THE GREAT DESERT

Beyond Transjordania lies the great desert, stretching away to the River Euphrates. Like the Great Sea on the West, the desert on the East is, strictly speaking, outside Palestine. Its influence, however, has been continuous throughout history. The raiding Arab nomad tribes have on the one hand, raided the cultivated lands of Palestine for booty and, on the other hand, with camel caravans have been means of transport between the Near East and the Middle and even Far East, as well as India. One of the gifts (frankincense) mentioned as being brought by the three kings to the infant Jesus was from an Indian shrub. The whole story of the Magi, who came across this desert, opens to us an outlook into the great influence of Persian and Babylonian art, religion, culture, and philosophy upon the life of Palestine.

The desert was therefore on the eastern side of Palestine what the sea had been on its western side- an area barren in itself, across which the cultures, faiths, and racial streams of life have poured into the country. We see this influence most vividly expressed at Damascus.

DAMASCUS is created geographically by two constantly flowing rivers called in the Old Testament the Abana and the Pharpar, which rush out from the north-eastern roots of Mount Hermon and flow eastward all the way to the sand of the desert. All the way there, they create by their irrigation an oasis that is, in one sense, a prominent peninsula of cultivation pushing its way into the desert. Orchards of peach, almond, fig, date, and other fruits with fields of grain make it a splendid spot for the habitation of man. For this reason the camel-caravans from across the desert naturally hasten toward this area of fruit, grain, and abundant wells. So Damascus, becomes the port at which the ship of the desert, the camel, rejoices to come to rest. Damascus has been overwhelmed and destroyed times without number since the dawn of recorded history. Yet if she were destroyed a thousand times a new city would inevitably spring up where the water and lushness runs toward the desert and its thirsty men and animals.

The famous Way of the Sea, which we have mentioned as coming through Capernaum from Egypt, headed northward to Damascus in Jesus' day. From Damascus the great caravan route struck due east, crossing the northern edge of the desert till it reached the Euphrates. Thence one branch ran southward along the river to the cities of Babylonia, while the main route ran on across the Tigris up into Persia.

It was from Damascus that the converted Saul of Tarsus went into the desert to get re-orientation of mind and spirit for his new task, a task that forever changed the world.

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