Visit To Bethlehem

From Domestic Life In Palestine
By Mary Eliza Rogers

In the mean time all my leisure hours were spent in studying Arabic. The little ones at the Talibîyeh were never tired of adding to my vocabulary, which I practically applied whenever an opportunity arose, such as during the visits of Arab guests or work-people, and in my daily intercourse with the native attendants, whose voices rapidly grew familiar to me. Some of the elder women-servants were very demonstrative and affectionate, and often when I uttered a request, or gave directions in some newly-acquired words, they would reward me, (?) or testify their delight by clasping me in their arms and kissing me. I had been accustomed to hear Arabic spoken for a year or more, so the sounds were not strange to me.

On the 17th of July, after a quiet day of study, I started with my brother for Beit Lahm — that is, Bethlehem — the sun was going down, and purple shadows were swiftly rising in the eastern sky. We made our way over a rocky, pathless slope, and a few fields of sesame, till we reached the broad level road which traverses the fertile plain of Rephaim, where the Philistines were routed by David. This road is about a mile in length, and is the only place remaining in the neighborhood of Jerusalem fit for a carriage drive, though in many spots traces may be seen of ancient roads, telling of the time when "King Solomon had four thousand stalls for horsemen and chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen, which he bestowed in the chariot cities and at Jerusalem."

The Mar Elias convent
From the Matson Collection

... we rose on to the rounded and terraced hill on which stands the Convent of Mar Elias, or Elijah, a massive building of gray masonry, in the midst of olive groves and flourishing plantations

We passed over the plain quickly, the kawass galloping before us, and soon came to a spot where no carriage could have served us. Our horses stumbled over smooth slabs of rock and loose stones as we rose on to the rounded and terraced hill on which stands the Convent of Mar Elias, or Elijah, a massive building of gray masonry, in the midst of olive groves and flourishing plantations. A moon of three days old and her attendant star shone in the clear blue sky, just above the silvered tree-tops. We paused on the hill to rest our panting horses, and to look around us. Southward we could see the picturesque town of Bethlehem, white and gleaming. Between the hills to the east we caught glimpses of the Dead Sea, and the Moab mountains beyond. Turning to the north we saw, brightened by the moonlight, the southern wall of Jerusalem, and the buildings on the brow of Mount Zion; and on the west an olive grove bounded the view. The kawass brought me some water, in a curious little two-handled cup of red pottery, from the stone reservoir provided for travelers by the good monks of Mar Elias.

We then descended abruptly into a valley by a declivity which would have terrified me a week or two before; but I had become accustomed to rough riding on the rude hills round about Jerusalem. We reascended, and swept round hill-sides covered with well-kept terraces of fig and olive trees. The rude parapets supporting the rich earth were garnished with hanging creepers and luxuriant foliage, which threw dark but delicate shadows on the white limestone. Here and there we saw rows of quaint-looking ravens, perched on the rock ledges tier above tier; some of them silent and motionless, others nodding their heads together as if in consultation. A pleasant bridle-path, half-way up the western boundary of a broad valley, led us toward the white walls and flat-roofed houses of Bethlehem. We passed under a pointed archway, and between low, scattered buildings, till we entered a high-walled, gloomy street. Looking down on our left, we caught glimpses through the open doors of family groups, in lamp-lit rooms, built a few steps below the level of the road. Cheerful-looking women and children and stern- browed men strained their eyes, looking out of the light into the darkness, to try to see us as we passed — the clattering of our horses' feet over the stones having broken the stillness of the place. We came again to an open terrace, and could see the hill-side above and below dotted with houses, on the flat roofs of which many families were already sleeping. From the unglazed windows flickering lights were shining. Clusters of trees grow here and there throughout the town. The Church of the Nativity, surrounded by convent buildings, rises like some baronial castle, gloomily and grandly, on the steepest side of the hill.

The Church of the Nativity
From the Matson Collection

The Church of the Nativity, surrounded by convent buildings, rises like some baronial castle, gloomily and grandly, on the steepest side of the hill

We passed under a deep arched way, which led us into the Convent Court, where we alighted, and were kindly welcomed by the Latin recluses, who were expecting us. The Spanish Consul of Jerusalem and his wife were there; with them and the Superior, and a few well-educated Spanish and Italian monks, we passed the evening pleasantly in the divaned reception-room. After an excellent supper we were shown to our several apartments. The Superior led me to a large, vaulted, gloomy chamber, in which I felt quite lost, when the heavy door closed upon me and I was alone. There were eight closely-curtained iron bedsteads in the room, and I peeped rather timidly into every one. A small lamp of red clay, like a deep saucer, with a lip on one side shaped to support the lighted wick, stood in a little niche; but its feeble red glow was almost lost in a stream of moonlight which fell from the grated, unglazed window above the door, glancing on the walls and the white curtains, and throwing a patch of checkered light on the stone floor. I was a martyr to musketoes that night, and as soon as daylight appeared through the grated window I rose, and wandered about the corridors, meeting the monks on their way to morning prayer, and witnessing the distribution of bread to the poor convent pensioners who crowded to the gates. The women carried away their provisions in the corners of their linen vails, but the men and boys put their loaves of bread in the bosom of their open shirts, their girdles supporting the burden.

The nave of the Church of the Nativity
From the Matson Collection

The shafts of the forty columns which support the fine architrave and decaying roof are each of a single piece of marble, more than two feet in diameter, about sixteen feet in hight, and surmounted by elaborately-carved capitals

On meeting my brother we went, guided by one of the Latin monks, to the Church of the Nativity, built by the Empress Helena, in A. D. 327. It is said to be the oldest monument of Christian architecture in the world. The shafts of the forty columns which support the fine architrave and decaying roof are each of a single piece of marble, more than two feet in diameter, about sixteen feet in hight, and surmounted by elaborately-carved capitals. These may have formed a part of some more ancient building. It has been suggested that they were brought from the ruins of the Temple at Jerusalem. The upper part of these columns are frescoed with Greek and Byzantine figures of saints and martyrs, while lower down are some curious sketches and monograms, by crusaders perhaps, or pilgrims of the Middle Ages. Above the columns and on the walls there are remains of ancient mosaic pictures of glass, and stone, and metal. I could make out groups of figures, views of cities, strange devices, and ornamental borders. They had been recently discovered under plaster-work, and were being ruthlessly scraped away, when an English traveler put a stop to the destruction by pointing out to the Superior the value and interest of these relics.

Here the Greeks, Latins, and Armenians have their several shrines and services, and they sometimes have very fierce conflicts about them. We went down into the Grotto of the Nativity, so well known through dioramic and other pictures, with its silver lamps, its fumes of incense, silken tapestries, and gilded saints. On the floor in front of the altar a star marks the spot said by tradition to show the very place where Christ was born; but I was not moved with mysterious awe; it was not here that I realized the scene in the manger; and surrounded as I was by priests, in their gorgeous robes, and pictures, and treasures, from France, Italy, Spain, and Greece, I could scarcely even believe that I was in Bethlehem.

Grotto of the Nativity
From the Matson Collection

We went down into the Grotto of the Nativity, so well known through dioramic and other pictures, with its silver lamps, its fumes of incense, silken tapestries, and gilded saints

We visited the convent schools. In one room fourteen handsome, intelligent-looking Bethlehem boys were learning Italian. They showed us their exercises and translations, and sang a Latin hymn to the Virgin, giving a peculiarly Oriental twang to the last sounds of every line. Another school-room which we entered was crowded with younger boys, learning to read and write Arabic; but they were dirty, disorderly, and noisy, and we did not linger there.

After taking breakfast with the Latin Superior — who related to us stories of recent miracles wrought in the sacred grotto, with earnestness and simplicity, as if he thoroughly believed what he said, and wished us to benefit by it — we hastened away, and walked through the steep streets and passages, and among the scattered buildings of the town. It is almost entirely peopled by Christian Arabs, of the Latin, Greek, and Armenian Churches, and they number altogether about three thousand two hundred. They cultivate their fields and terraced gardens with care, and send large supplies of vegetables and fruit to Jerusalem every day; but one of the principal occupations of the Bethlehemites is the carving of various articles in mother- of-pearl and olive-wood.

We inquired for a young man, an orphan, whom my brother knew to be one of the most skillful carvers in the town. The neighbors who guided us to his door said : "Be glad, and enter in with joy, for this is to-day a house of rejoicing." We found the carver at his work, seated on the floor. He rose up with evident delight to receive my brother, who had formerly protected him, and helped to establish him in business. He said, " Welcome, my master! thank God that he has led you back to this land, to see the fruit of your goodness, the work of your hand. You have built up my house, you have made me to rejoice, you have given me a son !" My brother replied, laughingly, "You speak in riddles darkly, make your words plain, O my friend." The carver took up a handful of tools, saying : "my protector, you gave me these tools — these tools brought me gold — the gold brought me a wife, and my wife brought me a son, on the night of the new moon!"

He had once been in my brother's service, and during that time showed decided taste for carving, which my brother encouraged by giving him a little instruction in the art, and some English tools.

Round the room, and hanging on the white-washed walls, were a number of small inlaid mother-of-pearl table-tops, about half a yard square, intended for the stands or stools on which coffee and preserves are placed in Oriental establishments. Carved rosaries, crucifixes, cups, and crosses, of olive-wood, decorated the place. The carver showed us, with especial pride, some large flat shells, on which he had sculptured pictures of sacred subjects and holy places; and some beads carved in bitumen, from the shores of the Dead Sea. During the past Easter he had reaped a goodly harvest, for the pilgrims eagerly buy these objects, and, when they are blessed by the priests, preserve them as relics. The English travelers, too, had bought a great number of paper knives, bracelets, and brooches, made at my brother's suggestion — the original sketches for which the carver had preserved with loving care, and with new expressions of gratitude he showed them to me, saying, "Peace be on his hands." While speaking, he was especially bright and intelligent-looking. His long dark-blue and red-striped coat, his crimson girdle, and red and yellow shawl head-dress, twisted into turban-form, became him well. He invited me to see his wife and child. I delightedly rose and followed him across a little square court-yard, partly sheltered by matting, supported by planks and tree branches, and partly by a vine, which traveled over a rude trellis-work. In one corner of this court were a large number of oyster-shells from the Red Sea, some of them a quarter of a yard in diameter; lumps of bitumen, from the wilderness of 'Ain Jidy; and pieces of rock, from Jerusalem, of red and yellow tints. The carver pointed these out to me as his stock of raw material. A pile of fine melons, and a row of water jars, stood on one side, while a bleating sound drew my attention to the other, where a fatted lamb stood munching mulberry-leaves. Into this central court the four rooms of the house opened; but, as it is built on a hill-side, the shop floor is a step or two below the level of the court, while the room opposite to it is raised considerably. We mounted a few steps, and my host left me at the open door of this upper chamber, within which, seated on a mat, was a pretty-looking woman, with a round, childish, cheerful face. Perfectly unembarrassed by my unexpected appearance she rose, and, after placing her hand on her breast, and then carrying it to her forehead, she said, "Be welcome, and be pleased to rest here." This was the carver's wife. An elder woman, whom I afterward found to be her mother, placed some pillows for me on a small carpet, and then took a little swaddled figure from a curtained rocking-cradle of red painted wood. She placed it on the skirts of my dress, saying, " Behold the gift of God!" I took the little creature in my arms. His body was stiff and unyielding, so tightly was it swathed with white and purple linen. His hands and feet were quite confined, and his head was bound with a small soft red shawl, which passed under his chin and across his forehead in small folds; to this a moldering relic of St. Joseph, in a crystal case, was attached. His mother wore a long blue linen shirt, rather scanty, and opening in front to the waist, a straight short pelisse or jacket, of crimson and white striped silk, and a shawl girdle. A long thick white linen vail hung over her head and shoulders, and partly con-cealed her stiff tarbush or cap, which was ornamented with a row of small gold coins, and a few bunches of everlasting flowers. The elder woman wore a heavy shirt or smock of blue linen, the wide hanging open sleeves of which exposed a tattooed and braceleted arm. Her long white linen vail fell from her head over her shoulders, in graceful folds to her feet, which were naked. In such a vail as this Ruth, the young Moabitish widow, who three thousand years ago gleaned in the fertile fields of the broad valley below, may have carried away the six measures of barley, which her kinsman, Boaz, the then mighty man of wealth of Bethlehem-Judah, had graciously given to her, saying, "Bring the vail that thou hast upon thee, and hold it; and when she held it, he measured six measures of barley, and laid it on her, and she went into the city." Ruth iii, 15.

I asked the young mother her name; she answered, "Miriam is my name;" but her mother said, "Not so, she is no longer Miriam, but 'Um Yousef' [mother of Joseph,] for a son is born unto her, whose name is Joseph."

It is the universal custom in the East, for a mother to take the name of her first-born son, with the prefix of "Um" — mother — such as Um Elias, mother of Elias; or Um Elia, mother of Eli, whence perhaps came such names as Emma, Emily, and Amelia. On the same principle the father's name is changed as soon as he has a son, whose name he adopts, with the prefix of "Abu" — father. It is a source of great distress and disappointment to parents if they are, for want of a son, obliged to retain their respective names.

The little mummy-like figure in my arms began to show signs of life, by uttering a feeble sound, in the universal language of babyhood. The mother took it from me, and before holding it to her bosom she reverently kissed a small silken bag, embroidered with gold, and then pressed it to her forehead. In answer to my look of inquiry, she explained, partly by words, and partly by signs, that the little bag, which hung from her neck, contained a piece of crumbling white stone, from a grotto near to Bethlehem, sanctified by the milk of the Blessed Virgin, which once overflowed there, and mothers eagerly procure it, to place in their bosoms as a charm.

The room in which we sat was very simply furnished. It was nearly square. The floor was of stone, and the walls were whitewashed. On a broad, high shelf running round three sides of it, many articles of native crockery and earthenware, drinking cups, jars, lamps, and metal dishes, were ranged. A mat of reeds, a carpet about as large as a hearth-rug, and several pillows or cushions were on the floor. A large red box, with brass hinges and ornaments, served as the wardrobe of the family. The red cradle, a large metal basin and ewer, and a few small coffee-cups, on a low stool or stand, of inlaid mother-of-pearl and dark wood, garnished the room. In a deep, arched recess, opposite to the door, a number of mattresses and wadded quilts were neatly piled up. In genuine Arab houses no bedsteads are used, and consequently no rooms are set apart expressly for bedrooms. Mattresses are spread any where, in the various rooms and courts, or on the terraces, according to the season, or to the convenience of the moment; and the beds and bedding are rolled up and put away during the day, in recesses made for them. Thus, with a pretty good stock of mattresses and lehaffs, a large number of guests may be entertained any night, at a moment's notice. The room was well ventilated by two large square openings, near the ceiling, opposite to each other, one being just over the door, and the other over the recess for the mattresses. I took a cup of coffee and some sugar-plums, and then said, "Good-bye," or rather, "God be with you," to Miriam. The elder woman led me back across the court, pointing to a kitchen on one side, and to the well-filled store-room on the other. She drew her long white vail across the lower part of her face, as we entered the workshop. She kissed my brother's hands, and then served us with coffee and preserves. Our servants now arrived with the horses, and we left the workshop of the Bethlehem carver. His parting words, "The peace of God be with you, my protector;" and the answer which my brother gave, " God's blessing be upon you and upon your house," reminded me of the salutations exchanged by Boaz and the reapers, long ago, in one of the fields at the foot of the hill we were descending, where we could see oxen treading out the corn on the numerous thrashing-floors.

We approached the particular spot which local tradition connects with the names of Ruth and Boaz; but it was enough for me that they had met somewhere in that broad and fertile valley, and that the town of Bethlehem, though changed, was the very town in which Ruth rejoiced over her first-born son; where the sorrows of Naomi were turned into joy, and "the women, her neighbors, rejoiced with her." We stood in the midst of little groups of men, women, and children. Some were attending to the mules and oxen on the thrashing-floor; others were gleaning and weeding in the neighboring fields; and the noisiest and most active were busy loading some kneeling camels with sacks of grain. Assisted by the contemplation of this busy scene, and the remembrance of the incidents of the morning, I could fully realize the beautiful story of Ruth. We crossed a field of Indian corn, to pause for a moment under the shade of the clump of trees, said to mark the spot where the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night, when the " good tidings " were proclaimed. The place is now called the " Shepherds' Garden," and is in the keeping of the monks of Bethlehem. We rose on to the hill-side again, and peeped into the Milk Grotto, in which tradition says that Mary rested on the eve of her flight into Egypt. It is a cave in a very white limestone rock, and has been undergoing excavation for centuries, on account of the before-mentioned supposed virtue of the stone. Fragments of it are treasured in all parts of Syria, and in many countries of Europe. I have often seen it used successfully. It seems to me, that the mere fact of not being provided with this relic will, in nervous subjects, occasion a deficiency of milk, and in such cases herbs and other medicines, wise women and doctors, are resorted to in vain; but whenever a portion of this crumbling stone can be procured, through the hands of a priest, tranquillity is restored, and favorable results follow. In this way many so-called miracles may be accounted for.

Hills south of Bethlehem
From the Matson Collection

... passing over terraced hills, where the vines, and olives, and fig-trees grew luxuriantly...

We rode on southward toward Urtâs, passing over terraced hills, where the vines, and olives, and fig-trees grew luxuriantly, and little white stone watch-towers peered out here and there, in commanding positions, from the midst of the thick foliage. Near to the winding bridle-path we saw now and then a cottage or hut made of rough, unhewn stones, and roofed with tree-branches, standing in a garden of cucumbers, or tomatoes, or a choice vineyard. One cf these rude dwellings was being clumsily repaired by a group of boys, who had been gathering stones and sticks for the purpose, and were shouting merrily over their work. From another of these little huts there came forth, as if by magic — for it did not look capable of containing them — five young Bethlehem girls. Three of them were very pretty, brilliant brunettes — the others rather fair. All looked strong and hearty, with rich color and large clear eyes. They advanced, half-shyly, half-daringly, to peep at us as we passed. Their simply-made, loose purple linen dresses, girdled below the waist negligently; their long wide sleeves, revealing bronzed and braceleted arms; their coarse white linen vails thrown back from their foreheads and hanging over their shoulders; and their naked feet, were in perfect harmony with the pastoral scenes around.

I was very thirsty, so I called to one of them, saying, "Water me with water, my sister!" Immediately a red and black two-handled porous earthenware vase of antique form was handed to me, and when I had drank of the cool, tasteless water it contained the girls around said, " May God make it refreshing to you, lady!" And, prompted by my brother, I gave the customary answer, "God preserve you!" We inquired whence came the delicious water, and they answered, "From the well over against the town." So perhaps we had tasted of the very water which David sighed for when he said, "0, that one would give me of the water of the well at Bethlehem, that is at the gate!" We gave the girls a backshîsh, and they gave us their blessings as we rode away.