Synopses & Reviews
My aim in this preface being to afford the untravelled reader of the following stories such a glimpse of the country and people which produced them as may render them intelligible, if not coherent, I shall begin with a glance at the past history of the Holy Land as illustrated in its present folklore. Of Old Testament times the fellahin have countless stories, more or less reminiscent of their religious instruction at the mouth of Greek priest or Moslem Khatib, vivified by the incorporation in the text of naive conjectures, points of private humour, and realistic touches from the present day life of the country, which shock the pompous listener as absurd anachronisms. Thus the disguise of a Russian pilgrim a figure now commonly to be met with on the road from Jerusalem to the Jordan is given to Satan when he beguiles the Patriarch Lot (sect. i. chap. vi.); and our father Adam has been described to me as sitting under the Tree of Knowledge, "smoking his narghileh." Nebuchadnezzar and Titus become one person (Bukhtunussur) and the personality of Alexander the Great (Iskender Dhu el Karneyn) is stretched so as to include more ancient conquerors. Moreover, the desire inherent in Orientals to know how everything came to be, content with any hypothesis provided it be witty, has produced any number of delicious little fictions which, to all ends but the scientific, are much better than fact. Such jeux d'esprit abound in the following pages, as, for instance, the story of Noah's daughter (sect. i. chap. iii.), and of how the mosquito came to buzz (sect. iii. chap. x.); and they are useful to be known by all who must converse with Orientals, since for the latter they are a part of learning. Mr Kipling's "Just So Stories" are examples of this vein of Eastern humour. Of Our Lord and the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin there are sheaves of legends extant, many of them current among Moslems as well as Christians; for it must not be forgotten that the followers of Muhammad have great reverence for Jesus Christ, whom their Prophet named Ruh' Allah, the Spirit of God. They believe in His Immaculate Conception and all His miracles, but deny His Divinity. Only St Paul is anathema to them, because they say he took the pure faith of El Islam, the faith of Adam and Noah and Abraham, as restored by Jesus, and made of it a new religion. With the very doubtful exception of the quaint story of Francesco and the Angel of Death (sect. iii. chap. v.), no legend concerning the New Testament period has been included in this work; for the reason that such legends ceased long ago to be local, and are most, if not all, of them elsewhere accessible, in the Apocryphal Gospels or one or other of the multiplied Lives of the Saints. To most legends of the centuries between Christ and Muhammad, called by Moslems "the Interval," a like objection seemed to apply. The stories of the Seven Sleepers and of the Martyrs of the Pit, of St Helen's Dream and the consequent finding of the Cross, no longer belong to Palestine, though they are still told there. But the legend of the Tree of the Cross (sect. i. chap. vi.) and that of St George in the chapter on "El Khudr" (sect. i.), with a tradition, given in sect. ii. chap. vi., concerning some caves in Wady Isma 'in, called "the Upper Chambers of the Maidens," undoubtedly belong to this period. The romantic deeds of 'Antar and Abu Zeyd, with all the wealth of stories ascribed to the Arabs of the Ignorance, though known to natives of Palestine, have not been localised. They belong to the Arabic language and literature, and must be set down as acquired. With the conquest of Jerusalem by the armies of the Caliph Omar ibn el Khattab begins the historical memory in this folklore as distinct from the Scriptural and the fabulous; and I have heard Christians as well as Moslems extol the character of Omar and depict it not amiss.