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Good Words 1860
A Journey by Sinai to Syria


I verily believe it true, that the two noisiest, and, at the same time, most silent animals in the world are Arabs and camels. They combine the two properties in perfection. They both have their periods of stated clamour, and of stated solemnity; and in both are equally disagreeable. For in the one they roar—in the other they sulk. Morning and evening are the great roaring seasons; but the hot day, with its thirst and glare, is hardly ever relieved by any sound, except the long, monotonous tread of the camel, and the quick, shuffling gait of the Arab at his side. At the first streak of morning the noise commences, increasing with the light, and reaching its climax when the sun, like a burnished shield, rises without a cloud behind the eastern hills, when the tents are struck, and the camels are being burthened. Each camel then forms the centre of some particular strife, that is united to the general confusion by the dragoman, who, keeping up a universal war, is the sort of sun round which each little system of dispute revolves. To say that a camel growls, conveys no notion of the brute's terrible energy. No sooner is he induced by the coaxing of his master—in a sound most nearly approaching to a prolonged ugh-gh-gh, than anything else—to kneel down, than he opens his mouth wide, and pours forth such a continued roar of horror and rage, that I can compare it to nothing else than that of a steamer before sailing. Nothing will stop him. Look him in the face, put your stick into his mouth, laugh at him—it is all the same. It seems a point of conscience with him thus to protest against his burthen. Conceive, then, of some ten or eleven all bellowing at once, to an accompaniment of Billingsgate in rough and screaming Arabic, in which remarks on the beards of each other's grandfathers, anything but complimentary, are mutually made and retorted. It was with such a din as this each day began. Yet no sooner were we on the march, than the silence and stupidity of man and beast became as remarkable as their abominable noise had been before. For whenever the camel finds himself fairly strapped up for the day, and permitted to rise, he allows the roar to die away in a gurgle, and suddenly assumes that calm, placid countenance, which has gained for him, from the uninitiated, the name of patient. With nose aloft, and long, sweeping gait, he moves on in perfect silence the rest of the day, until the time comes for him to be unladen, when his most unmusical murmurs are again resumed. Nor is his master much better. For, except when there has been something left to fight about, the Arab trudges on in a silence that is seldom disturbed. Now and then, indeed, one of them may set up a monotonous howl, as an apology for music. But that is all until the night-fire comes, with its tchibouks, and the lying stories of the Bedawee.

With the fresh morning sea-breeze, and along the moist shoreland, we journeyed from our encampment under Ataka, towards the long desert-levels that surround Ajerud and Suez. And when the sea-breeze had died away into the calm, dead heat of noon, and we had paced for some hours over steamy flats flickering with the mirage, we reached Suez, with its great, bare, white khans and warehouses, rising so strangely from that great, bare, white desert, without a tree or blade of grass to relieve its dreariness. Fancy a number of Turkish houses to have broken loose from Cairo, and a number of Italian from Malta; and that, after performing a series of voyages to their own satisfaction, they should all have run ashore on the same barren sandbank, each disposed as best suited its own convenience, and you have some idea of Suez. It is where no town would ever be built in the natural course of things, and where any town looks wonderfully out of place. It is the creation of our Indian Overland Transport Service, and most thoroughly realises that idea. Everything seems to be labelled "transport"— houses, men, camels,—all there simply for an occasion, en route for somewhere else. The inhospitable shore produces nothing of itself—its very well is bitter. Everything there is "by transport." Your beef-steak has, in all probability, been fed on the green pastures of Goshen, and has had the benefit of being half-cooked in its hot "transport" across the desert; while your potatoes smile at you with an unmistakable Irish grin. We were assured that the very water we drank was "by transport" from Bombay. And yet on this barren point you may have almost any luxury, from champagne to ginger-beer. There never was such an "omni-gatherum" as Suez. It is a city of contrasts. Here you see a smart man-of-war's boat hooked on to a craft that might have been built in any period of naval architecture, from Noah's ark down to the Trojan war. In another place, a half-dressed, lean Arab bends under the weight of a chest of specie. Dark Turkish khans rise beside European hotels. Piles of mail-boxes, addressed to far off colonies, lie half-silted over with desert sands; and bright English signboards alternate with texts from the Koran. No one can rest in Suez. Should you sleep there for a night, it is with the consciousness that the town, as well as yourself, may have every intention of "being off" next morning—carried bodily away by the huge, oily-looking camels that crowd the "grand square." Yet Suez looks familiar to every Englishman, associated as it is with so many friends who have passed through it to the great empire of the East. So much so, indeed, that at the first one is almost disposed to claim with it a Scotch cousinship, and to feel that, because you know so many who know Suez, that therefore Suez ought to know you.

Suez stands on the point of a long, gravelly ridge. On one side it commands a view down the Red Sea, which, at full tide, rises close up to its walls; while an arm of the same sea, like a broad river, sweeps round it on the other, and stretches up northwards, as far as the eye can reach. Sending off our camels to cross this channel at a ford a mile or two higher up, we took a boat for the purpose of going by sea, and joining our baggage at the Wells of Moses, that are a few miles down the eastern coast. It was a glorious day. The sea was blue as the sky above us, and so purely transparent, that we were able to watch, far down in its depths, the changing varieties of formation at the bottom, according as we sailed over coral beds, or golden sands gemmed with shells, or waving forests of tangled weeds. Our boat was an Arab coble with a huge lateen sail, which sent her dancing in the fresh breeze over the crisp waves, that dashed up from her bows, in sparkling showers of diamond hail, between us and the sun, and then fell past us again, in drops of liquid sapphire. Even Suez seemed picturesque that day, as we floated away from its old, gray sea-towers. The view was not grand, nor rich, but wonderfully brilliant. There were only two colours, blue and gold—only the coasts of golden, desert hills, stretching far down on either hand, sunk in the blue setting of sea and sky. Yet their strange brilliancy was such as to make up in our eyes for the want of wood and stream, and the green, familiar uplands of our home scenery. An hour and a half brought us to the Asiatic shore under the Ayen Mousa, or Wells of Moses. These wells are about two miles up from the sea, and form quite a little oasis in the midst of the desert around them. They are seven in number, rising in a cluster of little mounds; and, though their water is bitter and unpalatable as far as man is concerned, yet they served to make our first "green spot in the wilderness." Beside the well were a few rods of sandy soil; and there was no more melancholy token of the waste in which we were, than to see how valuable these few rods of soil were to the exiles of Suez, as witnessed to, in their vain attempts to create something which might remind them of home and greenness. The few yards of cultivable ground were divided out into little garden-plots. And here you could see where some Italian official had tried to erect for himself "a villa;" there, where some sensible fellow—a. Scotchman in all likelihood—was rearing cabbage for his "kail;" and there, the rose, which formed the care and delight of some sentimental clerk in the Indian Overland Transport Service. Anything, in short, which could suggest the idea of cultivavation seemed precious. And, indeed, in our eyes, too, after our short residence in the desert, the shaggy palm-bushes, the feathery tamarisks and quivering acacias, the little spots of green barley, the Scotchman's cabbage bed, and, above all, the rose, bursting forth in full-bosomed buds, seemed unspeakably lovely. But this Ayen Mousa has for us a sacred interest. Its very name, like so many in the desert, recalls our thoughts to that history which has made its localities familiar in every household in Christendom. Although there is nothing to lead us to identify these Wells of Moses either with Marah or Elim, with its twelve fountains and seventy palm-trees, nevertheless, it can hardly be supposed, but that a spot so well watered must have been the scene of a halt. And if the conjectures in our preceding article, as to the scene of the passage of the Red Sea, be correct, then may we well believe that Ayen Mousa was the spot around which the Israelites encamped on the morning of their deliverance. Here first did they realise their position as freed-men, and as the redeemed people of God, whom He was about to lead to the great covenant-altar of Sinai. Here, in all likelihood, had been sung the triumphant songs of Moses and Miriam; and from this point had begun that wondrous march, in which "God went before His people."

The first fixed point in the route of the Israelites, as to which all authorities are agreed, is the encampment by the sea, (Num. xxxiii. 10.) The formation of the coast naturally leads us to fix it at the point where the Wady Tayibeh opens out on the sea, or on the plain of Murka; but most probably at the former. The reader will easily realise how this should be so, if a little attention is paid to the character of the ground that must have been passed over. For, as the Israelites journeyed southwards, their path was hemmed in by two natural barriers on their left and right: on the left by the range of hills called Er Raliah, running down in an unbroken wall parallel to their path; on their right by the sea. We have thus their course limited to the broad desert belt of about fifteen miles wide, which lies between that wall of the Er Rahah and the sea. But there is another important limitation also which would naturally prevent their encamping by the sea at any nearer point than Tayibeh. The high mountain, Hammam Faraoon, which rises on the shore, and permits of no adequate passage between it and the sea, would force them to keep in a course leading behind its massive cliffs, and thus, to a certain extent inland. But having done so, and rounded the Hammam Faraoon, the Tayibeh would then bring them directly down on the sea, and there, accordingly should that encampment be fixed. Between the scene of the passage of the Bed Sea and that encampment, we have, however, two celebrated localities mentioned in Scripture—Ma-rah, where the bitter well was sweetened, and Elim, with its "twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm-trees." "We accordingly look for these places somewhere between Ayen Mousa and Tayibeh; but the determination is, of course, open to great uncertainty.

Until we drew near the Hammam Faraoon, the scenery continued to be of exactly the same description. On the left were the long, level heights of Er Rahah, with the plain along which we journeyed, sweeping flatly down from its roots, and stretching in dreary monotony before us. On the right we had this plain rimmed with the blue sea, slipping in its thread of tender colour between it and the white, distant shores of Africa, the broad masses of Ataka, the open sweep of Tawarak, and, further south, the purple ranges of Deraj. For a long-day we rode on under a scorching sun, over this weary waste. Now and then a shallow hollow, sometimes a quarter of a mile, sometimes a few yards broad, and graced with the sounding title of "Wady," came down from the left. These wadys are but the dry channels of winter torrents which have left traces of water having once been in them, not only in their fretted hollows, but in the dry herbage that is tufted here and there on their surface, like sea-grass on a wide shoreland. The character of the ground is not sandy, but that of a hard, crusted gravel, across which ran the camel-tracks, as sheep-walks do on a Highland waste. The first point of interest which we reached was the well of Hawarah, a pool of bitter water on the top of a mound formed out of its own deposits. Whether it had been recently emptied or not, I cannot say; but when we were there, it contained only as much muddy and bad water as a camel could have easily gulped down at a draught. Hawarah is almost universally identified with Marah.

If so, it appeared to us to retain none of its old characteristics but that of bitterness. Its powers of supply must certainly be much changed.

After passing Hawarah, we soon began to move into the network of rolling hills and valleys that lie in the neighbourhood of the Hammam Faraoon. First, the almost green hollow of Gharundel was reached, with its hidden waters and its groves of feathery tamarisks, and then Useit, with its tufted palm-trees. Either of these places suit the position of Elim, though I confess to a preference for Useit. For, so grateful was the shade of its little palm-trees, that I love to think of them as descendants of the ''seventy" of Elim, and to suppose that Moses may have rejoiced under the greenness of their ancestors. The true desert palm is a noble little savage. He stands to the cultivated palm much in the relation that a rough Shetland pony does to a slim thoroughbred. Unlike the great whipping-post palms of Egypt, stripped bare up to their impudent parasol-looking crowns, the desert palm fans out from the very ground, and hangs back again in wild picturesque festoons, and shaggy knots of greenness. And now the weary levels were left behind, the scenery was changing at every step, and we felt ourselves being gradually introduced to the wondrous mountain desolations of the peninsula. Between us and the shore rose the black, weather-stained shoulders of the Hammam Faraoon, while our path towards Tayibeh lay over tangled hills and barren hollows. As we drew near Tayibeh, we caught our first glimpse of the great Serbal rising over the foreground of lower hills, and, leaving a valley on the left which goes directly to the Convent of Sinai, we entered, instead, on that great avenue which leads down on the right to the sea. Tayibeh, "the good valley," is also a most picturesque one. It is a deep gorge, winding in many folds, between bare and majestic walls of limestone, down to the shore, where it opens out into a fine plain. Its naked cliffs, sensitive to the slightest sound, echo back and ring, and repeat each note of the voice. A half-hidden stream flows down one part of it, nourishing numerous tamarisks, but soon drunk up and lost in the thirsty sands. Down this wady we may, in all truth, believe the Israelites to have journeyed to their "encampment by the sea." Down this mountain corridor had wound that long file, the soft white cloud in front, and behind it the orderly companies of the tribes. Down betwixt those bare walls of rock, resounding with the tread and confused noises of the multitude, had they journeyed, till where, on a sudden, the gorge opens on the shore, they beheld the broad sea flashing in the sun, and far, far away, the purple peaks of Africa, steeped in hazy glory. As I recall that sudden burst of blue waves, that wide sweep of landscape, that fresh shoreland, the words "encampment by the sea" seem to have a new and wondrous beauty. For if even to us the surge, breaking and sparkling over countless shells, the cool, moist sands, the light sea-breeze, the white curl and motion of the waves, were so unspeakably lovely, after the dry, silent, death-like waste we had come through, what must it have been to that weary multitude! How must the children have revelled along that bright shore, caught up its corals glittering with sea-drops, or with shouts of joy drawn forth its dank weeds, while the elder pilgrims, drinking in the fresh breeze, gazed eagerly across to the lessening coasts of Egypt, or sought a further view of the barren land before them. Long must that "encampment by the sea" have remained precious in their memories!

This day an absurd, but characteristic, incident occurred among our Arabs, which might have ended more seriously. It so happened that we had one great stupid elephant of a camel, that was always doing the crossest and most awkward things. On this day, however, the sulky brute was unusually sulky, and so was his sulky master; and as neither the one nor the other were keeping proper pace with the caravan, in an evil hour an intemperate Towara gave the "gemmel" a well-deserved cut over the haunches. In an instant, the owner drew his sword, and before any one could interfere, the two Arabs were hard fencing at each other, apparently with the most dangerous intentions. Whether, however, they were both more skilled at "guard" than "thrust," I know not; but when they were separated, no more serious wounds were discovered than a slight gash on the forehead of the one, and a deepish cut on the thumb of the other. I think the honour of being taken into the tent at night, and of wearing strips of plaster for a day or two after, formed an ample solace to both.

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