THE LAND OF THE CROSS

It is a sad view of the spirit of Syria which the last chapters have
offered, yet it is but too true. We must linger yet a little longer
listening to “the sob of the land” before we turn to that which is at
once the explanation and the hope of relief for its long sorrow. Apart
altogether from the ghostly elements in this land of ruins, the mere
melancholy is persistent and depressing as one moves from place to
place. The gloom is so ominous, as to be at times suggestive of a
supernatural curse that broods upon everything with its depressing
weight. The khans outside of villages are in ruins; so are the bridges
over streams, and the castles on the hills. Amid such scenery it is
natural to remember the defeats rather than the glories of the past, and
the national history seems to be one long record of misfortune. In the
modern conditions of life in Palestine the long story of tears and blood
seems to be continued in the haggard desolation of its present.

Two things especially must send this impression home even to the most
casual observer, viz. the heartlessness of toil and the prevalence of
disease. In every country much must always depend on the spirit in which
men labour. Where the walls of its cities rise to music, as the old glad
legends told of Troy and Thebes, there is hope and promise; but here
there is no song to help men’s toil. It is hard and joyless, with little
promise and less hope. With the death of these self-respect also dies;
and work, without incentives to anything which might tempt ambition,
remains merely as a hard necessity and a curse.

Next to its heartless toil the uncured sickness of the land contributes
to the deep sadness of its spirit. Disease seems to stare you everywhere
in the face. Superstition and fatalism combined have blocked all
progress in medical science. The people are naturally healthy; and their
strong constitutions, kept firm by plain living, yield to medical
treatment in a marvellous way. But when any serious accident has
happened, or any dangerous disease infected them, they are utterly
helpless, and things take their course. The medicinal springs form an
exception to this rule, and seem to be the one real healing agency in
the country. Their bluish waters bubble with sulphuretted hydrogen, and
smell abominably, but they cure sicknesses of some kinds. For other
diseases there is no native cure. Those which are most in evidence are
ulcers and inflammatory diseases of the eyes. The natives appear to be
immune so far as malaria is concerned; but a peculiar kind of decline is
not uncommon, in which the emaciation is so great as to reduce the
patient to the appearance of a skeleton, with great lustrous eyes. It
need hardly be said that the characteristic disease of Syria is leprosy.
The first object which attracts the eye after you arrive at the railway
station of Jerusalem is an immense leper hospital. In a case which
created some sensation lately in the south of England, it turned out
that a fraudulent Syrian had been raising money for a non-existent
hospital at Tirzah, which was to accommodate eleven thousand lepers. Of
course the figure was a monstrous one, but the fact that it was invented
shews how terrible a scourge this is. It is a curious circumstance that
the inhabitants of towns do not contract leprosy. It appears in
villages, and the sufferers are at once driven out, to wander to the
larger towns, outside of which they settle in communities or beg by the
wayside. The view of the north-east end of Jerusalem from the Mount of
Olives shews a roadside which is always dotted with these pitiable folk.
For many travellers this is the road of their first journey from the
city, leading over Olivet to Bethany, and they are not likely to forget
that ride. Lepers, in all stages of hideous decay, line the roadside;
real or sham paralytics sprawl and shake in the middle of the path, so
that the horses have actually to pick their way among the bodies of
them. The epileptics appear to be frauds. Their faces are covered, but
they see what is going on well enough to stop shaking when the horses
have passed. The leprosy is all too real. Arms covered with putrid
sores, hands from which the fingers have one after another fallen off,
and husky voices begging from throats already half eaten out–these
cannot be imitated.

As to the causes of Syrian disease, and leprosy in particular, there
seems to be much obscurity. Perhaps the word that comes nearest to an
explanation is uncleanness, and the promise of “a fountain opened for
sin and for uncleanness” may have a physical as well as a spiritual
significance. The land is incredibly contaminated with filth, as the
following quotation shews: “Sir Charles Warren tells us that the soil in
which he made some of his excavations was so saturated with disease
germs that his workmen were often attacked with fever, especially if
they had any sore or scratch on their hands.”[59] It would be hard to
find words more significant than these.

For this state of matters, and for its continuance from generation to
generation, many reasons may be given. The usual explanation of the
whole is the government, with its soldiers and its taxation. The wild
notes of Turkish bugle-calls answering each other across Jerusalem sound
harsh, and as it were blasphemous, and further travel deepens the
resentment rather than removes it. When, behind all the present evils,
one remembers the past, with its massacres and all its other iniquities,
one’s heart grows hot. One Syrian, after narrating a specially
aggravated case of oppression, asked us if we knew “the story of the
prophets Ananias and Sapphira.” We said we had heard it; and he added,
“Ah, in _those_ days God punished at once; now, _God waits_!” Dr.
Thomson somewhere quotes a proverb to the effect that, “Wherever the
hoof of a Turkish horse rests it leaves barrenness behind it”; and all
that is seen in Syria tends to prove that saying but too true. Every
possible experiment in misgovernment seems to have been made here.
Frequent change of governors, underpayment of officials, conscription of
the most ruinous sort, bribery, cruelty, fanaticism, laziness,
sensuality, and stupidity–all are to be seen open and without pretence
at concealment.

Yet in the interest of truth it ought to be remembered that there is
another side to the story. The incident of the horse at Banias[60] made
one understand how a Turk might answer his critics, with some show of
reason, that this was the only sort of government these people could
understand. Of course it might be again replied that it was oppression
that had brought this about. Yet it is perfectly clear that Syrian
character is very far from that of martyred innocence. From whatever
causes it has come about, the fact is certain that in many respects the
moral sense of Palestine is as depraved as that of her oppressors. Her
worst enemy is her own wickedness.

Thus many elements enter into the desolation of the Holy Land, and make
it a place of decaying body and of shiftless spirit, but of all these
elements the ethical is supreme. The very look of the country suggests
this. It is not merely stony; as has been cleverly said, it seems to
have been _stoned_–stoned to death for its sins. The loose boulders of
Judea, and the scattered ruins of old vineyard terraces and village
walls, present all the appearance of flung missiles. This view of the
case is acknowledged freely by the inhabitants themselves, in whose
thoughts judgment has a prominent place. The buried cities of Sodom and
Gomorrah are favourite subjects of reflection with disciples of all the
creeds. A somewhat similar story is told of the Lake of Phiala, a
volcanic mountain lake south of Hermon. Tradition tells of a village
submerged below its waters “to punish the inhabitants for their
inhospitable treatment of travellers,” and there are many other stories
of judgment in the country. Yet the judgment always falls upon some one
else than the narrator of the story, who would not insult your
intelligence by supposing that you thought _him_ in need of judgment.
Even in the familiar quotations from the litany chanted by the Jews at
their Wailing-Place, the confession of sin is conspicuous by its
absence. There is sore mourning over the departed glories of the land,
but the only sins confessed are those of priests and kings long dead. To
all creeds alike the essential element in religion seems to be ritual
performance, and the ideal life is accordingly not one of ethical
character but of formal correctness. And yet in the midst of all this
self-righteous complacency, any one can see that every part of the land
is being judged and is bearing the punishment of sin. Jericho, squatting
sordidly amid the ruins of its ancient Hellenism, looked down upon by
the severe and barren mountain where Jesus hungered, is a monument of
the reality of ethical distinctions as hard and practical facts. They
may be ignored, but they must be reckoned with in the end.

Of the ethical significance of the fate of Palestine there cannot be a
moment’s doubt. It is here that the love and care of God have been met
and foiled by the sin and carelessness of man. In regard to its whole
moral and social life, there is one overmastering conviction which grows
upon the traveller from day to day. That conviction is, that it is a
land which requires and demands righteousness. Nature and man are in
close touch, and each depends upon the other. It is not a desert, where
no amount of labour can produce result; nor is it a luxuriant tropical
country whose fruits fall ripe and untoiled for into man’s hand. It
demands labour, but it answers to it. The least effort of man to be a
man and do his human work meets with immediate and generous response.
Neglected plains and valleys, once rich, are now a wilderness; the most
unpromising hillsides, where terracing and irrigation

[Illustration: THE ROCK-CUT TOMBS OF THE VALLEY OF JEHOSHAPHAT.

These tombs are opn the eastern side of the alley facing the East Wall
of the Temple Area.]

have kept the human side of the compact, are fertile. The labour would
indeed require to be hard and unremitting. Many of the streams are so
deep sunk in their channels that extraordinary enterprise would be
needed to raise their waters for irrigation or to conduct them from
higher levels in long conduits. Yet every remaining arch of an old
aqueduct, and every watermill whose wheel thuds round in its heavy way,
shew that such enterprise is possible. Each of those grooved and
checkered valleys where men with their naked feet open and close the
little gates of clay, and water the fat crops of onion and tomato, shews
how sure is the reward of enterprise. Similarly the terracing reminds us
that soil is as precious as water. Both must be laboured for and fought
for. It is the desert that naturally claims the land and sets the normal
point of view for its inhabitants. Syria is an oasis by the grace of God
and the toil of man.

This alone would suffice to make Palestine an ideal training-ground for
a nation to learn righteousness. The whole theory of Providence which
dominates the earlier Old Testament, and lingers on in popular belief
through the New, is apparent on every mile of these valleys. That theory
was that even in the present life the sin of man will be immediately
punished by adversity, and his righteousness rewarded by prosperity. It
was a theory which had to be abandoned, and the whole marvellous story
of Job shews us the process of the nation’s discarding it. To us it
seems wonderful that it should have been able to survive at all in face
of the inexplicable and at times apparently irrational facts of all
human experience. But the fact that in Syria nature’s rewards and
punishments are so certain and so immediate goes far to explain both its
origin and its persistence.

Such thoughts as these regarding Syria inevitably lead towards one goal.
There is but one symbol in the world which expresses all that depth of
pain which we have found in the history of this sorely-tried land, and
at the same time forces on even the most thoughtless its moral
significance. That symbol is the Cross of Christ. It is still to be seen
very frequently in Syria, generally in its Greek form ([Illustration:
cross]). In this form it is more impressive than in the other. The
oblique lower bar represents a board nailed across the shaft for the
feet of the sufferer to rest on. The realistic effect of this is
surprising, for it brings home to one’s imagination in a quite new way
the terrible fact that men have actually been crucified.

The later history and legend of the cross in Palestine is one of
singular and tragic interest. First of all there is the preposterous
story of St. Helena’s dream–the miraculous discovery of the three
crosses, and the miracle of healing which enabled her to distinguish the
cross of Christ from those of the robbers. Since then the sacred wood
has been tossed about from hand to hand, hunted for, bargained for
sinned for, died for. Its presence in their army comforted the Crusaders
in their misery; the sight of it in the hands of the Saracens filled
them with despair. The restoration of it was among the chief demands
conceded by Saladin when he surrendered Acre to Richard; and when he
failed to deliver it, hostages to the number of 2700 were slaughtered in
sight of the Saracen camp. All through the Crusades it was the badge of
self-devotion to the holy wars, and a strange tale is told of an
occasion on which Louis IX., presenting robes to his courtiers according
to an ancient custom, had crosses secretly embroidered on them, so that
the wearers found themselves committed unawares to the Crusade.

For 1500 years that symbol pointed to the site which the buildings of
the Church of the Holy Sepulchre cover. Godfrey was buried there, and
many a devout soul regarded it as the holiest of holy places. In the
middle of the nineteenth century the question of its authenticity was
raised; and General Gordon, who spent part of the last year before he
went to Khartoum, in Jerusalem, championed the identification of the
hill of Jeremiah’s Grotto, just outside the Damascus Gate, with Calvary.
His point of view was a strange one. It was suggested by the words
“place of a skull,” from which he developed the idea of the Holy City as
the body of the bride of Christ, this hill being the head, Zion the
pleura, and so on. The theory, so far as it regards Calvary, has
appealed to many competent judges who were very far from adopting the
mystical and emblematic views of Gordon. The hill is an old quarry,
within which Jeremiah is supposed by tradition to have written his
Lamentations. It is quite a little hill, whose short and scanty grass
was burnt up with drought when we saw it, leaving a surface of loose
sandy soil. A man crucified here would have the Mount of Olives in his
eyes behind some roof-lines of the city. By a curious coincidence a
rock-hewn tomb, with a groove running in front of the face of it for a
great stone which would close its entrance, has been discovered close
by. It is a grave with only one loculus in it, and it is temptingly like
one’s idea of the Garden Tomb of Joseph; but it is said to be
undoubtedly of later date than the death of Jesus. From one point in the
road, somewhat nearer the Valley of Jehoshaphat, the hollows and caves
of the hill, which here breaks along its length into a small precipice,
bear a striking resemblance to a chapfallen skull. Not that the features
can be examined in anything like accurate detail. But in the evening,
while the sun sets over Jerusalem and the shadows slowly deepen, the
resemblance is sufficient to strike one who had not heard that this was
the place so named. Many arguments have been urged for this new site.
Its proximity to an ancient Jewish cemetery is in favour of the
probability that Joseph’s tomb was there. It was close to the public
highway, as Calvary undoubtedly was. It is also significant that the
gate now known as the Damascus Gate was formerly called St. Stephen’s
Gate; and tradition affirmed that through it St. Stephen was led forth
to his martyrdom. It is probable that the martyrdom took place on the
public execution-ground, where, in the natural course of events, Jesus
and the robbers would also have been crucified. Finally, and most
important, recent explorations have discovered, in various parts of the
city, huge Jewish stones which are believed by advocates of this theory
to be those of the wall which stood there in the time of Christ. By
completing the line of these stones a wall is reconstructed which
encloses the traditional Church of the Holy Sepulchre, while it leaves
Gordon’s site still outside. To get the Holy Sepulchre outside this
wall, as we know the place of the crucifixion was, it would be necessary
to imagine a sharp angular recess in the wall pointing inwards, with
Calvary filling the space within the arms of the angle. It matters
little where the spot was. Yet it would be interesting if the north side
of the city should ultimately claim Him from the west–Nazareth, as it
were, from Rome. The garden and the new grave belong to an English
committee of trustees endowed in 1901. It would indeed be a striking
thing if, after all the idolatry of sites which the vision of St. Helena
started, the real hill and garden where the world’s great tragedy was
enacted should prove to have gone past Roman and Greek worshippers both,
and to have been committed to the hands of Protestants.[61]

No one who has stood upon that hill of Golgotha and thought of the
wondrous past can have failed to perceive a mystical and dark connection
between the crime which has rendered Jerusalem so famous, and all that
deathly and spectral fate which has befallen the spirit of Syria. As we
stand amid the deepening shadows of sunset on the spot where Christ was
crucified, a change seems to come, as the blood-red sky crimsons the
minarets and domes. It is no longer Christ that hangs upon the Cross,
but Palestine. No other land would have crucified Him. Had He come to
Greece He might have been neglected or ridiculed, but certainly not
crucified. For that it needed a religion as bitterly earnest, and at the
same time as morally decayed, as Judaism was then. And that same moral
and spiritual condition which set up the Cross for Jesus, has finished
its course by crucifying the nation that murdered Him. Most literally
this happened in the days when Titus used up all the trees near
Jerusalem to make crosses for Jews. But in Sir John Mandeville’s time
the legend had expanded to this, that at the Crucifixion all the trees
in the world withered and died. Certainly a blight came upon the land of
Palestine. It has sometimes been asserted that the nation which
crucified Jesus Christ can never again rise to national prosperity or
greatness. The forces at work in history are far too subtle and complex
to allow any one to say with assurance what the future may or may not
have in store for a race. But this at least is evident, that meanwhile
the Cross has marked this region for its own; the land is everywhere on
its Cross, and the obvious cause of this is the want of righteousness,
both in oppressors and oppressed. It is a land that cries aloud for
righteousness in its agony.

In regard to the future of Palestine the outlook of different writers
varies perhaps as much as upon any similar question that could be named.
Every one is familiar with the Utopian dreams which optimistic
constructors of programmes cherish regarding it. On the other hand,
grave and thoughtful writers have sometimes felt the misery of its
present state so heavily as to abandon all hope for the future, and to
acknowledge the most discouraging views as to the possibilities before
the land. Apart from sentiment, or from some favourite method of
interpreting prophecy, the reasons for such pessimism are mainly two.
One is the change of climate, which appears from many indications to be
an unquestionable fact. The other is the destruction of terraces, and
the consequent washing away of soil from the higher regions of the
country. These are serious considerations, which cannot be ignored. If
this view be the correct one, the only permanent continuance of Syria
will be as a symbol of judgment, a kind of Lot’s-wife pillar among the
peoples, a sermon in stone upon the ethical principles which govern the
fortunes of nations. The land will remain as a proverb, but will never
again be a home.

Yet neither these nor any other such forebodings seem to the ordinary
observer quite to be justified. If the climate has changed, may not that
be due to causes that can be remedied? By proper drainage of swamps and
planting of trees, it would seem perfectly possible to modify climatic
conditions to an extent at least sufficient to allow the hope of
prosperous agriculture and pleasant habitation. As to the terraces, if
they have been constructed once they may be reconstructed with hope of
result. There are tracts even in the desert itself where traces of
former cultivation may still be seen. If the uncivilised or
semi-barbarous tribes of the ancient time built up the land until
handfuls of corn waved on the tops of mountains, surely it is not too
much to expect that men armed with all the skill and appliance of modern
engineering may yet repeat the process. The instance of Malta has been
already cited; and, apart from that it is a very dusty world, and soil
accumulates as if by magic where man provides for it a place to rest on.

It seems rash in one little qualified for the task to pronounce judgment
of any sort on the future of Palestine, yet the conviction that all is
not over with the land grows stronger, rather than weaker, with
reflection. Renan speaks of “the little kingdom of Israel, which was in
the highest degree creative, but did not know how to crown its edifice.”
Put in another

[Illustration: THE NORTH-EAST END OF JERUSALEM AND MIZPAH, FROM THE
MOUNT OF OLIVES.

The mountain above the city to the north, with mosque and minaret on its
summit, is the point from which the Crusaders had their first view of
Jerusalem.]

form, this means that the Holy Land is a land of prophecies unfulfilled
or half-fulfilled. But each such prophecy was an inspiration, by which
the highest men saw possibilities for the nation, whose conditions the
lower men failed to realise or to fulfil. Yet the possibilities were
there, as to a great extent they still are there, and, as Coningsby puts
it, “the East is a career.” As to what those possibilities and that
career may actually be, the past history of the land may guide our
speculation. Here, as elsewhere, the lines of hope for the future are
pointed out by the failures of the past. The failure has been due to bad
morality and disloyalty to religious faith; the hope of success lies in
ethical and religious regeneration.

When we sought for an explanation of the misery of Palestine we were
thrown back on the ethical aspect of the case. Had the land been
faithful to her high calling her story would have been very different.
Never was a country honoured with so lofty a trust as hers; never did a
country so often betray her trust. This was the despair of her ancient
lawgiver, and the burden of her later prophets. When Christ came to her,
she knew no better thing to do with Him than to break His heart and to
crucify Him on Calvary. Within the century Jerusalem was crucified in
turn; and soon a Christian Syria took the place of the perished Judaism.
That in its turn decayed. Its creed became artificial, its spirit
effeminate, and its morality corrupt. The spirit of Christianity had
sunk so low in Palestine before the Mussulman occupation as to manifest
its zeal by using every effort to defile that part of the Temple area
which they regarded as the Jewish Holy of Holies. The young faith of
Islam, fresh and vigorous, and not as yet embittered, made an easy
conquest of the effete religion, which has lived since then on
sufferance, lamenting its sufferings, but never realising its desert of
them. To this day the Christian travelling in Syria is oppressed by the
sense of its desertion. Christ has forsaken the desolate shores of the
Sea of Galilee. He walks no more in the streets of Jerusalem. It is the
old story–“They besought Him that He would depart out of their coasts,
and He entered into a ship, and passed over and came unto His own city.”

Yet somehow it is impossible to believe that He has gone from the land
of His earthly home for ever. An incident which occurred to us in
Damascus dwells in our memory with prophetic significance. We had
visited the Great Mosque, which rose upon the ruins of an ancient
Christian church. The original walls were not entirely demolished, and
among the parts built into the new structure was a beautiful gate on
whose lintel may still be deciphered the Greek inscription, “Thy
kingdom, O Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and Thy dominion endureth
throughout all generations.” To see this inscription we climbed a ladder
in the Jewellers’ Bazaar. At the height of some fifteen feet we stepped
upon a ledge of rather precarious masonry, and after a short scramble
along this came to the lintel, half concealed by a rubble wall running
diagonally across it. A stranger was with us, a devout Christian from a
town far south of Damascus. In the whole city nothing moved him so
deeply as this stone, and he exclaimed, “It was the Christians’
fault–they were so rough, so rude, so ignorant–it was done by the wish
of God–_but He will have it again_.” And He _will_ have it again,
sooner or later! When Omar heard that Mohammed was dead he would not
believe it, but proclaimed in the Mosque of Medina, “The Prophet has
only swooned away!” But Mohammed had died, and it is his dead hand that
has held the land these thirteen centuries. Christ, being raised from
the dead, dieth no more; and the future of the land lies with Christ. To
the Western world He has fulfilled His tremendous claim, “I am the
resurrection and the life,” not only in the hope of immortality, but in
the spring and impulse which His faith has given to national ideals. It
is impossible not to hope for a fulfilment of the promise to the land
where it was first spoken. Looking down from Tabor upon the hill of
Dûhy, one has sight of Endor to the east, while Shunem lies just round
the western slope, and between them is the village of Nain. It is as if
that hill were a sanctuary from Death, where the grave could not hold
its own. Palestine holds in trust for the world those empty graves, and
one grave above all others from which He Himself came forth. Surely she,
too, will rise, by His grace, in a faith and character purer than those
which she has lost.

It would be impossible, within our present limits, to say anything of
the political or national outlook of Syria, or of the many schemes and
agencies which are dealing with such problems. The impression made by
Christian missions, however, must have a word of record before we close
these notes of travel. We have already described at considerable length
the sadness of Palestine. As you journey from place to place the
impression deepens. Sores, exposed and fly-blown, intrude themselves
into the memory of many a wayside and city street. The dirt and stench
of the houses make the sunshine terrible. After weeks of travel the
feeling of a sick land has deepened upon you until it has become an
oppression weighing daily upon your heart. Suddenly you emerge in a
mission-station, and an indescribable feeling of relief possesses you.
There is at last a sound of joy and health. These are the spots of
brightness in a very grey landscape, little centres of life in a land
where so much is morbid. The visiting of sacred places would be the most
selfish of religious sentimentalities if it were done without a painful
sense of helplessness against the misery that surrounds them. The only
thing that turns pity into hope in Palestine is the mission-work that is
being done there. No one can see that work without being filled with an
altogether new enthusiasm for missions. Across the sea, one believes in
them as a part of Christian duty and custom. On the spot, one thanks God
for them as almost unearthly revelations of “sweetness and cleanness,
abundance, power to bless, and Christian love in that loveless land.”

The names of Christian missionaries are imperial names in Syria. It is,
indeed, an empire of hearts, and

its coming is not with observation. But of its reality and power there
can be no question even now, and its sway is extending year by year. To
those whose Syrian travels have given them the vivid imagination, vivid
almost as memory, of the real fact of Christ in the past, this fact of
Christ in the present is as welcome as it is evident. They feel, and the
East too is feeling, that the Great Healer still goes about the land
doing good. The future, whatever its political course may be, is
religiously full of hope. It may take time–God only knows how long it
will take. The ancient miracles of Christ did not reveal the Healer to
the world in a day. Yet quietly and out of sight, the East is learning
that Christ is indeed the Healer of mankind. It does not as yet confess
this, even to itself. But the hearts of many sufferers know it, and
every Christian knows that certainly “He will have it again.”