THE COLOUR OF THE LAND

A journey through the Holy Land may reasonably be expected to be in some
sort a sacramental event in a man’s life. Spiritual things are always
near us, and we feel that we have a heritage in them; yet they
constantly elude us, and need help from the senses to make them real and
commanding. Such sacramental help must surely be given by anything that
brings vividly to our realisation those scenes and that life in the
midst of which the Word was made flesh. The more clearly we can gain the
impression of places and events in Syria, the more reasonable and
convincing will Christian faith become.

Everything which revives the long past has power to quicken the
imagination, and site-hunters and relic-hunters in any field have much
to say for themselves. Now, apart altogether from the Christian story,
Syria has the spell of a very ancient land. The mounds that break the
level on the plain of Esdraelon represent six hundred years of buried
history for every thirty feet of their height. Among the first objects
pointed out to us in Palestine was a perforated stone which serves now
as ventilator for a Christian meeting-house in Lebanon, but which was
formerly a section of Zenobia’s aqueduct. In Syria the realisation of
the past is continual, and the centuries mingle in a solemn confusion.
Its modern life seems of little account, and is in no way the rival of
the ancient. In London, or even in Rome, the new world jostles the old;
in Palestine the old is so supreme as to seem hardly conscious of the
new.

All this reaches its keenest point in connection with men’s worship; and
what a long succession of worshippers have left their traces here! The
primitive rock-hewn altar, the Jewish synagogue, the Greek temple, the
Christian church, the Mohammedan mosque–all have stood in their turn on
the same site. His must be a dull soul surely who can feel no sympathy
with the Moslem, or even with the heathen worship. These religions too
had human hearts beating in them, and wistful souls trying by their help
to search eternity. To the wise these dead faiths are full of meaning.
Through all their clashing voices there sounds the cry of man to his
God–a cry more often heard and answered than we in our self-complacency
are sometimes apt to think.

The sacramental quality of the Holy Land is of course felt most by those
who seek especially for memories and realisations of Jesus Christ.
Within the pale of Christianity there are several different ways of
regarding the land as holy, and most of them lead to disappointment. The
Greek and Roman Catholic Churches vie with one another in their passion
for sites and relics there, and seem to lose all sense of the
distinction between the sublime and the grotesque in their eagerness
for identifications. A Protestant counterpart to this mistaken zeal is
that of the huntsmen of the fields of prophecy, who cannot see a bat
fluttering about a ruin or a mole turning up the earth without turning
ecstatically to Hebrew prophetic books,–as if these were not the habits
of bats and moles all the world over. Apart from either of these, there
are others less orthodox but equally superstitious who have some vague
notion of occult and magic qualities which differentiate this from all
other regions of the earth. Benjamin Disraeli and Pierre Loti are
representatives of this point of view. The former is persuaded that the
land “must be endowed with marvellous and peculiar qualities”; and the
hero of his _Tancred_ seeks and finds there supernatural communications
from the unseen world. The latter tells in his _Jérusalem_ how he went
to Palestine with the hope that some experience might be given him which
would revive his lost faith in Christianity. He returned, a disappointed
sentimentalist. The saddening and yet fascinating narrative reaches its
climax in Gethsemane, where, beating his brow in the darkness against an
olive tree, he waited (as he himself confesses) for he knows not what.
His words are: “Non, rien: personne ne me voit, personne ne m’écoute,
personne ne me répond.”

The belief in miracle is always difficult: nowhere is it so difficult as
on the traditional site. The earth is just earth there as elsewhere; and
the sky seems almost farther above it. The rock is solid rock; the
water, air, trees, hills are uncompromising terrestrial realities. It
is wiser to abandon the attempt at forcing the supernatural to reveal
itself, and to turn to the human side of things as the surest way of
ultimately arriving at the divine. When that has been deliberately done
the reward is indeed magnificent. An unexpected and overwhelming sense
of reality comes upon the sacred narrative. These places and the life
that inhabited them are actualities, and not merely items in an ancient
book or the poetic background of a religious experience. More
particularly when you look upward to the hills, you find that your help
still cometh from them. Their great sky-lines are unchanged, and the
long vistas and clear-cut edges which you see are the same which filled
the eyes of prophets and apostles, and of Jesus Christ Himself.

It is this, especially as it regards the Saviour of mankind, that is the
most precious gain of Syrian travel. Now and again it comes on one with
overpowering force. Sailing up the coast, this impression haunted the
long hours. As we gazed on the mountains, and the image of them sank
deeper and deeper, the thought grew clear in all its wonder that
somewhere among these heights He had wandered with His disciples, and
sat down by the sides of wells to rest. In camp at Jericho we were
confronted by an uncouth, blunt-topped mountain mass, thrusting itself
aggressively up on the Judean side, in itself a very rugged and
memorable mountain-edge. Not till the light was fading, and the bold
outline struck blacker and blacker against the sky, did the fact
suddenly surprise us that this was Quarantana, the Mountain of
Temptation. Then we understood that wilderness story in all its
unprotected loneliness, and we almost saw the form of the Son of Man.

Thus, as day after day he rides through the country, the traveller finds
new meaning in the words, “I have glorified Thee _on the earth_.” An
inexpressible sense possesses him of the reality of Jesus Christ. These
pathways were, indeed, once trodden by His feet; through these valleys
He carried the lamp of life; under these stars He prayed; through this
sunshine He lay in a rock-hewn grave. To a man’s dying day he will be
nearer Christ for this. The chief sorrow of the Christian life for most
of us is the difficulty of realisation. At times we have all had to flog
up our imagination to the “realising sense” of Christ. After this
journey that necessity is gone. It is almost as if in long past years we
had seen Him there, and heard Him speak. The divine mystery of Christ is
all the more commanding when the human fact of Jesus has become almost a
memory rather than a belief.

Every land has a scheme of colour of its own, and while form and outline
are the first, they are not the most permanent nor the deepest
impressions which a region makes upon its travellers. It is the colour
of the land which slowly and almost unconsciously sinks in upon the
beholder day by day. We observe the outlines of a scene; we remember its
colouring.

This is especially true of Palestine. Nothing about it is more
distinctive than its colour-scheme; and nothing is perhaps less familiar
to those who have not actually seen it. Syria may be treated as if it
were Italy, or even Egypt–in hard intense colouring; or it may be
treated as if it were England, in strong tones but with a certain homely
softening of edge. Neither of these modes is true to Syria. Its
edge-lines are sharp, but they are traced in such faint shades as to
produce an effect very difficult either to reproduce or to describe, and
yet impossible to forget.

The colours are manifold, and they vary considerably with the seasons of
the year. Yet the bare hill-sides (which form the greater masses of
colour in most landscapes), the desert, and the distant mountain ranges,
are ever the same. Most travellers make their first acquaintance with
Palestine in Judea, entering it from Jaffa. When the plains are behind
you, and you are in among the valleys up which the road climbs to
Jerusalem, you at once recognise the fact that a new and surprising
world of colour has been entered. In the valley-bottom there may be but
a dry watercourse, or perhaps a rusty strip of cultivated land; but
above you there is sure to be the outcrop of white and grey limestone.
In some places it appears in characterless and irregular blotches whose
grotesque intrusion seems to confuse and caricature the mountain side.
This is, however, only occasional, and the usual and characteristic
appearance is that of long and flowing lines of striation which
generally follow pretty closely the curve of the sky-line. The colours
of these strata are many. You have rich brown bands, dark red, purple,
yellow, and black ones; but these are toned down by the dominant grey of
the broader bands, and the general effect is an indistinct grey with a
bluish tinge, to which the coloured bands give a curiously artificial
and decorative appearance. As a work of Art Judea is most interesting;
as part of Nature it is almost incredible.

In the northern district, near Bethel, everything yields to stone, and
the brighter colours disappear. The mountain slopes shew great naked
ribs and bars–the gigantic stairs of Jacob’s dream. On the heights your
horse slips and picks his way over long stretches of

[Illustration: THE MOUNT OF TEMPTATION, FROM JERICHO.

The Mount of Temptation is one of the spurs of the mountains which
overlook the deep valley of the Jordan on its western side. The central
peak is the traditional site of the Temptation of Christ.]

smooth white rock; in the valleys the soil is buried under innumerable
boulders and fragments of broken rock.

The whole land is stony, but Judea shews this at its worst. It is an
immense stone wedge thrust into Palestine from east to west. South of it
lie the fertile valleys of Hebron, with their wealth of orchard and
plantation. North of it open the “fat valleys” of Samaria, winding among
rounded hills planted to the top with olives, or terraced for vines.
Over these, here and there, a red cliff may hang, or the irrigation
ditches may furrow and interline a vale of dove-coloured clay. But while
the green of Judea is for the most part but the thinnest veil of sombre
olive-green, a mere setting for the rocks, Samaria is a really green
land, variegated by stone.

In the north of Samaria the land sinks gradually upon the Plain of
Esdraelon. As we saw it first it was covered by a yellow mist through
which nothing could be seen distinctly. But afterwards, viewed in its
whole expanse from the top of Tabor in clear sunlight, the great
battlefield of the Eastern world appeared in characteristic garb–“red
in its apparel,” with the very colour of the blood which has so often
drenched it.

Galilee repeats the limestone outcrop of Judea, but in far gentler
fashion, the undergrowth and trees softening almost every landscape, and
the mountains leading the eye along bold sky-lines to rest on that form
of beauty and of light which masters and watches over the whole
land–the white Hermon. Hermon is always white. But sometimes when
clouds are forming rapidly around its summit, it is a wonder of
brightness. On no other mountain, surely, was it that “a bright cloud
overshadowed” Jesus and his three friends. Even now, on many a summer
day, Hermon is lost in a changing glory of frosted silver, when the sun
strikes upon its cloudwork, and the long trails of snow in the corries
stream towards the plain below.

The limestone runs on into Phœnicia, and seems to grow whiter there.
Nothing could be finer than the valleys east of Tyre at harvest time,
when the fields of ripe grain wave below cliffs white as marble, and the
whole scene, with its foreground of brilliantly robed reapers, is a
study in white and gold. But in the higher valleys of Phœnicia the rock
breaks through a rich red soil, which in parts is gemmed with the
curious and beautiful “Adonis stones”–little egg-shaped bits of
sandstone, dyed to the heart of them with deep crimson, as if they had
been steeped in newly shed blood. Little wonder if the women of old days
“wept for Tammuz” at the sight of them.

The thing most characteristic of Syrian colour is its faintness and
delicacy. Pierre Loti, who in this matter is a witness worthy of all
regard, is constantly ending the colour adjectives in his Syrian books
with _-atre_–“yellowish,” “bluish,” “greenish,” etc. The general
impression is of dim and faded tints, put on, as it were, in thin
washes. In the stoniest regions there seems to be no colour at all, as
if the sun had bleached them. The curious colouring of the Judean
valleys, which has been described, is never aggressive, and it takes
some carefulness of observation to see anything in them more than a blue
green in the sparsely-planted olive-groves fading into faint greenish
grey above. The valleys of ripe sesame and vetch are washed into the
picture in pale yellow or yellow ochre. Where tilled earth appears it is
generally a variegated expanse of light brown, or pink, or terra-cotta.
The eastern slopes of Hermon, below the snow, shew vertical stripes like
those of the haircloth and jute garments of the peasants, washed out
with rain and sun; or they are spread upon the roots of the mountain
like some vast Indian shawl cunningly and minutely interwoven with red
and green threads, but worn almost threadbare. As you approach a village
in strong sunlight, you see it as a dark brown mass shaded angularly
with black; but it seems to float above a mist of the airiest purple
sheen, where the thinly-planted iris-flowers stand among the graves
before the walls. The Sea of Galilee, as we saw it, was light blue; the
Dead Sea was light green, with a haze of evaporation rendering it even
fainter in the distance.

If this be true of the near, it is doubly so of the distant, landscape.
In a country so mountainous and so sheer-cleft as Palestine, distant
views are seen for the most part as vistas, the “land that is very far
off” revealing itself at the end of some =V=-shaped gorge or towering over
some intermediate mountain range. Of course distant views are faint in
all lands, but in Palestine the clear air keeps them distinct with
clean-cut edge, however faint they are. Thus there is perhaps nothing
more delicate and _spirituel_ in the world than those faint dreamlike
mountains in the extreme distance of Syrian vistas–the hills east of
Jordan grey, with a mere suspicion of blue in them, or the lilac and
heliotrope mountains of the desert which form the magic background of
Damascus looking eastward.

Reference has been made to the irises (the “lilies of the field”) near
villages. These are but typical of the general sheen of that carpet of
wild flowers which every spring-time spreads over the land. They are of
every colour. There are scarlet poppies and crimson anemones, blue dwarf
cornflowers, yellow marigolds, white narcissus (said to be the Rose of
Sharon); but here they seldom grow in patches of strong hue. Each flower
blooms apart, and the sheen of them is delicate and suggestive rather
than gorgeous. They seem to share the reticence and shyness of the land,
and tinge rather than paint it. Even the animal life conforms to this
dainty rule; lizards are everywhere, but their colouring is that of
their environment, now stone-grey, now wine-red, now straw-coloured.
Chameleons are anything you please–green in growing corn, black among
basalt rocks. Tortoises are blue at the sulphur springs, brown or slate
in the muddy banks of streams.

This faintness is, however, but half the truth of the colour of Syria.
Everywhere it is rendered emphatic by certain vivid splashes of the most
daring brilliance. Wherever springs are found you have instances of this
contrast, and Palestine is essentially the land of bright foregrounds
thrown up against dim backgrounds.

The Jordan valley is the greatest example, running south along its whole
length, “a green serpent” between the pale mountains of the east and the
faint mosaic of the western land. Its jungle is uncompromisingly
distinct throughout the entire course, and its colour is living green,
with a white flash of broken water or a quiet flow of brown bursting
here and there through the verdure. Other streams are similarly marked,
with luxurious undergrowth of reeds, varied by clumps of hollyhock or
edged with winding ribbons of magenta oleander. But the most striking
oases of this kind are the valley of Shechem and the city of Damascus.
There is a hill seldom visited by tourists, but well worth climbing, set
in the broad vale of Makhna, right opposite Jacob’s Well. North and
south past the foot of this hill runs the broad valley. It is edged on
the western side by the continuous line of the central mountain range of
Samaria–continuous except for one great gash, where, as if a giant’s
sword had cleft the range, the valley of Shechem enters that of Makhna
at right angles. The whole landscape is in dim colour except for that
valley of Shechem. Ebal and Gerizim guard its eastern end, dull and
rocky both. But the valley which they guard is fed by countless springs
and intersected by rivulets, so that below the shingle of their slopes
there spreads a fan-shaped expanse of intensely vivid green, like a
carpet flung out from Nablus between the mountains. The lower edge of
the green is broken by the white wall of the enclosure of Jacob’s Well,
and the cupola of Joseph’s tomb. Damascus–surely the most bewitching
of cities–owes its witchery to the same cause. The river Abana spends
itself upon the city. As you approach it from the south it discloses
itself as a mass of bold outline and high colour in the midst of a great
field of verdure, flanked on the west by precipitous hills of sand and
rock–sheer tilted desert. When you climb those hills you see the white
city, jewelled with her minarets of many hues, resting on a cloth of
dark green velvet whose edge is sharply defined. Immediately beyond that
edge the sand begins, stretching into the farther desert through paler
and paler shades of rose and yellow to the lilac hills in the eastern
distance.

It is not only the water-springs, however, that provide the land with
vivid foregrounds. Loti describes a little sand-hill in the desert “all
bespangled with mica,” which “sets itself out, shining like a silver
tumulus.” Such bold and detached features are by no means uncommon even
on the west of the Jordan. The name of the cliff “Bozez” in Michmash
means “shining,” and there are many shining rocks in these
valleys–either masses of smooth limestone, or dark basalt rocks, from
whose dripping surface the sun is reflected in blinding splendour after
rain. Even without such reflection the sudden intrusion of black rock
will often give character to an otherwise neutral landscape.

But the sun is the magician of Syria, who bleaches her and then throws
up against his handiwork the boldest contrasts of strong light and
shade. No one who has seen the crimson flush of sunset on the olives,
or the sudden change of a grey Judean hill-side to rich orange, or the
whole eastern cliffs of the Sea of Galilee turned to the likeness of
flesh-coloured marble, will be likely to forget the picture. Loti’s
wonderful description of desert sunsets–“incandescent violet, and the
red of burning coals”–is not overdrawn. Shadows will transform the
poorest into the richest colouring. The tawny desert changes to the
luscious dark of lengthening indigo at the foot of a great rock; and the
shadows of clouds float across Esdraelon, changing the red plain to deep
wine-colour as they pass. Silhouettes are of daily occurrence in that
crisp air. One scene in particular made an indelible impression. It was
a village on terraced heights, thrown black against a gold and
heliotrope sunset. The figures of Arabs standing or sitting statuesque
upon the sky-line were magnified to the appearance of giant guardians of
the walls, and the miserable little hamlet might have been an
impregnable fortress.

The inhabitants have entered with full sympathy into the spirit of this
play of foreground. They are spectacular if they are anything. Their
religion forbids them all practice of the graphic arts, and most of the
Western pictures which are to be seen in churches are execrable enough
to reconcile them to the restriction. But they obey the law in small
things only to break it by transforming themselves and their
surroundings into one great picture. Their clothing, their buildings,
and their handiwork are a brilliant foil to the dull background. From
them Venice learned her bright colouring, and there are few English
homes which have not borrowed something from them.

In part, this is thrust upon them by the sun. The interiors of houses
are all Rembrandt work, as Conder has happily remarked. The rooms are
dark, and the windows very small. But when the sun shines through the
apertures, their rich brown rafters and red pottery gleam out of the
shadow. One such interior is especially memorable, where a bar of
intense sunlight lit up the skin and many-coloured garments of children
sitting in the window-sill, while through the open door the green grass
of the courtyard shone. Still more wonderful is the effect when one
opens the door of a silk-winding room in sunlight, and sees the colours
wound on the great spindles, or when one enters the dark archways of the
bazaars where long shafts of light striking down slantwise upon a
shining patch below turn the brown shadow of the arch to indigo. The
natives see this, and love the lusciousness of it. They build minarets
cased with emerald tiles, or domes of copper which will soon be coated
with verdigris. Of late years a further touch has been added in the
red-tiled roofs which are already so popular in the towns.

In proof of the genius of the Easterns for colour, nothing need be
mentioned but their carpets and their glass. The glass of old windows in
mosques beggars all description. It is an experience rather than a
spectacle. The panes are so minute, and so destitute of picture or of
pattern, that they are unnoticed in

[Illustration: CANA OF GALILEE.

This is the village of Kafr Kenná, believed to be the Cana of the New
Testament, where our Lord performed His first miracle at the marriage
feast.]

detail, and the general effect is that of a religious atmosphere in
which all one’s ordinary thoughts and feelings are lost in the
overpowering sense of “something rich and strange.” After the magic of
that light, with its blended purple and amber and ruby, the finest
Western work seems harsh. It is hardly light; it is illuminated shadow.
The rugs and carpets, with their intricate colouring, are more familiar
and need not be described. The finest of them are of silk, and their
delicacy of shade is marvellous. The patterns constantly elude the eye,
promising and just almost reaching some recognisable figure, only to
lose themselves in a bright maze. It is said that they were suggested by
the meadows of variegated flowers; but they are intenser and more
passionate–as if their designers had felt that their task was to supply
an even stronger counterpart to the faint landscape.

The gay clothing of the East is proverbial. Even the poorest peasants
are resplendent. “Fine linen” is still the mark of the rich man, but
Lazarus can match him for “scarlet.” In certain parts the men are clad
in coats of sheepskin, the wool being inside, and protruding like a
heavy fringe along the edges. Almost everybody’s shoes are bright red.
In one place we saw a shepherd whose sheepskin coat had met with an
accident, and the patch which filled the vacant space in the raw brown
back of him was of an elaborate tartan cloth. In another village all the
men wore crimson aprons. When our camp-servants were on the march they
seemed to be in sackcloth, or in thick grey felt which suggested
fire-proof apparel; but when they reached a town they blossomed out into
a rainbow. Children playing in a village street, women at the wells,
statuesque shepherds standing solitary in the fields, all seemed
arranged as for a tableau. Everybody official–the railway guard, the
escort, even the mourner at a funeral–is immensely conscious of his
dignity; and on him descends the spirit of Solomon in all his glory. The
man you hire to guide you for a walk of half a dozen miles will
disappear into his house and emerge in gorgeous array. One of our guides
decked himself in flowing yellow robes and marched before us
ostentatiously carrying in front of him a weapon which appeared to be a
cross between a carving-knife and a reaping-hook, through a land
peaceful as an infant school. A procession marching to some sacred place
across a plain lights the whole scene as with a string of coloured
lanterns. Even where the natives have adopted European dress the fez is
retained, and a crowd of men, seen from above, is always ruddy.

The delight in strong colour goes even one step farther. The rich hues
of the flesh in sunny lands seem to suit the landscape, and one soon
learns to sympathise with the native preference for dusky and brown
complexions. To them a fair skin appears leprous, though bright flaxen
or auburn hair are regarded with great admiration. Not satisfied,
however, with their natural beauty, the Syrians paint and tattoo their
flesh in the most appalling manner, and redden their finger-nails with
henna. Fashionable ladies, and in some places men also, paint their
eyebrows to meet, and touch in their eyelids with antimony, whose blue
shadow is supposed to convey the impression of irresistible eyelashes.
In towns where “the Paris modes” are the sign of smartness, some of the
girls paint their faces pink and white–faces painted with a vengeance,
with a thick and shining enamel which transforms the wearers into
animated wax dolls of the weirdest appearance. But that which shocks the
unsophisticated traveller most is the tattooing of many of the women.
Some of them are marked with small arrow-head blue patches on forehead,
cheeks, and chin; others are lined and scored like South Sea Islanders,
and their lower lips transformed entirely from red to blue.

All this is savage enough, but it illustrates in its own crude way that
delight in strong colour which transforms the human life of the East
into such a vivid foreground to the faint landscape. In the dress there
is artistic instinct as well as barbaric splendour, and in the carpets,
the mosaics, and the glass there is brilliant and matchless artistry. As
to the general principle which has been stated in regard to natural
colouring, this is as it always must have been. These were the quiet
hues of the land, and these the brilliant points of strong light in it
which Christ’s eyes saw, and which gave their colour to the Gospels.