Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Meccah

Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Meccah

I.—The Pilgrim Ship

Sir Richard F. Burton, K.C.M.G., was born at Barham House, Hertfordshire, England, March 19, 1821. He was intended for the Church, and spent a year at Oxford; but showed no clerical leanings, and found a more congenial profession when he obtained a cadetship in the Indian Army in 1842. During the next few years he acquired an extraordinary knowledge of Mohammedan usages and languages that was afterwards to serve him in good stead. In 1849 he returned to England; in 1851 published three books on Indian subjects, and in April, 1853, set forth on his cherished and daring project of visiting in disguise the sacred cities of Islam. The voyage was a particularly dangerous one, Burton frequently having to defend his life, though in so doing he never took another life during the whole of the journey. The account of his “Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Meccah” was published in 1855. Afterwards he travelled in Somaliland, Central Africa, North and South America, and elsewhere, and unfailingly published books on his journeys. He died at Trieste on October 20, 1890.

Early in the morning of April 4, 1853, a “Persian prince” embarked at Southampton for Alexandria. The “prince” was myself, about to undertake a journey for the purpose of removing that opprobrium to modern adventure, the huge white blot which on our maps still notes the eastern regions of Arabia. I had hoped to make a more extended tour, but the East India Company had only granted me a year’s furlough, refusing the three years that I had asked on the ground that my project was too dangerous. The attempt was one that could not be made save in Mohammedan disguise, and in order to conceal my identity effectively, I had thought it prudent to assume this disguise ere leaving England. Ias amply supplied with funds by the Royal Geographical Society.

Several months were spent by me at Alexandria and Cairo in thoroughly familiarising myself once again with Moslem tongues and usages, partly forgotten during a four years’ stay in the West. I diligently studied the Koran, and became an adept at Mohammedan religious practices; and my knowledge of medicine, by enabling me to set up as a doctor, brought me into the close contact with all classes of Moslems that I required for my purpose. I soon dropped the character of a Persian for that of a wandering dervish; but afterwards a still more convenient disguise occurred to me, and I visited El Medinah and Meccah as an Afghan Pathan who had been educated at Rangoon.

Pilgrims to the holy shrines arriving at Alexandria are divided into bodies, and distributed to the three great roads, namely, Suez, Cosseir, and the Haj route by land round the Gulf of Akabah. My route was by Suez, and at Suez I and my fellow-pilgrims had a long wait for a vessel to convey us to Yambu, the port of disembarkation for El Medinah. During this wait I had vexatious difficulties over my passport, which were only solved by an appeal to the British consul.

I must now briefly describe the party into which fate threw me. First of all comes Omar Effendi, a plump and beardless Circassian, of yellow complexion and bilious temperament; he dresses respectably, pays regularly, hates the fair sex, has a mild demeanour, but when roused becomes furious as a tiger. His confidential negro servant, Saad, known as the Devil, was born and bred a slave, obtained manumission, and has wandered as far afield as Russia and Gibraltar. He is the pure African, merry at one moment and sulky at another, affectionate and abusive, reckless and crafty, quarrelsome and unscrupulous to the last degree.

Shaykh Hamid el Lamman, of El Medinah, is a perfect specimen of the town Arab—his face a dirty brown, his beard untrimmed, his only garment, an ochre-coloured blouse, exceedingly unclean. He can sing, slaughter a sheep, deliver a grand call to prayer, shave, cook, fight, and vituperate. Salih Shakkar is a Turk on his father’s side, an Arab on his mother’s; he is as avaricious as an Arab, and as supercilious as a Turk. All these people borrowed money from me. To their number must be added Mohammed, a hot-headed Meccan youth, whom I had met in Cairo, and who appointed himself my companion; and Shaykh Nur, my Indian servant.

Through the activity of Saad the Devil—not disinterested activity, for he wanted to pay nothing himself and to make us pay too much—we were at last able to book passages on the vessel Golden Thread. Amid infinite clamour and excitement on a hot July morning we boarded her, only to be threatened with loss of our places on the poop by a rush of Maghrabi pilgrims, men from Western Africa, desperately poor and desperately violent. Saad the Devil disposed of the intruders by the simple process of throwing them into the hold. There the Maghrabis fell out with a few Turks, and in a few minutes nothing was to be seen but a confused mass of humanity, each item indiscriminately scratching, biting, punching, and butting.

A deputation of us waited upon Ali Murad, the owner, to inform him of the crowded state of the vessel. He told us to be good, and not fight; to trust in Allah, and that Allah would make all things easy for us. His departure was the signal for a second fray. This time the Maghrabis swarmed towards the poop like angry hornets; Saad provided us with a bundle of long ashen staves, and we laid on with might and main. At length it occurred to me to roll an earthen jar full of water—weighing about a hundred pounds—upon the assailants. After this they shrank back and offered peace.

It was twelve days before we reached Yambu. Thevessel had no compass, no log, no sounding-line, nor even the suspicion of a chart. Each night we anchored, usually in one of the many inlets of the Arabian coast, and when possible we went ashore. The heat during the day was insufferable, the wind like the blast of a lime-kiln; we lay helpless and half senseless, without appetite and without energy, feeling as if a few more degrees of heat would be death. Nothing, on the other hand, could have been more delicious than the hour of sunrise. The air was mild and balmy as that of an Italian spring; the mountains, grim and bare during full daylight, mingled their summits with the jasper tints of the sky; at their base ran a sea of amethyst. Not less lovely was the sunset, but after a quarter of an hour its beauty faded, and the wilderness of white crags and pinnacles was naked and ghastly under the moon.

On arriving at Yambu we had to treat for camels, and make provision for the seven days’ journey to El Medinah. As I had injured my foot on the voyage, I bought a shugduf or litter, a vehicle appropriated to women and infirm persons; it had the advantage that notes were more easily taken in it than on a dromedary’s back. At 7 p.m. on July 18 we passed through the gate of Yambu, and took a course due east. My companions, as Arabs will do on such occasions, began to sing.

II.—In the Footsteps of Mohammed

Our little party consisted of twelve camels, and we travelled in Indian file, head tied to tail, with but one outrider, Omar Effendi, whose rank required him to mount a dromedary with showy trappings. In two hours we began to pass over undulating ground with a perceptible rise. At three in the morning we reached the halting-place and lay down to sleep; at nine we breakfasted off a biscuit, a little rice, and milkless tea, and slept again. Dinner, consisting chiefly of boiled rice with clarified butter, was at two; and at three we were ready to start. Towards sunset there was a cry of thieves, which created vast confusion; but the thieves were only half a dozen in number, and fled when a few bullets were sent in their direction.

Next day we travelled through a country fantastic in its desolation—a mass of huge hills, barren plains, and desert vales. The third day was spent uncomfortably at El Hamra, a miserable collection of hovels made of unbaked brick and mud. It was reported that Saad, the great robber-chief, was in the field, and there was consequently danger that our march would be delayed. The power of this ruffian is a standing proof of the imbecility of the Turkish Government.

The Holy Land of El Hejaz drains off Turkish gold and blood in abundance, and the lords of the country hold in it a contemptible position. If they catch a thief, they dare not hang him. They must pay blackmail, and yet be shot at in every pass. They affect superiority over the Arabs, hate them, and are despised by them. Happily, we were overtaken at El Hamra by a Meccan caravan which had influence to procure a military escort; so we were able to proceed, with no serious hindrance, to Bir Abbas.

In the evening of our first melancholy day at this hot, sandy, barren spot, firearms were heard in the distance, betokening an engagement between the troops and the Bedouins. It was not until the following night that we were allowed to start. At dawn we entered an ill-famed gorge called the Pilgrims’ Pass. Presently, thin blue curls of smoke rose from the cliffs on the left, and there rang out the sharp cracks of the hillmen’s matchlocks. From their perches on the rocks they fired upon us with perfect comfort and no danger to themselves, aiming chiefly at our Albanian escort. We had nothing to do but blaze away as much powder, and veil ourselves in as much smoke as possible; we lost twelve men in the affair, besides several of the animals.

We journeyed on through desolate mountain country, all of my companions in the worst of tempers. I spent a whole day trying to recover from Saad the Devil the money I had lent him at Suez. Ultimately, he flung the money down before me without a word. But I had been right in my persistence; had I not forced him to repay me he would have asked for more. At last, after an abominably bad night’s travelling, we climbed up a flight of huge steps cut in black basalt. My companions pressed on eagerly, speaking not a word. We passed through a lane of black scoria, with steep banks on both sides.

“O, Allah! This is the sanctuary of the Prophet! O open the gates of Thy mercy!” “O, Allah! Bless the last of Prophets with blessings in number as the stars of heaven!” “Live for ever, O most excellent of Prophets!” Such were the exclamations that burst from our party as the Holy City, the burial place of Mohammed, lay before us in its fertile girdle of gardens and orchards.

At our feet was a spacious plain, bounded in front by undulating ground; on the left by the grim rocks of Mount Ohod; on the right by the gardens of Kuba. On the north-west of the town wall was a tall white-washed fort, partly built upon rock. In the suburb El Munakhah, near at hand, rose the brand-new domes and minarets of the five mosques. Farther away to the east could be seen the gem of El Medinah, the four tall towers, and the flashing green dome under which rest the Prophet’s remains.

We proceeded towards the gate, from which an eager multitude poured forth to greet friends in the caravan. I took my abode with Shaykh Hamid, who abandoned his former dirt and shabbiness and appeared clean, well-dressed, and with neatly trimmed moustache and beard. He was to pilot me through the intricate ceremonies of the visits to the Prophet’s tomb and the other holy places, and in the evening I set out with him for the Haram, or sanctuary of the Prophet.

The Prophet’s mosque at El Medinah is the second of the three most venerable places in the world, according to Islamic belief; it is peculiarly connected with Mohammed, as Meccah is with Abraham, and Jerusalem with Solomon. On entering it, I was astonished at the mean and tawdry appearance of a place so venerated in the Moslem world. There is no simple grandeur about it, as there is about the Kaabah at Meccah; rather does it suggest a museum of second-rate art, decorated with but pauper splendour. The mosque is a parallelogram about 420 feet in length by 340 broad, and the main colonnade in the south of the building, called El Rawzah (the garden), contains all that is venerable. Shaykh Hamid and I fought our way in through a crowd of beggars with our hands behind us, and beginning with the right feet, we advanced towards the holy places. After preliminary prayers at the Prophet’s pulpit, we reached the mausoleum, an irregular square in the south-east corner, surrounded by walls and a fence. Three small windows enable one to peer at the three tombs within—Mohammed’s, Abubekr’s, and Omar’s. After long praying I was permitted to look through the window opposite the Prophet’s tomb. I could see nothing but a curtain with inscriptions, and a large pearl rosary denoting the exact position of the tomb. Many other sacred spots had to be visited, and many other prayers uttered, ere we left the building.

The principal places of pious visitation in the vicinity of El Medinah are the mosques of Kuba, the cemetery El Bakia, and the martyr Hamzah’s tomb at the foot of Mount Ohod, the scene of one of Mohammed’s most famous battles. The mosques of Kuba are the pleasantest to visit, lying as they do among the date-palm plantations, amid surroundings most grateful to the eye weary with hot red glare. There were green, waving crops and cool shade; a perfumed breeze, strange luxury in El Hejaz; small birds warbled, tiny cascades splashed from the wells. The Prophet delighted to visit one of the wells at Kuba, the Bir el Aris. He would sit upon its brink with bare legs hanging over the side; he honoured it, moreover, with expectoration, which had the effect, say the historians, of sweetening the water, which before was salt.

On August 28 arrived the great caravan from Damascus, and in the plain outside the city there sprang up a town of tents of every size, colour, and shape. A tribal war prevented me from carrying out my intention of journeying overland to Muscat, so I determined to proceed to Meccah with the Damascus caravan. Accordingly, on August 31 I bade farewell to my friends at El Medinah, and hastened after the caravan, which was proceeding to Meccah along the Darb el Sharki, or eastern road. I had escaped all danger of detection at El Medinah, and was now to travel to Meccah along a route wholly unknown to Europeans.

III.—At the Shrine of the Prophet

Owing to the caravan’s annoying practice of night marching, in accordance with the advice of Mohammed, I could see nothing of much of the country through which we travelled. What I did see was mostly a stony and sandy wilderness, with outcrops of black basalt; occasionally we passed through a valley containing camel-grass and acacia trees—mere vegetable mummies—and surrounded with low hills of gravel and clay. At a large village called El Sufayna we encountered the Baghdad caravan, and quarrelled hotly with it for precedence on the route. At the halt before reaching this place a Turkish pilgrim had been mortally wounded by an Arab with whom he had quarrelled. The injured man was wrapped in a shroud, placed in a half-dug grave, and left to die. This horrible fate, I learnt, often befalls poor and solitary pilgrims whom illness or accident incapacitates from proceeding.

At El Zaribah, an undulating plain amongst high granite hills, we were ordered to assume the Ihram, or garb that must be worn by pilgrims at Meccah. It consists simply of two strips of white cotton cloth, with narrow red stripes and fringes. The women donned white robes and hideous masks of palm leaves, for during the ceremonies their veils must not touch their faces. We were warned that we must not quarrel or use bad language; that we must not kill game or cause animals to fly from us; that we were not to shave, or cut or oil our hair, or scratch, save with the open palm; and that we must not cover our heads. Any breach of these and numerous other rules would have to be atoned for by the sacrifice of a sheep.

A short distance beyond this point we had a lively skirmish with robbers, during which I earned a reputation for courage by calling for my supper in the midst of the excitement. Meccah lies in a winding valley, and is not to be seen until the pilgrim is close at hand. At length, at one o’clock in the morning, in the course of our eleventh march since leaving El Medinah, I was aroused by general excitement. “Meccah! Meccah!” cried some voices; “the Sanctuary! O the Sanctuary!” exclaimed others. I looked out from my litter, and saw by the light of the southern stars the dim outlines of a large city. We were passing over the last ridge by an artificial cut, and presently descended to the northern suburb. I took up my lodgings at the home of a boy, Mohammed, who had accompanied me throughout the pilgrimage.

The Kaabah, or House of Allah, at Meccah, which has already been accurately described by the traveller Burckhardt, stands in an oblong square, enclosed by a great wall, 257 paces long, and 210 broad. The open space is surrounded by colonnades united by pointed arches and surmounted by domes. The Kaabah itself is an oblong, flat-roofed structure, 22 paces long and 18 broad; the height appears greater than the length. It is roughly built of large irregular blocks of the grey Meccah stone. It is supposed to have been built and rebuilt ten times—first by the angels of Allah before the creation—secondly by Adam; thirdly by his son Seth; fourthly by Abraham and his son; the eighth rebuilding was during the lifetime of the Prophet.

On the morning of our arrival we bathed and proceeded in our pilgrim garb to the sanctuary. There it lay, the bourne of my long and weary pilgrimage. Here was no Egyptian antiquity, no Greek beauty, no barbaric gorgeousness; yet the view was strange, unique; and how few have looked upon the celebrated shrine! I may truly say that of all the worshippers there, not one felt for the moment a deeper emotion than did the Haji from the far north. But, to confess humbling truth, theirs was the high feeling of religious enthusiasm; mine was the ecstasy of gratified pride.

After drinking holy water, we approached as near as we could to the sacred Black Stone, the subject of so much sacred Oriental tradition, and prayed before it. The stone was surrounded by a crowd of pilgrims, kissing it and pressing their hearts against it. Then followed the ceremony of circumambulation. Seven times we passed round the Kaabah, which was draped in a huge dark curtain, to which pilgrims clung weeping. The boy Mohammed, by physical violence, made a way to the Black Stone. While kissing it, I narrowly observed it, and came away persuaded that it is a big aërolite. After several other ceremonies, I left the holy place thoroughly exhausted.

I did not enter the interior of the Kaabah until later. Nothing could be more simple; a marble floor, red damask hangings, three columns supporting the cross-beams of the ceiling, many lamps said to be of gold, and a safe of aloe-wood, sometimes containing the key of the building, were all that was to be seen. Many pilgrims refuse to enter the Kaabah for religious reasons. Those who tread the hallowed floor are bound, among many other things, never again to walk barefooted, to take up fire with the fingers, or to tell lies. These stipulations, especially the last-named, are too exacting for Orientals.

Meccah is an expensive place during the pilgrimage. The fees levied by the guardians of the Kaabah are numerous and heavy. The citizens make large sums out of the entertainment of pilgrims; they are, for the most part, covetous spendthrifts, who anticipate the pilgrimage by falling into the hands of the usurer, and then endeavour to “skin” the richer Hajis.

On September 12 we set forth for the ceremonies at Mount Arafat, where Adam rejoined Eve after the Fall, and where he was instructed by the archangel Gabriel to erect a house of prayer. At least 50,000 pilgrims were encamped at the foot of the holy mountain. On the day after our arrival we climbed to the sacred spots, and in the afternoon a sermon was preached on the mountain, which I did not hear—being engaged, let me confess, in a flirtation with a fair Meccan. At length the preacher gave the signal to depart, and everyone hurried away with might and main. The plain bristled with tent-pegs, litters were crushed, pedestrians trampled and camels overthrown; single combats with sticks and other weapons took place; briefly, it was a state of chaotic confusion.

Next day was performed, at Muna, on the way back to Meccah, the ceremony of stoning the Shaytan el Kabir, or Great Devil, who is represented by a dwarf buttress placed against a rough wall of stones. The buttress was surrounded by a swarm of pilgrims, mounted and on foot, eager to get as near to the Great Devil as possible. I found myself under the stomach of a fallen dromedary, and had great difficulty in extricating myself; the boy Mohammed emerged from the tumult with a bleeding nose. Schooled by adversity, we bided our time ere approaching to cast the seven stones required by the ceremonial.

At Muna sheep were sacrificed by those pilgrims who, like myself, had committed breaches of the rules. Literally, the land stank. Five or six thousand animals were slain and cut up in this Devil’s punch-bowl. I leave the reader to imagine the rest. When I had completed El Umrah, or the little pilgrimage—a comparatively simple addition to the other ceremonies—I deemed it expedient to leave Meccah. The danger of detection was constantly before me; for had my disguise been penetrated, even although the authorities had been willing to protect me, I should certainly have been slain by indignant devotees.

Issuing from Meccah into the open plain, I felt a thrill of pleasure—such pleasure as only the captive delivered from his dungeon can experience. At dawn the next morning (September 23) we sighted the maritime plain of Jeddah, situated 44 miles distant from Meccah. Worn out with fatigue, I embarked on a vessel of the Bombay Steam Navigation Company, received the greatest kindness from the officers (I had revealed my identity to the British consul at Jeddah), and in due time arrived at Suez.

Let me conclude in the words of a long-dead brother traveller, Fa-hian, “I have been exposed to perils, and I have escaped them; and my heart is moved with emotions of gratitude that I have been permitted to effect the objects I had in view.”

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