Open main menu

Letter VII.




Jaffa. Traveling arrangement. Place where the Ark was built. House of Simon the Tanner. Mohammedan funeral ceremony. Plains of Sharon. A night in the desert. Battlefield of David and Goliath. Rose of Sharon. Mount Zion. Mount of Olives. Jerusalem.- - Rachel's Tomb. Solomon's Pools. Church of the Nativity. Mudio of St. Jerome. Shepherds' field. Jordan River. Dead Sea.

JERUSALEM, FEBRUARY 26TH, 1873. Editor Deseret Neivs:

Saturday evening, the 22d inst., we steamed out from Port Said, and the following morning anchored within a half mile of Jaffa, the first sea- port of Palestine. In boisterous weather and rough seas, landing is diffi- cult and dangerous frequently impossible, occasioning much annoyance and great expense to tourists. As we arose at early dawn, our anxiety was relieved by finding we were favored with a smooth sea and fine weather, and we were enabled by means of small boats to disembark with compara- tive safety. On approaching Jaffa from the sea, it presents a charming and picturesque appearance, being situated upon a high eminence, its streets rising one above another like seats in an amphitheatre, surrounded by beautiful lemon and orange groves and tall waving cypresses. On entering the custom house with our baggage, some francs bestowed upon the smiling, obsequious Mussulman official, saved the trouble of looking up our pass- ports and occupying time which otherwise would have been employed by officious Turks in ransacking our satchels and trunks. We proceeded on foot to our encampment, carriages being out of the question, through the suburbs of the town, till we came to a Turkish cemetery near the shore of the Mediterranean. We found the arrangements completed for our travel- ing expedition two sleeping tents, a separate one for the ladies, a kitchen tent with cook stove, a saloon or dining tent, iron bedsteads, mattresses, clean white sheets, abundance of bedding, carpets and camp stools. We were provided with good horses, saddles, an efficient dragoman, plenty of servants and preparations to serve three meals per day, under the super- vision of an experienced cook.

Jaffa is considered the oldest seaport in world; it has a population of about five thousand, principally Arabs, Greeks and Mohammedans.


The interior of the city does not compare favorably in its appearance with its exterior. The streets are narrow, crooked, and filthy in the extreme the houses uncomfortable, dark and gloomy, and the occupants are certainly unprepossessing in manners and general appearance. This is the ancient Joppa of Bible history, and is supposed to be the place where Noah's Ark was built, the port where the Prophet Jonah embarked when fleeing from the presence of the Lord, and where Hiram, King of Tyre, brought the cedars of Lebanon for the building of the Temple at Jeru- salem.

Among other places of sacred interest, we visited the "House of Simon the tanner, by the seaside," where Peter had the remarkable vision in which the will of God was revealed concerning the Gentiles, by letting down a sheet containing all manner of beasts, etc., and heard the voice com- manding him to "rise, kill and eat."

During our encampment we witnessed a ceremony of Mohammedan burial. The corpse of a child, wrapped in white, was borne to the grave, without a coffin, in the arms of a Mussulman, attended by the parents and a few friends. The body was placed in a small enclosure formed at the bottom of the grave by stones placed around, after which, several small paper packages were emptied into the grave; the enclosure containing the corpse was overlaid with flat rocks, . the grave filled with earth, then a half bushel of beautiful little sea shells scattered over. Several women, clothed in white, knelt around the grave and commenced weeping and wailing in the most affecting manner, which they continued for several hours.

The next morning our tents were struck and we mounted our horses, following our dragoman in single file along the winding streets of Jaffa, lined with crowds of gazing Arabs and Mussulmen. After leaving the town, we passed through extensive and lovely orange and lemon groves loaded with golden fruit, and presently reached the flowery Plains of Sharon. The atmosphere was sweet and balmy, the gorgeous sun spreading its enlivening rays upon the beautiful country around, the morning lovely as ever dawned upon the holy land of. Palestine. We felt that we were pass- ing over the land once occupied by the children of Abraham, the plains once trod by the kings of Israel with their marshaled hosts, the land of the Apostles and Prophets. We were in Palestine ! The Holy Land ! The consciousness of the fact was inspiring. Hour after hour we rode onward in silent and solemn meditation; at length we reached the city of Ramleh, four hours distant from Jaffa, where we stopped to rest our animals, and partake of refreshments. Here is "The Martyrs' Tower." We ascended a flight of stairs to its lofty summit, which commands a magnificent view of


the surrounding country the Plains of Sharon, Arab villages here and there upon rising mounds, gigantic prickly pear hedges, olive orchards, and now and then a palm tree rising majestically above the whole, and the mountains of Judea appearing in the distance.

We resumed our journey, passed trains of loaded camels, mounted by half naked Arabs, smoking their long pipes, looking down smilingly from their "ships of the desert," doubtless sympathizing with us in our humbler mode of traveling.

The soil is generally rich and fertile, growing fields of wheat and vege- tables. The dews fall profusely, and we were informed that latterly rain is more frequent in Palestine than in former years.

About 4 p. m. we arrived at our encampment, a beautiful basin enclosed by romantic hills at the entrance of the Valley of Ajalon. Through the night we were serenaded by bands of musical frogs, accom- panied by howls of jackals in the adjacent hills, relieved by the low plaintive chants of our Turkish guards, and charming songs of cuckoos perched in the branches of olive trees around our camp.

On the following morning, after an early breakfast, with our iaces toward the "Holy City," we moved forward, passing through the Valley of Ajalon, and soon commenced ascending into a more elevated region of country, generally rocky and mountainous, producing but little more than is required for the flocks of sheep and goats ranging upon it.

About 12 o'clock we stopped to lunch under the shade of olive trees, in the Valley of Elah, where it is said David selected stones with which to combat Goliath, while the two contending armies were encamped on the slopes of the adjacent mountains. At a short distance from this locality we were shown the Kirjath-jearim of sacred history, where the "Ark of the Covenant" is said to have rested twenty years.

The Valley of Elah is richly ornamented in the midst of its rocky surface and sparse vegetation with what is called the "Rose of Sharon," a flower of a deep red, velvety appearance, three inches in circumference or thereabout, growing from six inches to one foot in height.

One hour's ride from our lunching place will bring us to Jerusalem. We move on and at length ascend an eminence, and gaze on the "Holy City," Jerusalem. Away to the right is Mount Zion, the city of David. Off to our left, that lofty eminence, with an aspect so barren, is the Mount of Olives, once the favorite resort of our Savior, and the spot last pressed by His sacred feet before He ascended into the presence of His Father. These interesting historic scenes, with all their sacred associations, inspire thoughts and reflections impressive and solemn. Yes, there is Jerusalem! Where Jesus lived and taught, and was crucified, where He cried, "It


is finished," and bowed His head and died! We slowly and thoughtfully wind our way down the hill, passing the Russian buildings and othe r prominent establishments, until we reach the city and enter our encamp- ment.

After remaining one day at Jerusalem, according to programme, Feb- ruary 22d, we struck our tents, resumed our saddles, and started on an excursion of three days to Solomon's Pools, Bethlehem, Convent of Mar Saba, the Dead Sea, the Jordan, returning by the way of Bethany to Jeru- salem.

About six miles' ride over a rocky, sterile country, brought us to Rachel's Tomb. It is a small stone building, forty feet long and twenty wide, and is respected by Christians, Jews and Mahommedans. Here we made a detour over a miserable, rocky, tortuous path of some three miles to the Pools of Solomon. These pools consist of three immense reservoirs, situated in a broad valley about three miles from Bethlehem. They are partly excavated in a rocky bed, and partly built of large hewn stones, and so arranged that the bottom of the upper pool is higher than the top of the next, and the same with the second and the third. The first pool is three hundred and eighty feet in length, twenty-five feet deep, and about two hundred and forty feet broad. The second is about one hundred and sixty feet from the upper pool, four hundred and twenty-three feet in length, about two hundred and forty in breadth, and thirty-nine in depth. The lower one, nearly two hundred and fifty feet from the middle pool, is five hundred and eighty feet in length, about two hundred feet wide and fifty feet deep.

These pools receive their supplies from a subterraneous fountain, some distance up the valley. The water

from these pools was formerly conveyed 

in an aqueduct by Bethlehem, in a winding course, to Jerusalem; but at present it only goes to Bethlehem. These pools are supposed to have been built by Solomon. From this point we continued our course over rocky ridges, following a narrow, winding trail, till we reached Bethlehem, the birthplace of our Savior.

This city is pleasantly situated upon a mountain ridge, the slopes ot which are terraced with rows of fig and olive trees, rising one above another in regular gradation. The population of Bethlehem is about three thou- sand, principally Christians. The Church of the Nativity is about the (inly attraction. We entered it and followed a winding staircase to the Grotto ot the Nativity, which is brilliantly lighted with about thirty silver lamps, kept continually burning. The floor is laid with precious marbles. A white marble slab, placed in the pavement, set around with jasper, in the centre of which is a silver sun, is encircled with the following words: If in de Vir-


gine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est., i.e., "Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary." Though we had scruples respecting this being the identical spot it represented, still these words, in connection with the pecu- liar circumstances around, produced impressions never to be forgotten. Near by was .pointed out the place where the wise men stood while pre- senting the Royal Infant myrrh and frankincense. A little distant from this we were shown an altar, which is said to indicate the place where twenty thousand children, murdered by Herod's order, were buried; now called, on this account, "The Altar of the Innocents." A painting directly over it represents the massacre.

We were conducted into a retired, solitary niche of this church, almost devoid of light, the identical Studio of St. Jerome, where he spent most of his life in deep study and produced those works which gave celebrity to his name.

Before leaving Bethlehem it was considered policy to employ a Bedouin sheik, as security against these barbarians, who inhabit the moun- tains through which we were to pass. These Bedouins chiefly live in tents, their flocks and herds constituting their principal means of support. Their dress is plain and rather primitive a flowing skirt or gown and a scanty undergarment of coarse calico fastened around the waist by a leather belt, ornamented with rows of cartridges in brass tubes; to these are added a long-barreled shotgun, with flintlock, slung over the shoulder, and knife stuck in the belt. This wandering people cultivate the soil to some extent. In passing over the mountains of Judea, we sometimes saw enclosed patches of cultivated ground near their camps, and many flocks of sheep and goats feeding in the glens and upon the adjacent mountains. Tourists are not safe in traveling through their country unless accompanied by some of their own people.

We stopped to lunch in an olive orchard, a short distance from Bethlehem, an enclosure called "The Shepherds' Field," where the shepherds watched their flocks by night, when the angels appeared to them announcing the grand and glorious event of our Savior's incarna- tion.

From here our route was over a rocky, tortuous path, through the wil- derness of Judea, scarcely a tree, shrub or bush to be seen in any direction. The whole country is barren and rocky, herbage here and there sufficient only for the sustenance of sheep and goats. The mountain scenery was beautiful and sublime; occasionally I stopped my horse upon a lofty summit to gaze upon the surrounding scenery, a vast wilderness of moun- tains in an endless variety of form and size. Towards evening we arrived at the Convent of Mar Saba, about ten miles from Bethlehem. We


descended a broad, paved staircase to a small platform in front of the massive walls, in which was a small iron door. We were closely watched by a singular looking friar, peeping through a loophole overhead. Present- ing our letter of introduction from the Greek authorities at Jerusalem, which was scrupulously examined, we were admitted and conducted through the building by the presiding friar, a tolerably good looking and intelligent gentleman.

This convent, in some respects, is the most singular and extraordinary building in Palestine. It is situated in the midst of the wilderness where John the Baptist commenced hig ministry. It is built upon the side of a terrific ravine, and consists of irregular massive walls, towers, chambers and chapels, built upon narrow rock terraces and precipices, advantage being taken of natural caves and grottos in the rocks and sides of the cliffs, inso- much that we could scarcely tell, as we passed along the narrow galleries and flights of stairs, what was natural and what artificial; the ravine is several hundred feet deep, the side of it covered from top to bottom with these natural and artificial works, woven imperceptibly one into another, forming a fortress of immense strength. It is considered one of the richest convents in Palestine; and the strictest precaution and watching are observed to prevent the wild Bedouins, who are constantly hovering in the vicinity, from entering and carrying off its treasures. St. Saba, the founder of this convent, was born in the year 439. He was a man of remarkable sanctity, and held in such high veneration that hQ drew thousands of fol- lowers to this desolate region. He had around him, at one time, fourteen thousand people in this glen and its neighborhood. He died in this solitary retreat, at the age of ninety-four years. We were shown his tomb in a small, neat chapel, also an apartment containing a pile of skulls of monks who had been martyred by the Persians, and a grotto where St. Saba spent many years of his life, which, according to tradition, was originally a lion f s den. We saw a palm tree still flourishing, said to have been planted nearly fourteen hundred years ago by St. Saba.

This convent belongs to the Greek Church. The monks are required to observe the most rigid rules of abstinence and fasting, never allowed to eat flesh, and strictly enjoined to allow no woman to enter their presence or cross the threshold of their establishment. A small, peaceful tribe of Arabs, residing in adjacent glens, are employed by these friars to convey their food and clothing from Jerusalem.

In a small, open square, they spread out upon the pavement their little articles of traffic, consisting of beads, buttons, crosses, walking sticks, etc., inviting us to make investments. About seventy of these anchorites live together in this building, where everything around exhibits an aspect


of gloom and misery, as might be expected where nature is interrupted by the exclusion of the cheering, enlivening and happy influence of woman.

From Mar Saba we proceeded to our encampment, half a mile distant, in a beautiful dell, encircled by stupendous mountains.

The following day, having nine hours' ride before us, we started before sunrise, our path extending over high,^barren, rocky ridges, through a wild, desolate region, skirting fearful ravines, and passing along the brink of frightful chasms and precipices, occasionally catching a glimpse of the Dead Sea, through breaks in the distant cliffs; at length we beheld the sacred Plains of Jordan, and there, in full view, the Dead Sea, with its waters sparkling beneath the bright and burning sun.

Having descended into the valley, while passing through a jungle of tall cane and thorns, those of our party in front suddenly encountered a band of armed Bedouins, whose fierce looks and threatening attitude prompted them to turn back very hurriedly. Antonio, our dragoman, immediately rushed up from the rear to ascertain the cause of interruption; on his approach, the Bedouins concealed themselves among the cane and bushes, except three, who stood their ground defiantly. Antonio, some- what excited, hurried the company rapidly through the jungle, then gal- loped up to the three Bedouins, and, aided by his men, forced their arms from, them, and took them as trophies of victory to the Dead Sea. The sheik being in the rear, and not appearing till the affray was nearly over, some conjectured that he dictated the ruse; our subsequent acquaintance with him, however, convinced us that this supposition did him injustice.

The Dead Sea is the most remarkable body of water in the world. It is ten miles wide, forty in length lying in a deep ravine, about thirteen hundred feet below the level of the Mediterranean, enclosed by lofty cliffs of bare white and grey limestone. We stopped on the shore near where the Jordan empties. We noticed here quantities of driftwood, which had been accumulating for ages; but little else appeared except sterility, dreari- ness and death-like solitude. We were informed that nothing was to be found upon any of its borders exhibiting life except here and there where a brackish fountain, or little streamlet from the mountain, produces a small thicket of cane, willow and tamarisk. I think the water is more intensely salt than that of any other body of water except Salt Lake. It contains twenty-six per cent, of saline matter, which is sufficient to render it fatal to animal life. It is as transparent as the water of the Mediterranean. Its specific gravity is so great that the human body will not sink, and eggs float when two-thirds immersed.

After spending some time in gratifying our curiosity and in experi- menting on the bathing qualities of its waters, we left its dismal shores,


steering across a flat, sterile plain, some three miles distant, and stopped under some willows on the banks of the sacred

Jordan, near the place 

where it is supposed the Israelites crossed, and where our Savior was bap- tized.