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The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand's Crusaders

Chapter XVI

page 130

Chapter XVI.

As people at home may be interested to hear of what our men saw in the Holy City during the brief opportunities afforded them, some description of the Jerusalem of to-day may not be out of place.

The town is situated 2,500 feet above sealevel, on the southern part of a badly watered and somewhat sterile plateau of limestone, which is connected towards the north with the main range of the mountains of Palestine, and surrounded on all other sides by ravines. The ground occupied by the town is somewhat undulating. The town proper, i.e., the Holy City, is enclosed by a wall nearly forty feet high, forming an irregular quadrangle about two and a half miles in circumference; it has eight gates, one of which has been walled up for centuries. The streets of the old town are ill-paved and crooked, many of them being blind alleys, and are excessively dirty after rain. Some of them are vaulted over into evilsmelling passages. The modern part of the city, which is estimated to contain about half the population, is built outside the city walls, and the suburbs contain many fine buildings well executed in stone. The pre-war population page 131of Jerusalem was estimated at 70,000, of which 10,000 were Moslems, 45,000 Jews, and 15,000 Christians. Great numbers of the Jews subsist on the charity of their European brethren, from whom they receive a regular allowance, and for whom they pray at the Holy places.

When the British captured Jerusalem it was in an indescribably filthy condition, with a nearly starving population. There was no proper water supply, the inhabitants being dependent on such rainwater as could be collected in wells and cisterns, which often collected as much drainage as anything else. This condition of things the British authorities quickly remedied; the town was subjected to a thorough cleaning-up process, and British army engineers piped in a supply of good water soon afterwards. This latter achievement was a testimony to British thoroughness, when it is remembered that it was done during the progress of a big campaign, when the limited railway accommodation was strained to the utmost for the carriage of necessary supplies.

Ludd, within a few miles of Jaffa and the coast, was for some time the railhead for the British broad-gauge railway which had followed the troops across Sinai and Southern Palestine. From there, supplies were brought to Jerusalem on captured rolling stock on the Turkish line. This narrow gauge line was altered, without interference with the traffic, by widening cuttings and strengthening embankments, and by page 132laying the broad-gauge line astride the narrow gauge; so that during 1918 the British had rolling stock off English railways running into Jerusalem station.

It is now possible to go from Cairo to Jerusalem in one railway carriage, over the Suez Canal by the new bridge at Kantara, and so finally up the steep grades approaching Jerusalem, which tax the engines to the utmost of their panting strength.

The holy places in the ancient city were rigidly guarded by the British from any form of desecration, and sentries with fixed bayonets stood on guard at all the gates through which the traffic passed. The places of worship of Moslems, such as the Mosque of Omar, were guarded by Indian sentries of that faith, and everything was done to give the oppressed people confidence in British administration.

The New Zealanders usually entered the Holy City in charge of an officer, by the Kaiser's entrance, adjoining the Jaffa Gate, passes showing their authority for entrance having to be produced to the sentries. The Jaffa Gate, through which General Allenby made his triumphal entry into the Holy City on foot, is quite an insignificant archway in the massive walls. The main stream of traffic passes through the big breach in the wall, which was made some years ago, in 1898, for the Kaiser's entry into the city, on the occasion of his theatrical tour of the Holy Land. The wall on the left of page 133the opening, as the sightseer enters, is surmounted by a clock-tower built in memory of the event, which is quite out of harmony with its surroundings, but evidently fulfilled the requirements of a fitting memorial to the Teutonic mind.

Inside the walls, the first place visited was usually the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the site of Calvary. Just inside the door is seen the "Stone of Unction," on which the body of Christ is said to have been anointed by Nicodemus. The atmosphere of the Church is heavy, and invaded with the mysterious odour of incense.

The centre of interest is the Holy Tomb, an ornate structure housing it under the big dome of the Church. The interior of the dome is sadly out of repair, the decoration having in many places peeled away. The edifice enclosing the Tomb is to the Western mind somewhat over-decorated. The interior is divided into two, a small ante-chamber giving on to the tiny Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre, which is only six and a half feet long and six feet wide. The Tomb lies on the right as one enters, covered with marble slabs, the topmost one of which is cracked across the middle. From the roof of the tiny Chapel depend forty-three brass lamps of the most beautiful workmanship. A priest of the Church stands by constantly on vigil.

As instancing the trickery and hypocrisy practised here, on a spot which should be one page 134of the most hallowed to Christians, may be mentioned a rite performed annually. Things of this nature did much to disillusion our men as to the "holiness" of the present-day Jerusalem. An observer will notice a circular aperture in the side of the structure housing the Tomb. On enquiry, he will be told that this is the orifice from which, at the Easter Festival, issues the "Holy Fire." At this ceremony great numbers of pilgrims gather round the Tomb, and strive to light their tapers from the flame. Doubtless these people, many of them sincere, but also ignorant and credulous, are much impressed by the manifestation of the so-called "miracle" which may be trusted to result in the acquisition of many shekels by someone.

Truly Jerusalem, which might be expected to be one of the most godly cities, is, owing to the fanaticism and jealous exclusiveness of the numerous religious communities, one of the most material places on earth. An excess of the outward forms and ceremonial of religion seems to have stifled the true spirit of it which Christ strove to impart in these surroundings.

Climbing some steep and slippery steps, one stands on the site of Calvary, where are the altars of the various churches of the Christian Faith, side by side, the subdued candle-light glittering on the many offerings of gold ornaments and precious stones sent from all over the world. Descending again, one may get a page 135view of the rock from underneath, and see the crack where the stone was split on the day of the Crucifixion.

From the Church of the Holy Sepulchre one may walk down the narrow stone-paved Via Dolorosa, up which Christ made his painful way to Calvary bearing the Cross, pausing at the various "stations" where He halted in His progress. At one of these stations may be seen the Church of Ecce Homo, a substantial modern building, enclosing, at the altar, part of the original stonework which witnessed the passing of Christ. This is said to mark the spot where Pilate uttered the words, "Behold the Man!"

A scene of interest is the Jews' "Wailing Place," where the Jews of the town pour out their prayers and lamentations against a towering wall of huge blocks of stone. The women may be seen kissing the wall and weeping, while the men will often stay for hours reading from their well-thumbed Hebrew prayer-books.

One may then enter the precincts of the ancient Temple of Solomon, on which now stands the Mosque of Omar, or Temple of the Rock, and the Mosque of El Aksa. These are both fine buildings, and the centre of Moslem worship in Jerusalem. The Mosque of Omar is particularly imposing, standing in the middle of a large stone-paved area with no other buildings near it. The building is octagonal in design, the walls, which are a mass of beautiful mosaics, being surmounted by a huge dome, on page 136top of which is the crescent. Outside the door all footgear must be removed—when many troops were viewing the sights of Jerusalem, the pavement near the door of the Mosque presented rather a comical aspect with an assorted heap of boots, leggings, and spurs. On entering, the dome is seen to be magnificent in its interior decoration, while the windows, all of different design, shed a soft light on to the rich carpets underfoot. In the centre, underneath the dome, is the huge red rock from which the place takes its name, the ancient sacrificial stone of old. The general effect of the Mosque of Omar is one of artistic grandeur, which impresses itself on one in contrast to the comparative tawdriness of the Christian Church built over Calvary.

The Mosque of El Aksa is interesting, but in no way striking, being rather dwarfed by the splendid edifice adjoining it. In front of each building will be seen an Indian sentry with fixed bayonet—symbols of the power of Empire which brings a native of alien faith from his own country, and puts him to guard the places of his worship in another land; a land, moreover, wrested from an enemy of the same religious faith as himself.

One may then walk across the remainder of the enclosed space on which once stood Solomon's Temple, and, passing the closed "Golden Gates" in the city wall, (which prophecy says are to open one day for the page break Black-and-white cross-section diagram of Palestine, showing elevations page break page 137passage of a conqueror) come to St. Stephen's Gate. Passing through the small archway, probably in company with an Arab and his donkey going out to the Jericho road, one sees, immediately below, the Valley of Kidron, or Valley of Jehosophat. On the far side of this valley, where it commences to slope up towards the Mount of Olives, is seen the Garden of Gethsemane, enclosed from the dusty road on two sides of it by a high stone wall.

Above it rises the Mount of Olives, the trees from which it takes its name scattered over it but sparsely. Running along the bottom of the valley, and disappearing to the right up and over the shoulder of the Mount of Olives, is the dusty white road to Jericho. Shortly after it disappears from sight, the road passes through the village of Bethany, which was such a favourite resort of Our Lord. This village now consists of only about forty ramshackle hovels, rather picturesquely situated amongst fig, olive, and almond trees. This road was the one traversed by the New Zealanders on their journeys between Jericho and Bethlehem.

Of the leave parties that came to Jerusalem, many men would be satisfied after having seen the places mentioned, and would be then only too glad to get a meal and spend the rest of the day taking photographs or buying souvenirs.

Those, however, of an energetic nature, would descend into the valley and see the Garden of page 138Gethsemane at close quarters, afterwards climbing to the top of the Mount of Olives. From this position of vantage the Dead Sea may be discerned in the distance, its surface 3,900 feet below the level of the beholder. On the top of the hill is a large German Hospice, which was used by the enemy when in occupation of the Holy City. There is also a big Russian building, a nunnery, and one or two churches. There is the Chapel of the Ascension, and the Church of the Lord's Prayer, where Christ is said to have first taught the disciples the Lord's Prayer.

The people of Jerusalem form an interesting study, with their varied types of feature and dress. It strikes an observer that the women of the Jewish race seem to have retained their racial characteristics more strongly than the men, who for the most part appear to be of an indifferent stamp. Many of the younger Jewish women are handsome, with well-marked features.

Outside the Jaffa Gate, where there is most traffic, one may stand awhile and watch the cosmopolitan crowd going by. Arabs pass in their flowing robes, with their distinctive headdress of striped silk or cloth, held in place by its rope-like fastening passing twice round the head; their feet shod in red or brown shoes of native make, made from camel hide. Church dignitaries pass to and fro, both Moslem and Christian, many of the latter wearing quaint, high, cylindrical hats, not unlike "bell toppers" page 139minus the brim, and sombre robes of black. Jews of all types are to be seen, from the ragged individual wearing a battered bowler hat, with a low crown, drawn tight down on to the head, to the obviously well-to-do citizen, attired in modern European dress. Then there are those that wear unkempt curls, side-whiskers and beards, and peculiar flat hats fringed with fur. Every combination of "Western and Eastern clothes may be seen, the apparel of some of the passers-by being ludicrously incongruous mixtures, evidently chosen with more regard to opportunity and utility than style.

Through the mixed crowd move the soldiers of the British Empire—the "Tommy" as unconcerned as ever—swarthy Indians, obviously interested in all around them, and soldiers of the Jewish Battalions, easily discernible by their features. An Australian Light Horseman moves along with a jaunty air matching the fluttering plume of feathers in his hat, stopping to exchange a greeting with two New Zealand Mounted Riflemen. These are dusty and suntanned, and easily picked out of the crowd by their distinctive green and khaki hat puggarees, on which one wears the red and white colourpatches of the Auckland Regiment, and the other the black and white check of Canterbury.

A party of natives of the Egyptian Labour Corps straggle by in charge of a lance-corporal, their weird chant and laughing brown faces reminding one of so many big children, and page 140drawing one's attention for a moment as they go. These are followed by two black soldiers of a British West Indies Battalion, one carrying a cane, and both well turned out, with shining buttons, evidently fully alive to their dignity as soldiers of the Empire to which they are proud to belong. Occasionally is seen a woman of Bethlehem, with her peculiar head-dress, which is a white cloth, draped over what might be a tarboosh, on the back of her head.

Thus was Jerusalem as the New Zealanders saw it—rapidly coming back to thriving prosperity, such as had not been known under the Turks, under the benign influence of British administration.