On Saturday, October 13th, we made ready for a trip to Nazareth — Nâsirah — to meet Mr. Finn there. We started at about three o'clock in the afternoon, accompanied by our friend Saleh Sekhali, one kawass, and an Egyptian groom. We went out at the east gate, crossed the burial-ground, approached the Carmel range, and skirted the base of the hills, which are overgrown with low brushwood and evergreen oaks. We took a south-easterly direction, with the terraced slopes on our right hand, and a marshy plain on our left, all bright with lush-green grass, tall rushes, and reeds in full blossom.
We met strings of camels bringing grain from the Haurân, for the merchants in Hâifa and 'Akka. The peasants and camel-drivers were all fully armed, and seemed as ready for attack as for defense.
Presently we passed a more peaceful-looking party, consisting of a family belonging to the next village. First came a young girl, wearing a rather short open dress of old striped crimson silk, made like a very scanty dressing-gown, a long white shirt of very coarse heavy linen, and a shawl-girdle fastened low. A purple scarf sheltered her head and face — all but her large dark eyes, and fell over her shoulders. She walked barefoot, and carried her yellow shoes in her hands. A woman with an infant son in her arms followed, riding on a large white donkey, which was urged on by a man who walked close behind.. We exchanged greetings, and the strangers said to us, "May Allah lead you in the path that is straight!" In about forty minutes we reached the spring of Sa'adeh, which supplies one of the tributary streams of the Kishon. It gushes out of a deep, cavernous recess in the steep cliff, and forms a large, spreading, natural reservoir, where many kinds of ferns are fostered. Saleh told me that Arab poets call a stream "a daughter of the hills." He led the way where he knew there were firm stepping-stones, and we splashed through water, in some parts about two feet deep, guiding our horses between masses of rock and great stone bowlders, surrounded by tall trees and water-plants. Our progress was somewhat impeded by a number of goats and cattle, which were being led to the fountain.
Just beyond this we saw, high up on the hills on our right, a picturesque-looking Moslem village, called Kefresh- Sheik. On the flat roofs of its white stone huts there were little Summer-houses, made of tree branches, long palm fronds, and reeds. Most of the villagers in this district make these pleasant shelters in the Summer-time. It reminded me of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.
Busy groups were on the thrashing-floors. A man was winnowing a heap of wheat, by lifting up as much as he could at a time, and as he let it fall gradually, the wind carried away the chaff. We lingered a moment by the old stone well in the olive grove; near to it we saw a number of strong masculine-looking laughing girls. In a few minutes we came to the little village of Ain-jûr, with palm-trees and flourishing gardens round it. At this point we turned away from the hills, and made our way across the fertile plain.
A serpentine line of verdure marks the course of the Kishon. We approached it where it flows between steep banks of rich loamy soil, nearly fifteen feet high, bordered with fine oleanders, wild lupins, tall and blue, and St. John's wort, covered with golden flowers. There was not much water flowing, for there had not been any rain in Galilee for a long time; but the muddy bed, which at this spot is about twenty feet broad, seemed to me as if it would swallow us up.
I have seen this stream swollen and rapid, after heavy rains, when the Winter torrents of Galilee and Carmel flow into it; then it is a river "with waters to swim in, a river that can not be passed over;" and I can well imagine the hosts of Sisera, his chariots and horses, struggling there; and how "the River Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the River Kishon." Judges v, 21. We crossed safely, and rode on, due east, to traverse some rounded hills, crowned with evergreen oaks, hawthorns, and syringas. I have seen them in the Spring-time full of blossom, when the ground which they shelter is carpeted with hyacinths, cyclamen, anemones, and narcissus. This is one of the most extensive oak woods in Galilee, the oak leaves are small and prickly, and the acorns large and long.
Here cheetahs are sometimes captured and killed — for the sake of their skins, which are made into saddle-cloths — foxes have their holes, and hyenas, cats, jackals, and wild boars abound. The town Arabs are by no means enthusiastic hunters. A Nimrod is rarely met with now, except among the European colonists.
In a little open glade we dismounted, and rested just outside the solitary tent of a peasant, while we took some refreshing fruit, then we hastened on again. These hills are renowned for echoes, which are called by Arabs, "the daughters of sound." My companions brought them forth, by firing their guns and shouting, and they made the forest ring with their songs; at its eastern extremity the trees grow so closely together, and the branches hang so low, that I had to ride cautiously, to avoid sharing the fate of Absalom. When we came out of the wood, we found ourselves on the brow of a high, steep, and terraced declivity. The smooth plain of Esdraelon Minor was immediately below us, one half of it shaded by the hills on which we stood, and the other half, as well as the opposite hills, were in bright sunlight. The little village of Nain was pointed out to me far away on the right.
We descended by a pleasant winding road, the trees were more and more scattered, and at the foot of the hill only low brushwood grew.
We cantered across the plain, and ascended a low rounded hill, on which stood a village, literally formed of dust and ashes. The mud-hovels looked like dust-heaps, and their interiors were little better than dust-holes; but out of these abodes heaps of clothing crawled, scarcely looking like human beings, till they slowly rose, assuming forms of strange grace and dignity, and gazed at us with serious and untroubled eyes. We saw a group of old women leaning over a square hole dug in the ground. Saleh told me that this was the village oven. The bottom of it glowed with red heat. The fuel, composed of peat and dried dung, was partially covered with stones, upon which thin flat loaves are thrown and quickly baked. When quite new, the bread thus prepared is crisp outside and rather soft within; but, when a day old, it is of the consistency of leather, and very indigestible. The women, in their dusky vails and dresses, crouching round that primitive oven, reminded me of the incantation scene in "Macbeth." The children of the place were beautiful, though bronzed by the sun, and smeared with dust and dirt. Some were clothed in rags of all colors, but the majority were quite naked.
We looked back across the plain; the sun had gone down behind the wooded hills, and red watch-fires gleamed here and there on the terraces and in the plain — guides and beacons for the shepherds and the fellahîn. Presently a party of wild-looking Arabs met us. Their leader was the son of a cavalry officer, who had just been dismissed from Turkish service. He and his followers were desperate fellows, noted for deeds of daring. They saluted us, and said that they had come on purpose to meet and escort us to Nazareth. This was quite an impromptu invention, for no one but Mr. Finn knew of our intention to go to Nazareth; however, they turned and accompanied us. They looked very picturesque. Their large, heavy cloaks were made of camel's-hair, with broad brown and white stripes. On their heads they wore red and yellow kefias — fringed shawls — put on like hoods, and fastened round the crown with double ropes, made of camel's-hair. Their spears, adorned with ostrich-feathers, were twelve or thirteen feet long.
We paused at a spring, festooned with ferns and bordered with mossy stones, and alighted for a few minutes to water our horses. When Saleh was on the point of remounting, his mare suddenly started off, and soon disappeared in the dusky distance. Saleh was quite disconcerted; for the animal was a favorite one, and so docile that it was never considered necessary to tether her. She was accustomed to follow her master, and to obey his call like a dog. Saleh remembered that the village of which his mare was a native was about a quarter of an hour's distance from the spring, and this explained the cause of the flight. He immediately mounted a horse belonging to one of the Arabs and galloped away. He actually found his mare standing quietly in the court of the house in which she had been born, surrounded by her former owners, who were marveling greatly. Saleh rejoined us, and we soon entered the hill-country which encircles Nazareth. Our volunteer attendants rode now before and now behind, singing and shouting. Higher and higher we rose, meeting the fresh mountain air. It was so dark that I could only just perceive the figure immediately before me, and the loose white stones which clattered under my horse's feet, and the smooth slabs of rock over which he every now and then slipped and stumbled.
For about an hour I rode on silently, hardly knowing where I was going, but following in faith the steps of my leader. I was roused from a reverie by the words, "We are entering the olive-groves of Nazareth." I could just distinguish a range of hills, forming an amphitheater in the shape of a horseshoe, and the extent of the town could be traced by the lights gleaming from the windows of the houses which thickly dotted the valley below, and were grouped here and there on the hill-sides.