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Mark Twain > Innocents Abroad > Chapter XLIX

Innocents Abroad

Chapter XLIX


We took another swim in the Sea of Galilee at twilight yesterday, and
another at sunrise this morning. We have not sailed, but three swims are
equal to a sail, are they not? There were plenty of fish visible in the
water, but we have no outside aids in this pilgrimage but "Tent Life in
the Holy Land," "The Land and the Book," and other literature of like
description--no fishing-tackle. There were no fish to be had in the
village of Tiberias. True, we saw two or three vagabonds mending their
nets, but never trying to catch any thing with them.

We did not go to the ancient warm baths two miles below Tiberias. I had
no desire in the world to go there. This seemed a little strange, and
prompted me to try to discover what the cause of this unreasonable
indifference was. It turned out to be simply because Pliny mentions
them. I have conceived a sort of unwarrantable unfriendliness toward
Pliny and St. Paul, because it seems as if I can never ferret out a place
that I can have to myself. It always and eternally transpires that St.
Paul has been to that place, and Pliny has "mentioned" it.

In the early morning we mounted and started. And then a weird apparition
marched forth at the head of the procession--a pirate, I thought, if ever
a pirate dwelt upon land. It was a tall Arab, as swarthy as an Indian;
young-say thirty years of age. On his head he had closely bound a
gorgeous yellow and red striped silk scarf, whose ends, lavishly fringed
with tassels, hung down between his shoulders and dallied with the wind.
From his neck to his knees, in ample folds, a robe swept down that was a
very star-spangled banner of curved and sinuous bars of black and white.
Out of his back, somewhere, apparently, the long stem of a chibouk
projected, and reached far above his right shoulder. Athwart his back,
diagonally, and extending high above his left shoulder, was an Arab gum
of Saladin's time, that was splendid with silver plating from stock clear
up to the end of its measureless stretch of barrel. About his waist was
bound many and many a yard of elaborately figured but sadly tarnished
stuff that came from sumptuous Persia, and among the baggy folds in front
the sunbeams glinted from a formidable battery of old brass-mounted
horse-pistols and the gilded hilts of blood-thirsty knives. There were
holsters for more pistols appended to the wonderful stack of long-haired
goat-skins and Persian carpets, which the man had been taught to regard
in the light of a saddle; and down among the pendulous rank of vast
tassels that swung from that saddle, and clanging against the iron shovel
of a stirrup that propped the warrior's knees up toward his chin, was a
crooked, silver-clad scimitar of such awful dimensions and such
implacable expression that no man might hope to look upon it and not
shudder. The fringed and bedizened prince whose privilege it is to ride
the pony and lead the elephant into a country village is poor and naked
compared to this chaos of paraphernalia, and the happy vanity of the one
is the very poverty of satisfaction compared to the majestic serenity,
the overwhelming complacency of the other.

"Who is this? What is this?" That was the trembling inquiry all down
the line.

"Our guard! From Galilee to the birthplace of the Savior, the country is
infested with fierce Bedouins, whose sole happiness it is, in this life,
to cut and stab and mangle and murder unoffending Christians. Allah be
with us!"

"Then hire a regiment! Would you send us out among these desperate
hordes, with no salvation in our utmost need but this old turret?"

The dragoman laughed--not at the facetiousness of the simile, for verily,
that guide or that courier or that dragoman never yet lived upon earth
who had in him the faintest appreciation of a joke, even though that joke
were so broad and so ponderous that if it fell on him it would flatten
him out like a postage stamp--the dragoman laughed, and then, emboldened
by some thought that was in his brain, no doubt, proceeded to extremities
and winked.

In straits like these, when a man laughs, it is encouraging when he
winks, it is positively reassuring. He finally intimated that one guard
would be sufficient to protect us, but that that one was an absolute
necessity. It was because of the moral weight his awful panoply would
have with the Bedouins. Then I said we didn't want any guard at all.
If one fantastic vagabond could protect eight armed Christians and a pack
of Arab servants from all harm, surely that detachment could protect
themselves. He shook his head doubtfully. Then I said, just think of
how it looks--think of how it would read, to self-reliant Americans, that
we went sneaking through this deserted wilderness under the protection of
this masquerading Arab, who would break his neck getting out of the
country if a man that was a man ever started after him. It was a mean,
low, degrading position. Why were we ever told to bring navy revolvers
with us if we had to be protected at last by this infamous star-spangled
scum of the desert? These appeals were vain--the dragoman only smiled
and shook his head.

I rode to the front and struck up an acquaintance with King Solomon-in-
all-his-glory, and got him to show me his lingering eternity of a gun.
It had a rusty flint lock; it was ringed and barred and plated with
silver from end to end, but it was as desperately out of the
perpendicular as are the billiard cues of '49 that one finds yet in
service in the ancient mining camps of California. The muzzle was eaten
by the rust of centuries into a ragged filigree-work, like the end of a
burnt-out stove-pipe. I shut one eye and peered within--it was flaked
with iron rust like an old steamboat boiler. I borrowed the ponderous
pistols and snapped them. They were rusty inside, too--had not been
loaded for a generation. I went back, full of encouragement, and
reported to the guide, and asked him to discharge this dismantled
fortress. It came out, then. This fellow was a retainer of the Sheik of
Tiberias. He was a source of Government revenue. He was to the Empire
of Tiberias what the customs are to America. The Sheik imposed guards
upon travelers and charged them for it. It is a lucrative source of
emolument, and sometimes brings into the national treasury as much as
thirty-five or forty dollars a year.

I knew the warrior's secret now; I knew the hollow vanity of his rusty
trumpery, and despised his asinine complacency. I told on him, and with
reckless daring the cavalcade straight ahead into the perilous solitudes
of the desert, and scorned his frantic warnings of the mutilation and
death that hovered about them on every side.

Arrived at an elevation of twelve hundred feet above the lake, (I ought
to mention that the lake lies six hundred feet below the level of the
Mediterranean--no traveler ever neglects to flourish that fragment of
news in his letters,) as bald and unthrilling a panorama as any land can
afford, perhaps, was spread out before us. Yet it was so crowded with
historical interest, that if all the pages that have been written about
it were spread upon its surface, they would flag it from horizon to
horizon like a pavement. Among the localities comprised in this view,
were Mount Hermon; the hills that border Cesarea Philippi, Dan, the
Sources of the Jordan and the Waters of Merom; Tiberias; the Sea of
Galilee; Joseph's Pit; Capernaum; Bethsaida; the supposed scenes of the
Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the multitudes and the miraculous
draught of fishes; the declivity down which the swine ran to the sea; the
entrance and the exit of the Jordan; Safed, "the city set upon a hill,"
one of the four holy cities of the Jews, and the place where they believe
the real Messiah will appear when he comes to redeem the world; part of
the battle-field of Hattin, where the knightly Crusaders fought their
last fight, and in a blaze of glory passed from the stage and ended their
splendid career forever; Mount Tabor, the traditional scene of the Lord's
Transfiguration. And down toward the southeast lay a landscape that
suggested to my mind a quotation (imperfectly remembered, no doubt:)

     "The Ephraimites, not being called upon to share in the rich spoils
     of the Ammonitish war, assembled a mighty host to fight against
     Jeptha, Judge of Israel; who, being apprised of their approach,
     gathered together the men of Israel and gave them battle and put
     them to flight. To make his victory the more secure, he stationed
     guards at the different fords and passages of the Jordan, with
     instructions to let none pass who could not say Shibboleth. The
     Ephraimites, being of a different tribe, could not frame to
     pronounce the word right, but called it Sibboleth, which proved them
     enemies and cost them their lives; wherefore, forty and two thousand
     fell at the different fords and passages of the Jordan that day."

We jogged along peacefully over the great caravan route from Damascus to
Jerusalem and Egypt, past Lubia and other Syrian hamlets, perched, in the
unvarying style, upon the summit of steep mounds and hills, and fenced
round about with giant cactuses, (the sign of worthless land,) with
prickly pears upon them like hams, and came at last to the battle-field
of Hattin.

It is a grand, irregular plateau, and looks as if it might have been
created for a battle-field. Here the peerless Saladin met the Christian
host some seven hundred years ago, and broke their power in Palestine for
all time to come. There had long been a truce between the opposing
forces, but according to the Guide-Book, Raynauld of Chatillon, Lord of
Kerak, broke it by plundering a Damascus caravan, and refusing to give up
either the merchants or their goods when Saladin demanded them. This
conduct of an insolent petty chieftain stung the Sultan to the quick, and
he swore that he would slaughter Raynauld with his own hand, no matter
how, or when, or where he found him. Both armies prepared for war.
Under the weak King of Jerusalem was the very flower of the Christian
chivalry. He foolishly compelled them to undergo a long, exhausting
march, in the scorching sun, and then, without water or other
refreshment, ordered them to encamp in this open plain. The splendidly
mounted masses of Moslem soldiers swept round the north end of
Genessaret, burning and destroying as they came, and pitched their camp
in front of the opposing lines. At dawn the terrific fight began.
Surrounded on all sides by the Sultan's swarming battalions, the
Christian Knights fought on without a hope for their lives. They fought
with desperate valor, but to no purpose; the odds of heat and numbers,
and consuming thirst, were too great against them. Towards the middle of
the day the bravest of their band cut their way through the Moslem ranks
and gained the summit of a little hill, and there, hour after hour, they
closed around the banner of the Cross, and beat back the charging
squadrons of the enemy.

But the doom of the Christian power was sealed. Sunset found Saladin
Lord of Palestine, the Christian chivalry strewn in heaps upon the field,
and the King of Jerusalem, the Grand Master of the Templars, and Raynauld
of Chatillon, captives in the Sultan's tent. Saladin treated two of the
prisoners with princely courtesy, and ordered refreshments to be set
before them. When the King handed an iced Sherbet to Chatillon, the
Sultan said," It is thou that givest it to him, not I." He remembered
his oath, and slaughtered the hapless Knight of Chatillon with his own
hand.

It was hard to realize that this silent plain had once resounded with
martial music and trembled to the tramp of armed men. It was hard to
people this solitude with rushing columns of cavalry, and stir its torpid
pulses with the shouts of victors, the shrieks of the wounded, and the
flash of banner and steel above the surging billows of war. A desolation
is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and
action.

We reached Tabor safely, and considerably in advance of that old iron-
clad swindle of a guard. We never saw a human being on the whole route,
much less lawless hordes of Bedouins. Tabor stands solitary and alone,
a giant sentinel above the Plain of Esdraelon. It rises some fourteen
hundred feet above the surrounding level, a green, wooden cone,
symmetrical and full of grace--a prominent landmark, and one that is
exceedingly pleasant to eyes surfeited with the repulsive monotony of
desert Syria. We climbed the steep path to its summit, through breezy
glades of thorn and oak. The view presented from its highest peak was
almost beautiful. Below, was the broad, level plain of Esdraelon,
checkered with fields like a chess-board, and full as smooth and level,
seemingly; dotted about its borders with white, compact villages, and
faintly penciled, far and near, with the curving lines of roads and
trails. When it is robed in the fresh verdure of spring, it must form a
charming picture, even by itself. Skirting its southern border rises
"Little Hermon," over whose summit a glimpse of Gilboa is caught. Nain,
famous for the raising of the widow's son, and Endor, as famous for the
performances of her witch are in view. To the eastward lies the Valley
of the Jordan and beyond it the mountains of Gilead. Westward is Mount
Carmel. Hermon in the north--the table-lands of Bashan--Safed, the holy
city, gleaming white upon a tall spur of the mountains of Lebanon--a
steel-blue corner of the Sea of Galilee--saddle-peaked Hattin,
traditional "Mount of Beatitudes" and mute witness brave fights of the
Crusading host for Holy Cross--these fill up the picture.

To glance at the salient features of this landscape through the
picturesque framework of a ragged and ruined stone window--arch of the
time of Christ, thus hiding from sight all that is unattractive, is to
secure to yourself a pleasure worth climbing the mountain to enjoy. One
must stand on his head to get the best effect in a fine sunset, and set a
landscape in a bold, strong framework that is very close at hand, to
bring out all its beauty. One learns this latter truth never more to
forget it, in that mimic land of enchantment, the wonderful garden of my
lord the Count Pallavicini, near Genoa. You go wandering for hours among
hills and wooded glens, artfully contrived to leave the impression that
Nature shaped them and not man; following winding paths and coming
suddenly upon leaping cascades and rustic bridges; finding sylvan lakes
where you expected them not; loitering through battered mediaeval castles
in miniature that seem hoary with age and yet were built a dozen years
ago; meditating over ancient crumbling tombs, whose marble columns were
marred and broken purposely by the modern artist that made them;
stumbling unawares upon toy palaces, wrought of rare and costly
materials, and again upon a peasant's hut, whose dilapidated furniture
would never suggest that it was made so to order; sweeping round and
round in the midst of a forest on an enchanted wooden horse that is moved
by some invisible agency; traversing Roman roads and passing under
majestic triumphal arches; resting in quaint bowers where unseen spirits
discharge jets of water on you from every possible direction, and where
even the flowers you touch assail you with a shower; boating on a
subterranean lake among caverns and arches royally draped with clustering
stalactites, and passing out into open day upon another lake, which is
bordered with sloping banks of grass and gay with patrician barges that
swim at anchor in the shadow of a miniature marble temple that rises out
of the clear water and glasses its white statues, its rich capitals and
fluted columns in the tranquil depths. So, from marvel to marvel you
have drifted on, thinking all the time that the one last seen must be the
chiefest. And, verily, the chiefest wonder is reserved until the last,
but you do not see it until you step ashore, and passing through a
wilderness of rare flowers, collected from every corner of the earth, you
stand at the door of one more mimic temple. Right in this place the
artist taxed his genius to the utmost, and fairly opened the gates of
fairy land. You look through an unpretending pane of glass, stained
yellow--the first thing you see is a mass of quivering foliage, ten short
steps before you, in the midst of which is a ragged opening like a
gateway-a thing that is common enough in nature, and not apt to excite
suspicions of a deep human design--and above the bottom of the gateway,
project, in the most careless way! a few broad tropic leaves and
brilliant flowers. All of a sudden, through this bright, bold gateway,
you catch a glimpse of the faintest, softest, richest picture that ever
graced the dream of a dying Saint, since John saw the New Jerusalem
glimmering above the clouds of Heaven. A broad sweep of sea, flecked
with careening sails; a sharp, jutting cape, and a lofty lighthouse on
it; a sloping lawn behind it; beyond, a portion of the old "city of
palaces," with its parks and hills and stately mansions; beyond these, a
prodigious mountain, with its strong outlines sharply cut against ocean
and sky; and over all, vagrant shreds and flakes of cloud, floating in a
sea of gold. The ocean is gold, the city is gold, the meadow, the
mountain, the sky--every thing is golden-rich, and mellow, and dreamy as
a vision of Paradise. No artist could put upon canvas, its entrancing
beauty, and yet, without the yellow glass, and the carefully contrived
accident of a framework that cast it into enchanted distance and shut out
from it all unattractive features, it was not a picture to fall into
ecstasies over. Such is life, and the trail of the serpent is over us
all.

There is nothing for it now but to come back to old Tabor, though the
subject is tiresome enough, and I can not stick to it for wandering off
to scenes that are pleasanter to remember. I think I will skip, any how.
There is nothing about Tabor (except we concede that it was the scene of
the Transfiguration,) but some gray old ruins, stacked up there in all
ages of the world from the days of stout Gideon and parties that
flourished thirty centuries ago to the fresh yesterday of Crusading
times. It has its Greek Convent, and the coffee there is good, but never
a splinter of the true cross or bone of a hallowed saint to arrest the
idle thoughts of worldlings and turn them into graver channels.
A Catholic church is nothing to me that has no relics.

The plain of Esdraelon--"the battle-field of the nations"--only sets one
to dreaming of Joshua, and Benhadad, and Saul, and Gideon; Tamerlane,
Tancred, Coeur de Lion, and Saladin; the warrior Kings of Persia, Egypt's
heroes, and Napoleon--for they all fought here. If the magic of the
moonlight could summon from the graves of forgotten centuries and many
lands the countless myriads that have battled on this wide, far-reaching
floor, and array them in the thousand strange Costumes of their hundred
nationalities, and send the vast host sweeping down the plain, splendid
with plumes and banners and glittering lances, I could stay here an age
to see the phantom pageant. But the magic of the moonlight is a vanity
and a fraud; and whoso putteth his trust in it shall suffer sorrow and
disappointment.

Down at the foot of Tabor, and just at the edge of the storied Plain of
Esdraelon, is the insignificant village of Deburieh, where Deborah,
prophetess of Israel, lived. It is just like Magdala.


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