Out of Doors in the Holy Land: An American's View of Hebron from 1908

"Abraham bought here his only piece of real estate..."

22.3.17, 15:19
Henry Van Dyke (1852 – 1933) was an American author and educator. A personal friend of President Woodrow Wilson, and prolific writer, he published Out of Doors in the Holy Land about his trip to the Land of Israel in 1908. The text, now in the public domain, offers a glimpse into life in Hebron and other cities during the end of Ottoman rule. It is interesting to note the description of the "wild and barren" countryside and to compare and contrast life today.

Special thanks to Project Guttenberg for the text which is available here: https://archive.org/details/outofdoorsintheh29314gut

page 95 -

The country, at first, was wild and barren, a wilderness of rocks and thorn bushes and stunted scrub oaks...

...As we drew nearer to Hebron the region appeared more fertile, and the landscape smiled a little under the gleams of wintry sunshine. There were many vineyards; in most of them the vines trailed along the ground, but in some they were propped up on sticks, like old men leaning on crutches. Almond and apricot-trees flourished. The mulberries, the olives, the sycamores were abundant. Peasants were ploughing the fields with their crooked sticks shod with a long iron point. When a man puts his hand to such a plough he dares not look back, else it will surely go aside. It makes a scratch, not a furrow. (I saw a man in the hospital at Nazareth who had his thigh pierced clear through by one of these dagger-like iron plough points.)
Children were gathering roots and thorn branches for firewood. Women were carrying huge bundles on their heads. Donkey-boys were urging their heavy-laden animals along the road, and cameleers led their deliberate strings of ungainly beasts by a rope or a light chain reaching from one nodding head to another. A camel's load never looks as large as a donkey's, but no doubt he often finds it heavy, and he always looks displeased with it. There is something about the droop of a camel's lower lip which seems to express unalterable disgust with the universe.
But the rest of the world around Hebron appeared to be reasonably happy. In spite of weather and poverty and hard work the ploughmen sang in the fields, the children skipped and whistled at their tasks, the passers-by on the road shouted greetings to the labourers in the gardens and vineyards. Somewhere round about here is supposed to lie the Valley of Eshcol from which the Hebrew spies brought back the monstrous bunch of grapes, a cluster that reached from the height of a man's shoulder to the ground.
Hebron lies three thousand feet above the sea, and is one of the ancient market-places and shrines of the world. From time immemorial it has been a holy town, a busy town, and a turbulent town. The Hittites and the Amorites dwelt here, and Abraham, a nomadic shepherd whose tents followed his flocks over the land of Canaan, bought here his only piece of real estate, the field and cave of Machpelah. He bought it for a tomb,--even a nomad wishes to rest quietly in death,--and here he and his wife Sarah, and his children Isaac and Rebekah, and his grandchildren Jacob and Leah were buried.
The modern town has about twenty thousand inhabitants, chiefly Mohammedans of a fanatical temper, and is incredibly dirty. We passed the muddy pool by which King David, when he was reigning here, hanged the murderers of Ishbosheth. We climbed the crooked streets to the Mosque which covers the supposed site of the cave of Machpelah. But we did not see the tomb of Abraham, for no "infidel" is allowed to pass beyond the seventh step in the flight of stairs which leads up to the doorway.
As we went down through the narrow, dark, crowded Bazaar a violent storm of hail broke over the city, pelting into the little open shops and covering the streets half an inch deep with snowy sand and pebbles of ice. The tempest was a rude joke, which seemed to surprise the surly crowd into a good humour. We laughed with the Moslems as we took shelter together from our common misery under a stone archway.
After the storm had passed we ate our midday meal on a housetop, which a friend of the dragoman put at our disposal, and rode out in the afternoon to the Oak of Abraham on the hill of Mamre. The tree is an immense, battered veteran, with a trunk ten feet in diameter, and wide-flung, knotted arms which still bear a few leaves and acorns. It has been inclosed with a railing, patched up with masonry, partially protected by a roof. The Russian monks who live near by have given it pious care, yet its inevitable end is surely near.
The death of a great sheltering tree has a kind of dumb pathos. It seems like the passing away of something beneficent and helpless, something that was able to shield others but not itself.
On this hill, under the oaks of Mamre, Abraham's tents were pitched many a year, and here he entertained the three angels unawares, and Sarah made pancakes for them, and listened behind the tent-flap while they were talking with her husband, and laughed at what they said. This may not be the very tree that flung its shadow over the tent, but no doubt it is a son or a grandson of that tree, and the acorns that still fall from it may be the seeds of other oaks to shelter future generations of pilgrims; and so throughout the world, the ancient covenant of friendship is unbroken, and man remains a grateful lover of the big, kind trees.
We got home to our camp in the green meadow of the springs late in the afternoon, and on the third day we rode back to Jerusalem, and pitched the tents in a new place, on a hill opposite the Jaffa Gate, with a splendid view of the Valley of Hinnom, the Tower of David, and the western wall of the city.
(and you don't need a donkey or camel to get there)
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