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Warner, Charles Dudley: In the Levant. Boston, James Osgood, 1877.




Mourners in Judaea

Palestine, 1875




There is, alas ! everywhere in Judaea something to drive away sentiment as well as pious feeling. The tomb of Rachel is now surrounded by a Moslem cemetery, and as we happened to be there on Thursday we found ourselves in the midst of a great gathering of women, who had come there, according to their weekly custom, to weep and to wail.

You would not see in farthest Nubia a more barbarous assemblage, and not so fierce an one. In the presence of these wild mourners the term “gentler sex” has a ludicrous sound. Yet we ought not to forget that we were intruders upon their periodic grief, attracted to their religious demonstration merely by curiosity, and fairly entitled to nothing but scowls and signs of aversion. I am sure that we should give bold Moslem intruders upon our hours of sorrow at home no better reception. The women were in the usual Syrian costume ; their loose gowns gaped open at the bosom, and they were without veils, and made no pretence of drawing a shawl before their faces ; all wore necklaces of coins, and many of them had circlets of coins on the head, with strips depending from them, also stiff with silver pieces. A woman’s worth was thus easily to be reckoned, for her entire fortune was on her head. A pretty face was here and there to be seen, but most of them were flaringly ugly, and – to liken them to what they most resembled – physically and mentally the type of the North American squaws. They were accompanied by all their children, and the little brats were tumbling about the tombs, and learning the language of woe.

Among the hundreds of women present, the expression of grief took two forms, - one active, the other more resigned. A group seated itself about a tomb, and the members swayed their bodies to and fro, howled at the top of their voices, and pretended to weep. I had the infidel curiosity to go from group to group in search of a tear, but I did not see one. Occasionally some interruption, like the arrival of a new mourner, would cause the swaying and howling to cease for a moment, or it would now and then be temporarily left to the woman at the head of the grave, but presently all would fall to again and abandon themselves to the luxury of agony. It was perhaps unreasonable to expect tears from creatures so withered as most of these were ; but they worked themselves into a frenzy of excitement, they rolled up their blue checked cotton handkerchiefs, drew them across their eyes, and then wrung them out with gestures of despair. It was the dryest grief I ever saw.

The more active mourners formed a ring in a clear spot. Some thirty women standing with their faces toward the centre, their hands on each other’s shoulders, circled round with unrhythmic steps, crying and singing, and occasionally jumping up and down with all their energy, like the dancers of Horace, “striking the ground with equal feet,” coming down upon the earth with a heavy thud, at the same time slapping their faces with their hands ; then circling around again with faster steps, and shriller cries, and more prolonged ululations, and anon pausing to jump and beat the ground with a violence sufficient to shatter their frames. The loose flowing robes, the clinking of the silver ornaments, the wild gleam of their eyes, the Bacchantic madness of their saltations, the shrill shrieking and wailing, conspired to give their demonstration an indescribable barbarity. This scene has recurred every Thursday for, I suppose, hundreds of years, within a mile of the birthplace of Jesus.

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