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Chapter 13

Palgrave’s Travels—Journey To Ri’ad The Capital Of Nedjed


Two roads lay before us.  The shorter, and for that reason the more frequented of the two, led southeast-by-east through Woshem and Wady Haneefah to Ri’ad.  But this track passed through a district often visited at the present moment by the troops of ’Oneyzah and their allies, and hence our companions, not over-courageous for the most, were afraid to follow it.  Another road, much more circuitous, but farther removed from the scene of military operations, led northeast to Zulphah, and thence entered the province of Sedeyr, which it traversed in a southeasterly or southern direction, and thus reached the ’Aared.  Our council of war resolved on the latter itinerary, nor did we ourselves regret a roundabout which promised to procure us the sight of much that we might scarcely have otherwise an opportunity of visiting.  Barakat and I were mounted on two excellent dromedaries of Aboo-’Eysa’s stud; the Na’ib * was on a lovely gray she camel with a handsome saddle, crimson and gold.  The Meccans shared between them a long-backed black beast; the rest were also mounted on camels or dromedaries, since the road before us was impracticable for horses, at any rate at this time of year.

“Our road lay in Kaseem, whose highlands we rejoined once more, and traversed till sunset.  The view was very beautiful from its extent and variety of ups and downs, in broad, grassy hills; little groups of trees stood in scattered detachments around; and had a river, that desideratum of Arabia, been in sight, one might almost have fancied one’s self in the country bordering the Lower Rhine for some part of its course; readers may suppose, too, that there was less verdure here than in the European parallel—my comparison bears only on the general turn of the view.  No river exists nearer Kaseem than Shatt (Euphrates), some hundred leagues off, and our eyes had been too long accustomed to the deceptive pools of the mirage to associate with them even a passing idea of aught save drought and heat.

“We journeyed on till dark, and then reached certain hillocks of a different character from the hard ground lately under our feet.  Here began the Nefood, whose course from the southwest to northeast, and then north, parts between Kaseem, Woshem, and Sedeyr.  I have already said something of these sandy inlets when describing that which we crossed three months ago between Djowf and Shomer.

“On the verge of the desert strip we now halted a little to eat a hasty supper, and to drink—the Arabs coffee and the Persians tea.  But journeying in these sands, under the heat of the day, is alike killing to man and beast, and therefore Aboo-’Eysa had resolved that we should cross the greater portion under favor of the cooler hours of night.

“All night, a weary night, we waded up and down through waves of sand, in which the camels often sank up to their knees, and their riders were obliged to alight and help them on.

“Now by full daylight appeared the true character of the region which we were traversing; its aspect resembled the Nefood north of Djebel Shomer, but the undulations were here higher and deeper, and the sand itself lighter and less stable.  In most spots neither shrub nor blade of grass could fix its root, in others a scanty vegetation struggled through, but no trace of man anywhere.  The camels ploughed slowly on; the Persians, unaccustomed to such scenes, were downcast and silent; all were tired, and no wonder.  At last, a little before noon, and just as the sun’s heat was becoming intolerable, we reached the verge of an immense crater-like hollow, certainly three or four miles in circumference, where the sand-billows receded on every side, and left in the midst a pit seven or eight hundred feet in depth, at whose base we could discern a white gleam of limestone rock, and a small group of houses, trees, and gardens, thus capriciously isolated in the very heart of the desert.

“This was the little village and oasis of Wasit, or ‘the intermediary,’ so called because a central point between the three provinces of Kaseem, Sedeyr, and Woshem, yet belonging to none of them.  Nor is it often visited by wayfarers, as we learned from the inhabitants, men simple and half-savage, from their little intercourse with the outer world, and unacquainted even with the common forms of Islamitic prayer, though dwelling in the midst of the Wahabee dominions.

“A long, winding descent brought us to the bottom of the valley, where on our arrival men and boys came out to stare at the Persians, and by exacting double prices for fruit and camel’s milk proved themselves not altogether such fools as they looked.  For us, regarded as Arabs, we enjoyed their hospitality—it was necessarily a limited one—gratis; whereupon the Na’ib grew jealous, and declaimed against the Arabs as ‘infidels,’ for not treating with suitable generosity pilgrims like themselves returning from the ‘house of God.’

“To get out of this pit was no easy matter; facilis descensus, etc., thought I; no ascending path showed itself in the required direction, and every one tried to push up his floundering beast where the sand appeared at a manageable slope, and firm to the footing.  Camels and men fell and rolled back down the declivity, till some of the party shed tears of vexation, and others, more successful, laughed at the annoyance of their companions.  Aboo-’Eysa ran about from one to the other, attempting to direct and keep them together, till finally, as Heaven willed, we reached the upper rim to the north.

“Before us lay what seemed a storm-driven sea of fire in the red light of afternoon, and through it we wound our way, till about an hour before sunset we fell in with a sort of track or furrow.  Next opened out on our road a long descent, at whose extreme base we discerned the important and commercial town of Zulphah.  Beyond it rose the wall-like steeps of Djebel Toweyk, so often heard of, and now seen close at hand.  Needless to say how joyfully we welcomed the first view of that strange ridge, the heart and central knot of Arabia, beyond which whatever lay might almost be reckoned as a return journey.

“We had now, in fact, crossed the Nefood, and had at our feet the great valley which constitutes the main line of communication between Nedjed and the north, reaching even to the Tigris and Bagdad.

“We passed the whole length of the town of Zulphah, several streets of which had been lately swept away by the winter torrents that pour at times their short-lived fury down this valley.  Before us to the southeast stretched the long hollow; on our right was the Nefood, on our left Djebel Toweyk and the province of Sedeyr.  The mountain air blew cool, and this day’s journey was a far pleasanter one than its predecessor.  We continued our march down the valley till the afternoon, when we turned aside into a narrow gorge running up at a sharp angle to the northeast, and thus entered between the heights of Djebel Toweyk itself.

“This mountain essentially constitutes Nedjed.  It is a wide and flat chain, or rather plateau, whose general form is that of a huge crescent.  If I may be permitted here to give my rough guess regarding the elevation of the main plateau, a guess grounded partly on the vegetation, climate, and similar local features, partly on an approximate estimate of the ascent itself, and of the subsequent descent on the other or sea side, I should say that it varies from a height of one to two thousand feet above the surrounding level of the peninsula, and may thus be about three thousand feet at most above the sea.  Its loftiest ledges occur in the Sedeyr district, where we shall pass them before long; the centre and the southwesterly arm is certainly lower.  Djebel Toweyk is the middle knot of Arabia, its Caucasus, so to say; and is still, as it has often been in former times, the turning-point of the whole, or almost the whole, peninsula in a political and national bearing.

“The climate of the northern part of Djebel Toweyk, whether plateau or valley, coincident with the province of Sedeyr, is perhaps one of the healthiest in the world; an exception might be made in favor of Djebel Shomer alone.  The above named districts resemble each other closely in dryness of atmosphere, and the inhabitants of Sedeyr, like those of Shomer, are remarkable for their ruddy complexion and well-developed stature.  But when we approach the centre of the mountain crescent, where its whole level lowers, while the more southerly latitude brings it nearer to the prevailing influences of the tropical zone, the air becomes damper and more relaxing, and a less salubrious climate pictures itself in the sallower faces and slender make of its denizens.

“Two days later we attained the great plateau, of which I have a few pages since given an anticipated description.

“About noon we halted in a brushwood-covered plain to light fire and prepare coffee.  After which we pursued our easterly way, still a little to the north, now and then meeting with travellers or peasants; but a European would find these roads very lonely in comparison with those of his own country.  All the more did I admire the perfect submission and strict police enforced by the central government, so that even a casual robbery is very rare in the provinces, and highwaymen are totally out of the question.  At last, near the same hour of afternoon that had brought us the day before to Ghat, we came in sight of Mejmaa’, formerly capital of the province, and still a place of considerable importance, with a population, to judge by appearances and hearsay, of between ten and twelve thousand souls.

“We were up early next morning, for the night air was brisk, and a few hours of sleep had sufficed us.

“After sunrise we came on a phenomenon of a nature, I believe, without a second or a parallel in Central Arabia, yet withal most welcome, namely, a tolerably large source of running water, forming a wide and deepish stream, with grassy banks, and frogs croaking in the herbage.  We opened our eyes in amazement; it was the first of the kind that we had beheld since leaving the valley of Djowf.  But though a living, it is a short-lived rivulet, reaching only four or five hours’ distance to Djelajil, where it is lost amid the plantations of the suburbs.

“We had not long traversed the Meteyr encampment, when we came in view of the walls of Toweym, a large town, containing between twelve and fifteen thousand inhabitants, according to the computation here in use, and which I follow for want of better.  The houses are here built compactly, of two stories in general, sometimes three; the lower rooms are often fifteen or sixteen feet high, and the upper ten or twelve; while the roof itself is frequently surrounded by a blind wall of six feet or more, till the whole attains a fair altitude, and is not altogether unimposing.

“Early next day, at a short distance from Toweym, we passed another large village with battlemented walls, and on the opposite side of the road a square castle, looking very mediæval; this was Hafr.  A couple of hours further on we reached Thomeyr, a straggling townlet, more abounding in broken walls than houses; close by was a tall white rock, crowned by the picturesque remains of an old outwork or fort, overlooking the place.  Here our party halted for breakfast in the shadow of the ruins.  Barakat and myself determined to try our fortune in the village itself; no guards appeared at its open gate; we entered unchallenged, and roamed through silent lanes and heaps of rubbish, vainly seeking news of milk and dates in this city of the dead.  At last we met a meagre townsman, in look and apparel the apothecary of Romeo; and of him, not without misgivings of heart, we inquired where aught eatable could be had for love or money.  He apologized, though there was scarce need of that, for not having any such article at his disposal; ‘but,’ added he, ‘in such and such a house there will certainly be something good,’ and thitherward he preceded us in our search.  We found indeed a large dwelling, but the door was shut; we knocked to no purpose: nobody at home.

*"The Na'ib" was a Persian official, despatched by the Persian pilgrims to lay before Feysul, the ruler of Nedjed, a statement of the extortions to which they had been compelled to submit at Bereydah. He was thus equally under Aboo-'Eysa's charge, and his company was rather an advantage to Palgrave, since his mission was another cause of removing—or, at least, lessening—the prominence of the latter, after his arrival at Ri'ad.



Death on the Desert


“Our man now set us a bolder example, and we altogether scrambled through a breach in the mud wall, and found ourselves amid empty rooms and a desolate court-yard.  ‘Everybody is out in the fields, women only excepted,’ said our guide, and we separated, no better off than before.  Despairing of the village commissariat, we climbed a turret on the outer walls, and looked round.  Now we saw at some distance a beautiful palm-grove, where we concluded that dates could not be wanting, and off we set for it across the stubble fields.  But on arriving we found our paradise surrounded by high walls, and no gate discoverable.  While thus we stood without, like Milton’s fiend at Eden, but unable, like him, ‘by one high bound to overleap all bound,’ up came a handsome Solibah lad, all in rags, half-walking, half-dancing, in the devil-may-care way of his tribe.  ‘Can you tell us which is the way in?’ was our first question, pointing to the garden before us; and, ‘Shall I sing you a song?’ was his first answer.  ‘We don’t want your songs, but dates; how are we to get at them?’ we replied.  ‘Or shall I perform you a dance?’ answered the grinning young scoundrel, and forthwith began an Arabian polka-step, laughing all the while at our undisguised impatience.  At last he condescended to show us the way, but no other than what befitted an orchard-robbing boy, like himself, for it lay a little farther off, right over the wall, which he scaled with practised ingenuity, and helped us to follow.  So we did, though perhaps with honester intentions, and, once within, stood amid trees, shade, and water.  The ‘tender juvenile’ then set up a shout, and soon a man appeared, ‘old Adam’s likeness set to dress this garden,’ save that he was not old but young, as Adam might himself have been while yet in Eden.  We were somewhat afraid of a surly reception, too well merited by our very equivocal introduction; but the gardener was better-tempered than many of his caste, and after saluting us very politely, offered his services at our disposal.  We then proposed to purchase a stock of dates for our onward way, whereon the gardener conducted us to an outhouse where heaps of three or four kinds of this fruit, red and yellow, round or long, lay piled up, and bade us choose.  At his recommendation we filled a large cloth, which we had brought with us for the purpose, with excellent ruddy dates, and gave in return a small piece of money, welcome here as elsewhere.  We then took leave and returned, but this time through the garden gate, to the stubble fields, and passing under the broken walls of the village, reached our companions, who had become anxious at our absence.”

For three days longer the travellers journeyed southward, through the valleys branching out from Djebel Toweyk, encamping for the night near some of the small towns.  “In the early gray of the fourth morning,” says Palgrave, “we passed close under the plantations of Rowdah down the valley, now dry and still, once overflowed with the best blood of Arabia, and through the narrow and high-walled pass which gives entrance to the great strongholds of the land.  The sun rose and lighted up to our view wild precipices on either side, with a tangled mass of broken rock and brushwood below, while coveys of partridges started up at our feet, and deer scampered away by the gorges to right or left, or a cloud of dust announced the approach of peasant bands or horsemen going to and fro, and gardens or hamlets gleamed through side openings or stood niched in the bulging passes of the Wady itself, till before noon we arrived at the little hamlet of Malka, or ‘the junction.’

“Its name is derived from its position.  Here the valley divides in form of a Y, sending off two branches—one southerly to Derey’eeyah, the other southeast-by-east through the centre of the province, and communicating with the actual capital, Ri’ad.

“Aboo-’Eysa had meditated bringing us on that very evening to Ri’ad.  But eight good leagues remained from Malka to the capital; and when the Na’ib had terminated his cosmetic operations, the easterly turning shadows left us no hope of attaining Ri’ad before nightfall.  However, we resumed our march, and took the arm of the valley leading to Derey’eeyah; but before reaching it we once more quitted the Wady, and followed a shorter path by the highlands to the left.  Our way was next crossed by a long range of towers, built by Ibraheem Pasha, as outposts for the defence of this important position.  Within their line stood the lonely walls of a large, square barrack; the towers were what we sometimes call Martello—short, large, and round.

“The level rays of the setting sun now streamed across the plain, and we came on the ruins of Derey’eeyah, filling up the whole breadth of the valley beneath.  The palace walls, of unbaked brick, like the rest, rose close under the left or northern edge, but unroofed and tenantless; a little lower down a wide extent of fragments showed where the immense mosque had been, and hard by, the market-place; a tower on an isolated height was, I suppose, the original dwelling-place of the Sa’ood family, while yet mere local chieftains, before growing greatness transferred them to their imperial palace.  The outer fortifications remained almost uninjured for much of their extent, with turrets and bastions reddening in the western light; in other places the Egyptian artillery, or the process of years, had levelled them with the earth; within the town many houses were yet standing, but uninhabited, and the lines of the streets from gate to gate were distinct as in a ground plan.  From the great size of the town (for it is full half a mile in length, and not much less in breadth), and from the close packing of the houses, I should estimate its capacity at above forty thousand indwellers.  The gardens lie without, and still ‘living waved where man had ceased to live,’ in full beauty and luxuriance, a deep green ring around the gray ruins.  For although the Nedjeans, holding it for an ill omen to rebuild and reinhabit a town so fatally overthrown, have transplanted the seat of government, and with it the bulk of the city population, to Ri’ad, they have not deemed it equally necessary to abandon the rich plantations and well-watered fields belonging to the old capital; and thus a small colony of gardeners in scattered huts and village dwellings close under the walls protract the blighted existence of Derey’eeyah.

“While from our commanding elevation we gazed thoughtfully on this scene, so full of remembrances, the sun set, and darkness grew on.  We naturally proposed a halt, but Aboo-’Eysa turned a deaf ear, and affirmed that a garden belonging to ’Abd-er-Rahman, already mentioned as grandson of the first Wahabee, was but a little farther before us, and better adapted to our night’s rest than the ruins.  In truth, three hours of brisk travelling yet intervened between Derey’eeyah and the place in question; but our guide was unwilling to enter Derey’eeyah in company of Persians and Syrians, Shiya’ees and Christians; and this he afterward confessed to me.  For, whether from one of those curious local influences which outlast even the change of races, and give one abiding color to the successive tenants of the same spot, or whether it be occasioned by the constant view of their fallen greatness and the triumph of their enemies, the scanty population of Derey’eeyah comprises some of the bitterest and most bigoted fanatics that even ’Aared can offer.  Accordingly we moved on, still keeping to the heights, and late at night descended a little hollow, where, amid an extensive garden, stood the country villa of ’Abd-er-Rahman.

“We did not attempt to enter the house; indeed, at such an hour no one was stirring to receive us.  But a shed in the garden close by sufficed for travellers who were all too weary to desire aught but sleep; and this we soon found in spite of dogs and jackals, numerous here and throughout Nedjed.

“From this locality to the capital was about four miles’ distance.  Our party divided next morning; the Na’ib and his associates remaining behind, while Barakat and myself, with Aboo-’Eysa, set off straight for the town, where our guide was to give notice at the palace of the approach of the Persian dignitary, that the honors due to his reception might meet him half-way.  At our request the Meccans stayed also in the rear; we did not desire the equivocal effect of their company on a first appearance.

“For about an hour we proceeded southward, through barren and undulating ground, unable to see over the country to any distance.  At last we attained a rising eminence, and crossing it, came at once in full view of Ri’ad, the main object of our long journey—the capital of Nedjed and half Arabia, its very heart of hearts.

“Before us stretched a wild open valley, and in its foreground, immediately below the pebbly slope on whose summit we stood, lay the capital, large and square, crowned by high towers and strong walls of defence, a mass of roofs and terraces, where overtopping all frowned the huge but irregular pile of Feysul’s royal castle, and hard by it rose the scarce less conspicuous palace, built and inhabited by his eldest son, ’Abdallah.  Other edifices, too, of remarkable appearance broke here and there through the maze of gray roof-tops, but of their object and indwellers we were yet to learn.  All around for full three miles over the surrounding plain, but more especially to the west and south, waved a sea of palm-trees above green fields and well-watered gardens; while the singing, droning sound of the water-wheels reached us even where we had halted, at a quarter of a mile or more from the nearest town-walls.  On the opposite side southward, the valley opened out into the great and even more fertile plains of Yemamah, thickly dotted with groves and villages, among which the large town of Manfoohah, hardly inferior in size to Ri’ad itself, might be clearly distinguished.  Farther in the background ranged the blue hills, the ragged Sierra of Yemamah, compared some thirteen hundred years since, by ’Amroo-ebn-Kelthoom, the Shomerite, to drawn swords in battle array; and behind them was concealed the immeasurable Desert of the South, or Dahna.  On the west the valley closes in and narrows in its upward windings toward Derey’eeyah, while to the southwest the low mounds of Aflaj are the division between it and Wady Dowasir.  Due east in the distance a long blue line marks the farthest heights of Toweyk, and shuts out from view the low ground of Hasa and the shores of the Persian Gulf.  In all the countries which I have visited, and they are many, seldom has it been mine to survey a landscape equal to this in beauty and in historical meaning, rich and full alike to eye and mind.  But should any of my readers have ever approached Damascus from the side of the Anti-Lebanon, and surveyed the Ghootah from the heights above Mazzeh, they may thence form an approximate idea of the valley of Ri’ad when viewed from the north.  Only this is wider and more varied, and the circle of vision here embraces vaster plains and bolder mountains; while the mixture of tropical aridity and luxuriant verdure, of crowded population and desert tracks, is one that Arabia alone can present, and in comparison with which Syria seems tame, and Italy monotonous.”

Bayard Taylor

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