by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books


Chapter 49 | Contents | Chapter 51

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


A Sight for Sore Eyes—A Mean CityIn the Bazaars—The HousesDamascus as a Centre of TradeThe Barada (Abana) and PharparThe Jewish and Christian Quarters—Mahommedan FanaticismThe Great MosqueScriptural References to the CityAn Earthly ParadiseThe Tomb of Saladin and of his Lieutenant

Damascus lies hidden till the last behind a very wood of fruit-trees, interspersed with gardens—walnuts, apricots, figs, olives, pomegranates, apples, pears, cherries, and peaches, mingling in rich confusion. The girdle of verdure round the city is about three miles in breadth, and deserves all the praise it has received as a magnificent display of the bounty of nature. Here, you come on an apparently endless grove of apricots. Yonder, on the banks of an irrigation canal, are long rows of poplars, which wave gently in the soft air. Further on is a thicket of every kind of fruit-tree, and, between, are patches of grain, tobacco, or vegetables. There is a small stream to cross almost every hundred yards. An alley of high walnut-trees, in blossom, lined the road for a great way, and, as might be expected in such a paradise of green, birds of all kinds are said to make music.

It is hard to realise the impression which such a glory of flower and shrub and tree must make on the weary caravan bands who arrive from Bagdad or Mecca, after their eyes have for weeks or months been tired with the monotonous tawny sand-waves of the desert or the scorched peaks of bare hills, as desolate as the sands around them, and when for weeks together they have been stinted for water in the burning heat. We must put ourselves in the place of those who have had such experiences to understand how naturally, and with what full sincerity, the apparently hyperbolical praises of Damascus have been given. To them it is, indeed, "the pearl of the East," "glorious as Eden," "fragrant as Paradise," "the plumage of the peacock," "the lustre on the neck of doves." Yet, compared with the environs of many European or American cities, those of Damascus would be thought hardly deserving such ecstatic praise. For, if nature be rich, art is wanting. There is no beauty except that which springs from the soil; no trim walls or fine houses; no general neatness. Nature has done much; man nothing. Disorder, semi-barbarism, and roughness mark universal neglect. Indeed, this is the characteristic of the whole city, for however splendid the interior of some houses may be, the outside is, apparently in every case, very humble, and generally in disrepair, probably from a desire to avert the cupidity of caimacans or pashas.

Troops of camels from Bagdad, with loads of tobacco and dates, lay outside the houses, which are finally approached by the road from Damascus to Beirout, made by a French company, and actually like a Western highway: a wonderful fact in Syria. Meadows sloped down, on the left, to the river, which flowed in a slow smooth stream, like a broad canal: flocks, horses, and cattle on this side; a promenade for the citizens on the other. Then came a hospice for pilgrims, built by Sultan Selim I. in 1516. After a time, when we had crossed the river by a bridge, the scene was varied by open-air cafes, which were no more than an array of low stools set out in the shade of trees. The omnipresent water-carrier passed with his huge jar, or leather bottle, and brass cup, inviting you to purchase; men at the roadside sat behind a round table-head laid over a basket, displaying stores of thin "scones," made tasty with butter and grape-syrup, and sprinkled with sesame-seed, inviting customers now and again with the cry, "God is the Nourisher; buy my bread!" Ladies, veiled or unveiled, with Western parasols, rode by on asses, a bell or thick tassel hanging at the animal's neck, and the donkey-boy, stick in hand, at its heels; gossips, among them here and there a Syrian soldier, sat in crowds, smoking water-pipes in the leafy shade; beggars squatted by the wayside, asking alms; passengers of both sexes, bent on many errands of business or pleasure, rode or walked, until finally we halted at the Victoria Hotel, close to the open space used as a horse-market: a two-storeyed house, with large, marble-paved rooms; the Barada flowing before the doors, between stone walls.

It is not too much to say that Damascus is the meanest-looking city I ever saw, as it shows itself from the streets. Day after day you hope to come on some thing respectable, but learn, to your surprise, that the humble, dilapidated streets, or dark, dirty bazaars, through which you have wandered, include the best parts of the place. Mud is the chief material of the houses, though stone could easily be obtained from the neighbouring mountains. Some houses, and the mosques, are, indeed, of stone; but the bulk of the city can boast no prouder material than the sun-dried brick—that is, mud—of which the old city walls are built. Hence, though it is asserted that there are 500 mansions that may be called palaces, one would never suspect it, in ridiug through the narrow streets, with scarcely any windows, and only low and mean-looking doors; the ground a bed of dust in dry weather and a quagmire after rain.

The shops are more holes at the sides of the streets, or bazaars, open in front, with their wares hung up, or spread out, before all passers-by. There is an old-clothes street which rivals Houndsditch. Saddle-bag shops, with the master and his helpers busy in what should be the window, sewing fresh stock, or mending what has been handed to them to repair; braziers, with a fine display of copper ewers, basins, trays, and bowls, sold by weight, the manufacture going on all the time, merrily, in the open arch or window, where the workmen sit beating and hammering, cross-legged, in turbans or tarbooshes; cooks, engaged in frying, seething, stewing, in the open air, or equally open cave, at a mud table, on the top of which are small holes for charcoal fires; butchers, with necks and legs of goat or mutton, the latter wonderfully small and uninviting—the heads of beasts being conspicuously absent, for no Oriental would eat them on any account; fruit-sellers, with a large but dusty show of the yield of Damascus orchards or vegetable gardens; huge stacks of crockery, neat, but brittle and unglazed; any quantity of bread, which you had better eat without seeing the process of baking; shoes for the pilgrims to Mecca; slippers for use at home or in the streets, and pattens to lift the fair sex above the mud or dust; piles of wheat in wayside granaries, open to the street; carpenters busy with hands and feet, for they steady their work with their toes, as they squat, while busy also with their hands; dyers, with little vats inside the open arch, hard at work at their craft, with hands subdued to the colour they work in; piles of earthenware jars,—succeed each other in turn. The bazaars are simply great stone-arched lanes, dark enough to make detection of faults in anything purchased lamentably difficult. All trades, moreover, work more or less in the streets, so that the sides of the roads are a varying picture of Eastern industry. Such, no doubt, was Jerusalem in Bible times, including those of our Lord. Many of the streets are roofed over, and they are often not more than eight feet broad; but everywhere is an indescribable air of decay and approaching ruin. In the side streets, the projecting storeys often nearly touch each other; the successive advances on both sides propped up below by rough, thin poles, bent and unsightly, no tool having ever touched them. Straight lines in the projecting walls are not to be found; everything looks as if it had been done by the tenants themselves, in sublime indifference to the perpendicular or the horizontal. Under-foot the condition of things had better not be described. To get into the house of the Presbyterian missionary I had to circumnavigate a sea of horrors which no one in a civilised country could realise.

Yet, inside, the houses approached by such unspeakable filth were at times very fine. One, built by a rich Jew, long dead, had a great room of marble inlaid with countless small mirrors and endless precious stones, the snowy white of the marble showing these off to great effect. The cost of such a chamber must have been immense. Another, which was entered by an old, mean door, full of nails, from a street redolent of something very different from the perfumes of Araby—with high walls on each side, the roughest of pavements, and the poorest of shops—was, itself, delightfully clean. A court paved with marble had in its centre an octagonal fountain, with tiles round it; a lemon-tree rich with fruit rose in one corner; a cypress in another; and a jessamine clung to the walls. In the hall stood a great carved chest, the wardrobe of the mistress of the family, which she had brought as a bride. At the side, a door, a step up, opened into the divan, or company room, with a stone floor raised another step, and covered with fine mats; a sofa-like seat built along both sides, close to the wall, and adorned with cushions of shawl-patterned, stuff, while the back of the room rose still higher, and had similar accommodations.

A huge pile of stones, inside a high wall, but rising above it, lay on my way; it was a cairn raised over the supposed grave of Cain; every one casting a stone on the heap, in execration of the first murderer. There are no stately gates at Damascus, as in Cairo or Jerusalem, and even the mud walls of the city exist only in detached portions. Houses are still built on these, with windows projecting, so as to make it easy for anyone, even now, to escape, as St. Paul did, by being let down in a basket (Acts 9:25), or as the spies were let down from the walls of Jericho (Josh 2:15). One window is, indeed, pointed out as that from which St. Paul descended, but the tradition is worthless.

Damascus has been from the earliest ages a chief centre of trade between East and West, and it still connects Bagdad with Constantinople and Cairo by its numerous caravans. But the discovery of the sea-route to India, by the Cape of Good Hope, gave a serious blow, not only to the commerce of the Italian cities, Venice and Genoa, but also to that of Damascus, which had absorbed most of the trade with farther Asia till this new path to the East was opened. But if the caravans have grown fewer, there has of late years been a proportionately great advance in traffic with the West, by means of the French road opened from Damascus to Beirout. Native industry, once famous for its silks and arms, is now almost driven from the market by European competition. The wares of Manchester, Sheffield, and Birmingham, crowd the bazaars; those of Germany and France, also, are well represented. But the decay of the silk and arms manufactures must not be imputed wholly to Western rivalry. When the Tartar prince, Timur, took Damascus, in A.D. 1400, he carried away many thousand silk-weavers and arm-smiths to Samarcand, his capital, just as Nebuchadnezzar did with the best mechanics of all kinds in Jerusalem, in his first deportation of its inhabitants (2 Kings 24:14).

Like Christians, and probably from having adopted New Testament conceptions, the Moslem pictures heaven as having a great central metropolis, through which flows a river of crystal water, overshadowed by all kinds of trees, and giving off its irrigating streams all around. Standing on the edge of the waterless desert, Damascus has in all ages seemed to the Arabs, and Orientals generally, to realise this vision; nor, as I have said, can we readily conceive the vivid impression it creates in races who, outside its oasis, know only of sandy wastes where life is endurance rather than enjoyment. The source of this contrast is the river Barada—the Abana of the story of Naaman (2 Kings 5:12)—which rises in the uppermost heights of the Lebanon chain, and flows over the rocky plateau between the giant mass of Hermon and the main body of the mountains, to the north. Streams from both sides fall into it on its way, as it glides on towards the east, where the land is low and open, receiving still more tributaries on its course, and itself dividing into numerous natural and artificial arms. These, however, for the most part, afterwards reunite, and the whole stream finally loses itself in a marshy tract, interspersed with lakes, on the western edge of the great desert. Some miles farther south, a smaller river, rising in Lebanon, flows to the east, gathering on its way numerous streams from both sides, and finally vanishes in another swampy lake, south of that in which the Abana, or Amana, is lost. This is the Pharpar, Naaman's second river (2 Kings 5:12). The wide plain watered by this network of rivulets and by these two main arteries, is the "Damascus Country"; and, as may readily be imagined, this fulness of water-supply turns into "a garden of God" what would, otherwise, be only a part of the great Syrian desert. Rich in any country, such a region is beyond the praise of words in the thirsty East, and hence, in all ages, Damascus—built on one of the main streams of the Abana—has withstood all vicissitudes, and it is still the busy hive of perhaps 150,000 inhabitants, although in past ages it has been repeatedly destroyed. The Damascenes are proud in the extreme of their rivers and of a remotely ancient system of irrigation connected with them, which provides every house with running water, and, according to local tradition, existed before the city itself was built. It is easy, therefore, to understand the haughty outburst of Naaman, "Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?"

* The Abana is further noticed in Canticles, where we read of the "top of Amana"—that is, the mountain in Anti-Lebanon from which the river springs.

There are various " quarters" in the city, as in other Oriental towns. That of the Jews still lies, as in the days of the apostles, near "the street which is called Straight" (Acts 9:11), originally a noble avenue, with a broad road in the middle, and a line of portico, like that of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, at each side. Now, however, only the portico on one side is open; the remainder being covered with houses or otherwise enclosed, although the great triple gate at one end of the street shows the original design. Some of the houses in the Jews' quarter, though mean enough externally, are wonderfully fine within. One of them showed what the mansion of a rich Oriental is like, better even than the rich houses I had already seen. At the outer entrance a doorkeeper had his quarters, opening the wooden gate only after repeated knockings, like the porter who watches the gate in the parable of our Lord (Mark 13:34). The court, when entrance was finally gained, proved to be paved with polished slabs of basalt, marble, and other costly stones. A fountain, and a flowing stream, with shrubs and trees, cooled the air. Round the open space rose the walls of the mansion, beautifully adorned with sculpture, but, fine as they were, they were altogether transcended by the interior. Mirrors, marble pillars, arabesques, and mother-of-pearl attracted in turn; the ceiling, of fine wood, as high as that of many a village church, was richly gilded. Like the poor mud huts outside the city, the show chamber was divided into a higher and a lower portion. A stream of crystal water murmurs through the under half in many houses, though it was absent in this one. Two or three marble steps led up to the chief seats. Costly carpets were spread over the floor, and a divan, covered with silken cushions, ran along three sides of the wall. The "chief room" in such mansions often consists of three halls; that is, of a covered room at each side, and a wide open space between, forming, together, one side of the hollow square of the entire house. On the flat roof, which is protected by a strong breastwork, it is very common to sleep in the heat of summer, steps leading up to this retreat from the outer court, and often, also, from within the mansion.

The contrast between the palaces of the Jewish merchants and the buildings of the Christian quarter is great. Looking; over the latter from an elevated position, one sees from the ruins of churches, monasteries, streets, and rows of mansions, which nearly fifty years ago lay in hideous confusion, that it has by no means even yet regained the prosperity thatt formerly marked it. On the 9th of July, 1860, the Mahommedan rabble, stirred up by the chiefs of their faith, broke loose on the Christian population and massacred more than 8,000 of them. Twelve churches, various monasteries, and nearly 4,000 houses, were destroyed in the outbreak; the pillars of the great Greek church being actually broken into small pieces by the wild fury of the mob. Outside the city, a low, whitewashed, square building at the roadside, with no windows, but only a door and one or two small square holes in the walls, contains all that is left of the victims. Bits of biers, clothing, and the wreck of human bodies, are still to be seen when one looks in, and, even yet, the stench of corruption is overpowering. I never saw anything so horrible as that charnel-house. Fanaticism has not actually broken out since, but the spirit of the people is shown only too plainly by their firing at the walls of Christian tombs, whenever they get a chance.

There are very few fine buildings in Damascus; the great mosque, indeed, is the only one worth seeing. Originally a Christian church, as early as A.D. 400, the ground was seized by the Moslems soon after their conquest of Syria, and the church having been in great measure pulled down, the mosque, which is reckoned one of the wonders of the Mahommedan world, was raised in its place, only small parts of the original building being left. One of these, the top of the great gate, is still to be seen, by clambering to the top of one of the booths in the bazaar of the booksellers; the rich carving showing how magnificent the whole structure must have been. Over the gate—that is, over what is seen of it—there runs, in Greek, on a level with the flat roofs of the bazaar shops, the touching legend so bitterly falsified in this particular instance: "His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion endureth from generation to generation.'' But we may safely take it as a prophecy, in this case, of the future resurrection of Christianity from the grave in which it has so long lain buried in Damascus, for the words must some day come true!

One of the present gates of the mosque is so heavy that it takes five men to open or shut it, and everything else is on the same scale. Wonderful mosaics look down from the walls; wood-carving of the finest abounds, and the great pillars look grand, in spite of their drapery of whitewash. The plan of the mosque is that of a basilica, or ancient Christian church: a nave with two aisles, formed by two rows of pillars, and a transept with four massive pillars of coloured marble. The dome towers high aloft, but, like everything around, it is in a state of decay. On the south side is a row of arched windows, filled with beautiful stained glass, and beneath these are prayer-niches, turned in the direction of Mecca. But the great gate still shows the Christian origin of the whole vast fabric, for on it you may see a chalice and paten, in bronze. In its glory, the mosque must have been very fine. The Khalif el Welid, by whom it was built, adorned its interior with a lavish hand, studding it with columns of granite, syenite, marble, and porphyry, brought to Damascus at a huge cost. Much, however, of the early splendour is gone. The original gigantic cupola was burnt; the present one being an inferior restoration. The first pavement was of mosaic, the work of a Byzantine artist. Seventy-four stained glass windows threw a rich dim light over the aisles and nave. Great hospices were built round the walls, for the entertainment of the countless pilgrims who flocked to the spot, and the ritual of worship increased in splendour with the fame of the sanctuary. The mosque soon became a place where prayer never ceased. The reading of the Koran, and supplication, says an Arabic chronicler of the fourteenth century, were never intermitted, either by day or by night; 600 orthodox Moslems being paid for constant attendance, that an audience should never be wanting. A single prayer in this mosque was affirmed to be worth more than thirty thousand elsewhere; the place being so holy that Allah would preserve it forty years after the rest of the world was destroyed, that men might still pray to him in it.

Damascus is first mentioned in the Bible as the place where Abraham bought the slave whom he made his steward (Gen 15:2). We next hear of the city when the "Syrians of Damascus came to succour Hadadezer, king of Zobah," in the reign of David, who soon after defeated their army and made himself master of their territory (2 Sam 8:5,6; 1 Chron 18:5,6), putting "garrisons in Syria of Damascus," and receiving tribute from it. But this state of things did not last long, for a revolt under one Rezin seems to have re-established the independence of Syria, in the days of Solomon (1 Kings 11:23-25). The feud thus early begun between Damascus and Israel continued till the Syrian capital was finally taken by Assyria; the history both of the Ten Tribes and of Judah being greatly occupied with the invasions of their territory by the relentless Syrian foe. One inroad took place under Baasha, the northern kingdom being then assailed; while under Omri it was so weakened that the Damascenes obtained the right of opening a trade quarter in Samaria (1 Kings 15:19,20, 20:34). Benhadad II., pushing matters still further, actually besieged Samaria under Ahab, but was in the end forced to become for a time that king's dependent (1 Kinsg 20:13-34). Three years later, however, Ahab met his death while besieging Ramoth Gilead, which had not been yielded to him, as it ought to have been under the treaty (1 Kings 22:1-4, 15-37). Under Hazael, Syria once more "oppressed Israel greatly," the king extending his inroads over Judah also (2 Kings 8:28,29, 10:32,33, 12:17,18; Amos 6:1,2). For a time, after this, victory followed the Hebrews, but in the end, Pul, of Assyria, took Damascus and closed the struggle.

Around Damascus, in spite of the neglect from which they suffer, the gardens are a wonderful attraction, with their many spots of romantic beauty, where nature has its own way and water is abundant. You come in one place upon a broad stream, embowered in green, with a verdant island rising in the midst of the waters, and crowned by a mill. Farther on, part of the stream rushes along in a deeper bed ; elsewhere, another arm of the river flows gently beneath bending trees. Over the banks there is, it may be, a balcony projecting from some suburban house or mansion, a lounging-place where coffee and nargilehs beguile the afternoon. The charm of such a retreat in the dry, fiery summer may be imagined. The Moslem thinks he realises, in these many-coloured groves and shining waters, the ideal of paradise in the Koran, as a place of shady trees overhanging crystal streams; and, very possibly, the imagery of Mahomet was drawn from the sights that met him round Damascus, for they are nowhere else to be seen. But the paradise is only an earthly one, for in the summer time, when its coolness and beauty are of greatest value, the moist air is filled with countless stinging insects. Fevers, also, and other maladies, are more plentiful than elsewhere. Hence Europeans, as far as possible, leave the city in the hot months, and seek a home in the mountains, as is also done at Beirout. Yet there are few places in the world so famous for fruit as this region. Here nourish apricots, cherries, almonds, plums, apples, pears, walnuts, pomegranates, mulberries, pistachio-nuts, olives, citrons, and magnificent grapes, of which latter is made a wine much prized throughout Syria. Eight larger arms of the Abana flow through the plain west of the city, and there are, besides, many noble springs which burst from the ground at different parts.

Before leaving Damascus I paid a visit to the tomb of Saladin, which I was able to see through the influence of some friends. It stands in a paved court near the great mosque, in a detached building, neglected and in very bad repair. Inside a moderately-sized chamber stood a raised tomb, very simple, built of inlaid slabs of marble; the whole about five feet high, with raised stones at each end, a huge green turban crowning that at the head. The old turban, they said, was underneath, but fresh swathings being added as each earlier one decays, the whole has now come to a vast circumference. At the side of Saladin's modest resting-place was that of his most famous general, but this tomb was still in the humble original wood, now nearly 900 years old.* On this also, at the head, rested a huge green turban. Such was all that remained of the glory of the favourite lieutenant of the great Sultan of Egypt and of Syria, and of that Sultan himself, the destroyer of the Christian empire of Palestine, but the most chivalrous of foes.

* Saladin was born about 1137, and died in 1193, being only fifty-six.


Chapter 49 | Contents | Chapter 51


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