Title


PALMYRA AND ZENOBIA. CHAPTER 1.

CHAPTER VI.

[40]

SOFFIT OF CORNICE IN LITTLE TEMPLE.
SOFFIT OF CORNICE IN LITTLE TEMPLE.

ALL things having been arranged, — for negotiations even in the desert come to an end, — we struck our tents, and started from Karyetein on the 30th of May, at four o'clock in the afternoon. Our object was to break the journey at 'Ain el-Wu'ul ("fountain of the Ibexes "), a reputed fountain in the mountains to the right, half way to Palmyra from Karyetein. The existence of this fountain was kept a secret, so that people might employ camels to carry water, and our innovation was looked upon with great disfavour.

Gazawy compromised the matter by taking a few water-carriers, at a very high charge. Our cavalcade was led out across the river at the town mill, wobbled about through ploughed fields for a time, and at last turned Palmyra-ward into the desert.

We had now assumed the dimensions and character of an invading army. We were not stealing through the desert under cover of the darkness, but forcing our way where we pleased and at our leisure.

[41]

"Brandy Bob," a captain in the infantry, was commander-in-chief of our military escort. Ile rode a vicious mule, with only a halter, and without stirrups, carried a single-barrelled fowling-piece about eight feet long, and a bottle of brandy in each pocket, à la Gilpin. He had a habit of alighting abruptly, not always on his feet, but that may have been the mule's fault, or the brandy's. His soldiers were all mounted and equipped in the same unceremonious manner as himself.

Irregular police in Syria are a very irregular force indeed. Nominally in government service, they are ready to take a turn at throat cutting for anybody who employs them, and they are the free-lances or government banditti of the country. If there is a prospect of plunder, they will join a Bedawi raid, and by their arms, such as they are, contribute to the victory.

On my first tour to Palmyra, our irregular escort proceeded to rob every individual they saw in the desert. Remonstrance on our part was of little avail, for our protectors replied that they had only agreed to take us safely to Palmyra, not to abstain from taking anything Allah placed in their way. On the whole, we had such a guard as might have been safely trusted to make short work of any party weaker than themselves.

Faris, our gipsy guide, deserves a passing notice. He was a light, little man, with crimped hair, sallow complexion, coal-black eyes, which were always on one, and a stealthy, silent step, as if he were afraid of waking [42] some one only slightly asleep. He always seemed drawing up his feet from behind, but he never let them get before him, lest they should let out some secret.

His mare was of the same gipsy cast, a marled grey. Her neck was hollowed down like a camel's where one expected a curve, and her under lip hung down and ex-posed the teeth, while her nose and upper lip were drawn back, and had a curious huffed appearance. Her legs were bent the wrong way, and her joints were in the wrong places, and she was so lean, and wizened, and dry, that she seemed to go nodding and dozing along without life or feeling. They were an uncanny-looking pair, and I could not look at them without an uneasy feeling, and much curiosity.

With Brandy Bob " and "Gipsy " at our head, we swept along the desert in splendid style. In front were two little mountains, offsets from the range on the right. That to the left was called Khuderiyeh, and that on the right BÃrady, and we made straight for the opening between them. We passed several gazelle-traps, near Karyetein. Little walls converge to a field from a great distance, increasing in height as they approach the field. The field is walled round, leaving gaps at intervals, out-side of which there are deep pits. The gazelles, led on by curiosity, and guided by the little wails, march boldly into the field, and when they are startled, they rush out wildly in a panic, at the breaches, and tumble into the pits. Sometimes forty or fifty are taken out of a pit alive at one time.

[43]

The desert was tolerably smooth as far as the little mountains, when it became more broken and cut up, chiefly by the action of mountain torrents. The Arabs reported that in the mountain range to the right there were the remains of a great reservoir which once sup-plied water to Kasr el-Hiyar, the solitary ruin in the direct route between Karyetein and Palmyra.

That evening we had the finest sunset I had ever seen in the desert. The western horizon seemed literally ablaze. Soon the light blue veil of the mountains be-came tinted with violet and indigo, and finally settled into leaden death, and the wind came up cold as a Siberian winter.

We held on our course bravely till midnight, when our column became very unsteady, and began to wriggle about promiscuously over the desert. The cold was intense, and the bottle passed between our leaders more frequently than was consistent with their responsible positions, or than was expedient for safe and steady guiding. Suddenly we turned to the right, and marched straight against the mountain, which we had been approaching at an acute angle. We knew the fountain was in the range to the right, but thought it must be at least two hours farther on. Gipsy, however, spurned interference, and assumed all responsibility.

We soon got into a maze of rocks, and after half an hour's scrambling through them and over them, we came right against the precipitous side of the mountain. Gipsy went boldly at the mountain, with a few inartic- [44] ulate words, when, suddenly, he came down on his head on a heap of stones, and the old horse turned and made a vignette over him. Helay in a bundle, motionless, where he fell, and when I asked what was the matter. lie hiccoughed out, It's a hare," as if he had got off to catch it.

"Brandy Bob's" bottle had done its work, and the guide was hopelessly drunk. Then commenced a scene never to be forgotten. No one knew exactly where we were, or where the well was, but we spread out across the rugged base of the mountain after midnight to look for a well of which we had only heard a report. Our horses staggered over precipices and scrambled out of ravines in the most marvellous manner; baggage animals followed wildly after the cavaliers, stumbling and rolling over rocks ; the whole looked like a steeple-chase, or a wild stampede, everything magnified by the black shadows ; and there was an appalling expenditure of nervous force, in the use of strong language.

We explored desperately for about an hour, which seemed an age ; but as the moon was hurrying behind the mountain, and as we were only getting more hopelessly lost, we encamped for the night on a bare plateau at the base of the mountain.

The cold was as intense as had been the heat of the day ; but we were soon in that happy land where the perplexities of the day are forgotten. The night, however, has perplexities as real and as distressing as those of the clay, while they last, and so I dreamt of stumbling fran- [45] tieally over rocks, and of being in imminent danger of tumbling over precipices, until a little Bedawi girl pulled the door of my tent aside, and the sun, hot as a furnace, shone in upon me.

The little maiden we called the "Princess," and perhaps no princess, except in an Eastern tale, ever was the bearer of more joyful news or more acceptable gifts. She announced the lost fountain, and she bore in one hand a brazen vessel full of fresh milk, and with the other she led a snow-white lamb.

I remembered how African explorer, when hopelessly exhausted, had been ministered to by savage women, and I sighed for the pen of an African explorer, that I might celebrate the praises of this ministering angel of the desert and of the fountain. Our little angel was not of the white and shining kind; she was dark olive, and her only garment was a blue calico shirt, close fitting at the neck, and extending far down the leg. A blue fillet, wound round the head, left the hair free to stand up and enjoy the mountain breeze, and beneath the fillet it fell in uncombed plaits around her shoulders. These plaits were prolonged by bits of strings, made of camel's hair, down to below the waist.

Doubtless a revolution has since taken place in the disposition of Bedawi locks in the desert, for my companion presented the Princess with an ivory comb, a work of art which caused in the encampment no little speculation as to its use.

[46]

But we must not be diverted from describing our Princess, whose piercing timid black eyes shone brightly in deep, sooty sockets, and whose feet, which spurned the flint, gave a fine example of what Disraeli called " the high Syrian instep."

In a short conversation that I held with her, when paying for the luxuries which she brought us, I noticed that she pronounced the letter j soft, and otherwise spoke Arabic like a Syrian girl. I said, " You are not a Bedawi bint (girl) ? " The Bedawin who accompanied the maiden to see that their gifts were paid for were within ear-shot, and she replied loudly, " You do me too much honour in receiving my gifts why should you pay for them?" and then in a low, but hurried manner, she told me she had been carried off by the Bedawîn from Rustan, a village on the Orontes, between Hums and Hamah.

The revelation was made with the swiftness of a lightning flash. The acting was exquisite, and the dramatic effect instantaneous and startling. I did not catch every-thing that was expressed, but the hurried and helpless appeal revealed the fact that our "Princess" was a little captive Syrian slave, and I resolved to rescue and re-store her. My sense of pity as well as chivalrous instincts were awaked, and though I was in the land of the Bedawin I did not despair of success.

The following nursery song, which I had often heard swig by Syrian mothers, came to my recollection. I had stumbled on the living drama in real life : — [47]

THE LULLABY.1

Sleep, baby, sleep ! a sleep so sweet and mild. Sleep, my Arab Loy-, my little Bedawi child!
Aside to the Once I was a happy girl,
grape sellers. The Prince Abdullah:s daughter, Playing with the village maids, Bringing wood and water.
Suddenly the Bedawin
Carried me away:
Clothed me in an Arab robe, And here they make me stay.

Sleep, baby. sleep! a sleep so sweet and mild,
Sleep, my Arab boy, my little Bedawi child!
Aside. Ye sellers of grapes, hear what I say !
I had dressed in satin rich and gay;
They took my costly robes away
And dressed me in aba coarse and grey.
I had lived on viands costly and rare,
And now raw camel's flesh is my fare.

Sleep, baby, sleep! a sleep so sweet and mild,
Sleep, my Arab boy, my little Bedawi child
Aside. Oh! seller of grapes, I beg you hear!
Go tell my mother and father dear,
That you have seen me here to-day.
Just by the church my parents live,
The Bedawin stole me on Thursday eve.
Let the people come and their sister save,
Let them come with warriors hold and brave,
Lest I die of grief and go to my grave.

I was only partially dressed in my tent, and to secure the return of the little captive to our camp later on, I

1This translation is, I believe, from the pen of Dr. Jessup, of Beyroat.
[48] received back from her the money I had given her, promising to pay more for all when she had brought us an additional supply of milk. Whether the Bedawin had heard what their captive had said, or had divined what was passing in my mind, they had taken in the situation completely, and before I was fully dressed, they had disappeared as secretly and noiselessly as they came. They departed without their money, and they left no trace behind them, nor could I get any information regarding them from the other people about the well.

The two Bedawin who had accompanied the little Princess" were clothed from head to foot in the skins of the wa'al (ibex) and gazelle. They seemed like ordinary Bedawîn — small, spare, dark men, with deep-set, restless eyes, and noses of the scimitar type. They belonged, however, to the Suleib Arabs, a unique tribe in the desert.

At a remote period this tribe was degraded from exercising the larger prerogatives of Bedawin of the higher aristocracy. They do not make war on the weak, nor rob, except in a pilfering way, nor inter-marry with any of the other tribes. Many wild stories relate the causes of their degradation, but that most common among the other Bedawîn is, that they ran away from the siege of Kerbela, leaving their friends to be butchered, "and the curse of Allâh still lies heavy upon them." As a part of their punishment, they were placed on the same footing with women, as unworthy to ride horses, and so they never ride [49] anything but donkeys; but the Suleib donkeys (known as Bagdad donkeys) are the finest in the world, and will bring from twenty to forty pounds in Damascus. They are the large and beautiful white asses which reach England by Morocco.

The Suleib Arabs, unlike the other Ishmaelites of the desert, have their hand against no man, and no man's hand is against them. They live by the chase, and by the milk and wool of their flocks ; and when they sell a donkey, its price supplies them with all they need from the outer world. On the declivities of 'Ain el-Wu'ul are still to be found ecu'ul, or ibexes, which they hunt with great skill. Clothed in the skin of the wa'al, they follow them from rock to rock, on all-fours, until they shoot them at short range ; and sometimes their disguise is so complete, that they even catch the gazelle and wa'al alive with their hands.

These Suleib Arabs take no part in forays ; as one of them said to me, " Allah has made enough for us all, and if we plunder one another, there will not be enough for us all." They will sit on the ground, impartial spectators of a battle, and when the fight is over they will nurse the wounded of both sides, like the Knights of the Geneva Cross. When one tribe is pursuing another, they will entertain with equal but limited hospitality both the pursued and pursuer; but nothing can wring from them any information as to the direction the fugitives have taken. These Arabs are to be found about the wells in the neighbourhood of 'Ain el-Wu'ul, and [50] they are always of the same peaceful and hospitable character.

Our visitors informed us that the fountain was about a mile farther on among the mountains, and so, as soon as we had eaten their offerings, we moved our camp forward to the foot of the ravine below the fountain. We pitched on the site of a military camp where Omar Bey had stationed his soldiers when he wished to reduce the desert to subjection.

We should have had no difficulty whatever in finding the fountain ; but our guide misled us, as I believe, on purpose. From the pass between the two little mountains we should have followed a beaten path, leading gently to the right to the lowest break in the mountain, about three hours ahead. On our return we rode from the fountain to Karyetein in ten and half hours, so no one need ever again spend money in water-carriers on the road to Palmyra.

We ascended to the fountain through a gorge, the stones in the bottom of which were as slippery as ice. Every tribe that crosses the plain between Palmyra and Karyetein is obliged to pass up this gorge for water; and through the wear of ages the stones have become so polished that scarcely one of our animals went up to the water without a fall. The stones, however, were so smooth that none were injured by falling.

We discovered the fountain at the head of the gorge. It is a deep tank about twelve feet square, faced round with rough stones, and the water was about ten feet lower than [51] the surface of the platform in which the tank was sunk, so that it had to be drawn up, and placed in hollow stones for the animals to drink.

The stones about the tank were squared. but not chiselled, and though we saw foundations of buildings, we could find no inscriptions. From between the high shoulders of the gorge, we had a good view of the broadest part of the plain that extends to Palmyra, and the Kasr el-Hiyar lay exactly north-west of the fountain, some six or eight miles distant.

The water in the tank was very green, but one ceases to be fastidious about the quality of water in the desert. Two cheerful little maidens were filling skins with the green fluid, and fourteen skins were lying about filled and festering in the sun. A number of camels were squatting at the troughs, waiting for some one to bring them water, and flocks of goats were pouring over the cliffs and converging on the fountain.

The little stagnant pond had attracted a great number of living things. Partridges scolded us from the rocks on every side, for interfering with their beverage; and myriads of linnets, of all kinds and colours, settled on the tall thistles, and awaited our departure ; and eagles and vultures and red-beaked choughs soared over us at every altitude.

A little way over from the fountain was the Suleib encampment. It consisted of about a dozen tents—or rather a dozen long pieces of black haircloth, fastened down with stones at the side next the wind, and at the [52] other side propped up with bits of sticks, and tied clown with strings. Beneath the awnings thus formed women squatted, horribly- tattooed, and filthy-looking; and one miserable creature, who was sick, lay on skins, with a skin filled with water for her pillow. The dirt of the tent was scarcely removed beyond the tent strings, and the odour, at least to us, was far from agreeable. Some of our irregular police were sitting in the tents, feasting on a half-roasted sheep that had been slain for them.

We saw none of the famous Suleib donkeys, and we learned with regret that a plague had swept many of them away, and that they had been obliged to sell a great many of what remained, during the Syrian famine. A few black and wretched substitutes stood nodding about the tents.

On our return to the fountain from Palmyra, we saw no trace of the Suleib, but three men were found dying of thirst at the fountain. They had made their way to the place, but were too weak to reach the water.

I was especially interested in the Suleib Arabs, as I thought they would not be afraid to send their children to one of our schools, in a border village, such as Karyetein, and I imagined that as they had no blood feuds or enemies among the Bedawin, they might be employed to carry instruction and the light of the gospel to the other wanderers of the desert.

They, however, strongly objected to their children quitting the ways of their fathers ; and I found. on consulting a Bedawi chief, that the blue-blooded Bedawîn [53] held the Suleib in such contempt, that they would not on any account allow their children to be taught by them.

" We would let our children learn from Nasara (Chris- tians), or Jews even: but that they should be taught by these low-souled, womanish Bedawin ask forgiveness from God for such a thought!"

Nothing in the Suleib camp made such an impression on us as the exquisite beauty of the children. Though un- washed and almost unclad, they appeared to me the most graceful and the sweetest little animals I had ever seen iii the desert or elsewhere. In this opinion I do not stand alone. Lady Anne Blunt speaks of a Suleib family as follows: —

. . ." Two younger men, his relations, are exceedingly good looking, with delicately cut features, and the whitest of teeth. There is a boy, too, who is perfectly beautiful, with almond-shaped eyes, and a complexion like stained ivory. A little old woman not more than four feet high, and two girls of fourteen, the most lovely little creat I ever saw, complete the family."— Tribes of the Euphrates, Vol. II. 109.

SOFFIT SUPPORTED BY FOUR COLUMNS.
SOFFIT SUPPORTED BY FOUR COLUMNS.




Text Archive Home | Book Details | Table of Contents