Unexplored Syria

by Richard Francis Burton and
Charles F. Tyrwhitt-Drake

First edition of 1872 in two volumes.
Tinsley Brothers: London.

Volume 1 PDF Page Images.  (HTML transcription)
Volume 2 PDF Page Images.  (HTML transcription)

"... The fact is, we find here, and not elsewhere, a complaint which may be called ‘Holy Land on the Brain.’ It is no obscure cerebral disorder, like the morbid delusions of the poisoner: it rather delights to announce its presence, to flaunt itself in the face of fact. This perversion of allowable sentiment is the calenture which makes patients babble of hanging gardens and parterres of flowers, when all they beheld was sere and barren. The green sickness mostly attacks the new and unseasoned visitor from Europe and North America, especially from regions where he has rarely seen a sun. It is a ‘strange delusion that the man should believe,’ Carlyle says, ‘the thing to be which is not.’ As might be expected, it visits the Protestant with greater violence than the Catholic, whose fit assumes a more excited and emotional, a spasmodic and hysterical, form, ending, if the patient be a man and a poet, in a long rhapsody about himself, possibly about his childhood and his mother. It spares the Levantine, as yellow Jack does the negro: his brain is too well packed with the wretched intrigues and the petty interests of a most material life to have room for excitement at the ‘first glimpse of Emmanuel’s Land.’ A long attack of the disorder which is, however, rare - leads from functional to organic lesion. Under such circumstances, the sufferer will, to adduce only one instance, hire a house at Siloam, and, like the peasant of yore, pass his evening hours in howling from the roof at the torpid little town of Jebus, ‘Woe, woe to thee, Jerusalem!’ The characteristic and essence of the complaint are not only to see matters as they are not, but to force this view upon others; not only to close the eyes of body and mind to reality, but also firmly to hold that they are open, and to resent their being opened by any band, however gentle. A few limestone blocks stained with iron rust become ‘beautiful blush marble,’ because they are the remains of a synagogue at Tell Hum - which, by the bye, is not Capernaum. Men fall to shaking hands with one another, and exchange congratulations, for the all-sufficient reason that the view before them embraces the plain of Esdraelon. The melon-shaped article which roofs the greater Rock in the Noble Sanctuary becomes an ‘exquisite dome;’ and so forth unto nausea. In art, poetry, and literature generally, ‘Holy Land on the Brain’ displays itself by an exaggeration of description which distorts the original; by sentimental reminiscence; by trite quotation, more or less apposite; and sometimes by a trifle of pious fraud. Its peculiarity in the Englishman and the Anglo-American is the rapture with which it hails the discovery in some ruinous heap of some obscure Scriptural name, belonging to some site still more obscure. As it especially afflicts writers of travels and guide-books, the sober and sensible tourist in Syria and Palestine must be prepared for not a little disappointment. Finally, it is in some few patients incurable: I have known cases to which earthly happiness and residence in the Holy Land were convertible terms. It endures time and absence, affecting the afflicted one with something of that desiderium, that ‘sad and tender passion which a father nurses for the child whom he has loved and lost.’

Another advantage of the realistic treatment in the perfect cure for all such complaints is its power of turning the thoughts from the interminable vista of bygone days, and of fixing them upon the times that are, and the times to come - a process which in Syria and Palestine has been grossly neglected. Syria indeed, north of Palestine Proper, is, I have said, and I repeat it, an old country in more than one aspect virtually new. A long and a happy life is still before it, the life which shall be called into being by the appliances of a later civilisation. The ruined heaps strewed over its surface show what it has been, and enable us to look forward to what it shall be. The ‘Holy Land,’ when provided with railways and tramways, will offer the happiest blending of the ancient and the modern worlds; it will become another Egypt, with the distinct advantages of a superior climate, and far nobler races of men.

I visited the Libanus, with the half-formed fancies of finding in it a pied à terre, where reminiscence and romance, tempered by reality and retirement, might suggest inveni portum; where the side, aweary with warfare and wander, could repose in peace and comfortable ease. The idea of pitching tent for life on ‘Mount Lebanon’ - whose Raki and tobacco are of the best; whose Vino d’oro has been compared with the best; whose winter climate is likened to the charms of early English summer, and whose views are pronounced to be lovely; in a place at once near to and far from society - I must cut short the long string of imaginary excellences - was riant in the extreme. Pleasant illusions dispelled in a week! As the physical mountain has no shade, so has the moral mountain no privacy: the tracasserie of its town and village life is dreary and monotonous as its physical aspect; broken only by a storm or an earthquake; when a murder takes place, or when a massacre is expected; when the Mount of Milk threatens to blush with blood; when its population, which, at the call of patriotism, would hide their guns and swords, are ready and willing, under the influence of party feeling, to deal death like Cyrillus, or to meet it like Hypatia. And I hasten to say that Europeans as a rule, with a few notable exceptions, set in these matters the very worst example. For the reasonable enjoyment of life, place me on Highgate’s grassy steep rather than upon Lebanon. Having learned what it is, I should far prefer the comfort of Spitalfields, the ease of the Seven Dials, and the society of Southwark.

Such was Syria under the rule of Rashid Pasha, the late Wali, or Governor-general. And as my four years in the Brazil were saddened by the presence of the fatal though glorious five years’ war with Paraguay, so my residence of nearly two years in the Holy Land, from October 1, 1869, to August 20, 1871, was at a peculiarly unfortunate time, when drought and famine combined with despotism and misrule to madden its unfortunate inhabitants. "