by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books


Chapter 36 | Contents | Chapter 38

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


Burka—Birds of Prey: How Eagles Learn to Fly—Sanur—Plain of Dothan—"Well of the Pit"JeninMountains of Gilboa—Plain of Esdraelon: Teaching the Bedouins a LessonScene of Saul's Defeat and DeathSite of JezreelSolam (Shunem)Endor—Roof Chambers in PalestineAssociations of Shunem

The first village north of Samaria was Burka, the road to which lay across the valley and up the slope between two of the hills beyond. The morning was bright and warm, and amid such fertile scenery it was easy to understand the love which Ephraim had for his native soil. As we rode slowly up the ascent great flocks of vultures sailed overhead, on the look-out for carrion—a dead animal, or offal. The number of hirds of prey in the East and in Southern Europe is quite surprising. I have seen five or six sparrow-hawks at a time hovering over the Acropolis at Athens, ready to pounce upon some of the little birds; and here at Samaria the vultures were past my counting. It was the same in Bible times, for we find no fewer than fifteen Hebrew names of predaceous birds: some applied to the whole class; others the names of particular species. The power of sight in all of them is amazing. If an animal die or be slaughtered after sunrise, a vulture is sure to make its appearance in a few minutes, though there was no sign of one in the heavens before, and in rapid succession another and another will arrive, till the air is darkened with the multitude of griffon and other vultures, eagles, kites, buzzards, and ravens. It is still true that "wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together" (Matt 24:28; Luke 17:37). The sight of one vulture in downward flight seems to be the signal to others, who come on in endless succession, some of them from vast distances, so that we can easily believe the statement that during a war all the vultures of widely remote provinces are gathered, to wait for their horrible banquets. When Micah says to the people of Judah, "Make thee bald, and poll thee for thy delicate children; enlarge thy baldness as the eagle" (1:16), he refers to the griffon-vulture, the head and neck of which are bare of all but down. It is to this bird that the rapacious invader of Babylon is compared when he is spoken of as "a ravenous bird from the east" (Isa 46:11): a simile especially apt when we remember that the griffon-vulture was the emblem of Persia, emblazoned on its standard.

The age to which the whole class of carrion-feeders lives is very great, instances having been known of an eagle surviving in captivity for over 100 years. It was natural, therefore, that the Psalmist should say, "Thy youth is renewed like the eagle's" (103:5). The strength of wing and swiftness of flight of the eagle often supply metaphors to the sacred writers (Eze 17:3; Isa 40:31; Job 9:26; Deut 28:49; Lam 4:19; 2 Sam 1:23), but no passage is more striking than that in Deuteronomy which alludes to the tenderness with which they care for their young: "As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings; so the Lord alone did lead him" (32:11,12). Sir Humphry Davy, speaking of a pair of golden eagles which he watched while they were thus employed, says, "I once saw a very interesting sight above the crags of Ben Nevis. Two parent eagles were teaching their offspring, two young birds, the manoeuvres of flight. They began by rising from the top of the mountain, in the eye of the sun. It was about midday, and bright for the climate. They at first made small circles, and the young birds imitated them. They paused on their wings, waiting till they had made their flight, and then took a second and larger gyration, always rising towards the sun, and enlarging their circle of flight, so as to make a gradually ascending spiral. The young ones still slowly followed, apparently flying better as they mounted, and they continued this sublime exercise, always rising, till they became mere points in the air, and the young ones were lost, and afterwards their parents, to our aching sight."

For a time, the hills which we passed were covered with olives, the stems of some showing them to be very old—perhaps the growth of centuries. In Judæa to some extent, but nearly everywhere here, in the territory of Ephraim, the words of Scripture were still vindicated: "Thou shalt have olive-trees throughout all thy coasts" (Deut 28:40). Up hill and down, the road wound on to Jeba, a village well built of stone on a hill-side, the houses rising row above row, so that the flat roofs of the line below seemed to form a street before those above. It stands in the midst of countless olives, with hills rising on all sides, except to the north-east, where there was a broad valley covered with rising grain.

Sanur, the next village on the journey, is a strong place on a steep and rocky hill, which guards the entrance to a considerable plain, known as "the Meadow of Drowning," the want of natural drainage turning it into a swamp in May or June. In the green fields men, women, and children, were weeding the grain, such of the weeds as were of use being carried home for fodder, while the rest were gathered together into bundles and burnt (Matt 13:30). The hill of Sanur is very steep on the east, but on the west sinks gradually towards the hills in that direction. A little fortress crowns the top, and stone walls run along the slope outside the houses, only one door offering entrance.

Approaching the village of Kabatiyeh, we passed over part of the plain of Dothan, the scene of the sale of Joseph to the Midianites. At one place was a well called "the "Well of the Pit," perhaps a memorial of the poor lad's fate, and not very far from it a second, with a water-trough, the two accounting for the name Dothan, which means "the Two Wells." Above them, to the north, rose a green hill, overlooking the wide plain in which the sons of Jacob pastured their flocks (Gen 37:17), while to the west stretched out the dark- coloured plain of Arrabeh, and beyond it the road to Egypt, along which the Midianite caravan led their newly-bought young Syrian slave. A gazelle broke away on our left as we passed, and was chased by our dragoman, but he might as well have followed the wind. The tiny creature was up a neighbouring slope and out of sight, as it were in a moment. Hermon had been visible in all its radiant whiteness from the high points of the day's travel. Daisies, broom, and hawthorn dotted the untilled parts of the valleys. To the east, as we neared the village of Kabatiyeh, a thick wood of olives, many of them very old trees, covered the hollow plains and the slopes on each side, while before us a narrow opening in the hills led to the great plain of Esdraelon, soon to come partially in sight, with the hills of Galilee beyond it. The defile to the plain was, however, longer than one could have wished, over such a road. The hills, now close to us on both sides, were rough, though not high, and the track was often very broken. In two or three miles of constant descent we went down nearly, or quite, 1,000 feet. It was, apparently, by this pass that Ahaziah of Judah fled before the men sent by Jehu to kill him, for though we do not know "the going up to Gur," it is said to have been "by Ibleam" (2 Kings 9:27), which was in all likelihood identical with the Wady Belameh, the very gorge through which we were slowly descending.

Jenin, the ancient Engannim—"the Fountain of the Gardens"—lying at the south end of the great plain, is a place of some importance for Palestine, with a small bazaar, or place for selling and buying. A tall minaret, some palm-trees, rich orangeries, clumps of tamarisks, cactus-hedges, two or three white domes of a mosque, and a delightful richness of green, are its most striking characteristics, not to speak of its exceptional richness in water. They say it has 3,000 inhabitants, but I doubt it. A fine stream runs through the town and waters the gardens and fields outside, finally breaking into rivulets which join one or other of the feeble sources ultimately united to form the Kishon. East of the town rises the stony range of Gilboa, encircling a considerable plain; to the north stretches out, as far as the eye can reach, the brown rolling plain of Esdraelon, brightened with spots of green; and three miles beyond it are the hills from which the white houses of Nazareth look down. Nearer at hand is the cone of the extinct volcano of Jebel Duhy, while to the west the view is closed by the broad shoulder of Carmel.

From Jenin to the hills below Nazareth is fourteen miles due north; from Zerin, the ancient Jezreel, on the western slope of Gilboa, to Ledjun, the ancient Legio, which lies nearly west of Zerin, is about nine miles. These distances give the size of the plain in two directions, while from Zerin to the hills which cross the plain, near the spot on the Carmel range where Elijah met the priests of Baal, is fourteen miles, in a north-western direction, and from Jenin they are seventeen miles off, to the north-west. Such an open space is not to he found elsewhere in Palestine, and hence it has always been the great battle-ground of the country, from the days of Thothmes III and Rameses II to those of Napoleon I. The soil is dark-coloured lava, worn into dust in the lapse of many ages, and is extremely fertile, though for want of population much less is made of it than might be. Seamed in every direction with small watercourses, the plain drains the hills on all sides, and gradually unites their winter floods or spring rain into the Kishon, one of the shortest rivers in the world, if indeed it is to be called a river, for though sometimes rolling in a wild and dangerous tumult of waves, it is often dry, except perhaps at the marshy bar towards its mouth.

"The Mountains of Gilboa" are naturally the first point to which one turns his thoughts at Jenin, lying, as they do, so near at hand. Bedouins had pitched their black tents in the quiet recess among the mountains east of the town, as they have done over the plain, more or less, since the earliest history. To such wanderers, accustomed only to the short-lived "pastures of the wilderness," the attractions of a mighty oasis like Esdraelon are hardly less than those of some Island of the Blessed to voyagers on the ocean waste. Again and again since the days of Gideon, and doubtless long before them, it has been covered with their camels "like the sand which is by the sea-shore innumerable," when war, famine, or the desire of rich quarters has brought them across the Jordan. So late, indeed, as 1870, they were so numerous that only about one-sixth of the plain was tilled for fear of them; but Turkish cavalry, armed with repeating rifles, taught the lawless invaders such a lesson that they fled to their deserts, whence, however, they return as often as the weakness of the Government gives an opportunity. Thus in 1877, when Turkey was in a death-struggle with Russia, they reappeared in great numbers, and levied blackmail on the defenceless peasants, but since then they have been afraid to venture on such predatory incursions.

The area of cultivation is extending now that safety seems more assured, but much land is still covered with rank wild growths. Growing corn, millet, sesame, cotton, tobacco, and much besides, with magnificent returns, the soil only wants population to turn it to profit. There are splendid perennial springs on the west; and even in the hot months water enough is running to waste below the hills to irrigate almost any extent of surface. With such a soil, practically inexhaustible, what returns might be obtained!

As one looked north, the whole of the magnificent plain seemed green, but peasants were still busy ploughing and sowing. Fertility, either wild or cultivated, reigned over all the undulations around; but the hills to the right and left, and the Galilæan mountains beyond, to the north, were in their upper tracts stony and barren. The little village of Jelbon—a very wretched place, more than 500 feet above Jenin, from which it lies about seven miles cast—marks the beginning of the isolated mass of Gilboa, which rises in a great number of summits to the north and west: the highest of them being over 1,600 feet above the sea, or nearly 500 feet higher than Jelbon. To the north of the hamlet, strips of thorns and thistles alternated with patches of cultivation; oak-scrub covering the steep slopes, while countless wild flowers were growing in every spot open to the sun. Here and there water still lay in small clefts of the rocks, but the whole aspect of the hills was desolate and forbidding; the bare rock, split into thick beds of loose stones, standing out everywhere through the brown and russet of the stunted and twisted brush. One could not help thinking of the words in the lamentation of David over Saul and Jonathan—"Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields from which offerings may be taken; for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil" (2 Sam 1:21).

The panorama from the heights was very fine. To the east lay a green plain dotted with the black tents of the Bedouins. The sunken channel of the Jordan, here more than six miles broad, stretched away to the river, which was flowing already at a depth of over 700 feet below the sea. Across the winding bed of the stream, which could be seen for a long distance, rose the noble mountains of Gilead, and when one turned his back on them, the great sweep of Esdraelon wearied the eye with its details, while to the north the mountains of Lebanon, with snowy Hermon ever towering above all, mingled the earth with the heavens.

The way now again led west, over a very rough road, up, down, and across glens, plains, and slopes, to the village of Deir Guzaleh. From a distance Gilboa appears one great mass, but it is a network of hills. Arraneh, west of Deir Guzaleh, on the spur north of Jenin, boasts of a good spring, and of some olives and other trees within cactus-hedges, and lies on the road from Jenin to Zerin, which is about four miles to the north. Facing the great plain, this side of Gilboa was, in all probability, the scene of Saul's defeat by the Philistines. As we know, he pitched his tents, before the fatal battle, by the "fountain which is in Jezreel" (1 Sam 29:1)—a full spring flowing out in front of the modern village. A number of cisterns still found at different points as you go north speak of a much denser population in other times; some of them, including a tank thirty-seven paces broad, occurring at spots now, and perhaps for ages, quite uninhabited and forsaken. The easy slopes of Gilboa along this side must have offered little hindrance to the Philistine chariots, which had already made their way to Esdraelon over much rougher ground, and could easily pursue the fugitive Hebrews until they were utterly scattered.

Jezreel stood, in olden times, on a knoll 500 feet above the sea, and about 100 feet above the plain. On the south the ascent is very gradual, but on the north and north-east the slopes are steep and rugged. Crossing the knoll, you come unexpectedly, in the valley on the northern side, upon two springs, one Ain Jalud, the other Ain Tubaun, where the Crusaders are said to have been miraculously fed for three days on the fish of the great springs of the neighbourhood. The valley leading down to Beisan may be said to begin at Ain Jalud. It is about a mile across at Zerin, and then rises into a mass of hills seamed with broad valleys, but divided on the north from the hills of Galilee beyond by a narrow but deep bay of the great plain. Of this triangle of hills Jebel Duhy, "the Leader," is the highest, rising in a lofty cone more than 1,000 feet above Jezreel.* The top is a mass of basalt fragments, memorials of primeval eruptions; it commands a magnificent view, stretching from Ebal to Safed, and from the sea to the great hills beyond the Hauran.

* Zerin, 402 feet above the sea; Jebel Duhy, 1,690 feet.
Little more than a mile south-west lies the village of Solam, the ancient Shunem, about 200 feet above the plain*—a poor hamlet of rough, flat-roofed stone huts, with some fruit-trees beside it—the centre of the Philistine position, before the battle of Gilboa (1 Sam 28:4). It thus faced the army of Saul, which lay a little more than two miles off, to the south, with its back to Gilboa and its front towards the enemy on the north. Ravines leading south facilitated the approach of the foe, and the narrow plain in front, still more than the gentle slopes at the west of Gilboa, would expose the Israelites on both front and flank to the attack of the dreaded chariots. This was bad enough, but worse was to follow, for the astute Philistine general contrived to march at least part of his army to Aphek, the modern Fukua (1 Sam 29:1), far to the rear of Saul's force, so that retreat in any direction was well-nigh impossible. The unhappy king was thus almost surrounded. With a mind full of superstitious fear, especially since the doom pronounced on himself and his house by the Prophet Samuel, a despairing trust in the necromancers whom he had shortly before hunted down (1 Sam 28:3) led him to set out, by night, to consult an old woman at Endor, a hamlet between two and three miles beyond Shunem, at the foot of the northern face of the hills. He had thus to get past the Philistines, who lay between him and that place, and he must have crept and glided in the darkness, as he best could, behind every fold of the ground or shoulder of the hills, in fear at every turn of being caught by the enemy.
* Shunem, 440 feet above the sea; plain, at foot of the hill, 260 feet above the sea.
The mud hovels of the modern Endor cling to the bare and stony hillside, in which caves have been dug, apparently in recent times, for marl with which to mix up mortar. One, however, may well be ancient: that from which flows the perennial spring Ain Dor—"the Fountain of Dor"—which gives its name to the spot. We are wont to think of witches as associated with caves, but there is no ground for doing so in Saul's case. We only know that, when left unanswered by God, either "by dreams, by Urim, or by prophets" (1 Sam 28:6), the unfortunate king met and consulted the sorceress somewhere near this fountain. Faint-hearted at the result of the unholy conference, and feeble from hunger, he was in no condition for the battle on the morrow. He could not retreat, for he had the steep northern face of the hills behind him, and perhaps it was while he had been away at Endor that the Philistines had moved south-east to Aphek, cutting him off from flight in that direction also, should he be defeated. The charge of the enemy thus found Israel well-nigh helpless, and resistance once overcome in front, the chariots had free sweep on the fugitives from the west, while the archers, spear-men, and other troops at Aphek could cut them off as they fled.

Shunem is famous not only for its connection with the battle of Gilboa, but for the touching story of the Shunammite woman and her son. The village consists of a few mud huts, with a garden of lemon-trees inside a cactus-fledge, and a fountain and trough. But it may have been more dignified in the days when it was proud of sending as a wife to King David the fairest virgin to be found in Israel (1 Kings 1:3). The "aliyeh," or upper chamber, built for the Prophet Elisha, is a familiar feature in Palestine; such structures on the roof being very common (2 Kings 4:10). The words of the kindly hostess may be translated, perhaps more correctly than in our version, "Let us make, I pray thee, a little upper chamber with walls," in contrast to the mere awnings of branches, with open sides, set up in summer on the roofs. Such was the "summer parlour" in which Eglon of Moab was sitting alone when he was murdered byEhud (Judg 3:20,23-25) and David betook himself to a similar one "over the gates" to weep for Absalom (2 Sam 18:33). Thither, also, the broken-hearted widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17,19) carried the corpse of her son and laid it out to await burial; for a stair to the roof, from the outside, makes access to the "aliyeh " easy, without going through the inner court on which the backs of all the houses open. Ahaz had altars to the heavenly bodies on the top of his "upper chamber" (2 Kings 23:12). There were also such rooms over the great porch of the Temple (1 Chron 28:11), some of them very gorgeous, for they were overlaid with gold (2 Chron 3:9), and we find such "aliyehs" in the new streets of Jerusalem when Nehemiah was rebuilding it (3:31), just as we find them there now.

The Shunammite lady's house must have been of a superior class to have such a structure raised upon it, though the accommodation may not, after all, have been very imposing. But with its pallet—perhaps a palm-leaf or straw mat—its table, its stool, its lamp, and the free access to it possible at all times from the outer stairs, it was no doubt a delightful haven of rest to the prophet on his journeys from Carmel, where as a rule he lived, to his native hamlet Abel Meholah, "the Meadow of Dancing," now called Ain Helweh,* in the Jordan valley, twelve or thirteen miles below Beisan. The poor woman must have found it a very long ride to Carmel, under the burning glow of a harvest sun (2 Kings 4:24), with no shade at any point, as she urged her ass over the weary plain, which to her no doubt seemed endless that day. But a mother's love can bear up a frail body under a terrible strain.

* See Tent Work in Palestine.


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