From Yâfa To Jerusalem

From Domestic Life In Palestine
By Mary Eliza Rogers

A cactus hedge along a bridal path

... which led us to a pleasant bridle path between hedges of a gigantic kind of cactus — the opuntia — the large, fleshy, thick-jointed stems of which were fringed with yellow flowers...

An old man, in a coat of many colors, shaped like a sack, and with a curious mosaic-looking vandyked pattern on the back of it, led my horse up the steep streets of stairs, through the crowded bazars, and out of the town gate, which we had entered in the morning. It is in the middle of the east wall, and is the only land gate. I must here remind my younger readers that wheeled carriages are not used in Palestine. I never saw even such a thing as a wheelbarrow there; in fact, the roads are so bad that such conveyances would be useless; so people always travel on camels, or mules, or donkeys, or on horses, as we did. It was now about six o'clock, and just outside the gate the inhabitants of Yâfa were enjoying their pipes in the shade of the city, for the sun was going down toward the sea. Others were riding and galloping along the broad sandy road, which led us to a pleasant bridle path between hedges of a gigantic kind of cactus — the opuntia — the large, fleshy, thick-jointed stems of which were fringed with yellow flowers, promising a rich harvest of prickly pears. These formidable hedgerows rising from two to eight, and sometimes even ten or twelve feet in hight, were wreathed with graceful creepers, the briony, the clematis, and the wild vine twining their tendrils together. Our Crimean friend suggested that such a cactus hedge would prove an impenetrable barrier to advancing cavalry. This pleasant sandy path led us for three or four miles between beautiful fruit gardens, where the palm-tree, laden with golden fruit, towered high above all other trees. Oranges, lemons, pistachios, apricots, almonds, and mulberries were ripening. The pomegranate-tree showed its thick clusters of scarlet flowers, and acacias, locust-trees, tamarisks, silvery olives, and broad-leaved fig-trees flourished. It was about half-past six when we reached the open country beyond the extensive and well-cultivated gardens of Yâfa. The sun was going down behind us, over the sea. The far-away hills toward which we were journeying, east by south, were crowned with glowing red, while purple night shadows were rising rapidly. We passed through fields of mallows and gardens of cucumbers, with tents or little stone lodges for the gardeners scattered here and there.

The sun went down. Vultures and kites were sweeping through the air. As the darkness increased, our little party, consisting of six muleteers, our servants, and ourselves, assembled together to keep in close company for the rest of the way.

We could distinguish parties of field-laborers and oxen at rest by the road-side, and sometimes we came to a rude thrashing-floor, where, by the light of a bonfire of weeds and thorns, we saw Rembrandt-like groups of rough-looking, half-clad peasants, some of them sleeping, and others lighting their long pipes with the fragrant embers. Our muleteers were singing monotonous and plaintive songs, only interrupted now and then when the jogging mules disarranged their burdens by jolting against each other, and the drivers would cry out, "Ai-wa! Ai-wa" an interjection of very flexible signification, which answers nearly to our "Now then!" when used deprecatingly, or to "All right," or " Go on," under more favorable circumstances.

We rode on in the darkness over an undulating plain, occasionally passing a well, a tomb, a little sleeping village, or a grove of ancient olive-trees, and reached Ramleh at half-past nine.

We had been invited to pass the night at the house of one of the principal Christian Arabs of the town, and soon met his servants and lantern-bearers, who had been watching for us. They led the way up a flight of stone steps to a small square court, round which lofty stone chambers were built.

Our host then conducted us to the guest-chamber, "a large upper room, furnished" with divans and cushioned window-seats.

His wife — a handsome and stately-looking woman, in rich Oriental costume — came to salute and welcome us. She took me to a long vaulted stone chamber, where two mattresses were spread on the floor; one was for me, and the other for two negresses who were appointed to attend me. Supper was spread for our party in an arched recess of the court, by two Abyssinian men-servants, who waited on us with intelligence and alacrity.

Presently, two awkward but good-natured-looking, black, woolly-headed, tall, white-robed, shoeless girls, led me to my room. They poured hot and cold water alternately over my feet and hands, and did all they could to make me comfortable. After a few hours rest, I rose by the light of the moon, which streamed in at the wide, unglazed, arched window.

The hinges, locks, and door-handles throughout the house were of beautiful design, somewhat resembling Italian work of the sixteenth century.

By the time the muleteers were roused, and our horses were in readiness for the journey, the sun had risen, and we hastened away. The market-places were already busy with buyers and sellers. The gardens of Ramleh are extensive and fertile; the date-palm, especially, flourishes there. The soil is sandy.

Just outside the town, under a clump of tamarisk- trees, sat a group of dirty-looking Arabs, in picturesque rags. As we passed, they rose from their stony seats, and advanced toward us, holding out little tin cups for alms. I then perceived that the poor creatures were lepers! Their faces were so disfigured that they scarcely looked human; the eyelids and lips of some were quite destroyed, while the faces of others were swollen into frightful masses. It was the saddest sight I ever saw.

The families afflicted with this terrible and hereditary disease intermarry, and sometimes the immediate offspring are free from any appearance of it, but it is sure to revive in the succeeding generation; some of them appear quite healthy till they are nineteen or twenty, but they feel themselves to be a doomed race, and live quite apart from the rest of the world, subsisting almost entirely on charity — for often their fingers rot off and render their hands useless.

In return for the few piasters we gave them, they cried, in hoarse whispers, " May it return to you tenfold!" "Peace be with you !" We passed througli fertile fields and orchards, overtaking peasants leading oxen or laden camels, or shepherd boys guiding flocks of goats to pasture land. Though the sun was low, and sent our shadows in long lines behind us, yet the rays were fierce with light and heat. The fields of sesame — called simsim in Arabic — looked very pretty. It is a tall, bright-green plant, with upright stems, garnished with blossoms, somewhat like the fox -glove, white, shaded with pink. The seeds yield a very fine oil, almost equal to olive. Blue chicory, yellow flax, the hardy goat's beard and convolvulus, of many tints, large and small, bordered the road. We soon reached an uncultivated part of the undulating plain, where the ground was burned up and cracked into deep, wide fissures, and where large blocks of stone, like cromlechs, cast their shadows. I watched numbers of green lizards and strange reptiles, running rapidly in and out of the cracks, and under and over the rocks, pausing sometimes, opening their eyes of fire to the sun, and nodding their large heads quaintly. Wild ducks were flapping their wings above our heads. Camels every now and then passed in strings of three or four together, their drivers bending and touching their foreheads gracefully as we passed. Some of the peasants wore scarcely any clothing. Flocks of goats and cattle were browsing on the scanty burned-up pasture, and the shepherd boys were piping on rude instruments made of cane or reed. At half-past eight o'clock we were in the shelter of the hills, and paused for a few moments at the entrance of a woody and rocky valley, called Wady-'Aly. Some Arabs brought us a supply of good water, in leather bottles-. Mr. Finn, Her Britannic Majesty's Consul at Jerusalem, had sent his kawass there to meet and welcome us, and to lead the way, for in the hill country a skillful pilot is required. Wild fig-trees, dwarf oaks, and thorns, grew among the rocks, and thousands of larks, disturbed by our approach, rose high into the air, but they did not sing the sweet song of the larks of our cornfields.

We passed over steep hills, wild and rocky, with treacherous stones slipping from under the feet of the often- stumbling horses. Sometimes the passes were so narrow that we had to ride singly, watching the leader carefully in his ins and outs among bushes and rocks. On the summits of many of the rounded hills there are ruins and large hewn stones, which have given rise to much discussion among Biblical topographists. We saw traces of terraces, and of former careful cultivation everywhere, but the Winter torrents have been allowed to sweep away the protecting stones, and the rich, red loam is washed down, so that in many places large masses of bare limestone are exposed; but wherever the earth rests, however scantily, there is vegetation. Wild fruit-trees, shrubs, and aromatic herbs, thorns and thistles, prove the natural fertility of the soil. Even out of the small handfuls of earth washed into the holes and crevices of the rocks, tiny flowers spring, especially the wild pink and crane's-bill. We took zigzag paths up the faces of hills which looked almost perpendicular. Sometimes we gained a hight commanding views of the Great Sea and the plain of Sharon on one side, and the hills which concealed the city of Jerusalem on the other; then again we were in a narrow valley, or closed in by a seemingly impassable amphitheater of hills. Here and there our road was along ledges, so narrow — with a rocky ravine below, and a hill rising abruptly like a wall above — that we took the precaution of sending our leader to the end of the pass, to see that the way was clear, and to keep it so till we could traverse it. Eagles and vultures swept through the air. The sky was intensely blue, and the sun very powerful. Sparrows and finches were twittering among the trees.

At about ten o'clock we dismounted by a little tell, or mound, in the center of a triangular space, where three valleys meet. Here there is a well of sweet and excellent water, and round it olives, figs, locust-trees, and evergreen oaks grow. A party of Bedouins were watering their camels at the stone trough connected with the well. Under the pleasant tree-shadows we rested, and on a bank of wild thyme and sweet marjoram we spread our simple provisions — "a basket of Summer fruit," a few thin cakes of flour, and some new wine. At the entrance to an extensive cavern, in the base of a hill opposite to us, a group of peasants were sleeping. The cave, like many smaller ones which we had seen, had been fashioned originally by nature, but man had at some period or other smoothed the inner wall, and made a dwelling there.

When we remounted, we passed through a partially-cultivated district. Groves of olive-trees bordered the dry bed of a Winter torrent, and patches of vines, and vegetables, and stubble-fields appeared on the terraces, till we came to higher and steeper hills in the neighborhood of Ajalon, covered with sage and wild lavender. The heat was sensibly increasing till about noon, when a pleasant breeze arose. This is generally the case in the hill country in the Summer time, the breeze rises at about twelve, lasts for an hour or two, and cools the air. We came into a cultivated region again, announcing a village near, and soon saw the white walls of the square castle-like houses of Abu Ghôsh, on a hill-side, and the fine ruins of an ancient Christian church to which a Franciscan convent was formerly attached. We dismounted at its large arched entrance; the groined roof and clear-story, supported by tall massive columns, are in good preservation. This building is now used as a stable and khan, but has often served the purpose of a fortress. It is very long since it echoed the litanies of the Franciscans, for they were expelled about the middle of the thirteenth century, when the sultan of Egypt conquered Jerusalem.

A cousin of the robber chief, the celebrated Abu Ghôsh, is now sheikh of the village, and it is his policy to he very polite to Frank travelers.

We rested for a little while on the step of the church door. A group of women were drawing water from a well. We watched them as they walked one after the other toward the village, with the replenished jars poised perfectly on their heads. Herds of cattle and flocks of goats on the surrounding hills, richly-cultivated orchards and vineyards, and a few palm-trees, proclaimed this little village rich and flourishing. It is now called Kuryet el'-Enab, " village of grapes," the ancient Kirjath-Jearim probably.

A few hills more or less difficult were traversed. One, which seemed only fit for goats and conies to ramble over, we descended on foot, sliding over slabs of stone as smooth as polished marble, and leaping from rock to rock, over thorns and briers, till I was tired, and glad to mount again. Then we came to a pleasant terraced road, made on the slope of a hill, looking down into a fertile valley, where an Arab village has risen on the site of an ancient Roman colony, the record of which is preserved in the modern name Kolônieh. Traces of an amphitheater and fortifications were pointed out to me. We crossed to the opposite side of the valley, and pursued our way along a rocky ledge, till we came to a spring of living water, gushing from a rock above into a trough, which overflowed constantly. The water finds its way through ducts into the valley below. Maiden-hair, delicate creepers, and ferns, grew around, and thousands of birds congregated there — it is called the Fountain of birds. We, as well as our horses, enjoyed the deliciously cool water. We rode on again, and soon crossed an ancient Roman bridge, built over a water-course. There are the remains of a Jewish city by this stream, and local tradition says that David took from its bed the pebble which gave the death-blow to Goliath. Large stones, carefully hewn and beveled, are scattered in heaps, and half concealed by hawthorn bushes, wild rose-trees, fruit-laden blackberry brambles, and tall thistles. Others appear among rough unhewn stones, in the low walls which mark the boundaries of the vineyards and orchards near at hand. No doubt these large stones were once portions of stately palaces and strongholds, erected by skillful Hebrew builders long ago. Amos said, " Ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine in them."

The Arabs have a proverb in common use, which says, "The Jews built; the Greeks planted; and the Turks destroy." It is true that in nearly every town or village or deserted ruin in Judea, some traces of the massive architecture of the Jews — whose forefathers had served their toilsome apprenticeship in Egypt, among pyramids and temples — are discovered, sometimes serving as the foundation of Roman citadels and theaters, which in their turn have fallen to give place to the Moorish arch or minaret, and the mud-built hovel of the peasant; while all the ancient olive-trees, which stand in regular and equidistant rows, forming avenues in all directions, are said to have been planted by the Greeks, and present a striking contrast to the wild wood-like picturesqueness of younger olive plantations now fruitful and flourishing, as well as to the still more ancient trees now falling to decay.

A view of Jerusalem from the west
From the Matson Collection

... requiring no guide to point out the long, low line of battlemented wall, with a few domes and minarets rising above it...

Presently Mr. Graham said, "Now, Miss Rogers, prepare yourself for a treat. When we reach the summit of this hill, our eyes shall behold the city of the Great King." I quickened my pace, forgot my fatigue, and was soon on the hill- top, pausing to look around me, requiring no guide to point out the long, low line of battlemented wall, with a few domes and minarets rising above it, crowning the tableland of a hill which stood in the midst of hills, and I knew that I was looking on Jerusalem, "builded as a city," and "the mountains round about her." The afternoon sun was shining from behind us, brightening the white walls of the city, the gray-green tints of Olivet, which rises just beyond, and the long chain of the far-away mountains of Moab, seen here and there through openings in the Judaean hills. The Mount of Olives, "which is before Jerusalem on the east," says Zechariah, is separated by slight depressions into three distinct parts. On the central and highest point a white- walled Moslem village stands, with olive and mulberry trees clustering round it. Near the summit of the northern hill, a little isolated square stone tower is conspicuous, and when Mr. G. pointed it out, he invited me to pay him a visit there, for it was his Summer retreat, and was commonly called " Graham Castle," by Europeans in Jerusalem.

We descended into a long, narrow, stony valley; but the view from the hill-top we were leaving was already photographed on my brain, and I have never lost the impression. Though I have seen Jerusalem under more beautiful aspects, and from more favorable points of view, the first sight had its peculiar charm.

We left the Yâfa road, and made our way toward the Talibîweh, where Mr. Finn, the English Consul, encamps in Summer time. It is about a mile west of the city. We rapidly approached a low, rough stone wall, inclosing a large tract of partially-cultivated land, on a gradually-sloping hill, looking toward Jerusalem. On the highest part of the ground a small square stone building stood, with seven or eight tents pitched near to it, among rocks, young trees, and shrubs. This I found was the consular encampment, and gladly I dismounted there, at four o'clock, P. M., welcomed by the Consul and his family.

The stone house consists simply of one lofty double-vaulted chamber, which serves for dining and general sitting-room, with veranda-sheltered seats outside it, looking toward the east. An arched recess — or lewan as it is called in Arabic and Turkish — looks toward the west, and consequently is in shade in the morning. Kitchens and offices occupy the third and fourth sides. It was built by Jewish laborers, of a red and yellowish stone, from a quarry on the estate, and is not plastered either inside or out.

Mrs. Finn led me across a rough path, among little patches of newly-cultivated red earth, where melons, cucumbers, and vegetable marrows, were flourishing. Young castor-oil trees, palms, and oleanders, were springing up between large masses of rock. In their shelter the sweet basil, pinks, roses, as well as many English seedlings, were being coaxed into existence, making a cheerful though wild-looking garden round the pretty Egyptian tent prepared for me, the ropes of which were attached to some vigorous olive-trees, of two or three years' growth. I found my luggage already there, for the muleteers had arrived an hour or two before us. The blue tent lining appliquéd with black and scarlet borders, in patterns of good design, on the white canvas, the crimson cloth carpet, and simple tent furniture, looked bright and cheerful; while the views of the Bethlehem plain. Mount Zion, and Jerusalem, from the tent door, delighted me.

We passed the evening pleasantly with Mr. and Mrs. Finn, talking over our journey, and planning future ones. Their children were eager to show me their treasures, and to take me to all the memorable spots in the neighborhood they knew so well, for they were born in, and had scarcely ever been out of sight of Jerusalem. " I will take you to Olivet, and to the top of Mount Scopus, and then you can see the River Jordan and the Dead Sea," said Skander, the eldest boy; and little Constance added, "Mamma, may I take Miss Rogers to see Judas's tree, and the Garden of Gethsemane, and may we go to Bethlehem and to Solomon's Pools?"

These children, who had grown up amid such scenes, and who had learned to speak Arabic simultaneously with English, interested me exceedingly, evincing in all they said and did the effect of the influences around them. I showed to Constance an engraving of an English seaside view, and she immediately said, pointing to a castle, "There's the tower of David;" and again, pointing to the bathing machines, exclaimed, "These are the tombs of the kings, and there is the Dead Sea," the only sea which she had ever seen. After tea, the little ones were led by their pleasant-looking Armenian nurse, Um Issa, to the nursery tent, and Skander, wishing me good-night, added, "Do not be afraid if you hear the jackals crying and barking, they will not come to our tents; but we hear them every night, and they wake the dogs, and the horses, and the donkey, and then sometimes they all make a noise together." At an early hour Helwe, a woman of Bethlehem, brought in the lanterns which were to light us to our several tents. Mrs. F. led me to mine, and showed me how to secure it; while her niece warned me to look well at my clothes, and to shake them before putting them on in the morning, to get rid of ants or spiders, or perhaps a scorpion, which might creep into them at night. I watched the lanterns as they dispersed over the grounds to the different tents, and soon fell asleep amid the scenes and sounds that were so strange to me. It was difficult to realize the fact that I had left London only three weeks before.