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the holy land

The Holy Land



IN past days traditional costumes were still strong and indelible and many people in their habitual way never let nature change even though the rest of Europe was laughing at them. So great was their sadness, poetic as it might be, in their aridity they sighed to see their artists paint a sainted family, in their flight from Egypt, as if they were wrapped in a green gauze. Once they climbed the mountain, the divine explorers stopped on a solitary rock at the foot of a palm tree, the brilliant sky overhead, the silence of the desert immense. Here they died, here they will always be majestically sublime and marvelously beautiful at the end of a limpid source under the ramification of trees in flower.

The memory of men is an imperceptible trait of a thousand things loose in infinity. These were not chosen in vain but the human conscience is a high image which reflects what we know of the total conscience of the universe. One lonely man is a part of absolute justice. 

AS if hanging from twenty centuries, the fundamental civilization was forgotten and its writing became indecipherable. Its principle religion feebly passed until it was lost. The age of this religion, its “rapport” with the divine, was the source of its capital innovation: monotheism. 

The principle gave birth to a tribe of shepherds. After a long time that took centuries they affirmed an actual day as beginning the new religion, parallel to the prophets of the Jews, whose god paralleled theirs. For a long time they were considered strong enemies but little by little they will all be stars. 

He left the tribe and crossed the desert. There a terrible trial was imposed on him. But finally in their sanctuary an alliance was concluded. In exchange for their voluntary submission they received a particular destiny and attribution of the earth. Twenty centuries later it was the Holy Land. Its history is of great complexity. 

If history accords with the Bible and holds to the letter of the scripture, then Genesis and Exodus are not myths. As far as religion is concerned, the essential resides in the creation and the fundamental revelation of the living books whose origin is remote. The sun of chronology appeared to a great number of persons and many books were written which can’t be identified with precision. The readers are of two fashions: the religious and the profane, vis-à-vis the Temple. 

There are different reasons for trips to Jerusalem. One is to search for traces sanctioned by historical science. The other is to look for saints and preoccupations which dominate the emotions. It’s not a question of tourism. It’s become the principle form taken by this primordial occupation which glides little by little and acquired a universal portal for all men without distinction. This is the only response to a fundamental despair. 

They followed him in his travel across provinces that were freshly conquered. There were many common points as one can see comparing what one knows with texts of the first “church.” When did he enter public life after his baptism? Was he perhaps a member of the “Zealots,” the resistance, or of the Pharisees, the Roman “collaborators?” Did he walk on the sea as in a sacred geography? 

Two major events produced this moment. One was the tragic end of what subsisted. The other was the establishment of definitive texts. Pretty soon they had their Bible, each version contributing to the saintly myth of sources which referenced the supreme. 

However, a voyage to the Holy Land is often aleatory. For centuries the earth felt the feet of Jews and Christians periodically. Despite the ancient play of religion, the same geographical situation served worldly routes. In Palestine for two centuries Christians were persecuted along with the rest of the empire. The blood of the first martyrs fell. Their relation to the imperial power inverted. There was a particular flowering then which took the part of an ancient tradition attributed irrevocably to the valor of their memory, conserved even in our days. This triumphant implantation ended with what is called the “primitive” church. The memory of their deeds and gestures was again approached. All the old disciples were still alive. The future saint Alexander is first of those whose story we have a trace. He went to Jerusalem and had a vision. Hardly was the century over than the Emperor’s old mother determined three important places: Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. Then Jerome, attired as a hermit, established himself in the desert. His great renown was famous. 

Everybody who landed in Palestine was animated by the same sentiments. The portals of heaven were largely open. They were purged of all sorts of deviations and schisms. The Emperor went in person to see the relic of the “true cross.” Pretty soon, they all emigrated across the country. 

After awhile, Mohammed took Mecca and changed the political system. His assignments met with redoubled enthusiasm, born of a confluence of influences. It was a matter of a century and they had assaulted the old empires which for a long time had lanced the Arab cavaliers. The cities fell hard. They achieved the ruin of the ancient world. Some rapidly took on the ways and customs of their conquerors. More often, there was violence without pity. They pretended tolerance for religion but that was very relative, entailing extortion, tariffs, and humiliating tributes. A minority was chosen to assure fidelity to their advantages, which excited hate and jealousy in other groups less favored. 

At this point culturally, the care of the sanctuary was attributed to small groups which, after having tried to possibly profit, had mobilized without reason and galvanized the subtle litanies of the intrepid exploiters. A nearly innumerable number of different people assembled and necessarily arriving at different times, they vented and chatted. Some days the village was forced to lodge a multitude of strangers. Torrents of rain inundated the village. Somewhere north of Mount Zion the source of the rivers descended down into the alluvial plains. The portals of the east rested soulfully for one day, then purified, reaffirmed their sacrifice between the walls. 

Finally, he authorized new conquests marking the reprobation of the Jews who had refused on their own accord. They would not admit it was only an appearance, a sort of phantom that had been crucified. Evidently he ignored all the nuances of the religion. In review, a perfect state of quarrels agitated them in preparation for the great schism. It all depended on the authenticity of their attitude. To believe strongly in spirits one needs nothing more than to pretend they can be. 

Within an hour another tragedy for the holy city quickly followed. He perpetuated a grave disaster and saw fit to completely raze the structure they had built. Whenever possible, it is said, the victors must vanquish and destroy, crease and deform everything that came before. But two novel menaces now emerged. On the east, the soldiers were preening and taking positions. In the west, they were advancing after making a certain number of arrangements with their immediate rivals. 

The start of their military expeditions was assured. Then direct relations ratcheted their fate and assured, after a bout of suffering, a place in paradise in order, in effect, to recompense them for their efforts. They understood the importance of taking along a class of intriguing merchants who had invested in their enterprise and took control. That supreme assurance was the death of the heart of their pilgrimage. 

It was eight o’clock. For a long time he had wanted to re-conquer and depose the last titular heads and to that degree take the title of sultan. After all their hopes of returning to possession of the Holy Land, they found an enormous fortress called “Crack of Doom” solidly taken and in his charge. 

At the end of the century, heavy with memories, he related his voyage upon his return, which was published. He went to the land by sea. The ground trembled and swallowed up more than twenty thousand victims. He reported he lived in the mountains and that he “plunged into vice.” He said the soul of man is nothing more than the corpse of an infant born that moment. The soul of a merchant was found in the body of a dog. The port closed for the night and an iron chain was thrown between the jetties that guarded the entrance. On board the boat they saw the city engulfed by the sea — towers, palaces, streets and squares. 

His long route exemplified the passage of history. He had no intention of favoring the Christians, despite their origins as cousins. They had a pronounced taste for cruelty. They took the inheritance of the old civilizations which gave value to negotiation and compromise and combined it with the stupidity of the Mongols who were predators. Since it was impossible to vanquish the entire world, certain of their enemies became friends. 

They had two strong maritime forces in the Mediterranean. Their primary revenue was piracy. The flux had never ceased. Perhaps the phenomena can be imputed to a “chute” of naïve fervor accompanied by a “chain” of consecutive decisions that were no longer sufficient to accomplish obtaining a pardon for their faults. It was necessary for them to sincerely repent. The scandal was often caricatured and condemned. The form and manner of this severe mania and terror fired a mystic ecstasy of paradise and prayer. 

They lost their audience. They were satisfied with their petty profits. Devoted followers reported they had been made “objects of the attention of others.” In one fell swoop they returned in their galleys. They took some representative hostages. 

Towards the end of the century strong men reigned and intrigued and succeeded in agitating the region. They rapidly re-established authority. One man was known under the terrible name, “The Butcher.” Calmly he rested in his palace, terrorizing the populace. He it was who stopped the army of Bonaparte. 

It was a luxurious manifestation of public piety. There was nothing to compare it with. The motivation for undertaking these voyages appeared to have the same criteria, but the response was a cultural alibi, obedient above all to a religious curiosity. These temples of small commerce made an enormous difference in the conditions of the travelers. As a result, they took possession of the saints. 

With acuity and regard for inequality he wrote: “Jerusalem is an oven. All in all, dead dogs in the street, religion in the churches. There is a quantity of shit and ruins. Polish Jews in fox fur hats glide in silence along the dilapidated walls. The shadow of a Turkish soldier engulfs the dice. Everything smokes. The Armenians hate the Greeks, everyone hates the Italians because the Catholics excommunicated the Copts. Everything is either sad or grotesque, but more grotesque than sad. It depends on your point of view…. There is an agglomeration of all the curses possible in this little space. Everything injures or diseases the soul in the end, impatient to view the chandeliers, the tapestries and the tableaux — and such tableaux!... I found it hard to keep my humanity in the face of their infallible massacres…” 

There’s nothing marvelous or impossible that people won’t believe. The churches were successively elevated so they were superposing. A fissure was apparent in the rock produced by the earthquake. In the vestibule beneath the rotunda sixty pillars were surmounted by a dome, his monument. A block of marble marked the place. It was enclosed in a sort of cavity which could hold three or four people. At the summit of the steps was an enormous cistern. Here is where he suffocated. His heart resembled a stone in the middle of a pavée of diamonds. 

Behind these aggressive actions, spoiling his boutique “racket,” always a strange government forgot the pretext of affirming his influence on the locals, the games of which often are crossed by boulevards of people — functionaries of potentates, little chiefs of notorious bandits — an immence conglomerate of bad faith, fiefdoms, and clans. They prepared to advance to reunite the parcels of territory. The desire for hegemony which tempted many to follow generated numerous conflicts with other favored enterprises of vile and audacious powers. A showroom of objects of piety was installed as a microcosm of these rivalries. 

But in Jerusalem there was a veritable repulsion which penetrated the hearts of the Jews. It was a time of commotion and surprise when a new pair of eyes furtively examined the coast. They wore a strange and sordid outfit which was known, in black humor, as the Gracious and Rapacious. Under an overhead sun their wives wore expressions of constant terror. Imagine two sides of a long road with fetid flowers, lined with signs of commerce. Resigned and reclining in what seems to be an evil pose, nothing can render the exterior impropriety. Really crying a lot, these lugubrious people came to cry outside the ruins where tourists would come in pleasure parties, laughing at the “gorgeous destruction.” Their reflections should be taken with a smile. In a monstrous echo centuries later, Nazi propaganda also sought to enlarge the horizon of hate and leave entrenched a taste for adventure and secrecy. Some changed their habitual clothing and lost their own civilization in a simulacrum of their hosts. 

Because of humidity and insects, it is absolutely necessary for comfort after a tiring trip to use a white parasol and a hat with a large brim. Also green or blue sunglasses because reflections from white rocks can blind the eye. It is hard to find provisions and rice, and mutton from time to time was scarce, and practically no vegetable or butter or berries or apricot jam or marmalade could be found. This can make some difficulties, some fatigue, for ladies who are suffering from “mal de jour.” Not only the peregrinations in the interior of Greece on the back of camels, but their courage in the face of privations and living in a tent were inestimable prizes which took place en route. 

They were of bad quality and practically unusable. This was the counsel she adopted. As a general rule they ate very lightly in the morning and they didn’t drink water but cups of wine in small quantities. The drink par excellence was a little coffee slightly burnt, mixed with an impalpable powder and prepared very rapidly. One gets quickly habituated to the powder in the coffee and then drinks, with a bathroom nearby, a freshly made tonic which diminishes subcutaneous bleeding and relieves certain inner forces. 

During this voyage you believe it is created by the force of the things you choose. Rarely this happens in fact. Instead it follows a sort of ritual imposed by the conditions of their means of transportation. The voyage starts always but then the navigation evaporates and a long sea trip entices with a cargo of veils, toupées, and other diverse merchandise. Vessels risked being boarded by barbarous pirates, the scum of the sea, and were poorly adapted to that demand. Each time they had to pay a substantial duty to customs. 

Everything was full of impediments. Thus, in a few seconds a moiety developed and organized dangers and difficulties inconvenient to a traveler’s purse, who had the temerity to pursue their curiosity and follow an interior route. However much they wanted to risk crossing the desert, a simple affair to amateurs, each obscure sheik would lasso them and tie them up in order to ransom them for a ration of opium. Such continual institutional violence and the rapacity of the little chiefs and independent functionaries primarily assured the travelers of their need for a “Turk with a saber” to serve as an interpreter and guide, but attention! His function was not a guarantee always of his honesty. 

He recommended they hold a banquet and disobey tradition specifically by privation. In this regard, it was not evident they paid the “gross sum” in advance. It was better to travel unarmed in order not to provoke an attack. It had been a long time but the routes that were unstable were at least episodically controlled by tribes that made them pay tribute. 

After having a cup of coffee and a smoke he tentatively visited the ruins. He was determined on an open confrontation. It took him three months to cross and he arrived sick and completely drained. It was difficult to give an exact idea of the splendor and immensity of the ruins, exquisite in the richness of their decoration. At the end of the defile, an extraordinary spectacle astonished them: tumbled rocks, gigantic tombs, a forest of columns, porticoes, palaces deployed across a plain, beige and bleached, without trees or plants of any kind, nude, without animals to trouble the solitude with cries at midnight or when the sun enflames the blocks of piled rocks seeming to liquefy in the light. 

The crass misery of the saints affects one’s emotions but in the same époque an English lady dreamed of being coroneted queen. Her ambitions having fallen, she installed a tribe on the flank of the mountain not far from the Emir’s palace. “What do I have to regret?” she said. “Nations are avid and kings are imbeciles. In the desert I’ll spend my life beside a tomb and rest faithfully in neither hate nor friendship with sheep. Is it, in effect, more honorable for me to better understand the world or for civilization to soon stop? I leave it to you.” 

This millenarian speech was met across the earth with anguish. No one rested because they were always distracted adopting different fashions, smoking while having a bad heart, eating puree of chicken for dinner, forgetting when pouring the wine to add the perfume of cardamom, sleeping in their tents. At the time they returned, they took everything, realizing at the end that the world began, started with, and depended on, people. Adding works to profound reflections, even a simple recital of events is more mysterious than ever, which makes it perhaps a scandal: “The Genius of Christianity.” 

In the guise of a conclusion, consider the pen of the subtle writer of talent who with much injustice is forgotten. Once again as he visited the Holy Land a dangerous situation arose. Railways and steamboats abridged the distance, which made it no more than an easy tourist excursion. They arrived rapidly and left rapidly. The number of pilgrims accrued considerably in their last years. They mounted horses, racing to the left, to the right, satisfied to see in their haste something more memorable they could write in their notebooks. This is a law of our nature, that we count a little pain a prize. 

Our eyes today have made it their enterprise to rise in the direction of Jerusalem. The rapidity of the means of communication shall again raise the prestige of the city, a prestige that for a long time was unknown. For some, saints and marvels stem from God. For others, nothing is more curious than what they hear them say in good conscience. Taking nothing for granted during the summer, they took five or six weeks to visit and speak and know something. 

One no longer has premonitions. 

IN a day of legerdemain, we visited the garden again. Trees were in flower and grapes and roses were suspended from branches contrasting singularly with the desolation that otherwise reigned around this little palace. Shadows of clouds were symmetrically disposed around the mountains in the neighborhood. In the center a low door seemed to lead into a cave. A scholar was allowed admission and penetrated to a necropolis of which he gives a curious description. They had arranged the bones of their brothers in distinct rooms. Each bone, having been disarticulated, went into a separate room according to its category: tibias here, skulls there, each part going to its room. Only the patriarchs were preserved entire, wrapped in sarcophagi like Egyptian mummies. Once, due to confusion or error, they found a skull with the leg bones. 

We found delicious fruits in the garden and we were enchanted by the trees meeting overhead which, judging by their flowers, were more beautiful even than we’d hoped. European legumes were also a complete success. It was with a feeling of real privation that we set sail. 

This little congregation was lost in the mountains but never lacked in hospitality and asked us to come again after the lure of their tranquility caused us to look askance and absolutely abandon their deserted country. Their revenues were provided by their farms and by donations from the rich. It is not unreasonable that for a long time the Arabs coveted the considerable valuables they’d accumulated. 

At our departure we said goodbye to many good friends, took their photographs, exchanged gifts and engaged in a cordial fraternity. According to custom we signed our names in the register where we saw the signatures of many persons we knew from home: brilliant Parisians, whose names shone like stars in their own milieu, now mingled with English tourists. On this occasion we were shown Napoleon’s firm hand. He assured them of the protection of his prestige before he too was effaced from the peninsular. 

It’s the most unusual structure one has ever seen. If one were to juxtapose Byzantine, modern and Arabic art, you’d find a mélange of pleasure. Colossal murals flanked by towers giving the impression of a fortress were gathered in a square and conforming to the inclination of the mountains which appeared before them, it seemed, having already succeeded in ascending, that they rested suspended in space like an eagle. 

It made them feel superior to be conducted so late at night through the long stone galleries, resembling a little city, with iron doors leading them finally to a long subterranean passage ending in a garden, a lovely corner on a scene of aridity, full of almond trees and oranges in flower, lemons, dates, and apricots in the shade of grape arbors stretching to the walls. 

Nothing compares to its terrible solitude and grandeur. Someone called it “a sea of desolation.” Nude of flowers even on its flanks and with abrupt adumbrations, the mountains elevated their barren summits to the sky. Masses of granite unrolled to the Syrian desert in the distance, with its infinite brown horizons offering a sight more savage, more sad, more terrible, more desolated than you can possible imagine. 

The valleys to our right resembled corridors, which the Arabs call “wadis.” The word exudes a sense of a passage one has to follow for several miles. The light hits the horizontal planes hard presented by the decimated sides of the mountains and gives clarity to the ravines of caves receiving the day with long sighs. 

Sound in the wadis is extraordinarily doubled by the absolute silence of nature, with echoes so bizarre they permitted us to make only a small ruckus in the vacuum during the time we marched. 

THE city has scarcely changed. My brother found the bazaars well furnished and procured a morsel of bread. Faces creased by suffering and famine — we met these pale creatures in multitudes, a population menaced by perpetual effort: a tyrannical government and a people without defense. May God help us if we pass over these atrocities in silence. The evil present in Syria and Palestine is deplorable in the eyes of the traveler. Its cause is an ambitious pasha given birth by the cabinets of Europe. 

We didn’t get permission to enter the famous mosque where the patriarchs are buried. Why were we prevented from offering prayers at their tomb? “Christians have great respect for the saintly personages who sleep there,” I said. “One will find true faith and double his profit, if he abjures folly and permits Christians pray at the tomb.” He lowered his eyes to mine, caressed his black beard, appeared to reflect, then said: “You’ve spoken well, Frenchy. A famous Christian warrior once said: ‘You can’t make a good Muslim into a bad Christian, and you can’t make a good Christian into a bad Muslim.’ Everybody should believe in his own belief, but you still can’t pray at the tomb of the Patriarchs.” 

The houses of Bethlehem have terraces and little domes. Almost all have exterior staircases. When you leave you see mountains on your right and on the left a valley where Caleb’s ashes lie. 

Matthew says that Bethlehem may be the least of the cities of Judah but will be the chief when it reigns over Israel. 

The fame of this poor, little village remains celebrated over that of great cities. Its grottos of rock and crumbling walls have survived centuries of revolutions while interested writers vainly search for the location of Babylon and Memphis. 

All their chapels were encrusted with marble, jasper and bronze doors. They were lit by innumerable gold and silver lamps. Today they are stripped and scattered. The mosaics have tumbled piece by piece. Nothing of the original magnificence is left. They raised on the site venerated by the Christians a temple to Adonis. In the place where they heard the first cries of the baby Jesus, they cried out for the favor of Venus. Later they built a splendid church, which unfortunately was degraded over time, especially by the Turks. 

A religious industry starting at the end of the year occupies most of the population. Men, women, children — all worked. The Turks believed in the Koran and wondered about the piety of infidels. Some men grew outrageously fat, eating whole blocks of olives and platters of oysters. 

ONE fourth of the monuments of Jerusalem stem from the reign of the caliph Omar. He started the style of architecture called Alhambra, and it is a miracle of genius. It is a subject so new, it is little studied. 

The work was prodigious and completed after his death. They combed the precipices and cut across the mountains and finally found a vast esplanade which led to the Temple from the east. 

Forty days after his birth, Jesus Christ made a presentation in the Temple, was purified by the Virgin, debated with the doctors. chased the merchants, deactivated a demon, gave peaches to the woman taken in adultery, proposed the parables of the Good Shepherd, the Two Brothers, the Wise and Foolish Virgins and the Wedding Guest. 

Having taken Jerusalem, Titus didn’t stop from taking the Temple apart stone by stone. They had predicted its ruin. After Omar, with the exception of a very small part, the city was abandoned by Christians. He told them he was going to build a mosque. He uncovered the big rock where God spoke to Jacob. He enlarged the place and built walls. He covered it with a copper dome, despoiled from a church. He rendered the Temple a primitive destination. 

It’s three times sainted! Christians, Muslims, Jews turn their eyes toward this prodigious city of ruins. Why do they have such veneration for the name Jerusalem? Its landscape is rocky, perched on eternal hills of white, parsimonious, with solid massive walls of grey; the old city venerable under the sun, and so tiny! Yet the pilgrims throw their hats in the air when they see it! 

A very beautiful source, three immense reservoirs cut through living rock, drain into successive interiors, following the valley’s flanks and whatever detours necessary to preserve their constant flow. These three reservoirs are truly marvelous. 

I regarded with fascination, dominating all others, right in the center of town, the fallen walls of a disappeared life erased by the tomb. A more profound sentiment has never moved the heart of humans. A bigger idea never crossed the face of the globe. They evoked the fire of history and the heaven of the soul, a portion of death and the idea of eternal metamorphosis. 

Going in, one is not consoled for the sadness of the exterior. The little streets aren’t paved and you march in clouds of dust among rolling rocks. Everything is augmented by the obscurity of the labyrinth. Light in this desolate city entails open eyes of misery, or eyes closed in a cranny of a wall. Sometimes you see a glint in the shadows hiding under their robes the fruits of their labor, believing that otherwise soldiers will grab it. In a corner an Arab butcher cuts up a beast suspended by his legs from a ruined wall. There is a haggard and ferocious air about this man, his arms bloody. At intervals you can hear the sound of the cavalry galloping in the desert. 

A conglomeration of the worst curses possible in a tiny space, all who were injured badly in the depths of their souls emptied their voices upward to the chandeliers overhead and arranged themselves in a tableau. When the Pasha toured the cliffs, when he wanted to visit, he had to get the keys from them. I found this very strange: but such is humanity. Once it was closed by the Christians, a massacre followed infallibly. 

Austere and quiet. A labyrinth of right turns. An arch falls into a street. Long tunnels, cheap bazaars where light is lost in obscure corners. They jostle pell-mell without seeing each other on the interminable streets. 

From ancient time it was their habit to lock their doors at the hour of prayer. A menace could be hiding anywhere behind olive trees or cauliflowers during the fatal hours. The danger having passed, intelligent precautions rule the city up till sunset. 

They have disappeared from the earth. A little people exists without change, which has the character of a miracle. More marvelous in the eyes of philosophers is the meeting of old and new. 

Against the wall the last debris that passes speaks again the lament in a choked cadence of the rapid decomposition of the body. “Because it is destroyed we are alone and cry. Because our walls are abandoned we are solitary and bitter. Our greatness has past! Our great men have perished! Because we have no home, we are lost and have no hope.” 

Visited in song, it rivals the Ka’aba. They turn their prayers inside to the black rock. Today again the esplanade is full. All this bursts with grandeur in the desert, with sentinels guarding the doors. Up to today it is fiercely defended and a Christian will risk his life trying to penetrate it. 

Torn and decomposed, cubes of crystal and gold stain the shadow of the columns with an intensity of effects that leaves one with more mystery. Marvelous hours pass following a game, hearing stories about old disasters and the frustrating stone. They labored all the time, dressed in their original nudity in the middle of precious artistic material works. The hand of David you can almost touch suspended over the abyss by angels. 

Imagination anticipates a marvelous destination which reposes like a grand palm tree and which someday will be plunged into the limpid rapids of Paradise. 

Whatever we attribute to him, what about the others? What sort of door leads to the incommodious depot of a new city? Demagogues manhandle this subject. What can we say of the hate of the Christians which talks of the passing of the Jews, and how does one easily explain the necessity? The caliph Omar rose and kicked out the offensive scum that encumbered the sacred rock. Don’t forget that this rock is suspended in air as perpetual miracle. 

This bare rock has its history and legends. It plunges into an abyss profound where rolls a tumultuous torrent. An imprint in the form of his turban may be seen on the rock. Better still, one can perceive in the vault of the rock rising towards the sky a fantastic horse. 

Following a long and dolorous valley creased by ravines each surface of which is bare and arid, sparsely settled by savage tigers and wild olive plants, in the middle of which a river whose name means Sadness dissects the valley, tarries on the flanks of the mountains before entering subterranean caves, one end of which was consecrated to the tombs of ancient Jews. 

This is the place of the Last Judgment. Within these borders will be enacted the great dramatic evangelistic scene. The tears, the suffering, the deaths: valley where all the prophets passed and cried in sadness and horror which I still seem I can hear today; valley which will one day hear the noise of the torrent of souls rolling in front of God and presenting themselves for judgment. 

It’s impossible to contemplate the everyday without being conscious of marching in opposition to sentimentalism and autosuggestions of ecstasy, and the great Biblical truths, and without becoming resentful at the Englishmen here who have decided to keep “a cold head,” and view Jerusalem without ever experiencing a sudden emotion when seeing the land in which Christ lived a life of poverty and wandering. Nothing seems older than two thousand years. 

ACRA was the home of Pasha Djezzar, the infamous Executioner who not only made a Grand Theater for scaring invited celebrities with scenes of execution surpassing the cruelties of Nero and Caligula, but who also always carried with him pliers and a funnel for engorging, disfiguring and mutilating those bad people he met on the street from whom he could not extort some silver, which for him was an agreeable distraction. Using an infernal ruse, he would have his guards lead them to jail by force. He would shove his right index finger into the eye, pluck out the globe, and throw it at the fallen figure. Another day he ordered all the men he met arrested. When they entered the room he was seated on a divan. He jumped from the divan and cried: “All on the right must die! I will dine with the ones on left.” 

He was a poor boy and left his country and, forced by the misery of having to sell himself as a slave, he mounted grade by grade and betrayed his masters and benefactors and monstrously plunged his life into hideous debaucheries and abominable crimes, killing peace in his soul. The Door to the Sublime was left hanging. He massacred and despoiled his subjects. He attacked a mission to the caravans, reinforced the troops, tortured Syria and allied with the English. The most desperate Romans pale in history compared to his existence. 

I am walking along a street which resembles nothing I’ve ever seen, so encumbered and frayed by the crowds going about their business. The burning, quarrelsome, salty population is finally exhaled at the city gate. They dress marvelously. 

On a rock in the center of the bay there is no port but little boats dart about in the enclave of rocks that forms a curb advancing to the sea. It’s a rich city of quarried stone and comfort surrounded by old earthen ramparts. The streets are so steep that horses can’t climb them and these inclinations let one see the sea at every turn, often at the end of convoluted passages. 

Far away from this beautiful village in the middle of gardens and among watercourses of great limpidity, rendered rich and fertile compared to the stony mountains that surround it — olive trees, among the biggest and oldest I’ve found. 

And landing we stopped in front of a vendor who amused us by his non-stop salesmanship. In his old turban he approached us. He was surprised to hear us speak a language unknown to him. He tone was tentative: “Are the French Christians?” 

Never rest but always arrive at a better notion of what constitutes respect for origins, wanting to replace the authentic with apocryphal saints attached to ages of gross piety. They built their temple there at the point of apparition and the center of an active ray, the foundation of which rises in the grand church where Christians wanted to pray. 

The last Latin ends and will never again be shared. They want you to ride a serpent of air and live in the desert, where you can be sure there will be a pothole, into which you’ll be plunged! It’s like a gorge with a mouth. They have lunch with the Virgin and a salon with Joseph where they watch the Christ child play with Hebrew objects. 

A chain of high mountains ends at the sea, which is located on our left. That line, a dark green, is detached from the blue, flouncy sky undulating with warm vapor. Their ardent flanks are seamed by a strong male vegetation. 

A bed of furry bushes dominated here and there and heads laced with chains, grizzled rocks worked by nature into bizarre colossal forms — most times are a time for this verdure, this reflection of the sun’s enchanting rays. 

Battened in a fashion under picturesque chains solidly constructed and attached to the rustic homes that one sees in certain areas on the coast, of which most simply the excavations formed in the rock are larger and higher and pierce the sky like a window there, and there they quietly live where one is perfectly accepting of the sun and the rain. 

The night falls. The clarity of the stars up to the horizon, graciously arranged to cut the waves which lie to our left, and to the right rising in stages are hardy outcrops of the Carmel range. The city sleeps and dreams again beneath the crenellated walls, stone towers and domes of mosques, indicated far away by a little miniature minaret. 

We lay in our caravan under beautiful stars, beautiful trees with lanterns in their branches illuminating their leaves, our baggage in a circle around us, our horses around us attached to pickets. All day long we walk and hear the sound of bells. The chief muleteer carries an umbrella to shade him from the sun. 

The ruins attest to the violence and vandalism. A possible repose for a traveler commodious and well-disposed, advantageously a place to secure one’s “effects,” a building surrounded by walls in the middle of which one arrives at a massive door destined to lodge strangers. 

FINALLY we touched upon a plain which rapidly enlarged and we found ourselves in the middle of decomposed walls. We had arrived at the point we intended to follow. Two roads joined here. We hid in the ruins of the tower. Here were souls, we thought at that moment, which consequently dignified our interest. 

We faced Masada, a rock two hundred feet high, whose sheer flanks seemed to be pierced by rare openings that looked like a necropolis. Fifty feet from the summit, without such fractures, we would not have been able to succeed. Once our agitation was attenuated we turned our regard to finding our way again to the route we had quit. 

A platform like a crown caused by the action of wind and rain unscrolled as a solid base. All the rocks had rolled from the cliffs. The road was kept dangerous in front of us and we followed like tightrope walkers without balancing poles. In a few moments we crossed the abyss and were cramponed to the mountain. 

Here I recommend an infernal agent which we hated. Attached to the side of the precipice we rested for a long time, following which our climb continued, which was more difficult than it appeared. 

Finally we touched the summit. At the end of a path between precipices we came to a freestanding wall with a beautifully preserved door in an oval arch, which suddenly brought to mind the epoch of the destruction of Masada. 

The door opened and in front of us was a vast plateau. We’d arrived, thank God, safe and sound! 

It was not a great man or great poet who sojourned with us a little while, but he was a man among men with a genial nature and virtues I came to adore. He saw the sea, the waves, the caves, the stones where he rested his head. He was beaten a hundred times in the street where now we walk. His feet were shod and left their mark. He came and went without cease. He sailed in a boat with fishermen from Galilee. He calmed the storm. He walked on water. He gave a hand to a fool like me, a celestial hand which I need more than he in the storm of opinions and my terrible thoughts. 

This little village seems never to have been big, but it’s pleasantly situated among many trees. A vacillating light of a candle led us prudently down twenty-five glistening steps to the tomb of Lazarus, which is what the village is named. 

The ancient industry of Bethany does not provide sufficient money for its inhabitants, who are forced to beg and use mendacity. We never saw a mosque of pleasant appearance because they were all constructed of debris and here and there some big stones piled artfully became a house which the men of Bethany put to the service of their “living boats.” 

A heap of stones formed an immense tumble. A block of sculpted jade was pulverized but one knows nothing about it. Just so, a little precision in the details is important to us in the ensemble of everything that dies. 

We find the splendid sun crouched in space with funereal brocade which is thrown in the fashion of a great linen over the solid plain of human dust. 

The land is fecund under a hot sun and water vivifies its admirable fertility. Due to its perfumed gardens and its forests of magnificent trees, it is called a region divine. They wave their large leaves, these magnificent plants, over the waves of the Jordan. 

The valley is the most beautiful and most high in the region. Pigeons are blown into each other because of the crosswinds. There is a precipice in the interior, high and low. The solitude is most frightening, constructed at an angle, high above the torrent, dotted with cedar trees, the huts of the hermits, in their lairs which seem inaccessible. 

They seem to offer a sun to the sea. On this deprived earth their leaves are covered with salt that looks and tastes like smoke. A brown river runs down the middle like a train of regret into an impasto lake, which engulfs it. Arabs hide in the bushes ready to attack the traveler. They are famous for their blessings and curses. They appear brilliant, but guilty towns that are hidden under their skins seem to have poisoned the waves. 

THIS enchanting spectacle is astonishing. The first thing you see that you can appreciate is the light and the variety of colors which absorb one’s vision of the undulations of the crenellated terraces cut and covered by the immense foundations of ruined temples. These masses of masonry wait along the river bank, perforated by multiple tombs and an unbelievable number of marvelous sculptures that pencil and paper are far away from describing:  It is not the fault of the writer or the artist. An almost uncontrollable extravagance, an excessive sentimentality, and a terrible loneliness which clearly evoke the passing of a glorious race contrast with a million vigorous fragments and stones mingling with the lively vegetation, the entrance in shadow creasing each side, the light of a bright river whose clear borders of flowers red and white alternated with tufts of grass, all of which formed an ensemble of marvelous beauty for the eye and spirit (of which a myriad delicate details and tons of nature’s savage sorcery and human labor can reproduce only the silence of death and the strange sense of solitude which count among the major characteristics of the region). What form of art is capable of rendering the rapid evolution of a green branch or the hidden rocks among the solemn rose trees or the sound of pure water running across the ruins of the city, which we cannot understand? The visit itself and the memory are the only mirrors which can faithfully conserve its traits. I have discovered a new universe, but my art is powerless to represent it for others. 

We then passed through an open space which had been used for a great theater, covered in silk, surpassing in sumptuous superlatives beyond one’s imagination, whose majestic facades were covered with violets. Going into a ravine, rocks seem to close over your head, and after entering and turning right we saw a famous chasm at one end and at the other a temple of pink stone shining against the mountain, the lower part partially hidden by flowers. A ray of intense splendor through a fissure in the gorge, a hundred meters high, penetrated the silk and, thinking that I had by this time wanted to return, I nevertheless projected to stay a few more days wanting to uncover as quickly as possible a view of the entire valley. 

By the setting of the sun, the great fallacy of the Orient was transformed into a mural of bright red stones, shadowed by crowns of roses and, extending behind the highest hills, a new world seemed suspended between heaven and earth. 

The entrance is really imposing. In effect, without engaging the side of the mysterious defile overhead, a hardy arch of 30 meters carried water from one rock to the other, decorated with columns and statues in niches, forming a sort of grand, triumphant vestibule. Then the road led near two immense walls whose tops seemed to intercept our view of the sky and, consequently, the brightness of day. 

A Greek inscription signalized the existence of the front of a tomb. We would have liked to have seen it, but it was mostly effaced. We were in an instant thinking about ourselves, but there was no one to receive our bad humor, so we ransacked some other innocent stones to disclose the hieroglyphics we believed were there and which would intrigue the future. Then, clear like a jet of red electricity, an apparition mostly improvised made our eyes explode! It was our first reaction and led to without contradiction our great interest and doubt of its origin. 

There she sleeps in the silence of the ruins we knew, a full life of noise and movement retaining the voice of actors and the applause of audiences in the empty and profane tomb. A proud and opulent people were defeated by Rome. Enriched by their commerce, they had made the capital mistake of aligning their independence with the beauty of their city. 

I habitually explore tombs and catacombs and find it hard to distinguish the homes of the living from the dead. Simple openings in the rock, their beauty and grandeur is found within. Their doorways are alluringly imposing, but inside they are simple. 

A CHAIN of sterile mountains joined the landscape in tiers within a valley and their tops carried on to a considerable height. Not the least object was animate. It seemed almost impossible to imagine anything more astonishing. A great number of pillars penetrated the space and reasserted on a vast plain like delicate fruits surpassing the height of a man. These masked a foul edifice hidden behind them, here where they formed groups of which the symmetry had been destroyed, ranged in prolonged files under a distant sky appearing in occluded lines. This moving scene moved across the view and met variety: parts reversed, some in their entirety, others in pieces, or merely dislocated in their articulations. The whole earth was filled with great stones and demi-caves, broken surfaces, broken heads, mutilated faces, violated tombs all under a cloud of dust. 

They deployed their magnificence in the Temple of the Sun, their deity. It was an extraordinary case of a door opening onto a setting sun. Fallen to the earth, a zodiac of signs seemed like a bird in the middle of a field of stars before the existence of the designs became known. Some are coupled and some are alone. 

I always go to bazaars, where light and shadow come together in the middle of little scenes. A tumult of peasants, a brouhaha of interpretations, ravished us. Merchants offered us flowers. Nightingales sang on branches without flying. The garden never slept at night. One night before we retired we were "gratified" by a blow to the head from a foolish student. A wise old man saw the scene and tried without waiting on the others to open the eyes of the imprudent youth. Everywhere in the world, sometimes, there is peace, courtesy and drinks of water. 

In the middle of a bazaar elevated on beautiful monuments, the door to the building was light and graceful, a masterpiece of Moorish art. The walls were garnished with plaques disposed symmetrically. A great pool of water is the place to go in this room of travelers in different costumes peacefully smoking their pipes. 

It was never a commercial city. Travelers will be troubled by the silence of the desert. Great political interests were agitated under these walls and left imperishable traces. They were the richest negotiators and sold them merchandise from India. It was impossible to nourish the troops. They transported their treasure to the coast and valiantly defended the crossing at the river, and repelled the invasion. 

Other arcades were sensible but not petite. They gave access to the central avenue beneath an open sky where circulated chimney sweeps, cavaliers, carriages and troops of ostriches. Perhaps a figure in this magnificent promenade is ranged indefinitely against the sun? The lines of his hat are very full like large tables of sculpture cutting a right angle in the sky or a beautiful silver vessel in an ancient cathedral. 

Among us, once we started, the description was very summary of the ancient face of the continent. Because of this position and this dependence with regard to this island which had once been a colony and whose designation had come to indicate an abbreviation for corruption, it had lately transformed its name into the symbol of a horse. 

SILENCE is man’s only language when we try to surpass the ordinary measure of our impressions. We stay mute and contemplative. Each perfectly joined together without the least lines of juncture. The sun only hits one side of them. We stay a moment in their shadow. Big birds, perhaps eagles, make a lot of noise overhead where they nest, moving their wings like animated ornaments always marvelously in movement. It seems probable that diminished only in their proportions they were burned where they fell. The rest stayed debris. 

We were faced by a whole world rolling on the surface of an enormous platform which elevated two sculptural blocks composed among the debris, which jostled us in a reprise of a form and a place. Their temple was complete and intact with brilliant polished stones that shone in the scattered light. Each represented a god or hero. 

We looked at a long river. It was a sublime spectacle. Our boat glided beneath towering summits. What a multitude of motifs! I’d never dreamed of such a plenitude of beauty! Ancient trees were disseminated over a vast terrain and exposed to the sun. The oldest were present at creation and are the patriarchs of plants. Their leaves are always green and expand with an incorruptible odor. 

One can’t travel anywhere in the mountains. The ravines and gullies are so gigantic and frightening that we had to leave the country by many routes, all savage, exciting, and marvelous. 

The horizon stretched before us. A group of immense yellow ruins detached themselves from the shade. He lifted a finger in order to speak of ages history no longer remembers. I couldn’t believe I’d crossed a desert to find little Arab houses, and also European ones with red roofs, lined right and left alongside telegraph poles. This finished our little savage sauntering. 

But soon we resumed to suffer. I hope to tell you views proper to the point of happiness:  The desire to see everything up close. The multiplicity of perfections is charming and seductive. Perhaps too profuse, too exquisite and capricious, a time of audacious genius lifted high, probably without rival in the whole world. 

One leaves these ruins but seizes the problems they present. A disappointing impression fades rapidly, in the main tending to the extreme. We lift our eyes towards the table of stone and frieze. A fragment of sun shining on round blocks blocks our route, but little by little, with difficulty, we pretend to be conscious of a general plan. 

The color is magnificent, almost red, in the shape of a gold lingam. Here the historian of landscape might want to paint what he knows again: the water which cools, the noise which I just heard, the moon passing silently overhead, the hope of seeing tomorrow again. 

Beginning with the stones of the Cyclops, some as long as twenty-four feet, found again and carried, taken to be raised, better than a million types of art, also succeeding into decadence, finally they are open and arrive at a relatively modern period. Who knows but that these stones represent ten thousand years! How did the ancients manage the masses? A curious, resounding problem: They hid underground enormous treasure, which is still there. 

Crossing badly cultivated gardens, our senses tortured, we found no trace of the empty city, but turning our attention to the left we saw a big building that antiquity had left for our admiration. The place had been known for its purple veils, cups of gold, and craters of silver. One sees relics of ancient prosperity in the streets. Situated on the coast of the sea the generosity of nature trumps negligence and ruin. Faraway, constructed on a little promontory, the eye notes houses staged one above the other. The port was accessible to the biggest ships at one of its extremities and is believed to have been the envy of the Turks. 

Seated among the stones, they have brilliant memories of the sea. I have seen the meaning of the ages: in prosperity there is ruin. Ships of the world rarely appear in this port. It seems to float on itself, a beautiful city, new, white and lovely, facing the sea. But then a dark shadow rises as one approaches. The prophesies have for a long time accomplished its fate. 

— from The Voyage to the Holy Land by Jean-Claude Simoen, Impact Livre, 2000 

— June-July 2008