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Neale, Frederick Arthur: Eight years in Syria, Palestine and Asia Minor, from 1842 to 1850, in 2 volumes. London, Colburn, 1851. Reprinted by Elibron Classics, 2002.


Armed dervisches in Gaza



 Palestine, 1842-1850


Before leaving Gaza, I witnessed the celebration of the feast of the “Beiram;” which, owing to the great sufferings the abstemious Turks had been undergoing during their long and tedious fast, which had this time fallen at the very hottest season of the year, was celebrated with more than ordinary festivities. The Nazir of the quarantine entertained us at a banquet he gave to the local authorities. The amusements of the day commenced with wrestling, which was kept up by the soldiers of the infantry detachment stationed at the Lazaretto. Some of these were the most uncouth looking beings I ever set eyes on, but they were possessed of great muscular strength and surprising agility, so much so that I imagine they might well nigh prove a match for the far-famed “Pilewans,” of India. Horse and foot races followed, and then dinner was served on a most gigantic scale - whole sheep stuffed with rice, raisins, almonds and innumerable spices - ducks stewed with olives, salads dressed with curdled milk, and highly flavoured with garlic; “buckalowa,” and other Turkish sweetmeats; and last, though by no means least, a monster pillauff, that made two men stagger under its weight. French wines and liqueurs were freely circulated amongst such of the party, as thought fit to dispense with the injunctions of the Koran on this score. A band of Arab musicians kept up an incessant nasal drone, and executed, amongst other popular airs, a Turkish version, of “Malbrooke,” a tune now universally known in the East.

After this fatiguing performance I was rather startled to see three or four ferocious looking Dervishes enter the room, armed with formidable looking spikes and swords, their long matted hair streaming down their backs - long grisly beards, and such eyes - eyes that would do credit to the most malignant lunatic. The doctor and myself thought it best to withdraw, as a religious ceremony was now about to be performed, and there was no telling to what extent their zeal and fanaticism might carry them, as they would think the act of impaling a Christian, or playfully thrusting him through with a spear, highly commendable, if not an imperative duty. From the doctor’s apartment we could see all that was going on without being inconveniently near. One dervish danced with a drawn sword in his hand, while the three others chaunted some unintelligible stuff, to which they kept time by nodding their heads like Chinese Mandarins, As the dirge grew more animated, so did the movements of the dancing dervishes, till the shouting of the vocalists, and the frenzy of these holy fanatics reached such a pitch of excitement, that they at length lost all command over their voices, and took to foaming and spitting at each other like belligerent cats over a fish’s head. All sounds now gradually died away, and the whole party were stretched full length on the floor in a state of utter exhaustion. Large glasses of rose water were sprinkled over them by the assembled Moslems, and they finally took themselves off, laden with the donations of the pious fanatics who had witnessed their performance.

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