We now turn sharply to the other side of things, and it must be apparent
to every one that we are passing from the smaller to the vastly greater
element in the spirit of Syria. The text in Deuteronomy which we
quoted[35] shows us joy commanded at the sword’s point, as if the nation
were unwilling and unlikely to obey easily the happy command. Even when
Jesus Christ repeats the injunction in His great words, “Rejoice and be
exceeding glad,” it is a defiant gladness He enjoins. The context shows
that the rejoicing is that of persecuted and slandered men. A recent
writer has bitterly described our march through life in the words: “We
uphold our wayward steps with the promises and the commandments for
crutches, but on either side of us trudge the shadow Death and the
bacchanal Sex.”[36] The words sound profane to Western ears, but they
are not untrue of the spirit of Syria. It is of “the shadow Death” that
the present chapter treats.

As primitive religion decayed and men lost their sense of kinship and
their easy and friendly relations with the old gods, they were left
alone with death, which everywhere stared them in the face and claimed
them for its own. Next to God, death is the most impressive fact in
human experience, with sin for its sting. When old and defective views
of God are passing away, two courses are open to men. As death closes in
upon them, and they feel its grasp upon their unprotected souls, they
may appeal from it to God, and find Him revealing Himself, with eternal
life for them in the knowledge of Him. This was what the noblest of
Israel’s thinkers did, and the growing revelation of the Bible was their
reward. God showed Himself to them in ever-increasing clearness, until
one and another and another of them found that the hand that grasped
them was “not Death but Love.” But another course is open. They may
enthrone death in place of the broken gods–“Death is king, and vivat
rex!” They may “say to corruption, Thou art my father; to the worm, Thou
art my mother, and my sister.” Then the emphasis of thought will fall on
the grave, and all men’s imaginations will grow morbid.

The tombs of the Holy Land are of many patterns. In his _Haifa_,
Laurence Oliphant describes several different kinds of them, from the
cave-sepulchres, or the underground galleries, to the little wayside
graves or narrow holes driven into rock which seem such tightly-fitting
homes for the dead. There are, of course, the modern graves sacred to
the wives and children of missionaries who have laid down their lives
in the loving service of Christ and man. Buckle the historian sleeps in
the Christian burying-ground at Damascus, and Henriette Renan was laid
to rest in Byblus. These graves and others dear to the Western world
are, as graves have been since Abraham’s day, symbols of the strangers’
inheritance and lot in the Holy Land. From these, back to the tombs of
hoariest antiquity, the country is bound by an unbroken chain of death.
Through all the centuries the dead have been thrust upon the notice of
the living in a fashion so obtrusive as to make this the most obvious
impression of the land. Most of the graves are those of persons now
unknown and quite forgotten. Small and great, common men and heroes, are
alike conspicuous in death. Each of the invaders has left his memorial,
and the sites of ancient cities are traced by help of their

Moslem tombs are everywhere. Most of them are oblong structures of rude
but solid masonry erected over shallow graves. In some cases a painted
tarbush (fez-cap) marks the head and a little upright stone the feet. A
slight hollow is often cut in the flat top for birds to drink from.
Tombs are clustered among their iris-flowers beside the walls of
villages. They have crept up to the very summit of the hill which Gordon
identifies as Calvary. They have encroached on the palace of Herod’s
daughter at Samaria. They crowd the ground outside the built-up “Gate
Beautiful” at Jerusalem. There is, to our feelings, a certain indecency
in this promiscuous invasion of the grave: Mohammedans seem

to bury their dead anywhere. The Crusaders have left fewer memorials of
themselves in the shape of tombs than one might have expected.
Barbarossa’s tomb we have already visited. For the rest, their memorials
are mostly those great buildings whose ruins stand to this day. Early
Christianity, too, has left its tombs–catacombs and single graves,
especially in the southern part of the coast, and eastwards in Hauran.
People of importance have sometimes more than one tomb, like St. George,
who is buried both in Lydda and Damascus. But the graves of humbler
Christians are more precious than these, for their inscriptions remain,
breathing forth the faith and peace with which Christ had blessed the
world. Such memorials of victory over death are inextinguishable lamps
hung in the sepulchres of Syria. And these lamps are kindled at the
Great Light. Never was symbolism more appropriate than that of the Holy
Fire in the Church of the Sepulchre. The very heart and soul of Syria is
a tomb–the reputed grave of Jesus Christ. To this day the chief pilgrim
song repeats with exultant reiteration the words, “This is the tomb of
Christ.” It is a song which has never been silent in the land. In the
Crusader camps a herald closed the day with the loud cry, “Lord, succour
the Holy Sepulchre”; and the sentinels passed the word from post to
post, “Remember the Holy Sepulchre.”

It is not, however, the victory over death that impresses one as the
spirit of Syria. It is death itself, unconquered, mysterious, and dark.
Its Christian tombs are few and far between compared with the countless
multitude of sepulchres where there is no lamp alight. Most common and
most impressive of these are the Roman and Greek graves. The sands of
Tyre and Sidon are strewn with sarcophagi. Here a man’s magnificently
carved stone coffin serves for a drinking-trough, there a little child’s
stands alone and desolate near a river mouth. In Sidon the ancient
cemetery is on a scale whose rifled grandeur speaks volumes concerning
the vanity of earthly greatness. At Gadara, the eastward road is a
miniature Appian Way: hollow to the tread of horses as they cross the
excavated rock, and adorned with sarcophagi carved with crowns and
garlands, but bearing inscriptions without hope in them. Farther north,
on the eastern slopes of Hermon, we found a far older monument near one
of the Druse villages. We were crossing a little brook, when we noticed
that the bridge consisted of two huge monolithic slabs of limestone,
which, on examination, appeared to be the lids of ancient sarcophagi.
The carving on the ends was obviously intended to represent figures of
cherubim or some such winged creatures. The heads were gone, but the
plumage of the wings was very perfectly preserved. No one in the
locality knew anything about their origin. Their general appearance
seemed to connect them with the far East.

The Jewish tombs are those which impress the imagination most with the
bitterness of death in Syria. They are so sad, with their antique
solemnity–so severely simple and unadorned. Where there is carving it
is almost always of Roman or Christian workmanship. A few stones with
such symbols as the seven-branched candlestick engraved on them are the
only unquestionable remains of ornamental Jewish work. Few of the Jewish
sepulchres have escaped appropriation by Gentiles. The more famous of
them have been appropriated by the Mohammedans, and early Christian
tradition is responsible for many other indentifications. The saints and
heroes of Israel, claimed also by Mohammedans and Christians, have
achieved a kind of funereal immortality which makes the whole land seem
one vast graveyard. Every prospect is dotted with tombs. The tomb of
Jonas shines white from its hill-top north of Hebron, that of Samuel
north of Jerusalem, while Joseph’s tomb commands the view where the Vale
of Shechem opens on the wider valley of Makhnah. None of them, however,
is at all so impressive as the tomb of Rachel, where a modern house and
dome cover a rough block of stone worn smooth with the kisses of
centuries of Jewish women. The wailing, as we saw it there, is a
memorable custom. The women were mostly elderly or aged, but they were
weeping real tears and wailing bitterly as they kissed the stone. It is
an old story that consecrates that rough stone, but how eternal is its
human pathos: “And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was but a
little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard
labour…. And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which
is Bethlehem.”[37]

The earlier fashion of Jewish work seems to have been the “pigeon-hole,”
in which the corpse was thrust into a little tunnel six feet long driven
at right angles to the rock face. Later, troughs were excavated to fit
the body along the line of the rock. In some instances these graves,
especially the former kind, are found in detached groups in wayside
rocks, whose perpendicular faces front the open air. For the most part
they are grouped in larger numbers within natural caves or subterranean
excavations, whose low doorway is blocked by a large circular stone
running in a groove. A later example of such a cave is that which is
shewn as the “new tomb” of Joseph of Arimathea, close to Gordon’s
Calvary. A few specimens of another sort, built of masonry without
cement, are to be found in Galilee.[38] Nothing could be gloomier than
the constantly repeated ruins of ancient Jewish graves in Syria. No
day’s journey is without them. They meet you casually, as it were, at
every turning. They are not, indeed, quite dark like the pagan tombs;
but the twilight, in which the hope of immortality just broke the
darkness for ancient Israel, is grey and cheerless, and the contribution
of Jewish graves to the spirit of Syria is a very sombre one.

The typical spot for this side of the spirit of Syria is the town of

The lanes and the dark bazaar are filthy and foul-smelling. The mosque
is an impressive building, suggestive of military rather than devotional
ideas. The Tomb of Abraham, which it covers, is one of the sights which
only a very few Christian eyes have seen. It is permitted to none but
Mohammedans to approach nearer the entrance to it than the seventh step
of the lane, or staircase, alongside its eastern wall. There is a hole
in that wall which is supposed to communicate with the cave below. Jews
write letters to Abraham, and place them in this hole, to tell him how
badly they are being treated by the Moslems. But the Moslem boys are
said to know that the hole has no great depth, and to collect these
letters and burn them before Abraham has seen them. The tomb is the very
heart and black centre of the Shadow of Death in Palestine.

There is no part of man’s faith in which it is more necessary to be
thoroughgoing than in his thoughts about immortality. Egypt and Greece
furnish examples of great significance here. Egypt held an elaborate
doctrine of the future life, and it dominated all her thought concerning
this life. Men built their tombs and kings their pyramids as the most
important of their life’s achievements. The earthly house of the
Egyptian was but an inn where he spent a little time in passing; his
tomb was his eternal house and real home. Thus the tombs were glorified
copies of the dwelling-houses, either of the present, or more often of a
former generation.[39] Greece, on the other hand, did not believe in a
life beyond the grave. Her funeral celebrations were full of
lamentation, and her inscriptions sound sad enough to us. But it was a
principle with Greece and Rome to decorate tombs exclusively with glad
symbols such as sculptured flowers and even dances.[40] The point to be
observed about these is that neither of them was morbid. Morbidness
appears to avoid a robust faith or a frank scepticism,[41] and to cling
about the thought which is neither sure of one thing nor another.

Israel’s position in regard to the belief in immortality is extremely
difficult to define. It was obviously with her a thing of gradual
development, as her revelation opened its broadening light upon life’s
problems. He would be a bold critic who would sum up the situation of
Isaiah’s time as Renan does in the statement, “not looking beyond the
world for reward and punishment,” the Hebrew life “has a heroic tension,
a sustained cry, an unceasing attention to the events of the world.”
Everything goes to shew that long before the faith in immortality had
grasped the imagination and the belief of the people in general it had
been revealed to chosen spirits. As for the others, it had been working
its way among them, occupying their minds in speculation, and leading
them, as it were, among the shades of the nether world. There was
something in the genius of the nation which rendered this interest in
death quite inevitable. The natural bearing of the people has a strange
solemnity about it, which finds constant expression in pose and
gesture, and often strikes the stranger with sudden vividness. Women may
be often seen, especially when clad in thin white garments on holidays,
who might stand just as you see them as models for monumental sculpture.
Along with all its activities, there is a distinct sympathy with death
in the genius of Israel.

This phenomenon is, of course, due to very complex causes. It is a
deep-rooted Semitic instinct, which seems to be not altogether unlike
that of the Egyptian feeling to the tomb as the real home. Some parts of
Arabia are very rich in sacred tombs and spots of holy ground, and
pilgrimages are made to these both by Moslems and by Jews. Long strings
of mules, laden with coffins, wend their way to such sacred places as
Nejf, and thousands of corpses are sent thither even from India.[42] Old
tombstones are held in peculiar veneration by the more devout Arabs. The
well-known reverence with which the Syrian Jews regard the tombs of
their ancestors may be in part explained on the ground of patriotic
loyalty. Such scenes as those which may be witnessed at the tomb of
Rachel, remind us that a sense of the pathos of human life and its
mortality is also developed strongly and enters as a very real factor
into the spirit of Syria.[43] Nor can there be any doubt that a certain
moral or didactic use of death is also characteristic of the East, such
as is expressed in the sententious rhymes of old graveyards in this
country. The reader will recall the famous instance of this, which Sir
Walter Scott has made familiar–the shroud which served for the banner
of Saladin, with its inscription, “Saladin must die.”[44]

If, however, such elements have entered into earlier thoughts of death,
it is to be feared that Palestine of the present day has little of them
left. The great light of Christ illuminated the sepulchres of Christian
Syria; but with the Mohammedan conquest darkness fell again, and all the
morbid fascination of the grave reasserted itself. There is little
reverence for the ordinary man’s place of burial now, whether it be of
ancient or of recent date. Dr. Merrill tells how he has found Arabs
actually stealing graves, i.e. clearing out old ones to make room for a
newly-deceased body, on the plea that “the dead man who was buried there
could not possibly want his grave any longer.”[45] On many a hillside
the rock tombs are rent and split, like pictures from Dante’s _Inferno_,
where they have been blasted open with gunpowder in the search for
treasure; and sometimes parties of natives may be seen prowling about a
hillside on that business. The find may consist of glass bracelets,
which have to be taken from the bone of a baby’s arm, or gold earrings
beside the skull whose face was once fair; but they excite no emotion
except that of money values. Laurence Oliphant had difficulty in
restraining the natives who searched with him from smashing the cinerary
urns they found, on


This gate, which was walled up by the Arabs after the conquest of
Jerusalem, forms a tower projecting from the Eastern Wall of the Temple
Area. The tombs in the foreground are part of the great Mohammedan
Cemetery extending along the Eastern Wall of Jerusalem.]

the plea that “they are so very old that they are not worth anything.”

With the decay of reverence for the dead, however, there seems to have
been a recrudescence of that morbid and charnel-house interest in death
which marks the spirit of the land. At times one is shocked by the
apparently total indifference displayed–houses being built close to the
mouths of graves or even, it is said, upon the roofs of them. Yet any
one who has seen a festival at a holy tomb, whether Jewish or
Mohammedan, must have realised the strong attraction by which death and
the grave draw men. A curious instance of this is that of the “Jews’
Burning” at Tiberias.

Tiberias has been a Jewish centre since the time of Vespasian. Before
that time, Jews avoided the city, because in building it Herod had
disturbed a burial-place. To-day, by a strange coincidence, it is a tomb
that gives it its special popularity for the Jews–the grave of the
famous Rabbi Meir. Conveniently near the tomb there are large baths,
whose warm and sulphurous water is considered highly medicinal. At this
tomb a curious spectacle may be seen on the second day of May each year.
Jewish pilgrims from near and far assemble, bringing with them their
oldest garments, which are immersed in a great cauldron of oil, and then
piled up and burned. The honour of setting fire to the pile is sold to
the highest bidder, and the sum paid reaches £15 or more.

The same fascination of death, seen as it were past a byplay of
irreverence and grotesqueness, is felt in the burial customs as they are
seen to-day. At the Moslem funerals we saw there was no appearance of
mourning. The men were dressed in gay colours, and they trotted along
behind the corpse talking and gesticulating with an apparent gusto. It
may have been the unusual appearance of the thing which impressed
strangers more powerfully than natives; but to us it seemed that the
realism of death was here in more crude and aggressive consciousness
than in Western funerals. The corpse lay on a board, shoulder-high, with
a gorgeous crimson and purple pall covering his body and limbs instead
of a coffin. The head, wrapped tight in a napkin, rested on a pillow,
and the features of the face stood prominently out against the sky. The
man seemed, in an altogether gruesome way, to be _attending_ his own
funeral, and to be thrusting the fact of his presence on the spectators.

This may be subjective criticism, and it is always unfair to judge the
burial-customs of other peoples without intimate knowledge of their
origin and inner meaning. In one respect, however, it is certain enough
that the Shadow of Death rests upon the land of Syria. That is Fatalism.
We have all heard of the fatalism of the East; and strange stones have
become familiar, of soldiers selling cartridges to their enemies, of
villagers refusing to drain the swamp that was decimating them by its
malaria, or even to desist from poisoning their own springs with foul
water. “It is Allah!” ends all questioning and checks all energy. Yet
the constant recurrence of living instances of fatalism shocks the
traveller, however well he was prepared for them. A traveller asked a
Mohammedan in Damascus what they had done to the workman who upset his
brazier and burned the great mosque. “Oh nothing,” said he, “what should
we do?” “I should have thought you might have killed him.” “No,” he
replied; “in the West you say when such things happen, ‘It is the
devil’; in the East we say, ‘It is God!’” Still more impressive was a
conversation with one of the camp-servants during a long ride near
Jezreel. He had told the pathetic story of his life–how they had lived
comfortably till the father died, leaving no money; then came work,
begun too early and with no providence and little hope of success, until
it had come to be “eat, drink, sleep, then again, eat, drink,
sleep–then die and sleep, no more eat nor drink.” The Syrian character
of the present day has been well expressed on its negative side in three
traits. These are, want of concentration, want of will-power, and an
absolute want of the sense of sin. Of sin they literally do not
understand the meaning, the substitute for conscience being a dread of
the opinion of friends and of the public. They do not think about the
problem of evil as in any sense a practical problem. “The Lord said unto
Ahriman, I know why I have made thee, but thou knowest not”–that is
their philosophy of the moral mystery of things. Conder sums up the
situation in striking words: “Christian villages thrive and grow, while
the Moslem ones fall into decay; and this difference, though due perhaps
in part to the foreign protection which the native Christians enjoy, is
yet unmistakably connected with the listlessness of those who believe
that no exertions of their own can make them richer or better, that an
iron destiny decides all things, without reference to any personal
quality higher than that of submission to fate, and that God will help
those who have lost the will to help themselves.”[46]

The spirit of Syria is darkened by a shadow of death that has grown not
only familiar but congenial, as darkness does to all who choose it
rather than the light. Strange that Syria should thus have “made a
covenant with death,” she from whom shone forth once the Light of the
World. But that was long ago. These many centuries this has been one of
that sad multitude of nations and of individuals who have sent forth a
spirit that has inspired and moved the world, and who yet themselves sit
desolate and listless.

THE shadow of death is always haunted. A strong and pure faith peoples
it with angels, and is accompanied through its darkness by that Good
Shepherd whose rod and staff comfort the soul. When the faith is neither
strong nor pure, and when those who sit in darkness have been disloyal
to their faith, it is haunted by spectres, and its darkness becomes
poisonous. The fascination of the marvellous passes into “what French
writers call the _macabre_–that species of almost insane preoccupation
with our mouldering flesh, that luxury of disgust in gazing on
corruption.”[47] This unclean spectral element is a very real part of
the spirit of Syria.

The spell of the East is proverbial, and it is a more literal fact than
is sometimes realised. Even such a commonsense Englishman as the captain
of the _Rob Roy_ confesses to a nameless fear that came upon him in the
solitudes of the upper Jordan.[48] There is a well-known passage in
Eothen, where Kinglake describes the calculating merchant, the
inquisitive traveller, the wakeful post-captain all coming under the
spell of Asia.[49] The warmth and strangeness of the land may have
something to do with it; but the associations and the prevalent tone of
thought have more. Every one feels it whose imagination and heart are in
the least measure open to spiritual impressions.

To analyse it or to specify the causes which have produced it were an
impossible task. Three things have to do with it very specially. There
is the habit of the Eastern mind in dealing with matters of fact. Truth
is not to the Oriental the primary moral necessity which it is to the
West. Vividness and forcefulness of presentation count for at least as
much. The Arab story-teller is said to close his enumeration of various
legends with the sacramental formula, “God knows best where the truth
lies,”–the truth being a matter of God’s responsibility, while to man
is committed only responsibility for being interesting. Again, in the
East, terror is a recognised force between man and man; and the great
forces of nature and the more occult forces of magic are recognised and
taken as part of the natural order. Religion also has had her share in
the “Great Asian Mystery.” This land is, to most devout persons,
altogether isolated and apart, as the place of a divine revelation such
as no other part of earth has known. There is a passage in
_Pseudo-Aristeas_ where, describing his supposed embassy to Jerusalem,
he gazes at the constant waving of the veil in the Temple, which
screened from his view the holiest things of Israel. As it rippled and
swung in the wind it seemed to tantalise the gazer with the
never-fulfilled promise of a glimpse into the secret place.[50] The
wistful sense of mystery in that letter gives a hint which is of
extraordinary significance on this subject.

The geographical formation of the land and its strange colouring lend
themselves to the spectral and the uncanny. The Dead Sea presents the
most sinister landscape in the world. The opening paragraphs of Scott’s
_Talisman_, founded upon the description of Josephus, are certainly
overdrawn, yet in truth everything conspires to produce a sense of
ghostliness by these unearthly shores. A ring of “scalded hills”
encircles them, and a perpetual haze lies upon their waters. Their soil
is nitrous and their springs sulphurous. Blocks of asphalt lie among
their shingle; and fish, dead and salted, are cast up by the waves.
There is little life visible about them, whether of man or beast or
bird. Here and there the tempting Apple of Sodom grows, to appearance
the most luscious of fruits, but so dry that its core is combustible and
is used as tinder by the Arabs. A few feet above the summer level of the
sea runs an unbroken line of drift-wood washed down by winter floods and
left white and sparkling with crusted salt.

Yet it was not the Dead Sea that seemed to us most unearthly, but that
more famous lake of which one thinks so differently. It would be a
curious and instructive task to collect the various impressions which
the Sea of Galilee has made upon travellers. Romance and piety conspire
to furnish many of its visitors with a predisposition to find it
surpassingly beautiful; and not a little could be quoted which owes most
of its touches to the imagination of the writer. A natural rebellion
against this has led to no less exaggerated expressions of
disappointment, and to accusations of ugliness which are simply untrue.
The fact is that ordinary canons of description are of no avail here.
The Sea of Galilee, even so far as natural appearance goes, must be
judged by itself.

Journeying to it from Tabor, you ride across a rather characterless
tract of country. A jackal, a stray Circassian horseman, a low black
tent of the Bedawin, are the only signs of life. Suddenly the track,
sweeping up over the farther side of a shallow and rudely cultivated
valley, lands you on an unexpected edge, from which the ground falls
sheer away before you into the basin of the lake. This is not scenery;
it is tinted sculpture, it is jewel-work on a gigantic scale. The rosy
flush of sunset was on it when we caught the first glimpse. At our feet
lay a great flesh-coloured cup full of blue liquor; or rather the whole
seemed some lapidary’s quaint fancy in pink marble and blue-stone. There
was no translucency, but an aggressive opaqueness, in sea and shore
alike. The dry atmosphere showed everything in sharpest outline,
clear-cut and broken-edged. There was no shading or variety of colour,
but a strong and unsoftened contrast. To be

quite accurate, there was one break–a splash of white, with the green
suggestion of trees and grass, lying on the water’s edge directly
beneath us–Tiberias.

When, next day, we sailed upon the lake, coasting along the western
shore from north to south, we found ourselves again as far removed from
anything we had seen or experienced before. A casual glance showed utter
and abject desolation, and a silence that might be heard oppressed the
spirit. As the eye grew more accustomed, villages were discerned. But
what villages! With the same exception of Tiberias, they were brown
slabs of flat-roofed cubical hovels–let into the slope of the shore or
the foot-hills. And as we skirted closer along the beach, we descried
everywhere traces of ruined architecture. It appeared to form a
continuous ring of towers; columns broken and tumbled, but showing
elaborately carved capitals; aqueducts and retaining walls; fragments of
all sorts, and apparently of widely different styles of architecture.
Foliage is scanty, save for the thorn-trees and bamboo canes in which
the carved stones are often half buried. Here and there a plantation of
orchard trees hides a trim little German garden. At Tiberias a few palm
trees lend their graceful suggestion of the Far East.

All this impresses one in a quite unique way. You try to reconstruct the
past–rebuild the castles and synagogues and palaces, and imagine the
life that sent forth its fleets upon the lake in the days of Jesus. Or
you more daringly attempt the future landscape, and imagine these
hillsides as scientific cultivation and the withdrawal of oppressive
government may yet make them. But from it all you are driven back upon
the extraordinary present–petrified, uncanny, spectral–a part of the
earth on which some spell has fallen, and over which some ghostly
influence broods, silencing the daylight, and whispering in the
darkness. If, however, this sense of the ghostly be intenser here than
elsewhere, it is but an exaggeration of the spirit of the whole land.

Nature in Syria seems always to have something of the supernatural about
her. Not only in the petrifactions of the Lejja and the silent stone
cities east of Jordan is this the case. The whole country offers you
stones when you ask for trees, and that mere fact of its stoniness is
enough to lend it the air of another world. As an indirect consequence
trees, when they are found, assume a factitious importance, and a
supernatural significance either for good or evil. Some of the fairest
plants of Syria are treacherous as they are fair. One of our company, in
gathering sprays of a peculiarly lovely creeper, somewhat resembling a
white passion-flower, had his hand wounded with invisible but virulent
needles which caused it to swell and gave great pain. The green spots,
where grass and trees abound, tempt the unwary to drink and rest in
them. But they are the most dangerous places in the land, and some of
them are deadly from malaria. On the other hand, a tree in a treeless
country is an object of preciousness inconceivable by any who have not
come upon it from the wilderness. In the distance it beckons the
traveller with the promise of shade and water. Arrived beneath its
branches, life takes on a new aspect; kindly voices are heard in the
rustle of its leaves, and gracious gifts seen in its shadow and its
fruit. It is said that our fleur-de-lis pattern, often supposed to
represent the flower of the lily or the iris, is really an Eastern
symbol. The central stem is the sacred date-palm, while the side-lines
and the horizontal band stand for ox-horns tied to the stem to avert the
evil eye. It is no wonder if by the ancient Semites trees were regarded
as demoniac beings, or as growing from the body of a buried god.[51]
Such traditions are no longer to be found in their ancient forms, but
they linger in a vague sense of the holiness of conspicuous trees, which
may be seen covered with rags of clothing hung on them by natives. A
like play of imagination has from time immemorial haunted the
pools–especially those whose dark waters made them seem
bottomless–with holy or unholy mystery. Still more terrible is the
superstitious dread with which the natives regard undrained morasses.
The Serbonian Bog on the south coast has from of old been regarded with
special fear, owing to its treacherous appearance of sound earth. The
marsh in which the Abana loses itself shares with the Serbonian Bog its
grim distinction, chiefly on account of its deep black wells, which the
natives take to be man-devouring whirlpools.

In her grander and more impressive features, Nature is in Syria
constantly suggestive of the play of occult powers. Earthquake has left
its mark in many a split rampart and broken tower, and that of itself
is enough to give a peculiarly ghostly tinge to the spirit of any land.
The unspeakable loneliness of the desert has its own magic–a melancholy
spell which has no parallel in other lands. In the desert, too, the sky
conspires with the earth in its bewitchment. The mirage has power to
arrest and overawe the spirit with something of the same sense of
helplessness as that felt in earthquake. In the one case earth, in the
other heaven, are turning ordinary procedure upside down, and the
bewildered mortal knows not what is to come next upon him. The writer
has had experience of both, though with an interval of several years
between them. The mirage he saw to the east of the Great Haj Road in
Hauran. For some time the rocky hills of the Lejja had been the horizon,
shimmering dimly through the heat-haze. Suddenly, on looking up, he was
amazed to find that the hills had disappeared, and in their place had
come a long string of camels on the sky-line, with an island, a lake,
and a grove of palm-trees floating in the air above them. The sudden
apparition recalled on the instant a day in the Antipodes when he felt,
though at a great distance, the tremble of the New Zealand earthquakes.
Either experience is unearthly enough to explain many superstitions.

In most lands the sea would have yielded a larger crop of unearthly
imaginations than has been the case in Palestine. For reasons which have
been already stated, Israel kept out of touch with the ocean. Yet, all
the more on that account, it is the case that almost every thought she
has of the sea is fearsome. Its immensity bewilders her with the
unhomely distances of the world, and the four winds strive savagely upon
it. The roar and surge of the shore are all she needs to remember in
order to impress herself with its terror. Now and then she thinks of the
Great Deep, and of its horrible inhabitants–leviathan unwieldily
sporting there, and other nameless monsters bred of the slime and ooze,
and the dead men who are waiting to float up from their places to the
Great Judgment, when their time shall come.

Mention of the Great Deep reminds us of yet another prolific source of
the spectral element in Syrian thought. It was but natural that the
sound of underground rivers and their explanation by the theory of a
world founded on bottomless floods (the “waters underneath the earth”),
should have given to the whole land an air of possession by ghostly
powers. It may have been that same phenomenon which drew down the
imagination of Syria to the subterranean regions, or it may also have
been to some extent the hereditary greed of buried treasure, which every
nation whose buildings have been often overturned is likely to acquire.
Whatever be its explanation, the fact is certain that the underground
element is one which counts for much in the spirit of Syria. Alike in
Christian and in pre-Christian times there seems to have been a most
unwholesome dread of fresh air blowing about holy things. Sacred caves
and pits were among the most characteristic properties of ancient
Semitic religion.[52] As for Christian tradition, it seems positively to
dread the open air. The Nativity in Bethlehem and the Agony in
Gethsemane have each their cave assigned to them, and many another site
has a cave either discovered or actually constructed for its
commemoration. Nature and history have combined to encourage the
underground tendency. Palestine is remarkable for the number and size of
its natural caverns, and it is not slow to add its imaginative touch to
the length of them, connecting distant towns with supposed subterranean
passages. These caves have been used as dwelling-places from very
ancient times. The strange cities of Edom and of Bashan are well known
to all as wonders. And not in these places only, but in many other parts
of the land, men have dwelt beneath the ground. In times of invasion,
for the solitude of hermit life, and in the terrors of persecution,
caves have offered natural places of refuge and of hiding, which have in
many cases been greatly enlarged by excavation. Besides those caverns
whose interest lies in the memory of ancient inhabitants, there are some
of an interest whose terror is not yet departed. These are the
cave-dwellings of lunatics, who in former times often chose the dead for
company and inhabited tombs. Now, in some places they are chained in
black recesses of mountain caverns, where their life must be horrible
indeed. There are also one or two caves in Syria which end in sudden
perpendicular shafts of great depth, where adulteresses are said to meet
their fate. Such modern instances may have reinforced the natural
fascination of the occult which subterranean places offer. But there is
something congenial to it in the spirit of Syria quite apart from these.

If the natural features of Syria thus tempt men towards the ghastly side
of things, her history suggests plenty of material for superstition to
work upon. If the legend were true that no dew nor rain would moisten
the spot where a man had been murdered, Syria would be no longer an
oasis, but the driest of deserts. In a spiritual sense the legend is
truer than it seems. When, in his _Laughing Mill_, Julian Hawthorne
works out the idea of a mystic sympathy in Nature with crimes that have
been done by man, he is reminding us of something which every one of
sensitive spirit has more or less clearly felt. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
subtler tales the same idea is worked out in a fashion still more
convincing. There are times and places when it is difficult to resist
the conviction that the material world, in its dumb, unconscious way, is
yet burdened with the weight of man’s evil deeds. In Syria one can
almost hear “the groaning and travailing of the whole creation.” It
seems to be a land waiting the hour of its release, and meanwhile
shrouded in deeper mystery than any other land. Something has happened
here, you feel, which never happened elsewhere; something is going to
happen here again, when the time shall come.

Nothing could better attest this fact than the extraordinary wealth of
legend in Syria. Fragments of Bible story, changed and often distorted
by those who have retold them, are met with every day. Sometimes a story
has passed from Jews to Christians and from Christians to Mohammedans,
increasing steadily in marvellousness and decreasing in verisimilitude
as it passed. Samson, Goliath, and the prophet Jonah are notable cases
in point. A Mohammedan weli marks the spot where the latter was thrown
ashore; but the inventors of this legend have been inconsiderate. The
weli stands at the bend of a shallow sandy beach, where the whale must
either have itself come ashore to deposit the prophet, or have projected
him a distance of at least a hundred yards. A very curious instance of a
similar kind is that of the fall of Jericho as narrated in Joshua vi.
Conder gives two legends, both of which are obviously elaborated forms
of that account. One of these is a Samaritan story of iron walls, and
the other a Mohammedan one of a city of brass whose walls fell after
Aly, the son-in-law of Mohammed, had ridden seven times round them.[53]
Still more curious is a legend related by the same author, which looks
like a Mohammedan version of the Wandering Jew. It tells how, at Abila,
Cain was allowed to lay down the corpse of his brother Abel after
carrying it for a hundred years. The whole story of the Herods has
infested the region of their crimes with the ghosts of their victims. In
Samaria the murdered Mariamne still seems to dwell in her honey, and
Herod and his servants to call her by name and force the pretence that


The upper portion of the picture to the left is the Hill of Offence,
with the village of Siloam on its lower slopes.]

she is yet alive. The land is sick with ancient crimes whose blood
“crieth from the ground.”

The religions of the land seem to be in league with the powers of
darkness for the propagation of magic lore. It is an extraordinary fact
that Syria has sent forth to the ends of the earth a religion that is
the Eternal Word of God to mankind, and yet herself has reverted to the
religious conceptions of ancient Semitic paganism. One of the most
fundamental of these conceptions was that of a religion whose essential
element is not belief but ritual.[54] While in the West the free play of
reason has tested and interpreted Israel’s faith, and discovered in it
the unique revelation of the living God to man, the worshippers in the
Holy Land itself seem to treat that same faith wholly as a department of
magic lore. Certain rites have to be performed, no matter how
unintelligently, and that is all. All creeds alike share the blame of
this. Druse and Samaritan, Jew, Christian, and Mohammedan vie with one
another to-day in the poor ambition of making the religion of Jehovah
contemptible in the eyes of thinking men who investigate it as it is
practised on its native soil.

Much of the magic of the East is decadent or decayed religion. On rare
occasions a marriage superstition may be met with, such as the
foretelling of marriage destinies by tying green twigs with one
hand,[55] which appears to be the creation of pure romance. But the
great majority of those superstitions which hold the Eastern mind in
bondage are evidently relics of pagan thought incorporated now in
Jewish, Christian, or Moslem creeds, and absorbing all the interest of
those who believe in them. If a Mohammedan saint’s bones flew through
the air from Damascus to Mount Ebal, the Christians can match the
miracle and more, for was not the very house of the Virgin carried off
by angels from Nazareth to Loreto lest the Moslems should desecrate it?
Magic dominates the mind of the East and explains everything there to
this day. Every inscribed stone runs the chance either of being honoured
by a place in the wall of a dwelling or of being heated with fire and
split with water, according to the sort of magic it is supposed to
represent. It is difficult to realise that the men you converse with are
actually living in the world of Tasso’s _Gerusalemme Liberata_, where a
dealer in black art, by his incantation,

unbinds the demons of the deep to do
Deeds without name, or chains them in his cell,
And makes e’en Pluto pale upon the throne of hell.

Yet such is undoubtedly the case. Even the saddle-bags you buy at
Jerusalem–those gorgeous labyrinths of shells and tassels–have a blue
bead concealed somewhere in them to return the stare of any evil eye
that may look upon your horse. To avert the same danger you will see
little boys dressed in girls’ clothes, and specially pretty children
kept dirty and untidy. Lest the dreaded eye should blight the fortunes
of a newborn babe the Jewish Rabbis sometimes hang up the 121st Psalm
on the wall over mother and child. Magic is as useful a substitute for
science as it is for religion. It explains any phenomenon and clears up
any mystery without the trouble of investigation. All great buildings
must have been built by enchantment, so what is the use of speculating
as to their architecture? Western civilisation is, no doubt, a
remarkable affair, but it never occurs to an unsophisticated Syrian that
it is a matter for energetic emulation. The Frank has only been lucky
enough to learn the proper spell. It is easy to see how Syria, with such
views as these, is doomed at once to moral and intellectual stagnation.

The vivid mind of the East is fertile in poetic imagination. Restless
and quick itself, it cannot conceive the Universe otherwise than as
living around it. Everything is alive and aware. All inanimate things
are personified; or, to speak more accurately, they are inhabited by
spiritual beings. Natural phenomena express the purposes of minds hidden
behind them. Every dangerous or adverse experience is regarded as the
work of malice. Human life is beset with ambushed spiritual enemies. The
advantage which their invisibility gives to these over the human
combatants would be enough to put fighting out of the question, were it
not that so many of the spirits are of feeble intelligence and may be
hoodwinked; while all of them have other spirits for their enemies who
may be enlisted on man’s side against them. These spirits are of many
kinds, but they may be classed in two groups, according to their
connection with natural phenomena or with death.

Chief of the former group are the angels, good and bad; and the jinn, or
genii, whom Islam took over from the ancient paganism of Arabia. The
angels are God’s attendants, and have some functions entirely
independent of natural phenomena. Thus the two stones which mark a
Moslem’s grave show the stations of the angels who are to examine him;
and the tuft of hair on his shaven head is (like the Jewish sidelocks)
to enable the Angel Gabriel to bear the man to heaven. Yet the angels
are in many instances personified parts of nature, guardians of the
land, spirits of wind or fire or water, who are obviously the
descendants and the heirs of the ancient local gods.[56] Thus the wicked
angels are supposed to have descended on Mount Hermon, and to have sworn
their oaths there–a belief which adds considerably to the importance of
the great mountain in Syrian estimation. The jinn are the demons of the
desert, lordly and terrible to all who have not the charm which masters
them, obedient as little children to those who have it. They are the
inhabitants of those whirling sandstorms which sweep across the waste.
Some superstitions of this kind may be connected with the former dangers
from wild beasts, which used to haunt the jungles of lower Jordan and
swarm up to the inland territories after an invasion had depopulated
them. Even now there may be seen in Palestine an occasional wolf or
leopard, to say nothing of the jackals which every traveller is sure to
see. Some of the fauna of Palestine are in themselves so strange as to
suggest unearthly affinities. The jerboa, for instance, the jumping
mouse of the desert, merits Browning’s description of him, when in
_Saul_ he says, “there are none such as he for a wonder, half bird and
half mouse.” The lizards, too, seem anything but ordinary respectable
law-abiding animals as they twinkle to and fro among the ruins of old
buildings. It is said that Mohammed refused to eat lizards, considering
that they were the metamorphosed spirits of Israelites.

The spirits that haunt sepulchres are either ghosts of the dead or
ghouls that prey upon their flesh. It is this class of apparition which
appears to have the strongest fascination for the Syrian mind; and its
graveyard lore is the natural sequel to the morbid interest in death
which formed the subject of our preceding chapter. Conder, whose book
gives much interesting information on this whole subject, found it
difficult to keep any Arabs about him at Fusâil, a few miles north of
Jericho, because of their fear of a ghoul in the ruins, who might chance
to desire a change of food were he to see them there. The dead appear to
have undergone a change for the worse in dying. The utmost caution and
politeness are required to prevent their ghosts from doing harm to the
visitors at their tombs, even in the case of men who, while in the body,
were hospitable and friendly persons. Some localities are regarded as
peculiarly dangerous, among which is the reputed site of the stoning of
Stephen and (according to Gordon) of Calvary, near Jerusalem. An Arab
writer of the Middle Ages advises the traveller not to pass that haunted
spot at night.[57]

If, under ordinary conditions, life in Syria is overshadowed and
haunted, the dread becomes far greater when disease has come. The
explanation of disease is the same easy one as that which has deadened
science and distorted religion–magic again. Even when the true cause of
illness has been guessed, it has to be explained in ghostly language.
When plague has broken out in a locality the Jewish Rabbis make the
neighbours of the stricken house empty all jars and vessels, saying that
“the angel of death wipes his sword in liquids.” The malaria of swamps
is set down to the same cause, and it is probable that many of that
mixed multitude who are to be seen sitting chin deep in the hot
sulphur-springs of Gadara or Tiberias regard their cure as due to some
local spirit who happens to be benevolently inclined. In the
neighbourhood of the tomb of a Mohammedan saint, every accident or
ailment is regarded as the work of the dead man. Indeed the main idea of
Syrian medical science is that all or most sickness is possession by
demons, and a common cure is to bore or burn holes in the patient’s
flesh, by which the evil spirit may escape. The treatment of lunacy is
perhaps the saddest case in point. Until Mr. Waldmeyer built his asylum
at Beyrout, there was but one mode of treatment. At certain monasteries
there are caves in which the insane are chained below huge stones, with
hardly space for movement, and are kept there for days in hunger and
filth, in order to drive out the devil. The test for devil-possession is
somewhat crude. The patient is shewn a cross. If he turns from it and
refuses to look he is possessed; if he shews no aversion to it he is
only unwell and is allowed to go. In the Beyrout asylum we were told
that no case of lunacy had been discovered which in any way differed
from the European types of the same disease. The record of cures there,
under the same treatment as that which is practised in the West, is a
most encouraging and hopeful one.

It is true that the bright spirit of the East with its rapid changes and
its unquenchable sparkle of gaiety, has mitigated the horror and
oppressiveness of the spectral there. There are times when one would
almost fancy that the whole of their superstition was a pretence which
was never meant to be taken seriously. In Damascus, and probably
elsewhere, you may buy little rag-dolls supposed to resemble camels.
They are made of bones, covered with patches of many-coloured cloth, and
tricked out with tinsel and strings of beads. We bought two of these
from a young girl in “the street called Straight” for half a franc, and
bore them through the city with a crowd of idlers following us. We
learned afterwards that these were cunning devices to cheat the ghosts.
When you are very sick or in danger you vow a camel to your saint or
friendly spirit–this is how you pay your vow. Poking fun at Hades in
this fashion might seem a dangerous game, and one hardly to be
recommended while any lingering belief in the reality of ghosts
remained. Yet such is Syrian character. This sort of thing persists
along with a deep horror of the other world. The words of Job are not in
the least out of date in Palestine to-day: “Fear came upon me, and
trembling, which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before
my face; the hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not
discern the form thereof; an image was before mine eyes: there was
silence, and I heard a voice.”[58] The horror is all the deeper because
it appears to be seldom brought to clear statement. The spectral world
is undefined, and it has, therefore, all the added power of the unknown,
whose play upon the imagination is so much more strong and subtle than
that of any clear conception, however ghastly.

In this chapter no attempt has been made to distinguish between the
superstitions of Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans in Palestine. As a
matter of fact, there is little to choose between them, and they have
much in common. It is true that every nation has some outlook or other
upon the world of spirits. But each has its own way of regarding the
apparitions; and the kind of spectre which a land believes in is no bad
indication of the tone of the land’s thought and character. About the
fairy-lore of Teutonic nations there is a child-like simplicity and
purity which make

that lore wholly refreshing and precious. The nymphs and Pan, whose
ancient monuments we have seen in ancient Palestine, were graceful. But
the spectral element in modern Palestine appears to be almost wholly
morbid and unclean,–the further decadence of a land that has made its
covenant with death. The life a Syrian peasant leads to-day is haunted
by ghostly terrors; it is a life led by leave of the dead, or by a
systematic cunning which plays off one malign spirit against another, or
succeeds in winning a point or two against the grave for the player. It
is a view of life than which surely none can be at once more impudent
and more melancholy.