The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter X 25

My Journey to Damascus

(1869-1870)

The East is a Career.

Disraeli's Tancred.

I shall not readily forget the evening of Thursday, December 16, 1869. I had a terrible parting from my dear ones, especially from my mother. As a Frenchman would say, “Je quittais ma mère.” We all dined together — the last dinner — at five o’clock, and three hours later I set out for the station. My brothers and sister came down to Victoria to see me off, and at the last moment my brother Rudolph decided to accompany me to Dover, for which I was truly thankful. It was a wild night, and the express to Dover rushed through the raging winter storm. My mind was a curious mixture of exultation and depression, and with it all was a sense of supernormal consciousness that something of this had been enacted before. About a fortnight previously I dreamed one of my curious dreams. I thought that I came to a small harbour, and it was as black as night, and the wind was sobbing up mournfully, and there were two steamers in the harbour, waiting. One refused to go out, but the other went, and came to grief. So in the train, as we tore along, I prayed silently that I might have a sign from Heaven, and it should be that one captain should refuse to go. Between my prayers my spirits rose and fell. They rose because my destination was Damascus, the dream of my childhood. I should follow the footsteps of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Lady Hester Stanhope, the Princess de la Tour d’Auvergne, that trio of famous European women who lived of their own choice a thoroughly Eastern life, and of whom I looked to make a fourth. They fell because I was leaving behind me my home, my family, and many dear ties in England, without any definite hope of return.

We arrived at Dover, and walked to the boat, and could hardly keep on our legs for the wind. When I set out to embark, lo! there were two steamers. The Ostend boat refused to go out; the other one was preparing to start. Now I was most anxious to sail without an hour’s delay, but I turned to my brother and said, “Rody, if it is my duty to go I will go, for I do not like to stay on my own responsibility. I am scrupulous about Dick’s time and money, and he told me to lose no time.” The answer was, “Duty be damned! I won’t let you go.” Still I hesitated, and as I was between the ways an old sailor stepped out of the darkness as I stood on the quay, and said, “Go home, missie; I haven’t seen such a night this forty year.” I remembered my dream, and decided.

I turned into the nearest shelter, a small inn opposite the boats, so as to be able to start at daylight; and the result justified my foresight. The captain of the first vessel, by which I had intended to go, went out. After shipping awful seas, and being frightfully knocked about, he moored some way off Calais Pier; but the sea and the wind drove the boat right on to it, and carried away one of the paddles, the tiller, and hurt several passengers. The waves drove her backwards and forwards on to the pier like a nutshell for half an hour, and she was nearly going down, but some smacks hauled her off and out to sea again. She beat about all night, and returned to Dover in a pitiable plight, having neither landed the passengers nor the baggage.

It was thus I met her when I embarked on the other boat at nine o’clock the next morning. The weather was terribly rough even then, but at least we had the advantage of daylight. We had a rough passage, the sea mountains high; but we reached Calais eventually, where I managed to get some food at the buffet, such as it was, but I had to sit on the floor with a plate on my lap, so great and rude was the crowd. The boat accident caused me to miss my proper train to Marseilles, and to lose two of my many trunks. It would almost seem as if some malignant spirit had picked these two trunks out, for the one contained nearly all my money, and the other all my little comforts for the journey. I had to decide at once between missing my passage at Marseilles and forsaking my missing trunks. I decided to go on, and leave them to look after themselves. Six months later they turned up at Damascus safe and sound. We travelled through the weary night and most of the next day, and only reached Marseilles at 5 p.m., after having met with many contretemps and discomforts. I at once went on board, arranged my cabin, did all my little business, and went back alone to the hotel to have a hot bath and a cutlet, having been nearly forty-eight hours on the road without rest or stopping.

Our ship was one of the P. & O. floating hotels, superbly fitted. We steamed out from Marseilles at half-past nine the next morning. It was a great pleasure to exchange the fogs and cold of England for the climate of the sunny, smiling south, the olive groves, and the mother-o’-pearl sea; yet these beauties of Nature have no meaning in them when the heart feels lonely and desolate, as mine did then.

Yet on the whole I had a very pleasant passage from Marseilles to Alexandria. We had not more than fifty passengers on board, all Anglo-Indians, and middling class. I got a very nice cabin forward, all to myself, with my maid. The ship was full of young married couples going out to India. They were not used to ships, and were evidently unaware of the ventilators at the top of the cabin, so at night one got the full benefit of their love-making. One night, for instance, I heard a young bride fervently calling upon her “Joey” to kiss her. It was amusing at first, but afterwards it became rather monotonous. I did not know a soul on board with whom I could exchange ideas, and I kept as much as possible to myself without appearing rude. I was asked to choose my place at table, and I humbly chose one some way down; but the captain asked me to move up to the seat of honour on his right hand, and I felt quite at a loss to account for the distinction, because not a soul on board knew anything about me. I did not find the captain, though, a bad companion. He was a short, fat, dark, brisk little man, just the sort of man a captain and a sailor should be. I am glad to say he had not the slightest idea of being unduly attentive. The conversation was dull at table. The ladies talked chiefly about Colonel “This” and Captain “That,” peppering their conversation with an occasional Hindustani word, a spice of Anglo-Indian gossip, and plentiful regimentalisms, such as “griffin,” “tiffen,” “the Staff,” and “gymkhana,” all of which was Greek to me.

Take it all round, the six days’ passage was not so bad. I particularly admired the coast of Sicily, the mountains rising one above another, Etna smoking in the distance, the sea like glass, and the air adding a sensuous charm, a soft, balmy breeze like the Arabian seas. Yet, as I had been spoiled by Brazilian scenery, I did not go into the same ecstasies over it as my fellow-passengers. We spent Christmas Eve as our last night on board. In the evening we went in for snapdragon and other festivities of the season, and tried to be as merry as we could. The ship could not go into the harbour of Alexandria at night; it has a dangerous entrance; so we sent up our rockets and blue-lights, and remained outside the lighthouse till dawn.

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The Boulevart, Alexandria

On Christmas Day morning I first set my foot on Eastern ground. We steamed into the harbour of Alexandria slowly; everybody was going on to India except me, and I landed. The first thing I did was to go straight to a telegraph office and pay nineteen shillings and sixpence for a telegram to Richard at Beyrout, which of course arrived there after I did. I cannot say that I was struck with Alexandria; in point of fact, I mentally called it “a hole,” in vulgar parlance. I went to the Hôtel de l’Europe, a second-rate hotel, though one of the best in Alexandria. It was not so bad as might have been expected. In the afternoon we made a party up to see Pompey’s Pillar and Cleopatra’s Needle and the bazars and other things. But I am bound to say that, on the whole, I thought Alexandria “neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring.” It was a sort of a jumble of Eastern and Western, and the worst of each. The only amusing incident which happened to me there was when two dragomans got up a fictitious quarrel as to who should take me to the bazars. Of course they appealed to me, and I said, “You may both come, but I shall only pay one.” Whereupon they fastened upon each other tooth and nail, tore each other’s clothes, and bit each other’s cheeks. These two, though I never suspected it at the time, were, it appeared, in the habit of thus dealing with ladies and missionaries and amiable English tourists; and they always got up this farce, because, to avoid a street fight, the kindhearted looker-on would generally employ and pay them both, and perhaps give them a tip in addition to calm them down. But I innocently did the right thing without knowing it. I had so often seen negroes fight with knives in Brazil that the spectacle of two dragomans biting each other’s cheeks appeared to me to be supremely ridiculous. I laughed, and waited patiently until one of them pretended to be very much hurt. Then turning to the other, I said, “You seem the better man; I will take you”; and they were both very much crestfallen.

I spent the evening alone in my small room at the hotel. A strange Christmas truly.

Next morning I went on board the Russian Ceres, which was bound for Beyrout, a three days’ passage. It was an uneventful journey. The best thing about the boat was the caviare, which was delicious. The deck was simply filthy, as it was crowded with Orientals from every part of the East, all nations and creeds and tongues. But it was the most interesting part of the ship to me, as I had always been dreaming of the East. Each of these Eastern families had their mattresses and their prayer-carpets, on which they seemed to squat night and day. No matter how rough or how seasick, they were always there saying their prayers, or devouring their food, or dozing, or reclining on their backs. Occasionally they chanted their devotions through their noses. I could not help laughing at the sound; and when I laughed they did the same. I used to bring all the sweets out of the saloon for the children, so they were always glad to see me. The other passengers thought it passing strange that I should elect to spend the whole of my days with “Eastern rabble.”

We passed Port Said and got to Jaffa in about two days. I was not impressed with Jaffa. The town looks like dirty, well-rubbed dice running down the side of a conical-shaped, green hill. Here I sent another telegram to Damascus to Richard — the Russian Vice-Consul kindly took charge of it — but all the same it never reached its destination, though I am certain it was not the Consul’s fault. At Jaffa we picked up an Effendi and his harím, and two Italian musicians, who played the concertina and guitar. The latter pair confided in me, and said they had made a mariage de coeur, and were really very hard up, in fact dependent on their talent; so I hit on a plan to help them. I asked the captain to let us have a little music after breakfast and dinner. They played, and I carried round the plate, and my gleanings paid their passage and something more. As for the Effendi’s harím she was carefully veiled and wrapped up in an izár, or sheet, and confined to her cabin, except when she was permitted at rare intervals to appear on deck. Her Effendi jealously watched her door, to see that nobody went in but the stewardess. However, she freely unveiled before me. I was not impressed with her charms, and I thought what a fine thing the sheet and the veil would be to some of our European women. There is an irresistible suggestion of concealed charm about them. It was my first experience of a real harím.

On the third day, very early, we anchored off Beyrout. The town as viewed from the water’s edge is beautiful. Its base is washed by the blue Mediterranean. It straggles along the coast and crawls up part of the lower hills. The yellow sand beyond the town, and the dark green pine forests which surround it, contrast well with the deep blue bay and the turquoise skies. It is backed by the splendid range of the Lebanon. The air is redolent with the smell of pine wood. Every town in the East has its peculiar odour, and when once you have been in one you can tell it blindfold afterwards. I went ashore, and put up at a clean and comfortable hotel facing the sea, which was kept by a Greek. This hotel later on came to be to my eyes the very centre of civilization; for during our sojourn at Damascus Beyrout was our Biarritz, and this little hotel the most luxurious house in Syria. Here I had breakfast, and after that I called on our Consul-General. His wife was ill in bed, but he asked me kindly to remain to luncheon, and showed me how to smoke my first narghíleh. I was very anxious to start at once for Damascus, but the diligence had gone. So I had to stop, willy-nilly, for the night at Beyrout. In the evening the Duchesse de Persigny arrived from Damascus, and sent me word that she would like to dine with me. Of course I was delighted. She gave me some news of Richard, and enlivened my dinner very much by anecdotes of Damascus. She was a very witty, eccentric woman, as every one knows who had to do with her when she was in England. She had many adventures in Damascus, which she related to me in her racy, inimitable way. It didn’t sound so bad in French, but I fear her humour was a trifle too spicy to bear translation into plain English prose. When I got to Damascus, I heard a good deal more about her “goings on” there.

I went to bed, but not to sleep, for it seemed to me that I was at the parting of the ways. Tomorrow I was to realize the dream of my life. I was to leave behind me everything connected with Europe and its petty civilization, and wend my way to “The Pearl of the East.” As soon as you cross the Lebanon Range you quit an old life for a new life, you forsake the new world and make acquaintance with the old world, you relapse into a purely oriental and primitive phase of existence.

Early the next morning “the private carriage” which the Consul-General had kindly obtained for me, a shabby omnibus drawn by three old screws, made its appearance. I was to drive in it over the Lebanons, seventy-two miles, to Damascus; so I naturally viewed it with interest, not unmingled with apprehension. Quite a little crowd assembled to see me off, and watched with interest while my English maid, a large pet St. Bernard dog, my baggage, and myself were all squeezed into the omnibus or on top of it. The Consul-General sent his kawwass as guard. This official appeared a most gorgeous creature; with silver-mounted pistols and all sorts of knives and dangling things hanging about him. He rejoiced in the name of Sakharaddín, which I pronounced “Sardine,” and this seemed to afford great amusement to the gaping crowd which had assembled to see me off.

The drive from Beyrout to Damascus was charming, and it lasted two days.

First we drove over the Plain of Beyrout, behind the town. The roadside was lined with cactus hedges and rude cafés, which are filled on Sundays and holidays by all classes. They go to smoke, sip coffee and raki, and watch the passers-by. Immediately on arriving at the foot of the Lebanon, we commenced a winding, steep ascent, every turn of which gave charming views of the sea and of Beyrout, which we did not lose sight of for several hours. We wound round and round the ascent until Beyrout and the sea became invisible. The cold made me hungry, and I refreshed myself with some bread, hard-boiled eggs, and a cigarette. “Sardine” was keeping Ramadan, but the sight of these luxuries tempted him, and he broke his fast. I couldn’t help offering him something, he looked so wistful! At last we reached the top, and a glorious wintry sunset gave us a splendid view. It was of course midwinter, and one saw little of the boasted fertility of the Lebanon. After the beauties of Brazil the scenery looked to me like a wilderness of rock and sand, treeless and barren; the very mountains were only hills. I could not help contrasting the new world and the old. In Brazil, though rich in luxuriant vegetable and animal life, there is no history — all is new and progressive, but vulgar and parvenu; whereas Syria, in her abomination of desolation, is the old land, and she teems with relics of departed glory. I felt that I would rather abide with her, and mourn the past amid her barren rocks and sandy desert, than rush into the progress and the hurry of the new world.

We descended the Lebanon at a full canter into the Buká‘a Plain. On the road I met three strangers, who offered me a little civility when I was searching for a glass of water at a khan, or inn. As I was better mounted than they, I said that in the event of my reaching our night-halt first I would order supper and beds for them, and they informed me that every house on the road had been retenue for me, so that I was really making quite a royal progress. I was able to keep my promise to them. The halt was at Shtora, a little half-way inn kept by a Greek. The three travellers soon came up. We supped together and spent a pleasant evening. They turned out to be a French employé at the Foreign Office, a Bavarian minister on his travels, and a Swedish officer on leave.

The next morning we parted. My new acquaintances set out in an opposite direction, and I went on to Damascus. We trotted cheerfully across the rest of the Buká‘a Plain, and then commenced the ascent of the Anti-Lebanon. To my mind the Anti-Lebanon, off the beaten track, is wilder and more picturesque than the other range. The descent of the Anti-Lebanon we did at a good pace, but it seemed a long time until we landed on the plain Es Sáhará. That reached, compensation for the ugly scenery we had to pass through began when we entered a beautiful mountain defile, about two hours from Damascus. Here, between mountains, runs the road; and the Barada — the ancient Abana, they say — rushes through the mountains and by the roadside to water the gardens of Damascus.

Between Salahíyyeh and Damascus is a quarter of an hour’s ride through gardens and orchards. I had heard of them often, and of the beautiful white city, with her swelling domes, tapering minarets, and glittering golden crescents looming against the far horizon of the distant hills. So I had heard of Damascus, so I had pictured it, and so I often saw it later; but I did not see it thus on this my first entrance to it, for it was winter. As we rumbled along the carriage road I asked ever and again, “Where are the beautiful gardens of Damascus?” “Here,” said the kawwass, pointing to what in winter-time and to English eyes appeared only ugly shrubberies, wood clumps, and orchards. I saw merely scrubby woods bordered by green, which made a contrast to the utter sterility of Es Sáhará. We passed Dummar, a village which contains several summer villas belonging to the Wali (the Governor-General of Syria) and other personages. The Barada ran along the right of the road, and gradually broadened into the green Merj, which looked then like a village common. And thus I entered Damascus.

We passed a beautiful mosque, with the dome flanked by two slender minarets. I scarcely noticed it at the time, for I drove with all haste to the only hotel in Damascus — “Demetri’s.” It is a good house with a fine courtyard, which has orange and lemon trees, a fountain full of goldfish in it, and a covered gallery running round it. All this would have been cool and pleasant in the summer, but it was dark, damp, and dreary that winter evening. I must own frankly that my first impression of Damascus was not favourable, and a feeling of disappointment stole over me. It was very cold; and driving into the city as I did tired out, the shaky trap heaving and pitching heavily through the thick mire and slushy, narrow streets, filled with refuse and wild dogs, is, to speak mildly, not liable to give one a pleasant impression.

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Damascus, From the Desert

However, all my discomfort, depression, and disappointment were soon swallowed up in the joy of meeting Richard, who had also put up, pending my appearance, at this hotel. He came in about an hour after my arrival, and I found him looking ill and worn. After our first greetings were over he told me his reception at Damascus had been most cordial, but he had been dispirited by not getting any letters from me or telegrams. They all arrived in a heap some days after I came. And this explained how it was that he had not come to meet me at Beyrout, as I had expected him to do. In fact, I had felt sorely hurt that he had not come. But he told me he had gone to Beyrout over and over again to meet me, and I had not turned up, and now the steamer by which I had arrived was the only one which he had not gone to meet. He was feeling very low and sad about my nonappearance. It was therefore a joyful surprise for him when he came in from his lonely walk to find me settled down comfortably in his room. Though he greeted me in that matter-of-fact way with which he was wont to repress his emotions, I could feel that he was both surprised and overjoyed. He had already been three months at Damascus, and the climate and loneliness had had a bad effect upon him, both mentally and physically. However, we had a comfortable little dinner, the best that “Demetri’s” could give us, which was nothing special, and after dinner was over we warmed ourselves over a mangal, a large brass dish on a stand, full of live charcoal embers. Then we had a smoke, and began to discuss our plans for our new home.

It had taken me fifteen days and nights without stopping to come from London to Damascus.

25 The chapters on Damascus are compiled from letters and diaries of Lady Burton, and from some of the rough manuscript notes from which she wrote her Inner Life of Syria.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:33