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Mark Twain > Innocents Abroad > Chapter L

Innocents Abroad

Chapter L


We descended from Mount Tabor, crossed a deep ravine, followed a hilly,
rocky road to Nazareth--distant two hours. All distances in the East are
measured by hours, not miles. A good horse will walk three miles an hour
over nearly any kind of a road; therefore, an hour, here, always stands
for three miles. This method of computation is bothersome and annoying;
and until one gets thoroughly accustomed to it, it carries no
intelligence to his mind until he has stopped and translated the pagan
hours into Christian miles, just as people do with the spoken words of a
foreign language they are acquainted with, but not familiarly enough to
catch the meaning in a moment. Distances traveled by human feet are also
estimated by hours and minutes, though I do not know what the base of the
calculation is. In Constantinople you ask, "How far is it to the
Consulate?" and they answer, "About ten minutes." "How far is it to the
Lloyds' Agency?" "Quarter of an hour." "How far is it to the lower
bridge?" "Four minutes." I can not be positive about it, but I think
that there, when a man orders a pair of pantaloons, he says he wants them
a quarter of a minute in the legs and nine seconds around the waist.

Two hours from Tabor to Nazareth--and as it was an uncommonly narrow,
crooked trail, we necessarily met all the camel trains and jackass
caravans between Jericho and Jacksonville in that particular place and
nowhere else. The donkeys do not matter so much, because they are so
small that you can jump your horse over them if he is an animal of
spirit, but a camel is not jumpable. A camel is as tall as any ordinary
dwelling-house in Syria--which is to say a camel is from one to two, and
sometimes nearly three feet taller than a good-sized man. In this part
of the country his load is oftenest in the shape of colossal sacks--one
on each side. He and his cargo take up as much room as a carriage.
Think of meeting this style of obstruction in a narrow trail. The camel
would not turn out for a king. He stalks serenely along, bringing his
cushioned stilts forward with the long, regular swing of a pendulum, and
whatever is in the way must get out of the way peaceably, or be wiped out
forcibly by the bulky sacks. It was a tiresome ride to us, and perfectly
exhausting to the horses. We were compelled to jump over upwards of
eighteen hundred donkeys, and only one person in the party was unseated
less than sixty times by the camels. This seems like a powerful
statement, but the poet has said, "Things are not what they seem." I can
not think of any thing, now, more certain to make one shudder, than to
have a soft-footed camel sneak up behind him and touch him on the ear
with its cold, flabby under-lip. A camel did this for one of the boys,
who was drooping over his saddle in a brown study. He glanced up and saw
the majestic apparition hovering above him, and made frantic efforts to
get out of the way, but the camel reached out and bit him on the shoulder
before he accomplished it. This was the only pleasant incident of the
journey.

At Nazareth we camped in an olive grove near the Virgin Mary's fountain,
and that wonderful Arab "guard" came to collect some bucksheesh for his
"services" in following us from Tiberias and warding off invisible
dangers with the terrors of his armament. The dragoman had paid his
master, but that counted as nothing--if you hire a man to sneeze for you,
here, and another man chooses to help him, you have got to pay both.
They do nothing whatever without pay. How it must have surprised these
people to hear the way of salvation offered to them "without money and
without price." If the manners, the people or the customs of this
country have changed since the Saviour's time, the figures and metaphors
of the Bible are not the evidences to prove it by.

We entered the great Latin Convent which is built over the traditional
dwelling-place of the Holy Family. We went down a flight of fifteen
steps below the ground level, and stood in a small chapel tricked out
with tapestry hangings, silver lamps, and oil paintings. A spot marked
by a cross, in the marble floor, under the altar, was exhibited as the
place made forever holy by the feet of the Virgin when she stood up to
receive the message of the angel. So simple, so unpretending a locality,
to be the scene of so mighty an event! The very scene of the
Annunciation--an event which has been commemorated by splendid shrines
and august temples all over the civilized world, and one which the
princes of art have made it their loftiest ambition to picture worthily
on their canvas; a spot whose history is familiar to the very children of
every house, and city, and obscure hamlet of the furthest lands of
Christendom; a spot which myriads of men would toil across the breadth of
a world to see, would consider it a priceless privilege to look upon.
It was easy to think these thoughts. But it was not easy to bring myself
up to the magnitude of the situation. I could sit off several thousand
miles and imagine the angel appearing, with shadowy wings and lustrous
countenance, and note the glory that streamed downward upon the Virgin's
head while the message from the Throne of God fell upon her ears--any one
can do that, beyond the ocean, but few can do it here. I saw the little
recess from which the angel stepped, but could not fill its void. The
angels that I know are creatures of unstable fancy--they will not fit in
niches of substantial stone. Imagination labors best in distant fields.
I doubt if any man can stand in the Grotto of the Annunciation and people
with the phantom images of his mind its too tangible walls of stone.

They showed us a broken granite pillar, depending from the roof, which
they said was hacked in two by the Moslem conquerors of Nazareth, in the
vain hope of pulling down the sanctuary. But the pillar remained
miraculously suspended in the air, and, unsupported itself, supported
then and still supports the roof. By dividing this statement up among
eight, it was found not difficult to believe it.

These gifted Latin monks never do any thing by halves. If they were to
show you the Brazen Serpent that was elevated in the wilderness, you
could depend upon it that they had on hand the pole it was elevated on
also, and even the hole it stood in. They have got the "Grotto" of the
Annunciation here; and just as convenient to it as one's throat is to his
mouth, they have also the Virgin's Kitchen, and even her sitting-room,
where she and Joseph watched the infant Saviour play with Hebrew toys
eighteen hundred years ago. All under one roof, and all clean, spacious,
comfortable "grottoes." It seems curious that personages intimately
connected with the Holy Family always lived in grottoes--in Nazareth, in
Bethlehem, in imperial Ephesus--and yet nobody else in their day and
generation thought of doing any thing of the kind. If they ever did,
their grottoes are all gone, and I suppose we ought to wonder at the
peculiar marvel of the preservation of these I speak of. When the Virgin
fled from Herod's wrath, she hid in a grotto in Bethlehem, and the same
is there to this day. The slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem was
done in a grotto; the Saviour was born in a grotto--both are shown to
pilgrims yet. It is exceedingly strange that these tremendous events all
happened in grottoes--and exceedingly fortunate, likewise, because the
strongest houses must crumble to ruin in time, but a grotto in the living
rock will last forever. It is an imposture--this grotto stuff--but it is
one that all men ought to thank the Catholics for. Wherever they ferret
out a lost locality made holy by some Scriptural event, they straightway
build a massive--almost imperishable--church there, and preserve the
memory of that locality for the gratification of future generations. If
it had been left to Protestants to do this most worthy work, we would not
even know where Jerusalem is to-day, and the man who could go and put his
finger on Nazareth would be too wise for this world. The world owes the
Catholics its good will even for the happy rascality of hewing out these
bogus grottoes in the rock; for it is infinitely more satisfactory to
look at a grotto, where people have faithfully believed for centuries
that the Virgin once lived, than to have to imagine a dwelling-place for
her somewhere, any where, nowhere, loose and at large all over this town
of Nazareth. There is too large a scope of country. The imagination can
not work. There is no one particular spot to chain your eye, rivet your
interest, and make you think. The memory of the Pilgrims can not perish
while Plymouth Rock remains to us. The old monks are wise. They know
how to drive a stake through a pleasant tradition that will hold it to
its place forever.

We visited the places where Jesus worked for fifteen years as a
carpenter, and where he attempted to teach in the synagogue and was
driven out by a mob. Catholic chapels stand upon these sites and protect
the little fragments of the ancient walls which remain. Our pilgrims
broke off specimens. We visited, also, a new chapel, in the midst of the
town, which is built around a boulder some twelve feet long by four feet
thick; the priests discovered, a few years ago, that the disciples had
sat upon this rock to rest, once, when they had walked up from Capernaum.
They hastened to preserve the relic. Relics are very good property.
Travelers are expected to pay for seeing them, and they do it cheerfully.
We like the idea. One's conscience can never be the worse for the
knowledge that he has paid his way like a man. Our pilgrims would have
liked very well to get out their lampblack and stencil-plates and paint
their names on that rock, together with the names of the villages they
hail from in America, but the priests permit nothing of that kind.
To speak the strict truth, however, our party seldom offend in that way,
though we have men in the ship who never lose an opportunity to do it.
Our pilgrims' chief sin is their lust for "specimens." I suppose that by
this time they know the dimensions of that rock to an inch, and its
weight to a ton; and I do not hesitate to charge that they will go back
there to-night and try to carry it off.

This "Fountain of the Virgin" is the one which tradition says Mary used
to get water from, twenty times a day, when she was a girl, and bear it
away in a jar upon her head. The water streams through faucets in the
face of a wall of ancient masonry which stands removed from the houses of
the village. The young girls of Nazareth still collect about it by the
dozen and keep up a riotous laughter and sky-larking. The Nazarene girls
are homely. Some of them have large, lustrous eyes, but none of them
have pretty faces. These girls wear a single garment, usually, and it is
loose, shapeless, of undecided color; it is generally out of repair, too.
They wear, from crown to jaw, curious strings of old coins, after the
manner of the belles of Tiberias, and brass jewelry upon their wrists and
in their ears. They wear no shoes and stockings. They are the most
human girls we have found in the country yet, and the best natured.
But there is no question that these picturesque maidens sadly lack
comeliness.

A pilgrim--the "Enthusiast"--said: "See that tall, graceful girl! look at
the Madonna-like beauty of her countenance!"

Another pilgrim came along presently and said: "Observe that tall,
graceful girl; what queenly Madonna-like gracefulness of beauty is in her
countenance."

I said: "She is not tall, she is short; she is not beautiful, she is
homely; she is graceful enough, I grant, but she is rather boisterous."

The third and last pilgrim moved by, before long, and he said: "Ah, what
a tall, graceful girl! what Madonna-like gracefulness of queenly beauty!"

The verdicts were all in. It was time, now, to look up the authorities
for all these opinions. I found this paragraph, which follows. Written
by whom? Wm. C. Grimes:

     "After we were in the saddle, we rode down to the spring to have a
     last look at the women of Nazareth, who were, as a class, much the
     prettiest that we had seen in the East. As we approached the crowd
     a tall girl of nineteen advanced toward Miriam and offered her a cup
     of water. Her movement was graceful and queenly. We exclaimed on
     the spot at the Madonna-like beauty of her countenance. Whitely was
     suddenly thirsty, and begged for water, and drank it slowly, with
     his eyes over the top of the cup, fixed on her large black eyes,
     which gazed on him quite as curiously as he on her. Then Moreright
     wanted water. She gave it to him and he managed to spill it so as
     to ask for another cup, and by the time she came to me she saw
     through the operation; her eyes were full of fun as she looked at
     me. I laughed outright, and she joined me in as gay a shout as ever
     country maiden in old Orange county. I wished for a picture of her.
     A Madonna, whose face was a portrait of that beautiful Nazareth
     girl, would be a 'thing of beauty' and 'a joy forever.'"

That is the kind of gruel which has been served out from Palestine for
ages. Commend me to Fennimore Cooper to find beauty in the Indians, and
to Grimes to find it in the Arabs. Arab men are often fine looking, but
Arab women are not. We can all believe that the Virgin Mary was
beautiful; it is not natural to think otherwise; but does it follow that
it is our duty to find beauty in these present women of Nazareth?

I love to quote from Grimes, because he is so dramatic. And because he
is so romantic. And because he seems to care but little whether he tells
the truth or not, so he scares the reader or excites his envy or his
admiration.

He went through this peaceful land with one hand forever on his revolver,
and the other on his pocket-handkerchief. Always, when he was not on the
point of crying over a holy place, he was on the point of killing an
Arab. More surprising things happened to him in Palestine than ever
happened to any traveler here or elsewhere since Munchausen died.

At Beit Jin, where nobody had interfered with him, he crept out of his
tent at dead of night and shot at what he took to be an Arab lying on a
rock, some distance away, planning evil. The ball killed a wolf. Just
before he fired, he makes a dramatic picture of himself--as usual, to
scare the reader:

     "Was it imagination, or did I see a moving object on the surface of
     the rock? If it were a man, why did he not now drop me? He had a
     beautiful shot as I stood out in my black boornoose against the
     white tent. I had the sensation of an entering bullet in my throat,
     breast, brain."

Reckless creature!

Riding toward Genessaret, they saw two Bedouins, and "we looked to our
pistols and loosened them quietly in our shawls," etc. Always cool.

In Samaria, he charged up a hill, in the face of a volley of stones; he
fired into the crowd of men who threw them. He says:

     "I never lost an opportunity of impressing the Arabs with the
     perfection of American and English weapons, and the danger of
     attacking any one of the armed Franks. I think the lesson of that
     ball not lost."

At Beit Jin he gave his whole band of Arab muleteers a piece of his mind,
and then--

     "I contented myself with a solemn assurance that if there occurred
     another instance of disobedience to orders I would thrash the
     responsible party as he never dreamed of being thrashed, and if I
     could not find who was responsible, I would whip them all, from
     first to last, whether there was a governor at hand to do it or I
     had to do it myself"

Perfectly fearless, this man.

He rode down the perpendicular path in the rocks, from the Castle of
Banias to the oak grove, at a flying gallop, his horse striding "thirty
feet" at every bound. I stand prepared to bring thirty reliable
witnesses to prove that Putnam's famous feat at Horseneck was
insignificant compared to this.

Behold him--always theatrical--looking at Jerusalem--this time, by an
oversight, with his hand off his pistol for once.

     "I stood in the road, my hand on my horse's neck, and with my dim
     eyes sought to trace the outlines of the holy places which I had
     long before fixed in my mind, but the fast-flowing tears forbade my
     succeeding. There were our Mohammedan servants, a Latin monk, two
     Armenians and a Jew in our cortege, and all alike gazed with
     overflowing eyes."

If Latin monks and Arabs cried, I know to a moral certainty that the
horses cried also, and so the picture is complete.

But when necessity demanded, he could be firm as adamant. In the Lebanon
Valley an Arab youth--a Christian; he is particular to explain that
Mohammedans do not steal--robbed him of a paltry ten dollars' worth of
powder and shot. He convicted him before a sheik and looked on while he
was punished by the terrible bastinado. Hear him:

     "He (Mousa) was on his back in a twinkling, howling, shouting,
     screaming, but he was carried out to the piazza before the door,
     where we could see the operation, and laid face down. One man sat
     on his back and one on his legs, the latter holding up his feet,
     while a third laid on the bare soles a rhinoceros-hide koorbash
     --["A Koorbash is Arabic for cowhide, the cow being a rhinoceros.
     It is the most cruel whip known to fame. Heavy as lead, and
     flexible as India-rubber, usually about forty inches long and
     tapering gradually from an inch in diameter to a point, it
     administers a blow which leaves its mark for time."--Scow Life in
     Egypt, by the same author.]--that whizzed through the air at every
     stroke. Poor Moreright was in agony, and Nama and Nama the Second
     (mother and sister of Mousa,) were on their faces begging and
     wailing, now embracing my knees and now Whitely's, while the
     brother, outside, made the air ring with cries louder than Mousa's.
     Even Yusef came and asked me on his knees to relent, and last of
     all, Betuni--the rascal had lost a feed-bag in their house and had
     been loudest in his denunciations that morning--besought the Howajji
     to have mercy on the fellow."

But not he! The punishment was "suspended," at the fifteenth blow to
hear the confession. Then Grimes and his party rode away, and left the
entire Christian family to be fined and as severely punished as the
Mohammedan sheik should deem proper.

     "As I mounted, Yusef once more begged me to interfere and have mercy
     on them, but I looked around at the dark faces of the crowd, and I
     couldn't find one drop of pity in my heart for them."

He closes his picture with a rollicking burst of humor which contrasts
finely with the grief of the mother and her children.

One more paragraph:

     "Then once more I bowed my head. It is no shame to have wept in
     Palestine. I wept, when I saw Jerusalem, I wept when I lay in the
     starlight at Bethlehem. I wept on the blessed shores of Galilee.
     My hand was no less firm on the rein, my anger did not tremble on
     the trigger of my pistol when I rode with it in my right hand along
     the shore of the blue sea" (weeping.) "My eye was not dimmed by
     those tears nor my heart in aught weakened. Let him who would sneer
     at my emotion close this volume here, for he will find little to his
     taste in my journeyings through Holy Land."

He never bored but he struck water.

I am aware that this is a pretty voluminous notice of Mr. Grimes' book.
However, it is proper and legitimate to speak of it, for "Nomadic Life in
Palestine" is a representative book--the representative of a class of
Palestine books--and a criticism upon it will serve for a criticism upon
them all. And since I am treating it in the comprehensive capacity of a
representative book, I have taken the liberty of giving to both book and
author fictitious names. Perhaps it is in better taste, any how, to do
this.

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