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Good Words 1860
Journey by Sinai to Syria


Perhaps the reader may have experienced after some days of buffeting, and creaking, and constant engine-turmoil at sea, the delightful sensation of awaking in harbour. How strange at first seems the unwonted stillness—how exquisite the consciousness of rest! It was with a similar sense of unaccountable delicious calm we awoke this morning in our tents, under the Has Sassafeh. "When we had finished breakfast, a thin Arab, whom we had noticed, during it, sitting on his heels near the kitchen tent, "drawing " his morning pipe, was brought forward and introduced to us by Hassan as our guide for the mountain. Our path led up a steep ravine on the right, between the almost perpendicular walls of rock that hem in the Wady Shuaib; but for the greater part of the way, it is made comparatively easy by rude steps of stone, worn with the feet of many a pilgrim. Shut in here, between those bare cliffs, without a breath of air, and with the tread-mill exercise of climbing unending steps, the heat became oppressive. In about half an hour, we reached a spring of the coldest water, under the cool shade of an over-hanging rock forming a picturesque grotto, from whose refreshing gloom we looked out on the bare ledges of the Gebel ed Deir opposite to us—steeped in white heat. Shortly after we reached a chapel, also buried in the ravine; and so for nearly an hour and a half we continued going up the rude granite stair, between these wild granite crags—until the gorge became so narrow, that an arch had been thrown across it overhead, forming a sort of gateway, before the traveller finally emerges on the little plain or basin, where stand the Church of Elias, the cypress tree, and the well. This plain forms the hollow, or saddle of the mountain ; which, speaking in a general way, rises from it in two peaks —Gebel Musa and Ras Sassafeh. On the left, about a mile distant, you see the high top of Gebel Musa, by much the loftiest "horn" of the whole mass; and to the right, stretching along in tangled cliffs for more than two miles, the mountain ridges up at the furthest end into the Ras Sassafeh, which falls precipitously into the great plain of Er Rahah. These two ends of the mountain, the peak of Gebel Musa, and the bluffs of the Has Sassafeh, divide the greater number of writers, as to their claims to be reckoned the Sinai of Moses. My own mind had been so completely convinced by the arguments of Robinson and Stanley in favour of the Ras Sassafeh, that, although the steps leading to Gebel Musa were running most temptingly up before me, I yet determined to put off its ascent to next day, and to give this day to what I felt certain was the Mount of God, as well as to the exploring of another hill in the neighbourhood. Turning accordingly to the right, we proceeded for about two miles along the ridge of the mountain, among scenery of a peculiarly wild and desolate character. A fringe of tooth-like cliffs, rising to a considerable height, ran along the edge next the valley of the convent, and shut in our view on that side; but on the other, we had frequent glimpses over the bare and lonely mountain-land around us. Our path led round huge boulders, by piles of granite heaped in giant masses, and over long smooth surfaces of rock, until we reached a little walled enclosure, near the Chapel of John the Baptist, and quite under the famous Ras Sassafeh. We were here in a hollow, between the continuation of the fringe of cliffs I have mentioned, on one side, and long high ridges that rose one above the other in a series of huge round steps—each step, forming itself a sort of projecting crown or head —on the other. We knew that some one of these various summits must be the Ras Sassafeh, but not any one of them stood out so prominently from the others as to make us assured of its being the one. Those next the plain, and on the outer edge of the mountain, seemed too low and lost among the others; while those behind, though the highest, yet seemed to recede too far. This was our first disappointment, for we had been led to expect the Ras Sassafeh, the spot on which Moses is supposed by many to have stood, to be a distinct, solitary, out-standing summit, but here we were confronted by several, all apparently equally eligible; nor could either the Arab or monk give us any information, or help us out of our difficulty. Choosing what appeared the highest, and leaving the fat monk and our other "impedimenta" at the Chapel of the Prodromos, we started with ''Hamed" as our guide. The ascent was easy enough; but no sooner did we reach the summit, than it became manifest that this was not the "Ras;" for instead of seeing the great sweep of the plain of Er Rahah stretching away from our feet, the view was blocked up by the lower projections of the cliff—we saw, indeed, down into the Wady el Leja, but that we were not on the famed point was only too apparent. It was now afternoon; and, as my companion was tired, and "struck" work, there was no help for it but to return to the monk and the tent. As I was anxious, however, to have time to ascend the Gebel Senah before night, I did not so much regret this; and so, with the consciousness that I now knew where to look for it, I determined to reach Sassafeh next day alone. "We found the old monk at the Chapel, with a fire burning, hot coffee, date-bread, and pipes all ready for us. This he seemed to consider the true end of the whole expedition. To all our complaints about the Has, he only answered with a quiet shrug, "Har ketteer!" (very hot!) and by a few clear drops of exquisite palm-wine. After our siesta, instead of returning by the way we came, we descended by a wild and very precipitous corry of loose stones, until we reached our tents once more at the Hill of Aaron. This corry is, I suppose, the path by which Stanley believes Moses to have come down out of the mount.

It was now nearly three in the afternoon; we had been on foot, more or less, from six in the morning, and the monk was pretty well beat. I nevertheless determined to explore the Gebel Senah, which, standing as it does at the angle formed by the Wady Es Sheikh and the Er Rahah, I felt certain must command a very large sweep of plain. This very name, Senah—the only one in the whole peninsula which retains any trace of resemblance to the old Sinai—gave it such an interest, that, although no tradition is affixed to it, I yet thought it well worth the additional fatigue of an ascent. In vain did both Hamed and the monk protest that no traveller ever went there —that there was no path—that night would be on before we could return. The bag of provisions had again to be shouldered, and, with many growls and gestures, off we three went. We struck up the face from the Wady-es-Sheikh, by what seemed the dry bed of a torrent. It was fearfully hot and steep. The monk sulked; but Hamed, at the magic word, "Baksheesh," suddenly revived; so, leaving the padre to take his time, we two pushed on without him. How I envied the lithe activity of the half-clothed Arab, with his bare legs and naked feet, as he sprung from ledge to ledge before me, the hot beating even of that sun not able to wring a drop of perspiration from his thin, hard muscles! At the pace we went, it took us little more than an hour to reach the hollow behind the peak which fronts the valleys. It was a basin surrounded by six high cliffs, and seemingly connected with wide spaces retreating into the heart of the mountain masses behind. A thin, transparent coating of green covered it, consisting of low aromatic shrubs and creepers. The more northern of the six cliffs was the one I chose to ascend, as it formed the corner of the two great plains. It rose for about 300 feet above the basin. As I got near its summit, it seemed as if built of huge boulders, or as if the original mass had been split and shaken into fragments. Stepping from block to block, over huge fissures and crevices, and leaping over one remarkable cleft, about sixty feet deep, and from three to ten feet wide, that actually cut the cliff in two, I at last got on the outmost ledge, and felt myself repaid by the grand prospect I obtained. With the exception of a portion on the right, which was concealed by a projecting ridge, the whole Er Rahah lay open beneath me—-besides which, the Wady-el-Leja, the valley of the convent up to the green hill of Menejie, and the Wady-es-Sheikh down to its junction with Sebaiyeli, were commanded. Certainly, if all that is required is a hill so situated, in respect to surrounding plains, as to be visible to the greatest number of people at the same time, there is none of any I have seen—not Musa nor Sassafeh—that has a greater sweep of open ground around it than Senah. Moses, standing there, could have been visible to enormous multitudes. Beyond this fact, and its name, I did not see anything, however, which gave it a claim to the great honour disputed for by its sister mountains. I remained there alone for a considerable time, to enjoy at once the solitude and the glory of the scene before me.

Early next day, we found ourselves again at the chapel of Elias. Instead, however, of approaching it, as before, by the wild ravine, and the steps leading up from the convent, we had come by a new road, which Abbas Pasha, for some inexplicable reason or other, is cutting to the summit of the mountain. It was a wild and grand ascent, where at every step wider views were gained of the vast and tangled wilderness around. But what impressed me most in it was the new idea I gained of the real appearance of the Gebel Musa. For, as seen from this side, it suddenly fronted us in a steep and awful precipice. Suddenly, from its high crown, it fell down in a perpendicular wall of rock to a depth of, I suppose, at least two thousand feet. From base to summit, from the sharp edge above to where the great granite sank in the gravelly hillocks of the Sebaiyeli below, there was scarcely a projection to catch the eye—it was all sheer precipice. The Ras Sassafeh seemed nothing to the magnificent and gloomy majesty of this blackened rock, sweeping up in one bold line to its one solitary summit. Such did it seem looking towards it, as we approached it from the ridge which separates Wady Shouaib from Sebaiyeh. As we came up this new road of the Pasha's, we were also so fortunate as to pick up several specimens of the long-lost Dendrite stones. Having rested a while by the cypress tree, in the hollow basin I have before described as at the Chapel of Elias, and forming the saddle of the mountain, we slowly ascended the flight of rude steps leading to the summit of the Jebel Musa, which rises about seven hundred feet, in a long, gradual swell. As we went up, our Arab Hamed did not forget to draw our attention in passing, to the footprints of the famous dromedary of Mahomet, under whose sacred tread, it seems, the granite had thus melted in reverence. When I reached the summit, I was again struck with the character of the mountain, on its southern side. For coming up the long slope from the basin behind, you gradually attain the crown—a wide rocky area of perhaps sixty feet across, which runs flatly out to a sharp edge, and then falls at once away in an awful precipice to the plains below. So sharply, so suddenly does it thus fall off, that I believe a man standing on the edge above would be visible to another standing almost close to the base. There are two ruined buildings on the top—an old Christian chapel, and an old mosque, side by side, built, according to the Arabs, "in the days when Moslim and Christian were brethren." The view commanded was, in our ease, limited, as a warm haze shrouded the horizon and more distant hills in mist. The nearer mountains and valleys formed, however, a grand and imposing prospect. The rough, bare masses tossed up around like a stormy sea—some silver-gray, some tinted with a delicate pink, some darkly furrowed and weather-stained; one, the hill Menejie, of a strange green hue, and, grandest of all, beside us and above us, towered the great St Katherine's, with its rugged and blackened front, swelling up to the sky in a noble crest, and among whose topmost rocks gleamed white spots of virgin snow. What our eyes searched for, but found not, however, as we would have wished, was a plain below us. There were, indeed, wide spaces and low gravelly hills beneath us, but we saw nothing which seemed comparable to the Wady Er Rahah. So it seemed looking from the, summit. But that such a plain actually exists, we shall see afterwards. The apparent absence of this plain, so necessary for the requirements of the law-giving, destroyed in me the thought that I was then standing on Sinai. The view was enjoyed, the long traditions attached to the spot gave it an interest, and the grand form of the mountain itself—this great monolith cut almost straight down for two thousand feet—made one feel how adapted it was, if there had only been a plain on which we could have supposed the people congregated—to have been indeed the awful spot of the law-giving. Again returning to the hollow at the church of Elias, I left the fat monk and K—— to take a smoke and siesta under the shadow of a rock, while Hamed and I started to ascend the Has Sassafeh, which we had failed to discover on the day previous. Away we went among the rocks at a tremendous pace, Hamed leaping from ledge to ledge, over boulders and moraines like an antelope, and I labouring after him as best I might. In a short time we gained the church of the Prodromos, and being now certain of the whereabouts of the Ras, we began the ascent. Beginning at the back of the ridge, we tried to work our way outwards; but finding that this was impossible, we attempted to get along the slope, and so reach a kind of ravine, by which I trusted we might attain the outmost edge. Hamed protested, with many gesticulations—"Sicca mafeesh"—that there was no road, which, indeed, was only too apparent; but making him understand that we were to find one, we commenced what proved the most perilous little piece of mountain-climbing I certainly ever tried, and which I would be sorry to try over again. Imagine a ridge of smooth granite shaped like a pig's back—its sides sloping into utter darkness and precipice. Our course lay along this, gradually getting steeper and nearer the brink—until at last we both had to cast ourselves on our hands and knees to prevent any slipping, when we would infallibly have been shot over. The last part was the worst. That crossed, I saw where we could reach down on a lower and outer ledge, but how to get that over was the question. Nor could I have done it, had not Hamed at last nobly resolved the difficulty, by lying down all along the face — clinging with his fingers and naked toes to the cracks and roughnesses on the surface of the otherwise smooth sheet of granite, while I rolled along not quite with my feet against him, but in such a way that his body acted more as a sort of moral strength than anything else, and by taking away the horrid look of the slope beyond, enabled me to gain the desired point. But a more night-mare piece of work than crossing that round smooth edge, shelving away from under into empty air, I trust I may never have again cause to perform. My flesh almost creeps still as I remember the lad crawling out and stretching himself along the brink; the horrible tendency I felt to slip down the steep side—the horrid consciousness, that if I did so even a little, I would probably push the Arab further on the slope, so far that he could not recover himself. Nor was it much better, when the desired point was actually gained. For after having worked our way a little out, we found that we had to reach a yet lower ridge, also awkwardly edging off into darkness; and what was worse, that we had "to drop" on this from the higher ground on which we were. Lowering myself down, until at last I was holding on but by my hands, I do not yet relish the recollection of the sensation, when it became necessary to let go, and allow myself to fall on the under rock, not far from the side, and with the realisation that the force of the fall might cause to stagger backwards, and if so, stagger into empty air. Providentially, however, we landed both firmly, and after a little more scrambling reached what undoubtedly was the Ras Sassafeh. It is a single point—the utmost of the many bluffs and crowns of rock in which the mountain ends on its northern side. Standing on it, nothing can be grander than the position it commands over the magnificent plain of the Er Rahah. 1 felt like standing in a pulpit. In front the broad area, walled by its bare hills, swelled upwards like a mighty amphitheatre, or rather like the chancel of a great cathedral, with the Wadys es-Sheikh and El Leja on either hand, as its vast transepts. Here certainly were both plain and mountain. Here, Moses could have stood in the sight of the thousands of Israel—there might have been congregated the dense multitude round the "mount that might be touched." Was this then Sinai? Is this indeed the spot where God spake with man? No, I believe not. For although the path I returned by was a little easier than the one by which I reached Sassafeh—yet so perilous, and difficult is any approach to it, that without a miracle, I can hardly imagine Moses going and coming several times in one day—much less his carrying the tables of stone over any such locality. But what completely upsets the whole theory which attributes this honour to the Ras Sassafeh, is the fact that the traditionary mount, Jebel Musa—the one which from the earliest times has been regarded as the true Sinai—does in fact answer the requirements of the sacred narrative better than any other in the peninsula. Robinson and Stanley reject it, from the asserted absence of any plain being at its base; and certainly such is the appearance of the open country below, as seen from, the summit, that no one would suppose it capable of comparison with Er Rahah, and the existence of a plain is of course as necessary as the existence of a mountain. But it so happens that a plain does actually exist there —and a plain, too, that by measurement is found capable of containing a greater multitude than the boasted Er Rahah, vast though it be. Every traveller who has gone into Sebaiyeh, gives but one opinion of the different aspect the whole locality has when the mountain is viewed from the plain, instead of the plain being viewed from the mountain. [The only exception is Dr. Stanley. Dr. Robinson did not go into Sebaiyeh, and Dr. Stanley seems to have taken a very hurried glance, and to have looked at it with rather a prejudiced eye, as his objections are more against it3 "roughness and unevenness" than its capabilities.] I have already described that wild precipice, 2000 feet high, in which the majestic cliff sinks in one line to its base. Around that base stretches a wide area, capable of containing a very vast multitude; and that area is connected again with the great "Wady es-Sheikh, and the Er Rahah itself. Supposing, then, the Israelites to be encamped, some in the Sebaiyeh, some in the Es Sheikh, some in the Er Rahah, but that all were "led by Moses" out of their different encampments "to meet God," and were gathered on this great amphitheatre in front of that dark cliff, rising in one unbroken column to its lonely crown—then we find indeed a scene worthy of the sacred associations. There could the whole assembled multitude behold the mount from base to summit—a mount whose corky wall might indeed "be touched," and where Moses could speak with God in the sight of all. And how "terrible the sight" must have been, we can easily imagine, when, like some vast altar above them, that awful pile "smoked to heaven like a furnace," and "God came down upon it in fire"—when around that towering crest the cloud settled, the thunder rolled, and the lightning flashed — when the mountain quaked, and the trumpet-peal waxed louder and louder—when the trembling people "removed far off," and Moses drew near unto "the thick darkness" where God was. Other requirements of the narrative are also met satisfactorily here. Coming down by the Wady Shouaib, Moses might have heard the shouting of the multitude as they danced around the calf, without seeing them (Exod. xxxii. 17-19) till he reached the crest of the intervening hill. And we may well suppose, too, that it may have been to that hollow, where now stands the Chapel of Elias, that Aaron, and Nadab, and Abihu, with the seventy elders, ascended (Exod. xxiv. 9-13), worshipping " afar off;" and while Moses drew nigher, even to that further summit, that it was thence " they saw the God of Israel," when " there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire-stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness ;" " and when the sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel." A.

Note to Map.—The Publishers regret that, owing to a mistake, this map was printed previously with an article with which it had no connexion, and without any acknowledgment of the kind permission of Dr Stanley, from whose well-known work it has in a great measure been taken.

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