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THE “PEARL OF THE EAST”
T is the oldest city in the world. It is the oldest I locality mentioned in the Bible, if the Garden of Eden theory be true. I suspect that Noah's flood washed away the garden, and that his grandson, Uz, wanted to commemorate the site by building a city there. At all events, Uz built Damascus, according to Josephus, and he could not have picked a better location than this wide, level plain, watered by these beautiful living streams. That was about 2400 B.C., which means that Damascus was already an old city
-five hundred years old, or more—when Abraham overtook Chedorlaomer, King of Elam-Tidal, King of Nations, and two other kings—these four having captured Abraham's nephew, Lot, “who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.”
A matter of four kings did not disturb Abraham. He had a better combination than that. He armed his trained servants, three hundred and eighteen in number, “born in his own house,” and went after those kings and “smote them and pursued them unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus, rescued Lot and brought back the goods.”
That is the first Bible mention of Damascus, and it was no doubt a goodly city, even then. After that it appears, time and again, in both the scriptures, and one never fails to feel its importance in the world's story. Five hundred years after Abraham, Thothmes III, thought it worth while to cross over from Egypt to conquer Damascus, and after still another five hundred years King David ravaged the country round about and set up a garrison here. Those were not frequent changes. Damascus does not do things frequently or without reflection. I believe the Medes came next, and after them the Romans, and then, quite recently-recently for Damascus, I mean—only thirteen hundred years ago—the Mohammedans took the place and have held it ever since.
And Damascus herself has remained unchanged. Other cities have risen and prospered and perished even from memory. They did not matter to Damascus. Nothing matters to Damascus. It may have altered its appearance a trifle now and then, but not materially. It is the same Damascus that Abraham knew and that David conquered. I can see both of these old fellows any time I look out of my hotel window; also, the three hundred and eighteen servants born in Abraham's household—all the tableau of the ancient city that has remained forever young.
“Though old as history itself, thou art as fresh as the breath of spring, blooming as thine own rosebud, and fragrant as thine own orange-flower, O Damascus, pearl of the East!”
We are at the Grande Hotel Victoria. All these hotels are “Grande" something or other. A box shanty ten by fifteen is likely to be called “Grande Hotel de France.” However, the Victoria is grand, rather, and quite Oriental in its general atmosphere. The rooms are clean, too, and the Turkish pictures amusing. Furthermore, our rooms look across the river—the soul of Damascus—the water in which Eve first saw her sweet reflected form, if tradition holds. Its banks are bordered by a great thoroughfare now, where against a background of peachbloom and minaret an eternal panorama flows by. Camel trains from Bagdad and the far depths of Persia; mule trains from the Holy Land; donkey trains from nowhere in particular; soldiers with bands playing weird music; groups of Arabs mounted on splendid horses — dark men with long guns, their burnouses flying in the wind. One might sit here forever and drift out of time, out of space, in the fabric of the never-ending story.
Being late in the afternoon, with no programme, Laura and I set out to seek adventure, were immediately adopted by a guide, and steered toward the bazaars. We crossed a public square near the hotel where there were all sorts and conditions of jackasses
—some of them mounted by men, others loaded with every merchandise under the sun. We saw our first unruly donkey just then-a very small donkey mounted by a very fat son of the prophet with a vast turban and beard. It being the Mohammedan Sunday (Friday), he had very likely been to the mosque and to market, and was going home. He had a very large bush broom under his arm, and it may have been this article thrashing up and down on the donkey's flank that made him restive. At all events, he was cavorting about (the donkey, I mean) in a most unseemly fashion for one bestridden by so grave a
burden, and Mustapha Mohammed — they are all named that—was bent forward in a ball, uttering what Laura thought might be quotations from the Koran. We did not see what happened. They were still gyrating and spinning when we were caught up by the crowd and swept into the bazaar.
The Grande Bazaar of Damascus excels anything we have seen. It is bigger and better and cleaner than the bazaar of Constantinople, and a hundred no, a million—times more inviting. No Christian could eat anything in a Constantinople market-place. The very thought of it gags me now as I write, while here in Damascus, Laura and I were having confections almost immediately—and lemonade cooled with snow brought on the backs of camels from the Lebanon mountain-tops. Mark Twain speaks of the place as being filthy. I think they must have cleaned up a good deal since then; besides, that was midsummer. I would not like to say that the place is speckless, but for the Orient it was clean, and the general bouquet was not disturbing. Also, I had a safer feeling in Damascus. I did not feel that if I stepped into a sidestreet I would immediately be dragged down and robbed. I did not feel as if I were a lost soul in a bedlam of demons.
We noticed other things. The little booths, one after another, were filled with the most beautiful wares—such wares as we have seen nowhere elsebut the drowsy merchants sat crosslegged in meditation, smoking their nargileh or reading their prayers, and did not ask us to buy. If we stopped to look at their goods they hardly noticed us. If we priced them