John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: June 1

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: June 1


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Cob-Walls

Eze_13:10-11

In the thirteenth chapter of his prophecies, Ezekiel employs an image derived from the work of builders. “One built up a wall, and, lo, others daubed it with untempered mortar. Say unto them which daub it with untempered mortar, that it shall fall: there shall be an overflowing shower; and ye, O great hailstones, shall fall; and a stormy wind shall rend it.”

These words have to us no very distinct meaning. We cannot pretend to have understood them ourselves, until a day’s detention to rest our beasts in a Median village gave us leisure and opportunity to watch, for the first time, the process of building a new house or cottage. The men were building it with “cob-walls;” so called in Devonshire and Cornwall, where the same process is followed, and where we had often observed it without being struck with its suitability for the elucidation of this text, until we saw the same thing in the East. So it is often that the thing itself suffices not, unless we have also the place of the thing, to afford the clue to the kind of information it is capable of affording. That place is not always Palestine itself; even many Scriptural customs having, as we have often alleged, ceased in that country under the many changes to which it has been subjected, which have been preserved in other countries east and west. This illustration, for instance, may now be sought in vain in that country, where the people no longer build with cob-walls, as it appears from the present, and other texts, that they formerly did. The text cannot be explained but by reference to this mode of building. Seeing that the prophet was in the country of the Euphrates, it might be doubtful whether he might not rather here refer to the mode of building in the place of his sojourn, than to that of the country to which he came. It was probably to both; but if to one only, undoubtedly to Palestine. This very remarkable and distinctive mode of building being found in Cornwall and Devon, and also in the East, must be referred to the Phoenicians, who had colonies in those parts of the island; and the colonists would naturally build their houses in the way to which they had been accustomed at home. It seems a long way from Phoenicia to Cornwall—and yet the distance is not so great as to our own colonies, to which we have conveyed the modes of living and building of our own country. This would be a sufficient explanation; but the intervening distance is diminished by the fact, that this mode of building is found intermediately in Barbary and Morocco, where the Phoenicians had also colonies—so that we can actually trace these cob-walls from Canaan to Cornwall by the line of the colonies of Tyre and Sidon.

If this mode of building prevailed among the Phoenicians, then it did among the ancient Canaanites also, whom the Hebrews superseded in the possession of Palestine. The Phoenicians were themselves Canaanites; and, doubtless, when the incursion of the Israelites drove the old inhabitants to the seashore, this maritime people and eager colonizers were glad to avail themselves of the materials for distant colonies thrown upon their hands, in the persons of those expelled nations. Certain it is, that the Jews of North Africa are firmly persuaded that the native inhabitants of Barbary and Morocco are descended from the nations expelled from Canaan. This belief is of little independent value, but is of importance taken in connection with corroborative circumstances, and serves much “to thicken other proofs,” which, taken separately, might “demonstrate thinly.”

If the Hebrews, in leaving Egypt, had gone to a new country, they would probably have built in it houses after the model of those in the land they had quitted. But they entered a country already full of towns and villages, and acquired possession of the dwellings of the previous inhabitants—so that for some generations there could have been no need of their building houses for themselves; and when they did, they inevitably built after the pattern the Canaanites had left, and to which they had become familiar. The Jews had, therefore, no distinctive mode of building houses of their own, but followed that which was common in Canaan, and which the Canaanites carried with them in their migrations, and the Phoenicians with their colonies.

But what is a cob-wall? It is a wall made of beaten earth rammed into molds or boxes, to give the parts the requisite shape and consistence, and so deposited, by the withdrawal of the mold, layer by layer upon the wall, each layer drying in its place as the work proceeds. The blocks are usually of considerable size, and are of various quality and strength, as well as of cost, according to the materials employed, and the time expended upon them. The simplest are merely of earth, or of earth compacted with straw. This is the kind the prophet had in view, and that used in Devon and Morocco, as well as in the East. It cannot stand against heavy rains; and, therefore, unless the climate be very dry, requires to be faced or coated with a tempered mortar of lime or sand, as a fence against the weather. Without this, the body of the wall is liable to the contingencies described by the prophet.

A superior kind of cob is made of these latter ingredients in combination; and if well and perseveringly beaten up together, forms the material for a wall of the most solid character, impervious to the influence of the weather, and almost of time. This is seldom seen now anywhere except in very old walls; but the mode of their preparation is well described in the narrative of a Christian slave in Morocco in the seventeenth century; and the passage is the more curious from the analogy it suggests to the similar employment of Jewish captives in Egypt. Note: Morning Series: Fourteenth Week—Monday.

“Our work and daily labor was continually building of houses and walls; the material and method is so very foreign, and will appear strange to my countrymen. Here there are boxes of wood, of dimensions according to pleasure. These we will fill with earth, powdered, and lime and gravel, well beaten together and tempered with water; and when full we remove the box according to order, and withdraw the box planks, leaving the matter to dry, which will then acquire an incredible degree of hardness; and is very lasting, for we have seen walls of some hundred years’ standing, as we are informed, and all that time has not been able to do them any prejudice. The king himself (what reason for his humor we never had the curiosity to ask him) will sometimes vouchsafe to work in the lime and dirt for an hour together, and will bolt out an encouraging word to the slaves there, viz., as I remember, ‘God send you to your own countries;’ but I judge he either does not speak from his heart, or else he hopes that God will not answer the prayer of such a wretch as himself.” Note: Captivity of T. Phelps. London, 1685.

This superior material is now chiefly employed in the East, and, as Mr. Urquhart vouches, in Morocco for the flat roofings of houses—a matter of great difficulty, and of so much importance, that they celebrate the covering in of houses, with ceremonies analogous to those which we employ in laying the foundation-stone. “Over the wood-work earth is first beaten down, then a layer of earth and lime, and then the pure lime: each layer is separately beaten. They use a small paving-mallet. They work by gangs, and strike in cadence with short strokes, sinking in concert, and producing a strange melody that resounds through the neighborhood of their silent cities, startling the echoes, which recalls the son of ‘Adria’s Gondolier;’ but the words convey simpler thoughts, and a more devotional spirit. One strain runs thus—

‘Yalla wo yalla amili dinu yarbi;

Yalla wo yalla an azziz yarbi.’

O God! O God! Eternal art thou, O my Lord.

O God! O God! Dear to me art thou, O my Lord.” Note: Pillars of Hercules, which contains some curious but discursive speculations on Moorish architecture. The author felt at a loss to make out the etymology of the word cob, as applied to this wall in Devon and Cornwall. The word “is neither Teutonic nor Celtic, Greek nor Latin, Hebrew nor Arabic.” He thinks it may come from Cubbe—Arabic for a tomb, which we doubt. Mr. Urquhart adds, “That whatever be the origin, many English derivatives show that cob meant both wall and ‘beating.’ Cobweb, the web and the wall; cobden, hole in the wall; cobler, one making frequent use of the hammer; cobbing, a school-boy term for thrashing with a knotted handkerchief, besides many others—Cobbett, Cobham Cabbola; cob, as applied to a break-water—Lyme cob.”