Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter XXVIII

Pass of the Lebanon

“The ruins of Baalbec!” Shall I scatter the vague, solemn thoughts and all the airy phantasies which gather together when once those words are spoken, that I may give you instead tall columns and measurements true, and phrases built with ink? No, no; the glorious sounds shall still float on as of yore, and still hold fast upon your brain with their own dim and infinite meaning.

Come! Baalbec is over; I got “rather well” out of that.

The path by which I crossed the Lebanon is like, I think, in its features to one which you must know, namely, that of the Foorca in the Bernese Oberland. For a great part of the way I toiled rather painfully through the dazzling snow, but the labour of ascending added to the excitement with which I looked for the summit of the pass. The time came. There was a minute in the which I saw nothing but the steep, white shoulder of the mountain, and there was another minute, and that the next, which showed me a nether heaven of fleecy clouds that floated along far down in the air beneath me, and showed me beyond the breadth of all Syria west of the Lebanon. But chiefly I clung with my eyes to the dim, steadfast line of the sea which closed my utmost view. I had grown well used of late to the people and the scenes of forlorn Asia — well used to tombs and ruins, to silent cities and deserted plains, to tranquil men and women sadly veiled; and now that I saw the even plain of the sea, I leapt with an easy leap to its yonder shores, and saw all the kingdoms of the West in that fair path that could lead me from out of this silent land straight on into shrill Marseilles, or round by the pillars of Hercules to the crash and roar of London. My place upon this dividing barrier was as a man’s puzzling station in eternity, between the birthless past and the future that has no end. Behind me I left an old, decrepit world; religions dead and dying; calm tyrannies expiring in silence; women hushed and swathed, and turned into waxen dolls; love flown, and in its stead mere royal and “paradise” pleasures. Before me there waited glad bustle and strife; love itself, an emulous game; religion, a cause and a controversy, well smitten and well defended; men governed by reasons and suasion of speech; wheels going, steam buzzing — a mortal race, and a slashing pace, and the devil taking the hindmost — taking ME, by Jove (for that was my inner care), if I lingered too long upon the difficult pass that leads from thought to action.

I descended and went towards the west.

The group of cedars remaining on this part of the Lebanon is held sacred by the Greek Church on account of a prevailing notion that the trees were standing at a time when the temple of Jerusalem was built. They occupy three or four acres on the mountain’s side, and many of them are gnarled in a way that implies great age, but except these signs I saw nothing in their appearance or conduct that tended to prove them contemporaries of the cedars employed in Solomon’s Temple. The final cause to which these aged survivors owed their preservation was explained to me in the evening by a glorious old fellow (a Christian chief), who made me welcome in the valley of Eden. In ancient times the whole range of the Lebanon had been covered with cedars, and as the fertile plains beneath became more and more infested by government officers and tyrants of high and low degree, the people by degrees abandoned them and flocked to the rugged mountains, which were less accessible to their indolent oppressors. The cedar forests gradually shrank under the axe of the encroaching multitudes, and seemed at last to be on the point of disappearing entirely, when an aged chief who ruled in this district, and who had witnessed the great change effected even in his own lifetime, chose to say that some sign or memorial should be left of the vast woods with which the mountains had formerly been clad, and commanded accordingly that this group of trees (which was probably situated at the highest point to which the forest had reached) should remain untouched. The chief, it seems, was not moved by the notion I have mentioned as prevailing in the Greek Church, but rather by some sentiment of veneration for a great natural feature — sentiment akin, perhaps, to that old and earthborn religion, which made men bow down to creation before they had yet learnt how to know and worship the Creator.

The chief of the valley in which I passed the night was a man of large possessions, and he entertained me very sumptuously. He was highly intelligent, and had had the sagacity to foresee that Europe would intervene authoritatively in the affairs of Syria. Bearing this idea in mind, and with a view to give his son an advantageous start in the ambitious career for which he was destined, he had hired for him a teacher of the Italian language, the only accessible European tongue. The tutor, however, who was a native of Syria, either did not know or did not choose to teach the European forms of address, but contented himself with instructing his pupil in the mere language of Italy. This circumstance gave me an opportunity (the only one I ever had, or was likely to have46) of hearing the phrases of Oriental courtesy in an European tongue. The boy was about twelve or thirteen years old, and having the advantage of being able to speak to me without the aid of an interpreter, he took a prominent part in doing the honours of his father’s house. He went through his duties with untiring assiduity, and with a kind of gracefulness, which by mere description can scarcely be made intelligible to those who are unacquainted with the manners of the Asiatics. The boy’s address resembled a little that of a highly polished and insinuating Roman Catholic priest, but had more of girlish gentleness. It was strange to hear him gravely and slowly enunciating the common and extravagant compliments of the East in good Italian, and in soft, persuasive tones. I recollect that I was particularly amused at the gracious obstinacy with which he maintained that the house in which I was so hospitably entertained belonged not to his father, but to me. To say this once was only to use the common form of speech, signifying no more than our sweet word “welcome,” but the amusing part of the matter was that, whenever in the course of conversation I happened to speak of his father’s house or the surrounding domain, the boy invariably interfered to correct my pretended mistake, and to assure me once again with a gentle decisiveness of manner that the whole property was really and exclusively mine, and that his father had not the most distant pretensions to its ownership.

I received from my host much, and (as I now know) most true, information respecting the people of the mountains, and their power of resisting Mehemet Ali. The chief gave me very plainly to understand that the mountaineers, being dependent upon others for bread and gunpowder (the two great necessaries of martial life), could not long hold out against a power which occupied the plains and commanded the sea; but he also assured me, and that very significantly, that if this source of weakness were provided against, THE MOUNTAINEERS WERE TO BE DEPENDED UPON; he told me that in ten or fifteen days the chiefs could bring together some fifty thousand fighting men.

46 A dragoman never interprets in terms the courteous language of the East.

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