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Good Words 1860
A Journey by Sinai to Syria


No. III

The scenery around the mouth of the Wady Tayi-beh, where, as we have supposed, had been the encampment of the Israelites by the Red Sea, is very wild and highly romantic. Northwards, the high, white cliffs of the Gebel Hammam-el-Faraoon fall right into the blue waves, while, as, looking southwards, the eye follows a long sweep of coast running out to the distant point of the Abu Zeli-ineh, from which, long, long ago, probably even before Abraham had gone down to Egypt, the ships of Pharaoh carried away rich cargoes of copper, mined in Meghara or Sarbut-el-Kadim. That long sweep of coast, which thus girdles in the bright sea, and is itself hemmed round by a rocky wall of hills, is in all probability the desert of Sin, into which we are told (Num. xxxiii. 11) the children of Israel removed from their encampment by the sea. How this removal was actually made seemed to us to be a question of some difficulty; for the only passage between the open plain at the mouth of Tayibeh and the wide sweep that stretches southwards from Murka, is by a narrow strip along the shore; so narrow, that at full tide little more than a foot breadth of sand is left between the sea and the rugged ledges of limestone that join on to the high cliffs behind. As we rode along this path, our camels' feet were often washed by the waves, and, while foot passengers might certainly have managed to scramble along the terraces of broken limestone above, yet all the cattle, as well as infirm persons of the Israelites must have defiled, as we did, along this narrow strip of shoreland. At certain states of the tide it may possibly be some yards broader; but, even on that supposition, how tedious must the operation have been, if we realise that upwards of two millions had to journey by this one path ! Points of such practical difficulty as these lend great weight to the theory, that the people did not all march in one body, perhaps not even by the same road, but that, in several detachments, and by different paths, they reached the central plains around Sinai, while it is only of the movements of the head-quarters, as it were, and of the chief mass, that we read in Scripture. A ride of about two hours, in the fresh morning sea-breeze and the bright morning sunlight, brought us, however, to the wide plain of Murka, and to the desert of Sin—a long pebbly waste, skirted by high hills, widening out, where we were, into the Murka, and then running in a broad, but narrower belt, away down the coast. The Arabs call it El-Kaa, and it reaches down to the furthest point of the peninsula. Our course lay across this Murka from corner to corner, on to where, in the south-east, the Wady Shellal leads up into the vast mountain land of the desert. Though here and there on its surface the broom-like "retem" gave a sense of greenness, yet if barrenness could have formed any excuse for murmuring, and complaining reminiscences of the rich abundance of Egypt, certainly the desert of Sin would have afforded that excuse. The hard, gravelly surface glares in the sun, the mirage flickers in its level distances, and not a living thing moves through the air, palpitating with heat. A green serpent, gliding swiftly to its lair, was the only animal we beheld upon its wastes. Here it was, when all the bread they had brought with them from Egypt was finished, that the Israelites, instead of trusting God, began their murmurs against Moses and Aaron, "who," they said, "had led them forth into this wilderness to perish with hunger." Here it was that, while they spake, there flashed from these same desert hills the glory of the Lord, and as they " looked towards the wilderness," the white cloud was suddenly lit up with His presence. It was here, too, that in the evening, probably from across that sea, there came the great flock of quails, which, wearied with their long flight from the valley of the Nile, fell thick upon this the first shore they reached,—even among the very tents of the people. And when morning again arose still another wonder here awaited the tribes, for lo! as if a hoar-frost had fallen on the scorched wilderness, the whole plain was white and glistening. Like the soft dew, itself the refreshing gift of heaven, this manna-bread of God had fallen freely around their tents; and thus once more, by that same shore, and amidst these everlasting hills, might they have praised the Lord for a new deliverance, "which by His strength setteth fast the mountains, being girded with power; which stilleth the noise of the seas, the noise of their waves, and the tumults of the people; whose paths drop fatness, they drop upon the pastures of the wilderness, and the little hills rejoice on every side.''

Before, however, we pass into the Wady Shellal, and become lost in the mountain labyrinths of Sinai, it may be as well to take advantage of our position in the open plain of Murka, in order to describe, in a word or two, the general features of that wondrous region which lies before us. He who conceives the desert of Sinai to be a series of level wastes, with a huge hill standing somewhere in the midst, or who fancies that there is nothing there beyond sacred associations to tempt the traveller, would find himself strangely undeceived, were he to be introduced into this almost second Switzerland of mountain glories, and have his eye feasted by forms and colours of a character to be found, we suppose, in no other corner of the globe. Speaking in general terms, the true Sinaitic district is entirely confined to the point of the great triangular peninsula that lies between the two forks of the Red Sea—the gulf of Suez, and the gulf of Akaba; nearly all the rest of the peninsula is occupied by the high, dreary table-land of the El Tihe. But the southern point consists of a wild and tangled mountain-region, clustering itself into three great groups—that of Um Shomer, St Catherine's, and Serbal, which rise respectively to the height of 9300, 8705, and 6789 feet, and are of the most magnificent forms. Conceive mountain-ranges more than twice the height of our own Ben Nevis, without a trace of soil,—nothing but the great, iron granite, or porphyry, or greenstone, towering up pile on pile, edge on edge, sometimes in a ragged fringe of peaks, sometimes in a smooth, bold front against the sky. Except where some wild creeper may festoon itself from some cleft near their base, these giant rocks are absolutely naked. Not a wild flower nestles on their ledges—not a lichen clings to their weather-worn and furrowed walls. At first sight, such a condition might seem quite opposed to the beautiful in every respect; but, in reality, it is far otherwise. There is a majesty in these giant masses of porphyry and granite, venerable as some great Gothic cathedral, that would be scarcely enhanced by the furniture of tree or cottage. There is a grandeur in this perfect, this absolute nakedness, that is very solemn and awing. But they have more than this. For besides the mere variety and contrast of form, there is also the most wonderful variety of rock-colouring. So that, although these mountains have none of the soft green chalets, nor hoary pinewoods of Switzerland, yet they are rich in another beauty. For if there is the bright beauty of the carpet of flowers, there is also the more sober and yet gorgeous beauty of the mosaic pavement; and it is this last kind of beauty that the mountains of Sinai possess, in contrast to the brighter colouring of wood and pasture land which prevails in other countries. In the Wady Shellal alone, we counted from one spot, sixteen varieties of rock-colour, massed in mountain forms before us—white, brown, pink, red, purple, green, in all possible shades. None were bright— the effect of the whole was gorgeous. And so the two principal elements of beauty—form and colour —were preserved.

Through these naked mountain-ranges, the traveller journeys by means of the "wadys" or desert valleys—that are quite unlike the valleys of any other country. They are not mountain gorges, or "hollows," not like the "glens" of our own Highlands, with their broken edges and shaggy brows of heather, and perpetual murmur of deep-throated "burn" far below, as it swirls and scoops the iron rocks into sounding caves. The glen of the desert is a pebbly road, almost level, and having an appearance as if some great torrent had filled the mountain ravine with its sand and stones, and then, gradually lessening, smoothing the surface even, had left it dry and silent. There is no deep central channel, no gentle sloping upwards, no shelving oft'. The wadys twist themselves, like serpents, deep into the heart of the hills—but ever running flat as a road—while the mountain-walls sink into them on either side as suddenly and steeply as cliffs into the sea. The object which most resembles them is a Swiss glacier—say the Mer de Glace—twining itself up into distant solitudes like a river—with, on either side, the black, naked aiguilles, raising their rocky edges high into the blue sky. Speaking generally, the wadys vary from thirty to two hundred feet in breadth, and here and there bear upon their surface the feathery tarfah or tamarisk, the thorny acacia, or the broom-like "retem." Along the bases of the mountain, too, we find in many places green-nodding creepers, the clustering lasaf or hyssop, and the wild ivy, in knots almost luxuriant.

Another characteristic of the desert is its intense silence. When any of us for a moment wandered from the party, it can scarcely be imagined what a painfully nervous effect that unbroken stillness produced. It really weighed upon the heart. If you made a noise, you seemed almost to hear the silence that followed. And this very silence, combined with the nakedness of the mountains, and the narrowness of their rocky ravines, served to produce another effect, viz., a wondrous sensitiveness to sound. Like singing in some great empty hall, each note was prolonged and echoed for miles. When you ran up a chord with the voice, it was like striking the strings of some vast harp. Suddenly the notes mingled themselves in a thrilling harmony, that ran off, ringing and repeating itself, till wandering to the topmost peaks, it floated away in the faintest melody. Many a time in the course of the day would we stop our camels for the pleasure of thus hearing Tennyson's bugle song realised—

"Oh, hark! oh hear, how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, further going;
Oh, sweet, and far from cliff and scaur,
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing."

The report of a gun seemed to shake the mountains —the roar would flap and buffet on from cliff to cliff, as if the hills were shaken with a wild laughter; and then, when you thought it all over, again you heard it caught up by Borne other rocky corridor, and rolling away in distant mutterings. How grandly in such a land as this must have sounded the morning shout of the ten thousands of Israel—"Rise, Lord! and let thine enemies be scattered !" How much grander still the thunderings of the lawgiving, when " even that Sinai itself was moved at the presence of the Lord, the God of Israel."

And no wonder that such a land, thus sublime in scenery, and so awing in its perpetual silence, should have been the vast cathedral in whose still recesses have been nourished religious thoughts that have told upon the history of man! I think we can, with all reverence, trace a deep purpose in the providence of God, when He led His chosen servant, Moses, to that "Horeb in the wilderness;" and can well suppose how he, who had been first prepared for his great mission, by being taught in the house of Pharaoh, "all the learning of the Egyptians," was, by the same wise counsel, to receive still deeper lessons, and a far profounder education, amid the solitudes of Midian. For as he wandered alone beneath the great blue vault, or rested under the awful shadows of the mount of God, how, in the deep stillness of the desert air, must the sense of his own utter frailty, and the perishableness of all that human glory he had left in Egypt, have been brought home upon his spirit! As he beheld the unveiled majesty of nature, how horrible must have appeared the remembrance of the calf-worship, the unclean rites and mysteries ! and how quickly, as by a flash of intuition, would he then realise the grandeur of the tradition of his wondrous nation—that there is a Living God— a great I AM, who had piled these mountains, who was knowing and caring for him, the fugitive—for him, the little speck on the bosom of that vast waste—ay, and gazing in upon him with an unslumbering eye! Surely it was also for a like deepening of eternal truth upon the soul, that Elijah, in his hour of weakness, was led into the same mighty temple. And Paul, too, for three years, was prepared of God "in the desert" for his mighty mission. Nor should we forget the influences of similar scenes on that other wondrous assertor of the truth of a One God—the false prophet Mohammed. For, however horrible and polluted his religion may be, I think we can still gaze through the mists and veils of sin and self-deception, back to the flush of an early dawn—to a time when the young camel-driver, as he rested under these midnight heavens, was visited by the thrilling consciousness of a Presence, who, hushing the voices of the world, spake home to his heart—that thought —which, after the lapse of more than nine centuries, and in spite of untold crime, yet commands the reverence, and sways the hearts of millions of our race—"There is no God but One!"

Turning off from the plain of Murka, and entering the Wady Shellal, we soon lost sight for ever of the fresh blue waves of the gulf of Suez, and took our last look at Africa—now, but a few soft purple peaks, extended far, far away in the warm haze. Winding up the Wady Shellal, with its endless variety of colour, maroon and green and pink, rich earthy browns and deep reds,—on amidst towering walls of rock rising some thousands of feet against the deep sky overhead, we reached the Nakb, or Pass of Buterah. These Nakbs have an important bearing in the decision of the question already hinted at, as to whether the Israelites really all marched en masse. For if so, only conceive of such a body defiling across a point like this—and it is nothing to another near Akaba.

After riding up a not very difficult ascent from Shellal, we found ourselves near a col, and in a cul-de-sac, apparently perfectly enclosed by high walls of rock. It was only when our eyes were directed to the spot towards which the leading camels were being taken, that we perceived a sort of zig-zag bridle-path running steeply up one of the faces of the rock. Our Arabs made us all dismount, the heaviest-burthened camels were partially relieved, and then one by one led to the scramble. But such a clamour as that which ensued ! what a hurly-burly arose among the hills, when the growls of the camels, the yells of the Towara, the thunders of the dragoman, the imprecations of the cook, were all pounded together in the hollow below, and passed away to far-distant peaks in an unearthly rumble. One by one was each camel put "to it;" but the path was such that it was not without some difficulty, and a little danger the passage was effected. With several, the great steepness of the ascent caused their burdens to slip back, when down went crockery or poultry, as the case might be, and the camels, walking solemnly out of their girths, accomplished the rest of the journey in the manner which seemed evidently the most satisfactory to themselves. One unfortunate beast, however, laden with two enormous canteen chests, although the strongest camel of the party, stuck fast, just at the most critical point. The path, everywhere narrow, was still more so at a particular corner, where a rock jutted out. This rock proved too much for camel and canteen chests; and, trembling from head to foot with fear, he stood on the very edge of the precipice, all his strength, except that of his lungs, fast leaving him the while. A few inches further out, and he must inevitably have gone over—a fact of which he was apparently quite conscious, as he leant hard against the rock. All that was needed was a bold push round the corner—the great danger was, lest he should happen to lie down. Our dragoman, as he saw his precious canteen thus in the balance, was distracted. Sheikh Hassan tugged at the halter like a maniac—"Ya Allah! Imsheh! Allah!" "A long, strong pull together"—some behind, some before,—and round the corner, with open mouth, and roaring like a steam-engine, came the "gemmel." The next moment he was calm as a stoic, and with a quiet gurgle in his throat, moved on the picture of unruffled patience.

Such is the Nakb-el-Buterah, and yet it is the best, if not the only pass, into Mokatteb from the west. Nothing, however, could be more picturesque than the defiling of our party up this sort of staircase: the straining camels—the Arabs, with their bright head-dresses and their long firelocks—the little spot so full of excitement—the desolation and "eternal silences," as Carlyle would say, all around.


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