Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter XXVII

Damascus

For a part of two days I wound under the base of the snow-crowned Djibel el Sheik, and then entered upon a vast and desolate plain, rarely pierced at intervals by some sort of withered stem. The earth in its length and its breadth and all the deep universe of sky was steeped in light and heat. On I rode through the fire, but long before evening came there were straining eyes that saw, and joyful voices that announced, the sight of Shaum Shereef — the “holy,” the “blessed” Damascus.

But that which at last I reached with my longing eyes was not a speck in the horizon, gradually expanding to a group of roofs and walls, but a long, low line of blackest green, that ran right across in the distance from east to west. And this, as I approached, grew deeper, grew wavy in its outline. Soon forest trees shot up before my eyes, and robed their broad shoulders so freshly, that all the throngs of olives as they rose into view looked sad in their proper dimness. There were even now no houses to see, but only the minarets peered out from the midst of shade into the glowing sky, and bravely touched the sun. There seemed to be here no mere city, but rather a province wide and rich, that bounded the torrid waste.

Until about a year, or two years, before the time of my going there Damascus had kept up so much of the old bigot zeal against Christians, or rather, against Europeans, that no one dressed as a Frank could have dared to show himself in the streets; but the firmness and temper of Mr. Farren, who hoisted his flag in the city as consul-general for the district, had soon put an end to all intolerance of Englishmen. Damascus was safer than Oxford. 44 When I entered the city in my usual dress there was but one poor fellow that wagged his tongue, and him, in the open streets, Dthemetri horsewhipped. During my stay I went wherever I chose, and attended the public baths without molestation. Indeed, my relations with the pleasanter portion of the Mahometan population were upon a much better footing here than at most other places.

In the principal streets of Damascus there is a path for foot-passengers, which is raised, I think, a foot or two above the bridle-road. Until the arrival of the British consul-general none but a Mussulman had been permitted to walk upon the upper way. Mr. Farren would not, of course, suffer that the humiliation of any such exclusion should be submitted to by an Englishman, and I always walked upon the raised path as free and unmolested as if I had been in Pall Mall. The old usage was, however, maintained with as much strictness as ever against the Christian Rayahs and Jews: not one of them could have set his foot upon the privileged path without endangering his life.

I was lounging one day, I remember, along “the paths of the faithful,” when a Christian Rayah from the bridle-road below saluted me with such earnestness, and craved so anxiously to speak and be spoken to, that he soon brought me to a halt. He had nothing to tell, except only the glory and exultation with which he saw a fellow-Christian stand level with the imperious Mussulmans. Perhaps he had been absent from the place for some time, for otherwise I hardly know how it could have happened that my exaltation was the first instance he had seen. His joy was great. So strong and strenuous was England (Lord Palmerston reigned in those days), that it was a pride and delight for a Syrian Christian to look up and say that the Englishman’s faith was his too. If I was vexed at all that I could not give the man a lift and shake hands with him on level ground, there was no alloy to his pleasure. He followed me on, not looking to his own path, but keeping his eyes on me. He saw, as he thought, and said (for he came with me on to my quarters), the period of the Mahometan’s absolute ascendency, the beginning of the Christian’s. He had so closely associated the insulting privilege of the path with actual dominion, that seeing it now in one instance abandoned, he looked for the quick coming of European troops. His lips only whispered, and that tremulously, but his fiery eyes spoke out their triumph in long and loud hurrahs: “I, too, am a Christian. My foes are the foes of the English. We are all one people, and Christ is our King.”

If I poorly deserved, yet I liked this claim of brotherhood. Not all the warnings which I heard against their rascality could hinder me from feeling kindly towards my fellow-Christians in the East. English travellers, from a habit perhaps of depreciating sectarians in their own country, are apt to look down upon the Oriental Christians as being “dissenters” from the established religion of a Mahometan empire. I never did thus. By a natural perversity of disposition, which my nursemaids called contrariness, I felt the more strongly for my creed when I saw it despised among men. I quite tolerated the Christianity of Mahometan countries, notwithstanding its humble aspect and the damaged character of its followers. I went further and extended some sympathy towards those who, with all the claims of superior intellect, learning, and industry, were kept down under the heel of the Mussulmans by reason of their having OUR faith. I heard, as I fancied, the faint echo of an old crusader’s conscience, that whispered and said, “Common cause!” The impulse was, as you may suppose, much too feeble to bring me into trouble; it merely influenced my actions in a way thoroughly characteristic of this poor sluggish century, that is, by making me speak almost as civilly to the followers of Christ as I did to their Mahometan foes.

This “holy” Damascus, this “earthly paradise” of the Prophet, so fair to the eyes that he dared not trust himself to tarry in her blissful shades, she is a city of hidden palaces, of copses and gardens, and fountains and bubbling streams. The juice of her life is the gushing and ice-cold torrent that tumbles from the snowy sides of Anti–Lebanon. Close along on the river’s edge, through seven sweet miles of rustling boughs and deepest shade, the city spreads out her whole length. As a man falls flat, face forward on the brook, that he may drink and drink again, so Damascus, thirsting for ever, lies down with her lips to the stream and clings to its rushing waters.

The chief places of public amusement, or rather, of public relaxation, are the baths and the great cafe; this last, which is frequented at night by most of the wealthy men, and by many of the humbler sort, consists of a number of sheds, very simply framed and built in a labyrinth of running streams, which foam and roar on every side. The place is lit up in the simplest manner by numbers of small pale lamps strung upon loose cords, and so suspended from branch to branch, that the light, though it looks so quiet amongst the darkening foliage, yet leaps and brightly flashes as it falls upon the troubled waters. All around, and chiefly upon the very edge of the torrents, groups of people are tranquilly seated. They all drink coffee, and inhale the cold fumes of the narghile; they talk rather gently the one to the other, or else are silent. A father will sometimes have two or three of his boys around him; but the joyousness of an Oriental child is all of the sober sort, and never disturbs the reigning calm of the land.

It has been generally understood, I believe, that the houses of Damascus are more sumptuous than those of any other city in the East. Some of these, said to be the most magnificent in the place, I had an opportunity of seeing.

Every rich man’s house stands detached from its neighbours at the side of a garden, and it is from this cause no doubt that the city (severely menaced by prophecy) has hitherto escaped destruction. You know some parts of Spain, but you have never, I think, been in Andalusia: if you had, I could easily show you the interior of a Damascene house by referring you to the Alhambra or Alcanzar of Seville. The lofty rooms are adorned with a rich inlaying of many colours and illuminated writing on the walls. The floors are of marble. One side of any room intended for noonday retirement is generally laid open to a quadrangle, in the centre of which there dances the jet of a fountain. There is no furniture that can interfere with the cool, palace-like emptiness of the apartments. A divan (which is a low and doubly broad sofa) runs round the three walled sides of the room. A few Persian carpets (which ought to be called Persian rugs, for that is the word which indicates their shape and dimensions) are sometimes thrown about near the divan; they are placed without order, the one partly lapping over the other, and thus disposed, they give to the room an appearance of uncaring luxury; except these (of which I saw few, for the time was summer, and fiercely hot), there is nothing to obstruct the welcome air, and the whole of the marble floor from one divan to the other, and from the head of the chamber across to the murmuring fountain, is thoroughly open and free.

So simple as this is Asiatic luxury! The Oriental is not a contriving animal; there is nothing intricate in his magnificence. The impossibility of handing down property from father to son for any long period consecutively seems to prevent the existence of those traditions by which, with us, the refined modes of applying wealth are made known to its inheritors. We know that in England a newly-made rich man cannot, by taking thought and spending money, obtain even the same-looking furniture as a gentleman. The complicated character of an English establishment allows room for subtle distinctions between that which is comme il faut, and that which is not. All such refinements are unknown in the East; the Pasha and the peasant have the same tastes. The broad cold marble floor, the simple couch, the air freshly waving through a shady chamber, a verse of the Koran emblazoned on the wall, the sight and the sound of falling water, the cold fragrant smoke of the narghile, and a small collection of wives and children in the inner apartments — these, the utmost enjoyments of the grandee, are yet such as to be appreciable by the humblest Mussulman in the empire.

But its gardens are the delight, the delight and the pride of Damascus. They are not the formal parterres which you might expect from the Oriental taste; they rather bring back to your mind the memory of some dark old shrubbery in our northern isle, that has been charmingly un-“kept up” for many and many a day. When you see a rich wilderness of wood in decent England, it is like enough that you see it with some soft regrets. The puzzled old woman at the lodge can give small account of “the family.” She thinks it is “Italy” that has made the whole circle of her world so gloomy and sad. You avoid the house in lively dread of a lone housekeeper, but you make your way on by the stables; you remember that gable with all its neatly nailed trophies of fitchets and hawks and owls, now slowly falling to pieces; you remember that stable, and that — but the doors are all fastened that used to be standing ajar, the paint of things painted is blistered and cracked, grass grows in the yard; just there, in October mornings, the keeper would wait with the dogs and the guns — no keeper now; you hurry away, and gain the small wicket that used to open to the touch of a lightsome hand — it is fastened with a padlock (the only new looking thing), and is stained with thick, green damp; you climb it, and bury yourself in the deep shade, and strive but lazily with the tangling briars, and stop for long minutes to judge and determine whether you will creep beneath the long boughs and make them your archway, or whether perhaps you will lift your heel and tread them down under foot. Long doubt, and scarcely to be ended till you wake from the memory of those days when the path was clear, and chase that phantom of a muslin sleeve that once weighed warm upon your arm.

Wild as that, the nighest woodland of a deserted home in England, but without its sweet sadness, is the sumptuous garden of Damascus. Forest trees, tall and stately enough if you could see their lofty crests, yet lead a tussling life of it below, with their branches struggling against strong numbers of bushes and wilful shrubs. The shade upon the earth is black as night. High, high above your head, and on every side all down to the ground, the thicket is hemmed in and choked up by the interlacing boughs that droop with the weight of roses, and load the slow air with their damask breath. 45 There are no other flowers. Here and there, there are patches of ground made clear from the cover, and these are either carelessly planted with some common and useful vegetable, or else are left free to the wayward ways of Nature, and bear rank weeds, moist-looking and cool to the eyes, and freshening the sense with their earthy and bitter fragrance. There is a lane opened through the thicket, so broad in some places that you can pass along side by side; in some so narrow (the shrubs are for ever encroaching) that you ought, if you can, to go on the first and hold back the bough of the rose-tree. And through this wilderness there tumbles a loud rushing stream, which is halted at last in the lowest corner of the garden, and there tossed up in a fountain by the side of the simple alcove. This is all.

Never for an instant will the people of Damascus attempt to separate the idea of bliss from these wild gardens and rushing waters. Even where your best affections are concerned, and you, prudent preachers, “hold hard” and turn aside when they come near the mysteries of the happy state, and we (prudent preachers too), we will hush our voices, and never reveal to finite beings the joys of the “earthly paradise.”

44 An enterprising American traveller, Mr. Everett, lately conceived the bold project of penetrating to the University of Oxford, and this notwithstanding that he had been in his infancy (they begin very young those Americans) an Unitarian preacher. Having a notion, it seems, that the ambassadorial character would protect him from insult, he adopted the stratagem of procuring credentials from his Government as Minister Plenipotentiary at the Court of her Britannic Majesty; he also wore the exact costume of a Trinitarian. But all his contrivances were vain; Oxford disdained, and rejected, and insulted him (not because he represented a swindling community, but) because that his infantine sermons were strictly remembered against him; the enterprise failed.

45 The rose-trees which I saw were all of the kind we call “damask”; they grow to an immense height and size.

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