by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.
Philologos Religious Online Books
The Holy Land and the Bible
A Book of Scripture Illustrations gathered in Palestine
Cunningham Geikie D.D.
With a Map of Palestine and Original Illustrations by H. A. Harper
Ascalon lies on the sea-shore, about twelve miles north of Gaza. We had two horses already, and hiring two more, and a man as caretaker, at the cost of eight shillings for the day's service of the three, the commissariat for them included, we set off, after an early breakfast, a cavalcade of four—the missionary, his wife, a Levantine who spoke English, and myself—for the ruins of the great Crusading fortress. You ride out of the town to the west, through orchards shut in by hedges of prickly pear and mud walls, the reverse of picturesque. These, however, soon end, in this direction, and are succeeded by sand-hills, reaching to the sea three miles off, the journey across them being wearisome in the extreme. One could imagine himself travelling over a sand-ocean; long waves of yellow desolation rising in apparently endless succession, though interrupted here and there by reaches of hard soil quite as barren. Some of these looked specially weird, from the vast quantities of broken pottery—handles, mouths, spouts, and nameless fragments of all sizes and shapes—strewn everywhere over them, like the bones of an old cemetery. They doubtless mark the site of former towns or villages, yet not necessarily very ancient ones, since the really old surface of the land must, for the most part, be buried under the sand. How is it that such quantities of potsherds cover the face of so many spots in Palestine? Even at Gerar, on the way to Beersheba, where there has been no settled community for ages, it is the same. At Memphis, in Lower Egypt, the ground is covered for miles with a rain of broken pottery, as if all the broken ware of the region, from the days of Menes, had come to the surface. Their crockery was no doubt as precious to the housewives of the Land of Promise, or of the Nile valley, as to the matrons of other countries, so that there can be only one explanation of the myriads of fragments so often met on ancient sites in the East: they must have accumulated during thousands of years, and the pottery that yielded such a harvest of sherds must have been wondrously brittle.
That it is so at present anyone who has tried to bring homes samples must have found by sad experience; and the native women and girls have the same lament. "The pitcher broken at the fountain" (Eccl 12:6) is a constant sorrow to the poor mothers and maidens; the least want of care in setting even a large jar down on the ground often sufficing to shiver it into a heap of fragments. Job could have found no difficulty in putting his hand on as many potsherds as he wished, when sitting on the town dust-hill, seeking a rude scraper for his body, in his misery (2:8).
The stalks of grass which had bravely shown themselves for a time gradually disappeared, and so did the small flowers which had bordered the lanes at our starting, yet even among these desolate sand-hills there were oases more or less fertile, whether from the old surface being protected by the conformation of the ground, or as a triumph of industry over the restless sand, which stubbornly advances with every breath of wind. Right and left of us, at a distance, were open plantations of olives, and even some gardens; water, no doubt, being found near them. Passing these, and crossing a sandy tract in which the horses sank to the fetlocks, we reached the low bluffs, forty or fifty feet high, near the shore, and, descending, were on the beach. A hill near was pointed out to me by the missionary as that to which General Gordon used to retire three times a day to read his Bible and pray, when he and my friend were living together in a tent on the strand.
As we walked the horses along, some Arab boys on their knees were busy at one spot scooping out holes in the sand, near the water's edge, for the purpose, it appeared, of getting fresh water for some poor lean cattle, which, at the moment, were scrambling down to it from the bluff as best they could. Such close neighbourhood of the sea and drinkable springs seems strange, but it is easily explained: the water, filtering down from the higher ground behind in seeking its level comes near the surface just at the edge of the waves. It put me in mind of a plan I once saw adopted by an Indian on Lake Huron for filtering river-water which was black with pine-juice, and thus making it drinkable. He simply scooped a hollow in the bank, so low that the black water found its way into it through the sand, which kept back all impurities. Necessity is ever the mother of invention. I tasted the water in the hollows made by the Arab boys, and found it quite sweet.
The low hills or cliffs, varying in height from thirty to sixty feet, ran parallel with the shore as we travelled on; here, only fifty or sixty yards from the water; elsewhere, three or four times as far back; the sand hard and firm near the sea; loose and dry nearer the bluffs. Beds of sea-shells strewed the beach, chiefly those of limpets and clams. Thousands of larger and smaller blue jelly-fish lay near the water, left high and dry by the waves; sand-pipers ran in small flocks along the edge of the shallows, and gulls, in numbers, sailed overhead. There was no sign of vegetation at first, but after a time a sprinkling of wiry grass showed itself, here and there, where the bluffs receded. Two Arabs, leading camels laden with squared stones from the ruins of Ascalon, for use in some building at Gaza, were the only living creatures to be seen, except the birds, and the few starved cattle at the beginning of the ride. Only one stream entered the sea—a very small one when I saw it, but formidable enough, I was assured, after rains. It flowed through a break in the cliffs, after draining a wide stretch of marshy land dotted with flags, beyond which a wady reaches across the plain to the mountains of Judæa, which in winter pour out their torrents through this channel.
Ascalon is approached, from the cliffs, over a long waving tract of hard sandy ground, sprinkled with wiry grass. The sea-cliffs retire in a semicircle as you reach the walls, which, indeed, were built on the vantage-ground thus provided, the space within sinking to a rich hollow, famous in all ages for its abundant supply of water. The sand of the beach is invaded, at each end of the arc, by an outcrop of low sandy knolls, the edge of a plateau running back into the country; their undulating surface of hard gravelly sand strewn with potsherds, and shimmering with faint green when one looks across it, though nearly bare under-foot. The walls of the grand old fortress rise in a half-circle from the top of the ridge, originally a cliff sixty or seventy feet high, but now a smooth but steep slope of drifted sand, both outside and within. On this stand the massive fragments of the walls, which stretch round like a deeply-bent bow; the sea being the bow-string. Not a house is to be seen in the space they gird, once noisy with the hum of men. Huge masses of thick wall lie here and there on the inner slope, or on the beach, as if thrown down by earthquakes. Looking from the top of the mouldering rampart, the whole amphitheatre once occupied by the town was before me, but it showed only a few confused ruins; yonder, a long wall with a number of Gothic window-spaces marking where the cathedral had once stood; at another place, an arch, the remains of a Crusading sanctuary. But amidst this wreck, unconquerable forces of nature, left free to display themselves, have vindicated their might; for the whole space within the yellow fringe of sand that slopes down only too far, looks like a mighty emerald set in a broad circlet of gold. One would never suspect, from appearances, that you need only dig a few feet below the rich soil to lay bare the skeleton of the once mighty Ascalon. Gardens and orchards, fenced with rude stone walls or prickly pear, and waving with palms, fig-trees, sycamores, tamarisks, olives, Johannisbrod trees, the lemon and the almond, and with patches of barley, flourish over the grave of long-buried generations. It is a sight almost unrivalled in Palestine, and all the more charming from the desolation around. The fig-trees were putting forth their leaves, so that some peasants at work could seek the cool of their shade at noon. Here and there vines—the best in Palestine—were budding, close up to the slope of sand. Two or three peasants in turbans and loose cotton shirts and drawers, bare-legged and with bare brown arms, were sowing or planting cucumbers, beans, and onions. Ascalon has always been famous for the last vegetable; the French word for one kind of them—echalotes, our "shalots"—being only a corruption of ascaloniæ, their name in the Middle Age Latin of the Crusades. Abundant water has made the little valley a paradise, for thirty-seven wells dug by the Crusaders, all sweet, and always full, still rejoice the hearts of the fellahin.
Two Arabs—one without a grey hair, though over sixty, with fine features, a pruning-hook scimitar-shaped and toothed, and a wooden pipe, in his hands, his head covered with a turban, a white "abba" reaching to his knees; the other still older, in a brown striped "abba" and a turban—both bare-legged, and with bare arms; one bare-footed, the other with the roughest of leather slippers—came up the slope of sand inside the walls, to where, thoroughly exhausted, we had thrown ourselves down under the shade of a fragment of wall, to enjoy the shadow of a great rock in a weary land (Isa 32:2). Full of humour, they chatted and laughed with my friend, who spoke Arabic fluently. The country, they said, was waiting for some of the great nations to come and take it; it could never remain under its present government. The two waited about till we left, one of them kindly fetching water to us from a cistern in the valley.
Having rested a while, I mounted again to ride round the walls, but it proved an impossible task, the way being barred by ruins after I had gone two-thirds of the circle. The fragments of walls that remain are built of small-sized pieces of the sandstone of the ridge below, set in a wondrous mortar, largely composed of sea-shells, and harder than the stones it holds together. Remains of the proud towers that once rose at intervals as flank defences are still to be seen—the Maiden, the Shield, the Bloody Tower, the Admiral's, and the Bedouin's.* Looking out from these, the warders of 700 years ago could watch all that approached from the plains; an outstanding fort, still seen in ruins, helping them to have as wide a sweep as possible, and guarding the way to the great fortress from the military road in the interior. The ever-encroaching sands, fine as dust, have blown in through the rifts and fissures in the walls, and at some points have overwhelmed the rich garden-space. To the east, the whole neighbourhood lies under a winding-sheet of sand, through which in some places the tops of fences, and olive and fig trees, still struggle. The great gate stood on this side, towards the land, opening into the town by a side passage through a projecting mass of wall. A smaller gate can also be traced on the south-west. The city inside the walls once stretched five-eighths of a mile from north to south, and three-eighths from west to east; not a very large place, according to Western notions. The bottom of one of the towers, twenty feet across and six feet high, lies overturned, on the east, while fragments still erect seem to defy time and the elements. All along the walls great pillars of Egyptian granite, one of them seventeen feet long and a yard across, are built into the masonry to bind it together, or have fallen to the ground. Herod the Great had brought these from Assouan, at tremendous cost, to beautify the city which boasted of being his birthplace, but the Crusaders, troubled by no reverence for antiquity, utilised them to strengthen the defences. Some indeed may have been much older than the time of Herod, for an inscription on the walls of Karnak informs us that Ascalon was taken by King Rameses the Second, the Egyptian oppressor of Israel. Marble bases and Corinthian capitals of pillars lay among the gardens, and at some points, columns, discovered by digging a slight depth, were waiting to be broken up and carried away as building-stone, or to be burned into lime. I counted twenty deep and beautifully-built cisterns, of hewn stone—each with a well-plastered tank at its side—still in daily use, 700 years after they had been made by the Crusaders. But even these are not safe from mean cupidity: for their carefully-chiselled stones are worth money in Gaza and in the villages of the Philistine plain, and are therefore carried off thither on asses, or, as we saw by the way, on camels. Here and there were heaps of small fragments of pillars and cut stones gathered from the surface, even the paths between the gardens being filled deep with them, so that it was not easy to ride through. Larger pieces of marble, often showing traces of fair sculpture, abounded, as did round stones of pillars, apparently broken apart to obtain the lead clamps that bound them together. The ropes at the wells were let down over marble columns laid prostrate, deep grooves in these showing how many centuries they had been in use.
Unfortunately for Ascalon, though the line of cliffs recedes in a half-circle from the shore where the city stood, the line of the shore itself had no indentation to form a harbour. The inducement to make it a town therefore lay in the rich soil and the delicious climate of the little bay of land. No keel or sail now parts or shadows the sea at the spot once so famous, and even in past ages, with sea-walls and breakwaters to shelter them in some measure, ships must always have been very insecure when lying in the so-called port. It could never indeed have been a proper harbour, for there is no sign of a creek or inlet of the sea to shelter vessels. It was in fact so difficult to approach the city by water, in the times of the Crusaders, in spite of the moles and piers which they had constructed, that one of them informs us no craft could enter it for eight days after the army had landed, on January 4th, 1192. Provision boats at last got in, but the storm returned, and the troops began again to be in want before the boats could come back to revictual the place.
It was touching to stand amidst such ruins and recall the hoary past. Before Israel left Egypt, Ascalon was one of the five cities of the Philistines; indeed it had been taken, as we have seen, by the great Rameses, the contemporary of Moses. In the time of the Judges, while the Hebrews were urged on by their first enthusiasm, it fell for a short time into the hands of the tribe of Judah (Judg 1:18), but only to be soon retaken by its old population, in whose hands it permanently remained. The temple of Derketo, the Phœnician Venus, seems to have stood beside the still flowing stream of the Wady-el-Hesy, the waters offering the opportunity of preserving the fish sacred to her, in pools made for their use.* It seems strange, with our notions, that an image which was half woman and half fish should be worshiped, but antiquity was the childhood of the world, and symbols were therefore natural to it. Like Dagon, her male complement, Derketo had come to Palestine through the Phœnicians, or, perhaps, had been brought by the Philistines themselves, when they migrated, in pre-historic ages, from the east to the west. In any case, it was in keeping with the position of the people of Ascalon, on the shore of the great sea, that in their worship of the reproductive powers of nature they should select the fish as the emblem of fecundity. For ages, men and women thronged to her altars, the warlike and yet keenly commercial Philistines retaining their existence as a nation—at intervals, indeed, dependent—till Alexander the Great finally crushed them. From that time Egypt and Syria raised their standards, by turns, on the old walls of Ascalon till it fell into the hands of the Jews under the Maccabees (1 Macc 10:86, 11:60). David, in his touching lament over the fall of Saul and Jonathan on Mount Gilboa, had cried, "Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ascalon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph."** But the sun of the once mighty people had now sunk for ever. Jeremiah had foretold that "he that holdeth the sceptre is cut off from Ascalon; it is a desolation; it is no more inhabited; it is a desolation" (25:20, 47:5-7), and the curse was beginning to be fulfilled. Its full accomplishment, however, was for a time delayed.
** 2 Sam 1:20. The Ascalon noticed in the history of Samson may have been a town of that name near his own country in the hills. He could hardly have ventured into a great place like the sea-side Ascalon to slay thirty Philistines.
The hope of the peasant at Ascalon, that some of the Frank nations would soon come and take Palestine, is common to the whole population. Turkish government consists simply in collecting the taxes and quelling tumults, which often break out through oppression. The crops are assessed before the harvest, and are frequently left till over-ripe, the owner having to bribe the official with a larger share of them, to secure his coming in time to save what is left, before all the grain falls out of the dry ears. The taxes moreover are fixed without any regard to the amount of the crops, good years and bad having to pay alike, though nothing be left to the poor tiller of the ground. Bashi-Bazouks are sent out to gather the grain or fruit claimed by Government, a fact that helps one to realise the extortion and villainy that follow. The Turk is the king of the locusts, his officials their desolating army. If the "kaimaean," or governor, goes out with the soldiers, he and his followers must be fed and housed in the best style at the cost of the village. The soldiers also live at free quarters, and fleece the unhappy peasants at their will.
It has often been a question whether the word ("tappuah") translated "apples" and "apple-tree" in our Bible (Song 2:3,5, 7:8, 8:5; Prov 25:11; Joel 1:12) should be so rendered. Tristram, among others, thinks that this fruit "barely exists in the Holy Land," since, though a few trees are found in the gardens of Joppa, they do not thrive, and have a wretched woody fruit. He says, moreover, that he scarcely ever saw the apple-tree till he reached Damascus, except on a few very high situations in Lebanon.* On the other hand, Dr. Thomson maintains that "Ascalon is especially celebrated for its apples, which are the largest and best I have seen in this country,"** and Sir Charles Warren specifies apples as amongst the fruits the locality yields.*** Dr. Otto Delitzsch,**** also, has no hesitation in thinking the apple is meant, noting how widely it must have been grown in former times from the fact that towns are called after it, as Tappuah, "Apple-town"; Beth-Tappuah, "the Home of the Apple"; and En-Tappuah, "the Apple Fountains" (Josh 12:17, 15:34,53, 16:8, 17:7); and adding that it is still grown in various parts of Palestine. That it does grow at Ascalon and in the country round, is beyond dispute, as my friend at Gaza was invited to rent an apple-orchard, and tells me that the fruit is both good and plentiful. It is possible, however, that the Hebrew word may stand for the quince as well as the apple, just as melon, in Greek, means the apple or the quince, the peach, the orange or citron, or the apricot,^ though in each case the name of the country from which the particular fruit first came is affixed, to secure exactness. Tristram thinks Dr. Thomson may have mistaken the quince for the apple, and has no hesitation in expressing his conviction that the apricot alone is the apple of Scripture. Yet Dr. Thomson says that he saw quite a caravan start from Ascalon for Jerusalem laden with apples which would not have disgraced even an American orchard, and I was informed in Jerusalem that the fruit, native-grown, is common in the market in autumn.
** Land and Book, p. 545.
*** Picturesque Palestine, iii. 166.
**** Riehm, p. 68.
^ Liddell and Scott.
In returning we did not reach the sand-hills leading to Gaza till dark: an awkward matter, even with a plain and well-known road, but still more so with the ghastly sand stretching out in the faint moonlight, everywhere alike white. Our guide, who had kept faithfully with us for half the journey back, had been invisible for some time, having very likely taken a short cut to Gaza over the dunes, before sunset. What was to be done? Our lady comrade feared we should have to make the sand our coverlet for the night. The Levantine and the missionary, however, declared they knew the way; only follow them and all would be well. But it was soon clear that they had lost their reckonings, if ever they had any. To make matters worse, the moon hid herself behind clouds. "We wandered east, we wandered west; we wandered many a mile," as the old ballad says, but at last a tree or two could be made out, and we knew that the gardens of Gaza were near. Yet, at what part of them were we, for they stretch along for miles? Moreover, the paths, when we reached them, were far from safe. At one spot I had noticed a deep excavation across almost the whole road; a pit, made, I was told, by the shopkeepers of the town, to get sand to strew in their booths; for, within wide limits, every man, under the indolent rule of the Turk, does what is good in his own eyes. It was now ten o'clock, and the narrow lanes between the gardens seemed a repetition of Rosamond's bower. We might have repeated, like Sterne's starling, "We can't get out." Hope seemed laughing at us. At last the wretched dogs proved our unintentional friends. We had reached their happy hunting-grounds, and they forthwith gave voice from every garden, till in the end they roused a watchman from his slumbers, and brought him to see what had happened. A boy whom he sent soon ended the comedy, and led us safely home, somewhere about eleven o'clock, tired and hungry enough.
In a town like Gaza the bark of dogs and the call of the muezzin to prayer are almost the only sounds that disturb either day or night. Five times a day a voice is heard from the minarets of the mosques, summoning the faithful to their devotions—at sunset, when it has grown quite dark, at daybreak, at noon, and midway in the afternoon. At sunrise, noon, and sunset, the muezzin lets the exact moment pass before raising his call, the Prophet having wished it to be so, since infidels prayed at these three times, and it would never do for the prayers of his followers to enter heaven along with those of unbelievers. The cry rises solemnly four times, "God is most great." Then follows, twice, "I testify that there is no God but God"; then comes, also twice, "I testify that Mahomet is the apostle of God"; then twice, again, "Come to prayer"; once more, twice, "Come to security"; then, twice, "God is most great," and "There is no God but God." The whole is changed to a special air, and sound far better, in my opinion, than the jangle of bells which takes its place with us. Among the Hebrews the blast of a ram's-horn trumpet from the Temple served the same purpose, but the Jews seem to have had only three fixed hours of prayer (Psa 55:17; Dan 6:10)—"evening," or the ninth hour, that is, three o'clock in the afternoon, when the evening sacrifice was offered (Acts 3:1,10; Dan 9:21); "the morning," or third hour, the time of the morning sacrifice, that is, nine o'clock; and the sixth hour, or noon-day. Some, however, like the author of the 119th Psalm, could not content themselves with this rule, but paid their devotions "seven times a day"; adding their private prayers to those fixed by general custom.
As the Mahommedans turn their faces in worship to their holiest sanctuary at Mecca, so the Jews turned towards the Temple at Jerusalem in their devotions (1 Kings 8:44-48; Dan 6:10; Psa 5:7, 28:2, 138:2); and just as the former, even now, kneel down wherever they happen to be when the proper hour arrives, so the ancient Jews stood and prayed wherever they might be at the appointed times; some of them, of no great worth, taking care that the moment should overtake them when they were in the most public places, such as the corners of the streets (Matt 6:5). Their descendants still, in their universal dispersion, follow the same practice, turning their faces, wherever they may be, towards their beloved Jerusalem. To enable them to do so in their synagogues, the door is placed, if possible, so that the worshipper as he enters shall face the far-distant sacred spot, just as in mosques there is a niche to indicate the point to which the supplications should be addressed. It has been the same in many religions from the earliest times. The twenty-five apostate elders seen by the prophet in his vision (Eze 8:16) had their backs turned to the Temple and their faces to the east, to worship the rising sun, and it may have been with the intention of preventing this that the Temple entrance was on the east, so that the worshipper looked westward in directing his prayers to the Holy of Holies. Like the Sun-Worshippers, the Greeks and Romans prayed towards the east, so building their temples and placing the statues of the god worshiped in them that every one should approach in the proper direction.
I hardly know a more touching sight than the hour of prayer in the East. Rich and poor forthwith set their faces to the holy place of their faith, sometimes after spreading their prayer-carpet, often with no such preparation, and begin their devotions in absolute indifference to all around them; now bowing the head, then kneeling and touching the earth repeatedly with their brow; presently rising again, and repeating their homage and prostrations to the Unseen with the utmost fervour. Among the Hebrews, in the same way, the postures of devotion included standing, kneeling, and bending to the earth, the hands being lifted up or spread out before Jehovah;* and it will be remembered that in the only instance in which the posture of our Lord in prayer is recorded, He first kneeled, and then fell prostrate on the ground (Luke 22:41; Mark 14:35).
The palm lent itself readily to sacred imagery. The Psalmist, who daily saw it—"planted in the house of the Lord, and flourishing in the courts of our God, bringing forth fruit in old age, and full of sap and green" (Psa 92:13), employs it as an emblem of the righteous, than which nothing could be more striking or appropriate. It is still borne by pilgrims on Palm Sunday, in commemoration of Christ's entry into Jerusalem; the bier of His followers is often covered with it, as a symbol of their victory over death, and the great multitude of the redeemed in glory are pictured as standing "before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands" (Rev 7:9).