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Mark Twain > Innocents Abroad > Chapter XLVIII

Innocents Abroad

Chapter XLVIII

Magdala is not a beautiful place. It is thoroughly Syrian, and that is
to say that it is thoroughly ugly, and cramped, squalid, uncomfortable,
and filthy--just the style of cities that have adorned the country since
Adam's time, as all writers have labored hard to prove, and have
succeeded. The streets of Magdala are any where from three to six feet
wide, and reeking with uncleanliness. The houses are from five to seven
feet high, and all built upon one arbitrary plan--the ungraceful form of
a dry-goods box. The sides are daubed with a smooth white plaster, and
tastefully frescoed aloft and alow with disks of camel-dung placed there
to dry. This gives the edifice the romantic appearance of having been
riddled with cannon-balls, and imparts to it a very warlike aspect. When
the artist has arranged his materials with an eye to just proportion--the
small and the large flakes in alternate rows, and separated by carefully-
considered intervals--I know of nothing more cheerful to look upon than a
spirited Syrian fresco. The flat, plastered roof is garnished by
picturesque stacks of fresco materials, which, having become thoroughly
dried and cured, are placed there where it will be convenient. It is
used for fuel. There is no timber of any consequence in Palestine--none
at all to waste upon fires--and neither are there any mines of coal.
If my description has been intelligible, you will perceive, now, that a
square, flat-roofed hovel, neatly frescoed, with its wall-tops gallantly
bastioned and turreted with dried camel-refuse, gives to a landscape a
feature that is exceedingly festive and picturesque, especially if one is
careful to remember to stick in a cat wherever, about the premises, there
is room for a cat to sit. There are no windows to a Syrian hut, and no
chimneys. When I used to read that they let a bed-ridden man down
through the roof of a house in Capernaum to get him into the presence of
the Saviour, I generally had a three-story brick in my mind, and marveled
that they did not break his neck with the strange experiment. I perceive
now, however, that they might have taken him by the heels and thrown him
clear over the house without discommoding him very much. Palestine is
not changed any since those days, in manners, customs, architecture, or

As we rode into Magdala not a soul was visible. But the ring of the
horses' hoofs roused the stupid population, and they all came trooping
out--old men and old women, boys and girls, the blind, the crazy, and the
crippled, all in ragged, soiled and scanty raiment, and all abject
beggars by nature, instinct and education. How the vermin-tortured
vagabonds did swarm! How they showed their scars and sores, and
piteously pointed to their maimed and crooked limbs, and begged with
their pleading eyes for charity! We had invoked a spirit we could not
lay. They hung to the horses's tails, clung to their manes and the
stirrups, closed in on every aide in scorn of dangerous hoofs--and out of
their infidel throats, with one accord, burst an agonizing and most
infernal chorus: "Howajji, bucksheesh! howajji, bucksheesh! howajji,
bucksheesh! bucksheesh! bucksheesh!" I never was in a storm like that

As we paid the bucksheesh out to sore-eyed children and brown, buxom
girls with repulsively tattooed lips and chins, we filed through the town
and by many an exquisite fresco, till we came to a bramble-infested
inclosure and a Roman-looking ruin which had been the veritable dwelling
of St. Mary Magdalene, the friend and follower of Jesus. The guide
believed it, and so did I. I could not well do otherwise, with the house
right there before my eyes as plain as day. The pilgrims took down
portions of the front wall for specimens, as is their honored custom, and
then we departed.

We are camped in this place, now, just within the city walls of Tiberias.
We went into the town before nightfall and looked at its people--we cared
nothing about its houses. Its people are best examined at a distance.
They are particularly uncomely Jews, Arabs, and negroes. Squalor and
poverty are the pride of Tiberias. The young women wear their dower
strung upon a strong wire that curves downward from the top of the head
to the jaw--Turkish silver coins which they have raked together or
inherited. Most of these maidens were not wealthy, but some few had been
very kindly dealt with by fortune. I saw heiresses there worth, in their
own right--worth, well, I suppose I might venture to say, as much as nine
dollars and a half. But such cases are rare. When you come across one
of these, she naturally puts on airs. She will not ask for bucksheesh.
She will not even permit of undue familiarity. She assumes a crushing
dignity and goes on serenely practicing with her fine-tooth comb and
quoting poetry just the same as if you were not present at all. Some
people can not stand prosperity.

They say that the long-nosed, lanky, dyspeptic-looking body-snatchers,
with the indescribable hats on, and a long curl dangling down in front of
each ear, are the old, familiar, self-righteous Pharisees we read of in
the Scriptures. Verily, they look it. Judging merely by their general
style, and without other evidence, one might easily suspect that self-
righteousness was their specialty.

From various authorities I have culled information concerning Tiberias.
It was built by Herod Antipas, the murderer of John the Baptist, and
named after the Emperor Tiberius. It is believed that it stands upon the
site of what must have been, ages ago, a city of considerable
architectural pretensions, judging by the fine porphyry pillars that are
scattered through Tiberias and down the lake shore southward. These were
fluted, once, and yet, although the stone is about as hard as iron, the
flutings are almost worn away. These pillars are small, and doubtless
the edifices they adorned were distinguished more for elegance than
grandeur. This modern town--Tiberias--is only mentioned in the New
Testament; never in the Old.

The Sanhedrim met here last, and for three hundred years Tiberias was the
metropolis of the Jews in Palestine. It is one of the four holy cities
of the Israelites, and is to them what Mecca is to the Mohammedan and
Jerusalem to the Christian. It has been the abiding place of many
learned and famous Jewish rabbins. They lie buried here, and near them
lie also twenty-five thousand of their faith who traveled far to be near
them while they lived and lie with them when they died. The great Rabbi
Ben Israel spent three years here in the early part of the third century.
He is dead, now.

The celebrated Sea of Galilee is not so large a sea as Lake Tahoe--
[I measure all lakes by Tahoe, partly because I am far more familiar with
it than with any other, and partly because I have such a high admiration
for it and such a world of pleasant recollections of it, that it is very
nearly impossible for me to speak of lakes and not mention it.]--by a
good deal--it is just about two-thirds as large. And when we come to
speak of beauty, this sea is no more to be compared to Tahoe than a
meridian of longitude is to a rainbow. The dim waters of this pool can
not suggest the limpid brilliancy of Tahoe; these low, shaven, yellow
hillocks of rocks and sand, so devoid of perspective, can not suggest the
grand peaks that compass Tahoe like a wall, and whose ribbed and chasmed
fronts are clad with stately pines that seem to grow small and smaller as
they climb, till one might fancy them reduced to weeds and shrubs far
upward, where they join the everlasting snows. Silence and solitude
brood over Tahoe; and silence and solitude brood also over this lake of
Genessaret. But the solitude of the one is as cheerful and fascinating
as the solitude of the other is dismal and repellant.

In the early morning one watches the silent battle of dawn and darkness
upon the waters of Tahoe with a placid interest; but when the shadows
sulk away and one by one the hidden beauties of the shore unfold
themselves in the full splendor of noon; when the still surface is belted
like a rainbow with broad bars of blue and green and white, half the
distance from circumference to centre; when, in the lazy summer
afternoon, he lies in a boat, far out to where the dead blue of the deep
water begins, and smokes the pipe of peace and idly winks at the
distant crags and patches of snow from under his cap-brim; when the boat
drifts shoreward to the white water, and he lolls over the gunwale and
gazes by the hour down through the crystal depths and notes the colors of
the pebbles and reviews the finny armies gliding in procession a hundred
feet below; when at night he sees moon and stars, mountain ridges
feathered with pines, jutting white capes, bold promontories, grand
sweeps of rugged scenery topped with bald, glimmering peaks, all
magnificently pictured in the polished mirror of the lake, in richest,
softest detail, the tranquil interest that was born with the morning
deepens and deepens, by sure degrees, till it culminates at last in
resistless fascination!

It is solitude, for birds and squirrels on the shore and fishes in the
water are all the creatures that are near to make it otherwise, but it is
not the sort of solitude to make one dreary. Come to Galilee for that.
If these unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of barrenness, that never,
never, never do shake the glare from their harsh outlines, and fade and
faint into vague perspective; that melancholy ruin of Capernaum; this
stupid village of Tiberias, slumbering under its six funereal plumes of
palms; yonder desolate declivity where the swine of the miracle ran down
into the sea, and doubtless thought it was better to swallow a devil or
two and get drowned into the bargain than have to live longer in such a
place; this cloudless, blistering sky; this solemn, sailless, tintless
lake, reposing within its rim of yellow hills and low, steep banks, and
looking just as expressionless and unpoetical (when we leave its sublime
history out of the question,) as any metropolitan reservoir in
Christendom--if these things are not food for rock me to sleep, mother,
none exist, I think.

But I should not offer the evidence for the prosecution and leave the
defense unheard. Wm. C. Grimes deposes as follows:--

     "We had taken ship to go over to the other side. The sea was not
     more than six miles wide. Of the beauty of the scene, however, I
     can not say enough, nor can I imagine where those travelers carried
     their eyes who have described the scenery of the lake as tame or
     uninteresting. The first great characteristic of it is the deep
     basin in which it lies. This is from three to four hundred feet
     deep on all sides except at the lower end, and the sharp slope of
     the banks, which are all of the richest green, is broken and
     diversified by the wadys and water-courses which work their way down
     through the sides of the basin, forming dark chasms or light sunny
     valleys. Near Tiberias these banks are rocky, and ancient
     sepulchres open in them, with their doors toward the water. They
     selected grand spots, as did the Egyptians of old, for burial
     places, as if they designed that when the voice of God should reach
     the sleepers, they should walk forth and open their eyes on scenes
     of glorious beauty. On the east, the wild and desolate mountains
     contrast finely with the deep blue lake; and toward the north,
     sublime and majestic, Hermon looks down on the sea, lifting his
     white crown to heaven with the pride of a hill that has seen the
     departing footsteps of a hundred generations. On the north-east
     shore of the sea was a single tree, and this is the only tree of any
     size visible from the water of the lake, except a few lonely palms
     in the city of Tiberias, and by its solitary position attracts more
     attention than would a forest. The whole appearance of the scene is
     precisely what we would expect and desire the scenery of Genessaret
     to be, grand beauty, but quiet calm. The very mountains are calm."

It is an ingeniously written description, and well calculated to deceive.
But if the paint and the ribbons and the flowers be stripped from it, a
skeleton will be found beneath.

So stripped, there remains a lake six miles wide and neutral in color;
with steep green banks, unrelieved by shrubbery; at one end bare,
unsightly rocks, with (almost invisible) holes in them of no consequence
to the picture; eastward, "wild and desolate mountains;" (low, desolate
hills, he should have said;) in the north, a mountain called Hermon, with
snow on it; peculiarity of the picture, "calmness;" its prominent
feature, one tree.

No ingenuity could make such a picture beautiful--to one's actual vision.

I claim the right to correct misstatements, and have so corrected the
color of the water in the above recapitulation. The waters of Genessaret
are of an exceedingly mild blue, even from a high elevation and a
distance of five miles. Close at hand (the witness was sailing on the
lake,) it is hardly proper to call them blue at all, much less "deep"
blue. I wish to state, also, not as a correction, but as matter of
opinion, that Mount Hermon is not a striking or picturesque mountain by
any means, being too near the height of its immediate neighbors to be so.
That is all. I do not object to the witness dragging a mountain forty-
five miles to help the scenery under consideration, because it is
entirely proper to do it, and besides, the picture needs it.

"C. W. E.," (of "Life in the Holy Land,") deposes as follows:--

     "A beautiful sea lies unbosomed among the Galilean hills, in the
     midst of that land once possessed by Zebulon and Naphtali, Asher and
     Dan. The azure of the sky penetrates the depths of the lake, and
     the waters are sweet and cool. On the west, stretch broad fertile
     plains; on the north the rocky shores rise step by step until in the
     far distance tower the snowy heights of Hermon; on the east through
     a misty veil are seen the high plains of Perea, which stretch away
     in rugged mountains leading the mind by varied paths toward
     Jerusalem the Holy. Flowers bloom in this terrestrial paradise,
     once beautiful and verdant with waving trees; singing birds enchant
     the ear; the turtle-dove soothes with its soft note; the crested
     lark sends up its song toward heaven, and the grave and stately
     stork inspires the mind with thought, and leads it on to meditation
     and repose. Life here was once idyllic, charming; here were once no
     rich, no poor, no high, no low. It was a world of ease, simplicity,
     and beauty; now it is a scene of desolation and misery."

This is not an ingenious picture. It is the worst I ever saw. It
describes in elaborate detail what it terms a "terrestrial paradise," and
closes with the startling information that this paradise is "a scene of
desolation and misery."

I have given two fair, average specimens of the character of the
testimony offered by the majority of the writers who visit this region.
One says, "Of the beauty of the scene I can not say enough," and then
proceeds to cover up with a woof of glittering sentences a thing which,
when stripped for inspection, proves to be only an unobtrusive basin of
water, some mountainous desolation, and one tree. The other, after a
conscientious effort to build a terrestrial paradise out of the same
materials, with the addition of a "grave and stately stork," spoils it
all by blundering upon the ghastly truth at the last.

Nearly every book concerning Galilee and its lake describes the scenery
as beautiful. No--not always so straightforward as that. Sometimes the
impression intentionally conveyed is that it is beautiful, at the same
time that the author is careful not to say that it is, in plain Saxon.
But a careful analysis of these descriptions will show that the materials
of which they are formed are not individually beautiful and can not be
wrought into combinations that are beautiful. The veneration and the
affection which some of these men felt for the scenes they were speaking
of, heated their fancies and biased their judgment; but the pleasant
falsities they wrote were full of honest sincerity, at any rate. Others
wrote as they did, because they feared it would be unpopular to write
otherwise. Others were hypocrites and deliberately meant to deceive.
Any of them would say in a moment, if asked, that it was always right and
always best to tell the truth. They would say that, at any rate, if they
did not perceive the drift of the question.

But why should not the truth be spoken of this region? Is the truth
harmful? Has it ever needed to hide its face? God made the Sea of
Galilee and its surroundings as they are. Is it the province of Mr.
Grimes to improve upon the work?

I am sure, from the tenor of books I have read, that many who have
visited this land in years gone by, were Presbyterians, and came seeking
evidences in support of their particular creed; they found a Presbyterian
Palestine, and they had already made up their minds to find no other,
though possibly they did not know it, being blinded by their zeal.
Others were Baptists, seeking Baptist evidences and a Baptist Palestine.
Others were Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, seeking evidences
indorsing their several creeds, and a Catholic, a Methodist, an
Episcopalian Palestine. Honest as these men's intentions may have been,
they were full of partialities and prejudices, they entered the country
with their verdicts already prepared, and they could no more write
dispassionately and impartially about it than they could about their own
wives and children. Our pilgrims have brought their verdicts with them.
They have shown it in their conversation ever since we left Beirout.
I can almost tell, in set phrase, what they will say when they see Tabor,
Nazareth, Jericho and Jerusalem--because I have the books they will
"smouch" their ideas from. These authors write pictures and frame
rhapsodies, and lesser men follow and see with the author's eyes instead
of their own, and speak with his tongue. What the pilgrims said at
Cesarea Philippi surprised me with its wisdom. I found it afterwards in
Robinson. What they said when Genessaret burst upon their vision,
charmed me with its grace. I find it in Mr. Thompson's "Land and the
Book." They have spoken often, in happily worded language which never
varied, of how they mean to lay their weary heads upon a stone at Bethel,
as Jacob did, and close their dim eyes, and dream, perchance, of angels
descending out of heaven on a ladder. It was very pretty. But I have
recognized the weary head and the dim eyes, finally. They borrowed the
idea--and the words--and the construction--and the punctuation--from
Grimes. The pilgrims will tell of Palestine, when they get home, not as
it appeared to them, but as it appeared to Thompson and Robinson and
Grimes--with the tints varied to suit each pilgrim's creed.

Pilgrims, sinners and Arabs are all abed, now, and the camp is still.
Labor in loneliness is irksome. Since I made my last few notes, I have
been sitting outside the tent for half an hour. Night is the time to see
Galilee. Genessaret under these lustrous stars has nothing repulsive
about it. Genessaret with the glittering reflections of the
constellations flecking its surface, almost makes me regret that I ever
saw the rude glare of the day upon it. Its history and its associations
are its chiefest charm, in any eyes, and the spells they weave are feeble
in the searching light of the sun. Then, we scarcely feel the fetters.
Our thoughts wander constantly to the practical concerns of life, and
refuse to dwell upon things that seem vague and unreal. But when the day
is done, even the most unimpressible must yield to the dreamy influences
of this tranquil starlight. The old traditions of the place steal upon
his memory and haunt his reveries, and then his fancy clothes all sights
and sounds with the supernatural. In the lapping of the waves upon the
beach, he hears the dip of ghostly oars; in the secret noises of the
night he hears spirit voices; in the soft sweep of the breeze, the rush
of invisible wings. Phantom ships are on the sea, the dead of twenty
centuries come forth from the tombs, and in the dirges of the night wind
the songs of old forgotten ages find utterance again.

In the starlight, Galilee has no boundaries but the broad compass of the
heavens, and is a theatre meet for great events; meet for the birth of a
religion able to save a world; and meet for the stately Figure appointed
to stand upon its stage and proclaim its high decrees. But in the
sunlight, one says: Is it for the deeds which were done and the words
which were spoken in this little acre of rocks and sand eighteen
centuries gone, that the bells are ringing to-day in the remote islands
of the sea and far and wide over continents that clasp the circumference
of the huge globe?

One can comprehend it only when night has hidden all incongruities and
created a theatre proper for so grand a drama.

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