As I begin the story of Jesus, beautiful in name, transcendent in subject, it is morning, when the air is crisp with December's frost and a merry sparkle is in the trees, starlighted with a million gleams gathered from the sun just looking over the blue hills of the East and brightening the frozen dew. My room is flooded with gilded beams that build a stairway with gentle slope across the sea and up to the door-step of heaven, where there is a rush of glories that dazzle, and a maze of beauties that bewilders, and a witchery of magnificence that confounds the imagination while thrilling and throbbing the heart with adoration and ecstasy. It must have been such a morning that awakened the Judean hills and set all nature to singing, and the music of heaven to playing, and the pulse of universal joy to throbbing, when the Christ was born. It must have been such a morning when, after the star choristers had hushed their acclaims, and the angels of the annunciation had left the startled shepherds and, on impatient wing, swept back to the cradle of the newly-born Lord, that the glad news was scattered throughout the valleys, and over the mounts, and down the slopes, and across the Jordan. "For unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."
The country in which this most momentous event occurred is remarkable, almost in consonance with the event itself. From the earliest ages it has been known as the Holy Land, because within its small territory transpired so many immensely important incidents that were directly controlled by God, as manifestations of His care for His chosen people. Palestine is a more recent designation, derived from the Hebrew word Pelesheth (Philistia), or country of the Philistines. Even this application was only to the southern and coast regions, and not until it came under Roman dominion was the term Palestine applied to the whole country, as we now find it between Tyre, or Dan, on the north, and Egypt and Arabia, or Beersheba, on the south, a distance of something less than 150 miles, while the mean breadth does not exceed thirty miles.
Palestine is pre-eminently a land of hills and valleys, the most broken region, perhaps, on earth. From a country of first importance, rivaling Egypt, like Egypt, it has declined until Joppa is the only port remaining, and even this does not admit vessels of large size at all seasons. Cæsarea was the principal harbor during Roman occupation, the chief work of Herod the Great, who made of it one of the most splendid ports ever constructed, and named the city in honor of Augustus Cæsar. It was here the titular kings of Judea had their seats, and also the Roman procurators, and where the most famous temple, theatre and circus were erected to amuse a heterogeneous populace of Jews, Romans, Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians and other nationalities of the East that flocked to the city, which was in the zenith of its commercial prosperity during the ministry of Jesus. To-day the site of Cæsarea is marked by magnificent ruins, the stones of which the great wall was constructed, which are said to have been fifty feet long by eighteen feet wide, having been displaced and broken up by the invading sea, while of the great buildings that distinguished the place and its 400,000 inhabitants not even the ruins remain.
But long before the founding of Cæsarea there were other cities in Palestine, in the country which was then known as Phœnicia, whose splendor and population far exceeded that of any other cities of the Levant, not even excepting Carthage. Of these, Tyre was the largest and most important, the commerce of which extended east to China and westward to all the then known world, including a traffic of no inconsiderable magnitude with the central and western parts of Africa, which are to-day practically unknown regions. Tyre was founded by the Sidonians at a period so remote that the date lies hidden behind the thick mists of centuries, but in the time of Ezekiel and Isaiah she was "the stronghold of the sea," and a glowing picture of splendor and maritime power. Against her walls the Assyrians thundered in vain, and Shalmaneser and Nebuchadnezzar, with their million men, were hurled back at every attempt to scale her fortifications. Not until Alexander the Great assaulted, with all the power of Macedonia, Egypt and Greece, the battlements, by constructing moles about the city, did Tyre lower her banners to a conqueror. But her fall was like that of her offspring, Carthage, so terrible that the devastating teeth of war, demolition, subjugation and spoliation brought her speedily to a ruin so complete that to-day the relics of her splendor are beneath the restless sea. Back from the shore are still to be seen the rock-hewn tombs of some who once knew Tyre when she was mistress of the sea, but of her magnificence nothing but scattered stones and crumbled edifices now remain.
Twenty miles north of Tyre was another great Phoenician city called Sidon, second only to Tyre in importance, but with a history less pregnant with great events, though its end was equally tragic. The city's power was greatest about fifteen centuries before Christ, during a period when the Egyptians held the supremacy over Phoenicia. About five centuries before Christ the city fell into the possession of the Persians, who destroyed the place because the inhabitants rebelled against Artaxerxes. The city never regained its commercial importance, but continued as a provincial capital until about the time of Christ, when it became, with nearly all Palestine, a part of the Roman empire. It was in Sidon that Christianity found an early foothold, a bishop having been ordained for the place about a.d. 300. In the eleventh century, however, the city was captured by the Mohammedans, who held it until 1108, in which year the Crusaders under Baldwin I. re-captured and retained it until 1187, when the Saracens again became the conquerors, only to be divested a second time by the Christians ten years later. Nearly one hundred years after, however, the place was abandoned and ordered destroyed by the Sultan Ashraf, since which time only a few fisher huts and some wave-washed ruins, that tell a tale of former splendor, now mark the site.
The history of Tyre and Sidon, with small difference, is the history of other coast cities of Palestine, and the other important towns of Phoenicia, such as Sarepta, Gebal, Beyrout, Dor, Accho, and many others that exist to-day either as small villages, or heaps of carved stone, scarred and broken by the chisel of time.
From the Mediterranean Coast the land upheaves toward Central Palestine, where a great ridge is formed that slopes away again towards the east until reaching the plains of Assyria. Along a cleft in this ridge runs the Jordan river, so deep below its banks that it may be reached conveniently only at certain passes and fords which have continued practically the same since the time of Joshua.
Beyond Cæsarea, on the north, the beach rapidly narrows to a termination at Mount Carmel, which is a ridge some ten miles in length and fifteen hundred feet in height, enclosing the bay of Acre on the South. Immediately north of Mount Carmel are the Lebanon Mountains, of two parallel ranges, between which is the vale of Lebanon, a fertile district, fruitful of all the products peculiar to Palestine, and of the cedars famous in history. At the southern point of the Lebanon range rises the peak of Hermon, ten thousand feet above the sea-level and overlooking nearly the entire country. South of Hermon the range is reduced to bare hills, sloping on the east to the Jordan and on the west to the historical plain of Esdraelon, sometimes called Megiddo, and Jezreel, in the Scriptures, the site of the greatest battle in Jewish history. On the northeast of this plain, at its border, is Mount Tabor, the traditional site of the transfiguration. Here was the rendezvous of Barak, from which he descended like a whirlwind and overwhelmed Sisera's army.
Jewish tradition has woven about this mountain many curious legends which have attracted the interest of mankind from time immemorial. The ruins of several prehistoric edifices are still to be seen scattered about the apex, while the relics of a fortress, presumed to have been built by the Saracens about the time of Saladin, are conspicuously strewn about over a considerable surface of the peak. A few miles south of the plain of Esdraelon rises another tract of country, broken by irregular hills, stretching east and west nearly across the breadth of Palestine, and terminating in the south with the Mount of Hebron.