Notes of a Journey From Cornhill to Grand Cairo, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter 12

From Jaffa to Jerusalem

It took an hour or more to get our little caravan into marching order, to accommodate all the packs to the horses, the horses to the riders; to see the ladies comfortably placed in their litter, with a sleek and large black mule fore and aft, a groom to each mule, and a tall and exceedingly good-natured and mahogany-coloured infidel to walk by the side of the carriage, to balance it as it swayed to and fro, and to offer his back as a step to the inmates whenever they were minded to ascend or alight. These three fellows, fasting through the Ramazan, and over as rough a road, for the greater part, as ever shook mortal bones, performed their fourteen hours’ walk of near forty miles with the most admirable courage, alacrity, and good-humour. They once or twice drank water on the march, and so far infringed the rule; but they refused all bread or edible refreshment offered to them, and tugged on with an energy that the best camel, and I am sure the best Christian, might envy. What a lesson of good-humoured endurance it was to certain Pall Mall Sardanapaluses, who grumble if club sofa cushions are not soft enough!

If I could write sonnets at leisure, I would like to chronicle in fourteen lines my sensations on finding myself on a high Turkish saddle, with a pair of fire-shovel stirrups and worsted reins, red padded saddle-cloth, and innumerable tags, fringes, glass-beads, ends of rope, to decorate the harness of the horse, the gallant steed on which I was about to gallop into Syrian life. What a figure we cut in the moonlight, and how they would have stared in the Strand! Ay, or in Leicestershire, where I warrant such a horse and rider are not often visible! The shovel stirrups are deucedly short; the clumsy leathers cut the shins of some equestrians abominably; you sit over your horse as it were on a tower, from which the descent would be very easy, but for the big peak of the saddle. A good way for the inexperienced is to put a stick or umbrella across the saddle peak again, so that it is next to impossible to go over your horse’s neck. I found this a vast comfort in going down the hills, and recommend it conscientiously to other dear simple brethren of the city.

Peaceful men, we did not ornament our girdles with pistols, yataghans, &c., such as some pilgrims appeared to bristle all over with; and as a lesson to such rash people, a story may be told which was narrated to us at Jerusalem, and carries a wholesome moral. The Honourable Hoggin Armer, who was lately travelling in the East, wore about his stomach two brace of pistols, of such exquisite finish and make, that a Sheikh, in the Jericho country, robbed him merely for the sake of the pistols. I don’t know whether he has told the story to his friends at home.

Another story about Sheikhs may here be told a propos. That celebrated Irish Peer, Lord Oldgent (who was distinguished in the Buckinghamshire Dragoons), having paid a sort of black mail to the Sheikh of Jericho country, was suddenly set upon by another Sheikh, who claimed to be the real Jerichonian governor; and these twins quarrelled over the body of Lord Oldgent, as the widows for the innocent baby before Solomon. There was enough for both — but these digressions are interminable.

The party got under way at near four o’clock: the ladies in the litter, the French femme-de-chambre manfully caracoling on a grey horse; the cavaliers, like your humble servant, on their high saddles; the domestics, flunkeys, guides, and grooms, on all sorts of animals — some fourteen in all. Add to these, two most grave and stately Arabs in white beards, white turbans, white haicks and raiments; sabres curling round their military thighs, and immense long guns at their backs. More venerable warriors I never saw; they went by the side of the litter soberly prancing. When we emerged from the steep clattering streets of the city into the grey plains, lighted by the moon and starlight, these militaries rode onward, leading the way through the huge avenues of strange diabolical-looking prickly pears (plants that look as if they had grown in Tartarus), by which the first mile or two of route from the city is bounded; and as the dawn arose before us, exhibiting first a streak of grey, then of green, then of red in the sky, it was fine to see these martial figures defined against the rising light. The sight of that little cavalcade, and of the nature around it, will always remain with me, I think, as one of the freshest and most delightful sensations I have enjoyed since the day I first saw Calais pier. It was full day when they gave their horses a drink at a large pretty Oriental fountain, and then presently we entered the open plain — the famous plain of Sharon — so fruitful in roses once, now hardly cultivated, but always beautiful and noble.

Here presently, in the distance, we saw another cavalcade pricking over the plain. Our two white warriors spread to the right and left, and galloped to reconnoitre. We, too, put our steeds to the canter, and handling our umbrellas as Richard did his lance against Saladin, went undaunted to challenge this caravan. The fact is, we could distinguish that it was formed of the party of our pious friends the Poles, and we hailed them with cheerful shouting, and presently the two caravans joined company, and scoured the plain at the rate of near four miles per hour. The horse-master, a courier of this company, rode three miles for our one. He was a broken-nosed Arab, with pistols, a sabre, a fusee, a yellow Damascus cloth flapping over his head, and his nose ornamented with diachylon. He rode a hog-necked grey Arab, bristling over with harness, and jumped, and whirled, and reared, and halted, to the admiration of all.

Scarce had the diachylonian Arab finished his evolutions, when lo! yet another cloud of dust was seen, and another party of armed and glittering horsemen appeared. They, too, were led by an Arab, who was followed by two janissaries, with silver maces shining in the sun. ’Twas the party of the new American Consul-General of Syria and Jerusalem, hastening to that city, with the inferior consuls of Ramleh and Jaffa to escort him. He expects to see the Millennium in three years, and has accepted the office of consul at Jerusalem, so as to be on the spot in readiness.

When the diachylon Arab saw the American Arab, he straightway galloped his steed towards him, took his pipe, which he delivered at his adversary in guise of a jereed, and galloped round and round, and in and out, and there and back again, as in a play of war. The American replied in a similar playful ferocity — the two warriors made a little tournament for us there on the plains before Jaffa, in the which diachylon, being a little worsted, challenged his adversary to a race, and fled away on his grey, the American following on his bay. Here poor sticking-plaster was again worsted, the Yankee contemptuously riding round him, and then declining further exercise.

What more could mortal man want? A troop of knights and paladins could have done no more. In no page of Walter Scott have I read a scene more fair and sparkling. The sober warriors of our escort did not join in the gambols of the young men. There they rode soberly, in their white turbans, by their ladies’ litter, their long guns rising up behind them.

There was no lack of company along the road: donkeys numberless, camels by twos and threes; now a mule-driver, trudging along the road, chanting a most queer melody; now a lady, in white veil, black mask, and yellow papooshes, bestriding her ass, and followed by her husband — met us on the way; and most people gave a salutation. Presently we saw Ramleh, in a smoking mist, on the plain before us, flanked to the right by a tall lonely tower, that might have held the bells of some moutier of Caen or Evreux. As we entered, about three hours and a half after starting, among the white domes and stone houses of the little town, we passed the place of tombs. Two women were sitting on one of them — the one bending her head towards the stone, and rocking to and fro, and moaning out a very sweet pitiful lamentation. The American consul invited us to breakfast at the house of his subaltern, the hospitable one-eyed Armenian, who represents the United States at Jaffa. The stars and stripes were flaunting over his terraces, to which we ascended, leaving our horses to the care of a multitude of roaring ragged Arabs beneath, who took charge of and fed the animals, though I can’t say in the least why; but, in the same way as getting off my horse on entering Jerusalem, I gave the rein into the hand of the first person near me, and have never heard of the worthy brute since. At the American consul’s we were served first with rice soup in pishpash, flavoured with cinnamon and spice; then with boiled mutton, then with stewed ditto and tomatoes; then with fowls swimming in grease; then with brown ragouts belaboured with onions; then with a smoking pilaff of rice: several of which dishes I can pronounce to be of excellent material and flavour. When the gentry had concluded this repast, it was handed to a side table, where the commonalty speedily discussed it. We left them licking their fingers as we hastened away upon the second part of the ride.

And as we quitted Ramleh, the scenery lost that sweet and peaceful look which characterises the pretty plain we had traversed; and the sun, too, rising in the heaven, dissipated all those fresh beautiful tints in which God’s world is clothed of early morning, and which city people have so seldom the chance of beholding. The plain over which we rode looked yellow and gloomy; the cultivation little or none; the land across the roadside fringed, for the most part, with straggling wild-carrot plants; a patch of green only here and there. We passed several herds of lean, small, well-conditioned cattle: many flocks of black goats, tended now and then by a ragged negro shepherd, his long gun slung over his back, his hand over his eyes to shade them as he stared at our little cavalcade. Most of the half-naked countryfolks we met had this dismal appendage to Eastern rustic life; and the weapon could hardly be one of mere defence, for, beyond the faded skull-cap, or tattered coat of blue or dirty white, the brawny, brown-chested, solemn-looking fellows had nothing seemingly to guard. As before, there was no lack of travellers on the road: more donkeys trotted by, looking sleek and strong; camels singly and by pairs, laden with a little humble ragged merchandise, on their way between the two towns. About noon we halted eagerly at a short distance from an Arab village and well, where all were glad of a drink of fresh water. A village of beavers, or a colony of ants, make habitations not unlike these dismal huts piled together on the plain here. There were no single huts along the whole line of road; poor and wretched as they are, the Fellahs huddle all together for protection from the other thieves their neighbours. The government (which we restored to them) has no power to protect them, and is only strong enough to rob them. The women, with their long blue gowns and ragged veils, came to and fro with pitchers on their heads. Rebecca had such an one when she brought drink to the lieutenant of Abraham. The boys came staring round, bawling after us with their fathers for the inevitable backsheesh. The village dogs barked round the flocks, as they were driven to water or pasture.

We saw a gloomy, not very lofty-looking ridge of hills in front of us; the highest of which the guide pointing out to us, told us that from it we should see Jerusalem. It looked very near, and we all set up a trot of enthusiasm to get into this hill country.

But that burst of enthusiasm (it may have carried us nearly a quarter of a mile in three minutes) was soon destined to be checked by the disagreeable nature of the country we had to traverse. Before we got to the real mountain district, we were in a manner prepared for it, by the mounting and descent of several lonely outlying hills, up and down which our rough stony track wound. Then we entered the hill district, and our path lay through the clattering bed of an ancient stream, whose brawling waters have rolled away into the past, along with the fierce and turbulent race who once inhabited these savage hills. There may have been cultivation here two thousand years ago. The mountains, or huge stony mounds environing this rough path, have level ridges all the way up to their summits; on these parallel ledges there is still some verdure and soil: when water flowed here, and the country was thronged with that extraordinary population, which, according to the Sacred Histories, was crowded into the region, these mountain steps may have been gardens and vineyards, such as we see now thriving along the hills of the Rhine. Now the district is quite deserted, and you ride among what seem to be so many petrified waterfalls. We saw no animals moving among the stony brakes; scarcely even a dozen little birds in the whole course of the ride. The sparrows are all at Jerusalem, among the housetops, where their ceaseless chirping and twittering forms the most cheerful sound of the place.

The company of Poles, the company of Oxford men, and the little American army, travelled too quick for our caravan, which was made to follow the slow progress of the ladies’ litter, and we had to make the journey through the mountains in a very small number. Not one of our party had a single weapon more dreadful than an umbrella: and a couple of Arabs, wickedly inclined, might have brought us all to the halt, and rifled every carpet-bag and pocket belonging to us. Nor can I say that we journeyed without certain qualms of fear. When swarthy fellows, with girdles full of pistols and yataghans, passed us without unslinging their long guns — when scowling camel-riders, with awful long bending lances, decorated with tufts of rags, or savage plumes of scarlet feathers, went by without molestation — I think we were rather glad that they did not stop and parley: for, after all, a British lion with an umbrella is no match for an Arab with his infernal long gun. What, too, would have become of our women? So we tried to think that it was entirely out of anxiety for them that we were inclined to push on.

There is a shady resting-place and village in the midst of the mountain district where the travellers are accustomed to halt for an hour’s repose and refreshment; and the other caravans were just quitting this spot, having enjoyed its cool shades and waters, when we came up. Should we stop? Regard for the ladies (of course no other earthly consideration) made us say, “No!” What admirable self-denial and chivalrous devotion! So our poor devils of mules and horses got no rest and no water, our panting litter-men no breathing time, and we staggered desperately after the procession ahead of us. It wound up the mountain in front of us: the Poles with their guns and attendants, the American with his janissaries; fifty or sixty all riding slowly like the procession in “Bluebeard.”

But alas, they headed us very soon; when we got up the weary hill they were all out of sight. Perhaps thoughts of Fleet Street did cross the minds of some of us then, and a vague desire to see a few policemen. The district now seemed peopled, and with an ugly race. Savage personages peered at us out of huts, and grim holes in the rocks. The mules began to loiter most abominably — water the muleteers must have — and, behold, we came to a pleasant-looking village of trees standing on a hill; children were shaking figs from the trees — women were going about — before us was the mosque of a holy man — the village, looking like a collection of little forts, rose up on the hill to our right, with a long view of the fields and gardens stretching from it, and camels arriving with their burdens. Here we must stop; Paolo, the chief servant, knew the Sheikh of the village — he very good man — give him water and supper — water very good here — in fact we began to think of the propriety of halting here for the night, and making our entry into Jerusalem on the next day.

A man on a handsome horse dressed in red came prancing up to us, looking hard at the ladies in the litter, and passed away. Then two others sauntered up, one handsome, and dressed in red too, and he stared into the litter without ceremony, began to play with a little dog that lay there, asked if we were Inglees, and was answered by me in the affirmative. Paolo had brought the water, the most delicious draught in the world. The gentlefolks had had some, the poor muleteers were longing for it. The French maid, the courageous Victoire (never since the days of Joan of Arc has there surely been a more gallant and virtuous female of France) refused the drink; when suddenly a servant of the party scampers up to his master and says: “Abou Gosh says the ladies must get out and show themselves to the women of the village!”

It was Abou Gosh himself, the redoubted robber Sheikh about whom we had been laughing and crying “Wolf!” all day. Never was seen such a skurry! “March!” was the instant order given. When Victoire heard who it was and the message, you should have seen how she changed countenance; trembling for her virtue in the ferocious clutches of a Gosh. “Un verre d’eau pour l’amour de Dieu!” gasped she, and was ready to faint on her saddle. “Ne buvez plus, Victoire!” screamed a little fellow of our party. “Push on, push on!” cried one and all. “What’s the matter?” exclaimed the ladies in the litter, as they saw themselves suddenly jogging on again. But we took care not to tell them what had been the designs of the redoubtable Abou Gosh. Away then we went — Victoire was saved — and her mistresses rescued from dangers they knew not of, until they were a long way out of the village.

Did he intend insult or good will? Did Victoire escape the odious chance of becoming Madame Abou Gosh? Or did the mountain chief simply propose to be hospitable after his fashion? I think the latter was his desire; if the former had been his wish, a half-dozen of his long guns could have been up with us in a minute, and had all our party at their mercy. But now, for the sake of the mere excitement, the incident was, I am sorry to say, rather a pleasant one than otherwise: especially for a traveller who is in the happy condition of being able to sing before robbers, as is the case with the writer of the present.

A little way out of the land of Goshen we came upon a long stretch of gardens and vineyards, slanting towards the setting sun, which illuminated numberless golden clusters of the most delicious grapes, of which we stopped and partook. Such grapes were never before tasted; water so fresh as that which a countryman fetched for us from a well never sluiced parched throats before. It was the ride, the sun, and above all Abou Gosh, who made that refreshment so sweet, and hereby I offer him my best thanks. Presently, in the midst of a most diabolical ravine, down which our horses went sliding, we heard the evening gun: it was fired from Jerusalem. The twilight is brief in this country, and in a few minutes the landscape was grey round about us, and the sky lighted up by a hundred thousand stars, which made the night beautiful.

Under this superb canopy we rode for a couple of hours to our journey’s end. The mountains round about us dark, lonely, and sad; the landscape as we saw it at night (it is not more cheerful in the daytime), the most solemn and forlorn I have ever seen. The feelings of almost terror with which, riding through the night, we approached this awful place, the centre of the world’s past and future history, have no need to be noted down here. The recollection of those sensations must remain with a man as long as his memory lasts; and he should think of them as often, perhaps, as he should talk of them little.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00