The New York Times, December 18, 1910, p.SM8:|
FIGURES IN THE BLOODY SCENES AT EL KERAKAn American's Visit to the Sheik
Whose Death Began the Bedouin Rebellion
and the Governor Who Has Been Rescued from the Tribesmen.
...The sheik whose authority extends over the district in which the city of Kerak lies dined with us in our tents at Rabba, in Moab, on 17th of last March, and the following evening the two Turkish Governors of that part of the vilayet of Syria dined with us in our tents at Kerak, and recent dispatches announce that the Bedouins have risen in revenge for the execution of their Sheik and have massacred the officials. Yesterday's news indicated that the officials have been saved, though the town was sacked, and that the slaughter was great.
The city of Kerak [Al Karak] lies on a hill which rises about 400 feet above the valleys which encircle it on all sides; on one side the surrounding mountains sent off a spur which once joined the walls in the form of a narrow isthmus, but the isthmus has been cut away to a depth of a hundred feet, and towers, semi-circular and square, have been built to reinforce the walls wherever they have seemed at all vulnerable.
The province of which Kerak is the capital extends from the upper waters of the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Akabah, and includes both Moab and Edom. Meistermann gives the populaton of the city at 10,000, of whom 1,000 are Christians.
The city rests partly upon a vast substructure of walls and arches which extend to the summit of the hill, and although it has been scarred by wars, and its walls and towers have been used as quarries by the builders of many generations, it still presents the front of the fortress-city of the Middle Ages, and offers one of the finest examples of the defensive fortification of the Crusaders.
As you approach Kerak from the north and look upon it from the crest of the opposite hills, the whole city lies spread out before you, from the walls with the great tower of Belbars in the front, to the Crusaders' Castle in the background, dominating all, which Tristam has called "the grandest monument of crusading energy now extant."
Kerak is the Kir-haraseth of the Bible, and the third chapter of Second Kings gives the dramatic story of the siege laid against it by Israel, Judah, and Edom, when Mesha, its King, pressed by famine an unable to break through the encircling lines, sacrificed his only son upon the walls, in full sight of all Israel. Then the besieging armies, fearful lest Chemosh, god of Moab, might be moved by so terrible a sacrifice, broke up the siege in terror and returned to their own land. Mesha then took the offensive and recorded his triumphal campaign on the Moabite Stone, which now lies in the Louvre.
In the times of the Crusaders Kerak was one of the great chain of fortresses by which the Crusaders walled in their Kingdom of Jerusalem. With the exception of the outposts at Shobek and Petra, it was the furthest removed from Jerusalem, from reinforcements, and from supplies. Dominating the trans-Jordanic trade routes, its possession was of the first importance to both Saracen and Christian; lying nearest to Arabia, Kerak was the first of all the Christian castles to be attacked.
It was Reynaud de Chatillon, Governor of Kerak, who broke the Treaty of Peace by attacking a Moslem caravan, which should have been allowed to pass without molestation from Damascus to Egypt, and brought on the final struggle which led to the great defeat of the Christians near the Sea of Galilee, the execution of Reynaud, who was taken prisoner, and the fall of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Until recently the only entrance to Kerak was through one of three twisting, serpentine tunnels cut in the rock upon which the city rests, but in 1894 the Turkish Government, tired of the anarchy which reigned, and of the exactions of the Bedouins who were constantly making prisoners of travelers and holding them for ransom, attacked the city with artillery, breached the walls in two places, and garrisoned the city with their troops.
We arrived at Rabba on the afternoon of March 17, after a long, cold ride. We had camped the night before in the bed of the Arnon Valley, and had begun the day's work by climing out of it, 4,000 feet up into the cold air of the Moabite plateau; we had climbed still higher to the top of Mount Sihon for the glorious view over the Dead Sea to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The ground was streaked with deep banks of snow and the winds blew with an insistent chill that refused to be halted by sweaters or coats.
Now the day's work was over, and we were sitting in our dining tent, comforting ourselves with good hot tea, when one of our servants brought us word that the Sheik of Rabba was at the door and had brought us the present of a horse. It is well known that there are times when "a door is not a door," and over in Moab it is an equally established fact that when "Frank Consuls" travel through the country a present is not a present, it is a form of legalized blackmail. We turned the whole matter over to our excellent dragoman, Aboosh, and eventually compromised by inviting the Sheik to join us for afternoon tea...
We asked him about the tribes through whose territories we were about to pass, whether all was peace. He assured us that there had been no trouble among the tribes for several years; that a few years ago the tribe living south of the Wady Hesy, just below Kerak, had killed his father, and then they had had a war, until the Sheik of the southern tribe had asked for peace. "But," he said, "I could not give him peace; how could I? He had killed my father. But after a time I killed his father, and then we made peace..."
He told us that he was the father of "two children and two girls," and invited us to visit him in his tent of twenty-five poles, but as his tent was some sixty miles away we were unable to accept. My wife admired a curved silver dagger which he wore, and which is made by the men of his own tribe, he immediately cut it from its fastenings and handed it to her. So I presented him with a watch, one of several which I had brought for just such purposes.
We learned further that he was the head of a tribe of four thousand spearmen. The next day, when we broke camp, we were told that a runner had been sent ot clear the way for us, and to see that we were not molested in any way as long as we were in his territories, for he had broken bread with us and we were now his guests.
We rode that day through the biting wind for two hours, when we came in sight of Kerak. The situation of the city reminds one of the Spanish city of Toledo, but the valleys are deeper, the hill steeper and more abrupt, and the surrounding country wilder. We rode down into the valley and then up the winding road upon the other side, passing Bedouins who looked at us with curious but not unfriendly eyes, past the great tower of Belbars, which bears the name of and is said to have been built by that slave, sold to a Mameluke for $100 because he was blind in one eye, but who became one of the greatest Sultans and conquerors of his race.
This tower of Belbars has walls that are twenty-seven feet in thickness and once rose to triple its present height, but it has been dismantled by many generations, and turned into a quarry for the building of many houses, so that its glory has departed, although even now it is impressive to behold.
We rode through the town and pitched our tents on its western edge, so that from our tent doors we could look down into the valley--the Waly, where the Bedouins say Noah lies buried, to the Dead Sea and the Mountains of Judea on the other side. The inhabitants of the city came out in hundreds to watch the pitching of the tents, squatting on the ground in serried ranks and thronging the house tops.
After lunch we went to pay our respects to the Governor. We were taken into his private room and there served with coffee and cigarettes. He was a new appointee of the Young Turk Party and had only been in Kerak for two or three days. He spoke no English, very little French, and most of our conversation was carried on through Aboosh.
We asked him about the road ahead of us, and whether there was any trouble among the tribes of the Arabah, and about an escort of soldiers for the rest of our way to Petra. He called his sentry in several times, and when he spoke to him the heavy lids dropped over his eyes, but when he did raise them there was a suggestion of menace in the look he gave. His voice was always quiet but authoritative, and after he had given an order the sentry touched his lips and then his forehead, to signify "the words you speak with your lips I carry in my mind."
From the Governor's room we passed out to visit the castle. Here we were turned over to the charge of the Military Governor, who led us over the bridge that spans a deep moat, cut out of the living rock, and into a long guard room with a vaulted ceiling, now used as the barracks.
The room was 150 feet long and perhaps thirty feet wide; on either side stretched out wooden platforms raised from the ground, leaving a passage way between. On these platforms a couple of hundred soldiers were stetched out, taking their rest. As we entered the door they sprang to their feet, gave a deep cry, "Hugh-hugh," it sounded like, which is the Turkish way of saluting, and stood at attention as we passed down. At the other end the Governor turned and saluted, they gave the shout again, and dropped to their beds while we passed out.
The Castle is a labyrinth. We passed down queer stairways cut in the walls, and in and out of many curious chambers. There are seven stories in the castle, piled one above the other, the lower stories lit by deep shafts that are sunk down to a depth of a hundred feet. We went through one long hall where the Crusaders had stabled their horses, and where the mangers are cut out of the rock...
We went back to the thown and walked through the streets, stopping to watch a blacksmith shoe a horse, then we walked through one of the old tunnels which formerly gave access to the city and then so came to our tents.
At 7 o'clock the two Governors arrived, with their Guard of Honor, whom they stationed before the tents. Joseph, our cook, had done himself proud, and the dinner he set before us would have met the requirements of any state occasion, and Yani and Geborah waited upon us with the dignity and dispatch required by the occasion.
We learned that the Governor at Damascus had telegraphed to Kerak of our coming, asking that all possible aid and protection should be given us and that the Governor of Kerak had already passed the commands ahead to Tafileh, Shobek, and El Ma'an. At 9 o'clock the two Governor's arose, bowed and excused themselves...
Two days later we had passed Tafileh and rode up the deep and narrow valley, honey-combed with the cave dwellings of the Bedouins, which leads to Shobek. The clouds hung low, gray and threatening, drifting sullenly over the heights of the valley.
Then Shobek came in sight, crowned with its massive Crusader's walls and containing a veritable congery of narrow and intricated lanes and alleys. The clouds lifted for a moment, long enough to enable me to take a photograph, then they settled down again, and the summit of the hill was heavy with fog when we attained it.
The houses are low, built of rough stone piled together and plastered with mud. The Bedouins were sitting before the doors, and children were playing about, the girls wearing the strings of coins about their foreheads and necks which form their dowry.
In the street we found seven dejected horses standing with drooping heads and tails, all saddled and equipped. Then the rain came down, and with the rain a wind sprang up that rapidly rose to the dignity of a gale, so that on leaving Shobek for our tents, which lay an hour beyond, we had to bend low over our saddles, and once or twice the wind actually blew my horse off the path.
But over the dining table that night, while our tent pole creaked in the wind, and the flags above cracked like pistol shots, I learned that one of the little garrison of eight soldiers stationed at Shobek had been killed by a Bedouin the day before, and that the rest of the garrison were going out after the murderer.
SARTELL PRENTICE, JR.
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