Impressions of Palestine
By James Bryce
(British Ambassador to the United States, 1906-1913)
[The National Geographic Magazine, March 1915]
No country has been so often described or so minutely-described by travelers of all sorts of tastes and interests as. Palestine has been; and this is natural, for none has excited so keen an interest for so long a time and in so many nations.
As we have all at some time or other read much about the country, it may well be thought that nothing now remains to be said about Palestine, except by archeologists, whose explorations of the sites of ancient cities are always bringing fresh facts to light. But if all of us have read a good deal about the Holy Land, most of us have also forgotten a good deal, and our ideas of the country—ideas colored by sentiments of reverence and romance—are often vague and not always correct.
It may therefore be worth while to set down in a plain and brief way the salient impressions which the country makes on a Western traveler who passes quickly through it. The broad impressions are the things that remain in memory when most of the details have vanished, and broad impressions are just what an elaborate description sometimes fails to convey, because they are smothered under an infinitude of details.
A SMALL COUNTRY
Palestine is a tiny little country. Though the traveler's handbooks prepare him to find it small, it surprises him by being smaller than he expected. Taking it as the region between the Mediterranean on the west and the Jordan and Dead Sea on the east, from the spurs of Lebanon and Hermon on the north to the desert at Beersheba on the south, it is only 110 miles long and from 50 to Gobroad—that is to say, it is smaller than New Jersey, whose area is 7,500 square miles.
Of this region large parts did not really belong to ancient Israel. Their hold on the southern and northern districts was but slight, while in the southwest a wide and rich plain along the Mediterranean was occupied by the warlike Philistines, who were sometimes more than a match for the Hebrew armies. Israel had, in fact, little more than the hill country, which lay between the Jordan on the east and the maritime plain on the west. King David, in the days of his power, looked down from the hill cities of Benjamin, just north of Jerusalem, upon Philistine enemies only 25 miles off, on the one side, and looked across the Jordan to Moabite enemies about as far off, on the other.
Nearly all the events in the history of Israel that are recorded in the Old Testament happened within a territory no bigger than the State of Connecticut, whose area is 4,800 square miles; and into hardly any other country has there been crowded from the days of Abraham till our own so much history—that is to say, so many events that have been recorded and deserve to be recorded in the annals of mankind. To history, however, I shall return later,
FEELING PALESTINE'S SMALLNESS
Nor is it only that Palestine is really a small country. The traveler constantly feels as he moves about that it is a small country. From the heights a few miles north of Jerusalem he sees, looking northward, a far-off summit carrying snow for eight months in the year. It is Hermon, nearly 10,000 feet high—Hermon, whose fountains feed the rivers of Damascus.
But Hermon is outside the territory of Israel altogether, standing in the land of the Syrians; so, too, it is of Lebanon. We are apt to think of that mountain mass as within the country, because it also is frequently mentioned in the Psalms and the Prophets; but the two ranges of Lebanon also rise beyond the frontiers of Israel, lying between the Syrians of Damascus and the Phoenicians of the West.
Perhaps it is because the maps from which children used to learn Bible geography were on a large scale that most of us have failed to realize how narrow were the limits within which took place all those great doings that fill the books of Samuel and Kings. Just in the same way the classical scholar who visits Greece is surprised to find that so small a territory sufficed for so many striking incidents and for the careers of so many famous men.
LITTLE NATURAL WEALTH
Palestine is a country poor in any natural resources. There are practically no minerals, no coal, no iron, no copper, no silver, though recently some oil wells have been discovered in the Jordan Valley. Neither are there any large forests, and though the land may have been better wooded in the days of Joshua than it is now, there is little reason to think that the woods were of trees sufficiently large to constitute a source of wealth. A comparatively small area is fit for tillage.
To an Arab tribe that had wandered through a barren wilderness for 40 weary years, Canaan may well have seemed a delightful possession; but many a county in Iowa, many a department in France, could raise more grain or wine than all the Holy Land.
PLAIN OF ESDRAELON
There is one stretch of fertile, level land 20 miles long and from 3 to 6 miles wide—the Plain of Esdraelon. But with this exception it is only in the bottoms and on the lower slopes of a few valleys, chiefly in the territory of Ephraim from Bethel northward and along the shores of the Bay of Acre, that one sees cornfields and olive yards and orchards. Little wine is now grown.
Such wealth as the country has consists in its pastures, and the expression "a land flowing with milk and honey" appropriately describes the best it has to offer, for sheep and goats can thrive on the thin herbage that covers the hills, and the numerous aromatic plants furnish plenty of excellent food for the bees; but it is nearly all thin pasture, for the land is dry and the soil mostly shallow. The sheep and goats vastly outnumber the oxen. Woody Bashan, on the east side of Jordan, is still the region where one must look for the strong bulls.
SEEN THROUGH A GOLDEN HAZE
Palestine is not a beautiful country. The classical scholar finds charms everywhere in Greece, a land consecrated to him by the genius of poets and philosophers, although a great part of Greece is painfully dry and bare. So, too, the traveler who brings a mind suffused by reverence and piety to spots hallowed by religious associations sees the landscapes of the Holy Land through a golden haze that makes them lovely. But the scenery of the Holy Land, taken as a whole (for there are exceptions presently to be noticed), is inferior, both in form and in color to that of northern and middle Italy, to that of Norway and Scotland; to that of the coasts of Asia Minor, to that of many parts of California and Washington.
The hills are flat-topped ridges, with a monotonous sky-line, very few of them showing any distinctive shape. Not a peak anywhere, and Tabor the only summit recognizable by its form. They are all composed of gray or reddish-gray limestone, bare of wood, and often too stony for tillage. Between the stones or piles of rock there are low shrubs, and in the few weeks of spring masses of brilliant flowers give rich hues to the landscape; but for the rest of the year all is gray or brown. The grass is withered away or is scorched brown, and scarcely any foliage is seen on the tops or upper slopes of the rolling hills. It is only in some of the valleys that one finds villages nestling among olive groves and orchards where plum and peach and almond blossoms make spring lovely.
Arid indeed is the land. The traveler says with the Psalmist: "My soul longs in a dry, parched land, wherein no water is." Wells are few, springs still fewer, and of brooks there are practically none, for the stony channels at the bottom of the glens have no water except after a winter rainstorm. There may probably have been a more copious rainfall 20 or 30 centuries ago, when more wood clothed the hillsides, and the country would then have been more pleasing to Northern eyes, to which mountains are dear because rills make music and green boughs wave in the wind.
THE RIVER KISHON
To this general description there are certain exceptions which must not be forgotten. The high ridge of Mount Carmel rises grandly from the sea, and on its land side breaks down in bold declivities and deep glens upon the valley through which the Kishon, an almost perennial stream, finds its way to the Bay of Acre. Here, upon the slopes of a long ridge, on the other side of the Kishon, there is a wildering forest of ancient holm-oaks, all the more beautiful because it is the one considerable stretch of natural wood in the whole country west of Jordan.
On the other side of that river the slopes of the plateau which runs eastward into the desert, the Bashan and Gilead of the Old Testament, have also patches of woodland left, and in the canyons that cut deep through these slopes there is many a picturesque scene where the brooks, Jabbok and Yarmuk, leap in tiny waterfalls from ledge to ledge of the cliffs. These are the only brooks in all the country, these and the Kishon, which itself is reduced in late summer to a line of pools.
VIEW FROM TABOR
Of the wider views there are two that ought to be noted. One is beautiful. It is the prospect from the top of Mount Tabor, a few miles east of Nazareth, over the wide plain of Esdraelon, specially charming in April, when the green of the up springing wheat and barley contrasts with the rich red of the strips of newly plowed land that lie between. The other is grand and solemn. From the Mount of Olives, and indeed from the higher parts of Jerusalem itself, one looks across the deep hollow where the Jordan, a little below Jericho, pours its turbid waters into the Dead Sea, and sees beyond this hollow the long, steep wall of the mountains of Moab.
These mountains are the edge of the great plateau, 3,000 feet higher than the Dead Sea, which extends into the Great Desert of Northern Arabia. Among them is conspicuous the projecting ridge of Nebo, or Pisgah, from which Moses looked out upon that Promised Land which he was not permitted to enter. These mountains are the background of every eastward view from the heights of Judea. Always impressive, they become weirdly beautiful toward sunset, when the level light turns their stern gray to exquisite purples and a tender lilac that deepens into violet as the night begins to fall.
PROSPECTS THAT PLEASE
In eastern Galilee also there are noble prospects of distant Hermon; nor is there any coast scenery anywhere finer than that of the seaward slopes of Lebanon behind Sidon and Beirut. But Hermon and Lebanon (as already remarked) lie outside Palestine, and would need a description to themselves. Damascus, seen from the heights above, its glittering white embosomed in orchards, is a marvel of beauty—a pearl set in emeralds, say the Muslims. Petra, far off in the Arabian Desert to the south, is a marvel of wild grandeur, with its deep, dark gorges and towering crags; but these also lie outside Palestine.
THE SEA OF GALILEE
Though not comparable in beauty either to the lakes of Britain or to those that lie among the Alps, or to Lake George in New York and Lake Tahoe in California, the Sea of Galilee has a quiet charm of its own.
The shores are bare of wood and the encircling mountains show no bold peaks; yet the slopes of the hills, sometimes abruptly, sometimes falling in soft and graceful lines, have a pleasing variety, and from several points a glimpse may be caught of the snowy top of Hermon rising beyond the nearer ranges. A great sadness broods over the silent waters. The cities that decked it like a necklace have, all but Tiberias, vanished so utterly that archeologists dispute over their sites. There is little cultivation, and where half a million of people are said to have lived at the beginning of our era, not 5,000 are now to be found. Many a devastating war and the misgovernment of 14 centuries have done their fatal work.
PALESTINE SUMMED UP
If Palestine is not a land of natural wealth nor a land of natural beauty, what is it? What are the impressions which the traveler who tries to see it exactly as it is carries away with him? Roughly summed up, they are these: stones, caves, tombs, ruins, battle-fields, sites hallowed by traditions—all bathed in an atmosphere of legend and marvel.
Never was there a country, not being an absolute desert, so stony. The hillsides seem one mass of loose rocks, larger or smaller. The olive yards and vineyards are full of stones. Even the cornfields (except in the alluvial soil of the plain of Esdraelon and along the sandy coast) seem to have more pebbles than earth, so that one wonders how crops so good as one sometimes sees can spring-up. Caves are everywhere, for limestone is the prevailing rock, and it is the rock in which the percolation of rain makes clefts and hollows and caverns most frequent.
Many of the incidents of Bible history are associated with caverns, from the cave of Machpelah, at Hebron, where Abraham buried Sarah and in which he is supposed to have been himself interred, down to the sepulchre hewn in rock in which the body of Christ was laid and over which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built by Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine.
Tradition points out many other sacred caves. It places the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin at Nazareth in one cavern and the birth of Christ at Bethlehem in another, and assigns others to Samson, to David, to Elijah, and to various prophets. All over the country one finds tombs hewn in the solid rocks and pillars or piles of stone marking a burial place. Many of these rock tombs may be the work of races that dwelt here before Israel came. In a rocky land, where natural cavities are common, this becomes the obvious mode of interment. Thus here, as in Egypt, one seems to be in a land rather of the dead than of the living.
The impression of melancholy which this brooding shadow of death gives is heightened by the abundance of ruins. From very early times men built here in stone because there were, even then, few large trees, and though the dwellings of the poor were mostly of sun-baked mud and have long since vanished, the ease with which the limestone could be quarried and used for building made those who sought defense surround even small towns with walls, whose foundations at least have remained. The larger among the surviving ruins date from Roman or from Crusading times. These are still numerous, though Muslim vandalism and the habit of finding in the old erections material for new have left comparatively little of architectural interest.
The best preserved remains are those of the Greco-Roman towns east of the Jordan, and these cities, singularly good specimens of the work of their age, are being rapidly destroyed by the Circassians whom the Turks have placed in that region. Be the ruins great or small, they are so numerous that in a course of a day's ride one is everywhere sure to pass far more of them than the traveler could find in even those parts of Europe that have been longest inhabited, and of many the ancient names are lost.
One is amazed at the energy the Crusaders showed in building castles, not a few of them large and all of them solid strongholds, as well as churches. But none of the fortresses are perfect, and of the churches only four or five have been spared sufficiently to show their beauty. Several, among these the most beautiful and best preserved, have been turned into mosques. Of these ruins few are cared for except by the archeologist and the historian.
But there are other memorials of the past that have lived on into the present. In no-country are there so many shrines of ancient worship, so many spots held sacred—some sacred to Jews, some to Christians, some to Mussulmans. Neither has any other country spots that still draw a multitude of pilgrims, not even Belgium and Lombardy, each a profusion of battle-fields. It is a land of ancient strife and seldom-interrupted slaughter.
Before Isarel came, the tribes of Canaan warred with one another, and against those tribes Israel had to fight for its life. Along its western border ran the great line of march from Egypt to northern Syria and Mesopotamia, the highway of war trodden by the armies of Assyria and Babylon when they passed south to attack Egypt, and by the armies of Egypt when the great Pharaohs, Rameses, Thothmes, and Necho, led them north against Assyria.
In later days the Seleucid kings of Babylon and Antioch had fight after fight for the possession of the country with the Egyptian Ptolemies. Then appeared the legions of Rome, first under Pompey, then many a campaign to quell the revolt of the Jews. Still later came those fiercest enemies of Rome, the Sassanid kings of Persia, whose great invasion of A. D. 614 laid waste Jerusalem and spread ruin over the land.
THE ARAB INVASION
Just after that invasion the Arabs, then in the first flush of their swift conquest, descended on the enfeebled province and set up that Muslim rule which has often changed hands from race to race and dynasty to dynasty, but has never disappeared. When the Mohammedan princes had fought among themselves for four centuries they were suddenly attacked by a host of Crusaders from western Europe, and the soil of Palestine was drenched afresh with blood. The chronicle of more recent wars, which includes Napoleon's irruption, stopped at Acre in 1799, comes down to the Egyptian invasion in the days of Mehemet Ali.
From the top of Mount Tabor one looks down on six famous battlefields—the first, that of the victory of Deborah and Barak over Sisera, commemorated in the oldest of Hebrew war songs (Judges, Chapters IV- V), and the latest, that of the victory of the French over the Turks in 1799. And in this plain, near the spot where Barak overcame Sisera and Pharaoh Necho overcame Josiah, is to be fought the mysterious Armageddon (Revelation, Chapter XVI).
DOMINION OF THE PAST
Caves and tombs, ruins and battlefields, and ancient seats of worship are the visible signs of that dominion of the past, overweighting and almost effacing the present, which one feels constantly and everywhere in Palestine. For its English-speaking men and women, who read the Bible in our youth and followed the stream of history down through antiquity and the Middle Ages, no country is so steeped in historical associations.
It could not be otherwise, for in no other country (save Egypt) did history begin so early; none has seen such an unending ending clash of races and creeds; none has been the theater of so many events touching the mind of so large a part of mankind. The interest which Nature, taken alone, fails to give is given in unequaled profusion by history, and by legend even more than by history.
THE ATMOSPHERE OF LEGEND AND MARVEL
The Holy Land is steeped also in an atmosphere of legend and marvel. As the traveler steps ashore at Jaffa he is shown the rock to which Andromeda was chained when Perseus rescued her from the sea monster. (It is the only Greek story localized on these shores.) Till recent years he was also shown the remains of the ribs of another sea monster, the "great fish" that swallowed and disgorged the prophet Jonah, whose tomb he will see on the coast near Sidon. When he proceeds toward Jerusalem he passes Lydda, the birthplace of St. George, where that youthful hero slew the dragon. A little farther comes the spot where another young champion, Samson, the Danite, had in earlier days killed a thousand Philistines with the jaw-bone of an ass.
Still farther along the railway line he is pointed to the opening of the Valley of Ajalon, where, according to the Book of Joshua, the sun and moon stood still while Israel pursued their enemies. An hour later, as the train approaches Jerusalem, he looks down on the rocky gorge in which St. Sabas, himself a historical character, famous and influential in the sixth century, dwelt in a cave where a friendly lion came to bear him company; and from Jerusalem he can note the spot at which the host of Israel passed dry-shod over Jordan, following the Ark of the Covenant, and near which Elisha made the iron swim and turned bitter waters to sweet. Thence, too, he can descry, far off among the blue hills of Moab, the mountain top to which Balaam was brought to curse Israel, and where "the dumb ass, speaking with man's voice, forbade the madness of the prophet" (Numbers, Chapter XX; 2 Peter, Chapter I).
WILD MUSLIM LEGENDS
These scenes of marvel, all passing before the eye in a single afternoon, are but a few examples of the beliefs associated with ancient sites over the length and breadth of the country. All sorts of legends have sprung up among Muslims, as well as Jews and Christians, the Muslim legends being indeed the wildest. For nearly every incident mentioned in the Old or New Testament a local site has been found, often one highly improbable, perhaps plainly impossible, which nevertheless the devout are ready to accept.
The process of site-finding had begun before the days of the Empress Helena, and it goes on still. (Quite recently the Muslims have begun to honor a cave at the base of Mount Carmel, which they hold to have sheltered Elijah.) Nothing is more natural, for the number of pilgrims goes on increasing with the increased ease and cheapness of transportation, and sites have to be found for the pilgrims.
The Roman Catholics come chiefly from France, but they are few compared with the multitude of Russians, nearly all simple peasants, ready to kiss the stones of every spot which they are told that the presence of the Virgin or a saint has hallowed.
To accommodate those pilgrim swarms, for besides the Catholics and the Orthodox, the other ancient churches of the East, such as the Armenians, the Copts, and the Abyssinians, are also represented, countless monasteries and hospices have been erected at and around Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and other sacred spots; and thus the aspect of these places has been so modernized that it is all the more difficult to realize what they were like in ancient days.
Jews have come in large numbers; they have settled in farm colonies; they have built up almost a new quarter on the north side of old Jerusalem. But even they are not so much in evidence as the Christian pilgrims. The pilgrim is now, especially at the times of festival, the dominant feature of Palestine. It is the only country, save Egypt, perhaps even more than Egypt, to which men flock for the sake of the past; and it is here that the philosophic student can best learn to appreciate the part which tradition and marvel have played in molding the minds and stimulating the religious fervor of mankind.
WHAT PALESTINE MIGHT BE
Under a better government—a government which should give honest administration, repress brigandage, diffuse education, irrigate the now desolate, because sun-scorched, valley of the lower Jordan by water drawn from the upper course of the river—Palestine might become a prosperous and even populous country and have its place in the civilization of the present.
The inhabitants, mostly Muslims, are a strong and often handsome race, naturally equal to the races of Southern Europe; but as Palestine stands today, it is a land of the past, a land of memories—memories of religion, but chiefly of religious war, and always rather of war than of peace. The only work ever done in it for peace was done by the preaching, 19 centuries ago, of One whose teaching His followers have never put in practice.
The strife of Israel against the Amorites and of the Crusaders against the Muslims pale to insignificance compared with the conflict between five great nations today who bear the Christian name, and some of whom are claiming the Almighty as their special patron and protector.
To one other kind of impression something remains to be said. Does travel in the Holy Land give a clearer comprehension of the narratives of the Old and New Testament? Does it give a livelier sense of their reality? This question must be answered separately for the two divisions of the Bible.
On the Old Testament the traveler gets an abundance of fresh light from visiting the spots it mentions. The history of Israel from the time of Joshua—indeed, from the time of Abraham—stands out vividly. One realizes the position of the chosen people in the midst of hostile tribes—some tribes close to them: the Philistines at the western part of the Judean hills; the Tyrians almost within sight of Carmel, to the north; Amalek in the desert to the south, raiding as far as Hebron; Moab and the Beni Ammon on the plateau that lies beyond Jordan to the east, while the Syrian kingdom of Ben-hadad and Hazael threatens from behind the ridges of Galilee.
One sees the track along which the hosts of Egypt and Assyria marched. One feels the breath of the desert upon the prophets, for the desert comes into Palestine itself. One traverses it descending from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. It lies in bare, brown cliffs above the gardens of Jericho. One understands what the foe of Israel meant when he said that the gods of Israel were gods of the hills, and his own gods of the valleys.
HOW NEAR WAS ENDOR !
One sees how near to the Gilboan Mountains was Endor, where Saul went to consult the witch the night before the fatal battle (I Samuel, Chapter 28), and how near also the wall of Bethshan, to which the Philistines fixed his body and that of the gallant Jonathan. Samaria, the stronghold of Omri, and long afterward of Herod, frowns upon the plain beneath, and at Jezreel the slope is seen up which Jehu drove his steeds so furiously to the slaughter of Jezebel (II Kings, Chapter IX).
One can feel it all to be real. Elijah runs before the chariot of Ahab while the thunder is pealing above, and Naaman is bathing in Jordan on his way back to Damascus from the visit to Elisha. The historical books of the Old Testament are so full of references to localities that one uses them almost as a handbook. Napoleon, they, say, had them read aloud to him in the evenings in his camp on the Syrian expedition of 1799.
And though the aspect of things has been greatly changed since those days by the disappearance of ancient forests, the introduction of some new trees and new kinds of buildings, not to speak of two railways and a few macadamized roads, still the natural features of hill and valley remain, and there is much in the ways and customs of the people that remains the same. The shepherd leads the same life, except that he has no longer to fear the lion, who has long since vanished, nor the bear, who survives only in the recesses of the northern hills.
NEW TESTAMENT PALESTINE
When one turns to the New Testament, how great is the difference. Except as regards Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee, there are scarcely airy references to localities in the Gospel narratives, and in those few references little or nothing turns upon the features of the place.
We can identify some of the spots where miracles are related, such as Nain and Cana of Galilee, but the events are not connected with any special feature of the locality. Journeys are mentioned, but not the route along which Christ passed, except Sychar, in the Samaritan territory, where was Jacob's well, one of the few sacred spots which can be positively identified. (The Crusaders erected a church over it which is now being restored by Franciscan monks.) The cities round the Sea of Galilee have, all except Tiberias, vanished from the earth, and the sites of most of them are doubtful.
The town now called Nazareth has been accepted for many centuries as the home of Christ's parents, but the evidence to prove it so is by no means clear, and it is hard to identify the cliff on which the city was built. The Mount of Olives, in particular, and the height on its slope, where Christ, following the path from Bethany, looked down on Jerusalem and the temple in all its beauty, are the spots at which one seems to get into the closest touch with the Gospel narrative; and it is just here that the scene has been most changed by new building's, high walls, villas and convents and chapels. Even the scenic conditions and whatever we may call "the setting" of the parables belong rather to the eastern world than to Palestine. You do not feel the incidents to be the more real because they are placed in this particular part of the East.
THE ACTUAL AND THE IDEAL
All this makes the traveler realize afresh and from a new side that while the Old Testament is about and for Israel, as well as composed in the land of Israel, the Gospel, though their narrative is placed in the land and the preaching was delivered to the people of Israel, is addressed to the world.
The Old Testament books, or at least the legal and historical books, are concerned with one people, with the words and deeds of its kings and prophets and warriors, whereas the New Testament is concerned with the inner life of all mankind. The one is of the concrete, the other of the abstract; the one of the actual, the other of the ideal. The actual is rooted in time and place; the ideal is independent of both. It is only in parts of the poetical and prophetic books that the teaching becomes ideal and universal, like that of the New Testament.
It ought perhaps to be added that the incidents of Chronicles in the Old Testament belong (except, of course, when the element of marvel comes in) to what maybe called normal history, and can therefore be realized just as easily as we realize the wars of the Crusaders and the deeds of Sultan Saladin.
THE GOSPEL AND PALESTINE
We picture to ourselves the battle of Saul and the Philistines at Gilboa as we picture the battle of Napoleon against the Turks, a few miles farther north. It is much harder to fit the Gospel with the framework of Jerusalem or Galilee, because its contents are unlike anything else in history. An Indian Mussulman scholar or a thoughtful Buddhist from Japan might not feel this, but it is hard for a European or American Christian not to feel it.
Whether these explanations be true or not, it is the fact that to some travelers the sight of the places that are mentioned in the Gospel seems to bring no further comprehension of its meaning, no heightened emotion, except that which the thought that they are looking upon the very hills, perhaps treading the very paths that were trodden by the feet of Christ and the Apostles, naturally arouses. The narrative remains to them in just the same ideal, non-local atmosphere which surrounded it in their childhood. It still belongs to the realm of the abstract, to the world of the soul rather than to the world of physical nature. It is robed not in the noonday glare of Palestine, as they see it today, nor even in the rich purple which her sunsets shed upon the far-off hills, but in a celestial light that never was on sea or land.
TYPICAL PILGRIM'S VIEWPOINT
These persons, however, mostly Protestants, are the few exceptions. The typical pilgrim, be he or she a Roman Catholic Legitimist from France or an unlettered peasant from Russia, accepts everything and is edified by everything. The Virgin. and the saints have always been so real to these devout persons, the sense of their reality heightened by constant prayers before the Catholic image or the Russian icon, that it is natural for the pilgrim to think of them as dwelling in the very spots which the guide points out, and the marvelous parts of the legends present to them no difficulty.
The French Catholic has probably been on a pilgrimage to Lourdes and drawn health from the holy spring in its sacred cavern. The Russian peasant has near his home some wonder-working picture. The world to him is still full of religious miracles, and Palestine is but the land in which the figures who consecrate the spots are the most sacred of all those whom Christianity knows. To him to die in it is happiness, for death is the portal to Heaven. Nowhere else does one see a faith so touching in its simplicity.
A ROMANTIC JOURNEY
To all travelers who have anything of poetry in their hearts, be they pilgrims or tourists, or critical archeologists and historians, there is, and there will always be, an inexpressible romance in this journey. Palestine is preeminently the Land of the Past-—a land whose very air is charged with the human emotions and the memories of human action, reaching far back into the dim twilight of prehistoric centuries.
No one who is in any degree susceptible to the impressions of nature or of history can help feeling the glamour of the country. The colors of distant hills, seen at morn or even through this clear, keen air, seem rich and sad with pathos of ages of human effort and human passion. The imagination is always trying to body forth the men and women who lived beneath these skies, the heroes of war and the saints of suffering, the nameless poets, and the prophets who live on in their burning words, and to give them visible form and life.
Imagination always fails, but it never desists from the attempt, and though it cannot visualize the scenes, it feels the constant presence of these shadowy figures. In them, shadowy as they are, in the twilight of far-off ages, the primal forces of humanity were embodied—in them its passionate aspirations seem to have their earliest, simplest, and most moving expression.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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