That sail southward through the Aegean Sea, balmy, sunny, and dotted eyerywhere with the Greek Islands, will be a delight and a precious memory of your cruise. Indeed the classicists among us raved themselves quite mad over it and one of them had to be led to his cabin in hysterics. Leaving the Dardanelles, that point on the left is no less than the site of Troy l Northward is Samothrace, where the “Winged Victory” was found. The first island ahead is Tenedos, and beyond it Lesbos, where burning Sappho loved and sang. The Greek city of Mitylene on it now gives the whole island its name. The strait between Chios and the mainland through which the steamer passes next is Phocaean water, and Phocaean, mother of Massilia and the Riviera, Jay at the head of that deep bay that you can see from the steamer’s decks. The great modern port of Smyrna lies in there, and some of the winter-cruise steamers make it a port of visit. Further on is Samos, and in the bay guarded by it from the sea was built Ephesus, with its famous temple to Diana. We pass Patmos of St. John, and on the mainland ashore stood the Greek city of Miletus. Again through a narrow strait between Kos and the mainland, and in that bay lay Helicarnassus, now called by the euphonious Turkish name of Budrum. And then, last of all, Rhodes with its Colossus.
These names were everything in Greek history. All this mainland was theirs, as much part of Greece as Athens itself. To the classicist it is the most romantic spot in the world! Beyond lies the great bight of the Mediterranean, with Tarsus, the city of St. Paul, the easternmost outpost of the ancient Greek civilization. But we are heading for a coast that at that time belonged to Phoenicia and was later taken into the Roman Empire. Here, nevertheless, we will find Greece again. For a greaterand MacedonianGreece conquered it first, and Syria was the beginning of Alexander’s enormous empire that extended to Delhi in India and Lybia in Egypt. The Se-lucid kings of Syria were his heirs in this country. Under them, Alexandretta and Antioch and Heliopolis came into being. It is hard to conceive of the prosperity that flourished all over this region, but archaeologists today know that it was dotted all over with Greek cities and are finding more and more relics, even far out on the Syrian Desert, now given over to wandering Arab tribes. Palmyra, of the fated queen, lies far back at the head of that desert; on its eastern border is Damascus, oldest of cities; and on the seacoast, a short march down through the Lebanon, lies Beirut, the port we are heading for.
It is a delightful harbor, in an amphitheater of the green foothills of the Lebanon. Back inland rise the snowy peaks, but here all is green and pleasant, the country of the orange grove and the mulberry tree. We arrived there in January, but, except for the rain, it might have been full summer. The regular steamers stop here a day and a night and part of another day, for there is much silk and fruit to be taken on board and the winches are busy day and night. The cruising steamers give it sixteen hours, including an optional visit to the ruins of Baalbec, ancient Greek Heliopolis. There is not much to see in Beirut. Our fine American College stands there, a great educational force in the country that has supplied all the advanced and progressive young officials now running the government under the French. The bazaars are nothing at all compared to Constantinople or Algiers. There are mosques to be seen, and the French colleges and institutions. If your stop is to be short, I should advise a visit to the Assyrian and Egyptian monuments at Kelb el Nasr (Dogs of Egyptians). It is a short distance up the coast, and a car will take a party there and back for sixty francs.
The French have everything well organized here. They give a transit stamp on the pass-port, gratis, to those merely visiting ashore. Bumboats in thousands are already at the gang-way stairs; and, at the officer’s whistle, there is a veritable stampede on board, fights and fisticuffs in which red fezzes are knocked over-board, and one or two boatmen’s licenses are taken away peremptorily. The fare ashore is fifteen piastres (Syrian piastre about one cent) and they may not exceed it or you can call the gendarme at the douane into the matter. We land and pass through the douane gates into the dirty and busy city, growing like a weed under French dominion, whole sections of it being torn down to make room for modern buildings.
Our Syrian fellow-passengers are eager to show us their city, but we have important matters before us and not much time to spare. The Syrians control most of the silk business in the United States. Many of them are wealthy. They look thoroughly Levantine and Turkish. They have been foregathered, talking Arabic among themselves, all the way across, but always eager to make’ friendships with blue blood Americans for there is no more fervent loyalty for their adopted country than among these same Syrians. One of them was coming to the “old countree” after fifteen years’ absence and was bringing ten thousand dollars’ worth of presents. He had a hundred and ten relatives in Damascus, not one of whom could be forgotten or slighted. His plan was to hire a whole hotel, entertain the relatives for two weeks, distribute the presents, and then go back “home,” where he had amassed a fortune of over two hundred thousand dollars. He landed in America with but five thousand dollars’ worth of Damascus good fifteen years ago.
Of another I asked why he was going to Syria. “Oh, rags,” he said, “then I find my brother and take him back home with me.”
“Rags” I gathered, meant antique Persian and Turkoman rugs. Back into tiny villages way up in the interior he was going, and then on into Egypt and up the Nile to the Sudan. Antiques, I learned, are becoming almost price-less. One visits impoverished sheiks and old Egyptian families now in reduced circumstances.
“Kostykian, he gif me ten thousand dollars apiece for good ones,” he volunteered. Think of the romance of that quest l A priceless old antique rug is not to be had in the bazaars nowadays. One must search for it, with much diplomacy, and no one without fluent Arabic and a knowledge of old family connections can even attempt it.
“And where is home,” I asked.
“New Brunswick, New Jersey,” said he. “That is my home! I haf a fine house there, and a nice yacht. Yes; rags, silks, Damascene filigree; den I fin my brother and go home.”
My sainted country! What does she not do for the oppressed and the downtrodden! His place of business was Atlantic City, where there is wealth and an appreciation of fine Oriental things. And America had given the astute Syrian a fine house and a yacht in return.
The trains to Baalbec and Damascus, bifurcating at Rayak, leave at seven in the morning, so are quite impossible to tourists. Also, it takes seven hours to Baalbec and nine to Damascus; because the route, while only some sixty miles, is up through the mountains, by rack-rail part of the time. But Cooks have the matter well organized. A five-seater car costs four hundred francs to Baalbec and return, and gets you there in about two hours. The triangular trip, Beirut, Baalbec, Damascus, and return to Beirut, costs nine hundred francs, and is worth while if you have a day and part of another before the steamer sails. If it is raining in Beirut, it will be snowing in Baalbec, and the roads up there may offer adventures in the shape of washouts. But it is better to go and have them, trusting to luck to get back and catch the steamer.
The old Greek city of Heliopolis (Baalbec) lies in a high valley surrounded by lofty mountains. It had its acropolis, and its temple ruins date from Antoninus Pius and Septimus Severus, whose coins first show the two temples. The great courts were finished in the times of Caracalla, who was a great builder, judging from his relics in Italy. Greek architects did all the work, obviously, more florid than Attic, Corinthian capitals, entablatures in elaborate vine and acanthus motifs, with thousands of dentils. But what a mighty work was this Se-lucid example of Greek art 1 The vast ruins are 1150 feet from east to west, and all of it was planted with statuary and pylons and all the graces that adorned a Greek city. Of the fifty-four columns of the Temple of the Sun, six are yet standing and above them the ornate entablature. They are sixty feet high, plain and smooth shafts, capitals in quasi-Corinthian but exuberant in the large outcroppings of the acanthus leaf. The Temple of Bacchus is in better preservation than anything in Athens, twenty-seven of its fluted columns yet remaining out of forty-six. The vaults below the Grand Court have three architectural curiosities, massive blocks of stone sixty-three feet long and fourteen high, all in one piece of quarriage and weighing 1500 tons each. We glimpse vistas of engineering wonders in the mere moving of them from the quarry near by I
Earthquakes, and various gentlemen of fire and sword, have brought. Baalbec to its present state. Under Rome it was a place of piety, where Trajan himself once came to consult the oracle, and it flourished and received yet further adornments from its inexhaustible quarry (which to my mind was, the practical reason for its existence, away up here far from any respectable climate). But in 1134 Jenghiz Khan, the Tartar, involved it in the general destruction of the flourishing Greek heaven that was Syria then, and pulled most of it down, following his plan of ruining everything of beauty that he saw. Saladin took it back in 1175, but, we may be sure, did it no harm. And then came more Tartars, Helagu in 1260 and Tamerlane in 1400, and poor Heliopolis, pride of Asia Minor, went under to stay.
But, as we grind our teeth over these happenings, let us not forget that Christians, too, set the example in doing things to Baalbec. For Constantine himself, and after him “Theodosius, tore down much of it to build hideous basilicas, which the Turks have happily re-moved. One last irony in this discouraging tale: In a rubbish but near by you will find a much-riddled marble plaque. It tells that the Little Lord of All the World once passed this way, the All-Highest, the Kaiser, who in every-thing he did reminds me of a hissing goose with a pikelhaube on its head. The plaque was pasted like an affiche on the noble ruins of Baalbec, and told all and sundry that once he had passed this way and graced the place with his presence. One of the first acts of the British soldiery, on taking Baalbec in 1918, was to riddle the plaque with mixed laughter and bullets, and then tear it down and consign it to the rubbish hut.
There are two good hotels in Baalbec, so that, if you are energetic enough to rise early and catch that train, you can pass the night here and take the nine o’clock down in the morning. The tariff is $4.50 to $5.0o a day. For five people it would be better to take the car.
Damascus lies on the other corner of this big triangle in the mountains. You branch off at Rayak, and descend the eastern slopes of the Lebanon to this old, old city that has been since time immemorial the terminus of all the great caravan routes across the Syrian Desert; the Lauren from Baghdad, the Kaf from the Nejd, the Hamd from Medina, the Shammar from Palmyra. Damask, “the Eye of the Sun,” is so old that no writing of man this side of India fails to mention it. Genesis tells of Abraham pursuing three “kings” beyond it, desert sheiks, most likely. The earliest Assyrian cuneiforms record its existence. It has always been great and important. Tiglath Pelezer, Shalmanezer, Sargon, Darius, Alexander, Trajan, all had their day here. Under Christian Rome it was the seat of a bishopric second only to Antioch. It was early captured by the Moslems, who in 635 under the Caliph Khalid ibn Walid transferred the Caliphate here from Mecca. Here the Ommayad dynasty ruled an empire that extended from India to Spain. ‘ It was Saladin’s headquarters, and here the Crusaders attacked him unsuccessfully in 1126. It fell to the Tartars later, but was retaken by Egypt under the Mameluke king, Kotuz. And then Selim I captured it for the Turks in 1516.
The venerable city has endured much. Mementoes of all the captains and the kings are scattered about the city, a column here, a foundation there; you come upon them in the most unexpected places. The sights of to-day are the grand mosque and its court; the Street Called Straight where St. Paul lodged in hiding, and from which he was taken to the city walls and lowered over in a basket: the bazaars; and the church of St. John the Baptist. This was built by Arcadius, Bishop of Damascus in the fourth century, and was converted into a mosque by Walid I in 705. All traces of Chris, tian decoration have been obliterated save these tremendous words: “Thy Kingdom, O Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.” The Moslem raises his eyebrows over them, cynically, butI wonder, will it ever come true?