by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books


Chapter 38 | Contents | Chapter 40

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 Scene of a Great Battle—The First View of NazarethWhat the Missionaries are DoingThe "Virgin's Fountain"—Christian and Mahommedan WomenThe ShopsThe "Evil Eye"

The ride to Nazareth from Jezreel is a tempting one for a canter—smooth soft earth inviting you to let your beast have his way when he wishes to hurry. It would be impossible to imagine a richer tract of land, but much of it lies idle, and whole fields of thistles are to be seen. Only one small hamlet lay on our track over the broad plain, which seemed to widen as we advanced, the clear air leading strangers to under-estimate the distance. But the hamlet is a historical one, for round it, in 1799, a great battle was fought by Kleber and Napoleon, in which 2,100 Frenchmen routed 25,000 Turks. We were, indeed, passing over the battle-ground of Palestine, where the war-cry of Midianites, Philistines, Egyptians, Jews, Romans, Crusaders, Saracens, French, and Turks, had filled the air, again and again, through more than three thousand years. At last the foot of the hills was reached, and the horses began to climb the steep ascent of 1,000 feet that brings one to the plateau in a fold of which, three miles back among its own hills, lies Nazareth. The great cliff on the left, at the side of a narrow pass, has been shown, since the Middle Ages, as that over which His townsmen proposed to cast our Lord, but the scene of the incident could not have been here.

Sheets of smooth rock; fields of huge boulders, between which, at times, there was scarcely room to pass; acres of loose stones of all sizes, no path or track visible—parts so steep that to hold on to the horse's mane was a help,— everything unspeakably rough and difficult,—such was the way up the face of the rocks to get to the table-land on which Nazareth stands. After a time spots of green appeared on the wide, unearthly desolation, and some lean cattle were to be seen picking up poor mouthfuls among the stones. At last, all at once, a small valley opened below, set round with hills, and a pleasant little town appeared to the west. Its straggling houses, of white, soft limestone, and mostly new, rose row over row up the steep slope. A fine large building, with slender cypresses growing around it, stood nearest to us; a minaret looked down a little to the rear. Fig-trees, single and in clumps, were growing here and there in the valley, which was covered with crops of grain, lentils, and beans. Above the town the hills were steep and high, with thin pasture, sheets of rock, fig-trees, and now and then an enclosed spot. The small domed tomb-shrine of a Mahommedan saint crowned the upper end of the western slope.

Such was Nazareth, the home of our Lord. I had a kind invitation from Dr. Vartan, medical missionary of the Scottish Society, but could not find his house till I had first discovered that of the English missionary, by nationality a German, by whom a man was kindly sent to guide us to our hospitable quarters. The streets are not more than from six to ten feet broad, causewayed, but still rough, with a gutter in the centre, not always clean; but many of the houses are new, and this gave to the whole place an air of brightness hardly seen outside of Bethlehem. Dr. Vartan's house stands on the top of the hill, and is reached by a path cut zigzag up the steep white limestone, hard enough for my tired horse, but harder still for a tired man. Once on the plateau above, however, I found a wide stretch of level rock, on which an excellent stone house had been built, and part of a hospital. This, however, the Turks, who are jealous of everything English in Palestine, had stopped.

Numerous hills, not grassy like those of England, but bare, white, and rocky, though here and there faintly green, shut in Nazareth from the outer world; the last heights of Galilee, as they melt away into the plain of Esdraelon. Their long, rounded tops have no wild beauty, and there are no ravines or shady woods to make them romantic or picturesque; indeed, as far as the eye reaches, they are treeless, or very nearly so. The level space behind Dr. Vartan's residence was an epitome of the soil everywhere. It seemed as if there were nothing but solid limestone, on which it would be hopeless to try to grow anything; and yet the chaos of stones from the house and hospital, and from the friable surface generally, only needs water to make it exceedingly fertile. A vineyard had already been planted, as well as fig and olive trees, and it will no doubt justify the labour and expense.

There is a nice little Protestant church at Nazareth, with a congregation drawn from the members of the Greek church, and there is a school for both boys and girls, 152 boys being present when I visited their section. Education, indeed, is the great hope of Missions. "Preaching is of no use," said the people of Cana of Galilee naively to the missionary: "give us schools." There are five stations in the villages around, but it would need the enthusiasm and self-denial of a St. Paul to do much real good, so stony and indifferent is the population, and so poor. Yet there are, doubtless, true Christians among them. The Society for the Promotion of Female Education in the East has a very fine building, with eighty-seven orphan girls in training. I went over the establishment, and was greatly pleased with it. Beautifully clean and well-ordered in all respects, it was also a model of economical management: for the maintenance of a girl for a year was reckoned at no more than from seven to ten pounds. The Roman Catholics have two sisterhoods, who teach a school for girls; the Franciscan monks have a school for boys. There is also a Greek Bishop, and with him two or three priests, who have another school for boys. The infants of the town have a school for themselves, where the attendance is from seventy to ninety; the expense is defrayed by a lady in America. Except in the orphanage, the teachers, so far as I saw, were natives.

It was very pleasant to wander about the little town. In one street several houses were being built, the stone for them being hewn out of the rock on the opposite side of the road, so steep is the hill. But wherever a house is built, the foundations are carefully laid on the rock, even where the position may require heavy cutting to do so (Luke 6:48). The town has no walls, and is divided into three districts—the Greek quarter, the Latin or Roman Catholic, and the Moslem; the municipal authorities being a Caimacam, or lieutenant-governor, and a Kadi, or judge. The Franciscans have a great monastery and a fine church, which, however, is only 150 years old; and they claim several holy sites, though these are of no authority. There are, further, a Franciscan convent, and a hospice for pilgrims, in a narrow street leading up by steps between poor huts of stone to a lane where stands the English church, which seats 500 persons, and has a parsonage near it. All these buildings are at the south-west corner of the town.

The water of Nazareth is mainly derived from rain-cisterns, for there is only one spring, and in autumn its supply is precarious. A momentous interest, however, gathers around this single fountain, for it has been in use for immemorial ages, and, no doubt, often saw the Virgin and her Divine Child among those who frequented it morning and evening, as the mothers of the town, many with children at their side, do now. The water comes through spouts in a stone wall, under an arched recess built for shelter, and falls into a trough at which a dozen persons can stand side by side. Thence it runs into a square stone tank at the side, against which gossips at all hours delight to lean. The water that flows over the top of the trough below the spouts makes a smaill pool immediately beneath them, and there women wash their linen, and even their children; standing in the water, ankle-deep, their baggy trousers—striped pink or green—tucked between their knees, while those coming for water are continually passing and repassing with their jars, empty or full, on their heads. The spring lies under the town, and as the Nazareth of ancient times, as shown by old cisterns and tombs, was rather higher up the hill than at present, the fountain must in those days have been still farther away from the houses. Hence it is very probable that the "brow of the hill" (Luke 4:29) may have been one of the cliffs above the town, or one now hidden by the houses. However, in such a hilly place there are precipices in many directions.

Looking up at the banks of houses from this point, the whiteness of the new stone reflects a glare of sunlight; but it is said that the stone moulders away so quickly that in fifty years a building appears to be of venerable age, and hence the oldest-looking house may be very modern, in spite of its decay. The fountain, or "Well of Nazareth," stands in a wide open space, with a rough, intermittent line of olive-trees and clumps and hedges of prickly pear at a good distance, leaving ample room for the tents of travellers, the romping of children, and the resting of camels or flocks. The town is only a quarter of a mile long, so that it is a small place at the best, the population being made up of about 2,000 Mahommedans, 1,000 Roman Catholics, 2,500 Greek Christians, and 100 Protestants—not quite 6,000 in all; but its growth even to this size is only recent, for thirty years ago Nazareth was a poor village. The fact that there is only one spring seems to show that it could at no time have been very large.

Our tents were pitched in the open space at the "Virgin's Fountain," though we lived at Dr. Vartan's. This spring bursts out of the ground inside the Greek Church of the Annunciation, which is modern, though a church stood on the same site at least as early as A.D. 700. They say that it was at this spot the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin; and if there is nothing to prove the legend, there is, of course, nothing to contradict it. Indeed, the association of such a visit with the outflow of living water from the rock has a certain congruity that is pleasing. The church is half below ground, and the spring, rising freely, is led past the high altar, where it fills a well for the use of pilgrims, and then flows along a conduit to the stone arch and covered tank, to pour out from the wall through the metal spouts. The Christian women, by the way, wear no veils, though they have a gay handkerchief lying over the head, the hair falling down the back from beneath it in long plaits. The Mahommedan women, on the contrary, are veiled; but all the sex, alike, have drapery so slight that, though it covers their whole persons, the figure is displayed with a clearness very strange to Western ideas, though perfectly modest. Instead of a row of coins over the forehead, such as is worn by their Bethlehem sisters, the women of Nazareth wear strings of them at each side of the face. It was doubtless a piece of money from such a string that had been lost by the woman in the parable (Luke 15:8), who forthwith lighted a lamp and swept the house, and sought diligently till she found it. With no window, the door giving the only light, the lamp was needed even by day; and where the woman was so poor as to have only ten coins in her ornaments, it is easy to realise how piteous her lament would be at her loss, and how exulting her cry to her neighbours when she had regained her treasure.

The shops of Nazareth are as primitive, one would think, as they could have been in the days of our Lord. Unfortunately, the carpenters have introduced the modern novelty of a work-bench, and no longer sit on the floor beside the board at which they work, as some related crafts still do elsewhere. But their tools are very simple, and it is interesting to notice them doing a great deal at the door-sill, in the light, which with us can only be done at the bench. They sit on the ground to drill holes in wood or to use the adze; but at the best their work seems to us very rude. Blacksmiths, with tiny bellows and furnace and small anvil, find abundant employment in sharpening the simple ploughs and mattocks of the peasantry, and making folding knives for them, the quality of which may be judged from their price, which is only twopence or threepence. Shoemakers also do a good trade, sitting, like all other workmen who can do so, at the door or in the street; but their skill is confined to slight short boots of bright-coloured leather, or to slippers without heels, which are all that one sees, as a rule, even on the roughest roads.

The contrast between the women of Nazareth and their peasant sisters is very striking, the superior circumstances of the townsfolk affording them better food and easier lives than the others enjoy. In youth the figure of the women of Palestine is often admirable, but the matrons are very shrivelled—partly, no doubt, from the climate. Young women are careful to conceal the bosom, so far as thin cotton, fitting pretty closely, can do it; but when they have had families they grow indifferent on this point. Perhaps this may arise from the length of time they nurse their children, infants being seldom weaned under two years of age, and a son may have "his own milk" for even double that time, it being a common belief that the longer a child is kept at the breast the stronger he grows. It was on this ground that Hannah stayed from the yearly pilgrimage to Shiloh for we do not know how many years. Samuel, however, was old enough to be left with Eli when she took him to the Tabernacle on his being weaned (1 Sam 1:21-23), and he could scarcely have been considered so had he not been a pretty big child. In allusion to the same prolonged nursing, Isaiah, asking—"Whom doth He teach knowledge? And whom doth He make to understand instruction?" answers—"Those that are weaned from the milk and withdrawn from the breasts" (28:9). The Evangelist, also, quoting from the Greek version of the Psalms, tells us that God perfects praise out of the mouths of sucklings (Matt 21:16).

I did not see such dirtiness among the Nazareth children as one meets with so often elsewhere in the Holy Land. Here, however, as everywhere else, fear of "the evil eye" is prevalent. A prayer is uttered before eating, lest that dreaded evil have been turned on the food, which in that case, but for the prayer, would yield no nourishment. Against this mysterious danger, children very generally wear a charm enclosed in a case on the top of their caps; and horses often have something of the same kind on their head-gear. Salt, sprinkled on children shortly after birth, is thought to be a protection against it, and for the same reason it is sprinkled freely at tbe circumcision of boys, which takes place when they are entering puberty. This superstition in part explains why it is that children are left so filthy; since they are thus, it is fancied, less in danger of attracting attention from those who might injure them by a baleful look.


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