Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVIII, 2

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XVIII, 1 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XVIII, 3

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XVIII - Chapter 2
From Constantinople to Jerusalem – I embark at Constantinople on a ship carrying Greek pilgrims to Syria


‘There were almost two hundred passengers on board, men, women, children and old people. One saw as many mats ranged in ranks on both sides of the tween deck. In that republic of sorts each managed their household as they liked: women nursed their children, men smoked or prepared their dinner, elders talked together. The sound of mandolins, violins and lyres was heard on all sides. They sang, danced, laughed, and prayed. Everyone was joyful. Pointing south, they cried: “Jerusalem!” and I replied: “Jerusalem!” In a word, without our fear, we would have been the happiest people in the world; but at the least wind, the sailors took in the sails, and the pilgrims shouted: Christos, Kyrie eleison! The storm past, we recovered our courage.’

Here, I am outdone by Julien:


‘We were obliged to attend to our departure for Jaffa, which took place on Thursday the 18th of September. We embarked on a Greek vessel, on which there were at least a hundred and fifty Greeks, as many men as women and children, who were going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which caused the ship many difficulties.

We had provisions and cooking utensils, like the other passengers, which I had bought in Constantinople. I had, besides, another complete pack of provisions that Monsieur l’Ambassadeur had given us, composed of good quality biscuits, ham, sausages and saveloys; wine of different sorts, rum, sugar, lemons, even including wine flavoured with cinchona-bark for the fever. So I found myself provided with abundant resources, which I husbanded and did not consume, with great economy, knowing we had only this voyage to make; all was squeezed in where the passengers could not go.

Our journey, which has taken only thirteen days, has seemed long to me because of all kinds of disagreement and impropriety on board. During several days of bad weather which we have had, the women and children were sick, vomiting everywhere to the point that we were obliged to abandon our berth and sleep on the bridge. We ate there much more conveniently than elsewhere, having opted to wait until all the Greeks had finished their messing about.’

I pass the Dardanelles straits; I touch at Rhodes, and engage a pilot for the coast of Syria. – We are delayed by the calm, below the continent of Asia, almost opposite ancient Cape Chelidonia. – We linger for two days at sea, without knowing where we are.


‘The weather was so beautiful, and the breeze so gentle, that all the passengers spent the night on deck. I disputed a small corner of the poop with two large Greek monks who yielded to me but not without muttering. I was asleep there on the 30th of September, at six in the morning, when I was woken by a babble of voices: I opened my eyes, and saw the pilgrims staring towards the prow of the vessel. I asked what was there; they shouted to me: Signor, il Carmelo! Mount Carmel! The wind had risen the previous evening at eight, and, during the night, we had arrived in sight of the Syrian coast. As I was lying there fully dressed, I was soon up, inquiring about the sacred mountain. They all surrounded me to point it out; but I could see nothing, because the sun was rising in our faces. The moment had something both religious and majestic about it; all the pilgrims, rosary in hand, were standing in silence in the same attitude, waiting for a sight of the Holy Land; the head of the elders prayed in a loud voice: one heard only this prayer and the sound of the vessel’s wake as the most favourable of winds drove it over the gleaming sea. From time to time, a cry rose from the prow as they caught sight of Carmel again. At last I saw the mountain for myself, like a round blob beneath the sun’s rays. I knelt then in the manner of us Latins. I did not feel the kind of agitation that I experienced on seeing the coast of Greece: but the sight of the cradle of the Israelites and the fatherland of Christians filled me with joy and respect. I was to set foot on a land of wonders, the source of the most astonishing poetry, in places where, speaking even in a purely human sense, the greatest event which ever changed the face of the world occurred.


‘The wind dropped at midday; it rose again at four; but, through the pilot’s ignorance, we missed our objective…At two in the afternoon, we saw Jaffa again.’

A boat left shore with three monks aboard. I descended with them into the launch; we entered harbour through a navigable opening in the rocks, dangerous even for a rowing boat.

The Arabs on shore advanced into the water to their waists, in order to take us up on their shoulders. There passed a pleasant scene; my servant was dressed in a whitish dress-coat; white being the colour of distinction among the Arabs, they decided that Julien was the sheik. They seized on him and carried him off in triumph, despite his protestations, while I, dressed in my blue coat, made off unnoticed on the back of a ragged beggar.’

Now, let us hear, Julien, the principal actor of the scene:


‘What was my astonishment on seeing half a dozen Arabs arriving to carry me to shore, while there were only two for Monsieur, it amusing him greatly to see me carried like a sacred object. I do not know if my clothing appeared more imposing than Monsieur’s to them; he had on a brown coat and buttons of the same colour, while mine was whitish, with buttons of pale metal which reflected the light of the sun; it is no doubt that which may have occasioned their error.

We entered the monastery of the monks of Jaffa, on Wednesday the 1st of October, they being of the Order of the Cordeliers, speaking Latin and Italian, but very little French. They made us very welcome and did everything possible to procure whatever we needed.’

I arrive at Jerusalem. – On the advice of the Fathers of the monastery, I cross the HolyCity rapidly in order to reach the Jordan. – After halting at the monastery in Bethlehem, I leave with an escort of Arabs; I stop at Saint-Saba. – At midnight, I found myself on the shore of the Dead Sea.


‘When one travels in Judea, a great tedium first seizes the mind; but when, in passing from solitude to solitude, the space extends itself before you, the ennui gradually dissipates, and one experiences a secret terror which, far from depressing the soul, gives one courage and raises one’s spirits. Extraordinary sights reveal on all sides a land worked on by miracles: the burning sun, the impetuous eagle, the sterile fig-tree, all the poetry, all the Scriptural tableaux are there. Every name conceals a mystery; every cave foretells the future; every summit retains the tones of some prophet. God Himself has spoken on these shores: the dried-up torrents, the shattered rocks, the half-open tombs, attest to marvels; the desert seems mute with terror still, and one would say it had not dared to break the silence since it heard the Eternal voice.’

We had descended the rump of the mountain, in order to spend the night on the shore of the Dead Sea, from there to return to the Jordan.


‘We dismounted from our horses to let them rest and eat, like us, who had a fine set of provisions that the monks of Jerusalem had given us. After our meal was finished, our Arabs went some way from us, to listen, ear to the ground, for any sound; being assured that we could rest easy, everyone then abandoned themselves to sleep. Though lying on stones, I had enjoyed a very good sleep, when Monsieur came to rouse me, at five in the morning, to get all our people ready for departure. He had already filled a canister, holding about three wine-bottles, with water from the Dead Sea, to take back to Paris.’


‘We raised camp, and travelled for an hour and a half with exceeding difficulty, through fine white sand. We advanced towards a little grove of trees, balm and tamarind, which to my great astonishment, I saw rising from the midst of sterile ground. Suddenly, the Bethlehemites stopped and pointed out, in the depths of a ravine, something which I had not noticed. Without being able to say what it was, I half saw what seemed like a kind of sand-flow over the motionless earth. I approached this singular object, and saw a yellow stream that I could scarcely distinguish from the sand of its two banks. It was deeply incised, and ran thickly with a sluggish flow: it was the Jordan…

The Bethlehemites stripped off and plunged into the Jordan. I dared not imitate them, because of the fever which continually troubled me.’


‘We arrived at the Jordan at seven in the morning, through sands where our horses sank in up to their knees, and through gullies which they had difficulty climbing out of. We followed the river until ten, and to cool us we were bathed conveniently in the shade of the low trees which bordered the river. It would have been very easy to cross to the other side by swimming, since its width, where we were situated, was only about 80 yards; but it would not have been safe to do so, since there were Arabs trying to catch up with us, and in a short while they assembled in large numbers. Monsieur filled his second canister with Jordan water.’

We returned to Jerusalem: Julien was not much taken with the Holy Places; like a true philosopher, he is terse: ‘Calvary,’ he says, ‘is in the same church, on a height, similar to many other heights we have climbed, and from which you can see nothing in the distance but uncultivated land, and nothing as to trees but shrubs and undergrowth gnawed by animals. The Valley of Josaphat is found outside the walls of Jerusalem, at its foot, and resembles a moat to a rampart.’

I left Jerusalem; I arrived at Jaffa, and embarked for Alexandria. From Alexandria I went to Cairo, leaving Julien behind with Monsieur Drovetti, who had the kindness to charter an Austrian vessel to Tunis for me. Julien continues his journal in Alexandria: ‘There are,’ he says, ‘Jews who speculate illegally as they do wherever they are. At half a league from the town, there is Pompey’s Pillar, which is of reddish granite, mounted on a sizeable bank of stones.’


‘On the 23rd of November at midday, the wind turning favourable, I returned on board the vessel. I embraced Monsieur Drovetti on the shore, and we exchanged promises of remembrance and friendship; today I acquit my debt.

We raised anchor at two. A pilot took us out of port. The wind was blowing weakly from the south. We stayed in sight of Pompey’s Pillar which we could make out on the horizon for three days. On the evening of the third day, we heard the sound of the night canon from the harbour at Alexandria. It was like a signal for our final departure, since a northerly wind rose, and we made sail to the west.

On the 1st of December, the wind, steady from the west, barred our course. Gradually it swung to the south-west and changed to a storm, which did not cease until we arrived at Tunis. To occupy the time, I copied and set in order the notes of this voyage and the descriptive passages of Les Martyrs. At night, I walked on the bridge with the second in command, Captain Dinelli. Nights spent among the waves, on a ship battered by a storm, are not wasted; uncertainty regarding our future gives objects their true worth: the earth, contemplated from the midst of a stormy sea, resembles life considered by a man who is about to die.’


‘After our exit from the harbour at Alexandria, we did quite well for the first few days, but it did not last, since we had continual bad weather and foul winds for the rest of the voyage. There was an officer on watch on the bridge constantly, with the pilot and four of the crew. When we could see, at the end of the day, that we were about to have a bad night, we would ascend to the bridge. Around midnight, I made our punch. I would start by handing some to our pilot and the four sailors then I would serve Monsieur, the officer and myself: but we did not drink it as calmly as we would have done in a café. The officer was much more accustomed to it than the captain; he spoke French very well, which made it very pleasant for us during our voyage.’

We continue our journey and anchor at the Kerkeni Islands.


‘A storm rose from the south-west to our great joy, and in five days we arrived in the waters around Malta. We caught sight of it on Christmas Eve; but on Christmas Day itself, the wind, veering to west-north-west, drove us south of Lampedusa. We lingered for eighteen days on the east coast of the kingdom of Tunis, between life and death. I will never forget the 28th.

We dropped anchor at the KerkeniIslands. We stayed eight days at anchor in the Syrtis Minor, where I began the year 1807. Beneath how many stars and with what varying fortune I have seen the years renew, years which pass so quickly or seem so long! How far from me are those childhood days when with joyful heart I received my parents’ blessings and presents! How eagerly New Year’s Day was awaited! And now, on a foreign vessel, in the midst of the sea, in sight of a barbarous land, that first day vanished for me, without witness, without pleasure, without family embraces, without the tender good wishes that a mother bestows on her son with such sincerity! That day, born from the womb of tempests, only deposited on my brow anxieties, regrets and white hairs.’

Julien is exposed to the same fate, and he reprimands me for one of those fits of impatience of which happily I am cured.


‘We were close to the Isle of Malta and were fearful of being seen by some English vessel which might have forced us to enter that port; but nothing came out to meet us. Our crew were exhausted and the wind continued unfavourable. The captain seeing an anchorage named Kerkeni on his chart, which we were not far off, made sail, without warning Monsieur, who, seeing us approaching an anchorage, was angry at not having been consulted, telling the captain he must continue on course, having endured worse weather. But we were too close to resume our route, and moreover the captain’s prudence was much approved of, since the night before, the wind had become stronger and the sea very rough. Having been obliged to wait there at anchor twenty four hours longer than anticipated, Monsieur showed his lively dissatisfaction with the captain, despite the logical reasons he was given.

We had been sailing for almost a month, and we only needed seven or eight hours to reach the port of Tunis. Suddenly, the wind became so violent that we were obliged to veer off, and we waited for three weeks without being able to reach the harbour. It was then that Monsieur reproached the captain once more for having lost thirty-six hours at anchor. No one could persuade him that we would have been in deep trouble, if the captain had shown less foresight. The misfortune I could foresee was that of our dwindling provisions, without knowing when we might arrive.’

I have trod the soil of Carthage at last. I have found the most generous hospitality with Monsieur and Madame Devoise. Julien gets to know my host well; he talks about the country too and the Jews: ‘They pray and weep’, he says.

An American brig of war having granted me passage on board, I crossed the Lake of Tunis to reach La Goulette. ‘Once underway,’ says Julien, ‘I asked Monsieur if he had brought the gold he had placed in a desk in the room where he slept; he told me had forgotten it, and I was obliged to return to Tunis.’ Money never lodges itself in my brain.

When I arrived at Alexandria, we anchored opposite the ruins of Hannibal’s city. I stared at them from the ship’s side without being able to make out what they were. I saw several Moorish dwellings, a Muslim hermitage on the headland, ewes grazing among the ruins, ruins so little evident that I could scarcely distinguish them from the soil they stood on: it was Carthage. I visited it before embarking for Europe.

‘From the summit of Byrsa, the eye embraces the ruins of Carthage which are more numerous than is generally thought: they resemble those of Sparta, nothing worthwhile having been preserved, but occupying a considerable space. I saw them in the month of February; the fig-trees, olives, and carob-trees already showed their first leaves; large angelicas and acanthuses formed tufts of verdure among the multi-coloured marble ruins. In the distance I glanced over an isthmus, twin seas, far-off islands, a glowing countryside, bluish lakes, and azure mountains; I made out forests, vessels, aqueducts, Moorish villages, Muslim hermitages, minarets and the white houses of Tunis. Thousand of starlings, flocking in battalions and looking like dark clouds, flew above my head. Surrounded by the greatest and most moving of relics, I thought of Dido, of Sophonisbe, of Hasdrubal’s noble wife; I contemplated the vast plains where the legions of Hannibal, Scipio and Caesar are buried; my eyes wished to dwell on the site of Utica. Alas! The ruins of Tiberius’s palace on Capri are still in existence, but one searches in vain at Utica for Cato’s house! Finally the terrifying Vandals and the careless Moors passed in turn through my memory, which offered me, as a last tableau, Saint Louis expiring among the ruins of Carthage.’

Julien ends like me by catching his last sight of Africa at Carthage.


‘On the 7th and 8th we wandered among the ruins of Carthage where there are still some foundations on open ground, which prove the durability of ancient monuments. There are also the outlines of baths submerged beneath the soil. There are still three fine cisterns; others are visible which have been buried. The few inhabitants who occupy these regions cultivate the fields necessary to them. They uncover various marbles and stones, just as they do medals which they sell to travellers as antiques: Monsieur bought some to take back to France.’