100 Years Ago: January 1920
This is the Sixtieth article in my series of reviews of National Geographic magazines as the reach the centennial of their publication.
The first article in this month’s issue is entitled “The Last Blood Sacrifice, a Samaritan Rite in Palestine”. It was written by John D. Whiting, the author of such articles as “From Jerusalem to Aleppo”, “Village Life in the Holy Land”, and “Jerusalem’s Locust Plague”. The header title on the first page is different and reads “The Last Israelitish Blood Sacrifice” and has the subheading “How the Vanishing Samaritans Celebrate the Passover on Sacred Mount Gerizim”. The article has a notice which reads: “Illustrated with the only set of night photographs ever taken of this ancient ceremony, and numerous other unique pictures, by the American Colony Photographers, Jerusalem, Palestine”. As for the photographs, the article contains forty black-and-white photographs of which twenty-one are full-page in size. The article also contains a sketch map of Asia Minor and the Holy Land on page 46. While the map itself is referenced mostly in the second article, an inset included with the map shows the area of Palestine which the author documents in the first article.
Map courtesy of Philip Riviere
Shechem, Samaria, and Neopolis were once great cities of the ancient world. At the time of this articles writing they were the home to a dying, almost extinct community of Samaritans. Nablus, the modern Shechem, was the only home to the Samaritans at that time. Its population was chiefly Muslim with some Christians and only a handful of Samaritans. No Jews lived there “for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans”.
Nablus was a center of trade and was famous for its soap, made from olive oil, and prized in Egypt and Syria. The town sat in a confined valley which ran east-to-west between two mountains – to the north, Ebal, 3,000 feet above sea-level, and to the south Gerizim, about 150 feet lower than Ebal. From the lower slopes of Gerizim issued numerous and copious springs. The town had crept up to them as it grew. These waters, after the demands of the city were met, found their way into extensive gardens to the west. Fig trees, pomegranates, yellow quinces, walnuts, mulberries, olives, and occasional bitter-orange trees, raised for perfume, were cultivated.
The houses of the town were dome-roofed and lattice windowed, constructed from soft, white limestone from Mount Ebal. The narrow streets were mostly paved with cobblestones. Here and there an arch thrown across the street supported a room above. In the “souks”, or markets, the stores were so small that the customers stood outside to examine the display of European and native ware. Rows of silversmith shops produced elaborate ornaments for peasant women. Here were coffee shops, the street in front blockaded by men sitting upon low stools, sipping the thick, hot beverage from tiny cups and smoking narghile. Next, vendors sold “kanafie” from stalls. This pastry was stuffed with cheese and then, after baking, it was soaked in melted butter and thick syrup.
The Samaritan Quarter of Nablus was due south of the main market, through a long, tunnel-like lanes which led to the very foot of Gerizim, the sacred mountain. Just above the city the mountain was steep and rocky, and the trees disappeared. In the summer the hillside was gray and barren, but in the winter even the smallest patch of earth was cultivated for wheat and barley. Across from the town the slopes of Ebal looked very different. Equally rocky, they were perennially green with cactus bushes. The rock ledges were studded with sepulchers, whose open doors only revealed the darkness within them.
The modern inhabitants of Nablus were mostly Arabs and cared little for this ancient cemetery, but were proud of the cactus, or prickly-pear, which covered every available space. They were famous as far as the Bosporus and were valued not only for their fruit, but also as an excellent hedge.
The first city built in this valley was Shechem, a short distance east of Nablus, at the highest point in the valley. Rainfall to the east flowed to the Dead Sea, while the rains to the west found their way to the Mediterranean. Archeologists have found a wall encircling the remains of houses containing many earthenware vessels. These date back more than 3,000 years.
It was at Shechem, then called “Sichem”, that Biblical history first introduces Abraham, the father of the Hebrews in Canaan. Jacob made his first stop here on his return from his journey to Haran. He bought a parcel of land where later the bones of Joseph were buried after being brought back from Egypt. It was at Jacob’s well where Jesus and the Samaritan woman met. Immediately following the Israelitish invasion of Canaan and the taking of Jericho and Ai, Joshua built the first altar of sacrifice in the new land on Mount Ebal.
In the Shechem Valley the first general convocation was held. The whole congregation was assembled, “half of them over against Mount Gerizim and half of them over against Mount Ebal.” From Ebal were proclaimed the curses against those who should forsake the law of their God, and from Gerizim the blessings that would result in the following of said law. Here also, just before his death, Joshua addressed the last assembly of the people and made a covenant with them.
After that, for a long time Ephraim was the leading tribe of the Northern Kingdom. Shechem was within its control. This territory was known as “Mount Ephraim”. The town of Shechem itself was given to the Levites. Being a tribe of priests, they received no inheritance except cities and their suburbs in which to dwell throughout all the tribes. Shechem was also selected as one of the cities of refuge.
Little is heard of Ephraim and Shechem during the period of the Judges, but with the advent of David came a golden age. The capital was moved to Jerusalem, where his successor, Solomon, built a temple which became the center of worship. After Solomon’s death, his son, Rehoboam, went to Shechem expecting to be made king. Instead, the ten northern tribes rebelled and made Jeroboam as king. Jeroboam named Shechem his capital and the Kingdom of Israel was born. Rehoboam returned south where the remaining two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, formed the Kingdom of Judah.
In the ninth century B. C., Omri, the sixth king of Israel, bought an isolated hill a few miles west of Shechem. There he built his capital, Samaria. At the time of the First Captivity the Kingdom of Israel lost its northernmost tribes and its possessions beyond the Jordan. The land was cut up into three districts Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. Samaria became a state subject to Assyria. From its inception the city of Samaria overshadowed its rival, Shechem, and reached its height during Roman times. After Emperor Augustus presented it to his procurator, Herod the Great, who rebuilt and embellished it after the Roman style and renamed it Sebaste (Greek for Augusta). Much of Herod’s work still remains.
But as cities rise, they also fall. Sebaste had become a place of no importance more than four centuries before Emperor Vespasian founded Neapolis (New City) in the Shechem valley, west of the older town in 67 A. D. It soon outstripped the older Shechem, and in the fourth century became one of the foremost cities in Palestine – a distinction it still enjoys under its Arabic name, Nablus.
The Samaritan religion is closely akin to that of the Jew. The chief differences are that the cult of the former centers on Gerizim, while that of the Jews centers on Zion, and that the Samaritan canon is restricted to the Pentateuch, or the “Five Books of Moses”. The latter writings, including the Prophets and Psalms, the Samaritans repudiate as uninspired. In spite of their similarities, there has always existed a fierce animosity between Jews and Samaritans, the animosity between an original and a schism. Samaritans maintain that they are the remnants of the tribe of Ephraim. To them, the followers of the Jewish Church are looked upon as dissenters from the pure faith of Israel.
The most precious document of this sect is the renowned Samaritan scroll Pentateuch, some 70 feet in length. The Samaritans assert that the scroll was written by Abishua, the great-grandson of Aaron. Few non-Samaritans have ever seen it, but the scroll was recently (to the author) photographed end to end.
While the Jews have scattered all over the world since the captivities and have absorbed much that is foreign, the Samaritans have lived in the land of their forefathers. This allowed them to maintain their traditions and ceremonies unchanged throughout the ages. A notable instance of the survival of an ancient religious ceremony was the celebration of the Passover Sacrifice.
One distinction between the Samaritan and the Jew was their methods for computing the calendar. While the Jews used a lunar calendar, the Samaritans used one based on the movements of both the sun and the moon, basing this on the first chapter of the Bible: “Let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years” (Gen. 1:14). Sometimes they celebrate their Passover the same time as the Jews, while other times their fourteenth of Abib comes a month behind.
A few days before Passover the Samaritans load mules and donkeys with tents and other necessities, while young and old, sick and well set off on a pilgrimage to Gerizim. “Thou mayest not sacrifice the Passover within any of thine own gates, but a place which Yahweh thy God shall choose to make a habitation for His name.” The accent to the camp spot on Gerizim required about an hour. Much time is spent arranging the camp, rebuilding the tanoor, or ground oven used in roasting the sacrifice, and gathering the necessary wood and brush for fuel.
Upon making the climb and reaching the camp the author noted more than forty white Egyptian and Damascus tents, the only veritable Israelitish encampment of religious significances in the world. He lamented the modern tents and longed for the goat-hair ones used by the Bedouins which would have made it more authentic. It was Passover eve and the selected sacrificial lambs wandered about contently, unaware of their impending fate. Scores of people, non-Samaritan, have come for it is a day of excitement and not to be missed.
The camp was an elongated field with two uneven rows of tents with a path between them. At the eastern end of the camp was the kiniseh (synagogue). It was a small, oblong plot surrounded by a low rubble wall. At the north end of this prayer enclosure, a trench had been dug and lined with uncut stone. Across this alter two large kettles, filled with water, were placed. Beyond the northeastern end of the enclosure was the tanoor for the sheep roasting. The fires in the ground oven and beneath the kettles burned brush for five hours to preheat it.
One of the priests led the Mr. Whiting up to the crest of Gerizim. To the Samaritans, this was the holiest part of the earth and contains many sacred spots. One was the place Joshua built his first altar with twelve stones taken from the Jordan. Above that were the foundations of St. Mary’s Church and a small domed mosque, each built from material supplied by the remains of a Roman temple. To the south, the priest pointed out the spots where tradition says the altars of Adam and of Noah stood. Beyond was the altar of Seth, a large uncut stone, and just beyond that was a ditch sunk into a rock protruding from the mountain side. This is the Samaritan rival to Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. Here the Samaritans believe Abraham prepared to sacrifice his only son.
The view from the mountain top was broad a grand. Mt. Ebal cut off the distant view northward but the Plain of Moreh was a patchwork of fields in different stages of growth. The elevations were dotted with villages. To the east, beyond the Jordan chasm, rose the Mountains of Gilead. To the south, the vast lands of Palestine could be taken in, although Jerusalem lay hidden from view. Turning westward, the mountains and hill country dropped off gently into a plain which extends to the blue Mediterranean. With the sun setting soon, the author hurried back to camp.
White robed figures collected around the smoking trench. They spread prayer cloths upon which they stood bare foot. This was very similar to the Muslim grab and posture during prayer. The high priest took his place in front of the congregation. Two second priests stood behind him. All the males of the community were present. The walls and terraces were filled with onlookers from Nablus. Facing eastward toward the holy rock, the Samaritans bowed in prayer. The author describes in detail the prayers, postures, and movements of the congregation during the ritual.
During the prayers, the sacrificial lambs were driven into the enclosure. As the high priest recites the twelfth chapter of Exodus, the youths carried the lambs and held them in a circle around trench-altar, where the caldrons of water are already boiling. Over the lambs stood three slaughterers with razor sharp knives. They slit the lambs throat, one at a time, and had finished the task in a matter of seconds. The white clothing of the boys holding the struggling lambs was spattered in blood.
One of the young priests collected fresh blood in a basin and with a bunch of wild thyme vigorously stirred it. He then rushed away to put a dab of it above each tent door. Botanists had differed as to what herb the hyssop, referred to in Exodus, might be. Since this rite had been handed down through generations in unbroken succession, there was little doubt that hyssop was indeed thyme.
Large trays of bitter herbs, a sort of wild lettuce, rolled in thin sheets of unleavened bread, were passed among the people. Rolls were given to the non-Samaritans as well, as a token of friendship. The bread used was pliable like a large pancake and not crisp like the Jewish “motsis”.
As soon as the lambs were lifeless boiling water was poured over them and the wool plucked off. The skin was left to protect the flesh while roasting in the ground oven. The fleeced lambs were then suspended by their hind legs on long poles resting on the shoulders of two men. The entrails were removed and burned in the altar-trench. The lambs were inspected for broken bones that would make them ritually unfit. Any lambs not passing inspection were burned in the trench with the entrails. This was a rare occurrence, however. Deep gashes were made in the fleshy parts for salting. The right shoulders and pieces of the head were removed and roasted separately. This was the priests’ portion for it was written, “and they shall give unto the priests the shoulder and the two cheeks”.
An oaken spit was then thrust through each dressed lamb. Much salt was rubbed into the flesh. The white-robed figures brought the spits to the ground oven and, standing in a circle around it, lowered them across the pit. A wickerwork lid was the places over the pit and that in turn was covered in grass, sod, and mud, closely sealing the lid. This would extinguish the fire but the heat of the stones was sufficient to roast the tender mutton.
While the lambs were roasting, the men returned to prayer. These were the “Sunset prayers”, normally performed at dusk but delayed until after the Passover service which took precedence. Once the sacrifice had been performed, the crowds from Nablus descended and left the Samaritans to themselves. After evening prayers, some retired to their tents, while others sat and prayed by the altar. The three to four hours until the feast passed quickly. At midnight the pit is opened with much fanfare. While the Samaritans feasted, the author retired to his tent and ate lamb prepare in a similar fashion for “their shall no stranger eat thereof” the sacrifice. Any scraps are gathered and burnt at the altar. After the ceremony is over, the ditch and oven are filled with stones lest any remaining charred bone fall into the possession of a Gentile.
The meat was devoured ravenously, pulling meat from the bone with fingers. No knives or forks were used and great care was given not to break any bones. The meat was eaten quickly for all the devout were hungry. Those unable to leave their tents due to illness had portions brought to them. Even the nursing babies had their lips touched with a morsel. Within a few minutes, the meal was over. The high priest said a short prayer and all the bones were carefully gathered up and taken to the altar for burning. Every person now washed with hot water from the kettles, pouring it over their hands into the ditch-altar lest even a tiny bit of sacrifice should fail to be burnt. Thus, the sacrifice and ceremony commemorating the Exodus were ended. As the author looked back upon the camp as he left the next day, he couldn’t help but feel he had witnessed one of the last Hebrew blood sacrifices, for the Samaritans are a dying people.
The second article this month is entitled “The Home of the Seven Wise Men”. It was written by Mary Mills Patrick, President of the American College for Girls, Constantinople. The inside title is slightly different, reading “Asia Minor in the Time of the Seven Wise Men”. The article contains nineteen black-and-white photographs, of which six are full-page in size. The article also references the sketch map on page 46, the last page of the previous article.
Asia Minor was the home to the Seven Wise Men”, with few exceptions. There was great disagreement among scholars as to who all seven were, and only four of them are the same in all the lists given. The four that are known for certain are Bias of Priene, Pittakos of Mitylene, Thales of Miletus, and Solon of Athens. Even when taking the whole list as sometimes given, four are from Asia Minor while three are from Greece, and Solon, the most important Greek on the list, travelled extensively in Asia Minor.
In the century between 650 – 550 B. C. the Seven Wise Men began the movements that would shape our present thought. The author was not concerned with historical facts or the translation of the writings that have come down to us from that time, but she was interested in what life was like during that time. Outwardly, the eastern Mediterranean is still practically the same. It was one of the garden spots of the world. The sea was bluer than other seas. There was a wonderful charm in the island life of the Aegean.
A great wave of colonization had passed over that part of the world just before the time of the Wise Men. These colonies struggled at first but grew rapidly. They had the sea as protection, and as refuge. Ionia became the center of the world’s commercial life. The region traded with all ports in the Mediterranean – Egypt and Phoenicia, Italy and North Africa, and even as far as Spain. With Asia Minor being a commercial power, a better method of trade than barter was needed. Coinage originated in Asia Minor and by the time of the Wise Men coins were common.
The material comforts allowed the people the freedom to enjoy life and the intercourse with other nations brought an exchange of ideas and increased knowledge. The age of the Wise Men was before the time of Greek history, and there were few records from which to reproduce it. The writings of the time were mostly poetry which existed as fragments, quoted by later writers, and as pictures or vases that belonged to the period. The pictures on the vases told stories of the gods and show the customs of daily life, religious worship, dress, the use of horses and chariots, weapons of war, several musical instruments, wedding and funeral ceremonies, and many other things.
The late seventh and sixth centuries was where the beginnings of modern systematic knowledge were found. By studying this era, the author hoped for insight into the birth of science and philosophy. The culture itself was different than those of later times. There was little writing so almost everything was handled orally. Stories were told as poems like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. It wasn’t until later that these and other works were put to pen. Poetry and song for the sake of beauty were also prevalent. While poetry could be passed from generation to generation by repetition, prose was harder to memorize. A certain form of prose, however, was easy to remember, gnomic sayings, which were proverbs and fables, such as those by Aesop.
Every educated man and woman in the age of the Wise Men were able to play the lyre and recite of sing poetry when called upon to do so. Music and poetry contests were common, were given together, and depended on each other for the complete effect desired. A profound moral and physical influence was attributed to music. Good music could reform the character and heal disease.
There were many kinds of musical instruments, but the cithara and the lyre were the ones commonly used in accompanying poetry. The flute was played by both men and women in furnishing martial music to the soldiers. Bands marched to war with soldiers and played on flutes, pipes, and harp. For private use, the lyre and the harp were preferred. There were extensive choirs of both men and women whose music was distinctly connected with the religious life of the people. They were hired for both public and private religious festivals. These celebrations were for a victory, a death, a holy day, a birth, or a marriage.
There was no drama at the time. In its place were the rhapsodists. A rhapsodist was one who sang professionally or intoned to music the poems of his and previous ages. A professional rhapsodist would choose the most popular parts of Homer and might present his own compositions. Whenever a banquet was given, the best rhapsodist to be procured was engaged, one who could not only recite Homer, but also Hesiod and Archilochus. In this way the best of the world’s poetry became part of the familiar thinking of the common people. It was an easy, enjoyable way of learning compared to studying from books.
The social life of Ionia was the life of men and women together. Women were free to share in all activities, even athletics. There were no suffragettes, for voting by citizens of any class was a thing of later times. The life of all was free and open and natural. The free life of the era of the Seven Wise Men was not appreciated by succeeding ages.
The first school of philosophy was established by Miletus by Thales, one of the Wise Men. It was quite a remarkable institution, exerting an influence for more than a century. Many of the subjects taught in his school, such as astronomy, geometry and geography, show the influence of Egypt and Phoenicia. The philosophy, however, was probably an original product. It was apparently the first attempt at an explanation of the origin of the world. It culminated more than a century later in the idealism of Plato. The geography and astronomy taught in this school was very primitive: The earth was flat and the sun circled around it horizontally being hidden at night by high hills.
Being very religious, whenever the people would undertake anything new, they would consult an oracle. The oracle they honored the most was far away at Delphi, in Greece. People visited Delphi from all part of the Grecian world. The place became not only an inspiration bureau, but also an information bureau, for the priestesses saw and talk to people from many places and became wise in political affairs. The oracle did not send advice without payment. Delphi became a kind of national banking-house. For the cities of Ionia, with different treasuries to contain offerings from different places. When the sayings of the oracle failed to prove true complaints were made, so it was usually found wiser to be rather noncommittal.
During the sixth century B. C. there was a wave of religious fervor centering on the cults of Dionysus. Some of these cults believed that Dionysus Zagreus was a god who was born again as a man, yet was a god, was received in heaven, and became the highest and, in a sense, the only god. An individual who worshipped Dionysus could himself develop his potential divinity.
Little was known of the lives of the Wise Men and the stories told about them are probably mythical. Bias of Priene was sometimes placed at their head, but Thales and Solon were the best known. Pittakos was a wise reformer and king of Mitylene. The life of each one was doubtlessly interesting, but few events known with the places which they lived and taught.
The last article in this issue is entitled “By Motor Through Sumatra” and was written by Melvin A. Hall. The title at the top of the article reads “By Motor Through the East Coast and Batak Highlands of Sumatra”. The article contains twenty-eight black-and-white photographs taken by the author. Six of those photos are full-page in size and four of them contain some nudity.
The author, along with his mother, took a steamer from Singapore, up the Straits of Malacca, to the east coast of Sumatra. The coast was swampy, formed from deposits from silt washed down from the mountains during the periodic inundations of an enormous annual rainfall. The shore is lined with mangroves which, by their extensive root systems, act as a framework for the accumulation of mud. This mud builds up over time creating new land.
Upon reaching Sumatra, the ship steamed up the Deli River, churning up yellow mud as it went. The shallow water and shifting mudbanks make building a port difficult and many had been abandoned as the river shifted course. The port of Belawan was little more than a broad mud-colored steam winding through the swamp. The ship rounded the last bend and was tied up at the dock. Mr. Hall waited as other passengers were unloaded, mostly workers for the rubber and tobacco plantations on the island.
Sumatra is an immense island, four times the size of Java and thirteen times the size of Holland, with a war-decimated population of around 3,200,000. At the time, it was mainly undeveloped and rich in natural resources.
Unloading the author’s car proved to be a difficult task. The dock was several feet below the deck and the spaces in which the car needed to be turned were all shorter than its length. Eventually, the car was unloaded, but there was still much to do to “land” the machine. The port is in the middle of a swamp connected to terra firma by a long railroad bridge. The car was loaded onto an undersized railway truck and it and the author rode the train fourteen miles to Medan, the capital of Sumatra.
Medan was a headquarters of the Amsterdam-Deli Company, the most important tobacco company of the indies. It was a modern town built by the Dutch. The author was impressed with the official buildings and the European quarter, with its attractive white bungalows. The grounds were well kept and full of a variety of tropical trees. Further out were the native compounds and various Asiatic quarters, each with their own characteristics. The Chinese compound had an elaborate temple.
The tobacco and rubber estates were spread over a vast amount of territory. Since there were so few Dutch planters and managers, they were more or less isolated from their own kind. To address this situation, a “holiday” was held twice a month around the 1st and the 15th. On these days all the white men from the estates who could would flock to town to socialize. The author arrived during one of these hari-bazar so finding place to stay proved difficult. He found lodging in the Hotel de Boer, one of the best hotels in the West Indies. With the aid of the proprietor of the hotel, the author procured a servant for the trip into the interior, a Malay speaking Tamil named Joseph.
Sumatra was difficult for the Dutch to colonize. It had such a large area with a small population. Much of the island was unexplored and there were very little inland communications. In the northern region of Achin, a war had been waging for forty years which seemed destined to end only with the eventual extermination of the resisting tribes.
Leaving the capital, Mr. Hall drove through some miles of country dense and green with vegetation, with tiny, picturesque thatched huts. As they approached nearer to the hills, the growth gave way to open plains covered with high grass and low bushes, the tobacco land of Deli. The larger estates were divided into sections. Each year only one-tenth to one-fifth of the estate is cultivated. The remainder is left fallow for five to ten years. This maintains the high quality of the tobacco. For the first year after cultivation, the natives are allowed to grow rice on the fallow field. Gradually ascending in altitude, they passed through many miles of these monotonous, fallow plains. The sections actually under cultivation were extremely interesting, with tobacco plants, six feet high, in closely planted rows. Frequently, they hedged the road as far as the eye could see.
Tobacco cultivation is very labor intensive, so newer estates were devoting more and more of their land to rubber and other less exacting products. The work was many-sided with various nationalities engaged in their own distinctive branches of labor. The Chinese did the actual work on the tobacco plants; the cart drivers were Tamils; Boyans were the carpenters; the Javanese were woodmen, road builders, and gardeners; and the Bataks and Malays cleared the land for planting, and built roads and sheds. The Sikhs were used in their favorite capacity as guards and policemen. At the time of the author’s trip, the tobacco plants were half grown and the sheds for drying were being built. Lines of two-wheeled carts, loaded with thatched palm, matting, or sheets of tin, rumbled up and down the road.
The road was very good, wide, well made, and better than Mr. Hall expected. There were virtually no rocks and the metaling for the road had to be imported. All the main highways in the coastal plains were macadamized. In the highlands, where metaling had not yet been attempted, the roads were quite different. They were made of dirt and clay, and said to be very good when dry. Unfortunately, seventeen days of continuous rain had reduced them to an almost impassable state of soft mud and slippery clay. Leaving the plains, the road gradually ascended through wilder country and, with well-engineered zigzags, began to climb into the mountains.
At 3,000 feet altitude, Mr. Hall reached Bandar Baroe, a tiny sanatorium. This recuperation station in the clear air was used by the Europeans made ill by the unhealth environs of the lowlands. It was a small bungalow where the author spent his first night on the road, after applying to the controleur for permission first. Since the native in charge had no provisions, they had the first in a series of “tinned meals” that continued until their return to Medan. Early the next morning they continued their climb over the pass. The semitropical vegetation which had succeeded the denuded grass of the plains gave way in turn to magnificent virgin forests, unbroken except for the narrow, winding path of the road.
The enormous straight-trunked trees, ensnared by giant creepers, vines, and air plants, made so thick a canopy overhead that only dim twilight filtered in, and failed to reach the ground through the dense vegetation. Insects screamed shrilly from branches, and occasionally the whistle of a bird or the boom of a falling tree was heard. Sometimes the crack of a branch betrayed the hurried withdrawal of a large animal, or the whirr of wings from a startled bird. The swaying of branches overhead as they drove up the pass was from monkeys, and they were pursued by a curious host of them. It would have been disastrous to leave the car unguarded in the forest, for everything that prying fingers could remove would soon be in the tree tops.
The author noticed some unusual vegetation in the trees and stopped to look at one through his binoculars. His mother drew his attention to the other side of the car where, in a branch about forty feet away he saw an orangutan. Only found in Borneo and Sumatra this “old man of the forest” paid little attention to the motorists. Orangutans were solitary beasts that moved slow and purposely through the branches. They watched it for a half an hour with glasses while he ignored them almost completely.
The road from Deli crossed over the mountain ranges of Boekit Barisan into the Batak Highlands, a plateau, by a pass between two mountains. A dull, treeless expanse, scarcely lower than the pass, laid before them in limitless brown waves of tangled grass. The impression of loneliness that the highlands gave was little changed by the few scattered compounds and occasional patches of cultivation. This land could support at least twenty-five times the population it had at the time.
The Batak tribes lived in a little cluster of huts around a large central house. The Batak were mostly peaceful and industrious, occupying themselves with farming, hunting and fishing. A train of buffalo carts were the only vehicles on the road besides the author’s party, but several times they passed small groups of pedestrians, mostly women balancing packed baskets on their heads and babies astride their hips supported in long scarves tied at the shoulder. These women were trading between villages.
Their dress was simple, a long, dark blue sarong hung loosely under the arms or around the waist, and a turban-like headdress of the same dark blue cloth. Some women wore large, coiled earrings of silver partially supported by the corners of the headdresses. The men’s garments were similar to those of the women, with a shorter sarong tied around the waist, and often a coat or a short pair of breeches added. Both men and women were barefoot, as usual.
The Batak people, once notorious for cannibalism, were related to the head-hunting Dayaks of Borneo. [See “Sarawak, the Land of the White Rajahs” in the February 1919 National Geographic.] The half million Bataks scattered through the mountains were divided into groups according to differences in dialect. Over a fifth were Muslim and about half that were Christian, but in both cases, it was little more than superstition. The remainder were animist pagans. One form of cannibalism was by no means rare. This was the eating of old and infirmed males by the younger members of the tribe. In the animistic form of religion this was a way of cheating death.
The rains of many afternoons had reduced the road to a bottomless morass of mud and clay. While the average altitude of the plains was about four thousand feet, the level of the rolling surface varied by more than a thousand. The steep clay hills became appallingly slippery when wet. Going up these grades was extremely difficult. The car barely crawled with chains flinging mud and Joseph frantically flinging armfuls of cut grass under the tracks. On the downgrades, the car tobogganed at hair-raising speed, with wheels locked and the whole road surface sliding with it. Frequently, they’d wound up in a ditch if there happened to be a curve. Fortunately, the ditches were not deep, but still required shovels to extricate the car.
During one of their stops for a meal break, they saw fifty or sixty Batak women holding a market. Men were conspicuously absent while the women bargained and gossiped. The women paid little heed to the author as he searched for photographs. He found the women, on the whole, unattractive due to the practice of filing teeth. The Batak, both sexes, file their teeth down to the jaw bone. Their usual food consisted of rice, syrup, and finely chopped meat and fish, which was soft and easily digested.
On a winding ascent to one of the higher levels, the afternoon rains came early. They made the crest with difficulty which spared them another night in the open. They came to the compound of Sariboe Dolok and sought refuge in a tiny rest-house. The author was startled by the body of a tiger inside. They spent the cold night comparatively dry. Sariboe Dolok was the capital of the region, but it was of little importance. It was a settlement of eight or ten native houses, an opium store, the guest house, and the bungalow of the Assistant Resident. He was Dutch, spoke excellent English, and gifted the party six eggs.
The official told them that the Kampong Kebon Djahe, a site the author was anxious to see, was twenty-five miles back the way they had come, on a hill nearly a mile off the road and unseen from it. The following morning, they drove back until they came to a half-obliterated trail leading westward toward two isolated little white houses. These were the “Government Center” and “European Quarter” of Kebon Djahe. A half a mile beyond, perched on top of a bank above a small river the Kampong was hidden in a clump of trees. All Batak Kampongs are more or less alike, but the one at Kebon Djahe was unique in its architectural elaboration. The buildings were all raised on wooden piles, their immense thatched roofs and extraordinary decorations completely dwarfed the low, windowless sides. Each end of the large houses terminated in a narrow veranda. The immense roofs sloped uniformly on the sides from widely flaring ridges to low, overhanging eaves forming gables beneath the jutting ridge-poles. Some of the vast roofs had double overhangs with gigantic cupolas towering above them.
On the return trip to Sariboe Dolok the car got hopelessly stuck in the mud. Half sunk and listing to the right, the party had to crawl out of the car through the sticky clay-mud. The equipment box was four feet underground. The cause of the problem was a bamboo culvert that had rotted and collapsed. The author needed help to dig out the car but he had left Joseph in Sariboe Dolok and had no way to communicate with any natives he may have met. He set out alone leaving his mother alone in the dark in the wilds of a country until recently addicted to cannibalism. Kebon Djahe was eight or ten miles away. After an hour of walking he heard some shouts and headed across of plain to a tiny paddy field on top of a low hill. He was unsuccessful in explaining his situation to the natives there, but from the hill he could see two white houses about a mile away.
When he reached the houses, he found the Dutch Controleur just returning from inspecting a jail under construction. The author explained his situation and the Controleur agreed to load him his prisoners. Even though the jail was unfinished, there were thirty-eight Bataks and Achines, and along with a Dutch planter, they set out back to the car. Armed with spades and poles, the crew dug out the car. There seemed to be no damage except for twisted mudguards. They drove back to Keboe Djahe with the Dutch planter while the prisoners marched back to prison.
In the morning they had an early breakfast and again set out for Sariboe Dolok. It had not rained the previous day so they may it there with no problem. They picked up Joseph and set out toward Toba Lake. They made another stop at the small compound of Kinalang, where they observed the Batak women weaving sarongs on large wooden frames. Large bamboo reels held the yarn to be transferred to spindles. Vegetable dyes were in the little bamboo pails, next to each frame.
About two miles from Kinalang, the road descended in a sharp curve, plunged through a narrow cut, and emerged abruptly on the shear edge of the plateau, revealing a view of Toba Lake, over a thousand feet below. The lake is the largest inland body of water in the Dutch Indies, covering eight hundred square miles. The surface was at an altitude of 3,100 feet and it had a depth of 1,400 feet. They traveled two miles down an unfinished trail toward the lake and, at its end, stopped for a meal. The trail was too narrow to turn around so they backed up all the way to where the road had branched off. They took the road down to the Lake.
The road had dried off rapidly and for more than half the distance was vastly better than above. The area was more wooded and much prettier. There were the occasional rain-soaked cuts which the car struggled to traverse, but, after the highland roads, they barely cared about them. They made further stops in two diminutive compounds. At Poerba Dolok they saw women weaving sarongs and pounding rice. In Pematang Rajah there was a market, and a meeting of Batak and Malay headmen. The headmen were finely dressed. Continuing on they drove over a swampy road working upward across a desolate, grass-covered plain. The only signs of life were wild pigeons, a few of which the author shot to add to their larder.
As in the highlands, this plain was rolling. The car splashed through level stretches, slid down inclines, and struggled uphill. At one point they reached a stretch where the road was being lowered. A narrow shelf was all that was left of the original road and a six-foot trench several hundred yards long, which was their only option to proceed, since the shelf was too narrow. While in the trench, the car got hopelessly struck. After an hour of digging, they decided to abandon the car and set out on foot to the nearest village. About a mile beyond the car, they met a group of men by a small shed. Concerned for his car and luggage, he had Joseph ask the men if one of them would go back and guard the car. They all refused for fear of tigers. Mr. Hall finally got the men to agree to help carry their luggage to the village about five miles away. The walk down to the rest house by the lake was arduous, descending 1,500 feet.
They rose the next morning stiff and unrested, but the beauty of the lake lifted their spirits. They returned to the car and extracted it with great difficulty. They then made their way down from the heights and reached Pematang Siantar, on the coastal plain. Siantar formed a trade link between the highlands and the coastal regions and at the market many nationalities from the region were represented. They stayed at the market for over an hour observing the locals, bargain and trade.
From Siantar they headed back toward Medan. The road was hard and dry. On the way the saw a Chinese coolie struggling to get a buffalo, who had broken free from it cart, out of a mud-hole. They reached Medan early in the afternoon after a ninety-mile drive, their longest drive in Sumatra.
The next morning, they drove the ten miles to the Deli railway and, after loading the car, took the train the three miles back to the port of Belawan. After a two-hour struggle to load the car onto a steamer, they finally succeeded. The steamer Rumphius dropped down the river and into the Straits. Before long, Sumatra sunk from view in the haze of late afternoon.
Tom, how are you getting these good scans of the interior pages ?
Very carefully, Scott.