Links in my life on land and sea

J.W. Gambier



Near loss of H.M.S. Malacca - Wreck of mail steamer - Kismet and the Hadji - Exploring a harem - Baalbec the marvellous - The Cedars of Lebanon - Were not those of Solomon - Cyprus - Halima, foster-mother of Mahomet : her tomb - Paphos, St. Paul, and the Paphian goddess - Survival of Babylonian festival - The Ionian Islands - Sappho - Sea marvel of Cephalonia - A wedding and a fiasco.

AFTER a flying visit to Cyprus, where we remained longer later on, we once more found ourselves in Beyrut. Here we came in for a very serious gale, in which the Malacca was nearly lost. The anchorage is very exposed from north-west to south-west, and a dangerous sea sweeps into the bay with westerly winds. We were moored in St. George's Bay, named after a native of Beyrut, that fraudulent Army contractor whom England ominously honours as her Patron Saint. Our anchors would not hold: the engine broke down at the critical moment, and as there was no room between us and the beach to get under way under sail, we had to wait, all through the night, expecting at any moment to find ourselves in the great rollers breaking a few yards astern, in which the Ship could not have lived for five minutes. However, at the supreme moment a strong and unexpected current swept the vessel broadside on to the wind, thus




relieving the strain on the cables, and in this position we hung on until the gale went down next evening. The coast was strewn with wrecks ; in Beyrut alone thirteen steamers had gone ashore, with small craft in great numbers ; houses had been unroofed, quays swept away, and a great number of lives lost. But in the midst of all this a very comical incident was being enacted, showing a phenomenally Oriental trust in Kismet and ignorance of sea things in general. A large merchant steamer with several hundred Hadjis bound for Mecca - some to disembark at Jaffa, others going on to the Red Sea - went ashore on a reef off the Lazarette, where -breaking clean in two amidships - she lay forming a complete breakwater between herself and the land. Strange to say, every living soul on board was landed in safety, including the harem of a wealthy Mahommedan. But, at dawn, lamentation arose among these ladies : their lord was missing, and, as he had not found them, he must be drowned. A friend of mine, who witnessed their misery, described it as intense. Sitting in a ring on the beach, their light clothing drenched through, regardless of the liberties the gale was taking with their yashmaks, they wept piteously the live-long day, refusing to be comforted. Towards evening, the gale having abated, men put off to the wreck to begin salvage of luggage and cargo, and on going below into the saloon half filled with water, as the vessel was lying on her beam-ends they were surprised to hear a voice asking quite unconcernedly if the ship had reached Jaffa. It was the missing husband of the disconsolate ladies.

"Jaffa !" they exclaimed. "Why, the ship is a wreck, broken in two, and has never left Beyrut. Do you mean to say you didn't hear all the noise and smashing of the ship ?"

"I confess I was disturbed in my sleep by many



noises," replied the imperturbable Oriental, "but I only thought that it was after the manner of sea voyages generally, and that I should be duly warned when it was time to disembark."

"Well," said the European, "you have had a most miraculous escape !"

"If I have," replied the Mahommedan, "it is the Will of the All-Merciful that I shall see the Tomb. He alone is Great."

He then inquired after his harem, and learning that they were safe praised Allah for this mercy also, and landing made no remarks on his curious experience. What would not many of us give for such Faith!

To my thirst for general information and love of the unknown I was indebted during my stay at Beyrut to an adventure of some risk. I had hired a horse - an animal I knew well - and had ridden towards a river, which flows down from the Lebanon, with the not inappropriate name of Damour. In a solitary part of the great pine forest which then, as now, encircled that part of the Promontory of Beyrut, I came across a picnic party of Turkish ladies, with such suddenness that many of them had no time to pull up their yashmaks. Some were mere children of nine or ten, others girls of fifteen to twenty, and all more or less, to my unaccustomed gaze, houris from heaven. There was a flutter and general rising, and then a quick retreat towards a walled Turkish house a little way off : where they vanished. But one girl, out of sheer joy of life, had waved her hand to me. Completely puzzled at this exhibition of friendliness, and in spite of natural diffidence, I determined to accept the adventure. So I rode up to a large, ill-painted, half-rotten gate, and finding it ajar, threw my reins over a hook in the wall and entered. Before me was a large Turkish house, the windows all



jealously covered over with the usual carved screens denoting a harem. A broad patch of rough grass with some orange-trees here and there and a fountain with the stucco chipped off, lay between the gate and a partly open door which led into the house. Looking about and seeing no one - though I thought I saw eyes behind the wooden screen - I crossed the enclosure and, without any more ceremony, pushed open the door I have described. A sight not intended for my eyes, impossible to forget and never to be seen again, presented itself.

In the Oriental gloom of a large hall, lolling in various attitudes on divans and on the thickly carpeted floor, unveiled and in untrammelled negligé, were some ten or twelve women, old and young, and a number of little girls, whilst three or four negresses were carrying about nargilehs, and one black and withered old woman, with nothing on but a petticoat, was making coffee. Instantly there was the wildest commotion, the whole bevy rising en masse with screams which might have been heard on the Lebanon five miles away; whilst the coffee-maker, dropping her pot, sprang at me with her claw-like fingers in the air and with the fury of a panther. I turned and fled. But the screams of the women had aroused some men, sleeping in the courtyard, whom I had not noticed. Instantly one of them rushed for the gate, and it was a race between him and me who should get there first. We reached it together, and I sent him sprawling with my shoulder, seized my horse, and, by marvellous good luck, was off before the others came up. I galloped off, but was quickly pursued by men on horseback who seemed to have suddenly come up out of the earth, and it became a race. I owed my escape entirely to the fact that my horse, alone, perhaps, amongst a thousand Arabs, would jump, a circumstance of which I was aware. So, without



hesitation, I rammed him at a fairly high wall, and he flew it like a bird, over another, and then another, thus making a short cut to the high road to Beyrut, and leaving my pursuers far behind galloped on to St. George's Bay. I got on board all safe, and never heard anything more of the affair.

* * * * *

I now made my first excursion to Baalbec, then rarely visited, but although I have been there four or five times since it is the first sight of its wonders that has graven itself most deeply on my memory. I was accompanied by a messmate called Heane, and we got there late, by moonlight. There were no hotels, and we bivouacked in the ruins. The splendour of those magnificent remains, seen in all the stillness and solemnity of such a night, weighed on one's imagination, surpassing any ideal one could form of such a scene. The six vast shafts - over eighty feet high - of the Temple of the Sun, the grandest temple ever built, loomed up from the stupendous base on which they rest - single stones of near seventy feet long placed with the regularity of dominoes - like some fantastic vision. Close by, vieing in magnificence, the Temple of Jupiter, the most decorated, the most exquisitely proportioned fabric that Greece or the East contains, larger than the Parthenon, and in better preservation. I have never understood, nor have I concerned myself to ascertain, why these wonderful temples are condemned by certain soi-disant architectural critics. To me, in point of grandeur and magnificence, there is nothing like them in the world; for even the Acropolis or Pæstum leave less impression on the mind.

We returned by the Cedars of Lebanon, the few remaining trees of a forest that once clothed these mountains, which, however, beyond their Biblical association there is no reason why any one should go to the



trouble of visiting. As cedars they are poor specimens ; as ancient trees the monarchs of Calaveras, in California, were thousands of years old when these Syrians were saplings if growing at all. If I remember right, at their base most of these cedars were not over ten feet in girth, though two or three were, perhaps, thirty to forty, whilst the bark of the Californian "Mother of the Forest" (now in the Crystal Palace), is between ninety and one hundred feet. The special interest in these particular Cedars of Lebanon is based on the obviously erroneous idea that King Solomon used their wood to build the Temple. But, if he did come hundreds of unnecessary miles for his material to build that holy fane, it is only rational to suppose that he resorted to the same source in constructing the most accursed building ever erected by the hand of man, the temple of the Moabitish god Chemosh, or Molock - within bowshot, too, of the Holy of Holies - as well as for the planting of "groves" a favourite occupation of this monarch of pious memory. And, if any one is curious as to what were the uses of "groves," and the kind of pastimes indulged in under their discreet leanness, I would refer them to the Prophet Amos, the oldest and most authentic book in the Bible, or to any description of the Groves of Daphne - precisely the same kind of thing - which the vigilant eye of the Public Censor will permit to appear in print.

But quite apart from these considerations, I do not believe Solomon's timber came from this part of the Lebanon. Why should it ? when one hundred and fifty miles nearer Jerusalem and in the country of King Hiram of Tyre, who gave Solomon carpenters and material to build with, there stands to this day, at Baruk and Maaser, far finer cedar forests, with the additional advantage, as regards Jerusalem, of being close to a considerable river, the Litâny, down which the trees could have been floated There is also a section of this tree in the Natural History Museum.



to the sea coast without the least trouble, and there towed to Jaffa ; whereas to bring timber down the Nar-el-Kelb - the Dog River - from the reputed Biblical site near Baalbec, to Beyrut Bay would have been difficult and dangerous - if not impossible.

* * * * *


The Island of Cyprus, as interesting as any place in the Mediterranean, was, at that time, still untouched by the hand of modern civilisation. Wanting to see all I could of the country I started from Larnaca, with a Greek guide who spoke Italian, on three days' leave, which was all I could get. The country round Larnaca, like all the southern part of Cyprus, is flat and uninteresting, although the mountains inland, with Olympus and its eternal snow, form a splendid background. Near Larnaca I went to see the Greek Church of St. Lazarus, the burial place of that Saint, after his final death, though his venerable bones are now in Venice. He became Bishop of Citium, the Chittim of Scripture. I also visited that most venerated of Mahommedan Sanctuaries, a very ancient mosque, situated near the Salt Lake, where lie the remains of Halima, Mahomet's Bedouin foster-mother. At many Mahommedan Holy Places all over the world, may one observe the rapt devotion of the Followers of the Prophet, but in no spot is a more touching scene to be witnessed than here ; men and women kneeling in affectionate, motionless adoration before the Tomb of this Arab woman, whose breasts had given life to the Friend of Allah.

Tempting as it is to conjure up memories of this most fascinating excursion, I must content myself with briefly alluding to the places of interest I visited. At Paphos memorable for two very divergent events, the



birth of Venus and the capture by St. Paul of his first convert the Roman Pro-Consul Paulus Sergius there were but few remains of the temple of the goddess to be seen in those days : only a few columns and blocks of marble. But the scenery is worthy of this beautiful myth, wild and romantic, with ravines, rushing streams, forests of oak, walnut, and fir, some of these last of magnificent proportion. Famagusta is dominated by the ruins of the huge Genoese and Venetian Castle, concerning which I find the following in an old note-book : "Besieged by Turks anno 1571. Venetians finally capitulate with promise their lives shall be spared : but Brigadino, the Venetian General, after surrendering is flayed alive ; his skin is stuffed with straw and is hanged on board the Turkish Admiral's ship."

There were many things of interest here streets with arcades of granite columns, ruined houses bearing Venetian, Genoese, and Crusader coats-of-arms, and mosques, which were once Christian churches. A magnificent town for many centuries, it is now nothing but a shrunken, squalid, thievish den, whilst as to the once famous beauty of the inhabitants and their seductive charm both are simply non-existent, for, taken all round, the Cypriotes of to-day are distinctly ugly, unprepossessing, and ill-mannered. But if their beauty leaves much to be desired, as worshippers of the Foundress of their City, no one can complain of their lukewarmness in her cult, for their morals are free and easy enough to satisfy even the Paphian goddess. Possibly it is some climatic tendency, indigenous, or due to some quality of the soil. There are other places in the world which exhibit the same proclivities. Many of the women in this part of Cyprus still adhered to that fashion of vast antiquity of dyeing their hair and nails a bright orange-crimson, and it is an interesting piece of



etymology to note that the plant now called Khenna, or Henna, used for this same purpose all over the East and growing in profusion in this part of Cyprus is identical with the Kupros of the ancient Greeks, which gave its name Cyprus to the island.

Rhodian plates were in profuse use all over the country, to be had for two or three piastres each, and now worth twice that number of guineas. Also some beautiful little statuettes, from Dali the ancient Idalium made of a soft stone. I bought one, but have unfortunately lost it.

Returning to Larnaca I was in time to witness a still-surviving Cypriote Festival, which was ancient even in the days of Herodotus, and ascribed by him to a Babylonian origin. For the curious, a full account of this is to be found in that Author's "Clio" (paragraph 199). Its great interest is that what we call "fairing" - especially in Scotland - is the unmistakable survival of this curious custom. For every woman in Cyprus was bound to resort to the Temple of Venus at a certain period of the year, wearing a band of cord round her head to denote servitude and there wait until some man threw her a piece of silver, which she could neither refuse nor evade the consequences of accepting. Such as were endowed with youth, beauty, and symmetry soon found liberators ; but the ugly, aged, or deformed were detained a long time, from inability to satisfy the law ; some waiting for three or four years.

The Festival at Larnaca is singularly reminiscent of all this, and has a most indisputable trace in it of the worship of Aphrodite, a name which means born of Sea Foam, the well-known source of the birth of the goddess. For a leading feature in this modern festival is connected with the sea, every one going out in boats, or bathing in the surf of the Mediterranean. And this



festival in Cyprus, though now chiefly a market for hiring servants, is still utilised for the selection of wives, and here again comes the similarity between it and the fairing custom in so many lands, where a piece of silver is given as a token and constitutes a legal obligation on both sides, as to service.

Dealers in women, Christian as well as Moslem, muster in force at the fair, coming from all over the East, and numbers of girls and children - parting willingly from their parents with the hope that there will be a change for the better - are bought to replenish the harems of the Turks. But should they not answer the description given of them by the vendor, or for any other reason not prove satisfactory, they can be returned, the hiring fees being refunded, and are sold off cheap at the next autumn sale.

We next visited Corfu and the Ionian Islands generally, which being then still in British possession were extraordinarily peaceful, well governed and contented, with fine roads everywhere. But now all is altered - life in many parts not safe ; official robbery rampant.

I made many excursions in the Ionian Islands in perfect safety, frequently passing days and nights in remote Greek inns - Xenodokeion in clumsy modern Greek - in places where I should not care to go now unless well armed.

The Island of Corfu itself is disappointing as to scenery, its colour always sombre, as there are few trees except olives, and, though under certain lights, this foliage shows exquisitely tender silvers and greys, yet the general effect of it is monotonous.

I went to the top of Monte Salvatore, the highest peak in Corfu, a superb view of land and sea, with the Albanian mountains to the north-east, and fold after fold of hills in Epirus : across the narrow straits the Gulf of Ambrakia,



the scene of the world-famed Battle of Actium : numbers of islands stretching away to the south, Paxos, Ante-Paxos, Santa Maura, and countless rocky islets, with the top of Mount Ænos, of classic memory, in Cephalonia, upwards of sixty or seventy miles distant, faintly blue on the horizon. Then, nearer at hand, lay mapped out the whole of the Island of Corfu, the eastern coast-line forming a gigantic sickle, in the curve of which gleamed the white houses of the capital, the great British batteries and the old Fortezza Vecchia of the Venetians plainly distinguishable, whilst, on the other side, a gleam of water showed where lay Lake Kalikiopoulo and the River Potamo.

From Corfu we went to Santa Maura, the island sacred to the memory of Sappho, but as we were under sail and the lightest of airs kept us backing and filling off the south-western point of the island, I had no opportunity of landing. None the less I could fully realise that despairing woman throwing herself into the sea from the white rocks of the Promontory, which, jutting four or five miles out, and ending in a flat headland with perpendicular cliffs, was the scene of the tragedy.

Far removed from all human habitation, one can scarcely imagine a spot more fitting where to seek the solace of oblivion. I can recall rny view of it as though it were only yesterday; an exquisite Mediterranean night, a gentle wind, laden with the aromatic scent of lemons, figs, and vines from the fertile valleys of Ithaca and Cephalonia, scarce a ripple on the water save, where parting under the bows of the corvette, it broke in mimic waves in the starlight, whilst, from the shore, came the soft-sounding boom of the sea as it circled round the base of the classic cliff. Above, one could easily distinguish the plateau on which once stood the Temple of Leucadian Apollo, and with the sails of the corvette



asleep, motionless against the masts, the decks noiseless, it was not difficult to imagine the spirit of that incomparable poetess whose personality has filled all time flitting above the waters that hide her bones.

* * * * *

Argostoli, in Cephalonia, was our next halt the centre of an immense trade in currants and wine where is to be seen one of the unsolved wonders of the world ; the sea running over the lip of the earth, and disappearing down some unfathomable cavity, from which, as far as man knows, it never reappears. Millions upon millions of tons of water rush daily down into this bottomless pit, and have been so running for millions of years. Where does it go and what becomes of it ? Obviously it cannot merely connect one sea with another, for, in process of time, however vast the subterranean caves and hollows into which it pours, they would ultimately fill and the seas would stand at the same level. Moreover, it does not affect the level of the Mediterranean, for it has the oceans of the entire world to feed it through the Straits of Gibraltar. It has been calculated that in a year or two this flow would drain a sea as big as the Caspian. As there is no possible scientific solution of the mystery it is permitted to any one to theorise, and mine is that this mighty deluge of water reaches internal regions where the temperature converts it into steam, which, rising up into cavities, is condensed by coming into colder strata and forms springs and rivers of fresh water, perhaps all over the whole globe. It is strange how little interest attaches itself generally to this marvellous phenomenon for few people are aware of it; fewer go to look at it, and when they do, come away without grasping its incomprehensibility. "How funny !" I have heard more than one averagely intelligent person exclaim on beholding it ; whilst a Naval Chaplain, with whom I first went to see



it, explained with painstaking lucidity that as the land had got a hole in it at this part, the sea must run into it. That was how it struck him.

* * * * *

Our Maltese mess steward had a female cousin living at Samé, the ancient capital of the Island, the Samos of Ulysses. She was married to a Greek, and knowing that I was going to visit the Greek remains in and near that place, he gave me a letter to her. But first a word as to Samos itself. It is a most interesting place, with an old Marina, or sea-front, and a small harbour looking across the Straits of Ithaca, here about forty miles wide. It is still peopled with Greeks of ancient Greece as distinguished from the Slav Greek of the Continent, and one cannot but be struck by the beauty of many of its inhabitants : the accepted Phidias, or Praxitiles, type being by no means uncommon ; a low, broad brow, with marked development over the eyes, straight eyebrows ; nose short but beautifully chiselled, chin full and firm, and eyes with that peculiar, earnest gaze of the Periclean period. But this true Hellenic type is, to-day, almost confined to the lower orders, just as in Italy, where the pure Roman breed is only seen amongst the peasantry ; a physiological fact, however, common to all lands. For the poor marry amongst themselves and transmit the type ; but the wealthier take to themselves strange wives, adopt other modes of life, whilst their food changes with fashion and circumstance, thus introducing modification.

The Maltese woman's husband, by name Stamos, was typical of what I describe, with a bearing and dignity that would have suited the Aulic Council. He wore the old Greek dress, a long-sleeved quilted linen shirt, bound round his waist by a broad band of many coloured cotton, a short, pleated skirt, and white leggings. He had owned and sailed a small schooner trading along the coast ; in



the currant season fetching up as far as Malta, Leghorn, or Marseilles, but, having made enough money to live on, had married his Maltese wife - herself a comely, pleasant-voiced woman speaking Italian fluently - and had settled down to grow instead of trading in currants. Their house, in which I put up for two nights, was pleasantly situated and consisted of several rooms, built over a large stable, where donkeys and mules were stalled. The living part of the house was reached by a broad flight of stone steps, which opened into a large hall, some twenty-five feet long by eighteen broad, fitted with broad divans and wooden chairs, the wooden floor strewn with rough grass mats on which a key pattern was stamped, sometimes of very complicated design - copied from blocks of marble in the ruins of Samos - the whitewashed walls ornamented with long Albanian guns and heads of the mufflon - the wild sheep of Corfu. An icon, with a small red lamp, kept lighted with all the care of vestal fire, occupied one corner of the room. Opening off the hall were the sleeping apartments and a kitchen, where all the pots and pans were clean and bright. The garden, of about an acre, bore a profusion of fruit trees, lemons, oranges, loquats, pears, apples, cherries, peaches, and a small, hard apricot, which, mixed with quince, made a most delicious jelly. Above and behind the house terraces were scooped from the mountain side, the supporting walls often built of the finely-wrought polygonal stones of ancient Greece, which the ruins above abundantly supplied. Some of these reclaimed patches of land were not more than six or eight feet square, whilst others were a mere strip, perhaps twenty to fifty yards long and only a few inches wide. On these, each with its little hollow round it to retain moisture, grew the currant vines, whose fruit resembles in appearance, though entirely unlike in flavour, an ordinary small grape.



With my host I climbed up to the ruined Convent of Hagi Phanentes, built on the remains of a Greek fort, and examined what was then uncovered of these interesting Greek ruins. The ground was strewn with broad, flat tiles and broken pottery, and a wide terrace supported by a wall eighteen or twenty feet high, constructed of chiselled stone, showed where the chief fortifications had stood. Another terrace, considerably higher on the hillside, is not unlikely to have been the Stadium where races in which young men and young women had contended for prizes in Spartan nudity, and where fights had been fought out to the death. In the afternoon we went to a wedding in a neighbouring village and merry indeed was the affair, though ending in a catastrophe. There must have been seventy or eighty people assembled, hailing from all parts of the Island, and from Ithaca and the mainland of Greece, a picturesque collection of persons, all in native costume and mostly of the agricultural class. But the bride, a woman of Patras, being dressed in a décolleté European fashion, was more or less a discordant note in the general harmony of colour. She was short and flat-faced, of great beam, and waddled as if bow-legged. Her head was decorated with an immense wreath of roses, geraniums, and orange blossom : from her ears hung long filigree gold-earrings, and round her neck and over her snuff-coloured and liberally-displayed bosom, a necklace of those large open-work gold beads which are common all over Dalmatia, and said to be of extreme antiquity. The bridegroom, a white-faced, uninteresting lad from Samos, five years younger than the bride, looked much more frightened than happy, and seemed more interested in an absurd spotted puppy than in the bride. The house was much the same as that of my Greek friends, and in the hall over the stables dancing was carried on with the utmost vigour to the strains of a



fiddle and a native instrument resembling a guitar. A kind of polka, in which the partners faced each in a close embrace, was the favourite dance, and the rhythm of their steps sent the whole floor rising and falling in an alarming manner. On and on went the dancing, couples occasionally disappearing to drink the strong wine of the Island, until, by night time, things had become distinctly lively. Some lamps had been hung up against the wall, but their light was feeble, or only sufficient to reveal closer gripping of each other as the dancers whirled and gyrated round the heaving room or sank fatigued on to the benches round the walls.

It must have been nearly midnight, and I was standing by the door, when, without a moment's warning, came a tremendous crash : the centre of the floor gave way, forming a V-shaped hollow, and into it fifteen or twenty people were instantly precipitated one on the top of the other, on to the backs of the donkeys and mules stalled below. Screeches and shouts arose immediately in the semi-darkness, the animals seemed to scream with terror, and those that were not crushed by the weight of the beams and floors began lashing out with their heels amongst the struggling men and women. All one side of the floor had given way, the people seated or standing there being shot down on the top of the dancers. I never saw such a ridiculous sight, such a confusion of arms and legs, for it was almost impossible for the unfortunate people to get up. Finally, however, the strongest amongst them managed to extricate themselves from the mass and pulled the others on to their feet, the fat bride amongst them, with her wreath off and her black hair all over her back, men with their jackets and white shirts torn, and many of the girls in a forlorn condition. Marvellous to say, beyond some bumps and bruises, no one was seriously hurt ; though many limped as they



came out of the stable door : an old woman going off into a dead faint, and several of the girls crying and screaming in a quite conventional manner. Of course there was a babel of voices and much handing round of Krassi, though they soon got calm again. But it broke up the wedding party and we all returned to our various homes.

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