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EXCURSION TO ST. SABA.
Jerusalem, than it had the complaisance to return of itself to the place which it now occupies. Then directing my attention to another edifice, backed against a wall, which bounds the Place towards the valley of Jehoshaphat, “ It was there,” said he, “on that very spot, that the great Solomon used to sit when superintending the works of the Temple.” He would have told me many other fine things, could I but have shown ever so little patience and discretion. I thanked him for his civility and retired, admiring in him a politeness to which the Turks had not yet accustomed me.
EXCURSION TO ST. SABA — Camp op Bedouins; Dearth PREVAILING
IN IT — View of the MONASTERY OP Sr. Saba — Greek Monks APARTMENTS — DINNER — Superb PALM TREE — Pilgrims — Night PASSED AT Sr. SABA -- BROOK CEDRON — The PilgriMS LAID UNDER CONTRIBUTION BY THE ARABS.
Jerusalem, March 17th, 1832. I was only waiting, my dear friend, for a favourable occasion to visit the monastery of St. Saba ; such a one occurred last week, and I hastened to avail myself of it. As the roads are unsafe, and it would have been the height of imprudence to venture thither otherwise than in caravan, I requested the prior of the monastery, who habitually resides here, to have the goodness to inform me when one should be going. This monk, whose manners are most cordial, and who speaks Italian tolerably, desired me the very next day to hold myself in readiness for the 15th. On the day mentioned, at eight in the morning, I went to him, and we set out with a few Arabs.
He had taken care to send on before us the Greek pilgrims, about a hundred in number, accompanied by a janissary, with orders to wait for us at the well of Nehemiah.
On reaching the foot of Mount Sion, opposite to the Aceldama, we saw a messenger advancing towards us in breathless haste : he accosted the prior and delivered a letter to him. The prior opened the despatch, and had scarcely read a few lines before he turned pale with pain and surprise. At first, he said nothing about its contents; and I, for my part, thought it right to respect his silence. But presently the words, banditti, robbers, escaped almost involuntarily from his lips; then raising his hand to his forehead, “It is incredible !" said he, talking to himself ; “it is incredible ! - what !- in spite of three iron doors! - The robbers! the robbers!” I deemed myself sufficiently authorized by this soliloquy to inquire the cause of his affliction.
“ Alas !” he replied, heaving a deep sigh, “ alas ! the monastery to which we are going has just been plundered by the Arabs. "Instead of attacking the three iron doors, which defend the entrance, and behind which we fancied ourselves safe, they have made a hole in the wall, penetrated into the interior, carried off all the provisions, and ill-used our brethren before they withdrew. What adds to my grief, and renders it more bitter," continued he, “is the thought that, in a house so pillaged, it will be impossible for us to receive you so well as you deserve. I have given orders that at least the most necessary articles be brought to us with all speed from Jerusalem.” — I assured the good prior that, a monk like himself, and belonging to a very
rigid order, I was accustomed to privations, and that my only grief was the cruel trial which himself and his community had to suffer.
We soon overtook our pilgrims, some on horseback, others on foot, but collected close together, and ready to defend themselves in case of attack. We pursued our route along with them, proceeding between hills without trees, without shade, without verdure, the dreary aspect of which prepared us for that of St. Saba, still more dreary.
Two leagues from Jerusalem, we came to a camp of Bedouins, and a league farther to another. The first consisted of fifteen tents, the second of about twenty, all of a black stuff woven from camel's hair. The men appeared extremely spare, but well made, and so tanned that we might have taken them for Ethiopians. Camels, goats, asses, dogs, women, children, were all huddled together : on our approach the men rose, the women covered themselves, the children began to cry, and the dogs to bark; our unexpected presence, and especially our number, had filled them with real alarm.
A few paces from the camp, I perceived some poor women, hard at work, digging up roots. “It is for the purpose of feeding upon them,” said the good prior;“ the famine which at this moment afflicts the country reduces them to this extremity. The convent exhausts itself in relieving them; it is making enormous sacrifices; every other day it gives at least a small loaf to each man, and never sends away a creature that comes without some donation; and yet,” added he, “ the scoundrels ! they make holes in the walls to get in and plunder us ! — the wretches ! ... And we have three iron doors, reverend
CONVENT OF ST. SABA.
father, three iron doors, and yet are not safe !... Before that cursed siege of Acre they durst not have done so. Now they dare do any thing; nobody punishes them !”
About a league and a half beyond the second camp of the Bedouins, we suddenly descried before us the points of two lofty towers apparently shooting out of the abyss: they were those of St. Saba. I do not think it possible for recluses to settle on a more arid, a more frightfully desert spot, than this. There is no exaggeration in the most repulsive pictures that travellers have drawn to portray its horror. Nowhere is any thing to be seen but dust and rocks; and it is on the steep and almost perpendicular side of these rocks, four hundred feet above the level of the brook Cedron, the bed of which is discovered at the bottom of the ravine, that the first terrace, or rather, if I may be allowed the expression, the basement of the monastery is constructed. The rest of the buildings, backed against the hill, rise in the rear, stage above stage, to the topmost, the base of the part of the building which overlooks all the rest, and which is itself overlooked by the towers, whose summits first met our view.
On the opposite side, at a depth that affrights the eye when it would attempt to measure it, you perceive a great number of grottoes, the range of which extends for several leagues. The inequality, the steepness of the rocks, their barrenness, must, one would think, have concurred to forbid all access to them; and yet there is not one that has not been inhabited by some of the pious recluses, who have filled the world with the fame of their austerities and their virtues. Long before the time of St. Saba, they were peopled by cenobites and anchorets,
and their number increased considerably under that illustrious saint. Prayer, meditation, the praises of the Lord, and the labour of their hands, occupied their days and were continued amid the silence of night.
In the year 1100, the infidels made a dreadful slaughter of these recluses, four or five hundred of whose heads were shown to me preserved as relics. Now these grottoes have no other inhabitants than blue pigeons, to which they serve for retreats, and which are fond of building their nests in them.
There are few pictures so interesting to Christian piety as that which St. Ephraim has left us of the anchorets, whose penitent and holy life has given celebrity to these deserts.
“ The caverns and the rocks,” says he, “ are their abodes; they shut themselves up in the mountains, as behind walls and inaccessible ramparts. The ground is their table; the wild herbs which it produces are their ordinary food, and the water flowing in the brooks, or gushing from the clefts or crannies of the rocks, is their only beverage. They make a church of every place to which they come; their prayers are incessant, and they pass the livelong day in that holy exercise; the praises of the Lord are their sacrifices, which they offer to him in the recesses of their caverns. They are themselves both priests and victims ; they cure our complaints by the efficacy of their prayers. These holy intercessors are always present before God, and never separate from him. They know not what it is to aspire to honours, to raise themselves to the first ranks; their low estate is all their glory; and by means of this they strive to render them