by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books


Chapter 45 | Contents | Chapter 47

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


At Safed—Its Ancient Glory and Present Squalor—PolygamyView from the CastleTraditional Tomb of Hillel at MeironEl-Jish (Giscala)YarunLake HulehJoshua's Victory at MeromKadeshThe Peasantry of the Holy LandTheir Superstitions

Safed lies about five miles on the road, or no-road, to the north-west of Khan Yusef, but although the khan stands 800 feet above the Lake of Galilee, the journey to Safed is a continual ascent of nearly 2,000 feet more. The hill on which the town stands is a weary climb. The rocks shine out bare on its steep sides, looking like the ribs of a skeleton, all the "flesh" having been washed away by the winter rains of ages. The track is lonely and desolate, seldom showing even a goatherd with his goats. Safed itself lies hidden by the top of the mountain, but the view looking down towards the lake in its deep cradle of hills is very striking; the dark blue of the water seeming additionally lovely because of the desolate setting of bare heights. The weather was beautiful, the sun setting in a cloudless sky, and lighting up the mountains with mild softened brightness before it was hidden in the west. At last, after descending a picturesque ravine watered by a fine streamlet, the path led up to the town, which rises in terraces on steep slopes, almost in the form of the letter Y, and passes over to the plateau above in three entirely distinct sections.

The houses are well built of stone, and surround a castle which rises above them; valleys and gardens, with vines, and olive and fig trees, lying between the different parts of the town. It is not easy to ascertain the exact population, for, while the Memoirs of the Palestine Fund say there are 3,000 Mahommedans, 1,500 Jews, and 50 Christians, Guerin speaks of 7,000 Jews, 6,000 Mahommedans, and 150 Christians. The castle, which is a memorial of the wonderful energy of the Crusaders, having been built by King Fulke about A.D. 1140, stands in a great elliptical enclosure, surrounded by a ditch partly cut in the living rock, but now in great measure filled up. In its glory it was flanked by ten towers, but the outer casing of hewn stones has been removed for building material, and the inner rubble alone remains. The castle itself, which stood inside this circumvallation, had a second ditch round it, but the walls have fallen into a confused mass of rubbish, from which stones are constantly being taken away for new buildings. Great towers, now in ruins, once rose at the angles, and huge cisterns, still remaining, supplied water for the garrison, while in the centre a massive keep or citadel dominated the city.

A great Rabbinical school which flourished here in the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth won for Safed among the Jews the high distinction of one of the four holy cities of Israel, in which prayers must be said several times a week, if the earth at large is to escape destruction: the supplicants who set so high a value on their intercessions being among the most wretched and ignorantly bigoted of men. The Safed Jews, long defenceless among their bitter enemies the Mahommedans, now enjoy peace and safety under the protection of Austria, most of them being from Austrian Poland. They are, however, for the most part, unutterably poor, owing their very bread to the doles of their richer brethren in Europe. To anyone not of their number their life seems a mere loathsome misery, for they are intolerably dirty, and their quarter is so foul that fever breaks out when the rain stirs up the mud of their lanes. A few give themselves to trade, or, as at Hebron, to vine-growing, but all alike are blind fanatics, petrified in ignorant Pharisaism and in servility to their Rabbis, while indulging in a loose and casuistical morality. A false oath to a Gentile is nothing, to a Rabbi it is a mortal sin. They will not carry a handkerchief in their pockets on the Sabbath, because that would be bearing a burden, but they tie it round their waist, and then it is only a girdle. To walk with heavy-soled shoes on the sacred day would be to cany a burden, and to tread on grass during its hours is to offend, for is not this a kind of threshing? One cannot help thinking of the grave controversy in Christ's day, among the Rabbis, whether it was permissible to eat an egg that had been laid on the Sabbath! To wind up a watch after sunset on Friday would be a dreadful matter; but while shrinking from such an act, the precisian too seldom hesitates to live a profane and ungodly life.

The Safed Jews are very tenacious of Old Testament usages, and hence they favour polygamy; some of them having two or three wives. The duty of marrying the childless wife of a deceased brother is also still maintained, in accordance with the old command: "If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without, unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall take her to him to wife; and it shall be, that the first-born which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel" (Deut 25:5-10). The custom which enabled Ruth to get Boaz for a husband is thus still honoured in this spot of Palestine. In the synagogue, phylacteries are still worn on the brow and arm, as in Russia, in fancied obedience to the injunction, "Thou shalt bind them"—that is, certain words of the Law—"for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes" (Deut 6:8).

The view from the ruined castle is very fine. The Lake of Galilee in its whole extent lies at one's feet. Tabor rises above the hills around it, and to the west there is a glimpse of Esdraelon. The citadel was once considered impregnable, but in July, 1266, the Christian garrison quitted it under articles of capitulation to Sultan Bibars, whose promises, however, were shamelessly broken, the whole force, numbering 2,000 men, being killed, while the priests were only spared that they might afterwards be flayed alive. The castle was brought to its present condition by the great earthquake of 1837, after having stood the storms of time for more than six hundred years. The town beneath it shared in the destruction. In the Jews' quarter, especially, the ruin was terrible, the houses being built on a slope so steep that the roofs of one terrace seem to be the street before those of the terrace above. Badly built, one row fell crashing down on another, leaving no chance of escape, but burying the population in the wreck.

The great Rabbi Hillel is believed to have been buried at Meiron, about three miles west of Safed, a tomb cut in the rock, with about thirty places for the dead, being pointed out as his. Near this chamber, which is about twenty-five feet long and eighteen broad, there is a long stone building with a large space inside, at the end of which are three tombs that are especially venerated. Here Mr. Hackett,* an American professor, was fortunate enough to see a great celebration in honour of the dead Rabbis, some of the details of which are well worth quoting. Over the graves hung burning lamps, beside which crowds knelt at their devotions, while multitudes had spread their sleeping-mats beneath stalls raised for the time along the walls. Strong drink was in great demand from numerous sellers, some of those praying being already drunk. Here, a couple of men exhibited sword-play, to the clash of cymbals; a little way from them was a group of dancers, for whom the spectators sang and clapped hands. But the special object of the gathering was to burn costly gifts in honour of the ancient teachers. The long court was densely crowded soon after dark to witness these offerings. At one corner of a gallery, placed so that all could see it, was a basin of oil, in which whatever was to be burned was dipped, to make it more inflammable. A shawl, worth fifteen pounds sterling, was the first article offered; the men clapping hands and the women shrieking for joy, as it was set on fire by a blazing torch. Other offerings of shawls, scarves, handkerchiefs, books, and the like, were then handed up, and burnt in the same way; the crowd from time to time yelling with delight, and the uproar continuing through great part of the night. What could this mean? Is it a confused tradition of the offerings to the Temple in ancient times? These, however, were not burnt.

* Illustrations of Scripture, p. 242.
About three miles north of Meiron, the village of El-Jish—the ancient Giscala—recalls memories of the great apostle of the Gentiles, for his ancestors lived here before emigrating to Tarsus.* It lies on a hill which falls steeply to the east, at the mouth of a flat, well-tilled valley, through which flows a strong brook bordered by rich green bushes. One of the leaders of the Jews in the last despairing struggle against Titus at Jerusalem was a native of the village, vindicating by his valour the old reputation of Galilee as the native land of brave men. The country around is without trees to the southeast, though both at Meiron and El-Jish there are fine groves of olive and fig trees. In the open landscape of hill and valley, a few herds of sheep or goats are to be seen, but there is not a little poor land, and the soil is not much tilled: more from the want of population than its own poverty. Here and there a traveller on an ass, often without bridle or head-gear, passes, but she-asses seem to be preferred, as being easier in their step. The colt running at its mother's side is a pleasant sight, recalling the simple dignity of our Lord's entrance to Jerusalem, and bringing back with force the full meaning of the prophet's words: "Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy King cometh unto thee; He is just and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass" (Zech 9:9).
* Jerome, de Viris Illustr. 5.
About four miles almost north of El-Jish, in a shallow valley, is the village of Yarun, which has near it the remains of a large church, built of great blocks of stone. Columns, and portions of moulded door-posts, with finely-cut capitals, are freely scattered about; many of them lying in and around a large rainwater pond. This grand building was once paved with mosaic, large pieces of which are still perfect below the soil; and not a few of its finely-carved spoils are seen built into the mosque.

This district is, in part, inhabited by a fanatical sect of Moslems known as Metawilehs, who keep rigidly aloof from the members of any other faith. To touch the contents of a fruit-stall belonging to one of them rouses the fiercest indignation, for the finger of any person not of their own creed pollutes. They would rather break a jar than drink from it after it had touched unclean lips—that is, those of anyone but a Metawileh. As contact with a corpse defiled an Israelite (Num 19:11), so a stranger touching the clothing of one of this fierce sect makes it unclean. As with the Jews, "it is an unlawful thing for a man to keep company, or come to one of another nation" (Acts 10:28), a law so rigid that St. Peter, even after he had been enlightened by a vision from God, dissembled at Antioch, and needed to be rebuked for his bearing by the more manly St. Paul (Gal 2:12,13). Such an attitude towards those round provokes universal hatred, which the Metawilehs liberally return. Unless, as Captain Conder thinks, they are Persian Moslems, they may be an apostate body of Jews, still retaining the ceremonial law of Leviticus, though accepting Mahomet as the Prophet of God.

From Safed to Lake Huleh, the ancient Sea of Merom, is a gradual descent of nearly 3,000 feet, over hill and dale, the valleys running mainly east and west. Some time before reaching the lake, the country opens, and the lake itself lies in one of the pleasantest valleys of Palestine. The sheet of water is about two miles broad at its widest part, and four miles long; but a great marsh of papyrus reed stretches for nearly six miles north of the clear surface, covering from one to three miles in breadth. Through this flows the Jordan, as yet only a small stream, several tributaries joining it from different wadys on its course, which, as it passes through the miniature forest, widens into small lakes, the haunt of innumerable water-fowl, as the outer beds of reeds are the lairs of swine and of other wild beasts. It was to this region that Herod the Great used to come in his early manhood, to hunt the game which then swarmed in the marshes even more than now, distinguishing himself by the strength of his javelin-throw, and the fierce energy which remained untired when all his attendants were exhausted. On the west the Safed hills open out into long sweeping plains and valleys of pleasant green; but on the eastern side there is no such broad border of open land, the hills rising close to the pear-shaped basin of the lake. The water is from twenty to thirty feet deep, its surface lying almost exactly on the same level as the sea, but nearly 900 feet above the Lake of Galilee.*

* Riehm.
It was in this district that the great battle was fought which threw Northern Palestine into the hands of Joshua. After Ai had been taken, and the Southern Canaanite league had been driven in hideous rout down the pass of Beth-horon, the Israelite leader seems to have found Central Palestine left open to him without further resistance, not a few towns being deserted in the terror inspired by his destruction of Jericho and Ai.* But the north was still unconquered, and found a champion in Jabin, King of Hazor. This ancient capital has been identified by Sir Charles Wilson with the ruins of Harrah, on a hill-top about a mile back from the west side of the lake; but Captain Conder finds it in Haderah, about three miles farther inland, almost in the same direction. Harrah has at least the more striking remains to justify the honour, for the hill-top is still partly surrounded by a strong enclosure, once flanked by square towers, both the walls and the towers being built of great blocks of rudely-hewn stone, put together without cement. A number of rock-cut cisterns still speak of the "water-supply; and foundations formed of polygonal masses of stone show where the principal structures of the city have been, though the whole site has for ages been desolate, except when some poor shepherd has driven his flock to pasture among the ruins. Round the king of this primæval fortress-town were gathered the heads of all the native tribes which had not yet yielded to Joshua, including not only those of the north, but some from the "ghor" of the Jordan south of the Lake of Galilee (11:1); from the sea-coast plain of Philistia; from the slopes over the plain of Sharon; and from the recently-built fortress of Jebus, the future Jerusalem. Indeed, even Hivite chieftains from the valley of Baalbek, under the shadow of Hermon, rallied for this last effort to drive back the Hebrew invasion. All these "went out, they and all their hosts with them, even as the sand is upon the sea shore in multitude; and when all these kings were met together, they came and pitched together at the waters of Merom, to fight against Israel" (Josh 11:4,5). At Ai and Gibeon the battle had, so far as we know, been one of infantry only; but the main strength of the enemy at Merom consisted in "horses and chariots very many," now first mentioned in the story of the conquest, though familiar to us in connection with even earlier ages, from the records of the early Egyptian kings in their Palestine campaigns. Such a force could not act in the hills, and therefore the wide plain beside Lake Huleh was chosen as a battle-field. The Hebrews, destined to live in the hills, could not employ cavalry, and for this, among other reasons, were prohibited from making use of it. A command was therefore issued to hough the horses and burn the chariots which they might take, thus delaying their introduction into the nation till the showy reign of Solomon, centuries later. No details of Joshua's movements are given, beyond the fact that on the eve of the battle he was within a day's march of the lake. The victory was apparently gained by the suddenness with which the Hebrews swooped down from the hills on Jabin's confederacy, throwing them into confusion which soon turned into panic and headlong flight. As had been commanded, the horses taken were ham-strung and the chariots burned; the chase after the fugitives continuing westward over the mountains to Sidon, on the coast, and eastward we know not how far. This victory closed the serious work of the Israelite campaigns, and left the land open to the tribes; Naphtali obtaining the region of Merom, and a wide stretch north and west. But the Canaanites, though stunned and overpowered for the time, still remained more numerous than their conquerors, so that Hazor, which Joshua had burned to the ground, was in after-times rebuilt, and became the capital of another Jabin, who long oppressed the northern tribes, till overthrown by the crushing defeat of his general, Sisera, in the great battle of Tabor, when Deborah and Barak led the Hebrews (Judg 4:2).
* Geikie, Hours with the Bible, ii. 408.
Barak—"the Lightning"—was a native of Kadesh, the ruins of which lie four miles north-west of El-Huleh, on a hill overlooking a fine plain that bears the same name. A modern village, with a population of perhaps 200 Moslems, its stone houses very ruinous, stands on the spur of the hill, beside a good spring, and a rain-pond such as marks nearly every Palestine hamlet; the land around is arable, with fig and olive trees interspersed. There are no traces now of the Canaanite city, but it was one of the oldest in the land, for it is mentioned in the list of Thothmes III of Egypt, who conquered Palestine about 1,600 years before Christ. Barak, as a native of Kadesh (Judg 4:6), was likely to feel the woes of his people intensely, living as he did in the very midst of their oppressors.

"Harosheth of the Gentiles," where Sisera lived, seems to have been a stronghold on the river Kishon, at the point where the northern hills come closest to those of Carmel; and still survives in the village of El-Harathiyeh. In Barak's battle the chariots of the Canaanites would be driven towards this point if they could move through the softened ground at all, and they must have been mixed in hideous confusion, horses, chariots, and men, as they crowded into the jaws of the pass, which is often only a few rods wide. The river, swollen at the time by the tempest, runs in constant curves, so that, in such a frightful pressure of men, wheels, and beasts, it would be impossible to avoid being hurled into it at many points: the deep mud as well as the waters destroying thousands. Harosheth lies about eight miles from Megiddo, where the entrance to Esdraelon could be most easily barred. An enormous double mound near El-Harathiyeh—the Arabic form of the word Harosheth—rises just below where the Kishon beats against Carmel. Here rose the castle of Sisera; the watch-tower of "the Gentiles" who then lorded it over Israel (see p. 743).

If Kadesh has nothing to reveal of these old times, there are abundant remains of Roman splendour—ruins of temples, tombs built of huge blocks of stone, and elaborately carved sarcophagi. Such structures, in so secluded a spot, forcibly proclaim the wealth of ancient times, and the density with which regions now desolate for ages must once have been peopled; for what must that empire have been which could create, even here, such an astonishing display of architectural splendour?

Our tents were pitched on a rise of ground under the low rocky hills, some little distance from the lake. As the evening drew on, our solitude was invaded by a great drove of mules, laden with huge nettings full of brown jars, coming from Damascus to the south. To get these jars off without breaking seemed impossible, yet it was the simplest matter in the world when one knew how to do it. The loosening of a string enabled the sensible creature to walk from beneath its burden, which was sustained by two men on each side, and then carried to a corner, where all the loads were speedily set down in rows. Next came a dozen mules and asses with walnuts from Lebanon, the unclean crowd of drivers of both jars and fruit taking up their quarters for the night on the ground beside us, after cooking their simple evening meal. Some of the peasants from points near the lake soon visited the varied gathering; among them a poor man ill of ague, and an unfortunate child so bitten by vermin that he seemed covered with a violent eruption.

The fellahin, or peasants, of the Holy Land seem from their language to be descendants, though of mixed blood, of the old Bible races of the land. They may be regarded, in fact, as modern Canaanites, for it is quite certain that no vicissitudes of history ever destroy a whole people, and the Scriptures tell us that in the case of the Hebrew occupation of the country, many of the old inhabitants remained among the settlements of the invaders. In the same way large numbers of the old British race continued to live among the early English, after the successful descents on our country from beyond the sea; and our present population shows that when these conquerors were in their turn subdued by invaders, they were very far from being extirpated. The country dialect of Palestine is a survival of the old Aramaic, spoken by the mass of the people in the days of Christ, and closely connected with the Hebrew of the Bible. Thus, almost all words describing natural features, such as rocks, torrents, pools, springs, and the like, are the same on the lips of the peasantry of to-day as they are in the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, though Arabic has necessarily, in the course of ages, influenced the local vocabulary, the Mahommedan conquest bringing with it that language.

The religion of Palestine is professedly Mahommedanism, but though the forms of that creed are maintained in large towns, I very seldom saw any traces of it in country parts, for mosques are almost unknown in small places, and prayer in public, so constantly seen in other Mahommedan regions, is very rare. There is, however, in nearly every village, a small whitewashed building with a low dome—the "mukam," or "place," sacred to the eyes of the peasants; the word for it being still that used in the Bible for the holy "places" of the Canaanites, "upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree" (Deut 12:2).* In almost every landscape such a landmark gleams from the top of some hill, just as, doubtless, something of the same kind did in the old Canaanite ages; or you meet it under some spreading tree covered with offerings of rags tied to the branches, or near a fountain; the trees overshadowing them being held so sacred that every twig falling from them is reverently stored inside the "mukam." Anything a peasant wishes to guard from theft is perfectly safe if put within such a holy building. No one will touch it, for it is believed that every structure of this kind is the tomb of some holy man, whose spirit hovers near, and would be offended by any want of reverence to his resting-place. Nor is this superstition without countenance from another practice, for it is no uncommon thing to see an empty shrine of plastered brick, built so that the imaginary dead should lie on the right side, facing Mecca. But, amidst this fanciful simplicity, the spirit of true religion, found in some measure in even the rudest of faiths, is delightfully symbolised by the presence of a pitcher of cold water, put each day by kindly hands inside the door, to refresh the thirsty traveller.

* The word is "makom" in Hebrew, and "mukam" in the present language of the country.
The departed saints, or sheikhs, of these "mukams," are the local gods of the peasantry; some of them being supposed to have power for a greater, others for a smaller, distance round the shrines which commemorate them. To please them brings benefits of all kinds; to offend them is the worst of bad fortune: a belief so deeply rooted that a man would rather confess a crime, if taken to a "mukam," than perjure himself in the hearing of the saint, and thus incur his ghostly displeasure. No one will enter such a "place" without first taking off his shoes. If there be sickness in a house, the wife or mother will light a lamp and put it in the holy building; and sheep are at times killed near it, and eaten as a sacrificial feast in honour of the "sheikh." It is a strange fact in connection with these "mukams " that in many cases the names of the "sheikhs" supposed to rest under them are simply those of apostles or other Christian heroes, such as St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Matthew, and St. George. The peasantry have, in fact, continued their own worship on sites once occupied by churches of the Crusaders, and, in their simple ignorance, have adopted Christian saints as their local divinities.

Utterly uneducated, generation after generation, the ignorance of the peasants is extreme. Nothing is too childish for them to believe. Dervishes, or holy men, wander over the land, often poor and filthy, and always living on alms, but everywhere greatly venerated. Some of them are snake-charmers, others eat scorpions, and still others pierce their cheeks with knives; but many seem to rely principally ou their dirtiness. Evil spirits have a great place in the thoughts of the peasant. The "jan," who has for a body the tall sand-pillars of the whirlwind, appals him; the "afrit" is the equivalent of our ghost; the ghoul of the graveyard feeds on the dead; goblins play all manner of antic tricks; and, to close all, there is Satan, the arch enemy. Along the roads, or rather tracks, little piles of stones often recur, at points from which some famous holy place is first visible.

But to resume: the mules, with their pottery and walnuts, were gone before daylight, at 5.30, so that at breakfast we had the place to ourselves. That Englishmen should be passing was enough to bring a poor man, ill of dropsy, with his wife, mother, and child, to see if he could get relief. My companion fortunately had his tapping instrument with him, and operated on the poor sufterer, and as he gradually found relief, the gratitude of the little group knew no bounds. Several sick people had been gladdened the night before by doses from the few phials I had with me, and the news had spread, for, except in the case of a traveller passing, there is no such thing as even an approach to medical help. To see the poor folks crowding round the tent brought to mind the story how, "at even, when the sun did set, they brought unto Him all that were diseased, . . . and all the city was gathered together at the door, and He healed many that were sick of divers diseases" (Matt 8:16; Mark 1:32). How wretched is the position of the poor now, as it was then, with no medical help available, or even any rude recipes resulting from hereditary experience and observation; doomed simply to endure, without alleviation, whatever ailments may befall them! Civilisation has a bright side in this respect, if it have its spots in others.


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