Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter XXVI

The Prophet Damoor

For some hours I passed along the shores of the fair lake of Galilee; then turning a little to the westward, I struck into a mountainous tract, and as I advanced thenceforward, the lie of the country kept growing more and more bold. At length I drew near to the city of Safed. It sits as proud as a fortress upon the summit of a craggy height; yet because of its minarets and stately trees, the place looks happy and beautiful. It is one of the holy cities of the Talmud, and according to this authority, the Messiah will reign there for forty years before He takes possession of Sion. The sanctity and historical importance thus attributed to the city by anticipation render it a favourite place of retirement for Israelites, of whom it contains, they say, about four thousand, a number nearly balancing that of the Mahometan inhabitants. I knew by my experience of Tabarieh that a “holy city” was sure to have a population of vermin somewhat proportionate to the number of its Israelites, and I therefore caused my tent to be pitched upon a green spot of ground at a respectful distance from the walls of the town.

When it had become quite dark (for there was no moon that night) I was informed that several Jews had secretly come from the city in the hope of obtaining some assistance from me in circumstances of imminent danger; I was also informed that they claimed my aid upon the ground that some of their number were British subjects. It was arranged that the two principal men of the party should speak for the rest, and these were accordingly admitted into my tent. One of the two called himself the British vice-consul, and he had with him his consular cap, but he frankly said that he could not have dared to assume this emblem of his dignity in the daytime, and that nothing but the extreme darkness of the night rendered it safe for him to put it on upon this occasion. The other of the spokesmen was a Jew of Gibraltar, a tolerably well-bred person, who spoke English very fluently.

These men informed me that the Jews of the place, who were exceedingly wealthy, had lived peaceably in their retirement until the insurrection which took place in 1834, but about the beginning of that year a highly religious Mussulman called Mohammed Damoor went forth into the market-place, crying with a loud voice, and prophesying that on the fifteenth of the following June the true Believers would rise up in just wrath against the Jews, and despoil them of their gold and their silver and their jewels. The earnestness of the prophet produced some impression at the time, but all went on as usual, until at last the fifteenth of June arrived. When that day dawned the whole Mussulman population of the place assembled in the streets that they might see the result of the prophecy. Suddenly Mohammed Damoor rushed furious into the crowd, and the fierce shout of the prophet soon ensured the fulfilment of his prophecy. Some of the Jews fled and some remained, but they who fled and they who remained, alike, and unresistingly, left their property to the hands of the spoilers. The most odious of all outrages, that of searching the women for the base purpose of discovering such things as gold and silver concealed about their persons, was perpetrated without shame. The poor Jews were so stricken with terror, that they submitted to their fate even where resistance would have been easy. In several instances a young Mussulman boy, not more than ten or twelve years of age, walked straight into the house of a Jew and stripped him of his property before his face, and in the presence of his whole family. 43 When the insurrection was put down some of the Mussulmans (most probably those who had got no spoil wherewith they might buy immunity) were punished, but the greater part of them escaped. None of the booty was restored, and the pecuniary redress which the Pasha had undertaken to enforce for them had been hitherto so carefully delayed, that the hope of ever obtaining it had grown very faint. A new Governor had been appointed to the command of the place, with stringent orders to ascertain the real extent of the losses, and to discover the spoilers, with a view of compelling them to make restitution. It was found that, notwithstanding the urgency of the instructions which the Governor had received, he did not push on the affair with the vigour that had been expected. The Jews complained, and either by the protection of the British consul at Damascus, or by some other means, had influence enough to induce the appointment of a special commissioner — they called him “the Modeer” — whose duty it was to watch for and prevent anything like connivance on the part of the Governor, and to push on the investigation with vigour and impartiality.

Such were the instructions with which some few weeks since the Modeer came charged. The result was that the investigation had made no practical advance, and that the Modeer as well as the Governor was living upon terms of affectionate friendship with Mohammed Damoor and the rest of the principal spoilers.

Thus stood the chance of redress for the past, but the cause of the agonising excitement under which the Jews of the place now laboured was recent and justly alarming. Mohammed Damoor had again gone forth into the market-place, and lifted up his voice and prophesied a second spoliation of the Israelites. This was grave matter; the words of such a practical man as Mohammed Damoor were not to be despised. I fear I must have smiled visibly, for I was greatly amused and even, I think, gratified at the account of this second prophecy. Nevertheless, my heart warmed towards the poor oppressed Israelites, and I was flattered, too, in the point of my national vanity at the notion of the far-reaching link by which a Jew in Syria, who had been born on the rock of Gibraltar, was able to claim me as his fellow-countryman. If I hesitated at all between the “impropriety” of interfering in a matter which was no business of mine and the “infernal shame” of refusing my aid at such a conjecture, I soon came to a very ungentlemanly decision, namely, that I would be guilty of the “impropriety,” and not of the “infernal shame.” It seemed to me that the immediate arrest of Mohammed Damoor was the one thing needful to the safety of the Jews, and I felt confident (for reasons which I have already mentioned in speaking of the Nablus affair) that I should be able to obtain this result by making a formal application to the Governor. I told my applicants that I would take this step on the following morning. They were very grateful, and were, for a moment, much pleased at the prospect of safety which might thus be opened to them, but the deliberation of a minute entirely altered their views, and filled them with new terror. They declared that any attempt, or pretended attempt, on the part of the Governor to arrest Mohammed Damoor would certainly produce an immediate movement of the whole Mussulman population, and a consequent massacre and robbery of the Israelites. My visitors went out, and remained I know not how long consulting with their brethren, but all at last agreed that their present perilous and painful position was better than a certain and immediate attack, and that if Mohammed Damoor was seized, their second estate would be worse than their first. I myself did not think that this would be the case, but I could not of course force my aid upon the people against their will; and, moreover, the day fixed for the fulfilment of this second prophecy was not very close at hand. A little delay, therefore, in providing against the impending danger would not necessarily be fatal. The men now confessed that although they had come with so much mystery and, as they thought, at so great a risk to ask my assistance, they were unable to suggest any mode in which I could aid them, except indeed by mentioning their grievances to the consul-general at Damascus. This I promised to do, and this I did.

My visitors were very thankful to me for the readiness which I had shown to intermeddle in their affairs, and the grateful wives of the principal Jews sent to me many compliments, with choice wines and elaborate sweetmeats.

The course of my travels soon drew me so far from Safed, that I never heard how the dreadful day passed off which had been fixed for the accomplishment of the second prophecy. If the predicted spoliation was prevented, poor Mohammed Damoor must have been forced, I suppose, to say that he had prophesied in a metaphorical sense. This would be a sad falling off from the brilliant and substantial success of the first experiment.

43 It was after the interview which I am talking of, and not from the Jews themselves, that I learnt this fact.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44