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Chapter 17

Lady Blunt’s Pilgrimage to Nejd

In 1878–79, sixteen years after Palgrave’s journey, Lady Anne Blunt, with her husband and several native servants, accomplished a journey, which, in many respects was more remarkable than the exploits of any of their predecessors.  Whereas Palgrave and others had travelled in disguise, believing it impossible to penetrate into the interior otherwise than as mussulmans, the Blunts made no pretences of the kind, but went as European travellers, desirous of seeing the country, and visiting its rulers.  They traversed the whole breadth of the peninsula, from Beyrout on the Mediterranean coast, to Bagdad on the Tigris, crossing the Great Nefood, or central desert, and visiting Hail, Jebel Shammer, and other places in Nejd.*

On their return Lady Blunt published the remarkably interesting story of their adventures, under the title of “A Pilgrimage to Nejd,” a book which added greatly to our knowledge of the Arabian interior, and to which the compiler of this chapter is largely indebted.

The travellers entered upon their adventurous undertaking with the advantage of experiences gained on a previous journey among the Arab tribes of the Euphrates Valley, and a knowledge of the Arab tongue.  Their native servants, who had accompanied them on their previous expedition, eagerly joined their service for the new venture; camels, horses, and all necessary supplies for the journey were purchased at Damascus, and on December 12th, 1879, the start was made.

Though unwilling to travel under false colors as to race or nationality, the English travellers found it convenient to adopt the Bedouin costume for the desert journey, to avoid attracting more notice than was necessary.  Their first objective point was Jôf, an important oasis in the desert, four hundred miles away.  Lady Blunt, describing the start from Damascus, says:

“At first we skirted the city, passing the gate where St. Paul is said to have entered, and the place where he got over the wall, and then along the suburb of Maïdan, which is the quarter occupied by Bedouins when they come to town, and where we had found the Tudmuri and our camels.  Here we were to have met the Jerdeh, and we waited some time outside the Bawâbat Allah, or ‘Gates of God,’ while Mohammed went in to make inquiries and take leave of his Tudmuri friends.

“It is in front of this gate that the pilgrims assemble on the day of their start for Mecca, and from it the Haj road leads away in a nearly straight line southward.  The Haj road is to be our route as far as Mezárib, and is a broad, well-worn track, though of course not a road at all according to English ideas.  It has, nevertheless, a sort of romantic interest, one cannot help feeling, going as it does so far and through such desolate lands, a track so many thousand travellers have followed never to return.  I suppose in its long history a grave may have been dug for every yard of its course from Damascus to Medina, for, especially on the return journey, there are constantly deaths among the pilgrims from weariness and insufficient food.”

A leisurely journey of a week brought the party to Salkhad, a Druse community at the edge of the desert, where Huseyn, the Sheykh of the Druses provided them with guides to the Kâf oasis, a five days’ journey into the desert.  On the way to Kâf they passed areas of sand, white as snow, and encountered violent sand-storms, in one of which they lost a camel who seized his opportunity to escape back to Mezárib.  Beyond Kâf they met with rather a thrilling adventure, which is thus graphically described:

“Friday, January 3d.—We have had an adventure at last, and rather a disagreeable one; a severe lesson as to the danger of encamping near wells.  We started early, but were delayed a whole hour at Jerawi taking water, and did not leave the wells till nearly eight o’clock.  Then we turned back nearly due east across the wady.  The soil of pure white sand was heavy going, and we went slowly, crossing low undulations without other landmark than the wells we had left behind us.  Here and there rose little mounds, tufted with ghada.  To one of these Wilfrid and I cantered on, leaving the camels behind us, and dismounting, tied our mares to the bushes, that we might enjoy a few minutes’ rest and eat our midday mouthful; the greyhounds meanwhile played about and chased each other in the sand.

“We had finished, and were talking of I know not what, when the camels passed us.  They were hardly a couple of hundred yards in front, when suddenly we heard a thud, thud, thud, on the sand, a sound of galloping.  Wilfrid jumped to his feet, looked round, and called out: ‘Get on your mare.  This is a ghazú!’

“As I scrambled round the bush to my mare, I saw a troop of horsemen charging down at full gallop with their lances, not two hundred yards off.  Wilfrid was up as he spoke, and so should I have been but for my sprained knee and the deep sand, both of which gave way as I was rising.  I fell back.  There was no time to think, and I had hardly struggled to my feet when the enemy was upon us, and I was knocked down by a spear.  Then they all turned on Wilfrid, who had waited for me, some of them jumping down on foot to get hold of his mare’s halter.  He had my gun with him, which I had just before handed to him, but unloaded, his own gun and his sword being on his delúl (riding camel).  He fortunately had on very thick clothes, two abbas one over the other, and English clothes underneath, so the lances did him no harm.  At last his assailants managed to get his gun from him and broke it over his head, hitting him three times and smashing the stock.

“Resistance seemed to me useless, and I shouted to the nearest horseman, ‘Ana dahílak’ (I am under your protection), the usual form of surrender.  Wilfrid hearing this, and thinking he had had enough of this unequal contest, one against twelve, threw himself off his mare.  The Khayal (horsemen) having seized both the mares, paused, and as soon as they had gathered breath, began to ask us who we were and where we came from.

“‘English, and we have come from Damascus,’ we replied, ‘and our camels are close by.  Come with us and you shall hear about it.’

“Our caravan, while all this had happened, and it only lasted about five minutes, had formed itself into a square, and the camels were kneeling down, as we could plainly see from where we were.  I hardly expected the horsemen to do as we asked, but the man who seemed to be their leader at once let us walk on (a process causing me acute pain), and followed with the others to the caravan.  We found Mohammed and the rest of our party entrenched behind the camels with their guns pointed, and as we approached, Mohammed stepped out and came forward.

“‘Min entum?’ (Who are you?) was the first question.

“‘Roala min Ibn Debaa.’  ‘Wallah?’ (Will you swear by God?)  ‘Wallah!’ (We swear).

“‘And you?’  ‘Mohammed ibn Arûk of Tudmur.’

“‘Wallah?’  ‘Wallah!’  ‘And these are Franjis travelling with you?’  ‘Wallah!  Franjis, friends of Ibn Shaalan.’

“It was all right; we had fallen into the hands of friends.  Ibn Shaalan, our host of last year, was bound to protect us, even so far away in the desert, and none of his people dared meddle with us, knowing this.  Besides, Mohammed was a Tudmuri, and as such could not be molested by Roala, for Tudmur pays tribute to Ibn Shaalan, and the Tudmuris have a right to his protection.  So as soon as the circumstances were made clear orders were given by the chief of the party to his followers to bring back our mares, and the gun, and everything which had been dropped in the scuffle.  Even to Wilfrid’s tobacco-bag, all was restored.”

The robbers and the travellers fraternized after the affair was over, and the former were very much ashamed of themselves for having used their spears against a woman.  Lady Blunt apologizes for them, however, as the Bedouin dress she wore for riding prevented them distinguishing her sex in the confusion of the sudden attack.

Two days after the encounter in the desert the party arrived at Jôf, where they spent three days, and found the people very hospitable.  Their chief servant and camel-driver, Mohammed, was an Arab, who had distant connections in this part of Arabia; and as tribal kinship, no matter how remote, is regarded as a matter of great importance, this relationship was of material aid in securing them the good-will of the inhabitants.  The Blunts were less favorably impressed with Jôf than was Palgrave, who, however, uses the term “Djowf” in a broader sense, as including a number of oases situated in “a large oval depression of sixty or seventy miles long by ten or twelve broad, lying between the northern desert that separates it from Syria and the Euphrates, and the southern Nefood, or sandy waste, and interposed between it and the nearest mountains of the Central Arabian plateau.”

Lady Blunt writes of it: “Jôf is not at all what we expected.  We thought we should find it a large cultivated district, and it turns out to be merely a small town.  There is nothing at all outside the walls except a few square patches, half an acre or so each, green with young corn,” etc.

How true is it that no two travellers see things with the same eyes.  Doubtless both these distinguished travellers are reasonably correct in their descriptions, but summed up their impressions from opposite stand-points in a topographical sense; a common enough mistake in Asia, where the name of a place often indicates, equally accurately, a large scope of country and the central spot in it.  In Central Asia, for example, there is Merv, which is the name of a city, and also of the large fertile oasis in which it is situated; also Herat, meaning a broad area of oases, with a population of probably half a million people, in which the fortress-city Herat stands, no less than the city itself.

Important political changes had taken place since Palgrave’s visit.  The rule of the Wahabees had been overthrown in Jôf, and the only representatives of staple authority found there were a Sheykh and six soldiers, who represented the authority of Mohammed ibn Rashid, Emir of Jebel Shammar, with his seat of government at Hail.

From Jôf the travellers proceeded toward Hail, crossing the dreaded Nefood, of which they give a very interesting, and far less gloomy, account than did Palgrave.  They, however, crossed it in January, while Palgrave crossed it in midsummer; so that, in the case of the Nefood, as with Jôf, the apparently conflicting accounts are doubtless both fairly accurate, the one describing the desert in winter, the other in summer.  On January 12th, the travellers found themselves on the edge of the desert.

“At half-past three o’clock we saw a red streak on the horizon before us, which rose and gathered as we approached it, stretching out east and west in an unbroken line.  It might at first have been taken for an effect of mirage, but on coming nearer we found it broken into billows, and but for its red color not unlike a stormy sea seen from the shore, for it rose up, as the sea seems to rise, when the waves are high, above the level of the land.  Somebody called out ‘Nefûd,’ and though for a while we were incredulous, we were soon convinced.  What surprised us was its color, that of rhubarb and magnesia, nothing at all like what we had expected.  Yet the Nefûd it was, the great red desert of Central Arabia.  In a few minutes we had cantered up to it, and our mares were standing with their feet in its first waves.

“January 13th.—We have been all day in the Nefûd, which is interesting beyond our hopes, and charming into the bargain.”  After taking issue with Mr. Palgrave, who, Lady Blunt thinks, overlooked its brighter side, the narrator continues her own observations thus:

“The thing that strikes one first about the Nefûd is its color.  It is not white like the sand dunes we passed yesterday, nor yellow as the sand is in parts of the Egyptian desert, but a really bright red, almost crimson in the morning, when it is wet with dew.  The sand is rather coarse, but absolutely pure, without admixture of any foreign substance, pebble, grit, or earth, and exactly the same in tint and texture everywhere.  It is, however, a great mistake to suppose it barren.  The Nefûd, on the contrary, is better wooded and richer in pasture than any part of the desert we have passed since leaving Damascus.  It is tufted all over with ghada bushes, and bushes of another kind called yerta, which at this time of the year, when there are no leaves, is exactly like a thickly matted vine.

“There are, besides, several kinds of camel pasture, especially one new to us, called adr, on which they say sheep can feed for a month without wanting water, and more than one kind of grass.  Both camels and mares are therefore pleased with the place, and we are delighted with the abundance of firewood for our camps.  Wilfrid says that the Nefûd has solved for him at last the mystery of horse-breeding in Central Arabia.  In the hard desert there is nothing a horse can eat, but here there is plenty.  The Nefûd accounts for everything.  Instead of being the terrible place it has been described by the few travellers who have seen it, it is in reality the home of the Bedouins during a great part of the year.  Its only want is water, for it contains but few wells; all along the edge it is thickly inhabited, and Radi tells us that in the spring, when the grass is green after rain, the Bedouins care nothing for water, as their camels are in milk, and they go for weeks without it, wandering far into the interior of the sand desert.”

In the desert of sand the travellers found many curious hollows, which the native guide called fulj.  Some of these holes were a quarter of a mile in diameter, and as much as 230 feet deep.  They were chiefly of horse-hoof shape.  They took observations, and at one point on the desert found the elevation to be 3,300 feet above sea-level.  After seven days in the Nefûd, the last two of which tried the endurance of men and beasts, the party reached the oasis of Jobba, which is described as being one of the most curious, as also most beautiful, places in the world.

“Its name Jobba, meaning a well, explains its position, for it lies in a hole or well in the Nefûd; not indeed in a fulj, for the basin of Jobba is quite on another scale, and has nothing in common with the horse-hoof depressions I have hitherto described.  It is, all the same, extremely singular, and quite as difficult to account for geologically as the fuljes.  It is a great bare space in the ocean of sand, from four to five hundred feet below its average level, and about three miles wide; a hollow, in fact, not unlike that of Jôf, but with the Nefûd round it instead of sandstone cliffs.  That it has once been a lake is pretty evident, for there are distinct water marks on the rocks, which crop up out of the bed just above the town; and, strange to say, there is a tradition still extant of there having been formerly water there.  The wonder is how this space is kept clear of sand.  What force is it that walls out the Nefûd and prevents encroachments?  As you look across the subbkha, or dry bed of the lake, the Nefûd seems like a wall of water which must overwhelm it; and yet no sand shifts down into the hollow, and its limits are accurately maintained.”

At length the Nefûd was overcome and the travellers approached Hail, not without apprehensions as to the reception that might await them.  Their guide from Jôf enlightened them in regard to many changes that had occurred since Palgrave’s visit, changes that will be equally interesting to readers who have followed Palgrave’s narrative in preceding chapters.

Telal, then despotic ruler at Hail (Ha’yel), had gone insane and committed suicide by stabbing himself with his own dagger four years after Palgrave’s visit.  He was succeeded by his brother Metaab, who, however, died suddenly after reigning three years; when a dispute arose between his brother Mohammed and Telal’s oldest son, Bender, about the succession.  Mohammed being away at the time, Bender, a youth of twenty, was proclaimed Emir.  Mohammed returned, and in a violent quarrel with his nephew drew his dagger and stabbed him to death.

“Then Mohammed galloped back to the castle, and finding Hamûd (son of Obeyd, uncle of Telal) there, got his help and took possession of the palace.  He then seized the younger sons of Tellál (Palgrave’s Telal), Bender’s brothers, all but one child, Naïf, and Bedr, who was away from Hail, and had their heads cut off by his slaves in the court-yard of the castle.  They say, however, that Hamúd protested against this.  But Mohammed was reckless, or wished to strike terror, and not satisfied with what he had already done, went on destroying his relations.

“He had some cousins, sons of Jabar, a younger brother of Abdallah and Obeyd; and these he sent for.  They came in some alarm to the castle, each with his slave.  They were all young men, beautiful to look at, and of the highest distinction; and their slaves had been brought up with them, as the custom is, more like brothers than servants.  They were shown into the kahwah of the castle, and received with great formality, Mohammed’s servants coming forward to invite them in.  It is the custom at Hail, whenever a person pays a visit, that before sitting down he should hang up his sword on one of the wooden pegs fixed into the wall, and this the sons of Jabar did, and their slaves likewise.  Then they sat down and waited and waited, but still no coffee was served to them.  At last Mohammed appeared, surrounded by his guard, but there was no ‘salaam aleykum,’ and instantly he gave orders that his cousins should be seized and bound.  They made a rush for their swords, but were intercepted by the slaves of the castle and made prisoners.  Mohammed then, with horrible barbarity, ordered their hands and their feet to be cut off, and the hands and feet of their slaves, and had them, still living, dragged out into the court-yard of the palace, where they lay till they died.

“These ghastly crimes, more ghastly than ever in a country where wilful bloodshed is so unusual, seem to have struck terror far and wide, and no one has since dared to raise a hand against Mohammed.”

The knowledge of these terrible doings naturally made the travellers feel that they were venturing into dangerous quarters as they rode up to the gates of Hail.  The Emir, whose title was Mohammed-ibn-Rashid (Mohammed, son of Rashid), however, received them kindly; and it was discovered that, apart from the bloody work of the succession, he had turned out to be not a bad ruler.  In any part of his dominions, it was understood that a person might travel unarmed, and with any amount of gold on him, without fear of molestation.  Moreover, he seemed to have been deeply stricken with remorse for his past misdeeds, lived in constant fear of assassination, and was endeavoring to make what amends he could by lavishing honors and kindness on the youth Naïf, the only one of his nephews he had spared—for Bedr, too, had been executed.

It all reads much like a tale from the “Arabian Nights;” and that Arabia is still the land of romance and poetry is confirmed by a curious bit of news learned of Obeyd, about whom it will be remembered Mr. Palgrave had also a good deal to say.

“He (Obeyd) lived to a great age, and died only nine years ago (i.e. 1869).  It is related of him that he left no property behind him, having given away everything during his lifetime—no property but his sword, his mare, and his young wife.  These he left to his nephew Mohammed-ibn-Rashid, the reigning Emir, with the request that his sword should remain undrawn, his mare unridden, and his wife unmarried forever after.”

The travellers give an interesting account of the Emir’s horses, the most famous stud in Nejd.

Though interested, they were, on the whole, disappointed with the horses of Nejd as compared with those of Northern Arabia.  “In comparing what we see here with what we saw last year in the north, the first thing that strikes us is that these are ponies, the others horses.  It is not so much the actual difference in height, though there must be quite three inches on an average, as the shape, which produces this impression.”

The average height was found to be under fourteen hands; and though great care was taken to obtain and preserve pure strains of blood, in the matter of feeding and grooming, gross negligence seemed to be the rule, even in the royal stud.  The stables were mere open yards, in which the animals stood, each tethered to a manger.  No shelter was provided, but each horse was protected by a heavy rug.  They wore no headstalls, being fastened solely with ropes or chains about the fetlocks.  No regular exercise was given them, their food was almost exclusively dry barley, and their appearance generally was far different from what Europeans would naturally expect of the finest stable of horses in the “horse peninsula.”

The travellers also enlighten us, on the subject of horses, in other directions.  Except in the north, horses were found to be exceedingly rare.  It is possible to travel vast distances without meeting a single horse, or even crossing a horse-track; on the whole journey across the Nefûd, and on to the Euphrates, they scarcely saw a horse, apart from the stables of the rich and great in the cities.  The horse is a luxury to be afforded only by people of wealth or position.  Journeys and raids and wars are all made on camels; the Sheykhs who have horses, when going to war save them to mount at the moment of actual engagement with the enemy.  It was considered a great boast by a Nejd tribe of Bedouins that they could mount one hundred horsemen; while the Muteyr tribe, reputed to be the greatest breeders of thoroughbred stock in Central Arabia, would be expected to muster not more than four hundred mares.

Mohammed-ibn-Rashid recruited his stables by compelling the Sheykhs of tributary tribes to sell him their best animals, an improvement on some of his predecessors, who kept their studs up to the proper mark becoming Arab royalty by making raids against the tribes for the purpose of bringing in celebrated mares, waiving the matter of payment.

In the spring the horses of the Emir’s stables are distributed among the neighboring Bedouins to be pastured on the Nefûd, which at that period affords excellent grazing.  Had the visitors seen the herd after a month on the Nefûd, they would likely have carried away a much more favorable impression.  During the winter quartering the colts seemed to fare even worse than their dams and sires, from the following:

“Besides the full-grown animals, Ibn Rashid’s yards contain thirty or forty foals and yearlings, beautiful little creatures, but terribly starved and miserable.  Foals bred in the desert are poor enough, but those in town have a positively sickly appearance.  Tied all day long by the foot, they seem to have quite lost heart, and show none of the playfulness of their age.  Their tameness, like that of the ‘fowl and the brute,’ is shocking to see.”

The contrast between the actual treatment of these royal animals and the following Arab recipe for rearing a colt is sufficiently striking:

“During the first month of his life let him be content with his mother’s milk; it will be sufficient for him.  Then, during five months, add to this natural supply goats’ milk, as much as he will drink.  For six months more give him the milk of camels, and besides a measure of wheat steeped in water for a quarter of an hour and served in a nose-bag.  At a year old the colt will have done with milk; he must be fed on wheat and grass, the wheat dry from a nose-bag, the grass green, if there is any.

“At two years old he must work or he will be worthless.  Feed him now, like a full-grown horse, on barley; but in summer let him also have gruel daily at mid-day.  Make the gruel thus: Take a double-handful of flour and mix it in water well with your hands till the water seems like milk, then strain it, leaving the dregs of the flour, and give what is liquid to the colt to drink.

“Be careful, from the hour he is born, to let him stand in the sun; shade hurts horses; but let him have water in plenty when the day is hot.  The colt must now be mounted and taken by his owner everywhere with him, so that he shall see everything and learn courage.  He must be kept constantly in exercise, and never remain long at his manger.  He should be taken on a journey, for the work will fortify his limbs.  At three years old he should be trained to gallop; then, if he be true blood, he will not be left behind.  Yalla!”

Lady Blunt thinks this represents a traditional practice of rearing colts in Arabia since the days of the Prophet Mohammet.

From Hail, the party joined the Haj, or caravan of Persian pilgrims, returning home from Mecca and Medina; and after eighty-four days’ travel from Damascus their Arabian journey came to an end at Bagdad.  Their route from Hail took them far north of Palgrave’s route, so that they did not visit Ri’ad, the headquarters, in Palgrave’s time, of the Wahabee ruler Feysul.  Lady Blunt, however, in an appendix to her narrative enlightens us in regard to the end of Feysul, and the continued decline of the Wahabee regime after the visit of Palgrave.

Three years after Palgrave’s visit Feysul died, and the Wahabee state, which under him had regained much of its power and influence (which had been all but crushed by the Turks after the Crimean war) was again weakened by internal dissensions.  Feysul left two sons, Abdallah and Saoud, who quarrelled and put themselves at the head of their respective adherents.  Saoud proved himself the stronger party, and in 1871 Abdallah fled to Jebel Shammar and sought the aid of Midhat Pasha, Turkish governor at Bagdad.

The result was that a Turkish expedition of 5,000 regular troops occupied the seaboard territory of Hasa, and took possession of Hofhoof (mentioned by Palgrave); whilst Abdallah and his adherents, and a third rival, Abdallah-ibn-Turki, attacked Saoud at Ri’ad.  Saoud was defeated, and Abdallah essayed to govern at Ri’ad; but in the following year he was again ejected by Saoud who reigned till 1874, when he died, not without suspicion of poison.

Lady Blunt’s account of affairs at the Wahabee capital ends with the information that Abdallah and a half-brother, Abderrahman, were in joint and amicable control, Abdallah as Emir, the latter as his chief minister.  Hasa and the seaboard was held by the Turks, whose policy was the stirring up of strife and feudal enmity among the Arabs, with a view to weakening the power and authority of the Emir at Ri’ad, and so making the country easy prey whenever opportunity arrives for its incorporation in the Ottoman dominions.  The power and fanaticism of the once powerful Wahabee Empire, has become but little more than a name and a remembrance among the Bedouin tribes, who once paid tribute to its Emirs; and whatever was national in thought and respectable in inspiration in Central Arabia seemed to be grouping itself around the new dynasty of the Emir of Jebel Shammar, Mohammed-ibn-Rashid of Hail.

*It is well to point out here that Palgrave and Lady Blunt spell the names of places quite differently, which makes it rather difficult at times to identify them as referring to places mutually visited. Thus, Blunt's "Hail" and Palgrave's "Ha'yel" are one; as are also "Jof" and "Djowf." Other differences are "Nejd," "Nejed," "Djebel Shomer," "Jebel Shammer," etc.


Bayard Taylor

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