THE DAWN OF A CENTURY OF DISCOVERY
The enterprising traveller explored the Lebanon and Baalbek. He prosecuted his discoveries south of Damascus, and entered Judea, exploring the eastern portion of Hermon, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea. This was the dwelling-place of those races well known to us in Jewish history; the Ammonites, Moabites, and Gileadites. At the time of the Roman conquest, the western portion of this country was known as Perea, and was the centre of the celebrated Decapolis or confederacy of ten cities. No modern traveller had visited these regions, a fact sufficient to induce Seetzen to begin his exploration with them.
His friends at Damascus had tried to dissuade him from the journey, by picturing the difficulties and danger of a route frequented by Bedouins; but nothing could stay him. Before visiting the Decapolis region and investigating the condition of its ruins, Seetzen traversed a small district, named Ladscha, which bore a bad reputation at Damascus on account of the Bedouins who occupied it, but which was said to contain remarkable antiquities.
Leaving Damascus on the 12th of December, 1805, with an Armenian guide who misled him from the first, Seetzen, having prudently provided himself with a passport from the Pasha, proceeded from village to village escorted by an armed attendant.
In a narrative published in the earlier "Annales des Voyages," says the traveller,—
"That portion of Ladscha which I have seen is, like Hauran, entirely formed of basalt, often very porous, and in many districts forming vast stony deserts. The villages, which are mostly in ruins, are built on the sides of the rocks. The black colour of the basalt, the ruined houses, the churches and towers fallen into decay, with the total dearth of trees and verdure, combine to give a sombre aspect to this country, which strikes one almost with dread. In almost every village are either Grecian inscriptions, columns, or other remnants of antiquity; amongst others I copied an inscription of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Here, as in Hauran, the doors were of basalt."
Seetzen had scarcely arrived at the village of Gerasa and enjoyed a brief rest, before he was surrounded by half a score of mounted men, who said they had come by order of the vice-governor of Hauran to arrest him. Their master, Omar Aga, having learned that the traveller had been seen in the country the preceding year, and imagining his passports to be forgeries, had sent them to bring him before him.
Resistance was useless. Without allowing himself to be disconcerted by an incident which he regarded as a simple contretemps, Seetzen proceeded in the direction of Hauran, where after a day and a half's journey he met Omar Aga, travelling with the Mecca caravan. The travellers having received a hearty welcome, departed on the morrow, but meeting upon his way with many troops of Arabs, upon whom his demeanour imposed respect, he came to the conclusion that it had been Omar Aga's intention to have him robbed.
Returning to Damascus, Seetzen had great trouble in finding a guide who would accompany him in his expedition along the eastern shore of the Jordan, and around the Dead Sea. At last, a certain Yusuf-al-Milky, a member of the Greek church, who, for some thirty years, had carried on traffic with the Arab tribes, and travelled in the provinces which Seetzen desired to visit, agreed to bear him company.
The two travellers left Damascus on the 19th of January, 1806. Seetzen's entire baggage consisted of a few clothes, some indispensable books, paper for drying plants, and an assortment of drugs, necessary to sustain his assumed character as a physician. He wore the dress of a sheik of secondary rank.
The districts of Rasheiya and Hasbeiya, at the foot of Mount Hermon—whose summit at the time was hidden by snow—were the first explored by Seetzen, for the reason that they were the least known in Syria.
He then visited Achha, a village inhabited by the Druses, upon the opposite side of the mountain; Rasheiya, the residence of the Emir; and Hasbeiya, where he paid a visit to the Greek Bishop of Szur or Szeida, to whom he carried letters of recommendation. The object which chiefly attracted his attention in this mountainous district, was an asphalt-mine, whose produce is there used to protect the vines from insects.
Leaving Hasbeiya, Seetzen proceeded to Bâniâs, the ancient Casaræa Philippi, which is now a mere collection of huts. Even if traces of its fortifications were discoverable, not the smallest remains could be found of the splendid temple erected by Herod in honour of Augustus.
Ancient authorities hold that the river of Bâniâs is the source of the Jordan, but in reality that title belongs to the river Hasbany, which forms the larger branch of the Jordan. Seetzen recognized it, as he also did the Lake of Merom, or the ancient Samachonitis.
Here he was deserted by his muleteers, whom nothing could induce to accompany him so far as the bridge of Jisr-Benat-Yakûb, and also by his guide Yusuf, whom he was forced to send by the open road to await his arrival at Tiberias, while he himself proceeded on foot towards the celebrated bridge, accompanied by a single Arab attendant.
He, however, found no one at Jisr-Benat-Yakûb who was willing to accompany him along the eastern shore of the Jordan, until a native, believing him to be a doctor, begged him to go and see his sheik, who was suffering from ophthalmia, and who lived upon the eastern bank of the Lake of Tiberias.