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DURING the past few years many proposals have been made, and schemes formed, for repeopling the wastes of Syria and Palestine with the surplus population of Europe. These schemes, sometimes philanthropic, sometimes commercial, are always advocated on the assumption that the current of European emigration and capital might be turned to Syria and Palestine in accordance with sound economic and financial considerations. In this paper I propose—
First. To take a survey of the agricultural resources of the country.
Second. To draw attention to the difficulties which immigrants would experience in obtaining secure titles to landed property.
Third. To give a summary of the different kinds of land tenure, and the burdens on agriculture.
Fourth. To point out some of the dangers and inconveniences to which immigrants would be exposed.
I. In the first place we may say broadly that the natural resources of Syria and Palestine are agricultural. On the eastern slopes of Mount Hermon there are a few bitumen pits from which a small quantity of ore of excellent quality is yearly exported to England. Small deposits of coal and iron exist in several localities, and there are chemical deposits about the shores of the Dead Sea. Gypsum and coloured marble are found in Syria, and along the coast opposite the Lebanon range sponges are fished annually to the value of £20,000. Hot sulphur springs exist at Palmyra and the Sea of Galilee, and there are ruined baths on the way between Damascus and Palmyra and in the YarmukValley; but none of these natural products are of sufficient importance to attract European labour or capital.
Forests can scarcely be said to exist in Syria or Palestine. A few groves of cedars of Lebanon, which escaped the axes of Hiram, are fast disappearing. On the limestone ridges and in some of the valleys there are clumps of pine, and throughout a great part of the country there is a considerable quantity of scrub oak which the peasants reduce to charcoal, and carry into the cities. In Galilee one comes on places where the trees give a pleasing character to the landscape. On Mount Carmel there are jungles and thickets of oak, and on the slopes towards Nazareth there are considerable groves, but the nearest approach to a forest is where the oaks of Bashan, which recall the beauties of an English park, assert their ancient supremacy.
Rows of poplars mark the courses of rivers and streams throughout the land, and supply beams for flat-roofed houses; but when churches or other important buildings have to be roofed, or timber is required for domestic purposes, it has to be imported from America, and carried into the interior on the backs of animals. There remain trees enough in some places to lend beauty to the landscape, and to show what the country may once have beeu, as well as to suggest what it may again become; but there are no forests to attract labour or capital.
The few manufactories of wool and cotton and soap and leather are chiefly limited to local want. Besides these there are the silk-spinning factories iu the Lebanon, managed by Frenchmen and natives, and a manufactory of cotton thread on one of the rivers of Damascus.
The popular accounts of the agricultural resources of Syria and Palestine are very different. As instances of extremes:—Mark Twain tells us he saw the goats eating stones in Syria, and he assures us that he could not have been mistaken, for they had" nothing else to eat; while Mr. Laurence Oliphant saw even iu the Dead Sea "a vast source of wealth" for his English Company. "We read in his "Land of Gilead" these words: "There can be little doubt, in fact, that the Dead Sea is a mine of unexplored wealth which only needs the application of capital and enterprise to make it a most lucrative property."*
The tourists who traverse the country in spring, immediately after the latter rains, when there is some vegetation in the barest places, and when their horses are up to the fetlocks in flowers, never forget the beauty of the landscape. Others, who have been picturing to themselves a land flowing with milk and honey, hills waving with golden grain, and green meadows dappled with browsing flocks, and who pass through the land in autumn, find themselves bitterly disappointed. As they trudge along the white glaring pathways, and through the roadless and flinty wilderness, breasting the hot beating * "The Land of Gilead," p. 295.
waves of a Syrian noonday, with only an ashy chocolate-coloured landscape around them, scorched as if by the breath of a furnace, they get an impression of dreary aud blasted desolation which time can never efface. They looked for the garden of the Lord, and they find only the "burning marl." It was my fate, during a long residence in Syria, to hear autumn tourists criticize books written by spring tourists, and spring tourists criticize books written by autumn tourists, and generally in a manner by no means complimentary to the authors' veracity;—the fact being that the writers had given their impression of what they saw, with perhaps a little of American wit, which consists in exaggerating "the leading feature."
I think, however, that to most English travellers, who have no hobbies to ride, the barren appearance of Syria and Palestine is a disenchantment. Accustomed to their own moist climate and green fields, they are not prepared for the dry and parched, and abandoned appearance of the greater part of the country. With us an abundance of water spoils the crops; in Syria and Palestine the case is reversed, for unless water can be poured over the land the crops arc stunted and uncertain. For six or seven months in the year scarcely any rain falls, and scarcely a cloud darkens the sky. In October the early rain commences, with much thunder and lightning; and in April the latter rain becomes light and uncertain, and generally ceases altogether. Then the sky becomes intensely blue, and the sun comes out in all his glory, or rather in all her glory, for with the Arabs the sun is feminine. Suddenly grass and vegetation wither up and become dry for the oven. The level country, except where there are rivers, becomes parched. The stones stick up out of the red soil like the white bones of a skeleton. Limestone, flint, and basalt, and thorny shrubs, cover the face of the wilderness country. Here and there you may see a dwarf oak, or an olive tree, or a wild fig tree, and among the mountains you may notice little patches scratched and cultivated by the fellahin; but, unless on the great plains of Bashan and Esdraelon and Hamath, and on the uplands of Gilead, or where there is water for irrigation, you may ride for hours along the zigzag paths, over mountain and high-land, and before and behind extend the limestone and flinty rocks, white and blinding, and broken into fragments or burnt into powder. It thus happens that few tourists who pass along the beaten tracks of Syria and Palestine have any just conception of the vast agricultural resources of the land.
The most striking features in the Syrian landscape are two parallel mountain ranges, which appear on the map like two centipedes, running north and south. These are the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon, ranges. Lebanon proper lies along the shore of the Mediterranean. The narrow strip of land between the mountain and the sea was the home of the Phoenicians, who steered their white-winged ships to every land, and dipped their oars in every sea, before the Britons were heard of. The gardens of Sidon, luxuriant with bananas, oranges, figs, lemons, pomegranates, peaches, apricots. Sec, extend across the plain for two miles to the mountain, and show what Phoenicia mav once have been. The palm trees that adorn the fertile gardens of Beyrout are doubtless survivors of the groves from which the strip of land once took its name.*
By the exertions of Lord Duffcrin in 1860, a Christian governor was placed over the Lebanon in a semi-independent position. Since then the terraced mountain has been marvellously developed, and every foothold has been planted with vines and figs and mulberries. The industrious peasantry, comparatively safe from Turkish rapacity, have cultivated the ledges among its crags and peaks, and enjoy the fruits of their industry, sitting under their vines and fig trees. The bloodthirsty and turbulent Druzes, restrained by law, and unable to hold their own in a field of fair competition, arc being rapidly civilized off the mountain, and betake themselves to remote regions in Bashan where no law is acknowledged but that of the strong arm.
Between Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon stretches for seventy miles Coelo-Syria or Buka'a, a well-watered and fertile plain, containing about 500 square miles and 137 agricultural villages, and marked by Buch ruins as those of Chalcis and Baalbek.
The Anti-Lebanon consists of a series of mountain ranges, some of which run parallel with Lebanon, and flatten into the plain at "the gathering in of Hamath/' while some bend off in a more easterly direction, and shoot out boldly into the desert. The westward end of this mountainous range rises into Mount Hermon. The eastward end siuks into Palmyra. North of the Anti-Lebanon, the narrow plain of Ccelo-Syria expands into the great rolling country of high-land, river, lake, and plain, where for more than a thousand years the Hittite kings rolled back the tide of Egyptian and Assyrian invasion, and where, in later years, the Selucidn3 kings pastured their elephants aud steeds of war.
Among the ranges and spurs of the Anti-Lebanon are many green spots of great picturesque beauty. "Wherever there are fountains the habitations of men are clustered together at the water, seemingly jostling and struggling like thirsty flocks to get to its margin. The cottages cling to the edges of fountains and rivers in the most perilous positions. Sometimes they are stuck to the rocks like swallows' nests, and sometimes they are placed on beetling cliffs like the home of the eagle above the chasm. No solitary houses are met through•Plianicla, the Greet tf>oin/oj, has hcen ly son.e derived from <toht$, a palm tree.
out the country. The people build together for safety, and near the water for life, and by the village fountains and wells cluster the fairest scenes of Eastern poetry, as well Arab and Persian as Hebrew, and around them have taken place some of the fiercest of Oriental battles.
At the villages a little water is drawn off from the rivers, and carefully apportioned among the different families and factions. By means of this water, carefully conducted to the various gardens, apples and plums, grapes and pomegranates, melons and cucumbers, corn and onions, olives and egg plants are cultivated; and such is the bounty of Nature, that with the least effort existence is possible wherever there is water. A little rancid oil and a few vegetables are sufficient to sustain life, and these can be had by a few hours labour in the cool of the day. The rest of the time may be spent squatting cross-legged by the water, or smoking and dozing in the shade. This is existence, but not life; yet why should the fellak labour for anything beyond what is absolutely necessary, when the slightest sign of wealth would create anxious solicitude on the part of the Turk?
A ride of seventy-two miles across Phoenicia, Lebanon, Ccelo-Syria, and Anti-Lebanon, brings us, by French diligence, to Damascus. Abana and Pharpar break through a sublime gorge, about 100 yards wide, down the middle of which the French road winds its serpentine course, the rivers on either side being fringed with silver poplar and scented walnut. As we look eastward from the brow of the hill, the great plain of Damascus, encircled by a framework of desert, lies before us. The river, escaped from the rocky gorge, spreads out like a fan, and, after a run of three miles, enters Damascus, where it flows through 15,000 houses, sparkles in 60,000 marble fountains, and hurries on to scatter wealth and fertility far and wide over the plain. Those who have gazed on this scene are never likely to forget its supreme loveliness. Its beauty is doubtless much enhanced by contrast. The eye has been wandering over a chocolate-coloured and heated landscape throughout a weary day; suddenly, on turning a corner, it rests on Eden.
The city is spread out before you, embowered in orchards, in the midst of a plain of 300 square miles. Around the pearl-coloured city—first in the world in point of time, first in Syria and "Western Asia in point of importance—surge, like an emerald sea, forests of apricots and olives and apples and citrons, and "every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food," with all their variety of colour and tint, according to their season, sometimes all aglow with blossoms, sometimes golden and ruddy with fruit, and sometimes russet with the mellowing tints of autumn. Beyond the city the water conveys its wealth by seven rivers to shady gardens and