Peeps into Palestine – The Sais

by James Neil

The Sais, or Fore-Runner.

His is an extremely picturesque and evidently ancient calling. He may now be seen to the best advantage in the large towns of Egypt. When rich people drive or ride abroad, a servant attends them, called, a sais, or groom, whose duty it is to run on foot at some distance in front of his master’s horse or carriage. This office, like most others in the East, is distinguished by its own peculiar costume. The dress of the sais is light and elegant. The legs are left bare. The spotless white kamise, or cotton tunic, has large, flowing, fan-shaped sleeves, which, as they begin to run, holding their arms stretched out, look like wings. A handsome scarf of cashmere or silk, some eight yards long, is wound round their waist, and over the tunic they wear a short, sleeveless, velvet jacket, profusely embroidered with gold or silver lace. They carry in their hands a long rod. It is their business to clear a passage for their master through the narrow crowded streets, to open gates, announce his coming, and wait upon him when his horse or chariot halts. They take the place of the servants called “footmen” amongst us, and hence the origin of this modern name. As they run, uttering loud warning cries, they use the rod freely over the shoulders of all who obstruct the way. Their strength and powers of endurance are most remarkable, as great in another direction as those of the ’atal. Men drive very rapidly in the East, yet the sais will run without stopping before his master’s carriage, however swiftly borne along, for a distance of a dozen miles! The Khedive in Egypt only allows a subject, no matter how great his rank, to be attended by one sais; and members of the viceregal family may always be known there, when they appear in public, by having two such grooms, or out-runners.

The office of the sais is unquestionably that of the “runner,” or “fore-runner” of Scripture. Samuel’s warning as to “the manner of the king,” — “he will take your sons . . . and they shall run before his chariots” (1 Sam 8.11), is explained by this custom. So also is the conduct of Absalom and Adonijah when, each in turn conspiring against the throne, by way of assuming royal honours, had “fifty men to run before him” (2 Sam 15.1; 1 Kings 1.5). It throws a flood of new light on Elijah’s perfectly natural and chivalrous, though none the less miraculous proceeding, when the king’s runners being either absent at the moment, or purposely replaced by the prophet, he girded up his loins, and, as a sais, ran before the chariot of Ahab from Mount Carmel to the entrance of Jezreel, a distance of some twenty miles (1 Kings 18.44-46)!

A deeply interesting and significant meaning is thus given to the words, “Whither Jesus entered for us as a fore-runner,” occurring in that passage where the Apostle is speaking of the “strong consolation” of those who have “fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” (Heb 6.18-20). He, who stooped to be amongst His disciples “as one who serves,” seems to Paul like the sais, or runner, who just precedes by a little the chariot of the prince, the believer — who in the coming age is to “reign in life” as a king (Rev 1.6; 5.10; 20.6) — to prepare his way, to enter into the gates of the palace, to take possession of it in his name, and to be ready with His own wonderful and Divine condescension to receive, wait upon, and serve him there (See Luke 12.37)! Viewed in this light we have indeed “strong consolation.”

Arabic is now the language of Palestine, as Syriac was in the days of our Lord. Both are similar to Hebrew, and hence you hear on all occasions an echo of the peculiar phrases and expressions of Holy Scripture. But more than this,

Rare Hebrew Words Occur in Arabic

the common Arabic one hears now from the lips of the ignorant fellahheen, the modern peasantry of the Holy Land (who, according to the latest and most probable theory, are thought to be descendants of the original seven nations of Canaan) — difficult Hebrew words with their precise technical meaning, to which in some cases classical Arabic gives us no clue. A notable one occurs in the case of the word surar. It was found by Captain C R Conder, RE, while conducting the Ordnance Survey of Western Palestine, as the name of an ancient ruin, and after an educated native Arabic friend, who lived in a large town, had failed to find a meaning for the word, he discovered that it was still on the lips of the labourers on Mr Bergheim’s farm at Abu Shooshee, on the Judean edge of the Philistine Plain, signifying “pebble” or “small stone.” This gives us the true technical meaning of the precisely similar Hebrew word (according to the rules of Arabic spelling) tzeroar, and throws, as I shall presently show, a flood of light on the reference to sifting in Amos 9.9.