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Good Words 1860
A Journey by Sinai to Syria


No. IV.

That night we encamped high up on the pass of Buderah, our white tents rising amidst a wild confusion of rocks and "corries," and mountain-tops, waste as

"-----a land where no one comes,
Or hath come since the making of the world."

And next morning, even while the stars were yet bright, and the cold night-wind was flapping through the canvas walls of our little dwellings, we were all astir. A long day was before us, and one full of promise; for that day we were to pass through the wondrous "Written Valley," and that evening to encamp by the great Serbal. Our Arabs, to shew how active they also could be, when they chose, were so early on the alert that we found the sides of our tents stripped off and packed before we had scarcely "turned out" of bed, and so each household had to complete its little toilet under the several roofs that were graciously left standing over our heads, like huge umbrellas, or giant mushrooms. At the first blush of dawn, we were all winding down the steep gorge, amidst the glories of sunrise. The very memory of these mornings in the desert makes the blood, even yet, bound with a new life through the veins, as I remember their freshness, and the abounding sense of health which they instilled. And how glorious was that morning, when, from the lonely heights of Buderah, we watched the sun rise over the ragged fringes of the hills; when there came the rosy flush along the cloudless eastern sky, and overhead the silken threads of cloud glowed into a fiery web; or when the great disk, swelling up into full-orbed power, scattered his blazing shafts, now aslant the mountain-tops, causing their bald peaks to burn, and now pouring slowly downwards, lower and lower, on cliff' and scaur, stream on stream of living splendour, until morning, shaking loosely all her golden looks over that barren land, made it blush and warm into beauty! These early hours, as well as the soft evenings, are the true seasons for enjoyment in the desert. When mid-day comes, and you are pent up in a narrow valley—the sun beating from above, and reflected from every white rock—hot and airless—the tongue parched —the brows throbbing—there is nothing for it but to let the camel trudge, and be resigned at once either to sun-stroke or to being slowly melted. A ride of about three hours, winding through scenery of a really grand character, amidst tangled mountains of red granite, seamed up to their very summits with veins of porphyry, brought us to the mouth of the Wady Meghara, opening on the left, while the Wady Mokatteb, or Written Valley, lay in front of us. These two valleys are both famous—Meghara for its mines and Egyptian hieroglyphics, hewn in the marble rock ages before Christ—Mokatteb for its still more wonderful rock-inscriptions, written with "an iron pen," when, or by whom, we know not. Sending on our camels and baggage, we struck up into Meghara, with a wild Arab boy we met in the neighbourhood, as our guide. After a steep scramble over heaps of loose stones, consisting partly of the natural detritus of the rocks, but chiefly of the debris that had been thrown out from the excavations in the mountain-side above us, we reached the famous grottoes. There are several of these, and some of considerable extent, One especially must have been of very great depth, and, from the accounts given by the earlier pilgrims, we are led to believe that, even in their day, there were to be seen numerous chambers and halls, supported with columns, and leading further into the heart of the mountain than they could well explore. But what attaches the chief interest to these grottoes is their hieroglyphics. First one tablet was discovered, then another, and another, smoothed on the face of the rock, and in characters as sharply cut as on the limestone of their Wile valley, telling us that Cheops—the founder of the great pyramid—had mined in these mountains for copper. If antiquaries are to be believed, the hand that struck out these rude figures must have lived in an age long previous to that of Abraham, and they must have been venerable even when the Israelites passed through the wilderness. And yet of what an advanced civilisation do they speak, when we find that in a period so very early, mines were opened in this remote valley of the wilderness, and ore transported to embellish a princely court some hundreds of miles away! Scarcely had we returned from Meghara, and resumed our course on the Wady Sidri, than our attention was called to an inscription of a quite different character, carved on the rough surface of the natural rock; it was a rude drawing of a camel, with a few rude straggling letters. Then another, and another was found, until at last, when we were fairly into the "Written Valley," there were few rocks around us that had not some, and many that were completely covered with pictures and writings. The Wady Mokatteb is, in its general features, totally unlike the others we had passed through. It is rather "an open" among the mountains than a plain, surrounded by an amphitheatre of most extraordinary-looking peaks—splintered needles of rock, that reminded me of some parts of Mount Etna, where the edges of the great volcano had been torn and riven by a recent eruption. In this open there are certain low-running spurs of sandstone, that rise here and there about fifty feet or so on either side of the Wady, properly so called. It is on these spurs, where they face the Wady, that nearly all the inscriptions are to be found. Some of these rocks were covered with rude drawings of camels, asses, dogs, birds, but especially of the ibex, which was generally represented with enormous horns. They seemed to have been executed with little trouble, not being deeply cut on the soft surface of the sandstone, and, unlike the Egyptian sculptures we had just seen, were as careless, and almost grotesque in their outlines, as the "chalkings" of school-boys on a vacant street wall. The writings were of a similar appearance, some being in Greek, but by far the greater number written in the strange old Nabathean character, the letters of which resemble most the straggling lines which a spider might be supposed to make,

crawling with inked legs across a sheet of white paper. These writings are thickly interspersed with crosses, unmistakably Christian. [However much the Egyptian Tau, the emblem of life {t), may be mistaken for the Latin cross (t), yet no possible mistake can be made regarding the Christian origin of the same sign when varied to the Greek form (t) as is so frequently the case. And while Mr Forster may, perhaps, produce instances of the pure Tau, yet he has no reason to deny, on that account, the Christian origin of the inscriptions with which it is connected, or to lead proof from that fact for his theory, that it was the Israelites who, bringing this symbol from Egypt, had been the writers on these rocks. In Egypt, we find that the same Tau has actually been used by Christians as a substitute for the cross. There are Christian sepulchres preserved to this day in the great Oasis, where the Tau is thus employed. (See Sir G. Wilkinson's "Ancient Egyptians," vol. i. page 277.)] And I confess, that, in common with Mr Stanley, whose statement has been so much impugned, I did not see any inscription so high that a man could not have written it standing on another's shoulders. Who, then, were the writers of these inscriptions? Who were the people employing that strange character, and, like Job, thus seeking to perpetuate their memory, graving their names ''with an iron pen in the rock for ever?" Some say that they are the work of the Israelites, and try to trace symbolic meanings having reference to the incidents of their wanderings, in these uncouth sketches of birds and beasts. Others, that they were camel-drivers, who were thus artistically inclined. Others, that they are but the names of Christian pilgrims, who, in the early ages of the Church, had come to visit the holy places of the wilderness. The most recent theory, and the one which comes to us with the greatest authority, is that of Frederick Tuch, who, far advancing on the attempts of Professor Beer, has actually deciphered the characters. He finds that nearly the whole of these writings are but the names of heathen Arabs—not one Christian or Jewish name occurring among them—and that they are generally followed by the salutation of "Peace." His supposition is, that the writers of these earlier Nabathean inscriptions were heathens, who, coming as pilgrims to the sacred mountain of Baal (Serbal) in the desert, had written their names on these rocks. And he accounts for the frequent occurrence of the cross, by saying that Christian shepherds, or hermits, or pilgrims in after-times, had added them, along with the fanciful pictures of camels, goats, &c. This last supposition he supports by the comparatively more recent appearance of these symbols and pictures. Which of those suppositions is the true one, I leave to the learned to decide. Such writings are scattered over the whole peninsula; and I myself have seen drawings of camels of an exactly similar description on the rocks of a Wady in Nubia, where an old caravan-rout from the Bed Sea debouches on the Kile valley. To shew, however, the character of the rook, and how easily, from the decayed state in which the whole surface of the sandstone at present is, the eye may be deceived regarding age, an American clergyman told me that he drew roughly with his stick on one of the rocks a picture of the golden candlesticks, and sitting down, awaited the coming up of a brother American clergyman, who was a little behind him. "Well, what do you take that for?" he said to his friend, with an air of great importance. "Why, the golden candlesticks, to be sure, and as plain as your face or mine—no mistake!" "Well, I rather calculate it is, and that will settle the question for ever regarding the Israelites." "Our fame's made," said the other; "we'll write a book!"

A steep ascent, and an equally steep descent, brought us out of the Written Valley, into the great Wady Feiran. I wish I could convey in words a just idea of the very strange character of that scenery—the magnificence of the mountain-forms, massed on either hand in walls of smooth granite, rolling and sweeping up to the deep-blue sky, or shattered into rough scaurs and "corries," and that level road all the while winding on like a river amid the vast silent desolations. On and on you ride, and as you turn bend after bend, that river-like road ever runs in front, twining itself among the roots of the same great mountains, streaked and veined with colour. Yet, lonely as it is, the pilgrim sometimes meets, even there, relics of humanity, as to the parentage of which he is left in less doubt than regarding the rock-writings of Mokatteb. I remember that, on turning one of these "bends" in Feiran, the attention of our whole party was called to something black and glancing on a ledge of granite in the distance; now it flashed in the sun, and now it seemed as if it were a black crow —a pilgrim crow—which had thus taken up its shelter under the overhanging rock. What could it be? And, eager for discovery, we all rode rapidly forward. Imagine, however, the denouement! As we drew nearer and nearer, the truth dawned on us, until at last it stared familiarly at us—"Bass & Co.'s India Pale Ale. None genuine without my signature." Uncorked, empty, lonely, amid the desolations of Sinai! Yet so it is. You find chicken bones scattered on the summit of the Sacred Mount, egg-shells sprinkled in the footprint of Mohammed's camel, and mysterious shreds of the Times come fluttering on the breeze, across the wastes of the Arabah. Verily, ''Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams."

All that afternoon, and late into the evening, we rode through Feiran—winding deeper and deeper into the heart of the mountain-land. We were all very tired, having been in the saddle from before dawn, and what with clambering at Meghara, and examining inscriptions at Mokatteb, were decidedly ready for rest. The hot, hat sun had all day been scorching, but now it was sinking into the west, and we were fast sinking, too, into that state of sulky crossness, which, I have noticed, is the general effect of hunger and fatigue, even on the best-natured. Bend after bend was turned, and yet there was ever the same stretch before us for two or three miles, and '' no tents ! " But when the turn did come, a scene was presented to our eyes of such fairy-like beauty, that everything else was forgotten, and a murmur of surprise and delight burst from all our lips. Closing up the valley in front of us, rose Serbal to nearly 7000 feet—the grandest mountain-form I have ever seen—not a cone—not a round lump—-but a mass, towering with proud sweep up to a broad crest, and there shattered into a coronet of granite peaks. The sun had left the valleys, and while they were all sunk in deep shadow, behind the purple hill which shut in El-Hessue, rose this Serbal smit with sunset— a very marble throne, o'erlaid with burnished gold, and glowing in the rich evening splendour. And El-Hessue itself ! It may be that the contrast it presented to all that dreary land we had been journeying through gave its beauty an undue colouring in our eyes, but as I picture it now, beneath that glorious mountain, its shaggy palm woods, its groves of acacia and tamarisk, sunk in blue shadow; when I recall the musical voices of the naked Arab children, as they ran about in the soft, balmy twilight, the veiled women, the strings of goats and camels, the white tents pitched under the thorny shittim-trees, the joy with which we trod once more on deep black soil, and heard the hum of insects and the chirp of birds ; when, above all, I remember that night-scene—that ''soft, still night," when the lights of evening had faded one by one from Serbal, and every mountain-top seemed lost in a depth of stars—the crowd of Arabs grouped around the fire under the trees, while all the valley was hushed into balmy peace, a peace made only the deeper by the murmur of hidden waters,—El-Hessue seems now as it seemed then, the realisation of some dream of childhood, a spot in the world far from man, of perfect beauty and peace, an oasis in life of love and innocence, a garden of the tropics set amidst eternal solitudes, a very fairy-land—

"Larger constellations burning, mellow moons and happy skies,
Breadths of tropic shade and palms in cluster, knots of Paradise.
Never comes the trader, never floats th' European flag;
Slides the bird o'er lustrous woodland, swings the trailer from the crag;
Hangs the heavy-blossom'd flower,—hangs the heavy-fruited tree,—
Summer isles of Eden, lying in dark-purple spheres of sea.''

And if evening was glorious in Feiran, morning was no less so, hanging its sunlit dew-drops on the tresses of the palm and feathery tamarisk. Amidst its fresh early beauty, we rode from El-Hessue, on to the most interesting spot in the neighbourhood, the ancient Paran. The configuration of Feiran is such, that, while you are winding round the roots of Serbal, and are in reality within a very short distance of its base—yet it is, at the same time, only at one or two points you ever gain a glimpse of the mountain itself, a wall of lower hills generally shutting out the view. But whenever it is thus unfolded, it seems ever grander and grander, forming, along with the surrounding objects, a scenery that is, in some places, to my mind, quite unrivalled. Palms and tropic plants in quiet groves below, naked rocks and ragged scaurs around, and high above the massy Serbal, with its clustered granite pinnacles—a very cathedral pile; all this seen, not in the broad blaze of noon, but with the soft lights and tints of morning ;— when here, a spear-like sunbeam shooting athwart some dark cleft, was flashed back from the smooth sheet of rock, or broke into a thousand glancing lights on the bright leaves of the hyssop—while there, all was deep, cool shadow. A few miles above El-Hessue, a valley comes in from the right, called Aleyat; and at its junction with Feiran, there is a low hill standing in the broad valley, like an island in a river; on this hill and around it, stood the old Christian and episcopal city of Paran. It is covered to the present day with the broken -down walls of houses, amid which the ruins of churches and of an extensive monastery can still be traced. There are many cells in the rocky hills around that had once been the abode of anchorites, whose very graves are unknown. These decayed sanctuaries, like many another lonely ruin in the East, tell a sad tale, recalling at once a period when Christ was worshipped, and bearing at the same time, a touching witness to the desolating track of Mohammedanism. Clambering over the crumbling walls of dry stones, I easily gained a position which commanded a view of the whole surrounding locality—supposed by some to have been the scene of, at least, two of the remarkable incidents of the exodus—the striking of the rock in Rephidim, and the battle with Amalek,—perhaps, also, of the meeting with Jethro. Standing on the hill of Paran, we see the Wady Aleyat running in front straight up to Serbal, which is here bared down to its very roots—and on either hand stretches Feiran. Looking up Aleyat towards Serbal, there is seen a grove of palms, and a scanty stream. I am afraid, however, that the true associations which ought to attach themselves to the locality, must be distinguished from the incidents alluded to above, unless we suppose, in common with Lepsius, that this great Serbal was indeed the mount of the lawgiving. [Bitter, Stanley, and Lepsias, all agree in placing Rephidim at Serbal. Lepsius, in doing so, is quite consistent with his theory that Serbal was Sinai, though certainly the reasoning by which he arrives at this is, to say the least of it, very strange, as he says, that Moses would naturally fix his longer halt at Feiran, knowing it to be the best-watered valley—and yet recognises this same "well-watered Feiran" as the place of murmuring and the smiting of the rock ! Both Bitter and Stanley, while they place Sinai near Gebel Musa, yet believe the term "Horeb" to extend to the cluster of Serbal, and that Serbal itself was also designated by the title of "Mount of God." But as the two clusters are so wide apart, it seems more natural, along with Robinson, Laborde, and Raumer, to fix Rephidim nearer the ranges connected with Sinai. The whole narrative, as will be seen afterwards, becomes thus less constrained, and the only difficulty that will remain is the contextual position of Exod. xix. 1, 2.] Certainly, if mere magnificence of form were a sufficient ground on which to proceed, the claims of Serbal, in its lonely majesty, would stand pre-eminent; but the absence of any plain, such as is necessary for fulfilling the conditions of the lawgiving as described to us, precludes Serbal from this honour. For there must not only have been a mountain into which Moses ascended, but also a plain on which the witnessing tribes were gathered. Early Christian tradition may indeed favour Serbal, but no mere tradition can be accepted where we find the natural features of the ground inconsistent with the Bible narrative. That Serbal was, however, a mountain sacred to the heathen, and consecrated to Baal, is very probable; and so long as at its base we tread on the dust of that once-flourishing Christian town whose bloody end seems for ever clouded in mystery, there must attach to that spot in the wilderness a peculiar and undying interest.

Passing into the great Wady Es Sheikh, through a natural gateway of rocks, we soon found ourselves in a country of a completely-different character. Instead of the shut-in magnificent rocky corridors, by which we had wound around Serbal, we were now in a comparatively open region, with low-rolling hills around us. These hills had a most remarkable aspect. Their formation was sandstone, but as there were numbers of "trap-dikes" squirted up their centre, which, from their hardness, remain undecayed, while the sandstone has fallen and crumbled off them, they present exactly the appearance of waves crested with black foam,—as if a tossing sea had suddenly been petrified. That night we encamped in the Wady Es Sheikh, and while the tents were being fixed, and Yussuf, our old Nubian cook was engaged in his favourite operation of murdering one or two half-starved hens for dinner, plucking them (there was no use remonstrating) before they were half dead, I climbed, with the rest of our party, to the summit of a sandstone hill, and enjoyed a wide and imposing view. We were in the midst of a billowy sea of rolling hills, such as I have described, while to the west and east, there were islanded two great mountain-ranges—that of Serbal, whence we had just come, and the larger cluster of Musa and St Catherine, inclosing the "Mount of God"—itself still invisible; but the knowledge that it was "somewhere there," waked up a thousand eager hopes.

A.


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