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Hartman Itinerary Jordan Syria Lebanon Terminal Cities and Towns on Father Louis Hartman's Itinerary through Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. 1959 - 1960.

Letter 3: The Trip Through Lebanon and Syria


Jerusalem, Jordan
November 3, 1959


Dear Relatives and Friends:

Since my recent trip through Lebanon and Syria offers ample material for a story, I am again asking the good office secretary of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, Mrs. Agnes Smith, to duplicate and mail out to you this third of my circular letters. There may or may not be more circular letters from me, depending on what the future offers. This time, at least, I have plenty to write about. Contrary to my usual practice, I even kept a sort of diary on my Syrian safari. But I will spare you the weariness of a day-by-day account. It will probably be more interesting if I give you a general outline of the tour and mention just a few of my experiences and impressions.

The trip began with an inauspicious start by being postponed for one day. We had intended to leave Jerusalem for the north on Monday, October 12th, but we did not get going till the following morning. On Sunday, the 11th, it was noticed that our car had some trouble with its steering gear, and it took all day Monday to get it fixed. Although it was really before the Syrian trip, the short drive we took that Sunday is worth recounting.

On that Sunday all of us of the "American School" went to the wedding of Miriam, who had been housemaid at our School for the past year or two. Miriam's home was at Beth-Jala, an entirely Christian village (though all Arab-speaking, of course) just a short distance northwest of Bethlehem, the home town of the man she married. Both Miriam and her husband are Greek Orthodox Christians. The match was mostly arranged by Miriam's parents, and she felt greatly embarrassed by the fact that her somewhat older bridegroom had only one arm. In fact, she said outright that she was not at all happy with the marriage. But she really had no good reason for her discontent. She is about thirty years old and would soon be left a hopeless oldmaid--a great hardship in this part of the world. Besides, her husband seems to be a fine man, who has worked hard, despite his physical handicap, till he now owns a grocery store in Bethlehem.

Ten day before, Miriam and the Bethlehem grocer Hanna (John) had their solemn engagement. The other members of the American School also attended this, but I had to go out with one of my visitors from the States that day and so I missed this part of the show. From what I heard of it, the "engagement" was really the marriage contract, at which the bride and bridegroom gave their mutual consent. I was told that the singing and dancing of the women which followed this first ceremony was of a wilder nature than the more sedate celebration which I witnessed after the "wedding" proper, which was really only the nuptial blessing.

On this Sunday morning we drove in our "School car" to Miriam's wedding at Beth-Jala, along the new road that leads from the Jordan part of Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The old Bethlehem road, further west, is now in part Israeli territory and closed to through traffic. The new road to the east must first go way down into the low Wadi en-Nar, "Valley of Fire," the lower extension of the Cedron (Kidron) Valley that runs between the Old City of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. This new road is full of hairpin turns as it winds up and down the deep gorge. That is where our driver noticed that there was something wrong with the steering wheel.

The wedding was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., and we got to Miriam's house at about 9:45. Her parents' home consisted of just two rooms, both bedrooms, each opening on a large stone platform in front of the house, but with no direct connection between them. The bedding was carefully rolled up against the whitewashed walls--no bedsteads, of course. In one room a table was set with candies and cakes, wine and araq (Arab fire-water). In the other room Miriam sat like a queen on her throne, dressed in a stunning white silk dress that any American bride would have been proud to wear. It must have cost her grocer bridegroom several months income to pay for it. She looked completely incongruous in the midst of her sisters and other womenfolk, who were all dressed in their ancient costumes, dark dresses gayly embroidered with bright colors. We American visitors were the only menfolk. It was quite a while after the scheduled hour before the bridegroom with his male companions and the village priest arrived. I could not help thinking of our Lord's parable of the wise and foolish virgins, when the bridegroom was long in coming.

The religious ceremony, performed right in the little room of the thick-walled house, amid the olive trees, was quite long, lasting well over half an hour. Most of it was in Arabic, but a good part was in Greek. The priest was assisted by a man who was either a deacon or took the part of a deacon. Both were excellent singers. Sometimes each seemed to be singing a different melody simultaneously, yet with a strangely harmonious effect. The ceremony consisted of many litanies and blessings. Towards the end the priest put a crown of artificial flowers on the head of each of the couple, and he joined their hands after a ring ceremony (the latter an importation from the West?). After singing the Gospel in Arabic (I think it was our Lord's words on marriage, just as in a Latin Nuptial Mass), the priest placed the Gospel Book on the forehead of each of the couple. The ceremony ended with a blessing of bread and wine and a partaking of these by the priest, the bridal pair, the best man, and the maid of honor. An ordinary house table, put in the middle of the room, served as an altar. I doubt very much whether this was intended as a Eucharistic Communion in the strict sense. At least, there were no Greek words of consecration, though there may possibly have been a consecration in Arabic, which I could not understand. In any case, the maid of honor, Beverly Pope, the teen-age daughter of the Director of the American School, who is a Methodist, was given the blessed bread and wine with the others. Throughout the whole ceremony we all held lighted tapers, even the little children who were milling through the crowd and in danger of setting someone's clothes on fire. I trust that this did not make me an active participant in the ceremony, at which I was otherwise a mere silent spectator. The climax came at the end when the priest led the whole bridal party a half dozen times or more in Indian file around the "altar," while the old women let out whoops of jubilation. During this giddy running around the altar, the bride's mother trailed along with the bride and bridegroom, busily sewing their sleeves together with needle and thread. Before we drove back to Jerusalem, we had to share in the sweets and drinks, and each of us was given a "favor," a cute little porcelain box, with lid, full of Jordan almonds--very appropriate in the Kingdom of Jordan.

It is taking this letter as long to get started telling of the trip to Syria as the trip itself took in getting started. Let me first explain that this was not merely an ordinary tourist's sight-seeing journey. The land north of Palestine, that is, Lebanon (ancient Phoenicia) and Syria, is intimately bound up with Biblical history. As Biblical archaeologists, we are primarily interested in the ancient sites, the important cities of two to six thousand years ago, through which the commerce, the culture, and the invading armies of Assyria and Babylonia passed on their way to Palestine. Besides visiting the fine museums in Damascus, Beirut, and Aleppo, where much of the artistic remains of these ancient cities, as discovered in the archaeological excavations, are preserved, we visited many of the ancient mounds themselves, called "tells," under which the great cities of old are buried. Syria abounds in tells, only a small number of which have so far been excavated. We were fortunate in being able to visit four of these tells where active "digs" are now being undertaken. In each of these cases the director of the "dig," some world-famous archaeologist, showed us all over his tell and explained to us the things he was discovering. It was thrilling for me to be present at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) just as the Arab workmen, under the vigilant eye of Claude Schaeffer, who has spent some twenty years as director of this dig, were unearthing cuneiform tablets written around the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C. This excavation is under French auspices. In the same way Professor Mortgart of Berlin showed us around his new dig (only in the 2nd season) at Tell Khuweira in northern Syria, near the Balikh River, not far from the Turkish border; Professor Riis of Copenhagen guided us around his dig at Tell Sukas, at the Mediterranean south of Jebleh, which is south of Latakia; and the vivacious director of the Beirut Museum, Maurice Chehab, entertained us at his dig at Tyre, on the southern coast of Lebanon. This is definitely a much better way to visit an ancient site than it is when an excavation is finished. Thus, at the renowned sites of four-thousand year-old Mari and of two-thousand-year-old Dura-Europus, both near the Euphrates, we had to depend on guidebooks to identify the things to be seen.

This region to the north of Palestine is much less important for New Testament history. But in Damascus I walked the full length of "the Street that is called Straight" on which was the house of Judas where St. Paul was taken after he had been stricken blind on his way to persecute the Christians at Damascus. There are still some remains from Roman times on this street, but the street itself is now almost entirely part of the great "souk" or market of Old Damascus. A large Syriac Catholic church and school is on the traditional site of this Judas' house. I also visited the traditional house of Ananias at Damascus, where St. Paul was baptized, and likewise the place in the old city walls where St. Paul escaped by being let down in a hamper. There is a nice modern chapel here (also Catholic). But the trouble is that St. Paul's place of escape here is a new reconstruction in the medieval wall and of very dubious authenticity. In driving along the coast road between Sidon and Tyre in southern Lebanon, we covered the same ground that our Lord traversed when He cured the daughter of the Syrophenician woman. Here also we drove through the little village of Sarafand, ancient Sarepta, where the prophet Elias stayed during the famine with a widow woman--an event that Christ referred to when He was rejected at Nazareth.

Another legitimate object of our tour was to see the countryside itself of these northern regions, which has not changed much since Biblical times, as well as its people, who have retained much of the ancient ways of living. I don't want to discourse on the geography of the Near East, but a minimum of knowledge about it is necessary to understand something of the land we toured through. All along the coast north of Palestine there is a high range of mountains. Between the Mediterranean Sea and this "Lebanon" range there is a stretch of lower land of varying width, which is luxuriantly green all year round. The large groves of banana trees on this coastal plain show its tropical climate. The highest points in the coastal range are a little above 10,000 feet, higher than any mountains in the eastern United States. Inland, east of the coastal range is a long, wide valley, the Beqa'a, drained in its northern half by the Orontes River. East of this valley there are Mount Herman (topped with snow most of the year, but not at this time, autumn) and the Anti-Lebanon range. But as you go north up the Beqa'a, the latter range of mountains breaks up into chains of rolling hills, running off in a northeasterly direction. Finally, further east is the great Syrian desert, fertile only where irrigated from the streams that traverse it--the Euphrates and its northern branches, the Balikh and the Khabur. In that northeast part of Syria, called the Jezireh or "Island" (apparently because it is almost surrounded by these rivers) we had some of the most exciting times on our journey.

Now for something of the trip itself. There were five of us on the safari--all men, thank God! Dr. Pope, Director of the Jerusalem Sehool; Herb Bessj, fellow; Vaughan Crawford, who had just finished a summer "dig" in Iran and was on his way back to the Metropolitan Museum where he is Assistant Curator of the Near Eastern Sections; Omar, cook and major domo of our School, who did most of the driving and acted as our interpreter; and finally, myself. We kept a pretty strenuous regime. On most days, when we had large distances to travel and much to see, we started out on the road at the first streaks of dawn, about five in the morning. After driving for a couple of hours we would buy Arab bread and cheese in some village, and this food, with delicious fresh fruit bought on the way (mostly grapes and apples), would serve as our breakfast and lunch. Usually we tried to hit some larger city or town before nightfall at five in the evening, where we could get one good cooked meal a day. The hotels we passed the nights in varied according to the size of the towns we could reach in the evening. In the large cities we had really nice hotels; in some of the smaller places we had to be satisfied with rather primitive accommodations. One of these little inns where we once passed the night had a sign outside in English which proclaimed it "the most first class hotel." No doubt its rival hostelry was a real fleabag.

I had a Mass kit with me, so that even when I was not near a Catholic church, I could say Mass, which I did every day except one--when we had to spend the night in a tent on the desert. The assembling of this kit is a story in itself, too long to recount here. Most of its component parts came from the White Fathers at St. Ann's in Jerusalem; both the Dominicans and the Franciscans could not help me, since they needed their own Mass kits just at this time of the year. In the big cities of Damascus and Beirut I said Mass at the Franciscan churches, when we were not leaving too early in the morning. On the days when we made our five-o'clock starts, I had to get up before four a.m. in order to say Mass before the others got up. Since I got to bed by nine or ten in the evening, as soon as I had finished my Breviary, this worked no great hardship.

But even just riding in our car was often a pretty rugged experience. The main roads of Syria are hard-surfaced, but often pretty much broken up by the many big trucks that use them. Side roads are just dirt tracks, which often get outrageously bumpy. Our car was a Chevrolet carry-all, a sort of cross between a station wagon and a light truck, of about 1952 vintage, I think. When we put the larger pieces of baggage on the roof, we had plenty of room not only for the five of us but also for any stranger to whom we gave a lift on the road. These hitch-hikers are common in Syria. Several times without their valuable help as guides we would have been completely lost in the desert, where the tracks we were trying to follow often branch off into bewildering forks. No signposts in the desert, of course, and generally no one to ask the way.

Here's a brief outline of our itinerary. The first day from Jerusalem to Damascus, stopping only to see the great Roman ruins at Jerash in Transjordan. The second day sight-seeing in Damascus, especially its museum and its interesting "souk." On this day we applied for police permission to go into restricted "military areas" near the border, and we were told that it would take several days before we could get the necessary signatures. So, on the following day, we drove westward over the Anti-Lebanon range, across the Beqa'a, and over the Lebanon range, to Beirut. Of course, there is always much delay with passports and customs at every border crossing. We then spent three days touring Lebanon, the lovely little country that occupies the southern half of the coastal plain and range, together with the southern Beqa'a. Each day we had as our guide a remarkable gentleman, Mr. Qalayan, engineer for the Lebanon Department of Antiquities and professor of engineering at the American University of Beirut. The recent restorations at the enormous Roman temples at Baalbek ("the Baal of the Beqa'a"), through which he guided us, are mostly his work. There was hardly an antiquity site in Lebanon to which he did not take us. He spoke fluent English and French, as well as Arabic and Turkish and his native Armenian. So also did his wife and two daughters, college students. He entertained us at his home one evening.

Back in Damascus, we still had one day to wait for the "signatures" for our military passes. That was "Army Day" in Syria, a sort of Syrian Fourth of July. The hour- long fireworks that evening were at least as good as the best that I've seen at the Washington Monument on the Fourth. In my desert outfit--khaki shirt and pants and a "keffiyeh" or headveil that the Arab men wear--I roamed about the crowded streets of the modern part of Damascus that evening, sampling the exotic food that the street-vendors were selling, completely disregarding my earlier fears of getting sick from such strange food and drink. My fellow Americans were astonished when they met me as I was enjoying a boiled ear of fresh corn that I had bought from a man on the street. Most Arab foods are quite tasty, though perhaps too highly seasoned for Americans. They can do various things with rice, such as stuffing squash or eggplant with it. The ordinary meat is mutton, usually made into shish-kebbab or mishwi. In both of these forms the meat is roasted in small pieces on a skewer; in shish-kebab it is first finely ground and mixed with spices, whereas in mishwi the mutton is merely cut into small squares. In a native restaurant the kitchen is quite in the open. You can see the cook cut your piece of meat from the whole slaughtered sheep that is hanging there. Don't let the sight of him first shooing off dozens of flies disturb you; the roasting will kill the germs. It really is not as gruesome as it sounds. I was only sick once on the trip with something violently explosive in my innards. But the next day I was cured with a good medicine called "entero-vioforme."

From Damascus we finally got moving north, in one day to Aleppo, stopping only at the towns of Homs and Hama--at the latter place to photograph the big "norias" or water wheels, that use the flow of the Orontes River to lift water in buckets to a much higher level for irrigating the surrounding fields. Aleppo, Damascus, and Beirut are the only big cities in this part of the world, each with a population of a little less than half a million. Beirut is the most "western" of the three. The old part of Damascus is typically Oriental, but its new section is even more modern than Beirut. Aleppo is an Oriental city, even in its modern part.

From Aleppo we headed east into the Jezireh, the mostly desert region of northeastern Syria, to see the "Dead Cities" along the Euphrates and its affluents, the Balikh and Khabur. On the second day in this region we began to run into trouble with the forces of nature. While we were driving in the desert, black clouds came up which soon brought terrific wind. The air filled with so much dust that sometimes we had to stop the car till we could again see where we were driving. We were coming back from Abu Kemal, at the Syrian-Iraqi border (completely closed to all traffic). As we got near Deir ez-Zor, our headquarters for the night, near the junction of the Khabur with the Euphrates, it began to rain, and it rained all night long. Jerusalem has not yet had its first winter rain. But here the rain came earlier, and in torrents. The next morning it cleared up, and we pushed on north through the desert to Kameshli. The rain had already made some of the fields pretty muddy and hard to drive on. But we did not yet know what we were in for. The same torrential rains on the mountains of Turkey, which drain south into Syria, made the Khabur and Balikh (ordinarily almost completely dried-up riverbeds) overflow their banks on the following day and flood big stretches of the fields. However, we managed to get through most of the mud as we drove west that day, just south of the Turkish border, to Ras el-'Ain (Tell Halaf--an immense, very ancient mound, covered with fragments of "painted pottery") and to et-Tell el-Abyad (south of Abraham's stopping place of Harran, which is now in Turkey). At one spot on this dirt road we came to a small wadi (gully) that had about a foot-deep of rushing water in it and its steep sides all soft and muddy from the higher flood of the day before. Sitting right in the water of the wadi was a car full of men, women and children. Not only did they block our way, but we would get stuck in the same way, if we tried to make the crossing. However, the combined effort of both our group and the men in the other car saved the day. We merely had to get out and push, let the mud fly on us where it would.

We had intended to visit the German "dig" at Tell Khurweira early that afternoon, and then get to Jerablus (on the Euphrates, south of Carchemish) before nightfall. But with the slow driving through the mud and the delay at the swollen wadi, we could just manage to reach the German dig when the workers were quitting at sunset. Mortgart and his German assistants had no idea, of course, that we were coming. But they gave us the traditional hospitality of the desert, letting us share in their nice supper, and giving us the dining tent for our sleeping quarters overnight. Why I did not freeze to death that night, I don't know, I did not even catch a cold from it. The ground can be terribly hard and cold, with nothing but one thin blanket to wrap yourself in. I had not even taken a sweater with me on the trip. There is an astonishly great difference in the desert between the scorching heat of the sun and the freezing sparkle of the brilliant stars at night. The cold dawn at last came, and the hot coffee of the Berliners, before they started another day's work on the dig, was delicious. That was the only day on the trip when I could not say Mass.

The next day was the day of mud with a vengeance. We tried to drive further west, but our road was blocked by hopeless stretches of mud. We could not even get back east from the spot into which we had gotten ourselves. At one little village we met a man who said he wanted to go to Raqqa and if we would take him with us, he promised to get us there. Raqqa is on the main asphalt road from Aleppo to Deir ez-Zor. Once we got there, it would be easy sledding--I mean driving. Sure enough, our old Beduin guide knew all the desert trails and the best places to ford the swollen wadies. But at one place we really ran into trouble. This was a stretch of about a quarter of a mile long where we had to go through thick oozy mud. We just had to take this muddy trail because it led to a stone bridge over a deep wadi, which no car could cross at any other place. But at different holes along this hopeless track there were already two trucks and four passenger cars helplessly floundering. Some of these people had already been there for two days. We shared all our food with them. Then we all got down to work. The mud was beginning to harden and there was now a chance of getting through. Everybody pushed a car till its wheels got traction, and then the driver would gun it for all it was worth, while all the Arabs yelled at the top of their lungs: "Yalla! Yalla! -- Go! Go!" One of my Protestant companions remarked that it was more fun than a church picnic. After about two hours we got all of the cars, including our own, safely to the bridge; that is, all except the trucks, which had to wait for a tractor and towing chain to get them out.

When I speak about the "desert," you should not get the idea of sand dunes, such as there are in parts of the Sahara. The Syrian desert is mostly just hard, level ground, sometimes as far as the eye can see, as flat as the proverbial pancake, with practically nothing growing on it. It is an awe-inspiring feeling to be out on such a desolate plain, with not the slightest sign of life in any direction. On some parts, however, of this desert, there is a scanty growth of green. Here we would come across large flocks of sheep and goats or herds of camel. For me, one of the most interesting things was the wild life of the desert. Once we came upon four lovely gazelles, bounding along together in graceful leaps right near our car. At this time of the year the desert has enormous flocks of birds migrating south from Europe. There must have been millions of wild doves in some of the great clouds of them that we saw alighting on the desert. In the ruins at Dura-Europus I roused up a great big owl, which scared the life out of me. In the same ruins I suddenly came upon a fox right in front of me. I don't know who was the more frightened of the two of us. But he succeeded in slipping by me without him hurting me or me hurting him. On another day we saw a car full of men with shot guns madly hunting some kind of ploverlike birds of which there were hundreds all around. They were filling the trunk of their car with the shot birds as fast as a fisherman fills his fish box in the midst of a school of mackerel. The saddest thing was to see the strings of various sorts of pretty little birds that the boys were offering for sale along the road. When I asked what the birds were called, they said that they were "sparrows."

This letter has already gone on and on, further than it should. I shall have to shorten the rest of the account. Just one more little experience I had in the wild Jezireh, this one a happy one. We arrived one Sunday afternoon about four o'clock at Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates. I walked by myself up the one main street to the town's edge, and was surprised to see a lovely Franciscan church. I thought it just as unlikely to find such a church here as to find one in the Gobi Desert. I went into the church and found October devotions going on. There were several dozen school girls, all in the same uniform (probably orphans), and a dozen or two men and women, saying the rosary in Arabic, with the bearded priest at the altar. When the girls sung the Tantum Ergo and pronounced the word Sacramantum like true Frenchies, it was easy to tell the nationality of the Sisters who were with them. The people never suspected that I, in my muddy khaki, was a priest. But they seemed pleased to see that such a wild-looking foreigner knew how to genuflect and bless himself with holy water. For my part, I felt as if I were at home, among my own, in this outlandish village at the end of the desert.

After getting back to Aleppo from Raqqa, we drove through magnificent Alpine scenery over the northern extension of the Lebanon coastal range to the little Syrian seaport of Latakia. No wonder the ancient Phoenicians made one of these mountains, Mount Saphon, the abode of their gods. From Latakia we visited Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit, on the coast to the north, and also the Danish dig at Tell Sukas to the south, near Jebleh. The headquarters of the Danes, their "expedition house," was at the edge of the village of Jebleh. There had been heavy rains here also. Our own car could never get through the mud to the Tell, four miles away, that was being excavated. So the Danes took us there in their four-wheel-drive, Russian-made jeep. This dig is being financed by the Carlsberg brewery of Copenhagen, and at the Danish expedition house we were treated to some bottles of Carlsberg beer, an excellent drink, or at least my desert-parched throat thought so.

The next day we drove from Latakia inland over the lowest part of the coastal range, through land sprinkled with ruins of Crusaders' castles, on our way to Homs and back to Damascus. We drove up a rocky side road all the way to the top of a mountain on which nests the most famous and best preserved of all the Crusaders fortresses, the mighty Krak des Chevaliers. The Saracens never succeeded in capturing this impregnable stronghold. Its knights abandoned it when it was the last and only Crusader castle left in this part of the world. To walk through its complicated fortifications and vast vaulted halls is to go back eight hundred years into the Middle Ages.

On Saturday, October 31st, we drove directly from Damascus back to Jerusalem, without stopping off, for lack of time, to visit the Jebel Druze area in the Hauran, as had been planned. We had, in fact, planned too much and not reckoned with the delaying mud of northern Syria. Thus, we also had to let go for a later trip the excursion to the renowned Roman-age ruins at palmyra. When I got to my room that Saturday evening, it felt more like "home" than I ever thought it could.

One last thing before I close. I meant to mention this in my last circular letter but I forgot. I hope it is not now too late. I trust that no one will be foolish enough to think about sending me a Christmas present. Please, please, please don't do so. We have been warned by the experiences of past years. At least 100% custom duty is charged on all such gifts. If we refuse to pay the duty, the parcel is returned to the original sender at his expense. Now, you wouldn't want me to be sending your Christmas present back to you and have you pay the postage on it a second time, would you? -- Since all this land is holy, I am often reminded to pray for you here, and indeed I do remember all of you in my prayers. In your more civilized, though perhaps less sacred land, say an occasional prayer for

Yours Devotedly,
Louis Hartman

American School of Oriental Research
Jerusalem, Jordan


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