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Mark Twain > Innocents Abroad > Chapter LII

Innocents Abroad

Chapter LII

The narrow canon in which Nablous, or Shechem, is situated, is under high
cultivation, and the soil is exceedingly black and fertile. It is well
watered, and its affluent vegetation gains effect by contrast with the
barren hills that tower on either side. One of these hills is the
ancient Mount of Blessings and the other the Mount of Curses and wise men
who seek for fulfillments of prophecy think they find here a wonder of
this kind--to wit, that the Mount of Blessings is strangely fertile and
its mate as strangely unproductive. We could not see that there was
really much difference between them in this respect, however.

Shechem is distinguished as one of the residences of the patriarch Jacob,
and as the seat of those tribes that cut themselves loose from their
brethren of Israel and propagated doctrines not in conformity with those
of the original Jewish creed. For thousands of years this clan have
dwelt in Shechem under strict tabu, and having little commerce or
fellowship with their fellow men of any religion or nationality. For
generations they have not numbered more than one or two hundred, but they
still adhere to their ancient faith and maintain their ancient rites and
ceremonies. Talk of family and old descent! Princes and nobles pride
themselves upon lineages they can trace back some hundreds of years.
What is this trifle to this handful of old first families of Shechem who
can name their fathers straight back without a flaw for thousands--
straight back to a period so remote that men reared in a country where
the days of two hundred years ago are called "ancient" times grow dazed
and bewildered when they try to comprehend it! Here is respectability
for you--here is "family"--here is high descent worth talking about.
This sad, proud remnant of a once mighty community still hold themselves
aloof from all the world; they still live as their fathers lived, labor
as their fathers labored, think as they did, feel as they did, worship in
the same place, in sight of the same landmarks, and in the same quaint,
patriarchal way their ancestors did more than thirty centuries ago. I
found myself gazing at any straggling scion of this strange race with a
riveted fascination, just as one would stare at a living mastodon, or a
megatherium that had moved in the grey dawn of creation and seen the
wonders of that mysterious world that was before the flood.

Carefully preserved among the sacred archives of this curious community
is a MSS. copy of the ancient Jewish law, which is said to be the oldest
document on earth. It is written on vellum, and is some four or five
thousand years old. Nothing but bucksheesh can purchase a sight. Its
fame is somewhat dimmed in these latter days, because of the doubts so
many authors of Palestine travels have felt themselves privileged to cast
upon it. Speaking of this MSS. reminds me that I procured from the high-
priest of this ancient Samaritan community, at great expense, a secret
document of still higher antiquity and far more extraordinary interest,
which I propose to publish as soon as I have finished translating it.

Joshua gave his dying injunction to the children of Israel at Shechem,
and buried a valuable treasure secretly under an oak tree there about the
same time. The superstitious Samaritans have always been afraid to hunt
for it. They believe it is guarded by fierce spirits invisible to men.

About a mile and a half from Shechem we halted at the base of Mount Ebal
before a little square area, inclosed by a high stone wall, neatly
whitewashed. Across one end of this inclosure is a tomb built after the
manner of the Moslems. It is the tomb of Joseph. No truth is better
authenticated than this.

When Joseph was dying he prophesied that exodus of the Israelites from
Egypt which occurred four hundred years afterwards. At the same time he
exacted of his people an oath that when they journeyed to the land of
Canaan they would bear his bones with them and bury them in the ancient
inheritance of his fathers. The oath was kept. "And the bones of Joseph,
which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in
Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor
the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of silver."

Few tombs on earth command the veneration of so many races and men of
divers creeds as this of Joseph. "Samaritan and Jew, Moslem and
Christian alike, revere it, and honor it with their visits. The tomb of
Joseph, the dutiful son, the affectionate, forgiving brother, the
virtuous man, the wise Prince and ruler. Egypt felt his influence--the
world knows his history."

In this same "parcel of ground" which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor
for a hundred pieces of silver, is Jacob's celebrated well. It is cut in
the solid rock, and is nine feet square and ninety feet deep. The name
of this unpretending hole in the ground, which one might pass by and take
no notice of, is as familiar as household words to even the children and
the peasants of many a far-off country. It is more famous than the
Parthenon; it is older than the Pyramids.

It was by this well that Jesus sat and talked with a woman of that
strange, antiquated Samaritan community I have been speaking of, and told
her of the mysterious water of life. As descendants of old English
nobles still cherish in the traditions of their houses how that this king
or that king tarried a day with some favored ancestor three hundred years
ago, no doubt the descendants of the woman of Samaria, living there in
Shechem, still refer with pardonable vanity to this conversation of their
ancestor, held some little time gone by, with the Messiah of the
Christians. It is not likely that they undervalue a distinction such as
this. Samaritan nature is human nature, and human nature remembers
contact with the illustrious, always.

For an offense done to the family honor, the sons of Jacob exterminated
all Shechem once.

We left Jacob's Well and traveled till eight in the evening, but rather
slowly, for we had been in the saddle nineteen hours, and the horses were
cruelly tired. We got so far ahead of the tents that we had to camp in
an Arab village, and sleep on the ground. We could have slept in the
largest of the houses; but there were some little drawbacks: it was
populous with vermin, it had a dirt floor, it was in no respect cleanly,
and there was a family of goats in the only bedroom, and two donkeys in
the parlor. Outside there were no inconveniences, except that the dusky,
ragged, earnest-eyed villagers of both sexes and all ages grouped
themselves on their haunches all around us, and discussed us and
criticised us with noisy tongues till midnight. We did not mind the
noise, being tired, but, doubtless, the reader is aware that it is almost
an impossible thing to go to sleep when you know that people are looking
at you. We went to bed at ten, and got up again at two and started once
more. Thus are people persecuted by dragomen, whose sole ambition in
life is to get ahead of each other.

About daylight we passed Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant rested
three hundred years, and at whose gates good old Eli fell down and "brake
his neck" when the messenger, riding hard from the battle, told him of
the defeat of his people, the death of his sons, and, more than all, the
capture of Israel's pride, her hope, her refuge, the ancient Ark her
forefathers brought with them out of Egypt. It is little wonder that
under circumstances like these he fell down and brake his neck. But
Shiloh had no charms for us. We were so cold that there was no comfort
but in motion, and so drowsy we could hardly sit upon the horses.

After a while we came to a shapeless mass of ruins, which still bears the
name of Bethel. It was here that Jacob lay down and had that superb
vision of angels flitting up and down a ladder that reached from the
clouds to earth, and caught glimpses of their blessed home through the
open gates of Heaven.

The pilgrims took what was left of the hallowed ruin, and we pressed on
toward the goal of our crusade, renowned Jerusalem.

The further we went the hotter the sun got, and the more rocky and bare,
repulsive and dreary the landscape became. There could not have been
more fragments of stone strewn broadcast over this part of the world, if
every ten square feet of the land had been occupied by a separate and
distinct stonecutter's establishment for an age. There was hardly a tree
or a shrub any where. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends
of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country. No landscape
exists that is more tiresome to the eye than that which bounds the
approaches to Jerusalem. The only difference between the roads and the
surrounding country, perhaps, is that there are rather more rocks in the
roads than in the surrounding country.

We passed Ramah, and Beroth, and on the right saw the tomb of the prophet
Samuel, perched high upon a commanding eminence. Still no Jerusalem came
in sight. We hurried on impatiently. We halted a moment at the ancient
Fountain of Beira, but its stones, worn deeply by the chins of thirsty
animals that are dead and gone centuries ago, had no interest for us--we
longed to see Jerusalem. We spurred up hill after hill, and usually
began to stretch our necks minutes before we got to the top--but
disappointment always followed:--more stupid hills beyond--more unsightly
landscape--no Holy City.

At last, away in the middle of the day, ancient bite of wall and
crumbling arches began to line the way--we toiled up one more hill, and
every pilgrim and every sinner swung his hat on high! Jerusalem!

Perched on its eternal hills, white and domed and solid, massed together
and hooped with high gray walls, the venerable city gleamed in the sun.
So small! Why, it was no larger than an American village of four
thousand inhabitants, and no larger than an ordinary Syrian city of
thirty thousand. Jerusalem numbers only fourteen thousand people.

We dismounted and looked, without speaking a dozen sentences, across the
wide intervening valley for an hour or more; and noted those prominent
features of the city that pictures make familiar to all men from their
school days till their death. We could recognize the Tower of Hippicus,
the Mosque of Omar, the Damascus Gate, the Mount of Olives, the Valley of
Jehoshaphat, the Tower of David, and the Garden of Gethsemane--and dating
from these landmarks could tell very nearly the localities of many others
we were not able to distinguish.

I record it here as a notable but not discreditable fact that not even
our pilgrims wept. I think there was no individual in the party whose
brain was not teeming with thoughts and images and memories invoked by
the grand history of the venerable city that lay before us, but still
among them all was no "voice of them that wept."

There was no call for tears. Tears would have been out of place. The
thoughts Jerusalem suggests are full of poetry, sublimity, and more than
all, dignity. Such thoughts do not find their appropriate expression in
the emotions of the nursery.

Just after noon we entered these narrow, crooked streets, by the ancient
and the famed Damascus Gate, and now for several hours I have been trying
to comprehend that I am actually in the illustrious old city where
Solomon dwelt, where Abraham held converse with the Deity, and where
walls still stand that witnessed the spectacle of the Crucifixion.

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