Millions of travelers have visited Damascus over the years, but not many have arrived by boat. One who did was John MacGregor, a Scotsman who, just over 100 years ago, sailed his canoe, the "Rob Roy" down the Barada River from its source in the Anti-Lebanon mountains, paddled right across Damascus and ended his journey in a swamp in the middle of the Syrian Desert.
His visit to Damascus was only one of a series of daring canoe trips which he made in Europe, the Middle East, Russia and Armenia and which he later described in several books. He was the pioneer of British canoeing, and the name of his little craft became a household word in Victorian England.
Because of his enthusiasm, the Royal Canoe Club was founded in 1866, with the Prince of Wales as commodore, and a canoe club was founded in New York in 1871. As early as 1865, MacGregor popularized the sport by designing a canoe for long journeys. It could be propelled by both paddle and sail, and yet it was light enough to be carried overland. It was made of seasoned cedar wood. It had an overall length of 14 feet, a beam of 26 inches; yet when packed with all its gear only weighed 72 pounds. MacGregor could cruise in it for an entire week without replenishing his stores and, since often slept in his canoe when traveling, it had been built around him lying in a prone position. An apron, fixed to the cockpit of the canoe, could be tied around his middle to keep out the water. It carried a small sail, boom and mast. Large waterproof pockets on each side of the cockpit contained vital supplies such as a pistol and ammunition, a brandy flask, an Inverness cape for sleeping in, a large water bottle, spare shoes, fishing tackle, mosquito net, food, books, maps, matches and money.
The "paddler’s kitchen" was also designed to produce hot meals anytime anywhere, at a moment’s notice. Bread was the most important item and since it had to keep in hot, cold and damp climates, MacGregor dried it out and stored it thoroughly in waterproof bags. When it was needed it was dipped over the side of the canoe, immediately softening and expanding. MacGregor praised the bread he bought in Damascus, which he claimed, in an apparently serious footnote, he kept and was able to eat after 20 years.
John MacGregor began his Eastern tour with a trip up the Nile, through the Suez Canal and around the great lakes of Egypt. Then he took a steamer to Beirut where, as soon as the ship dropped anchor, he paddled to the shore in his canoe. In his mock humorous style he wrote, "Splendid old Lebanon, snow-capped; young Beyrout smiling in rain tears; and all the street-boys running down to the beach to see the canoe."
After a few days in Beirut buying stores and hiring guides and porters, he began what was to be an exploration of the waterways of Syria by hoisting the Rob Roy, well wrapped in Oriental carpets, onto a wagon that would haul it over the Lebanese mountains to the source of "the Abana River." MacGregor used the old biblical name; today this river is referred to as the Barada.
To reach Ain Figi, the historic source of the river, in the Anti-Lebanon range, took three days, according to MacGregor, and they arrived during a storm. MacGregor and his party of seven men, six mules and two horses took shelter in the house of a Syrian. This party, incidentally, followed him on land wherever he went.
Although MacGregor had to be cautious about launching a canoe in turbulent waters, he decided after two days of exploring that he could safely launch the Rob Roy at the village of Doomar, on a stretch of river "like a Scotch salmon stream." He did and instantly shot off on the swift current at great speed, steering between huge crags and boulders. The gravel banks were lined with trees. Later there were rapids where he was obliged to carry the canoe around to safer waters and at one point the river flowed through a dark tunnel in a cliff which "would have been madness to follow." MacGregor wrote, however, that the Barada River was "true luxury" in its headlong flight to Damascus after the quiet level of the Suez Canal and the oily running Nile.
As the river approached Damascus it became more shallow, for many small canals led off the precious water to irrigate the adjoining fields—a system of irrigation still practiced today. MacGregor had to take to the water to steer the canoe through the waterfalls, weirs and rapids he met. It took him five hours to reach a point which, on foot, took one. Suddenly the tree-lined gorge widened, the Rob Roy floated into an expanse of calm water and there was Damascus, a vast circle of green at the edge of the desert.
"Old Damascus gleamed out brilliant before me in the evening light," MacGregor wrote, adding that it is "one of the sights of the world."
To better savor it, and to prepare for the great moment of arrival in the city, MacGregor stopped on the outskirts, by a grassy meadow bank to have his supper. Refreshed and ready for his triumphal entry, he set off again in the Rob Roy, paddling slowly toward the center of the city. He sailed under bridges, around acqueducts, past the Pasha’s palace—all under the gaze of the incredulous inhabitants.
He at last reached a stretch of calm water by the garden of Dimitri’s Hotel where he had planned to stay. There a large crowd had already gathered and a great cheer went up as MacGregor hove into view. When he stepped ashore he was saalamed, shaken, struck on the back, and escorted up the path to the entrance of the hotel. Behind him the Rob Roy was picked up by the cheering crowd and deposited in the unnavigable waters of a wide marble basin in the hotel garden, where, her blue sail hoisted and her golden flag flying from the little mast, she was the sight of the town. Even the Pasha with his entire suite came to inspect her, followed by the British Consul. The local newspapers, MacGregor wrote, "gravels chronicled the arrival of the Rob Roy on the same page with the movements of the Greek fleet."
During his short stay in Damascus MacGregor was widely entertained. He met a charming Englishwoman, married to an Arab shaikh, Lady Jane Digby, later to be an intimate friend of Sir Richard Burton, who arrived a few days after MacGregor left to take up his appointment as British Consul.
MacGregor now prepared to follow the river to its end. Terrible tales were related about the bleak, impenetrable morass at the mouth of the Barada: people sucked into whirlpools, devoured by panthers, hyenas and wild boars, or destroyed by snakes and "jinns."
Since irrigation canals in the fertile plain around Damascus made even canoeing difficult, MacGregor had to travel a day’s distance from the city to find a spot where he could launch the canoe, and as he paddled off again, the Barada was red and swollen from the recent mountain rains. But the channel was wide and flowed through delightful orchards and meadows. Tortoises slept on the banks, land crabs scuttled about and the surrounding marshes were alive with "fat, lazy ducks that couldn’t be bothered to rise and fly away." It was picturesque, but slow going, and the canoe had to he carried over many obstacles.
As MacGregor neared the edge of the plain bordering the desert the landscape became wilder. Soon the current swept the Rob Roy into an impassable tangle of willows, ten feet high, growing in marshland full of deep holes. MacGregor was stuck. However he had developed an infallible solution for this kind of problem. "Persist in the assurance that you must get through, pull to the side, ponder the next plan, and shout as loud as you can." He did this and an Arab hunter popped out of the bulrushes at his side.
MacGregor's smiles and soft speech convinced the hunter that he had not seen the devil, and he guided him to a tiny village of thatched huts. Here the rest of his party met him and the friendly inhabitants of Jisrin gave them a night’s shelter.
The next morning MacGregor paddled off eastward on a tortuous channel. He was accompanied for some time by a good humored, smiling band of men, women and children, but he left them behind as he entered a marsh overgrown with weeds and pierced by narrow channels. Then he came to a small village inhabited by "marsh Arabs." Three splendid basalt columns gave the name of "Haran of the Pillars" to this village, about 16 miles from Damascus. The shaikh allowed MacGregor to climb the minaret of the village mosque to get his bearings. He found that he was near the edge of a huge morass called Ateibeh.
Now MacGregor had to continue on foot to the edge of the morass. The canoe is carried on horseback, a perilous operation in this swamp. The "marsh walkers," acting as guides, lost their was several times. They floundered around helplessly in a shallow swamp covered with tufts of grass and pocked with deep holes. At last they came to a small piece of firm ground where the tent could be set up. They also erected a flag pole and soon the red ensign of England was run up "to wave over as wild a spot as ever seen."
The next day would be an exciting one. MacGregor would penetrate into the heart of the swamp, and trace the Barada to its very end. Of the many wild animals rumored to live in the morass MacGregor feared only the wild boar. Normally the boar avoids man, but a man in a strange craft encroaching on his private domain might be a different matter. Excitement, mosquitoes, the croaking of frogs kept MacGregor awake most of the night.
Early in the morning MacGregor began his countdown for the launching into the unknown. He had stored emergency rations for two days aboard the Rob Roy, a double-barrelled shotgun for wild boar, a long pole for pushing his way through the reeds. He also carried a supply of strips of colored cloth, two feet long, to tie to the reeds as markers in order to find his way back to the base.
MacGregor knew that if he followed a course where the current flowed most swiftly it would take him to the lowest point in the swamp. At 8:38 A.M., as entered in his logbook, MacGregor waved good-bye to his staff, and pushed off down the little stream which cut through the thick tangle of reeds.
Ten minutes later he was out of earshot of the camp but he could still see the Union Jack. The little stream branched out into six different channels. He tied the first strip of colored cloth to the tops of the three highest bulrushes. He carefully entered the particulars in his logbook, marking down this spot as Station 1. Choosing the channel with the strongest current, he carried on. He propelled himself along with the long pole until Station 1 was barely visible.
He continued with his marking as he advanced until he had reached Station 6. Here all motion of the water had stopped. The time was 13:05—nearly five hours after leaving his base. MacGregor believed that he must be in the very center of the morass. He got out of the canoe and started to wade around in the mud. This was dangerous however, for the clumps of grass and reeds concealed deep holes—probably the famous "whirlpools which drag men down." MacGregor was convinced that the Barada River ended just here, in the marshes of the Ateibeh morass, "yielding," as he put it, "its vapory spirit to the hot sun." Tired and hungry he returned to the Rob Roy and enjoyed an "excellent solitary luncheon."
MacGregor turned the Rob Roy in a half-mile sweep and began the journey back to base, to a hero’s welcome. How his heart leapt up when he at last saw the Union Jack above the rushes, and his hail was answered by his faithful dragoman. A cheerful fire was burning outside his tent; a camp table spread with a white cloth and silver set up in front of it. MacGregor sat down to a splendid roast turkey, followed by a "capital plum pudding" swimming in flames of brandy. Exploration was not only a serious business, but it had to be done in style.
After the Barada, MacGregor set out to canoe to the source of the Jordan River—the point where the Hasbani, Dan and Banias rivers, rising in southern Lebanon, converge. This trip was to be equally exciting. Just past the point where the Hasbani and Banias rivers meet, some tribesmen attacked him, one with a flintlock rifle. The marksmen missed, but he was seized. He could think of only one thing to do: he smiled and, as usual the Arabs responded. Indeed. They helped him canoe and all, and carried him to the tent of the shaikh. The astonished shaikh had come out of his tent at the sound of the commotion and invited MacGregor in. Along with the Rob Roy, which was carried inside and placed on a beautiful Oriental carpet. But the shaikh adamantly refused, for some reason, to let him continue canoeing down the river, so MacGregor resorted to trickery. He set up his little stove in the shaikh’s tent and asked for some water. When the water was boiling he put some preserved beef into it to make soup. He opened his salt box and offered the shaikh a pinch, which he eagerly took, thinking it was sugar. The salt used by the Arabs in those days was usually black. As the shaikh tasted the salt MacGregor did the same, and with a shout thumped the shaikh on the back. The others standing around asked the shaikh, "What is it?" "It is salt," he answered. At that they all laughed for they realized that since MacGregor and the shaikh had tasted salt together in the shaikh’s tent they were bound by traditional ties of friendship. MacGregor had won the day and, amid much cheering, he was allowed to paddle off.
While navigating the Kishon River, one of the small streams which empty into the Mediterranean (at a point that was then in north Palestine and is now in Israel), MacGregor had another exciting experience.
After a night’s camp at the base of Mt. Carmel, he set off through lonely channels in which there was no sign of man or beast. Rank grasses waved on both sides, and wild ducks and herons flew down wind above him. Around noon the weather cleared and MacGregor came to a stretch of open water. It was time to eat. He spread his food out and, lolling in the well of the canoe, began to eat. It would have been impossible to land on the Kishon’s steep banks.
Just as MacGregor was dipping his drinking can over the side of the canoe he heard a queer noise, "a measured breathing, gurgling, hissing sound." He turned quietly around to look. Within a foot of his paddle he saw the nose and mouth of a crocodile! Its nose was grey, smooth and round, and stuck straight out of the water, and from its wide open mouth water gurgled in and out. What to do? Any sudden move might alarm the creature and with one lash of its tail it could severely damage the Rob Roy. Quietly rising from his reclining position MacGregor grabbed the paddle and cautiously dipped its blade into the water. Immediately the nose and mouth disappeared. With one stroke MacGregor sent the canoe out into midstream. His curiosity was aroused, however, and he paddled close to shore to examine carefully the muddy bank. Sure enough he saw the unmistakable footprints of a crocodile, similar to the impression made by a human hand with wrist lowered and fingers bent. He had seen them on the Nile. MacGregor ran the canoe onto the bank in order to make a sketch of the footprints. Suddenly he felt something hard under the boat, a bump, bump, bump right under his seat; the crocodile was as curious about him as he was about the crocodile. MacGregor had seen enough. He "fled from the spot at top speed."
(Inquiries later proved that the presence of crocodiles on the Kishon River is not unlikely. They had been reported on the Zerka River nearby and the higher tributaries of these two rivers are only five miles apart. MacGregor had inadvertantly paddled on to one of the least known wonders of the Holy Land.)
One last view of this intrepid Scotsman. In Alexandria, Egypt, on his way home to England, his ship passed the royal yacht with the Prince of Wales on board. While the captain held the ship MacGregor couldn’t resist launching the Rob Roy in the open sea to salute the royal party. The crew of the royal yacht clustered thick in the rigging and cheered the tiny craft. "Turn now before the wind," they cried, "and show how you can go." And go he did, to explore, write his books, and achieve a modest immortality. With his pen, pencil and paddle he left an enchanting record.
John Brinton, whose hobby is collecting old books, frequently contributes articles on forgotten but fascinating personalities in Middle East history.