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Chapter 2

Early Explorers of Arabia.


When the habit of travel began to revive in the Middle Ages, its character was either religious or commercial, either in the form of pilgrimages to Rome, Palestine, (whenever possible), and the shrines of popular saints, or of journeys to the Levant, Persia and the Indies, with the object of acquiring wealth by traffic, the profits of which increased in the same proportion as its hazards.  From the time of Trajan’s expedition to Arabia, (in A.D. 117) down to the sixteenth century, we have no report of the history or condition of the country except such as can be drawn from the earlier Jewish and Christian traditions and the later Mohammedan records.

The first account of a visit to Arabia which appears to be worthy of credence, is that given by Ludovico Bartema, of Rome.  After visiting Egypt, he joined the caravan of pilgrims at Damascus, in 1503, in the company of a Mameluke captain, himself disguised as a Mameluke renegade.  After several attacks from the Bedouins of the desert, the caravan reached Medina, which he describes as containing three hundred houses.  Bartema gives a very correct description of the tomb of the Prophet, and scoffs at the then prevalent belief that the latter’s coffin is suspended in the air, between four lodestones.

He thus describes an adventure which befell his company the same evening after their visit to the mosque.  “At almost three of the night, ten or twelve of the elders of the sect of Mohammed entered into our caravan, which remained not past a stone’s cast from the gate of the city.  These ran hither and thither, crying like madmen with these words: ‘Mohammed, the messenger and apostle of God, shall rise again!  O Prophet, O God, Mohammed shall rise again!  Have mercy on us, God!’  Our captain and we, all raised with this cry, took weapon with all expedition, suspecting that the Arabs were come to rob our caravan.  We asked what was the cause of that exclamation, and what they cried?  For they cried as do the Christians when suddenly any marvellous thing chanceth.  The elders answered: ‘Saw you not the lightning which shone out of the sepulchre of the Prophet Mohammed?’  Our captain answered that he saw nothing, and we also being demanded, answered in like manner.  Then said one of the old men: ‘Are you slaves?’  This to say bought men, meaning thereby, Mamelukes.  Then said our captain: ‘We are indeed Mamelukes.’  Then again the old man said: ‘You, my lords, cannot see heavenly things, as being neophiti, that is, newly come to the faith, and not yet confirmed in our religion.’  It is therefore to be understood that none other shining came out of the sepulchre than a certain flame, which the priests caused to come out of the open place of the tower, whereby they would have deceived us.”

Leaving Medina, the caravan travelled for three days over a “broad plain,” all covered with white sand, in manner as small as flour.  Then they passed a mountain, where they heard “a certain horrible noise and cry,” and after journeying for ten days longer, during which time they twice fought with “fifty thousand Arabians,” they reached Mecca, of which Bartema says: “The city is very fair, and well inhabited, and containeth in round form six thousand houses as well builded as ours, and some that cost three or four thousand pieces of gold: it hath no walls.”

Bartema describes the ceremonies performed by the pilgrims, with tolerable correctness.  His fellowship with the Mamelukes seems to have been a complete protection up to the time when the caravan was ready to set out on its return to Damascus, and the members of the troop were ordered to accompany it, on pain of death.  Then he managed to escape by persuading a Mohammedan that he understood the art of casting cannon, and wished to reach India, in order to assist the native monarchs in defending themselves against the Portuguese.  Reaching Jedda in safety, Bartema sailed for Persia, visiting Yemen on the way; made his way to India, and after various adventures, returned to Europe by way of the Cape of Good Hope.

The second European who made his way to the holy cities was Joseph Pitts, an Englishman, who was captured by an Algerine pirate, as a sailor-boy of sixteen, and forced by his master to become a Mussulman.  After some years, when he had acquired the Arabic and Turkish languages, he accompanied his master for a pilgrimage to Mecca, by way of Cairo, Suez and the Red Sea.  Here he received his freedom; but continued with the pilgrims to Medina, and returned to Egypt by land, through Arabia Petræa.  After fifteen years of exile, he succeeded in escaping to Italy, and thence made his way back to England.

Pitts gives a minute and generally correct account of the ceremonies at Mecca.  He was not, of course, learned in Moslem theology, and his narrative, like that of all former visitors to Mecca, has been superseded by the more intelligent description of Burckhardt; yet it coincides with the latter in all essential particulars.  His description of the city and surrounding scenery is worth quoting, from the quaint simplicity of its style.

“First, as to Mecca.  It is a town situated in a barren place, (about one day’s journey from the Red Sea), in a valley, or rather in the midst of many little hills.  It is a place of no force, wanting both walls and gates.  Its buildings are, as I said before, very ordinary, insomuch that it would be a place of no tolerable entertainment, were it not for the anniversary resort of so many thousand Hagges (Hadjis), or pilgrims, on whose coming the whole dependence of the town (in a manner) is; for many shops are scarcely open all the year besides.

“The people here, I observed, are a poor sort of people, very thin, lean and swarthy.  The town is surrounded for several miles with many thousands of little hills, which are very near one to the other.  I have been on the top of some of them near Mecca, where I could see some miles about, yet was not able to see the farthest of the hills.  They are all stony-rock and blackish, and pretty near of a bigness, appearing at a distance like cocks of hay, but all pointing towards Mecca.  Some of them are half a mile in circumference, but all near of one height.  The people here have an odd and foolish sort of tradition concerning them, viz., That when Abraham went about building the Beat-Allah (Beit-Allah, or ‘House of God’), God by his wonderful providence did so order it, that every mountain in the world should contribute something to the building thereof; and accordingly every one did send its proportion, though there is a mountain near Algier which is called Corradog, i.e., Black Mountain, and the reason of its blackness, they say, is because it did not send any part of itself towards building the temple at Mecca.  Between these hills is good and plain travelling, though they stand one to another.

“There is upon the top of one of them a cave, which they term Hira, i.e., Blessing, into which, they say, Mahomet did usually retire for his solitary devotions, meditations and fastings; and here they believe he had a great part of the Alcoran brought him by the angel Gabriel.  I have been in this cave, and observed that it is not at all beautified, at which I admired.

“About half a mile out of Mecca is a very steep hill, and there are stairs made to go to the top of it, where is a cupola, under which is a cloven rock; into this, they say, Mahomet when very young, viz., about four years of age, was carried by the angel Gabriel, who opened his breast and took out his heart, from which he picked some black blood specks, which was his original corruption; then put it into its place again, and afterward closed up the part; and that during this operation Mahomet felt no pain.”

The next account of the same pilgrimage is given by Giovanni Tinati, an Italian, who deserted from the French service on the coast of Dalmatia, and became an Albanian soldier.  Making his way to Egypt, after various adventures, he became at last a corporal in Mohammed Ali’s body-guard, and shared in several campaigns against the Wahabees.  He did not, however, penetrate very far inland from the coast, and his visit to Mecca was the result of his desertion from the Egyptian army after a defeat.  His narrative contains nothing which has not been more fully and satisfactorily stated by later travellers.

By this time, however, the era of careful scientific exploration had already commenced, and the descriptions which have since then been furnished to us are positive contributions to our knowledge of Arabia.  With the exception of the journey of Carsten Niebuhr, which embraces only the Sinaitic Peninsula and Yemen, the important explorations—all of which are equally difficult and daring—have been made since the commencement of this century.

Bayard Taylor

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