Title


PALMYRA AND ZENOBIA. CHAPTER 22.

COIN OF ARETAS
COIN OF ARETAS

CHAPTER XXII.

As we crossed the river 'Awaj into a rich loamy plain beyond, we came up with caravan of mules and donkeys laden with jars, on their way to the Hauran. The men rushed towards us as we approached and made an attempt to kiss our feet and stirrups; and then followed a little torrent of jerked-out ejaculations, along with which the hands were held up to heaven, thanking God for sending us to be their protectors.

One of our servants shouted out, "God is great," the usual solace for all difficulties, and we were in the act of riding on past them, when they appealed to us so piteously that we had not the heart to leave them. 'They pointed to their little donkeys, and their fragile burdens, and told us how many mishaps they had had on that same road, on their way to Burāk. They assured us that the Arabs would without doubt sweep down upon them from behind some hill, if we left them, "And, oh! my lord, we have only you and Allah to trust in." Their appeal was [240] successful, and we lingered with them, much against our will.

They had been waiting for us all the morning, as our muleteers, who were their friends, had informed them of the strong escort that our travelling companions would have, so they had ventured to come the nearer but more dangerous way- in hopes of being protected.

Our route lay over a high stony table-land, with hills to right and left. As we proceeded we met an almost naked shepherd, walking towards Damascus, followed by his sheep, from which our potters first inferred that the country was safe, as a shepherd and sheep could move through it unmolested; and secondly that there was great danger, as the shepherd was only coming from some tribe in the vicinity.

A deputation of potters now approached us, headed by their most eloquent spokesman, who by the most fierce and extravagant tales, in which they or their ancestors had put to flight or slaughtered hosts of Bedawin, endeavoured to arouse our valour, or at least to prevent it from "oozing out at our finger ends." When I hinted to them that my mare was very timorous, and very fleet, and would, no doubt, bolt at the first sight of the Arabs, but expressed the hope that from their hereditary proficiency in the art of disposing of their enemies, they would never miss me, they suddenly changed their tone, and told how they and their ancestors had been killed " by the Arabs without any power of retaliation.1

1An Arab always speaks of a beating as a killing. "I ate a killing" is a very common phrase. [241]

Of course every second word was punctuated with an oath. The spirit of "brag" had now seized our party, and they boasted and swaggered, and hurled great stones feebly at the heads of imaginary Bedawīn, and kept up a regular fusillade from their one gun; but they would have collapsed, like their earthen pots, before any serious blow. When we remonstrated with them that their tumultuating and firing were calculated to attract the enemy, they assured us that the Arabs would know from their firing that they were armed, and should they see us with them, they would take us for their armed escort. Thus what seemed to us folly was only strategy in their eyes.

Following some partridges on a ridge to the left, I found that there were artificial hollows in the ground, a few hundred yards from our path, in which a large number of Arabs might lie concealed, and pounce almost instantaneously on passers-by. Such a discovery suggested watchfulness and preparedness, especially as we were on one of the paths most frequented by the Arabs. My faith, however, in Bedawi attacks had been growing weaker and weaker for eight years, till I had almost become a confirmed sceptic. I knew that they seldom make a serious attack unless the odds are tremendously in their favour.

The most conspicuous object in view for a long time was a solitary tree, high up on the side of a hill to the right in front. The hill was called Abu Shajarat, "the father of one tree." This part of the desert was exceedingly [242] stony and barren, but yet it showed signs of former occupation, by foundations of houses, by traces of fields, and by stone walls stretching miles in a straight line over hill and plain. We passed also a place where water could be had, and where there were numerous sheepfolds surrounded by circular single stone walls breast-high.

We now reached the spot celebrated for Bedawi gazzos (razzias). To the left there was a high conical hill, called Abu Muraj, behind which the Arabs lie in wait and form. A trustworthy man with good sight lies on the top of the hill, so as to he unseen from the road, and, when the proper moment arrives, he starts to his feet, and gives the signal, whereupon the Arabs sweep round the base of the hill with a fiendish noise, and with quivering lances make their sudden flank attack on the passing caravan. Clearing the hill, they find a piece of ground admirably suited for their peculiar hostile operations.

If the caravan is properly equipped and commanded, it forms instantly into a circular rampart, the animals being firmly braced the one to the other. The men who have guns fire away in succession as fast as they can over the backs of the mules and from under the bellies of the camels, and those who have no firelocks stand by their animals with clubs and stones, waiting for the onset at close quartets. Should the Bedawin have the caravan at their mercy, and no blood-feud exists to embitter their feelings, they are seldom wantonly cruel. They approach with such shouts as, "Surrender, and we [243] will spare your lives, and be content with the half of your loads"; "Give up your guns, and we will leave you your mules."

If an easy victory is not certain, the Bedawīn, chary of their own blood, but especially of that of their mares, gallop round and round the caravan, endeavouring to cut off stragglers, and making feints here and there at full gallop to break the living rampart, but in the moment of feigned assault they wheel their horses round on their own length and gallop off. The affair generally ends with much curvetting, much dust, and a horrid din.

But we had evidence before us that these gazzos do not always end so bloodlessly, for the district around is a cemetery. Here and there are black mounds, where friend and foe rest heaped together, as in more civilized lands, "after a glorious victory"; and in other places there are little mounds and solitary head-stones which mark the scene of insignificant skirmishes and foul murders.

We now descended to the level plain. Here I had an exciting chase after a bustard, about the size of a large fowl, called by the Arabs hibari. My mare was so excited at being taken from the rest that I could not fire from the saddle, and so I sprang to the ground and pursued it on foot. It kept its distance, about one hundred and fifty yards from me, and when I stopped it stopped too. At last I made a final effort down the hill, and gained upon it till there was only about one hundred yards between us, when it took to its wings, and flew about five hundred yards further, and so I was obliged to leave it. [244]

BASALT BED OF THE LEJAH
BASALT BED OF THE LEJAH

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The sun was sinking in the west when we reached the level plain. Before us a weird-looking, dark wall crossed our path like a low, gloomy sea-coast. A thin strip of green corn seemed to be sweeping like a sea around the headlands and up among the creeks. And the wondrous Lejah (Argob of the Hebrews, Deut. iii. 4, 14; Trachonitis of the Greeks) lay before us, having all the features of a sea — a troubled sea. From no place could we have had a more curious view of the Lejah. The setting sun touched the tops of the rocks and the bushes, and in contrast with the black shadows they shone like the crests of waves, and the dark shadows appeared like the deep furrows of the waves.

It was hard not to believe that the Lejah, as spread out before us, was a heavy sea, rolling great billows from west to east. The sun went down upon us as we neared the edge of the plain, and in the brief twilight we saw the heads of watchers looking out upon us from the rocks. We rode up a tortuous path unto the edge of the Lejah, and pitched our tent in the dark, among the ruins of Buiāk.

We were surrounded by a motley crowd of muleteers and camel-drivers, who were waiting for the cover of the night to proceed to Damascus with their precious loads of wheat. Hearing that we had seen no Arabs on the way, the caravan filed off immediately. The people of Burāk also gathered sullenly round, but neither helped nor hindered us.

When I renewed my acquaintance with the sheikh, he [247] gave me to understand that their water was entirely exhausted; and though we were willing to pay for it at any price, we could only obtain about two pints, which had been treasured up all day in a dirty skin, having been carried seven or eight miles on the back of a donkey. The tea manufactured from this fluid was of a hue that would have delighted the eyes of a Persian, but its taste was strongly suggestive of leather broth, and as no amount of sugar would neutralize the flavour of raw hide, we swallowed down the bitter beverage like medicine.

Our attempts to sleep in Burāk proved even a greater failure than our attempts to make tea; for though the colonists of the place are not numerous, they have brought a very abundant and healthy supply of black and white fleas with them, which seem to live and thrive among the ruins of the town, rendering sleep all but impossible. The first man I saw, in looking out from my tent, was a soldier whom I once found in the north of Syria robbing some peasant-women of truffles that they had spent the day in digging. The women appealed to me, and I forced the soldier in a somewhat high-handed manner to return the stolen property. I had therefore doubts as to the footing on which I should meet the bandit; but as soon as I issued from the tent, he came up and claimed me as an old friend.

We were at once reminded that we were in the Lejah — "the refuge" — the region to which Absalom fled after the murder of his brother, and the place where the ruffian soldier is safe, after having stabbed a shepherd [248] to the heart for defending his sheep. That rock-girt land has been in all ages the home of the enemy of man, and there are few men in the whole district whose hands have, not been defiled by some foul deed.

And never was land more suited to its inhabitants. Black discharges from the bowels of the earth "gloom the land," with a scene that might become the landscape of Dante's Inferno; and amid these scenes and landscapes lurk to-clay assassins of every hue, and communities red from the perpetration of wholesale massacre. Nor is the right hand likely to forget its hideous cunning among these congenial scenes; for on my first visit to Burāk, the tall son of the sheikh, then a barefooted lad, boasted that a few days before he had killed four Arabs with his own hand, and the boast was confirmed by others with circumstances of time and place.

Leaving exact measurements and architectural details to the Palestine Exploration Fund, I could not help expressing disappointment with the actual ruins, especially after the exaggerated accounts of them which I had read.

The style of architecture is peculiar, but not wonderful. There is little wood, but much stone, in the region, and as security is the great end in view in building a house in the Lejah, the people find stone much more suitable than wood. It is curious, no doubt, to see stone roofs, and stone doors and windows, on a house, but it cannot be considered wonderful that the people made their houses of the material which was most abundant and most suitable to their wants. [249]

The people of the Lejah built their houses as the feudal lords built their castles: they could tight outside the walls, retreat to their courts, and finally retire within the stone keep, and sleep soundly behind the stone doors and shutters. Thus the houses, though peculiar, are exactly suited to the circumstances of the country and the necessities of the people.

A few of the houses are in a sufficiently perfect state of preservation to enable one to get a good general idea of the habitations of Bashan. The walls of the houses are from three to five feet thick, and from eight to twelve feet high, built of squared basalt stones well fitted together. Stone plank-like slabs, three or four yards long and about half a yard broad, are laid across from wall to wall, and rest on projecting cornice which runs around the room. In some of the houses there are very massive semicircular arches, on which the roof rests. The doors and windows, which are generally small, are of black stone. Some of the doors, however, even of private houses, are nearly six feet high.

The doors are generally folding, and they are hung by means of pivots, which project from the doors into holes in the lintels and thresholds. They are sometimes ornamented with panels and knobs and flowers, but those in Burāk are mostly plain, well-dressed solid slabs, from six to ten inches thick. A few of the houses had second stories, but owing to the accumulation of débris the lower stories of some of the houses are almost concealed.

As in all the villages of the Hauran, the houses seemed [250] to stand on a mound of black earth, while in reality they are built on the foundations of houses of a more remote antiquity. I descended in one place a depth of sixteen or eighteen feet, to see some pottery lately discovered, and I found the walls at that depth formed of enormous undressed and unsquared stones, unlike the stones of the superstructure, which are smaller in size, and have been better prepared for the walls.

Burak must have been a town of considerable importance in comparatively peaceful times. It was built upon the rugged rampart that surrounds the Lejah with its "munition of rocks," and was thus easily defended. As far as we penetrated the dreadful lava bed at Burak, we found few signs of cultivation, though there is pasturage for goats; but there are vast arable plains that sweep up like a sea to the rock-girt coast on which Burak stands.

A few Druze families who now occupy Burak cultivate a patch of the plain, within musket range of their houses, and are amply rewarded. They plough, and sow, and reap, with primed muskets slung from their shoulders: but if they were protected from the raids of the Arabs, thousands of men would here find a remunerative field for their labour. Even in comparatively peaceful times a good harvest may be gathered into the threshing-floors among the rocks, where the villagers can defend themselves.

The position of Burak, on the edge of an immense fertile plain, must have rendered it an important town. [251] But it had other advantages. It was the nearest port to Damascus, on the coast of the Lejah, being the most northern town of that region. It also lay on the nearest route to Bathaniyeh, or the Druze mountain, and was thus an emporium of exports and imports. From these abiding causes of prosperity we should naturally suppose that Burāk, like Damascus, would be too tempting a prey to the destroyer to have many ancient buildings remaining; but as Burāk seems to have fallen early under the destroying blight of Islam, and never to have recovered, the ruins are of considerable antiquity.

There can be little doubt that most of the houses which are still standing were built in early Christian times, and when Christianity was triumphant ; for we find on all the best houses crosses and other Christian emblems, which are evidently of the same (late as the buildings themselves; and some of these crosses and Christian emblems are to be seen on lintels of doors, which have been so buried up that they are now lower than the surface of the streets. The Greek of the inscriptions appears to be that of the period between the second and fifth centuries of our era. The Kutic inscriptions were evidently scratched on the stones in situ in the walls, and do not, I believe, mark the (late of any building in Burāk. All the coins and medals which I found in Burāk were those of Constantine and his immediate successors.

There is reason to conjecture that Burāk is the ancient Constantia, whose bishop, Solemus, was present at the Council of Chalcedon, in the fifth century (A.D. 451). [252] Hierocles places the Episcopal city Constantia among the cities of Arabis, and by the side of Phaenaa, the modern Musmeih; and Mr. Waddington1 remarks that inasmuch as the name Flavius is found on all the inscriptions of Burāk, it confirms the supposition that the town was founded or embellished by Constantine.

Whatever may have been the ancient name of the town, there is not doubt that the ruins which we now see are on the top of ruins older still, and in the walls of the most ancient-looking structures we see bits of lintels and fragments of ornaments rifled from more ancient structures.

Towards the outskirts of the won there are rude houses, sometimes built over caves, and against the stones of the houses no tool has ever been lifted up; but as these houses are composed of material in its primitive state, it would be equally bold to predicate either their great antiquity or otherwise. That the town is of great antiquity, however, does not admit of doubt, since its structures date from the time of the Roman occupation of England. Nor will it be doubted that beneath that raised mound are buried the remains of one of the "threescore cities" that once existed in Bashan, and which still exist under charged circumstances, sometimes under different names.

The present name of Barāk signifies tanks or reservoirs, a name which did not suggest to us that our poor horses would have to pass the night without water, or that we [253] ourselves would have to put up with a few cupfuls of greasy fluid that no dog with any self-respect would drink. Names in this country are generally significates, and south-east of the town are extensive aqueducts leading to a large tank or reservoir in the suburb. The aqueducts are, of course, broken down and neglected, and the reservoir was tilled up with stones by Ibrahim Pasha, the Egyptian (of whom more anon), as a war measure, when he sought in vain to bend the Druzes to his will.

1Inscriptions Greoques et Latines, p. 576.

This barbarous custom of destroying the water supplies of an enemy has been practised in this laud since the days of Abraham (Gen. xxvi. 15). The Philistines of war stopped up the wells, and the innocent and the guilty suffer together. And this act of impotent wrath on the part of the great Egyptian has rendered this village uninhabitable, except after rainy years.

When Burckhardt and Porter visited this place, they found it entirely uninhabited. When I visited it last it contained six or seven families who had come from Aleppo, under the leadership of Abu Khattar, their sheikh. For the first few years after their arrival they were comparatively happy, as they had only the Arabs to contend against. If the Arabs came in small bands, they fought them, and a fight is always popular but if they came in large numbers, they gave them blackmail, known in Arabic by the name "brotherhood." The government has now found them out, and a good deal of their time is spent in concealing their property and their numbers from the [254] official tax-gatherers, who are, as a rule, only legalized brigands. From force of habit, they attempted to conceal their numbers from us, but we shall not be far wrong in estimating the entire population at sixty souls.

Leaving the village, we wound down over the ropelike lip of the Lejah, into the margin of the plain. On the previous year, four days later in the year, when I visited Burak, the whole plain was covered with a little lilac flower which made the air heavy with its rich perfume. Scarcely a blade of it was now to be seen as we passed along. The difference may be accounted for by the former spring coming after a wet winter, and the latter succeeding a dry winter. Swarms of Greek partridges were running over the rocks about us, and as we did not wish to abandon our servant, who, was delayed in the village settling for the teapotful of dirty water that we got the night before, we occupied the time during our halt in knocking over a few partridges for dinner. We abstained, however, from killing more than we needed.

The process of bagging partridges in Syria is very different from the same operation in England. The partridge in Syria is a larger and stronger bird than the common partridge at home, and as game laws are unknown, the birds look sharply after partridge preservation themselves. An old cock, with a good eye and voice, is generally stationed on a prominent rock, and when danger approaches he gives a peculiar cry of warning, and then slips down off the stone, and runs from the danger, and all the partridges in the neighbourhood follow the sentinel's example. They [255] run about as fast as a common dog, and the sportsman must go at the speed of a greyhound to overtake them. The usual and most successful method is to walk slowly towards the partridge till it disappears behind the rocks, then rush with all your might to the spot where you last

LEJAH PARTRIDGES.
LEJAH PARTRIDGES.

saw it, and continue running till the bird rises. This it does with a tremendous screech and whirr, and you must fire quickly, or it is gone like a rocket.

The natives conceal themselves about wells and springs, and slaughter the poor birds when they come to drink, and they sometimes employ a decoy partridge in a cage to call its free friends to their doom. [256]

Those who, like us, travelled through the wilds of Syria without the luxurious impedimenta of a dragoman, find these partridges, which are equally distributed over the country, a great source of comfort and economy, especially as without them we should have had to buy a whole sheep, and slaughter it, every time we wished to indulge in the luxury of a meat dinner.

The cook sat on his mule and plucked the partridges as we went along, and on our arrival at a village at night they were placed in a pot with rice and water, and a stew was soon prepared, which was always very palatable after a ride of thirty or forty miles. We soon procured our supply of partridges for the day, land galloped back to the village, to extricate our servant out of financial difficulties.

The statement that Druzes received no return for their hospitality sounds patriarchal in books, but is not at all in accord with the facts of our experience. When they expect to receive a revolver, or a telescope, or a pocket-compass, they do not permit money to be paid, lest they should not also get the valuable instrument. And they are also very generous to travellers with consular recommendations, or with consular influence, but they are thereby building up a debt of obligations which they will take good care shall be cancelled by the consul. The Druzes, however, are the most generous and most hospitable and most gentlemanly of all the inhabitants of the land, and I hope I shall not be detracting from their virtues when I say that we were always able to pay in full for everything we received in the Hauran. [257]




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