of his days being swifter than its restless flight (7:6). Some fig-trees were in full leaf, although it was so early as the 14th of March; others were not yet green, but the olives were arrayed in all their beauty, for they keep their foliage all the year round. A little way out of Shechem the water in the centre of the very narrow glen ran to the west, driving a mill. The slopes on each side were beautifully green; and, as we advanced, streams from the hills swelled that in the valley till the mills became so frequent that one might fancy they were there to mark the miles. After a time our way turned nearly north, up a gentle slope which had no brook, and for some distance the ground was covered with stones and thorny bushes. Villages on the rounded hill-tops, bedded in green fields and groves of olives, looked down on us from the south before we left the valley, but there was less beauty around those on its northern side. The broad bald ridge was ere long passed, and we descended, once more to a fertile valley, watered by gurgling brooks. A fine mill and orchards of pear-trees marked the village nearest Samaria, and for a long time before we reached our destination all the hill-sides were clad with fig and olive orchards. It took us about two hours to go from Shechem to the old capital of the northern kingdom.

The beauty of the country round the city of Samaria abundantly justifies Omri's choice. It is lovely on all sides, but especially towards the south. In every direction hills of soft velvet-green, terraced step above step to the top, give the eye a delightful feast. The hill of Samaria rises from 400 to 500 feet above the valley, and is isolated on all sides except the east, where it sinks into a narrow ridge about 200 feet below the general level, and running towards Ebal. A circle of green hills looks down upon it, but it must have been almost impregnable in the early ages, for it stands up apart like a great boss on a buckler, with steep ascents affording easy defence from any attack. To starve the population into submission must have been the only way to take it, if it resolved to hold out. Ascending by a rather steep path through the modern village, a poor collection of ill-built huts, we pitched our tents on a flat space on the top of the hill, used as the threshing-floor by the villagers, and proceeded to walk round the summit, and also to visit the ruined church of St. John, at the entrance to the place. This fine relic is a striking memorial of Crusading genius and energy, though a portion of it is now degraded into a mosque. A palm was growing in its courtyard, and on the edge of the hill were fragments of an old wall of squared stones. The church, of which the south-eastern portion is the best preserved, lay immediately to the right of this wall. Slabs of marble still paved the ground, and others, with effaced crosses, were at many places built into the walls. The very door-sill was marble. Pillars of marble stood along the court, half their circle projecting out of the walls, with capitals carved into palm-leaves. The mosque is built inside the shell of the church, and is in no way worth notice for its own sake, though the marble slabs in the walls with their sacred emblems obliterated cannot fail to speak to the heart of a Christian. A dark stair of twenty-one steps leads down to a cave in which there are five modern tombs, three of them with holes in the plaster to let one look in, with the help of a light, although there is nothing whatever to be seen inside. St. John the Baptist and Obadiah are said to have been buried here, but the tradition has no reliable foundation.

The building was the creation of the Knights of St. John, in honour of their patron the Baptist, whom they, at any rate, believed to lie here; and they evidently set themselves to rear an edifice which should be half fortalice and half temple. It was touching to observe the fine arches falling to pieces, and to see decay on every side, even the mosque which has risen like a fungus within not escaping the ravages of time: a picture, one might have said, of death glorying in its triumph over once vigorous life! The constant recurrence of such splendid ruins in every part of the country shows that during the two hundred years of the Crusades—a time as long as from the Revolution of 1688 to the present day—Palestine must have been almost as thickly covered with churches as England is now, and in very many cases the structures were as fine in architecture, and often as large, as our noblest ecclesiastical edifices—the cathedrals alone excepted. The Holy Land, in fact, like Egypt, Northern Africa, and Asia Minor, is a province which has been lost to Christ, after having once been won for Him by the zeal of His followers: lost, and. when to be won back? The bounds of Christendom have often been changed since the apostles died, and not always in the right direction; for though the Romans took care, in their grand heathen pride, that their god Terminus should never draw back from a spot once pressed by his foot, the Church has not honoured its Lord in Heaven by as resolutely maintaining His conquests.

The mud huts which compose the village cling to the slope facing the church; traces of the glory of old times appearing among them, here and there, in pillar-shafts, marble pedestals, and fragments of carved marble mouldings. The terrace on which our tents were pitched had evidently been artificially levelled—when, by whom, or for what purpose, who can tell? There could hardly, however, be a finer threshing-floor; and for this purpose it is accordingly used. Here the great temple of Baal, so famous in Jezebel's time, may once have stood, huge in size—for it was served by 450 priests— and so fortified in its holy of holies, where stood the glittering image of the god, that that part was spoken of as his castle (1 Kings 16:32, 18:19,22; 2 Kings 10:17ff, 10:25 ["the city"=the castle]; Jer 23:13). On the west edge of the hill, in some ploughed land, stand fifteen weathered limestone pillars, without capitals or architrave, perhaps the last relics of the temple built by Herod in honour of Augustus. They form, as a whole, an oblong, gaunt and spectral now that they are robbed of all their ornament, but once the glory of the city. "In the middle of the town," says Josephus, "Herod left an open space of a stadium* and a half in [circuit], and here he built a temple to the honour of Augustus, which was famous for its size and beauty." To the south, the edge of the plateau and the slopes were overshadowed by thick groves of figs and olives, which reached far away down the valley of Nakurah and up the hills on its farther side. Among these ploughs were in many places busy, while in others the earth was green with rising crops; the soil everywhere inviting industry. Beyond the temple site the ground rose, without trees, in a wide terrace which was everywhere tilled; but this, the eastern, being the weakest side, the whole slope had been made into three steep embankments, one below the other; hard to climb at any time, terrible to surmount in the face of an enemy defending them from behind walls.

* A stadium=a furlong.
The neighbouring hills, like the one I have been describing, were soft and rounded, with glimpses of peaceful valleys between. I was standing at an elevation of 1,450 feet above the sea, but a few miles off, to the east, was a summit 790 feet higher, while two miles off, to the north, was one 925 feet above me. These, however, were the giants of the circle; the others are either slightly lower than the hill of Samaria, or very little higher; but all alike, with the valleys at their feet, are covered with the tenderest green. On the south lay Nakurah, embosomed among figs and olives, and more than ten other villages crowned various heights around, while on the west the horizon was girt by a long gleaming strip of "the Great Sea." Isaiah had looked on the same landscape when Samaria was in its glory, and had carried away the recollection of its hill as "the glorious crown of Ephraim, the flower of its winning beauty, standing up over its rich valley" (28:1. Muhlau's translation); but its glory has long disappeared. Where kings once lived in palaces faced with ivory, and nobles in mansions of squared stones (Isa 9:10; Amos 3:15; Psa 45:8; 1 Kings 22:39; 2 Kings 15:25 ["castle of the kings' palace"]); where the royal tombs raised their proud heads over the successors of Omri (1 Kings 16:28, 22:37; 2 Kings 10:35, 13:9,13, 14:16); where grew a grove of Astarte, and a great temple to her rose at the will of Jezebel (2 Kings 13:6 ["grove"]); where the huge fane of Baal was the cathedral of idolatry for the apostate tribes; where Elisha lived at the foot of the hill, but inside the fortifications (2 Kings 5:9, 6:32, 13:14); where Hosea preached year after year through his long and faithful career—there was now only a ploughed field. As I returned from my walk round the broad top of the hill, the sheikh and ten or twelve of the chief men of the village came up, and, sitting down on the ground beside an old dry stone wall, on the edge of the great threshing- floor, asked me to tell them, the history of the place. In turbans, and in flowing "abbas" with green, red, or blue stripes—for the inhabitants of the ancient site affect bright colours—they listened with the greatest interest while I repeated the story of their hill from the days of Omri to the fall of the city.

The founder of Samaria must have been a man of genius, to give up the fair but defenceless Thirza and choose such a position as this for his capital, so much more fertile and so much stronger; a fair-dealing man withal, for he bought the site honestly (1 Kings 16:24); a man given to the Hebrew custom of playing on words, as seen by his changing the name of the city from that of its former owner, Shemer, to "Shomeron," "the Wartburg," or "Watch Fort," commanding as it did the roads from the north. But it had to stand many a siege. Already, in Omri's day, the jealous Syrian king, Benhadad I, compelled the surrender of some of its bazaars to his Damascus traders (1 Kings 20:34). Under Ahab it was beleaguered by Benhadad II, and only delivered by a brave sally, when, fortunately for Israel, Benhadad and his high officers were "drinking themselves drunk in their tents" (1 Kings 20:16)—an early lesson in favour of total abstinence. But it was under Joram that it had its sorest trial, at the hands of Benhadad III, so dire a famine resulting that men were glad to buy the head of an ass—the part of an animal which no Oriental would touch in ordinary times—for eighty pieces of silver, or more than £8; while the fourth part of a "cab," about half a pint, of dove's dung—used perhaps, as Josephus suggests, in lieu of salt for seasoning, unless, as seems more probable, the name was applied to some inferior kind of vegetable food, a bean perhaps, since the Arabs now call one seed they eat "sparrow's dung "*—sold for over ten shillings (2 Kings 6:25,29); and mothers, in despair, killed their own children and boiled them for food. And who can tell what this hill must have seen of agony in the three years' siege, before the Assyrians under Sargon forced their way in, to carry off into captivity the survivors of the assault? (2 Kings 17:5)

* Gesenius, Lex, 8te Auf.
Founded as a military despotism, the northern kingdom, like all communities, had remained true to the spirit of its origin. Revolution had been a passion from the beginning, and with it every element of social degeneracy and decay had kept pace. The sway of a rough soldiery alternated with the luxury of a heathen court, until violence, lawlessness, immorality, and self-indulgence, brought all to ruin. A few were possessed of great wealth, often secured by foul means, and the mass of the people were at once vicious and in misery, so that the State was left helpless, in spite of a superficial air of prosperity maintained by the upper class to the last. Samaria grew sick unto death long before it fell, and the prophets only proclaimed what must have been patent to all thinking men when they foretold its overthrow at the hand of Assyria, then striding on to universal empire in Western Asia (Amos 3:12; Hosea 14:1; Isa 8:4; Micah 1:6). But their words have had a wonderfully literal fulfilment, especially those of Micah, when he says, in his prophetic vision, "I will make Samaria a mire-heap of the field: I will turn it into vineyard plantations: I will roll down its stones into the valley beneath, and make bare its foundations. All its carved images of stone will be shattered to pieces, all the wealth in its temples, got by its temple-harlots, will be burned with fire, and the site of its idol statues will I make desolate."*
*Micah 1:6,7. Translation in Geikie's Hours with the Bible, iv. 353.
It seems, indeed, as though a special curse rested on the city once desecrated by idolatry. Its splendid position ever invited rebuilding afresh, and all things seemed to promise a vigorous restoration of its prosperity, but each time the annihilating blow came, and that before long. The Maccabæan, John Hyrcanus, destroyed the city utterly, as he had destroyed the temple on Gerizim. But even after that it was speedily rebuilt, and in Herod's day was specially favoured. Besides rearing the temple of which we have spoken, he restored its fortifications, and it owes to him its present name—Sebastieh— for he called it Sebaste, "the August," in servile flattery of his imperial patron at Rome.

Descending the hill at the south side, I came upon the remains of two round towers, evidently marking the defences of a gateway which stood high above the valley. A fine road led to them, and on both sides of this road were to be seen remains of the great colonnade. This southern slope is even steeper than those on the north and west. Walking on, I found patches of wilderness amidst the strips of sown land, as is everywhere the case in Palestine; the population not being numerous enough to use more than a small proportion of the soil. In such a region if the wretched Turkish Government, instead of caring for nothing but itself, were thoughtful and public-spirited, it might soon attract people enough to turn the wilderness into a fruitful field. But where there is no public conscience in the rulers, what can be done for a country? The peasants, though they bear an indifferent name, are strong, well-grown, industrious people, full of energy and life—the raw material of a prosperous nation, if they only had a chance of showing of what they are capable. Under such a rule as that of England in India they would soon restore Palestine to all its former glory.

 

Chapter 35 | Contents | Chapter 37

 

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