CRUSADER

To tell even in barest outline the long story of the Crusades would be a
task as impossible as it would be thankless. The magic of Sir Walter
Scott’s _Talisman_ is happily not yet dead, and in some degree the
Crusader still lives as an actual and human figure in our imagination.
Many Christians who had come as pilgrims had settled in the land as its
inhabitants, and for four centuries after the Arabian conquest these
continued both their trade and their worship under the tolerably mild
Mohammedan rule. In the eleventh century all was changed by the Saracen
invasion. Pilgrims were extortionately taxed at the gates of Jerusalem;
their lives were imperilled, their persons and their devotions insulted.
The old commerce, which had grown to considerable proportions, was
ruined, and pilgrimage, from being a lucrative and pleasant service,
became an almost certain martyrdom.

It was this state of affairs which sent Peter the Hermit through Europe
on his great campaign in 1093, and those extraordinary wars that raged
in Syria through two centuries bore the complex character of the
motives which had prompted them. From the departure of that motley
rabble which followed the Hermit to the East in the first Crusade, down
to the pitiful expedition of French children who started 30,000 strong
from Vendôme in 1212, there stretches perhaps the most picturesque
period in all history.[28]

The mass of paradox and contradiction which that period presents is no
less striking. It was an invasion by the West, whose purpose was to
rehabilitate an Eastern faith. It was a religious war carried on by the
jealousies and ambitions of rival nations. It was the occasion of some
of the most statesmanlike government that the world has seen, and it was
accompanied from first to last by frequent outbursts of treachery,
massacre, and lust. It was the most airy dream and at the same time the
most effective practical force of its time. It was the expression of the
most ascetic severity and the most reckless luxury. Utterly futile,
commercially and socially disastrous, often wholly irreligious, it was
yet everywhere a massive and purposeful conception, in which the
determination and forcefulness of the West thrust their iron wedge clean
to the centre of this sleepy land. Its high idealism, curiously alloyed
with grosser elements both sensual and brutal, was yet able to preserve
through all the genuine spiritual fire of chivalry and of faith.

Our task is simply to ascertain what all this stands for in the history
of Palestine, and what it has left behind it there as its memorial. In
two words, it stands for the contact of the East and West, and for their
separateness. Into Europe the Crusades brought much from the East. It
was due to them more than to all other causes that there was so immense
an increase of Eastern merchandise in Western markets–not of Jerusalem
relics only, but of Damascus ware and of Persian and even Indian produce
from beyond the great rivers. Their influence on architecture, too, is a
well-known fact of Western history. The Mosque of Omar rose on at least
three European sites, and the plan of many another piece of Byzantine
building and Arabesque decoration was brought home by the Crusaders from
the wars. Into the East, again, the Crusades brought much from the West.
From north to south of Palestine one meets with the remains and
memorials of that invasion. Theirs are the footprints most visible
throughout the land. Everything in Syria has felt the touch of them and
retained its mark. At every turn one finds something recognisable and
homely to Western ears and eyes–the name of a castle, the chiselling of
a stone, the moulding of metal–they are strangely familiar as they are
met so far away from home. Yet they survive as wreckage, and as wreckage
only. He who hopes to westernise the East is attempting a task in which
all must fail, whether they be soldiers or priests, missionaries or
statesmen. The ancient Eastern life has long ago flowed back over the
relics of the Western occupation of Syria.

The surviving traces are of many kinds. There are the descendants of
Crusaders, sprung of intermarriages with Eastern women, and still
preserving a distinctively European type in little suggestive details of
feature or of hair. Names such as Belfort, Belvoir, Mirabel,
Blanchegarde, or Sinjil (St. Giles), coming without apology next to the
Hebrew and Arabic names of villages in Palestine, strike one with very
much the same shock as old Scottish place-names do, alternating with
incorporated aboriginal ones, on the railway stations of the Australian
bush. Relics like the sword and spurs of Godfrey de Bouillon may, like
most other relics, be discounted, but not so the wonderful masonry of
castles and of churches which everywhere overawes the man accustomed to
modern walls. Winding our way with tight rein along the narrow and
crooked streets of Tyre, we suddenly plunged into the darkness and foul
air of the Bazaar. At the other end of it, emerging under a Gothic
archway, we found ourselves in the courtyard of a khan, a very dirty and
unpleasant place. Seeing nothing but unclean stables, we imagined that
our horses were to be put up here and perhaps fed, and we pitied them.
Then, to our astonishment, we discovered that this was the old Crusader
Church, where these broken and discoloured arches had once echoed the
hymns and prayers of European chivalry; and that somewhere among them
lay the bones of the great emperor so famous in

[Illustration: ENTRANCE TO THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE.]

history and legend–“Der alte Barbarossa, der Kaiser Friederich.” Not
less affecting in its way was the discovery of a little patch of
snapdragon flowers on the ruined walls of Belfort Castle. We were
informed that the plant is not elsewhere found in Syria, and the
likelihood is that some Crusader’s lady brought it from the garden of a
far-off French or English home.

The Crusader was at once the dreamer, the worshipper, and the fighter of
the Middle Age. The knight was not indeed the sort of man whom at first
sight we would suspect of dreaming. Could we see him riding down the
street to-day, we should probably be reminded of some village blacksmith
on a Clydesdale horse. Yet he had been dreaming dreams and seeing
visions. He was a gentleman and a man of feeling, though he had his own
rough ways of shewing it. Part of what had set him dreaming was the
instinct of travel and the literature of travel which in those days was
so quaint and picturesque. No doubt this travel literature was largely
due to pilgrims, but there were others then who could play no tune but
“Over the hills and far away.” Travellers’ half-remembered and
exaggerated adventures conspired with the fantastic imaginings of the
untravelled rustic to create that magic land beyond the horizon where
giants, monsters, and devils had their home. All the wistfulness, the
dream, and the desire of the ancient days are there. The chroniclers of
the time before the Norman Conquest are the most fascinating of
geographers, and the singers of Arthurian romance in the later days of
the Crusades arrived at a geography which was an utter bewilderment,
the result of ages of vague travel and rumours from the Syrian seat of
war. Babylon and Wales and places with names wholly unpronounceable are
in sublime confusion, and the geography in general is that of
Thackeray’s Little Billee, who saw from his mast-head “Jerusalem and
Madagascar and South Amerikee.”

Jerusalem always came first. “The Crusades,” as Sidonia says in
_Tancred_, “renovated the spiritual hold which Asia has always had upon
the North.” The spell of the East had come upon the West, and in that
there lay a reason for the Crusades deeper than any commercial or even
military attraction. The West was waiting for it. Behind the British men
of the twelfth century lay a heredity of patriotic legend connected
largely with the battle of Christianity against Paganism under Arthur.
There lay the foundation of much that was best in the crusading
enthusiasm. On their own soil they had followed the King and fought
under him for Christ. But to satisfy the hearts of these rough men it
needed more than all such practical life could yield them, even when
that life was so exciting as it was then. There is an infinite pathos in
the dream that was coming to clearness through those years. Discontented
with the glories even of Arthur’s court, longing for a spiritual
something which might give to chivalry its finest meaning, they sought
the Holy Grail. Until, well on in the twelfth century, the shadowy
figures of Walter Map and Robert de Borron formulate the romance,[29]
we see it growing out of old pagan legends baptized by Christian
missionaries and blended with Bible stories. It emerges at last in the
romances of the French Trouvères, the summit and flower of all past
idealisms, the spiritual secret and gist of life, and the chief end of
noble men. This is all well known to those who interest themselves in
that spiritual search which is the main business of choice souls in all
ages, and which in that age took literary form in the Grail Quest. But
to us it is specially interesting to note that the century whose later
years received the Trouvère legend from Chrétien de Troyes began with an
event but for which that legend would never have assumed the form in
which it appeared. In 1101 Cæssarea was besieged and taken by Baldwin I.
“It yielded a rich booty. Among other prizes was found a hexagonal vase
of green crystal, supposed to have been used at the administration of
the sacrament, and now preserved in Paris. This vase plays an important
part in mediæval poetry as the Holy Grail.” The visionary aspect of the
Crusades is that which continually obtrudes itself as one reads their
history. Tasso’s _Gerusalemme Liberata_ is full of it. Even so rough and
boisterous a hero as Richard is obviously a dreamer also. Nothing in all
this history is more striking than that fateful day when, after marching
to within seven leagues of Jerusalem, Richard commanded his army to
halt, and courted their murmurs during a month’s unaccountable
inaction. Performing unheard-of feats of valour in minor sallies, he
could only weep when he beheld the towers of the Holy City, and after
routing Saladin’s army in a great battle at Joppa, negotiated a truce
and wandered off to shipwreck and imprisonment, commending the Holy Land
to God, and praying that it might be granted him to return again and
recover it.[30]

As worshippers, the Crusaders are famous figures in the Holy Land. It is
hard to reconcile the tales of wild debauchery which followed almost all
their victories, with the obviously genuine religious enthusiasm that
swept the hosts down weeping on their knees when they caught first sight
of Jerusalem. Yet the worship was sincere, and there were pure and
gentle spirits among them whom victory did not demoralise. They are
always, indeed, armed worshippers–at first a religious soldiery,
afterwards a military priesthood, as Stebbing puts it. This composite
character is well brought out in the two orders of knights, the
Hospitallers and the Templars. The former, working for the sick in the
Holy City, wore a black robe with a white cross upon the breast of it,
but when there was fighting to be done they covered this with a surcoat
of scarlet on which a silver cross was embroidered. They lived simply,
contenting themselves with such lodging and fare as were offered them,
and they were bound to keep themselves provided with a light which must
always be kept burning while they slept. The Templars pledged
themselves in even stricter vows, and were warrior-priests in the most
literal sense of the term. On the summit of Mount Tabor there is the
ruin of a Crusader church, whose broken walls still enclose the sacred
space where once men worshipped. Spacious and strongly built, the ruin
has a severe grandeur of its own. In the chancel an altar has been
rebuilt, and an upturned Corinthian capital set upon it, in the centre
of which is fixed a heavy iron cross. That iron cross seems to sum up in
its grave symbolism the very spirit of the Crusades. Many of their
churches were reconstructions of older Christian edifices, and most of
them have been transmuted into mosques, so that their ecclesiastical
architecture still remaining is as composite as their character and
their enterprise. Yet enough remains of what is distinctively their own
to show at once the massive strength and the decorative beauty of their
buildings. Its strength is that of men who were accustomed to build
fortresses; the buttressed walls are of immense thickness, and the
mortar is sometimes harder than the stone. Its beauty has been defaced
by the mutilation of much fine work, but from what is left we know how
well they carved; and there is a certain high solemnity about their
arches and columns which tells of men whose minds were large, strong,
and real.

One curious fact, to which Conder often directs attention, is constantly
perplexing the traveller. Their identifications of sacred sites are
those of men whose enthusiasm far exceeded their knowledge. Had they
taken time to consult the Scriptures, or to read them with any
thoughtfulness, countless errors would have been avoided. But the
soldier instinct is very far from the critical, and they were impatient
to find the sites they wished to see. Anything was sufficient for a
clue. The name Jibrin suggested “Gabriel,” and a great church arose in
honour of the Archangel. Athlit was near the sea-shore, and the
Crusaders who lived there found Tyre and Capernaum in its immediate
neighbourhood. For reasons equally cogent, Shiloh was brought within a
mile or two of Jerusalem, Shechem became Sychar, and the heights of Ebal
and Gerizim were recognised as the Dan and Bethel of Jeroboam’s calves.
Most curious of all, the little hill of Jebel Duhy, on whose summit you
look down across the valley from the top of Tabor, was named Hermon, for
no other reason than that a psalm places the two together in its promise
that “Tabor and Hermon shall rejoice in Thy name.” Altogether, these
worshippers were in too great haste. “Crusading topography is more
remarkable than reliable.”

Great as the Crusaders were in dream and in worship, it is their
fighting that remains for ever most impressive and most characteristic.
Of no men in history is the verse truer, in spite of all their
extravagances–

Know that the men of great renown
Were men of simple needs:
Bare to the Lord they laid them down
And slept on mighty deeds.

Looked at from a distance, the Crusades very generally wear the aspect
of a stream of vivid colour–a spectacular progress of Europe through a
corner of Asia, whose main feature is its brilliant picturesqueness. On
the spot the quality in them which is by far the most impressive is
their stern reality and fighting weight. The Crusader was doubtless one
who in his time played many parts, but whatever else he was, no one who
has seen the remains of his work will question that he was at least “a
first-class fighting man.” The figure of Richard, as it is preserved for
us in the records of the older historians, may be more or less
apocryphal, but it is at least true enough to crusading ideals, which
must have found many an actual realisation in these strong and fearless
soldiers of the Cross. We read of amazing captures of booty; of single
combats in which “the King at one blow severs the head, right shoulder
and arm of his opponent from the rest of his body”; of a conflict in
which only one Christian perished, while “the Turks lost seven hundred
men and above fifteen hundred horses.” At Joppa the king leaps out of
his ship before it can reach land, and rushes on the enemy. Three days
later he and his knights are surprised and have to fight half-naked,
some in their shirts and some even barefoot; yet they win. At another
time we see Richard plunging alone into the midst of the hostile army,
and fighting until Saladin’s brother sends him a gift of two Arab
war-horses to enable him to fight it out. Altogether such a hero was he,
that the Moslems asserted “that even the horses bristled their manes at
the name of Richard.” No wonder if in the popular imagination he became
for England hardly distinguishable from that St. George who had already
been identified with Perseus, who on these same sands had fought the
dragon for Andromeda.

The grandeur of crusading warfare lingers in the mighty ruins of their
castles. Nothing could surpass the impressiveness of these castles, seen
on hill-tops from below, combing the sky with the sharp broken teeth of
their ruined towers, or rearing a black “mailed head of menace” against
the stars. Many of them are on the sites of older fortresses, and
actually stand on Jewish or Roman foundations. By far the most imposing
of such castles is that of Banias, which crowns that spur of Hermon at
which “Dan leaped from Bashan” long ago. It must have been capable of
quartering a small army, and the quantity of broken vessels confirms the
impression. Cisterns, vaulted and groined archways, mosaic floors,
dungeons, and every other luxury of their European homes had been
imported hither.

The Crusaders ran a line of fortresses along that western edge of the
Jordan valley where Israel, as we saw, failed to protect the mouths of
her gorges. Belvoir, “the Star of the Wind,” guards from its lofty
promontory the passes immediately south of the Sea of Galilee. Bethshan
itself, where the Canaanites lingered to the standing shame of Israel,
shows the well-preserved remains of a crusader bridge and fortress. Not
less striking is the sea-board line of castles. Not only in such old
localities as Tyre and Sidon, Cæsarea and Joppa, did fortresses arise,
but on at least two quite new sites–those of Athlit and Acre.

[Illustration: INTERIOR OF THE DOME OF THE CHAIN, LOOKING NORTH.]

Athlit is unmentioned in Scripture, and only the eye of seafaring
soldiers could have discovered how its little crease in the long
straight line of coast might be utilised for defence. Acre is “the Key
to Syria”; but it was left for the Crusaders to discover that fact.

Yet with all this might and purpose and strategic instinct manifest in
every mile of Syria, failure is written broad across the land in these
ruins. At two points the sense of it becomes especially acute. One is
the battlefield below the very mountain which tradition has assigned to
the preaching of the Sermon on the Mount. The horrors of that field were
such that even yet it is impossible to look without shuddering upon the
flattened top of Hattin, where the black basalt stands out from the
green slopes below. The Crusaders were rushed into the open plain, near
which Saladin’s cavalry were waiting for them, and they met his assault
unfed, unrested, and without even water to quench their thirst.
Throughout a long hot day they perished round the banner of the Cross, a
final element of horror being added when the Saracens set fire to the
scrub, and unhorsed knights were roasted alive in their armour. That was
the decisive battle of the Crusades, and Saladin marched after it
straight upon Jerusalem.

The other point at which the failure of the Crusades has set up its
monument is at their own Athlit. The creation of their genius, and for
solidity and massive strength perhaps the most characteristic ruin in
Syria, it is also the saddest thing of all they have left for a
memorial. Near its rocks King Louis IX. of France–most unfortunate and
yet most saintly of all crusading kings–was shipwrecked. Here, too, at
the end of the thirteenth century, the Knights Templars made their last
retreat after the fall of Acre, and it was from its castle that they
departed–the last to abandon the last Crusade. Seen from the sea, the
compact and rounded promontory of Athlit presents the appearance of a
clenched fist menacing and defiant. Its history grimly corroborates the
imagination that here through centuries of decay the land as it were
gathers itself together, and thrusts out this grim headland in perpetual
defiance of the Western world.

The Crusades stand for more in Palestine than it is easy to realise. The
comprehensiveness of their historical significance is by no means
exhausted when we have stated it in such paradoxes as those with which
our chapter began. They were indeed the greatest sham and at the same
time the greatest reality of Syrian history, but they were far more than
that. They were heirs to all the past of the country, and they did much
to perpetuate that past and to carry it on into the time to come. Even
from the Moslem life they wrestled with, they borrowed something. They,
and the chivalry which they fostered, are the most spectacular part of
Western history, and give a dash of brilliant colour to the grey life of
the Middle Ages. That brilliance is in part the splendour of the East.
The Crusader has borrowed from the Saracen at least a scarf for his
sword.

It is chiefly as builders that the Crusaders remain in Syria exposed to
modern eyes, and in their building they have perpetuated and utilised
the other three invasions. From the first Christians they took over
their churches and rebuilt them, retaining something and adding more.
From the older Jewish architects they had almost as great an
inheritance. There seems no incongruity in the heavy stone mangers and
far-driven iron rings which they fixed in the walls of those tremendous
vaults on which the Temple area rests; and it is by a not unnatural
transference that tradition has given to these the name of Solomon’s
Stables. Solomon’s vaults they may have been, but as stables they were
of crusading origin. Their own building is a rough imitation of the
drafted stones of the Jews. The rustic work is much the same, only
rougher, but the plain chiselling is very far from the minute fineness
of the older workmanship. Altogether, they were fighters first and
builders second. Like the men of Nehemiah’s time, “every one with one of
his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon….
Every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded.” Nor did
they fail to utilise the work of Roman builders. At Cæsarea there is the
most striking instance of this, and one of the most suggestive facts in
the whole story of the Crusaders. Cæsarea was the most Roman of all
Syrian towns. Built as the seaport for Sebaste by Herod, it was the part
of Syria which travellers and governors sailing from Italy first
sighted, and it was designed to give them the impression of a land
Romanised. Herod’s delight in pillars is attested by the colonnades of
Sebaste, and the wealth of shaft and capital which marks the ruins of
all his cities. But in Cæsarea he seems to have excelled himself. The
Roman mole which forms the northern side of the harbour “is composed of
some sixty or seventy prostrate columns lying side by side in the water
like rows of stranded logs.”[31] On the long promontory south of the
mole stands the Crusader Castle, notable for the circumstance that the
Crusaders built hundreds of lighter and shorter columns into their walls
to thorough-bind them, so that, in Oliphant’s exact and graphic words,
“the butts project like rows of cannon from the side of a man-of-war.”
Which thing is for an allegory; and one of the most eloquent of all
sermons in stone it is. Rome did more for Christianity than all its
friends, while she was as yet its enemy. Without her courts of justice
Paul would have had short shrift from his countrymen. Her roads and her
citizenship gave to the first missionaries of the Cross their exit upon
the world and their opportunity. Her laws gave them not protection only,
but a groundwork for much that entered into that theology which
conquered the thought of the world. Paul appealed unto Cæsar, and he
wrote to the Romans his gospel expressed in the forms with which they
were most familiar. And it was at Cæsarea that he made his appeal, doing
in flesh and blood what his disciples a thousand years later did in
stone–thorough-binding the walls of the building of Christian faith
with Roman columns.

PART III

THE SPIRIT OF SYRIA

In the first and second parts of this book we have been collecting
impressions of the Land and its Invaders. It remains for us in the third
part to gather these together into something which may enable us to
realise more clearly the general meaning and quality of the spirit of
Syria. In the main two things must be noted, and the first of them is
religious. Whatever else Palestine may be, she is certainly a land with
a God. The meaning of Syria is disclosed in her Israelite and Christian
periods, whose great fact and characteristic process is the revelation
of God to men on earth. All her other invasions have to reckon with that
fact. Some of them were bitterly hostile to it, but they were powerless
to efface it. Others were indifferent, entering Syria for ends of their
own; but history shews them bent over to God’s purposes and
unconsciously made the instruments of working out His will. That will
brought Israel to her land, isolated her there, hemmed her in, bore her
and carried her in everlasting arms on through her centuries, finally
was incarnate in her life. For Jesus Christ was a Syrian, and we must
orientalise our thoughts of Him before we can rightly understand the
Christian revelation.

Not less clear is the second impression, which is that of the
unfinishedness and imperfection of all things Syrian. It is a place of
wreckage, new and old. But the peculiarity of that wreckage is that it
was always there, more or less. None of the ideals of the land were ever
quite realised. It was never completely conquered by the Israelites,
their ambition stopping short and their energy flagging before their
task was done. It was never completely cultivated, or made to yield its
full harvest of natural wealth. In countless small things this
incompleteness is evident. The contrast between the beauty of the
distant view and the disorder and slovenliness of the near has been
already noted. The post-office in Damascus is a quite good post-office,
so far as letters and telegrams go. But you inquire for these in a hall
which looks like a very dirty stable-yard with a very dirty fountain in
the middle of it, furnished with little rough-sawn wooden boxes for
private letters, such as no self-respecting grocer would pack with
oranges. Even the tombs, about which so much sacredness is supposed to
gather, are the untidiest of sepulchres. You may see a large and
expensive tombstone, shining white in the distance, with all the air of
aristocratic self-importance which man’s pride can lend to death; but
when you approach, it is railed off with bamboo and barbed wire which
might have been picked off a rubbish-heap. There are good roads in
places, but they lead to nowhere. Generally they collapse into mere
watercourses after a few miles, or they run on in a squared and measured
lane of sharp boulders down which no horse can walk. Nor is this
incompleteness a peculiarity of Turkish administration. Probably nothing
in Palestine is older than the landmarks which divide the fields. From
generation to generation these have been held sacred, laws against their
removal having been in force among the ancient Canaanites before the
conquest by Israel. So sacred are they that even murderers and thieves
will seldom dare to tamper with them. Yet through all the long past the
landmarks are said to have remained as the first men laid them
down–mere inconspicuous heaps of little stones, the easiest things in
the world to remove.

When we take the unfinishedness of the land along with the revelation
and consider them together, we can hardly fail to gain a lesson of
far-reaching meaning. The great incompleteness of Syria–the thing in
which her life has been most lamentably unfinished–was her response to
the revelation of her God. She never was at pains to understand it; she
never fully opened her heart to its new progress, nor felt her high
destiny as the bearer of good tidings to the world. She never seriously
set herself to obey its plainest ethical demands. The wreckage is her
price paid for the neglect. No man nor nation can finish any task to
perfection, who has not done justice to such revelation of God as his
heart and conscience have received. It is truth to the inward light that
keeps us from losing heart and enables us to feel that energy and
patience to the end are worth our while. Right dealing with revelation
is the secret of all efficient performance. The combination in
Palestine of such revelation and such defect in strenuous action shows
us a land that has just missed the most amazing destiny on earth.

It is in the remembrance of these thoughts that the chapters of this
part should be read. The Shadow of Death has fallen because these men
could not escape their knowledge of some greatness in death, more moving
than anything life had to show. The spectral is but a degenerate and
perverse form of their sense of God. The Cross gives its ethical
significance to the burden and sorrow of the land. Resurrection shows
signs even now that God has not yet done with Syria. But first, before
we treat these aspects of her spirit, let us look at it on its brighter
side–the smile and song of the land.

One easily forgets, among the many sorrows of the Holy Land, that there
is any lighter side to the picture there. Yet such a side there is, and
always has been. Nature is not always severe, nor the spirit of man
melancholy, in the East. Both nature and man are sometimes found in
lighter vein here as elsewhere. Stevenson’s most charming good word for
the world he always defended so gallantly, is specially applicable to
the Syrian part of it.–“It is a shaggy world, and yet studded with
gardens; where the salt and tumbling sea receives rivers running from
among reeds and lilies.” Syria has always known the value of her
gardens, and felt the sweet enchantment of her reeds and lilies. Was not
her first story told of a garden where four such rivers flowed, and her
noblest sermon that whose text was “the lilies of the field” and “the
birds of the air”? What pleasantness of open nature there is in these
two latter expressions! What sense of field-breadth and sky-space, in
which the Preacher had room for breathing and for delight! Every
Israelite, sitting under his vine and fig tree, or going forth to
meditate in the fields at evening, knew this charm. From of old the
inhabitants have taken delight in exchanging roofs for bowers in their
fields and gardens, or for booths, built with green branches on their
house-roofs. Many a sweet vista is seen in Palestine framed in trellised
vines or in passion-flower swinging over a roofed fountain or a garden
house. The mountains were often bare and unhomely, for at no time can
any but a minor part of them have been cultivated; yet even the
wind-swept heights were inhabited by health and hope and gladness, and
when a shepherd passed by, or the reapers shouted in the harvest-fields,
the heart of the men of Israel sang aloud. In the words of the 65th
Psalm this exhilaration and childlike glee finds its most perfect
expression; we quote them in that old Scottish rhymed version which has
so singularly caught their spirit:–

They drop upon the pastures wide,
That do in deserts lie;
The little hills on ev’ry side
Rejoice right pleasantly.

With flocks the pastures clothed be,
The vales with corn are clad;
And now they shout and sing to thee,
For thou hast made them glad.

Similarly the Jordan, usually thought of with a certain gloom, and
rendered still more dismal by its persistent allegorical association
with death, is by no means so melancholy as it is supposed to be. Its
rise, indeed, was from a black cave, where ancient pagan worship erected
its shrines, seeing life issue there from the abyss of death. Its course
leads it far down, like the dark stream of classic fable, below the
surface of the earth and ocean. Yet there is no sense of all that as
one looks at it from any point in its course. The trees of Syria are
generally disappointing. For the most part solitary, or undersized where
there is a wood, many of them are decaying, and most of them are dull in
colour. But the vegetation of the Jordan is a bright exception. Even at
its lowest point, when it is hurrying over the last miles to the Dead
Sea, it flows through that rich boscage known as the “Swellings” or the
“Pride” of Jordan, where pilgrims cut their staves. It is to this part
of its course that the words in _Tancred_ apply most exactly, “The
beauty and abundance of the Promised Land may still be found … ever by
the rushing waters of the bowery Jordan.” Warburton, describing the same
scene in early morning, speaks of the awakening of birds and beasts
there, and then the sunrise, adding, “I lingered long upon that
mountain’s brow, and thought that, so far from deserving all the dismal
epithets that had been bestowed upon it, I had not seen so cheerful or
attractive a scene in Palestine.”

The scents of the East add to the delightfulness of Nature on her
pleasant side. There are plenty of abominable smells there, but these
are in the towns and villages. The open country is continually
surprising and refreshing its travellers with new perfume. That this is
fully appreciated by the natives, no reader of the Bible can forget.
There we have the scent of spices and of wine; of the field, of water,
and of Lebanon; of budding vines, mandrakes, apples; of ointment, of
incense, and of raiment. In such references we see the East inhaling the
fragrance of the land with an almost passionate delight. It is all
there still. The scent of the desert after rain has been already
referred to, but the same aromatic perfume may be enjoyed by climbing
the hills above Beyrout, where every ground-plant seems to breathe forth
spices. Again, there are the blossoming trees, the heavy perfume of
orange-flower, and the simple fragrance of roses. Best of all, there is
the clean smell of ripe grain in the cornfields, and the fresh, briny
exhilaration of breezes from the sea.

Such is the lighter side of Nature; and man is not by any means so far
out of touch with it as is often supposed. The severity of material
conditions and of historical experience has not been able quite to
suppress man’s gaiety. It is well that this has been so, for here
certainly the words of the Scots song are true enough: “Werena my heart
licht, I wad dee.” With so much of the darker powers of the universe
pressing hard upon them, one trembles to imagine what the spirit of
Syria would have been without those inexhaustible stores of gaiety that
break forth sometimes like her great river from the very darkness of the
abyss. Her laughter is not that of progressive lands looking to the
future in the great joy of an intelligent hope. It is rather a part of
her inalienable childhood, whose fresh sweetness and virginity have
somehow been permitted to remain through all her sorrows. Renan
describes the heroes of the Bible as “always young, healthy, and strong,
scarcely at all superstitious, passionate, simple, and grand.” There is
still some inheritance of such life, perpetually young and even
childish, in the Holy Land.

The first appearance of an Eastern is grave and solemn, with an element
of contempt in it rather trying to the would-be jester or too familiar
stranger. But this is not wholly due to any weight of gloom pressing on
his heart. It has, with singular ingenuity, been traced to quite minor
and apparently insignificant causes, such as the wearing of flowing
robes by the men and the burden-bearing of the women. There can be no
doubt that both clothes and burdens exercise a powerful influence on
character; and it may well be the case that the management of their
garment has taught dignity to the men, while the carrying of heavy
waterpots has helped to make the women graceful and erect. There is also
the instinct of self-defence, and the constant remembrance of danger.
Every Eastern, however prosperous, impresses one with the idea that his
table is spread for him in the presence of his enemies. This leads
him–especially if he be an Arab–to assume a show of superiority and a
bullying swagger, which seem to the uninitiated quite impervious to any
thought of fun. But the mask is easily laid aside, and the gravest and
most contemptuous Syrian will suddenly collapse into harsh laughter or
forget himself in childish interest.

It would be wonderful if it were otherwise. The East is full of
provocatives to mirth–not merely such as seem ridiculous to a stranger
because they are foreign, but things grotesque in themselves. Take the
one instance of the camel. Much has been written about him from many
points of view, but justice has never yet been done to the camel as a
humorous person. Yet he is the most humorous of all the inhabitants of
the East. Beside him, with his sardonic pleasantry, the monkey is a
mountebank and the donkey but a solemn little ass. He has been described
as “the tall, simple, smiling camel”; but on closer acquaintance he
turns out to be hardly so simple as he might be taken for, and if he
smiles, he is generally smiling at you. The camels you meet in Syria are
carrying barley with the air of kings, and regarding their human
companions with, at best, a sentiment of contemptuous tolerance. The
lower lip of a camel is one of the most expressive features in the whole
repertoire of natural history. The humours of this animal reached for us
their climax at Sheikh Miskin, while we were waiting for the Damascus
train. A camel had been persuaded to kneel in order to receive its load
of long poles brought by the railway. It was roaring steadily, in a
fiendish and yet conscientious manner. Ten men were loading it, of whom
one stood upon its near fore-leg, two fastened the poles upon its back,
and the remaining seven looked on and made remarks. The beast waited
until the poles were all but fixed–ten of them or so. Then it indulged
in a shake, which sent them rolling in all directions. Finally it was
loaded, with two of the sticks on one side and one on the other, their
ends projecting far out behind and in front. It rose, nearly ruining a
well-dressed Arab who had somehow got in among it. Just then the train
arrived and the camel fled incontinently, sidewise like a crab,
spreading the fear of death in man and beast for many yards around, and
dragging a terrified driver, who hung on to its head-rope, across
towards the distant east. A loaded camel behaving in this fashion is a
deadlier weapon than a loaded gun.

Now the native wit always appeared to us to have modelled itself on
camel drollery of this sort. It is generally personal, and its essential
function is to hit somebody. It lacks freshness, and has a certain
suggestion of a clown with “crow’s feet” under his eyes. Sometimes
indeed a Syrian indulges in jokes at his own expense, but more
frequently his facetiousness is at the expense of others, and it is
tolerably direct. The habit of nicknames lends itself to Oriental wit,
the lean man being described familiarly as “Father of Bones,” and the
stout man as “Full Moon of Religion.” Passing through a village some
distance off the usual route of travellers, we were surrounded with
villagers who asked the dragoman why we had come. “To take away your
country!” was the answer, and it was met with peals of laughter. Another
witticism which was immensely appreciated was the remark to some farmers
who were suffering from drought that we in England had stolen their rain
and it had made many people sick there. A boatman on the Sea of Galilee
was being chaffed unmercifully upon the fact that he had once tried to
commit suicide. He appealed, smiling, to one of the passengers as “My
Father,” and pled that he had been mad when he did that. A
fellow-boatman rebuked him for calling the gentleman “father of a
lunatic,” and the whole crew was dissolved in laughter, the victim
himself heartily joining in the chorus. In Damascus we found a time-worn
Joe Miller in the shout of the nosegay-seller–a very musical cry, which
the guide-book translates “Appease your mother-in-law,” _i.e._ by
presenting her with a bouquet.

From of old pleasure has been apt to degenerate in the luxurious East,
and the fun of Syrians shows abundant traces of such degeneration. Many
unpleasant elements mingle with it. One of the recognised forces in
Eastern life is _humbug_–barefaced bluff and transparent pretence,
which is apparently seen through and yet retains its potency. The
lengths to which this method may go are almost incredible, and cases are
on record of interpreters who have volubly translated a long English
address and afterwards confessed that they did not know a word of the
English language. At times, also, high spirits leads to savagery. The
men who were in charge of our animals were kind and even affectionate to
them, but their moods changed unaccountably. Your donkey-driver,
trotting behind his donkey, will sometimes encourage it with yelling
which would fill any animal less philosophical with the fear of instant
extermination, and he jocularly throws rocks at it until you stop him.
Worst of all, the Syrian humour constantly tends towards indecency of
the most bestial type. The song with which a musical donkey-boy relieves
the monotony of the journey is sometimes quite untranslatable. The
“body-dances,” which form the staple

[Illustration: THE MOUNT OF OLIVES, FROM A HOUSE-TOP ON MOUNT ZION.]

entertainment provided by wandering Arabs, are often pantomimic, and
their crude realism is unspeakably disgusting.

Yet there is a very innocent and cheerful vein in the human nature of
Syria. At times it is irrelevant and trying. The camp guards, _e.g._ who
are hired from the nearest village to watch the sleeping tents, are apt
to beguile the hours of darkness in a manner hardly conducive to repose.
In most of our camps they were silent figures, flitting about in an
almost ghostly fashion, with perfectly noiseless footsteps. But
MacGregor complains of having had to pay his Egyptian guards “for
sleeping very loud to keep away the robbers.” Our difficulties were not
exactly the same as his, but in some places the guards kept singing as
they paced to and fro, and shouted cheerily to one another along the
whole length of the encampment, or whistled incessantly, and
occasionally fired guns to prove their vigilance. There is a sense of
spontaneity and heartiness about the mirth of the East which throws into
strong contrast its subtler and more gloomy characteristics.
Irresponsible and gay, Syrians seem to be grown-up children, and they
retain the ways of childhood. We rarely saw children playing games, but
bands of full-grown men were seen at times playing schoolboys’ field
games with much shouting. Everybody in the cities appears to be either
selling or eating sweetmeats. Sport is rare, but men go forth with guns
to shoot little birds like sparrows. One of the most curious sights of
Damascus is that of shopkeepers and artisans who go about the streets
followed by pet lambs instead of dogs, the wool of these strange little
creatures being dyed in brilliant spots of blue or pink.

The kindliness of the East is as genuine and as pleasing as that of any
land in the West. It is not in evidence indeed when there is nothing to
call it forth. As you pass through the country, the villagers and
townsfolk regard you with indifference if not with scorn. But one must
remember the universal _acting_ of the East–its devotion to
appearances, and its very curious ideas as to which appearances are most
becoming. With that in mind, the indifference and the scorn become less
alarming. You may find the whole spirit of the situation suddenly change
to one of the kindliest. A traveller who has fallen victim to one of the
malarial fevers which are so common in Syria at certain periods, will
never forget the tenderness with which his camp-servants come about his
tent inquiring, “Ente mabsut?” (Are you happy, or well?). When he
returns the inquiry the answer is, “Ente mabsut, ana mabsut” (If you are
happy, I am happy). At Sidon we had just arrived and had the tents
pitched in the open space next the burying-ground. It was Thursday, and
the graves were crowded with visitors–Mohammedan women in black, white,
or light-coloured robes. They did not seem very sad, even beside the
most recent graves, but gossiped and enjoyed their half-holiday,
disappearing before sunset silently, like a flock of pigeons to their
dovecots. The spectacle was theatrical and almost unearthly. It was
difficult to persuade oneself that these flitting figures were really
women at all; they seemed rather to be animated bits of landscape. Just
while we were watching this, and feeling all its dreamy remoteness from
human life as we had ever known it, two new figures appeared. They were
the gardener of a neighbouring garden and his young daughter Wurda
(Rhoda, Rose). She was five years of age, a tiny vision of black eyes
and hair, the hair being arranged in two pigtails down her back. She
brought a little bunch of roses for each of us, and as she gave them
kissed our hands with as sweet a shyness as any child anywhere could
have done. The incident, like that on the hill of Samaria, lingers on
the memory, and bears witness to a world of gentleness and kindliness
such as we had little dreamed of. Altogether there are abundant signs
that in ancient days there must have been much of that Syrian life
described by one scholar as “gay and bright, festive and musical–the
very home of songs and dances.” It is pleasant to know that although the
fortunes of the land have saddened her so terribly, there still remains
something at least of her former gaiety.

Even the religion of Syria has its lighter side. Every student of the
Bible knows how much there was of rejoicing and fresh childlike
revelling in the situation, in the worship of ancient Israel. It is
peculiarly interesting to find that in the Semitic worship before and
apart from the invasion of Israel, so kindly and friendly a relation
subsisted between man and his gods. “The circle into which a man was
born was not simply a group of kinsfolk and fellow-citizens, but
embraced also certain divine beings, the gods of the family and of the
state, which to the ancient mind were as much a part of the particular
community with which they stood connected as the human members of the
social circle.”[32] Accordingly it would appear that among these ancient
Semites the conception of sacrifice was by no means so gloomy as it came
to be later, when the moral tragedy of life was more clearly realised.
The idea was that of “communion with the deity in a sacrificial meal of
holy food.” They “go on eating and drinking and rejoicing before their
god with the assurance that he and they are on the best of jovial good
terms…. Ancient religion assumes that through the help of the gods
life is so happy and satisfactory that ordinary acts of worship are all
brightness and hilarity, expressing no other idea than that the
worshippers are well content with themselves and with their divine
sovereign.”[33]

Of course the severer truth and cleaner conscience which Israel’s
revelation brought her gradually deepened the shadows on her religious
life. She substituted duty for happiness, the beauty of holiness for the
mere _joie de vivre_, and the tragic blessedness of forgiveness for the
careless pleasures of life. Yet to the end she retained and insisted on
the gladness of religion. The duty of joy was a command and not merely
an epigram for Israel. Dante himself was not more explicit in his
condemnation of perverse sullenness than was he who wrote, “Because
thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of
heart, for the abundance of all things: therefore shalt thou serve thine
enemies.”[34]

It is surely a very striking fact that the spots which all travellers
select as those in which the gladness of the land dwells most freely
still are Nazareth and Bethlehem. For beauty of feature and of dress,
and for their general air of pleasant and light-hearted gaiety, these
are the acknowledged centres. It was of Bethlehem that we felt this most
true. Its name, signifying “House of Bread,” is significant of plenty
and of comfort. Its associations, even apart from the song of angels
there, are sweet and gracious. While approaching it, you look across a
pleasant and lightsome landscape to the dim blue mountains of Moab, and
remember how Ruth looked across these very fields, when the reapers of
Boaz were working in them, to her distant home in those mountains. Here
it was that King David in his boyhood played and tended the flocks of
his father, and it was the water of that sweet well for which he longed
in the days of his adversity. These and a hundred other memories prepare
the traveller for a place of gracious and kindly sweetness.