by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books


Chapter 39 | Contents | Chapter 41

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


From Nazareth to Tabor—Summit of the Hill—Traces of the CrusadersA Franciscan Monastery—Odium TheologicumThe View from Tabor—Reminiscences—Tabor and the TransfigurationAt Nazareth againMarriage FestivitiesThe Position of Women in the EastThe Palm TreeScene of Elijah's Triumph over the Priests of BaalSheikh AbreikThe Pre-eminence of Carmel

It is about seven miles from Nazareth to Tabor. The road we took led us over the hills on the edge of the plain. Long slopes, up and down, characterised the whole ride, much of the way being specially interesting from its un usual wealth in trees and flowers. The carob, or locust- tree, the ilex, the hawthorn, the sumach, the laburnum, and the terebinth, grew in numbers, while we came every now and then on orchards of grey olives, green fig-trees, pomegranates with their red buds and opening leaves, and almonds with their pink and white blossom. Under-foot there was at many points a wealth of beauty: flags, anemones of different colours, hyacinths, buttercups and daisies, wild cucumbers, thistles, yellow broom, dandelions, wild mignonette, and cyclamens, in great abundance. Small herds of black oxen, under-sized and lean, were to be seen feeding under the care of a shepherd. All the hollows were fertile, and looked very pleasing, with their orchards and their patches of grain, or other growths. Even the bare slopes of grey rock were fretted with threads of green, springing up in the chinks, though, apart from these, some were barren enough.

Half an hour's ride from Tabor, numerous oaks, not high, but a pleasing contrast to the general treelessness of the country, dotted the slopes as in a park. A small valley, running north and south, separates the giant hill from those around it; and we had the village of Deburieh on the right as we passed along the low swell which joins Tabor to the northern mountains. Here the oaks grew especially strong and large, giving the landscape a delightfully English look. The steep height now rose close before us, thick with leafy scrub which left no room for ascent but by zigzagging through it in a rudely-made path, if it can be called a path. The thick oak-scrub after a time grew thinner, till in some places our track was over bare rock; but the very steep western slope was much more barren than the northern by which we were going up. The southern face is nearly naked. Seen from the north, the hill swells up like part of a great globe; from the east it is a broad cone, flattened on the top, and from the west it looks like a wedge rising above the neighbouring hills. It is in reality a long oval, with its greatest width from east to west, its flat top rising nearly 1,500 feet above the plain below.*

* Plain at foot, 350 feet above the sea ; Tabor, 1,843 feet above the sea.
The top of the hill forms a long arid broad plateau, about a quarter of an hour's walk each way, sinking slightly, from nearly all sides, towards the centre. On the north-east side stands a small, recently-built Greek church, about thirty feet high, with a little bell-tower. Its court was thronged with Russian pilgrims, and some dark and unclean-looking huts alongside of it supply cells for a few monks; the whole being shut in by dry stone walls, which enclose a considerable space. The ground outside is a strange mixture of culture and wildness. An old road, only a few feet broad, with low walls of loose stone at the sides, stretches over a hollow filled with oaks and other trees which are dwarfed to the height of tall shrubs, and leads to a door, iron-railed, built into the arch of the gateway of an old Crusading fortress, now in utter ruin, with wild growths on its top and a wooden cross raised upon some stones: a touching sight. The narrow road or path, with its deep walled sides, has doubtless seen fierce struggles between Christian knight and paynim in the old days, but now it leads to the peaceful loneliness of a Latin monastery. At the south-east corner of the table-land are the remains of a once huge fortress, built by the Crusaders. Stones from fifteen to twenty feet long, carefully squared, still stood in position, while on the east, where the ground outside slopes, a deep fosse had been dug as an additional defence. The ruins are of different ages, and show that from the earliest times this stronghold of nature has been jealously guarded. The foundations of a thick wall of larger stones can be traced all round the top. Walls, arches, and foundations of houses and other buildings are everywhere visible, as though a town had been here as well as a fortress.

I have good reason to speak well of the Franciscans of Mount Tabor. The ride, added to daily hard exercise for weeks before, had tired me exceedingly, so that I was thankful when we reached the Latin monastery, a large building of one high storey, inviting travellers by its open doors. Only two monks were visible, both young Italians, in the brown cloaks of their Order, with a hood on the back; their heads shaved into the tonsure, a rope girdle round the waist, and sandalled feet. The room we entered was long and lofty, and arched from all sides, to save timber; it was furnished with two long tables, reaching from end to end, some chairs, and, along each of the side walls, a long red cotton-covered couch, or divan. There were some simple Scripture pictures on the walls, and at one end portraits of the last and the present Pope, between doors which opened into sleeping-rooms for strangers, very nice, plain, and clean, with five beds in each. At the other end of the room was a very plain, glass-faced, bookcase-like cupboard.

The young monk, seeing how tired I was, most kindly insisted on getting refreshment, and very soon had part of the table covered with a nice white cloth, on which he set a flask of wine, some coffee, eggs, bread, and a salad of fennel, lettuce, and celery. As he was doing so the bell of the Greek church began to toll: a sound hateful exceedingly to his soul, as seen in the contemptuous curl of his nose, and heard in some rather narrow-minded expressions. So bitter and unlovely is sectarian feeling everywhere! But he was a good soul. Nothing would content him but that I should lie down on one of the comfortable beds, which I very gladly did, and was soon in a sound sleep, from which my friends aroused me when it was time to leave.

The view from Tabor is very fine. On the south the recess in the great plain, towards Jezreel, lay at my feet, with Jebel Duhy soaring up in the background in naked bareness of rock. Nearer the northern slope was Endor with its spring, its cave-dwellings, and its tragic memories of Saul's visit, and straight before me Nain, one of the few villages of Galilee of which the name is given in the Gospel. To the east the eye ranged over a sea of hills, undistinguishable by shape from each other, towards the range which encloses the Sea of Galilee, which, however, lay hidden in its deep bed except from one point below the summit, where a gap in the hills gives a glimpse of it. In the north rose the mighty Jermuk mountain, with the hill-town of Safed clearly visible to the west of it. From the same point at which the Lake of Galilee appears we could also see the Mediterranean, but the Dead Sea lies out of sight from any part of Tabor. To the west, the ruined tomb of the Moslem saint, on the hill behind Nazareth, seemed close at hand, while, beneath, Esdraelon stretched away like a great variegated carpet to the hills of Samaria and the range of Carmel.

It was from this plateau that Barak rushed down in the midst of the storm on Sisera's chariots near Megiddo and Taanach, beyond Jezreel (see ante p. 743). Its isolation, its noble size, and its attractive vegetation, so much richer than that of the hills around, made Tabor famous in the poetry of Israel. "Tabor and Hermon," sings the Psalmist, "shall rejoice in Thy name" (Psa 89:12); and Jeremiah, announcing the might and glory of the conqueror of Egypt, cries—"As I live, saith the Lord of Hosts, surely as Tabor is among the mountains, and as Carmel by the sea, so shall he come" (46:18). It appears to have been inhabited since very early times (1 Chron 6:77), and its possession, as has been already remarked, was always held of supreme importance in the wars with which the land was visited. Antiochus the Great, and the Romans after him, only seized it by craft; and Josephus, who was in command in Galilee at the outbreak of the great Jewish war, caused it to be newly fortified, the ruins around us being in large part the remains of what he built. The idea, which is quite a mistake, that Tabor was the Mount of Transfiguration, led to the erection of churches and cloisters on it as early as the reign of Constantine. Nor were the Crusaders behind the earlier Christian zeal. Brave monks of Clugny defended their monastery in the year A.D. 1183 against Saladin; and there were many similar struggles till after the middle of the thirteenth century. At last, however, everything perished, so that a pilgrim to the sacred mountain in A.D. 1283 saw nothing but ruins of palaces, cloisters, and towers, amidst which lions and other wild beasts had their dens; and thus it remained for ages, till in late years the Greeks settled here again, and built their church, the Latins soon following suit.

We returned to Nazareth by a slightly different route, but through very similar landscapes, entering the village by the road leading to the Fountain of the Virgin; delighted to be once more in the town of our Saviour's childhood as well as of His riper life. To the Christian traveller the hills around, especially the highest, crowned with its Moslem tomb, can never be uninteresting. From its top Christ must often have turned His eyes on Carmel and the Great Sea, on the wide plain of Esdraelon, on Tabor, El-Duhy, and Gilboa, on the hills of Samaria, and on the mountains of Gilead, which shut in the horizon to the east. Behind, He must often have looked down into the green sweep of the valley of El-Buttauf, with the peaks and rounded tops of the mountains of Upper Galilee beyond it, Safed shining white from its hill on the north-east, and Jermuk towering aloft near it. Far away to the north, Hermon, snow-crowned, shone before His eyes as it did before ours. Westward, on its hill, stood Sepphoris; and then come the low hills which reach down to the plain of Acre, and hide the town itself. The hills of Nazareth would be almost as lonely then as now, for they are fit only for light pasture at best; and thus at all hours He could find solitary places, at His will, for prayer and meditation.

The streets of Nazareth are often noisy by night with the festivities of marriage, for the local customs are still in most things the same as they were in the time of our Lord. These rejoicings begin now, as then, with sunset, and last several days. Before the marriage the bridegroom goes at evening to the house of a relation, and while he is there a band of maidens lead the bride to his house, and then go to bring the bridegroom home. If any, however, are too long in coming, he goes to his house without them, and the door is shut. There is a final procession of bride and bridegroom on horse back to the marriage ceremony, with dancing and music as they advance; and the return is similarly gladsome. As in old times, the wife is still bought, the lowest price given being from sixteen to twenty pounds, though in Bible days a Hebrew could get a wife for six pounds. In exceptional cases as much as from sixty to a hundred and fifty pounds is sometimes paid for a bride at the present day. Her father receives the money, if he be a Mahommedan; but among Christians it belongs to the bride as her dowry, which her husband cannot touch, for since a woman cannot inherit, she, with this exception, brings nothing with her but her clothes and ornaments. Rich fathers, however, give their daughters a wedding-portion of some description, though not in money, as Job did when he gave his daughters inheritance among their brethren (42:15).

Women in the East are never trusted as in the West, and hence there is no social intercourse between the sexes before marriage, or between a wife and any man but her husband. There is less, however, of this seclusion in villages than in such a place as Nazareth, and less among the Christian than among the Mahommedan women of such a town. Polygamy, being lawful among the "true believers," is practised by them, as far as means permit, and often involves much hardship and cruelty to the weaker sex. The wife who has grown old with her husband, and has lost the beauty she had in youth, instead of being loved the more for the long companionship in which the two have spent life together, is often put away to get her bread as she best can, while her husband takes a young woman in her place. Still more frequently, the old wife is made the slave of the new. How much jealousy, envy, rancour, and strife are thus created, especially when there are children of different mothers, can be easily imagined. No wonder that in many cases the wives unite and make common cause against the man. Family life cannot nourish in such a state of things, as we often see in the Bible narratives of royal households. There is, however, one compensation: the affection between mother and children grows intensely strong. In her son, the wife and mother finds the firm, steadfast support which she misses from her husband. By him she is loved with the truest and most reverential affection. It is easy, therefore, to see how terrible a calamity it is to an Oriental wife if her children, and especially her sons, die, or if she be childless. A Western woman can hardly realise how great a sorrow such misfortunes are to her Eastern sister (Gen 30:1,22; 1 Sam 1:6).

Across the plain, nearly west, lies the scene of Elijah's sacrifice. As we started from Nazareth, the village of Makbiyeh lay hidden in a little fruitful valley on the left of the track, with palms in its gardens. Since reaching Jenin, or Engannim, this most graceful tree had reappeared, for though it is not found in the hill-country, where the comparatively low temperature must always have prevented its growing, it abounds near Sidon, Acre, Haifa, and other towns. In this valley, close to Nazareth, it was evidently thriving, and at Jenin it was the special feature of the place. Our Lord could therefore see this specially Oriental tree, day by day, almost in the same landscape in which, afar off, shone the snows of Hermon. So varied is the climate of the Holy Land. It is curious to notice the numerous stems of the palm which strew the shores of the Dead Sea, where they are brought down the Jordan by floods, or from some of the gorges on the eastern side. In many places numbers of them, and great masses of palm-leaves, encrusted with a coating of lime, deposited by the water from the hills, lie like huge pillars, or stones, till, splitting off the casing, you see the tree or the great fronds as perfect as when they were growing, perhaps many ages ago. Elsewhere, over the country, the palm appears to have been more plentiful long ago than now. "The righteous," says the Psalmist, "shall flourish like the palm-tree" (92:12), and even passing strangers feel the aptness of the comparison. For the palm is the tree of the desert, growing luxuriantly not only in the rich soil of Egypt, but in the sandy borders of Gaza. It cannot live without constant moisture, and hence its presence always speaks of water near: an emblem of the grace needed continually to quicken and support the Christian life. It rises high above all the trees around, as the Christian should tower in spiritual stature above his fellows. "Upright as a palm" is a proverb, and should be a lesson. It is always growing while it lives, and brings forth fruit even in old age; and it grows best when its branches are loaded with weights, as the godly man does when he bears the load of this world's afflictions.

Beyond Makbiyeh you presently come upon a lovely spring, Ain Sufsafeh, bubbling out in another valley, with the usual accompaniment of bright and luxuriant vegetation. The descent to the plain was gradual, with a few trees on the slopes, and quite a number of springs bursting from the foot of the hills which here approach within about six miles of the opposite range of Carmel. Once on the open ground, there are no trees, and one can easily understand how the Shunammite's boy, when he had gone out with his father's reapers to the fields in the hot harvest weather, was struck down by the sun (2 Kings 4:18ff). The great sweep of virtually level ground from Zerin, or Jezreel, to Carmel, was around us, showing the whole distance over which the anxious mother pressed so hurriedly to tell the prophet the sad fate of her boy; and it was not difficult to understand how Elisha, standing on some height of the Carmel range opposite, could distinguish her from a great distance, so as to send Gehazi to ask her errand. The soil everywhere was evidently very rich, but wide stretches were left wild, and there was not a single village from one side to the other.

El-Mahrakah, or "the Place of Burning," has for many years been justly regarded as the scene of Elijah's contest with the priests of Baal. It is the name given to a place near the ruined village of Mansurah. A long, steep climb, by a slippery winding path, brings you over rocks and through thickets to heaps of old dressed stones, close to a ruined cistern of considerable size. The view from the spot is magnificent. Standing on the edge of the hill, yon look down a depth of 1,000 feet to the great plain, at the edge of which, close to the hills, flows the Kishon, now comparatively low, but in the rainy season unfordable at this point. The first place at which it can be crossed is farther south, where it is about twenty yards wide; but even there it reaches above the horse's girth. The hewn stones around mark the spot where the altar built by Elijah had stood; but even that was only the reconstruction of a still more ancient altar, which Jezebel, in her fury against Jehovah, had cast down (1 Kings 18:30). It was in the vicinity of this sacred spot, I should suppose, that Elisha lived when away in retirement on Carmel (2 Kings 4:18ff); and it was in all probability to a spot above, whence the Great Sea is seen swinging to and fro far beneath to the west, on the other side of the mountains, that the servant of Elijah came up seven times to look for the sign of rain, which appeared at last in the form of the small cloud, known in Palestine, when it is seen driving eastward over the waters towards the land, to be the precursor of a storm.

Climbing to a crag 300 feet higher, we looked down on the altar-stones which lie in a little hollow on the knoll, 1,000 feet, as I have said, above the plain. There, on the banks of the Kishon, is a flat, green knoll, called by tbe natives Tell-el-Cassis, "the Mound of the Priests." The place of sacrifice, thus overlooking the plain, is shut in on the north by woody cliffs, which, with the slopes around, seem to form a natural amphitheatre: the very spot for the great scene transacted in it. It is at the extreme eastern point of the Carmel hills, about thirteen miles nearly south from the promontory which dips its foot in the sea, and closes the range to the north. The last view of the ocean is to be had from the top of the crag above; and from this point also you have the first view of the great plain, which north of this is narrowed by the close approach of the hills of Galilee. The glades of forest have already been left behind on the north, and the bareness of ordinary hill scenery in Palestine has begun; but there are still some fine trees in the amphitheatre, overhanging an ancient fountain, with a square stone-built reservoir about eight feet deep beside it, traces still remaining of the steps by which the water was reached when low. This spring never dries up, as is shown by the presence of living fresh-water molluscs, which would die if water were at any time to fail them. One can thus understand how, although drought had scorched the land for three years, and the Kishon, after shrinking to a string of pools, had dried up altogether, there was still water for the sacrifice of Elijah, though he needed so much. The whole of the moisture remaining in the depths of Carmel poured its wealth into this last treasure-house. On one side, in the wide hollow sweep in which this spring lies, were ranged Ahab and the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and Astarte; on the other stood the one grand figure of the prophet of Jehovah, in his sheepskin mantle, with his long hair streaming in the wind. Far to the south-east, Jezreel, with the king's palace and Jezebel's temple, were full in sight; and beneath, in ordinary times, were the winding links of the Kishon, slowly gliding on to the narrow pass, overhung with oleanders, through which it enters the plain of Acre on its way to the sea. The contest lasted from morning till noon, and from noon till the time of the evening sacrifice. In vain did the priests of Baal circle round their altar in sacred dances, ever more violent, till at last, like some of the modern dervishes, in their intense earnestness they cut themselves with knives. Elijah could taunt and mock them at his will, for Baal did not answer. Then came the miracle of the burning of the prophet's sacrifice, and the final catastrophe, when the false prophets, at the command of Elijah, were taken down the hill to the knoll over Kishon, and there put to death, their bodies being no doubt thrown into the river-bed, that the flood, soon to come, might bear them away to the sea without burial, the greatest indignity that in ancient times could be offered to the dead.

Remounting the hill to a sacrificial feast—the sign of reconciliation to the land on the part of Jehovah, now that He had been vindicated before all—the king and Elijah ate together from the remains of the offering. Then, we are told, the prophet climbed to "the top of the mountain," and remained long in prayer, his face bowed to the earth, while his servant, after going seven times to a point from which the sea was visible, at last announced that a cloud was rising in the far west—the first of the kind that had been seen for years. It was already twilight, and the prophet knew the suddenness with which the fierce wind would bear on the storm. Before long the whole heavens were overcast, and the wind gave the sound of abundance of rain. It was imperative that the king should hurry down, and, crossing the Kishon, gain his chariot and drive off for Jezreel, before the rain turned the wide soft plain into a muddy swamp. This done, "the hand of the Lord was on Elijah." Tightening his girdle round him, and running ahead of the galloping horses as they darted off, he kept his place before them with the amazing strength apparently peculiar to Arabs and Indians, till they and he together reached the entrance of Jezreel, sixteen or seventeen miles away.

On the Galilee side of the narrow pass between the plain of Acre and Esdraelon is the village of Sheikh Abreik, standing on a low hill, on the southern edge of a large tract of rolling land, covered with oak-scrub and fringed with trees of larger growth. There are only some miserable hovels in the village, with starved dogs in the lane and on the roofs, and bees murmuring about their clay hives. The Kishon opposite Sheikh Abreik flows in a winding channel thickly overshadowed with oleanders, with a muddy ford in spring and almost a dry bed in summer, but filled after rain with a stream. The caravan-road to Haifa runs along the foot of the hills, and was alive with long strings of camels, moving towards or from the port, one beast stalking with wooden stiffness behind another, each tied to the one before, the leader of the caravan sitting on an ass in front, contentedly smoking his long wooden pipe as the train behind moved after him at hardly three miles an hour. Going north from Mahrakah, the hills and valleys of Carmel are rich with trees which spread just as they please, with no interruption from human industry. The contrast between this wild "garden of God" and the hills of Palestine elsewhere is very great. Here, vegetation grows in rich luxuriance: everywhere else there is little but thorns, thin pasture, or weathered limestone, bare and forbidding—for even the hills of Samaria are fruitful only on their slopes.

Carmel has enjoyed this pre-eminence among the mountains of the Holy Land from the earliest ages. To the sacred writers it was the emblem of the richest fertility. "The excellency of Carmel" (Isa 35:2) is Isaiah's ideal of the glory of any land. The highest fancy of the inditer of Canticles cannot compliment his beloved more than by assuring her, "Thine head upon thee is like Carmel" (Song 7:5). That this range should wither is the prophet's darkest image of desolation (Isa 33:9). In the heat of summer, when the whole landscape, far and near, changes to the yellow of death, Carmel still raises aloft its unfading wealth of green. For its forests to droop and its beauty to fade was the sign to the prophets of the sternest visitation of God (Amos 1:2; Nahum 1:4). To Micah its pastures were the emblem of the blessedness which God would bestow upon His people. "Feed Thy people," says he, "with Thy rod, the flock of Thine heritage, which dwell solitarily, in the forest in the midst of Carmel" (7:14). It is no wonder that an altar to Jehovah was early raised on this mountain, or that Elisha made it his chosen retreat (1 Kings 18:30,32; 2 Kings 2:25, 4:25), for even the heathen populations regarded it as sacred. "Between Syria and Judæa," says Tacitus, "is Carmel—the name given to a mountain and to a god: yet there is no image to the god nor any temple, but, as former ages have prescribed, only an altar and worship. Vespasian sacrificed there when revolving in his mind the yet secret hope of empire."*

* Tac. Hist., ii. 78.


Chapter 39 | Contents | Chapter 41


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