Arrival in Yâfa

From Domestic Life In Palestine
By Mary Eliza Rogers

The good-byes and farewell greetings on board the Rhine, at London Bridge, on the night of the 14th of June, 1855, need not be recorded here. At midnight the tide was favorable, the bell rang, the steam was up, lingering friends hurried away, and I found myself alone with my brother. He had been enjoying a few months in England, after having spent more than six years in consular service in Syria, and I had gladly consented to accompany him, on his return to his official duties. We landed at Boulogne the next day, and arrived at Marseilles, in time to embark by the Egyptus, on the morning of the 21st of June. We passed through the Straits of Bonifacio on the 22d, at midday; and on Sunday, the 24th, spent a few hours ashore at Malta.

On Thursday morning we landed at Alexandria, and after seeing Said Pasha's palace, Cleopatra's needle, and Pompey's pillar, went on board the Tage, on the evening of Friday, the 29th. It was crowded with passengers, Greeks, Syrians, Turks, and Jews, who were leaving Alexandria on account of the outbreak of cholera there. The sunset-gun flashed from the fort as the steamer glided out of the harbor.

We remained on deck till a late hour, listening to the animated songs of the Greek sailors, who were celebrating the festival of their patron saint, Paul. The deck passengers were trying to make themselves comfortable for the night, and soon men, women, and children, Moslems, Christians, and Jews, wrapped up closely in carpets, cloaks, and wadded quilts, looked like gigantic chrysalises crowded together in the moonlight.

We were in the cozy little deck saloon soon after dawn on the following day; and, when the sailors came to wash the decks, I was sorry to see the motley crowd of sleepers disturbed, and pushed hither and thither, as they tried to save themselves and their baggage from saturation.

We watched the sun rise out of the sea, which was suddenly changed from gray to gold, while the lead-colored sky was crimsoned — but the land I was longing to see was not in sight.

The next morning, July 1st, I was roused by the joyful news that we were approaching the shore, and was soon on deck, looking with strange delight and emotion over the blue sea to the coast of Palestine, stretching far away north and south in low, undulating lines. The picturesque walled town of Yâfa — the ancient Joppa — was immediately before me, with its white stone-houses built down to the water's edge, and rising one above another on a rounded hill sloping to the sea.

Distant view of Jaffa from the Mediterranean
From the Matson Collection

The picturesque walled town of Yâfa — the ancient Joppa — was immediately before me, with its white stone-houses built down to the water's edge

My brother said, "Look far into the east, a little toward the south, where the sun has just risen. Those distant hills which are now almost lost in bright mist are the hills of Judea, 'the hills round about Jerusalem,' and from their summits you will have the first view of the Holy City. They are separated from these low coast hills by the broad, fertile plains of Sharon and Philistia." He reminded me how the pines and cedars of Lebanon were brought "in floats by sea to Joppa" and thence carried up to Jerusalem, for the building of the Temple.

This ancient port, with its bustling quay, its large convents, tall minarets, palm-trees, and extensive gardens, is the only cheerful and animated spot on the somewhat monotonous coast, which runs in an almost unbroken line from the bold headland of Mount Carmel, about fifty miles north, to the ruins of Gaza, forty miles south.

We were soon at anchor just outside a semicircular belt of rocks, some of which rose dark and high out of the water, while others had sunk beneath its surface, and were only indicated by the dashing of the surf over them. This rocky belt stands like a barrier in front of the town, and forms a natural harbor of about fifty feet in width, but it is only entered by small boats, and affords no protection in bad weather. Tradition connects the names of Perseus and Andromeda with these rugged rocks. Two Austrian war steamers were at anchor near to us. They were waiting the pleasure of the Archduke Maximilian and his suite, who were then in Jerusalem. A few merchant vessels, Greek and French, were also to be seen, and little Arab boats were plying to and fro.

A quarantine boat, containing an officer and garde de santé was towed along side, and baskets of oranges, apricots, and lemons, were taken on board. A beautiful branch of an orange-tree, covered with glossy leaves, and laden with ripe fruit, was handed to me. It was a difficult matter to get into the little quarantine boat destined to convey us to the shore, for the breeze was fresh, and a heavy swell disturbed the sea. The Arab sailors in the towing boat would not touch the boat they were employed to tow, even to render necessary assistance, lest they should be compromised, and imprisoned in the quarantine station. After many vain attempts, we, with two Franciscan monks, and our baggage, were lowered clumsily into the clumsy boat, and narrowly escaped a fall into the sea ; and when free from the Tage, we were dragged along boisterously. The little towing boat was quite hidden from us now and then, as it bounded over a wave, leaving us on the other side of it. As we approached the belt of rocks, I felt that it was impossible to escape being dashed to pieces, and while steering through the narrow pass I was silent with fear; but the seeming danger was soon over. Within the belt, the water was smooth as a lake, and once more I looked with delight on the scenes around me. There are two openings in the line of rocks ; one toward the north, and one due west. We had entered at the latter; I felt the boat grating on the rocks beneath us.

The landing place at Jaffa
From the Matson Collection

Within the belt, the water was smooth as a lake, and once more I looked with delight on the scenes around me

It was now half-past eight, and the quays were already crowded with people, mostly in the brilliant native costumes, but there were a few Franks in the usual Levantine dress, which is white from head to foot. Flags were waving from the consulates and from the convents, as well as from the ships, for it was Sunday, and the place had quite a holiday appearance.

We passed in front of the town, toward the quarantine station, which is an isolated building, a little distance beyond the walls on the southern side.

Friendly voices from the shore welcomed my brother, in Arabic, Italian, French, and English. When we arrived opposite to our destination, the boat was dragged toward the sands, and the garde de sante, who wore only a coarse shirt and a girdle, jumped knee-deep into the water, caught me in his strong arms, and ran splashing through the sandy sea. When we came to land he still ran on, and would not release me till he placed me in charge of another garde, at the foot of the rude steps, leading up the sandy cliff, to the quarantine station. Then he hastened back to the boat for my fellow-travelers, carrying them one after the other to terra firma.

I had wondered how I should feel on first landing in Palestine, but this proceeding quite took the romance out of the event. I almost forgot I was in the Holy Land, while fully realizing the fact of being a prisoner. As soon as my brother and the monks joined me, we were led up the steps, to a door, which admitted us to a square inclosure, formed of low, flat-roofed buildings of stone, in a dilapidated state. In the center of the square, a wooden shed covers a deep well, and tall, large-leaved, thriving mulberry-trees throw a thick and welcome shade round it. The station was unusually full, owing to the outbreak of cholera in Egypt.

Our fellow-travelers, the Franciscans, were quartered on some ecclesiastical pilgrims, and lodged eight in one room.

The only chamber which was unoccupied opened into a little court-yard in the left-hand corner of the square, and that was allotted to us. It was by no means a pleasant lodging, but we determined to make the best of it. It was about twelve feet square. The floor was of stone. The walls were whitewashed; and the door, which was formed of rough planks, had no fastening inside. A casemented window, with half the glass out, looked toward the north, and showed us the blue sea, the rocky shore, and the southern wall of Yâfa with its curious profile of flat-roofed houses, rising step by step one above the other, with here and there a minaret or a palm-tree. Groups of children were playing under the trees near to us. The prospect without somewhat compensated for the desolate picture within.

There was nothing in the room but our luggage, our garde de santé, with his long stick, thousands of flies, an ant's nest, and ourselves.

I sat in the narrow window-seat, while my brother threw himself on the portmanteaus and boxes. For some minutes we could only laugh at each other, and at the ridiculous position in which we were placed. However, if we had not been in excellent health and good spirits, it would have been a serious matter.

Fortunately my brother was no stranger there, so help was at hand. Mr. Kayat, the English Consul — a native of Syria — sent his dragoman, who soon provided us with matting, mattresses, and wadded quilts, of which we made a sort of impromptu divan.

Soon afterward our kind friend, Mr. Graham, of Jerusalem, came to see us. He stood outside the window in the presence of the garde, who watched us continually. If our visitor had touched our hands, he would have been obliged to share our quarantine lodging. Mr. Grraham lent us some of his tent furniture, cooking utensils, etc., and made our abode more comfortable.

When we sent to the market for provisions, we had to put the money in a cup of water to prevent infection, but we certainly looked more wholesome than any of the dirty little half-naked messengers who executed our commissions, and by whose aid we obtained fowls, goat's milk, coffee, rice, fruit, and vegetables, at a very reasonable rate.

There were two rooms in addition to ours opening into the court-yard. One was occupied by a party of Moslem travelers, and the other by the Franciscan pilgrims. The court-yard was in shade and cooler than the rooms, so with one accord we all took breakfast there.

The Moslems, after pouring water over their hands and feet, spread their carpets, prayed, and then sat round a dish of rice, butter, and tomatoes, putting their hands together into the dish. They ate rapidly and in silence, then washed their hands, and smoked chibouques and narghilés. The monks, who spoke French, Italian, and Spanish, invited us to share some of their conserves and sirups.

When the heat of the day had passed, we were allowed to take a walk, accompanied by a garde, to prevent our contact with human beings.

A beachfront view of Jaffa
From the Matson Collection

The sun was going down, tinging the sea and the sky, and the white walls of Yâfa, with a red glow

We gladly descended the steps of our prison, and reached the broad sands. The sun was going down, tinging the sea and the sky, and the white walls of Yâfa, with a red glow. We walked along the shore toward the south, with drifted sand-hills, more or less covered with vegetation on our left, and the waves of the sea approaching us on our right. We saw the skeleton of a camel half-sunk in the sand, and found many shells, and dorsal bones of cuttle-fish. About a mile from the quarantine station the beach was entirely composed of shells, most of them broken. The rocks, which form natural jetties, or rise up out of the beach, seem to be a sort of conglomerate of sand and shells, in every stage of hardness. These rocks were in appearance all alike, yet some masses were as firm and hard as marble; while other parts crumbled easily, and the imbedded shells separated from the sand with very little difficulty. When the sun had quite disappeared, the garde turned homeward, and we obediently followed. The town was already illuminated, and lights were reflected on the quiet water from the ships at anchor. The stars shone brightly, for night succeeds day very rapidly in this latitude, and there is scarcely any evening twilight.

The boy who acted as our cook and waiter had prepared our evening meal. It was spread on the ground under the mulberry-trees. A lantern stood on a large block of stone close by, and threw a flickering light upon the various dishes. The salt, which was very coarse and pungent, was served in a smooth hollow shell, to which the boy called our attention, that we might applaud the contrivance. We seated ourselves on a mat of reeds. Bed ants, three-quarters of an inch long, were swarming around, and cats came running out of the darkness, eager to share our meal.

Many pilgrims and Bedouins were sleeping on the ground, in the open air, and mattresses were spread on the flat roofs or terraces of the buildings around.

No female servants are employed in the establishment, and there were no women among our fellow-prisoners. While my brother strolled in the starlight, smoking, I prepared our room as comfortably as possible under the circumstances. Even from our discomforts we extracted amusement, and at the same time learned some useful lessons in the distinction of the real and fancied necessaries of civilized life.

The next day the quarantine doctor, a Frenchman, sent word that he would visit us, to ascertain the state of our healths.

Presently he appeared in the little court-yard, with three official attendants. They stood opposite our doorway, carefully avoiding contact with ourselves and the other inmates of the quarantine. He greeted us with a profusion of compliments on our healthful appearance, and congratulated us on having obtained the best room in the station, and especially on having it entirely to ourselves! He left us with stately bows, and, kissing his hand, said, "I shall have the pleasure to give you pratique tomorrow."

On July 3d, at half-past seven, we were set at liberty. We gladly mounted the steps at the back of the quarantine station, traversed the extensive burial-ground, and passed the Government storehouse, a large building outside the town, where a crowd of camels were waiting to be relieved of their burdens, and women, vailed and shrouded in white drapery, were standing in groups, with baskets of mulberries and grapes balanced on their heads. On our left hand were the moated and battlemented walls of Yâfa, and on the other, gardens of orange and lemon trees, palms and pomegranates, which threw a checkered shade upon the sandy ground. We soon came to the broad road, just outside the town-gate, where camels and peasants, mules and muleteers, were congregated, and a bustling market of fruit and vegetables was being held. Booths and tents, sheltering turbaned and tarbouched smokers, were pitched under tall trees; and the itinerant vendors of coffee, sherbet, and glowing charcoal — ready to light the hundreds of pipes and narghilés around — seemed to be in great request.

In passing under the archway into the town, we had to walk carefully, to avoid getting entangled in the camelropes. I was glad to find shelter from the burning sun in the bazars, which are long arcades, shaded overhead with cloth or matting, with little open shops on each side. In many of them were shoemakers, cutting out yellow morocco slippers, or heavy red leather boots — tailors, marking out graceful patterns for gold embroidery — pipe-makers, modeling red clay bowls for chibouques — all seated on their heels, on little platforms, about two feet from the ground. In another part of the bazar, the silks of Aleppo and Damascus, the cottons of Manchester, and vails of Constantinople and Switzerland, were exposed for sale, the shopkeepers, gravely smoking, reclined at their ease among the gay wares. The barbers' shops and the coffee-houses were much larger and more frequented than any of the others. I met no women in the bazars, men and boys do all the marketing in the towns of the Holy Land.

We descended a narrow, ruinous street of stairs, to the English Consulate, which was at that time close to the seaside. We were kindly welcomed, and led across a court to a square and vaulted stone chamber, with a deep raised recess in a rudely-built casemented balcony, looking on to the sea. A cozily-cushioned divan and a Turkey carpet made this a most pleasant retreat; and there, freed from the restraints of quarantine, I soon felt quite at home with Mrs. Kayat, a native of Syria, who, with Eastern hospitality, said, "This house is yours; order all things as you will."

Her young sister, Furrah, spoke English pretty well — thanks to the American mission-school of Beirut. She wore a white muslin dress, open to the waist, and exposing a thin net shirt, which did not conceal her neck and bosom, and through the semi-transparent skirt her full Turkish trowsers of blue silk could be seen. Their mother was dressed in a black velvet jacket, seamed with silver, and a soft, white silk skirt.

A number of gentlemen were in the body of the room, a step below us. They, as well as the ladies, were smoking narghilés. Strong coffee, without milk, and in tiny cups without handles, held in silver filigree stands exactly of the size and shape of common egg-cups, were handed round. After taking a cup, it is customary to incline the head slightly, raising the hand to the forehead, and thus to salute the host or hostess, who, in return, does the same to the guests.

An Arab breakfast was prepared, and a large party assembled to partake of it, including three beautiful little girls, the Consul's children, in a pretty costume, half European and half Oriental. A large dish of rice, boiled in butter, with pieces of fried meat imbedded in it, formed the staple dish. Vegetable marrows, filled with mince-meat and spices in place of the seeds which had been scooped out; some excellent fish, minced meat and rice rolled up in vine leaves, and dressed like small sausages; a happy melange of meat, tomatoes, pine seeds, butter, and eggs; followed by roast fowl and a good salad ; and a dessert, composed of all the fruits that the garden of Yâfa could furnish, gave me a very favorable impression of the Summer resources of a town on the coast of Palestine.

At about midday, after this meal, nearly every one of the family sought rest, lounging on the divans or musketo-curtained beds, to smoke or to sleep.

When the sultry hour of noon had passed, Mrs. Kayat invited me to go with her to see her cousin. Sit Leah, and her newly-born infant son. The ladies were soon ready for the walk, for the universal outdoor dress is very simple. A soft muslin vail, about a yard square, of showy pattern and many colors, is thrown over the head and face. A scarf or shawl girdle is fastened round the waist, and then a fine calico sheet, about two yards or more square, is put on like a cloak, but drawn up high over the head, and folded neatly on the forehead, brought under the chin, crossed over the breast, and, overlapping down the front, hides the dress entirely. It is tucked into the girdle in front, so as to lift it about three inches from the ground — at the back it is allowed to fall quite smoothly in a straight line to the heels. The hands are kept inside and hold the sheet, so that only the colored mask of muslin over the face is visible. No individual could be recognized in this disguise, except by some peculiarity in the manner of walking or singularity of figure. Yellow or red shoes, turned up at the toes, complete the costume.

My readers may easily imitate this costume with a sheet and a colored silk handkerchief for a vail, and thus form a good idea of the general outdoor appearance of the women in the chief towns of Palestine. It must be remembered, however, that not a vestige of crinoline is to be seen, and full, soft trowsers, with sometimes a skirt over them, a jacket, and a shirt, is all that is worn under the izzar or sheet. The three shrouded ladies led me out, and a kawass, not unnecessarily, went before to clear the way; for in the narrow streets of stairs, with their tortuous turnings and broken steps, it is well to have notice of the coming of a frisky horse, a heavily-laden mule, or a ponderous camel.

At the arched entrances of some of the large houses I noticed fragments of granite columns, marble bases, carved capitals and cornices, which had probably been transported from the ruins of Ascalon. They are used as stepping- stones for mounting and dismounting.

We entered a low doorway, and found ourselves in a court-yard, where a group of negresses were busy washing. They took me by surprise by seizing my hands, kissing them, and pressing them to their ebony foreheads. I soon learned to be on my guard, and to draw my hand away firmly but courteously, in time to elude the embrace; for I observed that this is the way the act of submission is expected to be received. The refusal to accept the kiss shows that you do not wish the individual who proffers it to humble himself before you.

However, under certain circumstances, the case is different; for instance, if a person asks forgiveness of you, or protection, or any favor, your refusal to allow him to kiss your hand or your feet is a sign that his request is not granted.

Priests always exact this homage, and it is very readily paid to them; but laymen, who invariably allow it, generally gain the sobriquet of ''Khouri" — priest.

We ascended a stone staircase to a terrace leading to two rooms. We entered the first, a pretty little square whitewashed room, draped with pink and white muslin. In one corner was a bed, made on the floor, and a narrow mattress, about a yard wide, ran round the other sides of the room. Cushions covered with damask were leaning against the walls, and thus a comfortable lounge was formed. A Turkey carpet concealed the stone floor. Several ladies were seated à la Turque, on the divan, smoking narghilés, the long flexible tubes of which radiated from the group of large red Bohemian glass bottles, which stood bubbling and sparkling in the center of the room. On the low bed a young mother was reclining. Her dark wavy hair, unbraided, escaped over the embroidered pillow. Her red tarbouche was decorated with folds of blue crape and everlasting flowers, her pale hands rested on the crimson silk wadded quilt, and her striped Aleppo yellow and white silk dress contrasted well with the dark brilliancy of her fever-bright face and eyes. I took her hand in mine, and she said, "Welcome, my sister ; my lips must be silent, but my heart is speaking to your heart." She lifted up a tiny blue velvet lehaff — quilt — embroidered with silver thread, and revealed a baby boy of a few days old. I took him in my arms. The ladies with one accord said, " May you soon have the joy of holding in your arms new offspring of your father's house! May your brother soon be married, and be blessed with many sons !"

The infant I held in my arras was so bound in swaddling- clothes that it was perfectly firm and solid, and looked like a mummy. It had a band under its chin and across its forehead, and a little quilted silk cap on its head, with tiny coins of gold sewed to it. The outer covering of this little figure was of crimson and white striped silk ; no sign of arms or legs, hands or feet, could be seen.

Leah's sister-in-law, whose head was much decorated with jewelry and artificial flowers, took the child from me and placed it in a swing cradle, draped with pink and white muslin, and everlasting flowers. She covered the little creature with such heavy quilts, that it seemed in danger of suffocation, then she closed the curtains round it, till there was no aperture left at which a musketo could enter.

After sherbet and coffee had been handed round by a black servant, I was led to the next room, where I found my brother with Habîb Nasîr, the husband of Leah, the proud father of a first-born son. I congratulated him, and his reply was a wish that I might soon have to congratulate my brother on a similar occasion. This is the customary answer.

In each of the rooms there were modern Greek pictures of sacred subjects, rude imitations of ancient Byzantine art, proclaiming that Habîb was a member of the Greek Church.

I returned to the consulate to prepare for our journey toward Jerusalem, Mr. Graham and Mr. H., a wanderer from the Crimea — then the seat of war — who had just arrived by Austrian steamer, having arranged to travel with us. When our luggage was in the care of the muleteers, and our horses were ready, we took a slight collation of goat's-milk cheese, fruit, sweetened starch, and native wines, in Mrs. Kayat's room, seated on the cushioned floor, round a low table inlaid with mother of pearl.

After taking leave of our kind host and his family, we mounted at their door, their blessings and good wishes ringing in our ears, "Go in peace, and return to us in safety ; return speedily ; peace be with you." The children and servants echoed the words till we were out of sight.