Bethlehem—Rachel’s grave—Convent at Bethlehem—Beggars—Grotto of the Nativity—Solomon’s cisterns—St. John’s—Franciscan church at Jerusalem—Mourning women—Eastern weddings—Mish-mish—Excursion to the Jordan and the Dead Sea—Wilderness near Jerusalem—Convent of St. Saba.
On the 2d of June I rode, in the company of Counts Berchtold and Salm Reifferscheit and Pater Paul, to Bethlehem. Although, on account of the bad roads, we are obliged to ride nearly the whole distance at a foot-pace, it does not take more than an hour and a half to accomplish the journey. The view we enjoy during this excursion is as grand as it is peculiar. So far as the eye can reach, it rests upon stone; the ground is entirely composed of stones; and yet between the rocky interstices grow fruit-trees of all kinds, and grape-vines trail along, besides fields whose productions force their way upwards from the shingly soil.
I had already wondered when I saw the “Karst,” near Trieste, and the desert region of Gorz; but these sink into insignificance when compared to the scenery of the Judean mountains.
It is difficult to conceive how these regions can ever have been smiling and fertile. Doubtless they have appeared to better advantage than at the present period, when the poor inhabitants are ground to the bone by their pachas and officers; but I do not think that meadows and woods can ever have existed here to any extent.
On the way we pass a well, surrounded by blocks of stone. At this well the wise men from the East rested, and here the guiding star appeared to them. Midway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem lies the Greek convent dedicated to the prophet Elijah. From hence we can see both towns; on the one hand, the spacious Jerusalem, and on the other, the humble Bethlehem, with some small villages scattered round it. On the right hand we pass “Rachel’s grave,” a ruined building with a small cupola.
Bethlehem lies on a hill, surrounded by several others; with the exception of the convent, it contains not a single handsome building. The inhabitants, half of whom are Catholics, muster about 2500 strong; many live in grottoes and semi-subterranean domiciles, cutting out garlands and other devices in mother-of pearl, etc. The number of houses does not exceed a hundred at the most, and the poverty here seems excessive, for nowhere have I been so much pestered with beggar children as in this town. Hardly has the stranger reached the convent-gates before these urchins are seen rapidly approaching from all quarters. One rushes forward to hold the horse, while a second grasps the stirrup; a third and a fourth present their arm to help you to dismount; and in the end the whole swarm unanimously stretch forth their hands for “backsheesh.” In cases like these it is quite necessary to come furnished either with a multiplicity of small coins or with a riding-whip, in order to be delivered in one way or another from the horrible importunity of the diminutive mob. It is very fortunate that the horses here are perfectly accustomed to such scenes; were this not the case, they would take fright and gallop headlong away.