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DAMASCUS, THE GARDEN BEAUTIFUL
| ATER, we drove to the foot of Mohammed's HillL the hill from which the Prophet looked down on the Pearl of the East and decided that as he could have only one paradise he would wait for the next. They have built a little tower to mark the spot where he rested, and we thought we would climb up there.
We didn't, however. The carriages could only go a little way beyond the city outskirts, and when we started to climb that blistering, barren hillside afoot we changed our minds rapidly. We had permission to go as high as we pleased, but it is of no value. Anybody could give it. Laura and I and a German newspaper man were the only ones who toiled up high enough to look down through the mystical haze on the vision Mohammed saw. Heavens! but it was hot up there! And this is March — early spring! How those Quaker City pilgrims stood it to travel across the Syrian desert in August I cannot imagine. In the Innocents I find this observation:
“The sun-flames shot down like shafts of fire that stream out of a blowpipe. The rays seemed to fall in a steady deluge on my head and pass downward like rain from a roof.”
That is a white-hot description, but not too intense, I think, for Syrian summer-time.
Another thing we noticed up there: Damascus is growing—in that direction at least. Older than history, the place is actually having a boom. All the houses out that way are new-mud-walled, but some of them quite pretentious. They have pushed out far beyond the gardens, across the barren plain, and they are climbing the still more barren slope. They stand there in the baking sun, unshaded as yet by any living thing. One pities the women shut up behind those tiny barred windows. These places will have gardens about them some day. Already their owners are scratching the earth with their crooked sticks, and they will plant and water and make the desert bloom.
Being free in the afternoon, Laura and I engaged Habib and a carriage and went adventuring on our own account. We let Habib manage the excursion, and I shall always remember it as a sweet, restful experience.
We visited a Moslem burying-ground first, and the tomb of Fatima—the original Fatima-Mohammed's beautiful daughter, who married a rival prophet, Ali, yet sleeps to-day with honor in a little mosquelike tomb. We passed a tree said to have been planted by the Mohammedan conqueror of Damascus nearly thirteen hundred years ago—an enormous tree, ten feet through or more on one side a hollow which would hold a dozen men, standing.
Then at last we came to the gardens of Damascus, and got out and walked among the olive-trees and the peach and almond and apricot-most of them in riotous bloom. Summer cultivation had only just
begun, and few workmen were about. Later the gardens will swarm with them, and they will be digging and irrigating, and afterward gathering the fruit, preserving and drying it, and sending it to market. Habib showed us the primitive methods of doing these things.
How sweet and quiet and fragrant it was there among the flowering trees! In one place a little group of Syrian Christians were recreating (it being Sunday), playing some curious dulcimer instrument and singing a weird hymn.
We crossed the garden, and sat on the grass under the peach-bloom while Habib went for the carriage. Sitting there, we realized that the guide-book had been only fair to Damascus.
“For miles around it is a wilderness of gardens-gardens with roses among the tangled shrubberies, and with fruit on the branches overhead. Everywhere among the trees the murmur of unseen rivulets is heard.”
That sounds like fairyland, but it is only Damascus -Damascus in June, when the fruit is ripening and the water-ways are full.
We drove out of Damascus altogether-far out across a fertile plain, to the slopes of the West Lebanon hills. Then turning, we watched the sun slip down the sky while Habib told us many things. Whatever there is to know, Habib knows, and to localities and landmarks he fitted stories and traditions which brought back all the old atmosphere and made this Damascus the Damascus of fable and dreams.
Habib pointed out landmarks near and far-minarets of the great mosque, the direction of Jerusalem, of Mecca; he showed us where the waters of Damascus rise and where they waste into the desert sands. To the westward was Mount Hermon; southward came the lands of Naphtali, and Bashan where the giant Og once reigned. All below us lay Palestine; Mount Hermon was the watch-tower, Damascus the capital of the North.
Damascus in the sunset, its domes and minarets lifting above the lacing green! There is no more beautiful picture in the world than that. We turned to it again and again when every other interest had waned—the jewel, the "pearl set in emeralds," on the desert's edge. Laura and I will always remember that Sunday evening vision of the old city, the things that Habib told us, and the drive home.
Next to the city itself I think the desert interested us. It begins just a little beyond Damascus, Habib said, and stretches the length of the Red Sea and to the Persian Gulf. A thousand miles down its length lies Mecca, to which pilgrims have journeyed for ages -a horde of them every year. There is a railway, now, as far as Tebook, but Mecca is still six hundred miles beyond. The great annual pilgrimages, made up of the faithful from all over Asia and portions of Europe and Africa, depart from Damascus, and those that survive it return after long months of wasting desert travel. Habib said that a great pilgrimage was returning now; the city was full of holy men.
Then he told us about the dromedary mail that crosses the desert from Damascus to Bagdad, like a through express. It is about five hundred miles across as the stork flies, but the dromedary is not disturbed by distance. He destroys it at the rate of fifteen miles an hour, and capers in fresh and smiling at the other end. Habib did not advise dromedary travel. It is very rough, he said. Nothing but an Arab trained to the business could stand it. Once an Englishman wanted to go through by the dromedary mail, and did go, though they implored him to travel in the regular way. He got through all right, but his liver and his heart had changed places, and it took three doctors seven days to rearrange his works.
A multitude was pouring out of the city when we reached the gates—dwellers in the lands about. We entered and turned aside into quiet streets, the twilight gathering about mysterious doorways and in dim shops and stalls, where were bowed, turbaned men who never seemed to sell anything, or to want to sell anything—who barely noticed us as we passed through the Grand Bazaar, where it was getting dark, and all the drowsy merchants of all the drowsy merchandise were like still shadows that only moved a little to let us pass. Out again into streets that were full of dusk, and dim fitting figures and subdued sounds.
All at once I caught sight of a black stone jar hanging at the door of a very small and dusky booth. It was such a jar as is used in Damascus to-day for water-was used there in the time of Abraham.
I had wanted one of the pots from the first. The carriage stops instantly.
“Habib! That black water-jar—a small one!” I had meant to bargain for it myself, but Habib is