by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.
Philologos Religious Online Books
The Holy Land and the Bible
A Book of Scripture Illustrations gathered in Palestine
Cunningham Geikie D.D.
With a Map of Palestine and Original Illustrations by H. A. Harper
Khan Minieh is in a beautiful green plain, with a low crag on its northern side, and a copious spring spreading beneath it into a pool and marsh, in which there still grows the papyrus—a word which is the ancestor of our "paper." This wonderful reed rises slim and tall, with a reddish-brown tuft at the top, and at this spot is very plentiful. So also are the gigantic reeds which shake in every breath of wind (Matt 11:7; Luke 7:24), as they well may, for they are ten or twelve feet high.
We had hardly settled in our tents before a caravan of Greek Church pilgrims from Damascus, about 500 in number, made its appearance, and took up its quarters on the green space beside us. Tents rose as if by magic, and were speedily filled with men, women, and children; for if a child is taken to the holy places, and especially to the Jordan, it is saved from the necessity of making the journey at a later period. Mules, horses, and asses were presently picketed, far and near; fires of thistles and thorns were kindled, and meals cooked and eaten. Groups gathered around the pleasant blaze as the night fell; singing, in one place to the clapping of hands, in another to taps on a copper ewer made to serve as a drum, in a third to the thrum of an asthmatic guitar with little more sound than a child's penny organ. But clapping hands in chorus to the singing was most common. The women sat among the men; and very merry they all were. Religious pilgrimages may have a strain of seriousness, but it is well-nigh lost to the common eye in riotous jollity far from divine. It was a wild scene; not helpful to morals, I fear. Shouting, and firing of guns and pistols, went on incessantly till late at night, and then many persons lay down on the open ground, since the tents could not hold all, not a few sleeping among the horses, asses, and mules. It seemed, however, as if the noise would never cease. Long after I had hoped the madness was over volley after volley was discharged, each followed by wild cries from all around; and even at the last, when I was fairly tired out, loud recitals of stories were going on round some of the fires; one leading, and the rest repeating the same chorus over and over after every second line. Was this scene—of course without the firing, for which the blowing of horns might be substituted—like that presented by the Passover caravans in Bible times?
Khan Minieh has been thought by some to be the true site of the city of Capernaum—Christ's own city. It is certain that extensive ruins are hidden below its green sward, for the peasants find it profitable to dig to the depth of from eight to twelve feet into the mounds that dot the locality, for stones, some to build with, others to burn into lime. In these excavations rounded stones are first met, but below them, four feet or more from the surface, foundations of walls occur, built in some cases of finely-squared blocks of limestone. The arguments in favour of Capernaum having been here, rather than at Tell Hum, are various. Both it and Bethsaida are believed to have been in or near to the Plain of Gennesaret, because when our Lord, in crossing the lake after the miraculous feeding, would have come to Bethsaida and the wind prevented Him, He was forced to come ashore in "the land of Gennesaret"; the Gospel adding that the Jews who followed Him came next day and found Him in Capernaum (John 6:21,22,59; Matt 14:34; Mark 6:53). A fountain of Capernaum, spoken of by Josephus as in the tract of Gennesaret, is thought to have been the Ain-el-Tin at Khan Minieh, especially since he says that it was thought to be connected with the Egyptian Nile, from having in it fish like the coracinus of that river. In accordance with this, Dr. Tristram tells us that he found in the Round Fountain of Ain Mudawarah, about a mile north of Magdala and half a mile back from the lake, at the foot of the hills, a fish "like that of the lake near Alexandria." "A cat-fish," he adds, " identical with the cat-fish of the ponds of Lower Egypt, does abound to a remarkable degree in the Round Spring, to this day." In fact, he obtained specimens of it a yard long.* Josephus, moreover, speaks of a village of Capernaum as in this vicinity. Tell Hum, it is argued, cannot be said to be in "the land of Gennesaret," for it is three miles off to the north-east, and there is no fountain of any kind there; the ancient town which once stood on the spot having obtained its supply of water entirely from the lake. There was, besides, a custom-house at Capernaum (Matt 9:9), and a Roman garrison (Matt 8:5), which would be quite natural at Khan Minieh, where a Roman road comes down to the lake from the north, but which could not be found at Tell Hum, where there was no Roman road, and where the frontier was three miles off. * Land of Israel, p. 442. There is no reason to doubt that the true site, whether here or at Tell Hum, was still known in the fourth century, when a church was built upon it; but its position has been doubtful now for many centuries, so complete has been the ruin of this once flourishing region. The scene of our Lord's home for the last three years of His life, where so many of His mighty works were performed, and so great a proportion of His wondrous words spoken, would surely, it might have been thought, be kept permanently in memory by successive generations of His disciples. Yet it has utterly passed away, leaving it to conjecture and argument to fix its situation. The Jews have clung to Tiberias, but Christians have allowed Capernaum to be utterly forgotten, except for the pages of the Gospel.
It would be interesting to go through the Gospels and note the strict correctness of their allusions to the scenery, topography, and customs of the people round the lake in old times. We still go down from Cana to Capernaum (John 4:47); Safed is "a city set on an hill," and might have been pointed to from Hattin when the words were uttered Matt 5:14), though, indeed, almost all the towns and villages of Palestine are on hills. The allusions to the fate of the seed as it falls from the hand of the sower; to the merchant seeking goodly pearls; to the fisher's craft on the lake; and all else in the sacred narrative, are always absolutely true to nature and fact. Even apparent contradictions to what may be supposed to be Oriental manners, such as the mention of women as present in public, notwithstanding the usual Eastern seclusion of the sex (Matt 14:21, 15:38), are true to life, for at this very day, the great excitements of life—a funeral, wedding, feast, or market—attract women and children in such numbers that they often form the majority of the spectators or participants.
In summer, on account of the heat and moisture, the shores of the Lake of Galilee are very much troubled with insects and similar plagues. The centipede, crawling from some heap of stones, bites, say the Arabs, with a result forty times as painful as the spider, for they maintain that it pierces the flesh not only with its jaws, but with each of its many feet. The scorpion may sting you as you lean against a wall, or put your hand carelessly on a stone used for temporary rest; and very disagreeable is the effect. This crab-like member of the articulata is very common in Palestine, where more than eight species are known. One place, indeed, mentioned three times in the Old Testament, gets its name from this pest, viz., Maaleh Akrabbim—"the Scorpion Slopes" (Num 34:4; Josh 15:3; Judg 1:36)—which Kiepert places a little to the north-east of Shiloh. The most dangerous variety is the black rock scorpion, as thick as a finger, and five or six inches long; others are yellow, brown, white, red, or striped and banded. During cold weather they lie dormant, but at the return of heat they crawl forth from beneath the stones under which they have lain hidden, or out of the crevices of walls, and chinks of other kinds, and make their way not only to the paths where men pass, but into houses, where they get below sleeping-mats, carpets, or clothes, or creep into shoes or slippers. They are carnivorous by nature, living on beetles, insects, and the like; but they sting whatever frightens or irritates them, though their poison, while very painful in its effects, may be neutralised, except in rare cases, by the application of ammonia and sweet oil, or may be withdrawn by suction. But occasionally it causes death. Scorpions are four times mentioned in the Old Testament, twice metaphorically and twice literally, their number in the deserts of Sinai, where they still abound, being noticed in one text, and their habit of frequenting desolate and ruinous parts in another (Deut 8:15; Eze 2:6). Ezekiel, bitterly persecuted, like all other earnest reformers of every age, was to be thrust out to live among scorpions; the guilty whom he rebuked treating him as unfit to live with men. Rehoboam was foolish enough to repeat, as from himself, the counsel of his flatterers, threatening to chastise the Ten Tribes with "scorpions" (1 Kings 12:11,14; 1 Chron 10:11,4)—probably a scourge with sharp metal tips, the blow of which was cruel as a scorpion's sting. In the New Testament, the apostles are promised power to tread with impunity on these hateful creatures (Luke 10:19); and our Lord inquires, as an encouragement to prayer, whether, if a son ask an egg, a father will give him a scorpion (Luke 11:12); that is, evil instead of good.
But the mosquitoes are a greater trouble than the scorpions, for their number is legion, and on the shores of the lake they are of an unusual size. At Tiberias they swarm in myriads, so that the reproach of Christ, that the Pharisees would strain out a gnat, while they swallowed a camel, must have come vividly home to His hearers (Matt 23:24). Fleas, however, are the supreme worry of this district. How they all get a living I cannot conjecture, unless it be that the thoroughness of their attacks, when they find a victim, sustains them till another comes in their way. Bedouins are often forced to change their camps on account of the number of these insects, and at Tiberias and elsewhere I have had cause to regret that my own tent should have been pitched on ground that had been used as an encampment by native travellers or tent people, perhaps long before. Nor is this only a modern trouble, for fleas appear to have been as pestilently common in Bible times as to-day, since poor David points out that his persecution by Saul is no less beneath the king than would be the chasing of a single flea (1 Sam 24:14, 26:20).
The Jordan leaves the lake through a green plain, which rises about twenty feet above it, but slopes very soon towards the south. The water is about 100 feet across, and four feet deep, with a swift current; and one has to get over as best he can, though the ruins of a bridge speak of greater facilities in old times. A village of about 200 wretched houses lies on the east of the river, at the edge of the lake, but the Moslems who inhabit it have a very bad name. Pity it is that so beautiful a situation should be so miserably occupied! Kerak, the ancient Tarichæa, stands on the west side of the lake a short distance from the exit of the Jordan; and on the east, halfway up the coast, is the village of Khersa, which is thought by many to have been the scene of our Lord's cure of the demoniacs. Gadara is mentioned as the place by St. Mark and St. Luke in the text of the Authorised Version, while St. Matthew gives the name as Gergesa. In the Revised Version, however, we have Gerasa in both Mark and Luke, while Gadara is, curiously, inserted in Matthew's account.
This last place—a Roman town, now Umm Keis—lay about six miles south-east from the lake, and was famed for its baths. There are still numerous tomb-caverns to the east of the ruins, with a great many richly-sculptured basalt sarcophagi scattered over the slopes of the hill. The stone doors of the rock-tombs are in many cases preserved, the sarcophagi of the chambers within serving the lazy peasants as bins for their grain and stores. West of the tombs are the ruins of two theatres, in wonderful preservation, even the stages being complete, though covered with rubbish. Heaps of hewn stone and fragments of pillars lie scattered over the level plateau of about a mile in width; and in many places the ruts of wheels are still to be seen in the basalt pavement. That our Lord should have walked a few miles from the shore of the lake is not surprising; and besides its being mentioned in the Gospels, Gadara has in its favour, as the scene of His miracle, the fact that it was one of the places belonging to the league of the ten cities, called Decapolis, through which the demoniacs went proclaiming His greatness, after they had been cured. Yet this does not necessarily imply that the town where they had lived was a member of this alliance; it may mean only that it lay near the border of the district thus named.
Gerasa, the modern Jerash, once a splendid Roman city, and still famous for its noble ruins, lies forty miles south-east of the lake, so that it is impossible to regard it as the place in question; and thus we are shut up to a choice between Gadara and Khersa, or Gersa, a name which might easily be contracted from Gergesa. This is a small place, but its ruins are enclosed by the remains of a wall, which show that it was once much larger; and we have the assurance of Origen that a city, Gergesa, stood on the east shore of the lake, opposite Tiberias.* The accounts in the Gospels certainly imply that the city was close to the water (Matt 8:28, 9:1; Mark 5:1,21; Luke 8:26,40); and at Khersa, moreover, there is the steepest slope to be found on the banks of the lake, which is so close to the foot of it that a herd of swine, rushing madly down, would, not be able to stop, but must be precipitated into the depths.
Beyond this wild, dark Tartarus-mouth, some spots of soil were comparatively clear; at least, loose patches of grain were springing up among the stones. The banks were fringed with bushes, and here and there were actually spots which to some perceptible degree had been cleared of stones by industrious peasant-labour. Two donkeys passed, each bearing a side of wild boar flesh, a man with a long brass-bound gun walking at the side of his beasts. The flats of the Jordan, where the river enters the lake, had yielded this prize, for wild swine are very plentiful on the edge of the marsh-land, where they are sheltered by thickets of reeds and bushes. I proposed that we should keep on, and go to the north by the path which skirts the west bank of the Jordan, but my dragoman would not hear of it. The Arabs, he said, would most likely plunder us. Two friends at Damascus afterwards told me they had ridden south by this track, without harm, "though," added they, "at one point a couple of Arabs from an encampment near rode down on us with their spears couched, yelling as they came, but they stopped when we drew our revolvers, and presently rode off."
Low hills trend back from the shore till you come to the delta of the Jordan, and the whole surface of the ground continues to be covered with black boulders; here smaller, there larger. The marshy plain through which the river enters the Lake is wide and perfectly flat; sown in its driest parts; left to the buffaloes elsewhere. The peasants who cultivate the useful portion of it come from a distance, and live here for three months in tents; returning to their hamlets after the harvest. A large building on the eastern shore of the lake proved to be a, magazine for grain, so that there must be considerable tillage. It stood on a pleasant green slope leading up into the hills, which were wooded with oak: a great contrast to the western side, where we were. Up the glen before us was perhaps the scene of the miraculous feeding of the multitude.
Turning to the north-west, towards Kerazeh, the path led over the slope of low hills, strewn with boulders of shining black basalt. There was, indeed, no path; nor could the country have been more utterly desolate. Chorazin itself stands in the midst of such desolation as must be seen to be believed. Millions of boulders cover the ground everywhere, as far as the eye can reach. The horses could hardly, in fact, get a footing between them, either in climbing the slopes on the way from the lake or among the ruins themselves. Yet even in this vision of chaos the stones lay less thickly in some spots than in others, and these the poor fellahin had in some cases sown with grain. Nowhere, it is to be said, did rock crop out: the rain of boulders was entirely distinct from the hills on which they lay so thickly. The terrible volcanic energy in this district ceased long before the historic period—how long no one can tell—and hence the aspect of the landscape must have been the same in Christ's day as at present. How any considerable community, such as Chorazin must have been, could have lived in such a region, it is very hard to imagine. There was no Roman road passing near, to bring travellers, while the inhabitants could hardly have gained subsistence from the lake, since they were not less than two miles from it and as much as 700 feet above it. Yet the ruins speak of some wealth. Lintels, doorposts, heads of pillars, and carved stones, all of basalt, are scattered about, and there are the remains of a synagogue, also of basalt, with Corinthian capitals, niche-heads, and other ornaments, cut, not as at Tell Hum, in limestone, but in the hard black trap.
From Chorazin to Safed the path, if such it can be called, led down one side of the wady over which Chorazin stands, and up the other. The gorge passed, a rolling table-land succeeded, only a little less barren than the slope up from Tell Hum, with no population but some Arabs with black tents and white-faced cattle, the leanness of the beasts speaking for the barrenness of the soil around. Bedouins are found in all parts of Palestine, but chiefly in those that are easily accessible from the Jordan or from the southern desert, though they seem at different times to have intruded more or less thickly over the whole country. The Holy Land is so hemmed in by the great wilderness, dear to tent-life, that there is always a strong temptation to mount the passes to the hill-country, where springs and wells spread a fertility quite unknown in the desert, except after the rains. Encampments from the mountains of Gilead, the plains of the Hauran, the uplands of Moab, the great southern desert, and the plains of Philistia and Sharon, are at all times to be found making their way, like the tribes of Abraham or Jacob in old days, into the hill-country with its green plains and tempting valleys. Yet the settled population seem slowly gaining ground, for the nomads in Lower Galilee, and even in the Plain of Sharon, are only a miserable remnant of once-powerful tribes, destined, it is to be hoped, before many years, to disappear again into their sandy wastes. As in the earliest ages, the Arab and the peasant are bitter foes, for the one is an idle thief and cut-throat by nature, the other an industrious tiller of the ground. Though intolerably proud, the tent-dwellers, I fear, can hardly boast pure Arab blood, for I have often seen Nubians and other black men as slaves in their camps; refugees from Damascus and other towns, who, once admitted to a tribe, may marry into it. Tents are fixed in any spot only as long as the pasturage and water last; a few blows of the mallet, and the pegs are pulled up, the coverings rolled together, the poles tied in bundles, and the camp moves to some other haunt, just, one may suppose, as the Hebrews did in their forty years' wanderings.
East of the Jordan you sometimes meet with large numbers of tents; but in Palestine the stony pasture, and the comparative scarcity of water, cause a division of the tribes into numerous small camps, much like knots of gipsy tents as to number. The tent has generally nine poles, by no means straight, those in the centre being highest, to make the rain pass off. The open side is always turned to the sun, that the covered back may give better shelter; and the site is usually so carefully chosen that even strong winds rarely blow the tent down; in part, doubtless, from its being so low. The coverings are thick and well woven, so that rain does not easily get through them; but the Arabs suffer greatly in winter from rheumatism, which must in all ages have been prevalent, at least in the country parts of Palestine, from the poor provision for shelter in the cold nights.
An armed Arab is a formidable-looking personage, but he could do little against modern weapons. A very long-barrelled gun, with a flint lock, brass fittings, and a light stock, stones often serving for shot or ball, a sword like a large knife, and a long tufted spear or lance, form his full equipment; for shields, bows, and short spears, are now out of use. On the east of the Jordan, however, one still finds a strange survival from the Middle Ages in occasional coats of linked iron mail, down to the knees, and an iron helmet with a spike on the top, and a light plate in front to protect the nose. Education is regarded as a degradation, and is therefore despised; so that the traditions, exaggerated at each repetition, are strange confusions in the end, widely-separate events being jumbled together as well as sadly distorted. The ruling passion seems to be avarice, but in this the Bedouins are not different from Orientals generally, old and young. Like the ancient Jews, they have a hatred of the sea, and would much rather walk round the Lake of Galilee than save any amount of time or trouble by crossing it in a boat.
Khan Yusef, about two miles north-west of Chorazin, was the first building we reached, and it stands alone for miles in every direction, forming one of the resting-places for caravans on the so-called highway to Damascus. It is a large rectangular building of stone, with an arched entrance and battlemented walls; and there is the usual open space within for beasts, a well to water them, open chambers for merchandise, and others over them for travellers, reached by a balcony running round three sides.