ON the 25th May, 1874, we left Straight Street, Damascus, at nine o'clock A.M. As we passed out of the city, we saw green vegetables beginning to make their appearance in the markets, and jaundiced-looking apricots, ripened in the baths, were being eagerly purchased and greedily devoured by the famine-stricken people. A little beyond Bob Tama, Thomas' Gate, where once stood St. Thomas' Church, the site of which is now unknown, we turned out of the straight road to Palmyra, into a shady lane to the left. We had planned our route through the highlands of Jebel Kalamoun, that we might visit the interesting towns and mission schools of that region, while escaping the great heat of the plains.

On most maps of Syria, the Anti-lebanon appears as a huge caterpillar, laid side by side and parallel with Mount Lebanon ; but the Anti-lebanon consists of a series of mountain ranges, some of which run parallel with [5] Lebanon and sink into the great hums plain, while some twist of in a more eastern direction, and shoot out into the desert. The most eastward and desertward of these ranges rises into Hermon at the one end, and sinks into Palmyra at the other; and the part of this latter range which lies north-east of Damascus is generally known as Jeleb Kalamoun.

Our shady lane, through the orchards of Damascus, was overhung with great spreading walnuts, trellised with vines, and on either side were apricots beaded with new fruit, and thickets of pomegranate' with scarlet blossoms bursting forth like handfuls of crumpled silk.

Half an hour from the city we crossed the Taura (Pharpar), a river of Damascus, a little below where a cotton manufactory was established with English machinery, and under English superintendence. The English workmen, however, found great difficulty in getting their wages, and they were kept in unhealthy lodgings, until three out of four died, and the survivor returned home broken in heart and constitution, and with experiences sufficient to deter others from being allured into similar service by the prospect of high wages.

Beyond the bridge, we met a party with a few sacks of new barley, artificially ripened, and carried on the backs of donkeys into the city ; and we saw fields of barley pulled and left on its side to ripen, that it might be in time for the famine prices.

An hour from Damascus we passed through Burzeh, a Moslem village, where there is the sanctuary of [6]



[Page 8 is a blank page.]


Abraham, and where the people still talk familiarly of "good King Ibrahim," though the names of Sultan Selim and Salah ed-Din (Saladin) have already almost passed from local tradition. Here we struck into the mountains to the left by a pass up a gorge, parallel to the sublime gorge of the Barada, by which tourists enter Damascus, and much resembling it, but on a smaller scale.

Our road lay up a fine mountain torrent, through which our horses splashed and tumbled. Once a Damascus Moslem was riding up the same gorge, and he had his leg broken by the falling of his horse. When dying he left a sum of money to make a road through the pass, to prevent the repetition of such accidents as cost him his life. The money, after lying many years in the wrong place, was unearthed by an English engineer ; but it found its way into Moslem hands once more, and in summer, when the pass was bone dry, a road was made along the bottom of the ravine. The fact of the Turks having made a road themselves was published in the papers, and people wondered. The road was made chiefly of dry (lust, pressed down by the palms of the hands and the bare feet of the workmen and workwomen ; and though it had been only one year made when we passed through, not a vestige of it remained.

In less than half an hour we issued from the gorge at Maraba, a Moslem village, clinging to a bare rock overhanging the water. We turned up the western [9] side of the ridge through which we had come, by a narrow valley full of fragrant walnuts, and white-stemmed poplars, and green corn as high up as the soil was watered, and no higher, calling to mind the words of the prophet, "And everything shall live whither the river cometh " (Ezek. xlvii. 9).

We lunched in a lovely green meadow, under the trees, near the village Et-Tell, and then continued our course in the track of the water past Menin, a village which, like Et-Tell, contains many remains of ancient buildings. This part of our route was charming. We had left the steaming city behind, and we were continually getting up ont of the heated plain. Here and there we had pleasant shade, and everywhere the sparkling water murmured past us, and every vista and every eminence supplied pictures of blending landscapes, such as are rarely seen even in Syria.

Here our party was temporarily broken up. We had agreed to spend the first night at Maloula, but my companions' guide had directed the tents to Saidenaya, and so I had to ride on alone, as I had arranged to visit the mission schools of Yabroud and Nebk on the following day.

I passed the fortress convent of Saideaya, perched on a high rock, up which hewn steps lead to a small door, the only entrance. This convent contains a crowd of ignorant, idle women, and is famous for a picture painted by St. Luke, which distils a fluid very efficacious for eye complaints, and for replenishing the coffers [10] of the convent. The picture was once stolen, but in the hands of the thief it became changed into flesh, and continues so to this day. I once tried hard to see this miraculous picture. I urged the cruelty of keeping a thing of flesh and blood so closely confined. and the advantages that might be expected front a little fresh air. I was also very liberal, and tried to bribe my.hostess, who was not fair, but it was all in vain. I could not see it and live, and so I was spared the sight.


This miracle has attained to an antiquity respectable in these days. Nearly two hundred years ago, Henry Maundrell found the fame of the picture 1 , and the [11] reputation of the establishment, about the same as they are now. But they have a new miracle to boast of in the convent of Saidenaya.

1At a very early period the picture was supposed to represent the Virgin Mary. There is a Latin MS. in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, consisting of a Guide Book to Palestine, written about. 1350 A.D. The picture is thus referred to : " Ten miles from Damascus is the city of Saidenaya, in which is the venerate image of the glorious Virgin Mary, which was brought from Jerusalem. This blessed image was entirely converted into a fleshy substance, so that it ceases not night and day to emit a sacred oil, which the pilgrims who come there from every quarter carry away in little glass jars. No Saracen can live in this city ; they always die within a year."

In 1860, many Christians took refuge in the con-vent, and they were there for a time in a state of siege. There is no well in the convent, and only a cistern in which the rain-water from the roof is preserved. But. wonderful as it may seem, the water in the cistern swelled up to the brim, and overflowed in a stream all the time that the wicked Druzes hovered about the convent. Could I disbelieve the miracle when I was told of it by a lady who actually saw it take place, and pointed out to me the very spot? It is much to be regretted that this miracle took place in such an out-of-the-way convent ; but even thus, 1 have no doubt, it will yet receive the fame it merits.

My path lay along the eastern side of the mountain range on which Saidenaya stands. The range has a sea-washed crest, showing in its length a clear tide-line. Though the mountains were bare and without vegetation, there were in several places little flocks of goats and sheep, attended by very small, half-naked shepherds, burnt [12] brown. The red plain had been scratched in several places, but the " thin ears blasted with the east wind showed that, as on the six previous years, the crop of the region was about to be a complete failure.

In this solitary ride I met only one party of men. They were village recruits, who had been taken by conscription. Handcuffs in Syria are of a most primitive kind. A piece of a tree, eighteen inches long and eight inches in diameter, is split up ; a place is hollowed out across the split, and the two wrists being placed in the groove, the two pieces are nailed together with large spikes. Each recruit had his hands nailed up, and the party was being driven into Damascus by one mounted dragoon. The sticks had been so unskilfully fitted that some of their wrists were bleeding, and the poor fellows were all lame and hungry. Ile would be a real benefactor who would supply Turkey with a few thou-sand pairs of civilized handcuffs.

In less than three hours I turned to the left, through a narrow cleft in the mountain, and then wound up and down its western side, till I reached the Greek Catholic convent of Maloula. About eight o'clock I reached the small iron portal, which opened to my first tap, and I found myself in a quadrangle with a two-storied range of rooms running all round it. Instead of nuns, as at Saidenaya, a great drove of mountain cows were housed in the court at. night, and the place was kept by two agricultural monks and two " stout daughters of the plough."


My servant, who had preceded me, had my bed erected in an aerial cell, and the kindly old priest brought me a bottle of native wine, and what was better still, fresh eggs and milk.

It is only fair to state that the priest who honoured me with his company seemed to value more highly than I did this wine of Helbon," which maintains in its neighbourhood the pre-eminence it held in the days of Ezekiel. In exact ratio as the contents of the bottle went down, the spirits of my entertainer rose, and till a very late hour he poured out stories of the place, natural and supernatural, until I was fairly driven into the land of dreams.

Next morning I was on the roof of the convent when the first shafts of rosy light shot over the eastern mountains. The upper convent stands near the edge of a fearful precipice, on a ledge of rock which seems driven wedge-like into a deep break in the mountain. Creeping close to the edge of the precipice, I looked over, and beneath me I saw the most picturesque town in Syria, perhaps the most remarkable in some respects in the world. The cliffs rise several hundred feet over the village, and the houses stick like swallows' nests one above the other about the bases of the cliffs. The flat roofs looked like the steps of a great ladder up the side of the mountain.

The Greek convent beneath. Mar Theckla, is wedged in under a huge ledge of impending mountain, and a door opens out of the living rock. The arch of the roof is [14] supported by a slender column, which seems to mock the crushing weight above. The deep valley below is full of huge blocks that have fallen from the mountain, and the pendant cliffs are cracked and fissured, and seem ready to follow into the ravine. As I stood on a half-detached ledge that overhung the houses, I almost held my breath, lest the huge mass should plunge madly down among the human nests, bringing instant death to hundreds.

The scene was lovely as well as strange. Behind. the red hill curved around like a vast amphitheatre, and on either side the mountain cliffs stood up like the sides of a great portal. In front, the gardens opened out like a fan from the mouth of the gorge. These gardens, green with the many shades of walnut, and poplar, and bay, and cypress, and growing corn, terminated abruptly in a flat chocolate-coloured plain, around which rose tawny hills, in some places bleached white. Eagles soared and wild pigeons swarmed about the cliffs above ;and the air beneath was full of swallows, which darted in and out under the projecting ledges ; and there were several families of Syrian nuthatches—some of them rare specimens, even in Syria—which swung and sputtered about the brows of the cliffs.

The communication between the upper convent and the village is difficult. On either side of the wedge on which the convent stands, and against which the houses are stuck, there is a rent or deep fissure separating it from the mountain. I descended through the [15] rent on the south-western side by a narrow path with stone steps cut in the rock. I found the people of Maloula as interesting as their village. They speak the ancient Syriac language, though most of them can also speak a little Arabic, but with a Syriac accent.

Maloula is the centre of a group of villages where the language of the conquering Arabs has not yet completed its triumph. In Bukha and Jub-'Adin, neighbouring villages, the people are all Moslems, and all speak Syriac ; so that while the religion of the prophet has prevailed, the language of the people has conquered the conquerors. In Maloula it is a drawn battle. Many of the people are still Christians. and most of them hold by their own old language. In all other villages in Syria the language of the Koran is the language of the people.

I ascended to the convent through the northern rent. in the bottom of which runs the stream of the village. The walls rose to a height of two hundred feet on either side, showing a very narrow strip of sky above. The cliffs are full of chambers, and closets opening off chambers, and there are hundreds of tombs all chiselled out of the solid rock. The village is of high antiquity, as the Greek inscriptions reach back to the first century of our era ; and the rock-hewn chambers, which served for human habitations before the people learned from the swallows their present style of architecture, point doubtless to a very remote period.


Text Archive Home | Book Details | Table of Contents