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the pilgrims. Passing along the subterranean gallery, through the long series of gaudy chapels, acts of idolatry are witnessed the grossness of which recalls the fetish worship of Africa. Even a coldly scientific geographer like Ritter cannot refrain from exclaiming, “Bethlehem has thus become a sacred name and a sacred place, although it is so poor and mean and unimportant; but unfortunately, to many who visit it, its higher significance is lost; they kiss the wood of the manger, but it is mere dry wood to them—they miss the living Spirit which once began that earthly career there which had been prepared for it from before the foundation of the world.'" Leaving Bethlehem on the east, the road winds down a rocky slope, past fields of wheat and barley and terraced vineyards. Innumerable sheep and goats are seen on the hills around as in the days of Boaz and David. At the foot a level plain is reached, affording good pasturage, and dotted over with clumps of olive trees. This is called the Shepherds' Field, from the tradition that here they were keeping their flocks by night when the angels appeared to them. Soon the scenery becomes wild and desolate. In no part of the world have I seen anything with which to compare it. If the chalkdowns of the South of England were denuded of grass, were heaved up and tossed about in the throes of an earthquake, and the sides of the hills thus formed were cut into ravines by the fury of winter torrents, it would afford some illustration of the weird desolation of this Wilderness of Judaea. The gorge of the Kedron runs steeply down from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, a descent of nearly four thousand feet. The wadies which seam the mountain-sides are dry in the summer, but in the winter they form the beds of roaring torrents. Now and then a glimpse of the Dead Sea is gained— the deep blue of its waters gaining an additional intensity from the red or purple of the mountains of Moab, which form the background of the landscape. The black tents of the Bedouin, their flocks and herds feeding on the mountain-sides, an Arab horseman, or a string of camels with their noiseless tread, are the only signs of life in this region of sterility. In about three hours from Bethlehem, the CoNVENT OF MAR SABA is reached. It stands on the edge of the gorge of the Kedron, here from a thousand to twelve hundred feet deep, the rocky sides of which are almost precipitous, and at the bottom of the ravine are only a few yards apart. Looked at from beneath, parts of the building are seen to be literally clamped to the perpendicular walls of rock, and hang perilously over the abyss. Other portions of the edifice are constructed in chambers cut out of the mountain-side. The labyrinth of caves, chambers, and passages is most bewildering. Only an inmate of the convent can find his way from one part to another. What may be called the land side of the monastery is enclosed by a high wall of great thickness. The only entrance is by a massive gate, * Comparative Geography of Palestine. By Carl Ritter, Vol. iii. p. 339.
CONVENT OF MAR SABA. 55
through which no one is admitted unless vouched for by the Greek patriarch at Jerusalem. Bedouin and women are not admitted at all. The former for the obvious reason that on several occasions, having forced their way in, they massacred all the inmates. Ladies are excluded, because, as Miss Martineau bitterly expresses it, “the monks are too holy to be hospitable.' The rule of the monastery is very rigid. The monks never eat meat, and subject themselves to severe austerities. Though there is a valuable library, it seems to be
CONVENT OF MAR SABA.
entirely unused; indeed, a majority of the ascetics are unable to read, and their only recreation consists in drinking raki, and in feeding the birds and jackals, which are very numerous. Only once, when I crossed the Mer de Glace at midnight, have I seen anything to compare with the wild, unearthly impressiveness of one view of this famous monastery. We had encamped at nightfall about a couple of miles above Mar Saba. The stars were shining with extraordinary brilliancy in a cloudless sky, and the moon was just coming above the horizon. I suggested an excursion along the bottom of the ravine, so as to see the convent from beneath. On proposing this to the sheikh, he of course declared that it was impossible, no one had ever done it— there was no road—he would not answer for our heads if we attempted it, with much more to the same purpose. But finding us determined to make a start, and that there was a prospect of backshish, he withdrew his objections and despatched a party of Bedouin as guides and escort. The bottom of the gorge was in almost total darkness, but we could see the jagged peaks overhead, silvered with the moonlight. Stumbling along the dry bed of the Kedron, winding in and out amongst huge boulders, scrambling over masses of rock which blocked up the narrow passage, we made our way down the valley. No sound was heard, save our own footsteps and the howling of jackals. Every now and then, emerging silently as a ghost from behind a projecting crag or from the mouth of a cave, a Bedouin, armed with his long gun, would step forward, speak a few words to our escort, and then silently disappear. At length we reach a point immediately beneath the convent. The moon had now risen high enough to pour a flood of intense white light upon it whilst we were still wrapped in gloom. It seemed to be detached from earth, and to hang suspended in the heavens. The solitary palm tree, said to have been planted by St. Saba himself, stood out clear and distinct, every frond relieved against the deep blue of the sky behind it. Even our Bedouin escort seemed awed and impressed by the wild weird grandeur of the view. The Valley of Kedron begins its course on the east side of the Temple at Jerusalem, and runs down to the Dead Sea, through a barren, arid, waterless waste. It is thus the probable scene of the prophetic vision in which Ezekiel beholds the glory of ‘the latter days,' when waters, issuing from beneath the altar, shall flow eastward in an ever-deepening stream, bringing with them fertility and beauty wherever they come. ‘Very many trees’ are seen to spring up along its banks on either side. Reaching the bitter, stagnant, poisonous waters of the Dead Sea, the desolate solitudes become the haunts of busy life. Fishers spread their nets from En-Eglaim to En-gedi, for the fish have become as ‘the fish of the great sea, exceeding many.’ ‘And by the river, upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for meat, whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed : it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine.” Reading such promises of future blessings amid these desolate and sterile regions, we are impressively reminded that when ‘the Spirit be poured upon us from on
* Ezek. xlvii. 1-12. Compare Rev. xxii. 1, 2 : where the symbolism of the Old Testament is adopted in the New, but listed up into a higher sphere with the promise of yet diviner blessings.