www.virmu.com/1959-Letters-From-The-Holy-Land





Father Louis Hartman Jordan Valley Father Louis Hartman in the Holy Land, 1959.

Letter 8: Coming Home


Jerusalem, Jordan
Ascension Day, May 26, 1960


Dear Folks:

All things come to an end, even a school year in Palestine. Next Monday, May 30th, I say farewell to all ray glory as Annual Professor of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, and start out with bag and baggage on the first leg of my long westward journey back home. Since it seems that some of you found these circular letters of mine not quite as frightfully dull as I thought (though one of you admitting having used them for bedtime reading -- an admirable use for such soporific material), I am now giving in to the temptation of writing a last one of them, as a sort of final chapter to the series.

I regret to say that I was too tired last night to go to the Latin Midnight Mass on the Mount of Olives in honor of our Lord's Ascension into heaven, and that I did not have foresight enough to make an effort (probably in vain, anyway) for arranging to say Mass there at some time early this morning. During most of the morning the Greeks and the Armenians and the Copts and all the other Eastern Churches have their allotted periods for using the little chapel of the Ascension, which for the rest of the year forms part of a small Moslem mosque. When it cools off this evening (from this summer heat which we have been having for the past couple of weeks) I may go up to Jebel et-Tur, the top of the Mount of Olives, to satisfy my private devotions.

What tired me out last night was the whole-day excursion we took yesterday to the desert beyond Zerqa in northeastern Transjordan, to witness a marvelous spectacle. May 25th is known here as "Army Day." Each year on that day the Royal Army of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan puts on a fine show out there in the desert of Zerqa, where it has one of its largest camps together with an excellent parade field. The king and other dignitaries and numerous invited guests come here on "Army Day" to review the country's armed forces. We of the American School managed to get very good tickets in the fourth row of the grandstand, in a section reserved for the diplomatic corps (mostly the ambassadors and the military attachés and their wives, from the various embassies in Amman, the capital of Jordan.) This was quite near the special reviewing stand of the king and directly facing the double group of musicians who regaled us with music during the whole military review. Besides a very good brass band (all with silver-plated instruments), that not only played military marches (including "The Stars and Stripes Forever" and "The Bridge at the River Kwai"), but also rather incongruously a lively waltz, for the soldiers who paraded between our reviewing stand and this band, there was likewise a large contingent of bagpipers and their drummers with red, blue and green colored ribbons flying at the top of their pipes. As soon, as the band finished one selection, the bagpipers would take over with some Scottish air, and when their doodlely-doodlely was finished, the band would again begin. So it went on continuously for three hours, except when the thunder of the heavy tanks that rolled by made it impossible for the musicians to be heard. This strange bit of musical culture in the form of bagpipes was transplanted from Scotland to this part of the world in the days of the English "Mandate," when the British were running this country. The English authority is now a thing of the past, but the Jordan army still loves its martial music from the Scotch Highlands.

Most of the military review was about the same, though no doubt on a smaller scale, as one could see in any other country: huge tanks, mighty cannons, and the rest of the heavy equipment of a mechanized army -- meant here to strike terror into the hearts of the hated invaders "on the other side." But this parade also offered sights that could not possibly be seen anywhere else but here. What other country has its soldiers wearing "keffias," those gay headcloths of the beduins? Or what other land still has such colorful cavalry troops as the Arab Legion of Jordan? These prancing and dancing Arab steeds, which once ran circles around the heavy nags of the Crusaders, may no longer be of any use in modern warfare, but they certainly do make a thrilling sight as they come trotting along in their well-ordered ranks. The most popular part of the parade, however, was without a doubt the famous Camel Corps of Jordan, that goes back to the days of Lawrence of Arabia. They may still be useful in policing the wilder parts of the desert, though sturdy jeeps and power wagons can now do that job even better. But with the brilliant red trappings of both the skillful riders and the ungainly, snooty beasts, they can't be beat for color.

Young King Hussein received a rousing ovation as he passed in front of the stands where the ordinary people were crowded in their thousands, and especially as he greeted his friends, the hundreds of sheiks from the desert tribes. I could hardly understand a word of his Arabic speech at the end, but he seemed to speak with authority and was often interrupted with thunderous applause. For some strange reason the deafening roar of jet fighters was also scheduled to interrupt his speech several times. Surprisingly enough, the king has no bodyguard or secret-service men around him. He would even smilingly pose to let us foreigners take his picture. Perhaps he acts that way to show his courage and his confidence in his people. This brave and handsome little ruler has everything that a king is expected to have -- except height, I notice that extra-long cigarettes are never called "king size" here.

Unfortunately the day was almost ruined by a sudden blow that nature (or Allah, as the Arabs would say) sent us -- a blow quite literally in the sense of "the wind, she blew a hurricane." Shortly before the parade began at 10 A.M. big black clouds appeared in the surrounding desert. As they came nearer, we could see what made them black: a fierce wind was pulling the top of the desert in huge spirals up into the sky. Whatever goes up comes down. This time the top of the desert, which had gone up, came down with a vengeance right on top of our reviewing stand. The gale ripped away parts of its canvas roof, and the sand and dust of the desert poured down on us in torrents. You could hardly see a thing one foot away -- if you were foolish enough to keep your eyes open during this blizzard of dirt. Happily the whole thing lasted only about five minutes, when it ended in a one-minute downpour of rain, or rather of liquid mud. The wild wind disappeared as quickly as it had come, and the sun was dazzling bright for the rest of the day. But it was a sad sight to see the uniforms of the visiting officers and the light-colored dresses of their ladies all covered with dust and speckled with mud. Everyone who was bare-headed ended up with ghastly gray hair. There must have been much washing and bathing last evening in Jordan.

That was only one day. I've had many other interesting days here too, but none of them quite so exciting. There's no way, however, for me to write of all my recent excursions without turning this letter into a book. I think, though, that I did promise in my last letter to say a few words about my Easter-week trip to Petra. So, here goes for a brief account of that. But I must warn you that, if you dislike "descriptions of scenery," you better skip this part of the letter. For Petra and even the last part of the way to it cannot be rightly spoken about without telling of the "scenery." You'd have to go pretty far to find such wild scenery anywhere else in the world. It was mostly caused in what they call "the Pluvial Age," that is, the time when the great glaciers melted away further north; then this part of the world received torrential rains, that tore tremendous gashes in what had been before merely flat high tableland.

To go to Petra, you first drive east from Jerusalem, down into the Jordan Valley and up again on the other side to Amman. Then, you drive south, either inland, along the edge of the desert, beside the railroad that runs to Ma'an, or along the western road that skirts the edge of the plateau high above the Dead Sea and its southern extension, the barren valley of the Araba. The inland desert road is now in the process of being hard-surfaced, though long stretches of it are still mere bumpy tracks. It is heavily used by trucks, going to and from Aqaba, Jordan's only seaport, and these trucks send up immense clouds of dust. Besides, there is nothing interesting to see all along its dreary length. We took the other road south from Amman. It follows more or less closely "The King's Highway" on which Moses tried unsuccessfully to lead his invading Israelites north into Chanaan. Short stretches of it here and there still show the big paving blocks and the milestones that go back to Roman times. The fertile land along it is that of ancient Moab in the north and ancient Edom in the south. When we drove along here in Easter Week most of the fields were covered with a lovely fresh green of growing grain. This high plateau had received somewhat more winter rain this year than Jerusalem did. No doubt, like the fields and hillsides of Palestine, that Moabite and Edomite grain is now white for the harvest. The hot winds of May have stripped away from this land the lovely green mantle that it wore with its anomone and poppy rubies during the late winter months and has now left it in its usual dusty nakedness. And poor Jerusalem still suffers from its drought, with only 8 inches of rain this winter against a normal precipitation of 24 inches a year. The eastern U.S.A., you know, gets almost 50 inches of rain each year.

But back to our Petra trip. The road through Moab and Edom is mostly quite flat, as it passes the small farming villages on the plateau. But every once in a while it suddenly comes to one of those deep "wadies" or gorges that the old rain of the Pluvial Age dug out for itself as it ran off west into the Dead Sea or the Araba. The two largest of these valleys are mentioned in the Bible: the Arnon, now called the Wadi Mojib, which meets the Dead Sea in about the central part of the latter's eastern bank, and the Zared, the modern Wadi el-Hesi, that enters the lowlands where the northern end of the Araba forms the southern end of the Dead Sea. I probably shall never have a chance to see the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, but I am content in having not only gazed on these two giant gorges which are not unworthy to be compared to it, but also in having gone down and up their precipitous sides on the new auto road that was intentionally left rough-surfaced -- to keep cars from sliding off and tumbling down into the abyss below. The hairpin turns of this road are really quite hair-raising. Samir, the driver of our hired car, said that he went over this road so often that he could drive it in his sleep. But we told him not to try to prove his ability by falling asleep at the wheel.

The land here is mostly gray limestone, with occasional patches of black basalt, so that these gorges lack the color of the Colorado. But this is not the case further south, where the land had been too high for the primeval limestone buildings to reach, so that here the surface rock is the lower, red, Nubian sandstone. This is not nearly as hard as limestone, and the Pluvial rains cut through it like a knife through butter. Here the valleys are not wide, like the limestone ones of the Arnon and the Zared, but extremely narrow gorges with their high sides going up almost as straight as a wall.

At the head of one of these narrow gorges is a spring of good water, called Ain Musa ("the Fountain of Moses"), because it was mistakenly believed to be the place where Moses struck water from the rock. There is a small Arab village here by the same name. This is as far as you can drive with a car. The rest of the way down this wonderful gorge, the Wadi Musa, you must either go on foot or on horseback. As you follow it down towards the Araba, you first go though a deep gorge that is so narrow that in some places, you can almost touch both sides with outstretched arms, yet its walls rise up straight above you to almost 400 feet. This is the famous "Siq," the only good entrance to Petra. After about three miles of this narrow Siq you come face to face with a magnificent facade cut into the face of the red rock, romantically called by the Arabs, "the Treasury of Pharao." Here, after a sharp right turn the path becomes wider and wider, till it enters a wide open space with a few crags left in its middle and high crags on all sides. This is ancient Petra, poetically called "the rose-red city of the desert." At the further end there is another narrow valley that leads down into the Araba. Here was a natural track for caravans from Arabia to reach the Mediterranean Sea. And since there are a few springs of water here to make the place habitable, this was an ideal place for an ancient settlement. On one of its high crags was probably the capital of Edom, called "Sela," which in Hebrew means "the Rock." And here certainly was the great city of Petra (which likewise means "the Rock" in Latin), which was the capital of the Nabatean kingdom at the time of Christ. Not much is left of the houses and public buildings of this city. But the Nabateans, an Arab people who used Aramaic in their inscriptions, had a mania for building colossal tombs which they could easily cut out of the soft sandstone of the surrounding crags. Inside, these tombs are usually quite plain and simple -- just a certain number of niches parallel with the walls for receiving the dead bodies. But outside they are fantastic, their fronts carved to look like the facades of Roman temples and palaces. The most astounding thing, however, is the color of these rock tombs. This was made by nature, not by the Nabateans. The sandstone of Petra is veined in wavy lines, since it was wind-laid, not water-deposited, and these lines run to all shades of red, from the darkest maroons to the lightest pinks, depending how the wind was blowing those millions of years ago. To add to the variety, there are often thin lines of pure white between the red veins. The one day that we spent there was hardly long enough to drink in all this intoxicating beauty.

When I had been here before -- away back in 1931, we had to pass the night in one of the tomb caves, where the grave niches made quite suitable beds. But this time we stayed in a nice little hotel, which is now built right in the old city itself. It should have been merely a good all-day drive from Jerusalem to Petra. But we stopped too long for lunch in the ruins of the great Crusader castle at Kerak (the ancient capital of Moab) that towers on a high cliff above the Dead Sea. So it was pitch-dark when we arrived at Ain Musa at about 9 P.M. Riding on horseback through the narrow Siq is thrilling at any hour, but doubly so at night, especially at this time, when there was no moon, but only the countless stars sparkling in the sky. Some one asked me if I had ever ridden a horse before. I answered, "Of course." Actually, the last time I was on a horse was in this very place in 1931! Naturally the Arab owners would not trust us with their good horses unescorted. The men and boys went along on foot, holding flashlights to show the way, so that their horses would not break their legs on the large stones of the dry brook in the Siq. On the way back we rode out in daylight, and then I got my horse to do an occasional bit of trotting and even galloping -- quite a feat, since the beast had no bit and bridle, but only a halter with a single rope for me to hold.

From Petra we went still further south, all the way to Aqaba at the head of the Gulf of the same name, which is the eastern arm of the Red Sea at the eastern side of the Sinai Peninsula. The drive there from Petra is partly through some magnificent scenery of contorted granite mountains, and partly across a wide, flat barren plain. Aqaba itself is a rather miserable little town, with apparently more trucks than houses. But we found its small hotel, that was simply called "The Rest House," quite enjoyable. Its "rooms" were separate cabanas, right on the beach, and at all its meals delicious fresh fish from the Gulf of Aqaba was served. We had some refreshing swims in the clear and remarkably blue water of the Red Sea, which was not too chilly for this time of the year. A few freighters were in the harbor, one of them unloading bags of flour from the U.S.A. for the Palestine refugees. Directly across this head of the Gulf of Aqaba is the little Israeli port of Elath. Up in the Araba, a few miles from the Gulf, is Solomon's copper foundry; but we were not allowed to go there, because it is right on the border between Israel and Jordan.

While I was walking along the main street (about the only street) of Aqaba, a young man asked me, "Abuna khuri--a priest?" I answered, "Na'am--Yes," though I could not imagine how he could recognize me as a priest in my old "campaign" clothes. He didn't. What he meant was, "Are you looking for a priest?" He led me up a side alley where a small house had been turned into a little church and a two-room rectory. Here I met a Belgian priest, a thin, wiry fellow of about forty, a real hero hidden in this God-forsaken place. He spoke very good English and told me about his work here. He had changed over to the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church in order to work for the people here. At Aqaba he had a congregation of about 100 Eastern Catholics and about 300 Orthodox Christian, and at his mission station at Ma'an about 100 Christians of all varieties. By a special permission of the Pope he was allowed to administer the sacraments to the Orthodox, even though they did not renounce their schism, since he was the only priest of any kind around for many miles. When I asked him how hot it got here in the summertime, he said it often reached 50 degrees centigrade in his house; when this did not register with me, he explained that that was about 125 degrees Fahrenheit. His tiny church was immaculately clean, though he said the frequent sandstorms caused him much trouble. There was no priest south of him in the whole Arabian Peninsula. Yet Aqaba, he said, had once been an episcopal city in Byzantine times. Its only claim to fame, he added, is that it was the first bishopric to fall into Moslem hands. Except when he is in touch with the members of his congregation, he is completely alone, without a helper of any kind. He does all his own cooking and washing and so forth. But in his poverty he insisted on serving me a cup of black coffee--the inevitable sign of hospitality in Arab lands. You never know when or where you may meet a real saint. I'm pretty sure I met one at Aqaba.

May 27, 1960

That's as far as I got with this letter yesterday. In the late afternoon I went to the Mount, of Olives, in order not to miss visiting this holy site on Ascension Day. This is really only a high hill, not a true mountain. Yet our Lord made it nearer heaven than even the highest mountains on earth are.

I ought to quit writing here and now while I am still probably ahead of the game. But before I close there is still one more story that I would like to tell. I'll try to be brief. This happened several months ago, but I don't remember having written about it before. (I'm not on the mailing list myself, so I can't check on my past letters.)

One day four of us--Mr. and Mrs. Marks, Herb Bess, and myself--decided to go for a morning's drive in John Marks' little French car to visit the ruins of Thecua, few miles southeast of Bethlehem. Thecua, as you no doubt remember, was the home of the prophet Amos and also of the "wise woman" who gave King David some good advice about his quarrelsome sons. After looking over the ruins of Thecua, which on the surface are mostly Byzantine, and after meeting the family of the one and only man who now lives here, we should have gone back home to Jerusalem, since we had not brought any lunch with us. But as it was only about ten o'clock, we thought we had some time to do a little exploring. Someone had told us that we could go from Thecua to Wadi Murrabba'at, where a few fragments of second-century Hebrew had been found. After driving on one rough road after another and finding that they all petered out into the nothingness of the Desert of Juda, we finally hit a track that went on and on along the top of a ridge that ran in a southeast direction toward the Dead Sea. To our right was a deep valley, which I later learned was called the Wadi el-Ghar. It was getting late, and we should have turned around and headed for Jerusalem. But the rough track was intriguing and we wanted to see where it led to.

At last we found out. It led directly into the barbwire enclosure of a small military camp. The couple of dozen soldiers of the Jordan Camel Corps who were there all turned out to gaze on us with strange curiosity. The only one who could speak some English was the civilian cook. Over and over again he asked us, each time with his voice stressing a different words "Why you come? Why you come? Why you come?" Evidently only soldiers ever came here. As the oldest and the only one with even a smattering of Arabic, I acted as spokesman for our group and said that we had come here to see where the road went. We were told to show our passports, and not one of us had brought a passport along! It looked bad indeed. We might be spies or smugglers or Israeli "infiltrators" or any other wicked thing for all they knew. But then too, we might really be just stupid Americans, as we said we were; so they acted very courteous towards us. After all, they had not found anything in the trunk of the car except a spare tire. They brought us delicious Arab tea--very sweet and mint-flavored and scalding hot, with no milk, of course, to spoil it. Then they showed us on a map where we were; at Rujm en-Nakeh, the last Jordan outpost in southeast Palestine; a few miles further on was the Israeli-held village of En-Gedi on the Dead Sea. In a quandary what to do with us, they got their radio man to ask the commander of their district at Bethlehem about it. The answer: Let them drive back with a soldier in the car to Bethlehem for investigation. This was a break for the soldier. He told us in a mixture of Arabic halting English he told us that he lived in Jerusalem, but had not been home for three months; maybe he could now get home from Bethlehem. At Bethlehem he brought us into the police station which is on the main square, across from the Church of the Nativity. The good-natured policemen here thought our story was very comical, but they could not let us go till the commander, who would not be there for an hour or so, dismissed the case. To make us comfortable, they brought us inside, behind locked doors, where we could sit down. I thought it quite funny to be locked up in jail within a couple of hundred feet from where Christ was born! But Mrs. Marks did not think it so funny. She was worried about her six-months-old baby, because no one at the American School knew the baby's "formula." When she asked the policeman to let her go because she had three little children at home, he comfortingly told her that he had six little children at home himself and he was not worrying about them. Finally about three o'clock in the afternoon the lord high commander showed up. He asked me various questions about the American School, to see if my story was on the level. At last, after recording our names and giving us a lecture about roaming into forbidden territory without even a passport with us, he let us go. We shook hands in a very friendly parting. I enjoyed it all immensely. After all, not many Americans have spent a couple of hours in the jail at Bethlehem.

As the old-time movie travelogues used to end—"And so we say farewell to beautiful Jordan." This place really grows on you. The longer you live here, the more you get to love it. While I am happy to be soon on my way home, I know I shall miss Jerusalem when I am gone. I'll miss the sacred sites and the crowded Souk inside the Damascus Gate. And I'll miss all these ever -cheerful people--not only the "important" people among my friends here, but the many "little" people too: the good-natured blind man outside the post office from whom I buy my cigarettes and who is always asking me to "show" him where I live; and Saleh, the boy salesman of the streets whose winning smile can make tourists buy the wares he's peddling, whether they want the things or not; and the saintly little old nun, Sister Mary Joseph, who serves my Mass every morning at St. Stephen's, living alone here as an exile from China, where she once was the foundress of a flourishing order of nursing Sisters. Now that I am packing up, I'm checking to see that I am not forgetting anything. But somehow I'm afraid that I may leave my heart here.

With the Arabs I have to use their frequent expression, "el-hamdu-lil-Allah – Praise be to God!" There are so many things for which I must be grateful to God. I also owe thanks to the Catholic University of America for granting us this Sabbatical Year, and to the American Schools of Oriental Research for giving us this wonderful opportunity of a year in Palestine. While I am on the subject of gratitude, let me again thank Mrs. Agnes Smith, the office secretary of the Catholic Biblical Association at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., for her good work in duplicating and sending out these circular letters. My thanks also to my good friend, John J. Crawley, the publisher of Catholic books in New York, for his generosity in supplying the pictures and maps which accompanied some of these letters.

I am pretty sure that when, God willing, I am back in America, I shall have no desire to write you another letter recounting my homeward journey. So, just to give you some idea of it, here are my travel plans for the next month and a half – in sha Allah (If God so wills!). I am first crossing the so-called "Mandelbaum Gate" (a few blocks from where I live here) and going into "the other side," primarily for the sake of spending a few days in Galilee. Then I fly from Tel Aviv to Constantinople, with change of planes at Nicosia in Cyprus. In western Turkey I also hope to visit Ephesus and other ancient sites of New Testament fame in that part of the world, unless the unrest in that country prevents it. Next, some days in Athens, with a couple of excursions to other parts of southern Greece. Then a week in Rome, with a side trip to Naples and perhaps another to Assisi. This will be followed by a week in Switzerland, visiting my friends in the cantons of Luzern and St. Gallon. Finally, after a few days in Paris, a week in Ireland. All these longer hops in Europe will be by air, of course, and the combination of them all for the same price as if I were flying directly from Jerusalem to Dublin. On July 12th I sail from Cobh, Ireland, in cabin class on the good ship "America," which is scheduled to land in New York on July 18th. If any of you have ideas of trying to meet me at the dock in New York, will you please do me the favor of giving up such ideas? Much as I would like to see you all as soon as possible, it just does not make sense for you to go to a crowded busy pier on what may well be a swelteringly hot day. Instead, I would appreciate it if you would say a little prayer now and then for my safety on this long homeward journey.

Till we meet again,

Devotedly yours,

Father Louis Hartman, C.SS.R.

Click on the left-side menu to view each letter.

Previous: Letter 7: Easter
Next: About Father Hartman