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CONVENT OF ST SABA.
But they prove
and much alarm is excited in our party. to be government soldiers in search of robbers, looking more like the robbers themselves of whom they are in pursuit. They gallop around in Arab style, and make many warlike demonstrations, as they cross over the mountain.
We now come to a vast gorge winding through the rock, several hundred feet deep, wild and grand beyond description. At the end of this natural chasm stands the rock-built convent of St Saba, on the borders of the wilderness of Judea. Here a company of forty or fifty Greek monks spend their time in watching, fasting, and prayer. A more desolate and dreary spot could scarcely have been selected. The walls are built high and strong around to guard against the attacks of the Arabs; for the monastery is possessed of immense wealth, the gift of pious pilgrims. They let down a basket from an upper window to receive and examine our letters of introduction, and then admit us through a heavy iron door below. We visited the church, rich with paintings, golden crowns, and gold and silver lamps, where vespers are chanted every evening by the monks. The principal then conducts us to a side chapel, in a cave, wherein are gathered 14,000 skulls of Christians, slain by the Moslems in the Holy Land. Afterwards he points out to us the primitive cave which St Saba entered when he came here to found the convent. It was inhabited by a lion, but the saint ordered him to retire, which he did at once, and faithfully kept guard fourteen years at the entrance of the cave. The rough walls are covered over with the crosses of pilgrims who have travelled here from afar, and fully believe the story.
“He also opened for us the chapel tomb of the saint. This is hung around with pictures of his prayers and miracles. One of these represents a pillar of cloud shewing him the place to found his convent, a gazelle directing him where to find water, and the lion pointing out a place of safety. There are several small gardens in the grounds of the monastery, and one tall palm-tree, planted, it is said, by the hand of St Saba. The rooms for the entertainment of visitors appeared neat and comfortable, and we would gladly have spent the night within the walls. But there was a lady in our party, and the monks resolutely refused to grant her admittance, saying, “if they did so, an earthquake would shake down the monastery, and there would be a famine for a year throughout the land.'
“We were accordingly obliged to remain in our tents ; and there, commending ourselves to the protection of God, we slept peacefully through the night, awaked only by the ringing of the convent bell that summoned the monks to their midnight prayers.
"In the morning our friends of the monastery manifested their hospitality by bringing us bread, dates, and cheeses, as is the oriental custom, and we gave them of our stores, in return. Two Bedouin sheiks now join us as an escort on the journey, and we set out for the Dead Sea. Our path winds up the mountain side, and from the summit we have a commanding view over the Sand Mountains, even to the wilderness of Engedi, where David fled from the pursuit of Saul,' among the rocks of the wild goats.' The mountains rise around like Alpine summits, clothed down their side with verdure, where sheep, goats, and camels are feeding. The Arabs point out the tomb of Moses on our left, and yonder stretch the dark waters
of the sea in front. Descending thence, and crossing a small plain covered with stinted shrubs, we came to the shores of the Dead Sea. Nothing can equal the aspect of desolation that reigns around, shewing the terrible convulsion of nature that manifested the wrath of God from heaven, in overthrowing the wicked cities of the plain. The mountains give evidence of volcanic eruption. No fish swim in the waters of the sea ; no wild-fowl float upon its surface; no living animal inhabits its shore. All is solitude and death. The water is of a dark-green colour, and exceedingly acrid and bitter to the taste. We tested its peculiar buoyant qualities by the experiment of a bath. It was well-nigh impossible to sink. We found that we could stand, sit, or lie in any position without the least effort. Indeed, I was surprised to find that I could walk erect in the water without reaching the bottom. We experienced no particular inconvenience from bathing, except an adhesive oily deposit left upon the skin, and to those who were unfortunately submerged, a most disagreable irritating effect in the throat and head.
“But we must not remain long in this burning sun and heated air. We soon mounted our horses and rode across the barren, salt-crusted plain to the banks of the Jordan. In a half hour from the sea we arrived at the bathing-place of the pilgrims.
“There is scarcely any spot in Palestine I had so longed to visit as this upon the river Jordan. It is so interwoven in our hymns and sacred poetry with the borders of the promised land, the heavenly inheritance, that we seemed in a peculiar sense to be standing on the confines of a better land above.
“Here the children of Israel, following the ark of God,
passed over on dry ground. The waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon an heap, and those that came down towards the sea of the plain (even the Salt Sea) failed and were cut off; and the people passed over right against Jericho.' Here Elijah and Elisha came and stood beside Jordan. ‘And the prophet took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters, and they were divided hither and thither, so that they two went over on dry ground.' And just beyond, Elijah was caught up with a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and ascended by a whirlwind unto heaven.' Here also came Jesus to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him, and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.' As we stood thus on the banks of Jordan, at the hour of sunset, these scenes all passed vividly before the mind, and we realised as never before their divine reality and power.
“Then two men came down to cross the river. One passed firmly over, but the other, an aged man, trembled in the centre of the current, and his companion returned to his assistance, and conducted him safely to the opposite shore. This also reminded us of the angel coming to strengthen the trembling pilgrim, as he crosses the dark river, and guide him triumphantly to the gates of the celestial city.
“We bathed in the rapid flowing waters, gathered a few mementos from the shore, and then unwillingly departed for our tents near the site of the ancient Jericho. I shall long remember that hallowed hour on the banks of the river Jordan.
“We rode from the Jordan across the plains of Jericho, at the hour of sunset and twilight. The valley is well watered, covered with wild-flowers in full bloom, and, uncultivated by the hand of man, is still the garden of the Lord. Behind us, rising above the other peaks, is Mount Nebo, at the top of Pisgah,' where Moses, just before his death, went up from the plains of Moab. And the Lord shewed him all the land of Gilead, and all the land of Judah, and the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm-trees, unto Zoar.' This view of the promised land, spread out like a Paradise before him, must have been lovely beyond description to the inspired lawgiver, whose 'eye was undimmed, and his natural force unabated. How beautiful an emblem, too, is it of the last hours of the faithful Christian, who is summoned to die upon the earthly mount of vision, with the heavenly world full in view ; and angel messengers are waiting around, as for Elijah of old, to bear his triumphant spirit swift to the glories of the New Jerusalem !
“As we are thus enjoying the landscape and contemplating these scenes, we suddenly find that we have wandered from our path. And it becomes a matter of no slight anxiety, as we are unguarded among these hostile tribes. Evening came on apace, darkness gathered around us, and the lights from the Bedouin watch-fires gleamed out from the mountain side.
“Our dragoman shouts and sounds his whistle, but no answer is returned. At length we fired a signal gun, and were rejoiced to hear the echo come back from our tents in the distance. We hastened thither, and found them pitched near the ruins of the ancient Jericho.