by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books


Chapter 48 | Contents | Chapter 50

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 Ascent of Hermon—The DrusesThe Summit of the PassThe DescentA Night at Kefr HowarMahommedans and their FormalismThe Power of IslamismDress in the Lebanon—The Approach to DamascusKatana

From Banias we set out for Damascus, the road leading up long slopes, in many places very stony, with basalt cliffs breaking out at one place, ploughed land at another, and smooth rock at a third. Brooks of delightful sound ran down the hill-sides. Clumps of myrtles were not infrequent, and at some places terraces had been built along the sides to retain the soil. A few olives were to be seen now and then, and the great hill on which the castle stands was covered with them to the very top. Industry is a characteristic of the peasant in the Holy Land, and the Druses are no exception to the rule, so that I was not astonished to find, as the path still mounted from height to height, patches of green wheat, beans, or lentils, wherever the rock permitted. Jebel esh Sheikh, or Hermon, did not look so high as we were ascending it; and the snow, which at a distance had appeared an unbroken mantle, was now seen only to fill the hollows of the summit, with bare ribs of the mountain between. The vast mountain mass, which had risen so grandly to the heavens ever since we left Samaria, was in fact, when seen even at this distance, only a long awful slope of rock, up to the highest point. There was no peak, but simply a great ridge, bare and terrible, rising a little higher at one part than at another, with Druse villages far up the valleys. Our path lay down steep slopes, along valleys, up rough ascents.

The Druses, who number about 80,000 souls, are largely descended from the old inhabitants of Ituræa, though they have adopted the Arabic tongue, through the influence of the Mahommedan conquest. In their social constitution they form a kind of republic, with a chosen leader, at times, as the first among equals. Their religion is kept profoundly secret among themselves, but appears to be a mixture of Mahommedan and Christian ideas, with some remains of the old nature-worship of ancient Syria. The whole population is divided into two classes—the Initiated and the Ignorant: the two sections forming distinct castes, of which the former is the dominant. There are no priests, but there are houses devoted to prayer and meditation; the repositories of their sacred writings and standards. Among themselves they are known as "Confessors of the Unity of God," laying great stress on their lofty and pure conception of the Almighty. Incarnations have, in their belief, often taken place: the last of them having vanished from the earth in the person of the Khalif Hakim, in A.D. 1021. He has left the earth to put their faith to the proof, but he will return again, with power and great glory, and give his servants the empire of the world. With each incarnation of God there has always been that of the first of the Divine creations—Supreme Wisdom, which last manifested itself as Hamza, the son of Ali, the Apostle of the Unity of God. Only a certain number of human beings are created; souls passing, at death, into a new body, so that they are always wandering, though steadily rising to perfection if devoted to the truth, or growing worse if given to sin. In late years the worst characteristics of the Druses have been most prominently before the world, from their terrific massacres of the Lebanon Christians, in 1860, for seeking to cast off the Druse yoke, to which they had till then submitted; since then, these strange people have been peaceful.*

* Some think the Druses partly Persian, and that their customs connect them with Media and Turkestan. It may be that they are not more republican than other Orientals, although high authorities speak of them as being so.

At eleven in the forenoon we had been three hours climbing, but the air was still delightful, and great flocks' of sheep and goats fed on better pasture than is common thousands of feet below. Two Druses tended a flock, one of them carrying a gun, to protect his charge from the wild beasts of the mountains. The snowy top was soon just above us, to the north, perhaps 800 feet higher than our rough track. The air grew perceptibly cooler as we got nearer the snow of the hills, but it did not prevent life of all kinds from enjoying itself, for there was a whole chorus of crested larks as we rode on. We had now reached the highest point of the pass, and from this point the mountains changed their character. The onward track lay across the wide crater of an ancient volcano, filled up with lava, and strewn thickly with it in masses, in the form of basalt, but even here, cleared and fenced patches, bright with grain, were not infrequent. A man and a camel which he rode were the only creatures that passed us as, after crossing the wide stretch of lava, we rode over a nice little sandy plain, with good grazing. All over this plain "gowans," so dear to our North-country brethren, whitened the ground, though snow lay on many spots around us.

We were now under the very top of Hermon—"the Lofty Height"— famous in Scripture; known as Jebel esh Sheikh—"the Mountain of the White-haired Old Man"—among the populations of to-day. From the earliest times, the summit rising a little above us had been familiar, as the everywhere visible northern boundary of Palestine (Deut 3:8, 4:48; Josh 11:17, 12:1; 1 Chron 5:23); originally assigned to the kingdom of Og, and then to the territory of Manasseh (Josh 12:5, 13:11). The Sidonians knew it as Sirion, the Amorites as Senir (Deut 3:9; Psa 29:6; Eze 27:5)—both meaning "the Banner"; a fitting name for the great white standard it raises aloft over the whole land. The mass of its gigantic bulk is of the age of the Middle Chalk, as shown both by the prevailing rock and by its fossil fish and shells, some of which I myself got, thousands of feet above the sea-level. But it has been rent asunder by terrible volcanic eruptions, as we were soon to see even more fully than on the ascent. On the southern point of the summit there are ruins, apparently of an ancient temple, but the whole mountain was once girdled with sanctuaries, for Hermon was a great centre of the worship of Baal. Snow covers the top for the greater part of the year, and in ancient times supplied ice during summer for cooling the drinks of the people of Tyre. Indeed, the Hebrews also perhaps availed themselves of this luxury, if we may judge from the proverb: "As the cold of snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to them that send him; for he refresheth the soul of his masters" (Prov 25:13) They could not get snow in the hot months, except from Hermon.

The descent towards Damascus was long and wearisome. No desolation, indeed, could be more extreme than that of the first few miles. Fire-deluges had swept down the mountain, wave on wave, leaving universal black ruin. With wonderful industry, the loose volcanic cinders and broken lava had, in places, been gathered off the surface to allow spots to be tilled, but they were as nothing in the far-stretching waste. Where we were descending, the congealed lava-currents wrinkled the whole face of the mountain into the roughest of steps. These, moreover, were made still rougher by being strewn over with tens of thousands of tons of lava-boulders, shot out, I suppose, in a frightful skyward cannonade from the central fires.

The view as we descended was magnificent; range beyond range of hills stretching away to the south—the hills of Ituræa and Gilead. At last tne mountains were behind us, or on the north, and open land, with rushing streams, once more cheered the way to Kefr Howar, our quarters for the night. Even before we reached our halting-place, however, rain began to fall, and continued at intervals; but the tent was, of course, a great protection, though by no means watertight.

Only the Mahommedans, I may here remark, seem to engage openly in prayer in Palestine, though some even of them are not too devout. I never saw any of the men who were with us praying, nor any of the country people, though it is very common to see men at their devotions in towns where Mahommedanism is more scrupulously honoured. The rigid formalities observed on such occasions are curious. The hands are first raised, open, till the thumbs touch the ears, the words, "God is great," accompanying the elevation. A few petitions having been recited mentally, the hands are lowered and folded over the body, while the first chapter of the Koran, and a few other brief passages from the same source, are being recited by the supplicant. He next bends forward, with his hands on his knees, and again repeats, three times, "God is great." Then, once more, he stands erect and repeats the same words. Presently he falls on his knees, bending forward till his face touches the ground, with his hands on each side of the head, repeating this prostration thrice; all the time reciting the appointed short prayers. Once more he kneels, and after settling back on his heels, continues a prescribed series of brief supplications. This ends the required devotions, but the whole is often gone over more than once, where there is special fervour.*

* See ante, p. 180 ff.
It is curious, however, to find that this striking religionism is in very many cases entirely independent of any really devout feeling, for even Moslems have their proverbs about those who are extra zealous in public prayers, and it is certain that men who have no idea of common morality in their daily life are as exact as Pharisees in their compliance with the ceremonial requirements of their faith. To pray standing in the synagogues, or at the corners of the streets, may not always be a mark of insincerity, and, indeed, must not be regarded thus harshly; but, on the other hand, it by no means implies the sanctity one might expect. The great stress laid by Mahommedanism on the exact observance of the prescribed ritual in religious acts is hardly realised in the Western world. Nothing can make up for a ceremonial error; ardent faith or the purest intentions are entirely neutralised, if any detail be amiss in the required formalities. There is a right way and a wrong in any religious observance, and there is no choice in the matter, nor is any detail indifferent, however small. The rules respecting efficacious prayer are an example of this. Mahomet's directions, which must be implicitly followed, enjoin that "when anyone says his prayers, he must have something in front of him, and if he cannot find anything for that purpose, he must put his walking-stick into the ground. If, however, the ground be hard, he must place it lengthways before him. If he have no staff, he must draw a line on the ground, and after doing this there will be no injury to his prayers from anyone passing before him." To pass in front of a man when he is praying is a terrible offence, since it goes far to spoil the good of his prayers: a result so dreadful that the Prophet empowered a believer who might be annoyed in this way to "draw his sword " upon the criminal and "cut him down," and further declared that "if anyone did but know the sin of passing before a person engaged in prayer, he would find it better for him to sink into the earth."

No less important is the manner of carrying out the ablutions required before prayer. When the Prophet performed these offices, "he took a handful of water, and raised it to the under part of his chin, and combed his beard with his hand, and said, 'In this way has my Lord ordered me.'" On one occasion, moreover, when some of his followers, who were performing their ablutions in a hurry, had omitted to wet the soles of their feet, the Prophet said, "Alas for the soles of their feet, for they will be in hell fire!" Sin, in fact, according to Mahomet, is a material pollution, capable of being washed away, like so much physical uncleanness. Hence he ordered his followers in making their ablutions to be careful not to leave even a finger-nail unwetted, for, said he, "He who makes ablution thoroughly will cleanse away the faults from his body, even to those that may hide under his finger-nails," and will, as the result, be known on the day of Resurrection by "his bright hands and feet," the effect of his diligent and frequent purifications.

The power of Mahommedanism as a creed is very great—partly, no doubt, from the penalties of abandoning it; but still more, I fear, from the proud self-righteousness of its votaries. Conversions to Christianity are very rare, the excellent American missionaries in Cairo telling me that the only influence they could exert was to temper Mahommedanism in some homes with the purer spirit of the New Testament, taught in the schools to the children or women. The vast pilgrimages each year to Mecca and Medina, from all parts of the Moslem world, show the vigour of this faith, since they imply a universal zeal among the Mahommedan nations; the actual pilgrims being only those who are able to accomplish what is the highest ambition of all. Over a million pounds sterling, it is estimated, is spent on this annual journey to the great shrines, though the bulk of the pilgrims are of the poorer classes—which means more in the East than anywhere else. In 1885 53,000 persons entered Mecca to pay their devotions at the Kaaba, or sacred stone, half of them Turks and Egyptians, the rest made up of over 16,000 Malays and natives of India, over 7,000 Moors, about 6,000 Arabs from all parts of Africa and Arabia, and 1,600 Persians. Imagine the influence of this number, returning, each year, ablaze with pride and fanaticism, to their homes. How fierce and intolerant must they make their less privileged fellow-believers around! It cannot fail, in fact, to have the same effect as that which we know the annual pilgrimage to the Passover at Jerusalem had on ancient Judaism, kindling it, both in Palestine and elsewhere, to a bigotry which looked down with contempt on all other creeds. We can understand, moreover, from the financial interests involved in the Mahommedan pilgrimage—its members spending, as I have said, a million pounds on their route and in Mecca—how keenly the local bigotry, like that of Jerusalem, must be seconded by lower passions, in resisting all religious change. Now, as of old, orthodoxy finds an all-powerful ally in the pocket.

The dress of the people in Lebanon and towards Damascus is different from that of Palestine, jackets and baggy trousers taking the place of "abbas" and blue cotton gaberdines. Among the peasants and Bedouins the shirt is, in many cases, the one article of dress. Drawers of cotton are also worn by some of the better class, occasionally very full, in other cases like our own. The baggy breeches are a phenomenon to Western eyes, especially in their simplicity, for they are only a huge circle of cotton or cloth, tied round the waist by a sash or cord. Where outer jackets are worn, as in Lebanon, there is frequently an inner waistcoat, glorious with many small buttons, and coming close up to the neck; but sometimes there is an inner jacket under the "abba," with pockets, as in Europe. In the towns not a few persons in good position wear a long open gown of cotton or silk, folding over in front, and secured round the body by a girdle, which latter may be of leather, cotton, silk, camels'-hair, or simply a shawl, according to the means and taste of the wearer. Even in the East, however, there are fashions. Some affect a gaudy jacket over the long silken or cotton gown, and this may be either a simple affair, or a triumph of tailoring, with sleeves finely slashed, or fastened to the shoulders by buttons, rich embroidery playing a grand part in specially splendid garments.

The houses of Kefr Howar, our camping-place, were poor, but a wonderful improvement on those of Palestine, while a large cattle-barn behind our tents was a really excellent stone building, two storeys high and of great size, with an arch in the centre for passage to the back. One of the stones, set at the inner corner of the archway, had a long Greek inscription; so constantly does the remote past assert itself in these historic lands.

The road to Damascus is a slow and pleasant, indeed often imperceptible, descent through a country which, with ordinary government, would be wonderfully rich. We were travelling, in all probability, along the very same road— a mere track, which industry had never attempted to improve—over which Abraham and his tribe, with their mighty herds and flocks, had wandered towards Palestine four thousand years before, and along which Jacob, staff in hand, had plodded towards Haran (Gen 12:6, 29:1). Things must have been much the same around them as around us, except that the population and wealth of the district were probably far greater then than now, for Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world. To the south rise the volcanic hills of the Lejja, a strange region, where lava has crystallised in a great triangular plateau, wrinkled and cracked into innumerable fissures as it cooled. In the days of our Lord it was part of the Tetrarchy of Philip, son of Herod the Great. The length of this extraordinary region is about twenty-two miles, from north to south, and fourteen across; the whole space being simply a chaos of basaltic rocks and boulders, crossed by fissures and crevices in every direction. The bubbles on the surface of the once liquid fire-stream still show themselves by the hollows left when they burst, and the top is roughened into low waves, marking its slow heavings under the wind before it finally congealed.

Strange to say, this forbidding tract is thickly studded with the remains of deserted towns and villages, built solidly of blocks of lava, and dating from early Christian times. No proof could be more striking of the insecurity of life and property in the last centuries of Rome, since nothing but desire of safety can be conceived as the reason for such a place being peopled. At the time of the Hebrew invasion it was part of the territory of Og, and must have been almost impregnable. The fierce energy of the invaders, however, still in its early enthusiasm, carried all before it. But the district did not fall in the first campaign. The glory of its final conquest is ascribed to Jair, the head of a clan of the tribe Manasseh, who lived at a later time (Deut 3:13; Josh 13:30). It had been a haunt of robbers for ages before Christ, but its rough population was at last bridled by the energy and genius of Herod the Great.

Half-way to Damascus, on the left hand, at the foot of the mountains, some miles off, lay the great village of Katana, surrounded with orchards and gardens, full of all kinds of fruit-trees, especially walnuts. The minarets of the great city soon glittered before us in the distance, but they proved still a very long way off: the clear air deceiving us as to their proximity. Mezzeh, a village outside Damascus, is virtually the commencement of the city, and a pleasant place it is, with vineyards, groves of olives, and clumps of fruit-trees of many kinds. The fields were irrigated by a canal from the river Barada, to which Damascus and the neighbourhood owe their charms, and indeed their fitness for human habitation, for without this stream there could be only sterility. The sun shone from an unclouded heaven as we rode on, always at a walk, towards the city, over the same road, in all probability, as that along which the persecuting Saul was hurrying with his attendants when, on a day as bright as this, the Splendour of God, outshining even the noon, dazzled him to blindness, so that he fell to the ground, and heard the words "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" (Acts 9:4) Every feature of the surrounding landscape stood out in sharp distinctness—hills, bowers of green, towers, buildings, and houses, while on each side of the road, inside roughly-plastered walls which are no credit to the Damascus masons, great lines of fruit-trees stretched away in green perspective, with the slow waters of irrigating canals glittering underneath. In the west, behind us, rose the majestic Hermon, its blinding white crown reaching far up into the cloudless azure.


Chapter 48 | Contents | Chapter 50


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