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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
En Route
By Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890)
 
From ‘The Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Meccah’

AT 3 P.M. we left El Zaribah, traveling towards the S. W., and a wondrously picturesque scene met the eye. Crowds hurried along, habited in the pilgrim garb, whose whiteness contrasted strangely with their black skins, their newly shaven heads glistening in the sun, and their long black hair streaming in the wind. The rocks rang with shouts of “Labbayk! Labbayk!” At a pass we fell in with the Wahhabis, accompanying the Baghdad caravan, screaming “Here am I”; and guided by a large loud kettle-drum, they followed in double file the camel of a standard-bearer, whose green flag bore in huge white letters the formula of the Moslem creed. They were wild-looking mountaineers, dark and fierce, with hair twisted into thin dalik or plaits: each was armed with a long spear, a matchlock, or a dagger. They were seated upon coarse wooden saddles, without cushions or stirrups, a fine saddle-cloth alone denoting a chief. The women emulated the men; they either guided their own dromedaries, or sitting in pillion, they clung to their husbands; veils they disdained, and their countenances certainly belonged not to a “soft sex.” These Wahhabis were by no means pleasant companions. Most of them were followed by spare dromedaries, either unladen or carrying water-skins, fodder, fuel, and other necessaries for the march. The beasts delighted in dashing furiously through our file, which, being colligated, was thrown each time into the greatest confusion. And whenever we were observed smoking, we were cursed aloud for infidels and idolaters.  1
  Looking back at El Zaribah, soon after our departure, I saw a heavy nimbus settle upon the hilltops, a sheet of rain being stretched between it and the plain. The low grumbling of thunder sounded joyfully in our ears. We hoped for a shower, but were disappointed by a dust-storm, which ended with a few heavy drops. There arose a report that the Bedouins had attacked a party of Meccans with stones,—classical Arabian missiles,—and the news caused men to look exceeding grave.  2
  At 5 P.M. we entered the wide bed of the fiumara, down which we were to travel all night. Here the country falls rapidly towards the sea, as the increasing heat of the air, the direction of the watercourses, and signs of violence in the torrent-bed show. The fiumara varies in breadth from 150 feet to three-quarters of a mile; its course, I was told, is towards the southwest, and it enters the sea near Jeddah. The channel is a coarse sand, with here and there masses of sheet rock and patches of thin vegetation.  3
  At about half-past 5 P.M. we entered a suspicious-looking place. On the right was a stony buttress, along whose base the stream, when there is one, flows; and to this depression was our road limited by the rocks and thorn-trees, which filled the other half of the channel. The left side was a precipice, grim and barren, but not so abrupt as its brother. Opposite us the way seemed barred by piles of hills, crest rising above crest into the far blue distance. Day still smiled upon the upper peaks, but the lower slopes and the fiumara bed were already curtained with gray sombre shade.  4
  A damp seemed to fall upon our spirits as we approached this Valley Perilous. I remarked with wonder that the voices of the women and children sank into silence, and the loud Labbaykas of the pilgrims were gradually stilled. Whilst still speculating upon the cause of this phenomenon, it became apparent. A small curl of smoke, like a lady’s ringlet, on the summit of the right-hand precipice, caught my eye, and simultaneous with the echoing crack of the matchlock a high-trotting dromedary in front of me rolled over upon the sands. A bullet had split his heart, throwing his rider a goodly somerset of five or six yards.  5
  Ensued terrible confusion; women screamed, children shrieked, and men vociferated, each one striving with might and main to urge his animal out of the place of death. But the road being narrow, they only managed to jam the vehicles in a solid immovable mass. At every matchlock shot a shudder ran through the huge body, as when the surgeon’s scalpel touches some more sensitive nerve. The irregular horsemen, perfectly useless, galloped up and down over the stones, shouting to and ordering one another. The Pacha of the army had his carpet spread at the foot of the left-hand precipice, and debated over his pipe with the officers what ought to be done. No good genius whispered “Crown the heights.”  6
  Then it was that the conduct of the Wahhabis found favor in my eyes. They came up, galloping their camels,—
  “Torrents less rapid and less rash,—”
with their elf-locks tossing in the wind, and their flaring matches casting a strange lurid light over their features. Taking up a position, one body began to fire upon the Utaybah robbers, whilst two or three hundred, dismounting, swarmed up the hill under the guidance of the Sherif Zayd. I had remarked this nobleman at El Medinah as a model specimen of the pure Arab. Like all Sherifs, he is celebrated for bravery, and has killed many with his own hand. When urged at El Zaribah to ride into Meccah, he swore that he would not leave the caravan till in sight of the walls; and fortunately for the pilgrims, he kept his word. Presently the firing was heard far in our rear—the robbers having fled; the head of the column advanced, and the dense body of the pilgrims opened out. Our forced halt was now exchanged for a flight. It required much management to steer our desert-craft clear of danger; but Shaykh Masud was equal to the occasion. That many were lost was evident by the boxes and baggage that strewed the shingles. I had no means of ascertaining the number of men killed and wounded: reports were contradictory, and exaggeration unanimous. The robbers were said to be 150 in number; their object was plunder, and they would eat the shot camels. But their principal ambition was the boast “We, the Utaybah, on such and such a night stopped the Sultan’s mahmal one whole hour in the pass.”
  7
  At the beginning of the skirmish I had primed my pistols, and sat with them ready for use. But soon seeing that there was nothing to be done, and wishing to make an impression,—nowhere does Bobadil now “go down” but in the East,—I called aloud for my supper. Shaykh Nur, exanimate with fear, could not move. The boy Mohammed ejaculated only an “Oh, sir!” and the people around exclaimed in disgust, “By Allah! he eats!” Shaykh Abdullah, the Meccan, being a man of spirit, was amused by the spectacle. “Are these Afghan manners, Effendim?” he inquired from the shugduf behind me. “Yes,” I replied aloud, “in my country we always dine before an attack of robbers, because that gentry is in the habit of sending men to bed supperless.” The Shaykh laughed aloud, but those around him looked offended. I thought the bravado this time mal placé; but a little event which took place on my way to Jeddah proved that it was not quite a failure.  8
  As we advanced our escort took care to fire every large dry asclepias, to disperse the shades which buried us. Again the scene became wondrous wild:—
  “Full many a waste I’ve wander’d o’er,
Clomb many a crag, cross’d many a shore,
  But, by my halidome,
A scene so rude, so wild as this,
Yet so sublime in barrenness,
Ne’er did my wandering footsteps press,
  Where’er I chanced to roam.”
  9
  On either side were ribbed precipices, dark, angry, and towering above, till their summits mingled with the glooms of night; and between them formidable looked the chasm, down which our host hurried with shouts and discharges of matchlocks. The torch-smoke and the night-fires of flaming asclepias formed a canopy, sable above and livid red below, which hung over our heads like a sheet, and divided the cliffs into two equal parts. Here the fire flashed fiercely from a tall thorn, that crackled and shot up showers of sparks into the air; there it died away in lurid gleams, which lit up a truly Stygian scene. As usual, however, the picturesque had its inconveniences. There was no path. Rocks, stone-banks, and trees obstructed our passage. The camels, now blind in darkness, then dazzled by a flood of light, stumbled frequently; in some places slipping down a steep descent, in others sliding over a sheet of mud. There were furious quarrels and fierce language between camel-men and their hirers, and threats to fellow-travelers; in fact, we were united in discord. I passed that night crying “Hai! Hai!” switching the camel, and fruitlessly endeavoring to fustigate Masud’s nephew, who resolutely slept upon the water-bags. During the hours of darkness we made four or five halts, when we boiled coffee and smoked pipes, but man and beasts were beginning to suffer from a deadly fatigue.  10
  Dawn found us still traveling down the fiumara, which here is about one hundred yards broad. The granite hills on both sides were less precipitous, and the borders of the torrent-bed became natural quays of stiff clay, which showed a water-mark of from twelve to fifteen feet in height. In many parts the bed was muddy, and the moist places, as usual, caused accidents. I happened to be looking back at Shaykh Abdullah, who was then riding in old Ali bin Ya Sin’s fine shugduf; suddenly the camel’s four legs disappeared from under him, his right side flattening the ground, and the two riders were pitched severally out of the smashed vehicle. Abdullah started up furious, and abused the Bedouins, who were absent, with great zest. “Feed these Arabs,” he exclaimed, quoting a Turkish proverb, “and they will fire at Heaven!” But I observed that, when Shaykh Masud came up, the citizen was only gruff.  11
  We then turned northward, and sighted El Mazik, more generally known as Wady Laymun, the Valley of Limes. On the right bank of the fiumara stood the Meccan Sherif’s state pavilion, green and gold: it was surrounded by his attendants, and prepared to receive the Pacha of the caravan. We advanced half a mile, and encamped temporarily in a hill-girt bulge of the fiumara bed. At 8 A.M. we had traveled about twenty-four miles from El Zaribah, and the direction of our present station was S. W. 50°.  12
  Shaykh Masud allowed us only four hours’ halt; he wished to precede the main body. After breaking our fast joyously upon limes, pomegranates, and fresh dates, we sallied forth to admire the beauties of the place. We are once more on classic ground, the ground of the ancient Arab poets:—
  “Deserted is the village—waste the halting place and home
At Mina; o’er Rijam and Ghul wild beasts unheeded roam;
On Rayyan hill the channel lines have left a naked trace,
Time-worn, as primal Writ that dints the mountains flinty face;”
and this wady, celebrated for the purity of its air, has from remote ages been a favorite resort of the Meccans. Nothing can be more soothing to the brain than the dark-green foliage of the limes and pomegranates; and from the base of the southern hill bursts a bubbling stream, whose
  “Chiare, fresche e dolci acque”
flow through the garden, filling them with the most delicious of melodies, and the gladdest sound which nature in these regions knows.
  13
  Exactly at noon Masud seized the halter of the foremost camel, and we started down the fiumara. Troops of Bedouin girls looked over the orchard walls laughingly, and children came out to offer us fresh fruit and sweet water. At 2 P.M., traveling southwest, we arrived at a point where the torrent-bed turns to the right, and quitting it, we climbed with difficulty over a steep ridge of granite. Before three o’clock we entered a hill-girt plain, which my companions called “Sola.” In some places were clumps of trees, and scattered villages warned us that we were approaching a city. Far to the left rose the blue peaks of Taif, and the mountain road, a white thread upon the nearer heights, was pointed out to me. Here I first saw the tree, or rather shrub, which bears the balm of Gilead, erst so celebrated for its tonic and stomachic properties. I told Shaykh to break off a twig, which he did heedlessly. The act was witnessed by our party with a roar of laughter, and the astounded Shaykh was warned that he had become subject to an atoning sacrifice. Of course he denounced me as the instigator, and I could not fairly refuse assistance. The tree has of late years been carefully described by many botanists; I will only say that the bark resembled in color a cherry-stick pipe, the inside was a light yellow, and the juice made my fingers stick together.  14
  At 4 P.M. we came to a steep and rocky pass, up which we toiled with difficulty. The face of the country was rising once more, and again presented the aspect of numerous small basins divided and surrounded by hills. As we jogged on we were passed by the cavalcade of no less a personage than the Sherif of Meccah. Abd el Muttalib bin Ghalib is a dark, beardless old man with African features, derived from his mother. He was plainly dressed in white garments and a white muslin turban, which made him look jet-black; he rode an ambling mule, and the only emblem of his dignity was the large green satin umbrella borne by an attendant on foot. Scattered around him were about forty matchlock-men, mostly slaves. At long intervals, after their father, came his four sons, Riza Bey, Abdullah, Ali, and Ahmed, the latter still a child. The three elder brothers rode splendid dromedaries at speed; they were young men of light complexion, with the true Meccan cast of features, showily dressed in bright-colored silks, and armed, to denote their rank, with sword and gold-hilted dagger.  15
  We halted as evening approached, and strained our eyes, but all in vain, to catch sight of Meccah, which lies in a winding valley. By Shaykh Abdullah’s direction I recited, after the usual devotions, the following prayer. The reader is forewarned that it is difficult to preserve the flowers of Oriental rhetoric in a European tongue.  16
  “O Allah! verily this is thy safeguard (Amn) and thy Sanctuary (Haram)! Into it whoso entereth becometh safe (Amin). So deny (Harrim) my flesh and blood, my bones and skin, to hell-fire. O Allah! Save me from thy wrath on the day when thy servants shall be raised from the dead. I conjure thee by this that thou art Allah, besides whom is none (thou only), the merciful, the compassionate. And have mercy upon our lord Mohammed, and upon the progeny of our lord Mohammed, and upon his followers, one and all!” This was concluded with the “Talbiyat,” and with an especial prayer for myself.  17
  We again mounted, and night completed our disappointment. About 1 A.M. I was aroused by general excitement. “Meccah! Meccah!” cried some voices. “The Sanctuary! O the Sanctuary!” exclaimed others; and all burst into loud “Labbayk,” not unfrequently broken by sobs. I looked out from my litter, and saw by the light of the southern stars the dim outlines of a large city, a shade darker than the surrounding plain. We were passing over the last ridge by a “winding path” flanked on both sides by watch-towers, which command the “Darb el Maala,” or road leading from the north into Meccah. Thence we passed into the Maabidah (northern suburb), where the Sherif’s palace is built. After this, on the left hand, came the deserted abode of the Sherif bin Aun, now said to be a “haunted house.” 1 Opposite to it lies the Jannat el Maala, the holy cemetery of Meccah. Thence, turning to the right, we entered the Sulaymaniyah or Afghan quarter. Here the boy Mohammed, being an inhabitant of the Shamiyah or Syrian ward, thought proper to display some apprehension. These two are on bad terms; children never meet without exchanging volleys of stones, and men fight furiously with quarter-staves. Sometimes, despite the terrors of religion, the knife and sabre are drawn. But these hostilities have their code. If a citizen be killed, there is a subscription for blood-money. An inhabitant of one quarter, passing singly through another, becomes a guest; once beyond the walls, he is likely to be beaten to insensibility by his hospitable foes.  18
  At the Sulaymaniyah we turned off the main road into a by-way, and ascended by narrow lanes the rough heights of Jebel Hindi, upon which stands a small whitewashed and crenellated building called a “fort.” Thence descending, we threaded dark streets, in places crowded with rude cots and dusky figures, and finally at 2 A.M. we found ourselves at the door of the boy Mohammed’s house.  19
  We arrived on the morning of Sunday the 7th Zu’l Hijjah (11th September, 1853), and had one day before the beginning of the pilgrimage to repose and visit the Haram. From El Medinah to Meccah the distance, according to my calculation, was 248 English miles, which was accomplished in eleven marches.  20
 
Note 1. I cannot conceive what made the accurate Niebuhr fall into the strange error that “apparitions are unknown in Arabia.” Arabs fear to sleep alone, to enter the bath at night, to pass by cemeteries during dark, and to sit amongst ruins, simply for fear of apparitions. And Arabia, together with Persia, has supplied half the Western World—Southern Europe—with its ghost stories and tales of angels, demons, and fairies. To quote Milton, the land is struck “with superstition as with a planet.” [back]
 
 
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