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Good Words 1860
A Journey by Sinai to Syria


No. V.

A wavy, sea-like plain, its surface rolling in billowy hills, two clusters of mountains islanded in the distance—one cluster grouping itself round the serrated and shattered crown of Serbal, the other towering up before us in vast forms, beyond the most distant of which we knew was the sacred "Mount of God;"—such was the character of the scenery in the Wady Es Sheikh, on which we were travelling from Feiran to Sinai. We journeyed amidst these tangled hills towards the latter mountain-group, drawing ever nearer and nearer, until at last the noble Wady ran along its very skirts. Yet there seemed at first, to our eye, no entrance into its secret labyrinths; for, as far as we could see, it was surrounded by an unbroken wall of rock, that in a low line of blackened granite, about 800 feet high, girdled round the whole of the inner and grander masses. As we rode for some time along this vast inclosure, and realised that the sacred Horeb-altar of the lawgiving was there, withdrawn far within, we felt, indeed, as if encircling the outer walls of a mighty temple. Nor was this feeling a bit lessened, when suddenly we turned into the majestic portal of natural rock, where, as if cut for it by the chisel of a great king, the road, as even as an avenue, passed through a cleft about forty feet wide, on either side of which rose the frowning gateway of weather-stained and gloomy granite. It was, indeed, an imposing, nay, even solemnising approach to the sacred shrine of our pilgrimage. But this gateway has an interest for us of a more distinct character. In all likelihood it was here, or in the immediate neighbourhood, that Rephidim was, with its smitten rock, and the battle with Amalek. There are two circumstances in the history that lead us to this determination. We know, first, from Exod. xix. 2, that Hephidim was at least a day's journey from the Mount of God; and, secondly, from Exod. xvii. 6, that the rock in Rephidim was at the same time a rock in Horeb. If Horeb, then, be assumed as the general name for the whole group of mountains of which Sinai was one, we have to find a place where the Israelites would be a day's march from Sinai, and yet close to the same range of hills. Now, we have at the point mentioned, such a locality, where the Israelites would be thus a day's march from the Mount, and yet where they would naturally, and for the first time, reach the cluster of Horeb. It may therefore have been this very rock which was struck, and around which the multitudes gathering, with parched lips, eagerly bent to quench their burning thirst from the cool and copious stream. It does now seem strange, as the traveller gazes on that bare and silent hill of granite, recalling, at the same time, the words of St Paul, "And that rock was Christ," to realise the difference between the earthly and the heavenly, the material and spiritual. How emptied of all glory is the one, how real the other! The contrast is indeed great between the thought of the thousands in the world who are learning living lessons from what is pictured, and that everyday-looking lonely rock around which the association has been hung. One is made thus to feel the deep fitness of God's whole Word for man, as he sees how common are the features of the outer history, and knows how the events have yet woven themselves into human life in all ages. As he gazes, for instance, on the green "lasaf," the hyssop of the wilderness, clinging to the bare walls of solitary valleys, and thinks of the millions who, in their deep sinfulness, still breathe the old prayer of Israel, "Purge me with hyssop, and I, shall be clean." If this, then, be Rephidim, we must believe that the battle with Amalek took place also in this neighbourhood. It was probably outside of the rock-gateway we have described, and in the comparatively open country around it, that Israel fought their first combat, and learned to trust the God of Battles. If so, then we can well imagine how it may have been on the summit of this very barrier hill [The word "Gibeah," hill, in contradistinction to "Hor," mountain, is as strictly applicable to this hill, or, indeed, to any of the lower hills in its neighbourhood, as to the rocky eminence of Paran in the Wady Feiran.] of granite that Moses stood, with on either side Aaron and Hur—the great leader, and the great priest—while below them surged the doubtful line of conflict. From morning till sunset did they mark the fierce onset of Amalek—doubtless similar in its character to that of their almost unchanged descendants—the wild Arab charge, the gleam and flutter of the tufted lances, the mingled shouts of war and screams of pain!—"And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed;" until, at last, statue-like in his firm attitude, and as some great intercessor, he appealed to God, holding to heaven the banner of His power, the tide of war was turned, the red sun set on the red field of slaughter, and the altar Jehovah-nissi was erected at once for triumph and thanksgiving.

Passing through the great natural gateway which we have described, we entered at once the great mountain-cluster of Horeb. We were again amidst vast granite ranges, and advancing by a broad and majestic avenue towards Sinai. A ride of an hour or two brought us to a point where three or four wadys meet, forming an open among the hills. Here stands the tomb of Sheikh Saleh, a low, rude hut of stones, but reverenced as their most sacred shrine by the Arabs of the Peninsula. We dismounted, and entered the building. There was nothing inside in the way of ornament, or to shew that the Arabs were disposed to be extravagant in their expressions of respect for the memory of the dead Sheikh, whoever he may have been. A few scraps of soiled linen, and handkerchiefs and camel-halters, formed the sole adornments; and these were presented, I suppose, as votive offerings, for diseases cured, or camels saved from breaking down in awkward places. Around the rude hut were one or two graves, where, as in consecrated ground, were deposited the remains of devout Towara. Once a year the open plain, in which stands the tomb, is filled with the black tents of the tribe ; for from all parts of the peninsula they then assemble here to perform some sort of religious service in honour of their saint—but of what nature I know not, as an Arab's religion is about as invisible an adjunct of his existence as need be. Theoretically, it seems to be to link Mohammed on to every age and individual history, from "Mousa" downwards; and, practically, to be useful for asseverating the most honest motives before discussing the terms of a bargain in which he is resolved to cheat if he can.

When we had examined the tomb, and again resumed our journey, one or two of our escort stayed behind to pray. I think it was the only time I saw them thus engaged during our whole journey.

Leaving a more open country behind us, we now entered on that long stretch of the Wady Es Sheikh, which leads up to the Plain Er Rahah and the Mount of God. We were now only eight miles from Sinai, and before us ran this great avenue—like some vast cathedral aisle, by which we were aproaching the still vaster and more solemn altar. In about an hour. we caught our first view of the Gebel Mousa. For as. the Wady Sebaiyeh opened up on our left, (of which more anon,) we saw at its further end, the high top of Sinai—a bold crown of rock, with the mountain not sloping, but falling down at once from its summit in a vast precipice. In a minute or two we again lost sight of it, and continued on in the same great Wady Es Sheikh for about an hour, when at last we emerged on the noble plain of Er Rahah, beheld the famed cliffs of Safsafeh frowning above us, and encamped by the so-called Hill of the Golden Calf. It was now about two in the afternoon, so considering it impossible to attempt the mountain that day, we determined to devote the rest of it to a visit to the Convent of St Catherine. The point where we were encamped was at the mouth of the valley in which the convent stands, called after the old Sheikh of Midian—the Wady Shouaib, or of Jethro. It runs up from the plain Er Rahah, towards Gebel Mousa, with the vast shoulders of that mountain enclosing it on the right, while the bare rocks of the Gebel ed Deir are on the left. The summit of Gebel Mousa, or the traditionary scene of the lawgiving, is quite concealed from the view by these shoulders which I have described, and it is not until you have gone as far as the convent, more than a mile up the valley, that it is visible. We found, to our astonishment, a regular road, almost macadamised, leading up from the Er Rahah to the convent, and which appeared to us, as the sea-weed did to Columbus—a harbinger of humanity further on. The "House of the Desert" is nobly situated, with its massive and quaint pile of gray battlements rising abruptly and boldly on the first rocky slope of Mount Sinai. As we drew near it, the green plot of garden-ground, the dark cypress trees, mingled with the fresher colouring of the fig and almond, afforded quite a new and most grateful contrast to the bare desolation of the wilderness. I had been reading that morning, while riding my camel, Stanley's description of the great convent of Justinian, "with its massive walls, its gorgeous church hung with banners, its galleries of chapels, of cells, and of guest-chambers, its library of precious manuscripts, the sound of its rude cymbals calling to prayer, and changed by the echoes into music, as it rolls through the desert valley—the double standard of the Lamb and Cross floating high upon its topmost towers." This last touch, in spite of our experience of the writer's almost invariable accuracy, was, of course, put down to poetical licence, and we thought it a very fair and excusable flourish. But at our first glimpse of the convent, there, to be sure, we beheld a broad red flag floating lazily "high upon its topmost towers." I confess 1 felt a throb when I saw this. There seemed something of the old days of the Crusaders in that gray Christian fortress thus hanging out its defiant banner in the face of Paynim and Moslem. The horror of the denouement may, however, be imagined, when drawing nearer, within a few hundred yards of the house, a stronger air rolled out in a heavy flap the stars and stripes of our dear cousin Jonathan. Finding little Tomkins seated in the lap of Memnon, or Joe Smith smoking his cigar in the sarcophagus of the sacred Apis, was nothing to this. But what could it mean? Had General Walker, tired of Panama, brought his filibusters to colonise the Er Rahah? Or had the Greek monks, in some dream of their constant sleep, thought of an "annexation" and "plumping" for Douglass? Ought we to go near the convent at all? What if, instead of Christian greeting we find revolvers and bowie-knives?—instead of the clash of " the rude cymbals calling to prayer," we find ourselves "gouged" to the tune of "Yankee Doodle?" The mystery was not solved till we heard our names called by an old transatlantic friend we had met in Egypt, who, with no waistcoat on, but with an exquisite shirt-front and diamond studs, sat smoking a little black pipe of "Virginny" under his own flag, which he had thus hoisted on " the topmost tower," in order that he might have the gratification of informing the wilderness that a "citizen of the Yew-nited States" was "calculating" within her territory. Dear fellow! I believe that was the first happy day he had spent since he left Cairo ; and as he cast a glance now up at the flag, and now up at the vast solitary mountain-top, he was evidently "guessing" that that day was a proud day for Mount Sinai.

And now that we were under the high walls of the fortress, the question was, how to get in. At the highest part there was a little covered stage, with a windlass and a rope dangling from it, such as one sees on the side of a cotton mill at home, but no door was visible. The primitive and feudal appearance of the whole place made one almost expect to find a horn hanging, on which, as true pilgrims, we might summon the warder to the walls. In absence, however, of the ancient horn, and there being neither modern bell nor knocker, we shouted lustily, and in a short time a little, old, wizened, cross, dirty face presented itself at the windlass. We passed up to him our commendatory letter from Cairo; and while the old man shuffled off to read it, we ensconced ourselves to lunch under the walls. A crowd of lean, hungry Arabs,

the servants of the monks, gathered round us, ready to pounce on all fragments, worrying up any stray orange-peel, and crunching the chicken bones like dogs. As we finished, the padre again appeared, and requested to know how we wished to enter. He informed us that there was a door near the garden, and the windlass, and to make our choice. Preferring the old-fashioned way of the rope, I asked the old monk to lower it for me ; and so down it came with a stick tied to it to act as seat. Getting stride-legs on the stick, the signal was given to haul, when two stout fellows began slowly and solemnly to wind me up like the weight of a clock. The barrel of the windlass was very small, and they were very lazy, so that I had full time to enjoy the process. Slowly, higher and higher, now spinning round and round, now swinging hitch against the wall, with all the sensations which I can conceive a bale of cotton to have when subjected to a similar operation, I was pulled gradually up to a level with the cross, dirty, old monk, and by him hooked in and landed. And when in, what a strange spot is this same convent!—a perfect hive of buildings!—a multum in parvo!—a little city, with its houses, churches, streets —all squeezed within the four walls of a not very large edifice. In the centre, the long-pointed roof of the church rose beside the minaret of a mosque, and all about were labyrinths of galleries, and wooden stairs, balconies, dormitories, mysterious-looking passages, and numberless little gables and angular pieces of roofing. When I had joined my friends who had entered by the garden-door, we were led into a comfortable room, where, seated on divans, we were regaled by the monks with palm-wine, date-bread, and coffee. A young monk attended us, whose whole stock of language, beside his native Greek, consisted of about twenty words of Italian and six of Arabic. Mustering up as much Attic as I could, I informed him that I was a "Diakonos" of the Church as well as he, when he became very kind, came over and took me by the hand, and commenced leading me by it, like a child, to see the convent. A most inhuman noise, as if a multitude of old iron pots were being extremely ill used, startled him however from his amiable task; and as we concluded that the sound proceeded from "the rude cymbals calling to prayer," we went up to see them. High up on the battlements, under a long low roof, we found suspended a lump of metal and a beam of wood, about ten feet in length, on the latter of which an athletic acolyte was labouring with all his might, swinging a huge hammer as at a forge, while another servitor kept up a running accompaniment in the shape of a sort of kettle-tinkering fantasia per-formed ad libitum with a smaller hammer on the piece of metal. The combined sound was deafening and perfectly distracting, nor could I imagine a better defence for the convent against any enemy with ears, than to keep the cymbals going. They say there are no fleas in St Catherine's; if so, I can divine the cause, for I am certain no respectable flea could possibly put up with this frequent disturbance. When the last echo of the wood and iron had died away, the clash of a bell summoned us to vespers, and we went down to the chapel. We found the chapel a fine, massive building, rich in mosaics, silver lamps, curious Byzantine pictures, and deliciously cool, still, and peaceful, after the hot sun and the cymbals. 1 felt happy in the prospect of worshipping once more with a Christian community, and was prepared to overlook many differences. The ceremony was, of course, according to the Greek ritual, but alas! performed with such irreverence and indifference, that I found it impossible to associate the least idea of devotion with what was going on. The Litany was repeated as fast as possible, and in that nasal twang, harsh and reedy, which is, I think, peculiar to the Eastern Church. The "Kyrie Eleison" (Lord, have mercy on us) was poured forth thirty or forty times at once, with a rapidity of utterance that was at once marvellous and horrible. Taking a long breath, the priest began it in a high pitch, and ran on, gradually coming down the gamut, until, wind failing him, he ended it in a sort of mournful drone, like the last note of an exhausted bagpipe. But what was still more abominable, was a little scene which occurred when the time came for the lessons. There were two reading-desks, one on either side of the chapel, and turned towards the altar. At one desk it was the duty of a monk to read the prayers, and another was stationed at the other for the gospels. After a great deal of searching for the lesson for the day, the reader at the latter desk began in a loud key, intoning through his nose like a boy at a country school. He had not gone very far, however, when his brother monk at the opposite desk, stopped him abruptly, evidently informing him that he was at the wrong place. This, the first seemed to deny, and there they stood arguing fiercely, while the whole service was interrupted; until the second, bustling across the floor, turned the right place angrily up, and set his learned brother on again, at the old see-saw pitch. The only really interesting feature in the service was to hear the Gospels and Epistles read in the original Greek. After the prayers and lessons were ended, a very curious ceremony took place. A low table being placed on the floor, there was laid on it a good quantity of bread divided into portions, and round the bread were stuck a number of lighted candles. A sort of chant was then begun, a small procession formed, and the whole fraternity marched round and round the table. When the bread had been thus blessed sufficiently, each monk took his portion with him and retired.

In company with our old friend, who, again taking me by the hand as a brother "Diakonos," led me in front, we proceeded to inspect the convent. In the library were numerous manuscripts, evidently very ancient, some of which we examined, but could make nothing of. Had we been able to value it, there is no saying but we might then have had in our hands the magnificent manuscript which Tischendorf has since discovered, and so have forestalled him in his brilliant achievement. But as it was, we, in our ignorance, knew not the treasure that was near us. In the library we found a strange old man, towards whom the younger monks seemed to entertain a deep respect, and were evidently anxious to hear him converse with us, but he at first pretended ignorance of every language but that of his native Boeotia. By and by, however, a casual observation elicited an unwary remark on his part in Italian, and when once the ice was broken, we found him a master of that language, as well as of French and German. He told us that he had been connected with a church choir in Vienna, had travelled much, seen much, and had come here to die. He seemed to shun the society of the other monks; and there was altogether that about him which indicated that his history had been a curious and a sad one. He invited me into his little dormitory, and shewed me one or two lovely little pictures, and an English hymn-book that had been presented to him by a Scotch minister. He seemed in a state of cynical indifference to everything, could not tell what were all the hours of prayer, without referring to another monk, and seemed heartily glad when we left him. After seeing numerous chapels and dormitories, and the other lions within the convent, we proceeded to the garden to enjoy, amidst these sterile wastes, the trees, and plants, and flowers, that are there so lovingly tended by these exiles of Zante and Euboea. It was indeed deliciously refreshing to. see apple-trees, and pears, and vines, and fig-trees; but the monks evidently considered this sight nothing in comparison with a visit to their charnel-house, which is placed in the garden. Here, in a dark catacomb, are preserved the bones of departed monks; all the arms parcelled here, the legs there, the ribs in another place, while the sacred bones of the superior clergy are kept by themselves in little wooden boxes. When a monk dies, he is stretched on an iron grating in another cellar, and remains there for two or three years, until the flesh having all departed, he is broken up and distributed as I have mentioned. However disgusting the spectacle was to us, it seemed to be looked on with great satisfaction by the brethren— the prospect of themselves being thus piecemealed, and literally shelved, being evidently highly appreciated by them. And these are the representatives of Christianity among the Arabs ! Shut up within their own walls, lazy, ignorant, cheating, utterly useless, and utterly soured, they seemed more like the inhabitants of a penal settlement, than the members of a Christian community placed in the midst of pagans. Here, as in many another place, one is made painfully to feel that the greatest obstructions to the advance of the gospel are Christians themselves ; for certainly as it is represented to Jew and Mohammedan by the Coptic, Greek, or Armenian Churches, there is not much to commend our faith.

In the evening we returned to our tents at the Hill of the Golden Calf, and when the sun had set, we strolled up the wide, silent plain of Er Rahah. It was only when we had thus gone for some distance up in front of it, that the true character of the Ras Safsafeh was seen by us. Travellers usually approach Sinai from Feiran by the Nakb el Hawie—the Pass of the Winds—and thus entering Er Rahah at its further end, have the advantage of seeing the Safsafeh form the first, in all its glory, rising abruptly like a vast altar, at the east end of the magnificent plain, which slopes down to its base. As we, however, advanced to it from the Wady Es Sheikh, and so scarcely saw it until we were encamped at its base, the peak, which is supposed by many to have been the scene of the lawgiving, was lost to our eyes in the confusion of other summits. But when we had thus gone for some distance up the Er Rahah, we could easily conceive the strict accuracy of the description which Stanley gives of the appearance of these cliffs in drawing slowly near them from the west. ''Far in the bosom of the mountains before us, I saw the well-known shapes of the cliffs which form the front of Sinai. At each successive advance, these cliffs disengaged themselves from the intervening and surrounding hills, and at last they stood out—I should rather say the columnar mass which they form, stood out alone against the sky. On each side, the infinite complications of twisted and jagged mountains fell away from it. On each side the sky encompassed it round, as though it were alone in the wilderness. And to this great mass we approached through a wide valley, a long-continued plain, which, enclosed as it was between the precipitous mountain-ranges of yellow and black granite, and having always at its end this prodigious mountain block, I could compare to nothing else than the immense avenue—the 'dromos,' as it is technically called, through which the approach was made to the great Egyptian temples!"

It seemed to our eyes, too, in the dim twilight, with its deep and gloomy scaurs seaming it from base to summit, and fronted by the wide and solitary plain, on whose surface and surrounded by the vast mountain walls, you felt shrivelled into insignificance, to be indeed a suitable scene for the imposing solemnities of the lawgiving. And it was with a sense of deep awe that in the still moonlight we again returned under the awful shadow of the dark cliffs—and ere we retired for rest, gazed up on those bare and silent masses, rising high into the starry sky, whose rocks we knew had once echoed to the voice of the great thunderings, when "even that Sinai itself was moved at the presence of the Lord, the God of Israel." A.


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