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Chapter 10

Palgrave’s Travels—Crossing the Nefood

“Our way was now to the southeast, across a large plain varied with sand-mounds and covered with the ghada-bush, already described, so that our camels were much more inclined to crop pasture than to do their business in journeying ahead.  About noon we halted near a large tuft of this shrub, at least ten feet high.  We constructed a sort of cabin with boughs broken off the neighboring plants and suitably arranged shedwise, and thus passed the noon hours of intolerable heat till the whole band came in sight.

“They were barbarous, nay, almost savage, fellows, like most Sherarat, whether chiefs or people; but they had been somewhat awed by the grandeurs of Hamood, and yet more so by the prospect of coming so soon before the terrible majesty of Telal himself.  All were duly armed, and had put on their best suits of apparel, an equipment worthy of a scarecrow or of an Irishman at a wake.  Tattered red overalls; cloaks with more patches than original substance, or, worse yet, which opened large mouths to cry for patching, but had not got it; little broken tobacco pipes, and no trousers soever (by the way, all genuine Arabs are sans-culottes); faces meagre with habitual hunger, and black with dirt and weather stains—such were the high-born chiefs of Azzam, on their way to the king’s levee.  Along with them were two Bedouins of the Shomer tribe, a degree better in guise and person than the Sherarat; and lastly, three men of Djowf, who looked almost like gentlemen among such ragamuffins.  As to my comrade and myself, I trust that the reader will charitably suppose us the exquisites of the party.  So we rode on together.

“Next morning, a little after sunrise, we arrived at a white calcareous valley, girt round with low hills of marl and sand.  Here was the famous Be’er Shekeek, or ‘well of Shekeek,’ whence we were to fill our water-skins, and that thoroughly, since no other source lay before us for four days’ march amid the sand passes, up to the very verge of Djebel Shomer.

“Daughters of the Great Desert, to use an Arab phrase, the ‘Nefood,’ or sand-passes, bear but too strong a family resemblance to their unamiable mother.  What has been said elsewhere about their origin, their extent, their bearings, and their connection with the Dhana, or main sand-waste of the south, may exempt me from here entering on a minute enarration of all their geographical details; let it suffice for the present that they are offshoots—inlets, one might not unsuitably call them—of the great ocean of sand that covers about one-third of the peninsula, into whose central and comparatively fertile plateau they make deep inroads, nay, in some places almost intersect it.  Their general character, of which the following pages will, I trust, give a tolerably correct idea, is also that of Dahna, or ‘red desert,’ itself.  The Arabs, always prone to localize rather than generalize, count these sand-streams by scores, but they may all be referred to four principal courses, and he who would traverse the centre must necessarily cross two of them, perhaps even three, as we did.

Captain Burton as a Pilgrim

“The general type of Arabia is that of a central table-land, surrounded by a desert ring, sandy to the south, west, and east, and stony to the north.  This outlying circle is in its turn girt by a line of mountains, low and sterile for the most, but attaining in Yemen and Oman considerable height, breadth, and fertility, while beyond these a narrow rim of coast is bordered by the sea.  The surface of the midmost table-land equals somewhat less than one-half of the entire peninsula, and its special demarcations are much affected, nay, often absolutely fixed, by the windings and in-runnings of the Nefood.  If to these central highlands, or Nedjed, taking that word in its wider sense, we add the Djowf, the Ta’yif, Djebel ’Aaseer, Yemen, Oman, and Hasa, in short, whatever spots of fertility belong to the outer circles, we shall find that Arabia contains about two-thirds of cultivated, or at least of cultivable, land, with a remaining third of irreclaimable desert, chiefly to the south.  In most other directions the great blank spaces often left in maps of this country are quite as frequently indications of non-information as of real non-inhabitation.  However, we have just now a strip, though fortunately only a strip, of pure, unmitigated desert before us, after which better lands await us; and in this hope let us take courage and boldly enter the Nefood.

“Much had we heard of them from Bedouins and countrymen, so that we had made up our minds to something very terrible and very impracticable.  But the reality, especially in these dog days, proved worse than aught heard or imagined.

“We were now traversing an immense ocean of loose reddish sand, unlimited to the eye, and heaped up in enormous ridges, running parallel to each other from north to south, undulation after undulation, each swell two or three hundred feet in average height, with slant sides and rounded crests furrowed in every direction by the capricious gales of the desert.  In the depths between the traveller finds himself as it were imprisoned in a suffocating sand-pit, hemmed in by burning walls on every side; while at other times, while laboring up the slope, he overlooks what seems a vast sea of fire, swelling under a heavy monsoon wind, and ruffled by a cross blast into little red-hot waves.”

Palgrave devotes several pages to his journey across the Nefood, bearing out in his general description its character, as above.

Lady Anne Blunt, who with her husband and native followers crossed the Nefood sixteen years later, however, takes issue with Mr. Palgrave as to its character, as will be found in Chapter XVII., largely devoted to her travels in Arabia.

Arriving at the eastern edge of the Nefood Palgrave continues:

“The morning broke on us still toiling amid the sands.  By daylight we saw our straggling companions like black specks here and there, one far ahead on a yet vigorous dromedary, another in the rear dismounted, and urging his fallen beast to rise by plunging a knife a good inch deep into its haunches, a third lagging in the extreme distance.  Everyone for himself and God for us all!—so we quickened our pace, looking anxiously before us for the hills of Djobbah, which could not now be distant.  At noon we came in sight of them all at once, close on our right, wild and fantastic cliffs, rising sheer on the margin of the sand sea.  We coasted them awhile, till at a turn the whole plain of Djobbah and its landscape opened on our view.

“Here we had before us a cluster of black granite rock, streaked with red, and about seven hundred feet, at a rough guess, in height; beyond them a large barren plain, partly white and encrusted with salt, partly green with tillage, and studded with palm-groves, amongst which we could discern, not far off, the village of Djobbah, much resembling that of Djowf in arrangement and general appearance, only smaller, and without castle or tower.  Beyond the valley glistened a second line of sand-hills, but less wild and desolate-looking than those behind us, and far in the distance the main range of Djebel Shomer, a long purple sierra of most picturesque outline.  Had we there and then mounted, as we afterward did, the heights on our right, we should have also seen in the extreme southwest a green patch near the horizon, where cluster the palm plantations of Teymah, a place famed in Arab history, and by some supposed identical with the Teman of Holy Writ.

“But for the moment a drop of fresh water and a shelter from the July sun was much more in our thoughts than all the Teymahs or Temans that ever existed.  My camel, too, was—not at the end of his wits, for he never had any—but of his legs, and hardly capable of advance, while I was myself too tired to urge him on vigorously, and we took a fair hour to cross a narrow white strip of mingled salt and sand that yet intervened between us and the village.

“Without its garden walls was pitched the very identical tent of our noble guide, and here his wife and family were anxiously awaiting their lord.  Djedey’ invited us—indeed he could not conformably with Shomer customs do less—to partake of his board and lodging, and we had no better course than to accept of both.  So we let our camels fling themselves out like dead or dying alongside of the tabernacle, and entered to drink water mixed with sour milk.”  Here the caravan rested for a day.

“About sunrise on the 25th of July we left Djobbah, crossed the valley to the southeast, and entered once more on a sandy desert, but a desert, as I have before hinted, of a milder and less inhospitable character than the dreary Nefood of two days back.  Here the sand is thickly sprinkled with shrubs and not altogether devoid of herbs and grass; while the undulations of the surface, running invariably from north to south, according to the general rule of that phenomenon, are much less deeply traced, though never wholly absent.  We paced on all day; at nightfall we found ourselves on the edge of a vast funnel-like depression, where the sand recedes on all sides to leave bare the chalky bottom-strata below; here lights glimmering amid Bedouin tents in the depths of the valley invited us to try our chance of a preliminary supper before the repose of the night.  We had, however, much ado to descend the cavity, so steep was the sandy slope; while its circular form and spiral marking reminded me of Edgar Poe’s imaginative ‘Maelstrom.’  The Arabs to whom the watch-fires belonged were shepherds of the numerous Shomer tribe, whence the district, plain and mountain, takes its name.  They welcomed us to a share of their supper; and a good dish of rice, instead of insipid samh or pasty, augured a certain approach to civilization.

“At break of day we resumed our march, and met with camels and camel-drivers in abundance, besides a few sheep and goats.  Before noon we had got clear of the sandy patch, and entered in its stead on a firm gravelly soil.  Here we enjoyed an hour of midday halt and shade in a natural cavern, hollowed out in a high granite rock, itself an advanced guard of the main body of Djebel Shomer.  This mountain range now rose before us, wholly unlike any other that I had ever seen; a huge mass of crag and stone, piled up in fantastic disorder, with green valleys and habitations intervening.  The sun had not yet set when we reached the pretty village of Kenah, amid groves and waters—no more, however, running streams like those of Djowf, but an artificial irrigation by means of wells and buckets.  At some distance from the houses stood a cluster of three or four large overshadowing trees, objects of peasant veneration here, as once in Palestine.  The welcome of the inhabitants, when we dismounted at their doors, was hearty and hospitable, nay, even polite and considerate; and a good meal, with a dish of fresh grapes for dessert, was soon set before us in the veranda of a pleasant little house, much reminding me of an English farm-cottage, whither the good man of the dwelling had invited us for the evening.  All expressed great desire to profit by our medical skill; and on our reply that we could not conveniently open shop except at the capital, Ha’yel, several announced their resolution to visit us there; and subsequently kept their word, though at the cost of about twenty-four miles of journey.

“We rose very early.  Our path, well tracked and trodden, now lay between ridges of precipitous rock, rising abruptly from a level and grassy plain; sometimes the road was sunk in deep gorges, sometimes it opened out on wider spaces, where trees and villages appeared, while the number of wayfarers, on foot or mounted, single or in bands, still increased as we drew nearer to the capital.  There was an air of newness and security about the dwellings and plantations hardly to be found nowadays in any other part of Arabia, Oman alone excepted.  I may add also the great frequency of young trees and ground newly enclosed, a cheerful sight, yet further enhanced by the total absence of ruins, so common in the East; hence the general effect produced by Djebel Shomer, when contrasted with most other provinces or kingdoms around, near and far, is that of a newly coined piece, in all its sharpness and shine, amid a dingy heap of defaced currency.  It is a fresh creation, and shows what Arabia might be under better rule than it enjoys for the most part: an inference rendered the more conclusive by the fact that in natural and unaided fertility Djebel Shomer is perhaps the least favored district in the entire central peninsula.

“We were here close under the backbone of Djebel Shomer, whose reddish crags rose in the strangest forms on our right and left, while a narrow cleft down to the plain-level below gave opening to the capital.  Very hard to bring an army through this against the will of the inhabitants thought I; fifty resolute men could, in fact, hold the pass against thousands; nor is there any other approach to Ha’yel from the northern direction.  The town is situated near the very centre of the mountains; it was as yet entirely concealed from our view by the windings of the road amid huge piles of rock.  Meanwhile from Djobbah to Ha’yel the whole plain gradually rises, running up between the sierras, whose course from northeast to southwest crosses two-thirds of the upper peninsula, and forms the outwork of the central high country.  Hence the name of Nedjed, literally ‘highland,’ in contradistinction to the coast and the outlying provinces of lesser elevation.

“The sun was yet two hours’ distance above the western horizon, when we threaded the narrow and winding defile, till we arrived at its farther end.  Here we found ourselves on the verge of a large plain, many miles in length and breadth, and girt on every side by a high mountain rampart, while right in front of us, at scarce a quarter of an hour’s march, lay the town of Ha’yel, surrounded by fortifications of about twenty feet in height, with bastion towers, some round, some square, and large folding gates at intervals; it offered the same show of freshness, and even of something like irregular elegance, that had before struck us in the villages on our way.  This, however, was a full-grown town, and its area might readily hold three hundred thousand inhabitants or more, were its streets and houses close packed like those of Brussels or Paris.  But the number of citizens does not, in fact, exceed twenty or twenty-two thousand, thanks to the many large gardens, open spaces, and even plantations, included within the outer walls, while the immense palace of the monarch alone, with its pleasure-grounds annexed, occupies about one-tenth of the entire city.  Our attention was attracted by a lofty tower, some seventy feet in height, of recent construction and oval form, belonging to the royal residence.  The plain all around the town is studded with isolated houses and gardens, the property of wealthy citizens, or of members of the kingly family, and on the far-off skirts of the plain appear the groves belonging to Kafar, ’Adwah, and other villages, placed at the openings of the mountain gorges that conduct to the capital.  The town walls and buildings shone yellow in the evening sun, and the whole prospect was one of thriving security, delightful to view, though wanting in the peculiar luxuriance of vegetation offered by the valley of Djowf.  A few Bedouin tents lay clustered close by the ramparts, and the great number of horsemen, footmen, camels, asses, peasants, townsmen, boys, women, and other like, all passing to and fro on their various avocations, gave cheerfulness and animation to the scene.

“We crossed the plain and made for the town gate, opposite the castle; next, with no little difficulty, prevailed on our camels to pace the high-walled street, and at last arrived at the open space in front of the palace.  It was yet an hour before sunset, or rather more; the business of the day was over in Ha’yel, and the outer courtyard where we now stood was crowded with loiterers of all shapes and sizes.  We made our camels kneel down close by the palace gate, alongside of some forty or fifty others, and then stepped back to repose our very weary limbs on a stone bench opposite the portal, and awaited what might next occur.”

Bayard Taylor

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