“Civilisation is communication”…some more H. V. Morton.

From the book ‘In the steps of the Master’ by H.V. Morton, first published in Great Britain October 1934.

The first part of Chapter Nine…

‘MOST travellers will agree that before setting out on a journey there are always one or two places that loom unreasonably large in the imagination. Sometimes they justify the hopes set upon them, often they woefully disappoint.

Long before I set foot in the Holy Land I was determined to visit Machaerus. This is the name given to the fortress in Moab where Salome danced before Herod Antipas and in which St. John the Baptist was beheaded. When, however, I came to grips with the problem I discovered that few people had ever been to Machaerus, and that in the writings of the last century the accounts of this ruin could be reckoned on the fingers of one hand. That, of course, made me more anxious to go there.

Machaerus, or El Mashnaka, ” the hanging-place,” as the Arabs call it, lies on the top of one of the wildest mountains of Moab on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. No roads lead to it and the hills are full of armed nomads. They told me in Jerusalem that it would be impossible to go there without an escort of mounted police, and that the best thing I could do was to cross over into Trans-Jordan and consult the authorities at Amman.

Therefore I left Jerusalem by car early in the morning and ran down to Jericho. I saw the glorious sight of the sun coming up behind the savage Moab Hills, lighting the still waters of the Dead Sea and shining over the grotesque spectral hills of the Jordan Valley. Palestine ends and Trans-Jordan begins at the bridge over the Jordan known as ” Allenby Bridge.” It is an iron-clad, army bridge, and as you go over it the loose planks rattle.

The road from Allenby Bridge runs up into a green and lovely valley. Hiding in the oleanders and smothered with brambles was a sight I had been told to look out for: an old German howitzer crouching like a frog in the bushes. This is the notorious “Jericho Jane,” with whose assistance the Turks could pitch a shell into Jericho during the War.

I saw a shepherd sitting beside the road with a rifle across his knees. A little further along three Arabs passed with long-barrelled muskets slung across their backs and their chests covered with cartridge-belts. The Arabs in Palestine and Syria are disarmed, or technically disarmed, but in Trans-Jordan, where the national sport of raiding is still kept up, it has been found that the best way to prevent casualties is to let everybody carry a gun.

The exquisite valley ran into hills misty with almond blossom. The sun shone through the reddish-brown leaves of the pomegranate trees and lit up the bright green of the fig trees, and whenever there was room among the rocks little patches of wheat and barley lay against the darkness of the soil.

The road climbed to a high tableland, an enormous deserted plateau which in Roman times was one of the most famous grain-growing districts in the East. Now the barren hills lie against each other to the sky, and the road runs up and down them and round the extreme edges of them, mile after mile, with never a living soul in sight.

Once, beyond Es Salt and on the mountain road to Jerash, a figure suddenly appeared against the sky. He was a Bedouin mounted on a small bay horse. He held a rifle across the saddle-bow. He sprang up from nowhere and gazed down at us. Until I was quite sure that he did not intend to take a pot shot, I am afraid I was rather blind to the grace and beauty of his appearance. Turning a corner, I saw the encampment to which this man evidently belonged: fifteen or twenty low, black-brown tents pitched on the hill slope with a few horses tethered near, the tent-flaps lifted so that I could see inside where the clansmen were evidently in conference.

Except in the Beersheba district of Palestine, you rarely see the genuine Bedouin until you enter Trans-Jordan. Here the tribes circulate slowly from grazing ground to grazing ground, perpetuating the earliest customs of the Children of Israel.

The district into which I was travelling is familiar to every reader of the Gospels as the Decapolis. You remember how on one occasion Jesus was followed by a great crowd from Galilee and from Decapolis. Again St. Mark tells us that when our Lord departed from the borders of Tyre and Sidon ” he came unto the Sea of Galilee through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.” Also the man whose demons entered the herd of swine was a dweller in the Decapolis, and we learn that ” he departed and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him.”

This Decapolis was a league of, at first, ten Greek cities. Some of them were perched high on the brown mountains that frown down on the Sea of Galilee from the east, others were placed to the south of the lake, near the Jordan, and some stood high on the eastern uplands, all ten arranged, however, with a strategical eye to the ancient trade routes commanding the way to the Mediterranean Sea across the Plain of Esdraelon and the caravan roads from Damascus to Petra. In the time of Christ they were brilliant, rich cities in constant touch with Greece and in daily contact with the varied foreign traffic that passed through them, coming north from Egypt through the gorge of Petra and flowing south from Damascus over the long brown desert road.

I have tried to show how Jesus when in Galilee was on one of the main roads of the ancient world; and the Decapolis was also a little archipelago of Greek culture set in a wide ocean of hills and desert.

I forget who said that civilisation is communication, but you realise how true this is as you travel the wastes of Trans- Jordan to visit the remains of a great city that is now stranded hopelessly in the hills. The roads that brought the life-blood to the cities of the Decapolis have vanished long ago. Sometimes you see a marble pillar standing bravely on a hill, or you see ancient paving running off at any angle into nowhere, and you realise that such are the last signs of the great roads which brought life to the old cities.

Nineteen centuries ago I would have been approaching Jerash over a paved military road that linked one city with another. I would have met bodies of troops on the march, merchants from Damascus, traders from the mysterious rock city of Petra far off to the south, rich travellers from Greece and Rome, trains of baggage-animals moving up into the hills with the European mails and—one can be perfectly certain—the latest feminine fashions from the West.

It was Jaresh.’


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