|From Sail to Steam
Naval Recollections, 1878-1905
18 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
IN THE LEVANT
IN the autumn of 1878 the Rapid was ordered to Malta for her annual refit, and I was then informed by that best of all Admirals, the late Sir Geoffrey Hornby, that he intended to send me to the coast of Syria for the winter. Visions of sport !
I had heard many tales of the happy hunting-grounds on the coast of Syria. Perhaps they were not all true, yet there must be some foundation for them, and the sequel proved that there was, and a very solid foundation too.
I should be " senior officer " ; for although I was only a commander, and there were many ships in the Mediterranean commanded by Post-Captains, none of these would be on the Syrian branch of the station during the winter; so that I should be in the enviable position of having no one to give me orders nearer than my Admiral, who would probably spend most of the winter at Malta.
The prospect was rosy in the extreme; and although we sailors frequently find our best-laid schemes frustrated by the so-called " exigencies of the Service," I thought there was sufficient probability of the Syrian cruise coming off, to justify me in inviting my old friend R. W. Mirehouse to come out from England and spend a few months with me on board the Rapid, and take his chance of getting some rough shooting; and he, being
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a thorough sportsman, came out as soon as possible and joined me at Beyrout.
The Captain of a man-of-war is undoubtedly in a proud position. He is an absolute monarch in his own little kingdom; yet the position has its drawbacks, and the greatest of these is that he is obliged to mess alone. He, of course, occasionally has a small dinner-party, and asks two or three of his officers to dine with him, and also he occasionally dines with them in the wardroom; but as a general rule he sits down alone to his three meals a day, and this is rather trying to some people, especially to those who love talking and are fond of the sound of their own voice. The solitary meals sometimes become very depressing, and are bad for the digestion.
Solitary confinement, with the chance of being drowned, as some sage - was it not Dr. Johnson? described life at sea.
It was therefore with unfeigned delight that I heard my old and tried friend was coming out to join me and be my messmate and shooting companion at the happy hunting-grounds which I hoped to visit during the winter of 1878-79, on the coast of Syria. For although I had a charming set of officers in the Rapid, and was on the best of terms with them, they were all, without exception, uncommon bad shots, and it was rather irritating to see them blazing away all day at snipe and woodcock, or even at pigs quite close to them, and never hitting anything.
My first port of call on my new station was Beyrout, where there was a British Consul-General, a very grand man, who somehow had got it into his head that I was under his orders, and that he could order me about wherever he thought proper - a strange delusion, concerning
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which I had to undeceive him. It appeared that my predecessor had rather encouraged this absurd idea, which was decidedly weak on his part.
On one occasion I applied to my friend the Consul-General about some trouble there was on board a British merchant steamer which was lying at the anchorage; but was loftily informed that, "My Vice-Consul attends to these matters. My business is entirely diplomatic." So I pocketed my pride and went to the Vice-Consul.
It is not at all uncommon to find British Consuls and especially Consuls-General - somewhat haughty and ashamed of their own proper job. They often have an ambitious and anxious eye on the diplomatic service, which they consider much grander and more important. Some few succeed in getting transferred, and no doubt some specially selected ones make good diplomats. At any rate a good many of them think it worth trying for.
The coast of Syria is the most interesting station - quite apart from sport - that I have ever had the luck to be stationed on. It is not necessary to be a learned antiquary in order to take an interest in such places as Jerusalem, Damascus, Tyre, Sidon, Antioch, Mount Carmel, and Baalbec, all of which I was able to visit; and although the glory of them has departed, it is still possible to give free scope to one's imagination, and picture in the mind what they must have been in the day of their pride.
As to Tyre and Sidon, this is somewhat difficult, as there is scarcely a trace left of their ancient grandeur upon which to form a mental picture of these twin queens of the Levant, the nursery of sea-going fleets, the home of those pioneer seamen whose ships dominated the Mediterranean before Romulus and Remus were
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suckled by the wolf, before Athens started on her colonial career, before Alexander set forth on his campaign of conquest, and at a time when our ancestors in Britain were still painting their hairy bodies blue, and had not yet seriously discussed the question of female suffrage.
The harbours of Tyre and Sidon are silted up, and will now accommodate nothing bigger than a fishing-boat. Both towns were besieged and battered at the time of the Crusades and changed hands on several occasions, and they have gradually dwindled down into being dirty, third-rate Turkish towns, with little to show save the site where once they reigned in all their glory.
Of the other cities, or sites, I have mentioned above, Damascus is reputed to be the oldest city in the world; that is to say, the oldest city still in existence and flourishing. Older than Babylon, older than Nineveh, Damascus no doubt owes its perennial vigour to its exceptionally favourable site and its splendid water-supply.
Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel ? The cool waters of the Abana, rising in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, flow through Damascus, the melting snow keeping it as well supplied in the summer as in the winter. The life-giving stream never fails, until finally it flows eastward and is lost amidst the arid wastes of the Great Syrian Desert.
The Rapid had not been many weeks on the coast of Syria before we paid a visit to Jaffa (ancient Joppa) and arranged for a trip to Jerusalem. This was before the Holy Land had been desecrated by the railway and the motor omnibus, so that the only way to get to
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Jerusalem from Jaffa was on the back of a horse, mule, or ass. The distance is about forty miles, and as some of the animals were rough in their paces and Eastern saddles are not exactly beds of roses, the ride to Jerusalem proved to be rather trying to the stern-sheets of some of our sailors; but they stuck to the job - though not always to their horses - and all arrived eventually at the Holy City.
We were a large party: five officers and forty of the crew started on a week's trip to Jerusalem. One day going up, one day coming down, and five to spend sight-seeing, under the guidance of that most excellent dragoman Joe Ferris. Poor Joe! he was on board the Victoria when she was rammed and capsized some years afterwards, and was not amongst the saved. He was the regular naval dragoman and bumboatman attached to the senior officer's ship on the coast of Syria. He accompanied me on all my trips, and it was with grief that I heard of his tragic end.
The party started from Jaffa at seven a.m., stopped at a halfway-house for lunch, and some of us got to Jerusalem at six o'clock in the evening; but not all of us. Far from it; for on comparing notes in the morning, we found that most of our gallant sailors had struggled in by twos and threes, leading their tired steeds, between the hours of one and four a.m., which was not surprising, seeing that directly we were out of the town of Jaffa, and there was plenty of sea-room, they started to run races; and by the time the course and distance made good from Jaffa was east ten miles the actual courses steered had been so erratic and the speed so excessive, that even the hardy little Syrian horses had had about enough of it, and refused to go any faster than a walk, and in some cases to carry their
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would-be riders at all, who therefore had to "tow" them, as they called it. Hence the late arrivals at Jerusalem.
I have not the least intention of embarking upon an attempt to describe Jerusalem and the so-called Holy Places. This has been done already a hundred times over by competent painters of word-pictures, men gifted with vivid imaginations, who have described in glowing terms all that they saw, and sometimes what they didn't see, but thought they saw and wished to see.
I will spare the reader from any attempts to emulate the writings of the distinguished travellers in the Holy Land. Has he not Dean Stanley and Mark Twain ? What more can he want ?
Personally I was disappointed with Jerusalem. Probably I expected too much. There is an artificiality about many of the show-places (so called sacred sites) which produces a feeling of scepticism and an unholy inclination to scoff. For instance, it is difficult to believe that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is on the site of our Lord's tomb. It is well inside the walls of the city, and the city must have been at least as extensive 1,900 years ago as it is to-day; and as to the Church of the Nativity, which is supposed to be built on the site of the stable wherein Christ was born, it can be no better than a vague guess which placed it where it is, as they never thought of looking for the site until several centuries after the date of that event which so profoundly affected the course of the world's history.
Amongst other marvels, the credulous tourist is shown Noah's tomb; it is one hundred and twenty feet long, and one cannot help thinking that if Noah required a tomb of that length, he might have stepped
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overboard from the ark and walked ashore several days before he did.
In the Church of the Nativity we found an armed Turkish guard of Mahomedan soldiers - a precaution which is found to be necessary to prevent the rival Christian sects from cutting each other's throats. "Behold how these Christians love one another" !
There can be no question as to the site of Jerusalem itself, nor of the Mount of Olives, nor of Solomon's Temple; but of the Garden of Gethsemane, of Calvary, of the site of the stable of the Nativity, one may be permitted to be sceptical, without irreverence.
On several occasions I asked our guide, Joe Ferris, if he thought the various "places of interest" he was pointing out to us were really the sites they professed to be; but Joe was very conscientious, and would never commit himself beyond a cautious, " That's what they say."
On our return to Beyrout I paid a visit to Damascus and also to Baalbec; but both these places have so often been described by intelligent travellers - and others - that I do not propose to say anything about them, further than to record the fact that Baalbec is about the only one of all the famous places in this classic land which not only fulfilled, but surpassed, my expectations of its beauty and grandeur. In my humble opinion, the temples at Baalbec - or what is left of them - far surpass the magnificence of the Parthenon at Athens, or any other Grecian temples.
Mark Twain christened his horse " Baalbec," because he was a noble ruin; but it does not follow that the American humorist failed to admire and appreciate Baalbec because he made a joke about it. He made a joke of most things.
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Antioch was another of the famous sites we visited. Its glory has departed, and it is now but a third-rate Turkish town. There are, however, a few remains still in existence, which enable one to picture its former extent and the splendour and grace of its Grecian architecture.
The famous grove of Daphne was just outside the walls of ancient Antioch, but the site is as doubtful as that of many of the other show-places of Syria and Palestine.
There are still some remains of the walls of the great city in the days of its pride, and there is a large piece of a colossal aqueduct which has also withstood the shocks of the numerous earthquakes which have from time to time devastated the city. The first of these, duly recorded in history - though there are traditions of earlier ones - was in 148 B.C.; then one in A.D. 47; one in A.D. 115, when the city was full of the Roman army, which Trajan was to lead against the Parthians; one in A.D. 526; one in A.D. 528, in which 5,000 lives were lost; one in 587; and one in 588. Small wonder, then, that there are such scanty remains of this once famous city, where the disciples were first called Christians.
I made the trip to Antioch, with some of my shipmates, from Alexandretta. It is a beautiful ride, through the Bielan Pass, the so-called gates of Syria, the route by which Alexander the Great invaded that country after defeating Darius on the Plain of Issus.
At Antioch we took up our quarters in the house of the British Consular Agent. These Consular Agents occupy a peculiar position; they get no pay, but they make it pay, to use a popular expression. This gentleman was a rich Jewish merchant, who owned one of
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the best houses in the town, and he entertained us most hospitably for three days, with the best of everything that Antioch could supply. We were a party of four, and he placed at our disposal two bedrooms and a sitting-room, all comfortably furnished. Being an Israelite, neither he nor any of his family took their meals with us; in fact, we never saw the family at all; but our host was most kind and attentive, frequently visiting us and seeing that all our wants and comforts were attended to.
When we were about to take our leave and return to Alexandretta, I called for Joe, our dragoman, and asked him what there was to pay. "Nothing, sir," said Joe. "The old gentleman would be very much insulted if you were to offer him money." "Well," I said, "if he won't take money, we must at any rate make him a handsome present of some sort, as he is an absolute stranger. He did not invite us to his house; you brought us here on your own responsibility, and the old gentleman must be a good deal out of pocket by our visit." "Never fear, sir," said Joe. "You need not be alarmed about his being out of pocket; your visit to his house will probably be worth about five hundred pounds to him."
This sounded rather strange, so I asked Joe to explain, and his explanation was somewhat to the following effect. Our host was not only a merchant on a considerable scale, but he was also a money-lender, and he had a large amount of outstanding debts owing to him throughout the town. He was entitled to fly the British ensign, by virtue of his office as British Consular Agent, and he would represent to his debtors that the Captain of the British man-of-war had come to stay with him for the purpose of enabling him to collect his debts !
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Strange as this may sound to those unacquainted with the customs of Eastern merchants, and making due allowance for exaggeration on the part of Joe and his five hundred pounds, I still felt that in all probability our courteous host would not be out of pocket by our visit; so with hearty thanks and many polite speeches on both sides, we bid him farewell, mounted our horses, and had a delightful ride back to Alexandretta, or Iscanderoon, as the Turks call it.
It is impossible to visit the sites of the great cities of Syria and Asia Minor without wondering why so many of them have fallen into ruins and so much of the land around them is uncultivated. Has the climate altered ? Is there less rain than there used to be ? Or is it all due to the Turks and the earthquakes ?
Our visit to Antioch was most interesting and enjoyable; but there is no rose without a thorn, and our thorn consisted in the fact that our host's house was over a coppersmith's shop, and at about six o'clock every morning there arose a most diabolical noise, as if half a dozen lunatics had started off playing cymbals at the same time, all trying to see who could make the most noise. One can get accustomed to most things, and no doubt our host and his family had got accustomed to the coppersmiths. We were not there long enough to enable us to sleep through the din, and as I lay awake in the morning I could think of nothing but St. Paul's remark, " Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works."
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