Past Perfect: The Frightful Road to Jericho
Diplomat, clergyman, Princeton professor, prolific writer and poet, Henry van Dyke (1852–1933) traveled worldwide. Passionate about nature, the meliorist’s journey across the Holy Land was the “epitome of his whole outdoor philosophy.”1 He camped his way (with his wife, Ellen, and friends Dr. and Mrs. John Knox McLean) from Jerusalem to Damascus, covering the valleys of the Dead Sea to the mountains of Samaria, and his “impressions of travel in body and spirit” were published in
Out-of-Doors in the Holy Land in 1908. The book was dedicated to his friend Howard Crosby Butler, professor of archaeology and art at Princeton.
Following is an excerpt from van Dyke’s book where he describes the much-maligned road from Jerusalem to Jericho:
To this day, at the tables d’hôte of Jerusalem the name of Jericho stirs up a little whirlwind of bad stories and warnings.
Last night we were dining with friends at one of the hotels, and the usual topic came up for discussion.
“That Jericho road is positively frightful,” says a British female tourist in lace cap, lilac ribbons and a maroon poplin dress, “the heat is most extr’ordinary!”
“No food fit to eat at the hotel,” grumbles her husband, a rosy, bald-headed man in plaid knickerbockers, “no bottled beer; beastly little hole!”
“A voyage of the most fatiguing, of the most perilous, I assure you,” says a little Frenchman with a forked beard. “But I rejoice myself of the adventure, of the romance accomplished.”
“I want to know,” piped a lady in a green shirt-waist from Andover, Mass., “is there really and truly any danger?”
“I guess not for us,” answers the dominating voice of the conductor of her party. “There’s always a bunch of robbers on that road, but I have hired the biggest man of the bunch to take care of us. Just wait till you see that dandy Sheikh in his best clothes; he looks like a museum of old weapons.”
“Have you heard,” interposed a lady-like clergyman on the other side of the table, with gold-rimmed spectacles gleaming above his high, black waistcoat, “what happened on the Jericho road, week before last? An English gentleman, of very good family, imprudently taking a short cut, became separated from his companions. The Bedouins fell upon him, beat him quite painfully, deprived him of his watch and several necessary garments, and left him prostrate upon the earth, in an embarrassingly denuded condition. Just fancy! Was it not perfectly shocking?” (The clergyman’s voice was full of delicious horror.) “But, after all,” he resumed with a beaming smile, “it was most scriptural, you know, quite like a Providential confirmation of Holy Writ!”
“Most unpleasant for the Englishman,” growls the man in knickerbockers.
“I know a story about Jericho,” begins a gentleman from Colorado, with a hay-colored moustache and a droop in his left eyelid—and then follows a series of tales about that ill-reputed town and the road thither, which leave the lady in the lace cap gasping, and the man with the forked beard visibly swelling with pride at having made the journey, and the little woman in the green shirt-waist quivering with exquisite fears and mentally clinging with both arms to the personal conductor of her party, who looks becomingly virile, and exchanges a surreptitious wink with the gentleman from Colorado.
Of course, I am not willing to make an affidavit to the correctness of every word of this conversation; but I can testify that it fairly represents the Jericho-motif as you may hear it played almost any night in the Jerusalem hotels. It sounded to us partly like the echo of ancient legends kept alive by dragomans and officials for purposes of revenue, and partly like an outcrop of the hysterical habit in people who travel in flocks and do nothing without much palaver. In our quiet cam, George the Bethlehemite assured us that the sheikhs were “humbugs” and an escort of soldiers a nuisance. So we placidly made our preparations to ride on the morrow, with no other safeguards than our friendly dispositions and a couple of excellent American revolvers.
We pass down the Valley of the Brook Kidron, where no water ever flows; and through the crowd of beggars and loiterers and pilgrims at the crossroads; and up over the shoulder of the Mount of Olives, past the wide-spread Jewish burying ground, where we take our last look at the towers and domes and minarets and walls of Jerusalem.
Not far beyond Bethany, the road begins to drop, with great windings, into a deep desolate valley, crowded with pilgrims afoot and on donkey-back and in ramshackle carriages—Russians and Greeks returning from their sacred bath in the Jordan.
Once the Patriarch and I, scrambling on foot down a short-cut, think we see a Bedouin waiting for us behind a rock, with his long gun over his shoulder; but it turns out to be only a brown little peasant girl, ragged and smiling, watching her score of lop-eared goats.