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Chapter 4

Burckhardt’s Journey to Mecca and Medina


Burckhardt, to whom we are indebted for the first careful and complete description of the holy cities of Arabia, was a native of Lausanne, in Switzerland.  After having been educated in Germany, he went to London with the intention of entering the English military service, but was persuaded by Sir Joseph Banks to apply to the African Association for an appointment to explore the Sahara, and the then unknown negro kingdoms of Central Africa.  His offer was accepted, and after some preparation he went to Aleppo, in Syria, where he remained for a year or two, engaged in studying Arabic and familiarizing himself with Oriental habits of life.

His first journeys in Syria and Palestine, which were only meant as preparations for the African exploration, led to the most important results.  He was the first to visit the country of Hauran—the Bashan of Scripture—lying southeast of Damascus.  After this he passed through Moab, east of the Dead Sea, and under the pretence of making a pilgrimage to the tomb of Aaron on Mount Hor, discovered the rock-hewn palaces and temples of Petra, which had been for many centuries lost to the world.

Burckhardt reached Cairo in safety, and after vainly waiting some months for an opportunity of joining a caravan to Fezzan, determined to employ his time in making a visit to Upper Egypt and Nubia.  Travelling alone, with a single guide, he succeeded in reaching the frontiers of Dongola, beyond which it was then impossible to proceed.  He therefore returned to Assouan, and joined a small caravan, which crossed the Nubian Desert to Ethiopia, by very nearly the same route which Bruce had taken in returning from Abyssinia.  He remained some time at Shendy, the capital of Ethiopia, and then, after a journey of three months across the country of Takka, which had never before been visited by a European, reached the port of Suakin, on the Red Sea.  Here he embarked for Jedda, in Arabia, where he arrived in July, 1814.

By this time his Moslem character had been so completely acquired that he felt himself free from suspicion.  Accordingly he decided to remain and take part in the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, which was to take place that year, in November.  His funds, however, were nearly exhausted, and the Jedda merchants refused to honor an old letter of credit upon Cairo, which he still carried with him.  In this emergency he wrote to the Armenian physician of Mohammed Ali, who was at that time with the Pasha at the city of Tayf (or Tayef), about seventy miles southeast of Mecca.  Mohammed Ali happening to hear of this application, immediately sent a messenger with two dromedaries, to summon Burckhardt to visit him.  It seems most probable that the Pasha suspected the traveller of being an English spy, and wished to examine him personally.  The guide had orders to conduct the latter to Tayf by a circuitous route, instead of by the direct road through Mecca.

Burckhardt set out without the least hesitation, taking care to exhibit no suspicion of the Pasha’s object, and no desire to see the holy city.  But the guide himself proposed that they should pass through Mecca in order to save travel; the journey was hurried, however, and only a rapid observation was possible.  Pushing eastward, they reached, on the third night, the Mountain of Kora, which divides the territory of Mecca from that of Tayf.  Burckhardt was astonished at the change in the scenery, produced by the greater elevation of the interior of Arabia above the sea.  His description is a striking contrast to that of the scenery about Mecca.

“This,” he says, “is the most beautiful spot in the Hedjaz, and more picturesque and delightful than anything I had seen since my departure from Lebanon, in Syria.  The top of Djebel Kora is flat, but large masses of granite lie scattered over it, the surface of which, like that of the granite rocks near the second cataract of the Nile, is blackened by the sun.  Several small rivulets descend from this peak and irrigate the plain, which is covered with verdant fields and large shady trees beside the granite rocks.  To those who have only known the dreary and scorching sands of the lower country of the Hedjaz, this scene is as surprising as the keen air which blows here is refreshing.  Many of the fruit-trees of Europe are found here: figs, apricots, peaches, apples, the Egyptian sycamore, almonds, pomegranates; but particularly vines, the produce of which is of the best quality.  After having passed through this delightful district for about half an hour, just as the sun was rising, when every leaf and blade of grass was covered with a balmy dew, and every tree and shrub diffused a fragrance as delicious to the smell as was the landscape to the eye, I halted near the largest of the rivulets, which, although not more than two paces across, nourishes upon its banks a green alpine turf, such as the mighty Nile, with all its luxuriance, can never produce in Egypt.”

Burckhardt had an interview with Mohammed Ali on the evening of his arrival in Tayf.  His suspicions were confirmed: the Kadi (Judge) of Mecca and two well-informed teachers of the Moslem faith were present, and although the Pasha professed to accept Burckhard’s protestations of his Moslem character, it was very evident to the latter that he was cunningly tested by the teachers.  Nevertheless, when the interview was over, they pronounced him to be not only a genuine Moslem, but one of unusual learning and piety.  The Pasha was forced to submit to this decision, but he was evidently not entirely convinced, for he gave orders that Burckhardt should be the guest of his physician, in order that his speech and actions might be more closely observed.  Burckhardt took a thoroughly Oriental way to release himself from this surveillance.  He gave the physician so much trouble that the latter was very glad, at the end of ten days, to procure from the Pasha permission for him to return to Mecca, in order to get rid of him.  Burckhardt thereupon travelled to the holy city in company with the Kadi himself.

At the valley of Mohram, nearly a day’s journey from Mecca, Burckhardt changed his garb for the ihram, or costume worn by the pilgrims during their devotional services.  It consists of two pieces of either linen, cotton, or woollen cloth; one is wrapped around the loins, while the other is thrown over the shoulder in such a manner as to leave the right arm entirely bare.  On reaching Mecca he obeyed the Moslem injunction of first visiting the great mosque and performing all the requisite ceremonies before transacting any worldly business.  When this had been accomplished he made a trip to Jedda for the purpose of procuring supplies, which were necessary for the later pilgrimage to Medina, and then established himself comfortably in an unfrequented part of Mecca, to await the arrival of the caravan of pilgrims from Damascus.

Burckhardt describes the great mosque of Mecca, which is called the Beit Allah, or “House of God,” as “a large quadrangular building, in the centre of which stands the Kaaba, an oblong, massive structure eighteen paces in length, fourteen in breadth, and from thirty-five to forty feet in height.  It is constructed of gray Mecca stone, in large blocks of different sizes, joined together in a very rough manner, and with bad cement.  At the northeast corner of the Kaaba, near the door, is the famous Black Stone, which forms part of the sharp angle of the building at four or five feet above the ground.  It is an irregular oval of about seven inches in diameter, with an undulating surface, composed of about a dozen smaller stones of different sizes and shapes, well joined together with a small quantity of cement, and perfectly smoothed.  It is very difficult to determine accurately the quality of this stone, which has been worn to its present surface by the millions of touches and kisses it has received.  It appears to me like a lava, containing several small extraneous particles.  Its color is now a deep reddish brown, approaching to black.  It is surrounded on all sides by a border, composed of a substance which I took to be a close cement of pitch and gravel; this border serves to support its detached pieces.  Both the border and the stone itself are encircled by a silver band.”

Toward the end of November the caravans from Syria and Egypt arrived, and at the same time Mohammed Ali, so that the hadj, or pilgrimage, assumed a character of unusual pomp and parade.  The Pasha’s ihram consisted of two of the finest Cashmere shawls; the horses and camels belonging to himself and his large retinue, with those of the Pasha of Damascus and other Moslem princes, were decorated with the most brilliant trappings.  On arriving, the pilgrims did not halt in Mecca, but continued their march to the Sacred Mountain of Arafat, to the eastward of the city.  A camp, several miles in extent, was formed upon the plain, at the foot of the mountain, and here Burckhardt joined the immense crowd, in order to take his share in the ceremonies of the following day.

In the morning he climbed to the top of Arafat, which is an irregular, isolated mass of granite, rising only about two hundred feet above the plain.  Overlooking thus the entire camp, he counted more than three thousand tents, and estimated that at least twenty-five thousand camels and seventy thousand human beings were there collected together.  “The scene,” he says, “was one of the most extraordinary which the earth affords.  Every pilgrim issued from his tent to walk over the plain and take a view of the busy crowds assembled there.  Long streets of tents, fitted up as bazaars, furnished them with all kinds of provisions.  The Syrian and Egyptian cavalry were exercised by their chiefs early in the morning, while thousands of camels were seen feeding upon the dry shrubs of the plain all around the camp.  The Syrian pilgrims were encamped upon the south and southwest sides of the mountain; the Egyptians upon the southeast.  Mohammed Ali, and Soleyman, Pasha of Damascus, as well as several of their followers, had very handsome tents; but the most magnificent of all was that of the wife of Mohammed Ali, the mother of Toossoon Pasha and Ibrahim Pasha, who had lately arrived from Cairo with a truly royal equipage, five hundred camels being necessary to transport her baggage from Jedda to Mecca.  Her tent was in fact an encampment, consisting of a dozen tents of different sizes, inhabited by her women; the whole enclosed by a wall of linen cloth, eight hundred paces in circuit, the single entrance to which was guarded by eunuchs in splendid dresses.  The beautiful embroidery on the exterior of this linen palace, with the various colors displayed in every part of it, constituted an object which reminded me of some descriptions in the Arabian tales of the Thousand and One Nights.”

Burckhardt also gives an interesting description of the sermon preached on Mount Arafat, the hearing of which is an indispensable part of the pilgrimage: unless a person is at least present during its delivery, he is not entitled to the name of hadji, or pilgrim.  The great encampment broke up at three o’clock in the afternoon, and Mount Arafat was soon covered from top to bottom.  “The two Pashas, with their whole cavalry drawn up in two squadrons behind them, took their posts in the rear of the deep line of camels of the pilgrims, to which those of the people of Hedjaz were also joined; and here they waited in solemn and respectful silence the conclusion of the sermon.  Farther removed from the preacher was the Scherif of Mecca, with his small body of soldiers, distinguished by several green standards carried before him.  The two mahmals, or holy camels, which carry on their backs the high structure which serves as the banner of their respective caravans, made way with difficulty through the ranks of camels that encircled the southern and eastern sides of the hill, opposite to the preacher, and took their station, surrounded by their guards, directly under the platform in front of him.  The preacher, who is usually the Kadi of Mecca, was mounted upon a finely caparisoned camel, which had been led up the steps: it was traditionally said that Mohammed was always seated when he addressed his followers, a practice in which he was imitated by all the Caliphs who came to the pilgrimage, and who from this place addressed their subjects in person.  The Turkish gentleman of Constantinople, however, unused to camel-riding, could not keep his seat so well as the hardy Bedouin prophet, and the camel becoming unruly, he was soon obliged to alight from it.  He read his sermon from a book in Arabic, which he held in his hands.  At intervals of every four or five minutes he paused and stretched forth his arms to implore blessings from above, while the assembled multitudes around and before him waved the skirts of their ihrams over their heads and rent the air with shouts of Lebeyk, Allah, huma lebeyk!—‘Here we are at Thy bidding, oh God!’  During the waving of the ihrams the sides of the mountain, thickly crowded as it was by the people in their white garments, had the appearance of a cataract of water; while the green umbrellas, with which several thousand pilgrims sitting on their camels below were provided, bore some resemblance to a verdant plain.”

Burckhardt performed all the remaining ceremonies required of a pilgrim; but these have been more recently described and with greater minuteness by Captain Burton.  He remained in Mecca for another month, unsuspected and unmolested, and completed his observations of a place which the Arabs believed they had safely sealed against all Christian travellers.

Leaving Mecca with a small caravan of pilgrims, on January 15, 1815, he reached Medina after a journey of thirteen days, during which he narrowly escaped being slain by the Bedouins.

Burckhardt was attacked with fever soon after his arrival at Medina, and remained there three months.  The ceremonies prescribed for the pilgrims who visit the city are brief and unimportant; but the description of the tomb of Mohammed is of sufficient interest to quote.  “The mausoleum,” he says, “stands at the southeastern corner of the principal mosque, and is protected from the too near approach of visitors by an iron railing, painted green, about two-thirds the height of the pillars of the colonnade which runs around the interior of the mosque.  The railing is of good workmanship, in imitation of filigree, and is interwoven with open-worked inscriptions of yellow bronze, supposed by the vulgar to be of gold, and of so close a texture that no view can be obtained of the interior except by several small windows, about six inches square, which are placed in the four sides of the railing, about five feet above the ground.  On the south side, where are the two principal windows, before which the devout stand when praying, the railing is plated with silver, and the common inscription—‘There is no god but God, the Evident Truth!’—is wrought in silver letters around the windows.  The tomb itself, as well as those of Abu Bekr and Omar, which stand close to it, is concealed from the public gaze by a curtain of rich silk brocade of various colors, interwoven with silver flowers and arabesques, with inscriptions in characters of gold running across the midst of it, like that of the covering of the Kaaba.  Behind this curtain, which, according to the historian of the city, was formerly changed every six years, and is now renewed by the Porte whenever the old one is decayed, or when a new Sultan ascends the throne, none but the chief eunuchs, the attendants of the mosque, are permitted to enter.  This holy sanctuary once served, as the temple of Delphi did among the Greeks, as the public treasury of the nation.  Here the money, jewels, and other precious articles of the people of Hedjaz were kept in chests, or suspended on silken ropes.  Among these was a copy of the Koran in Cufic characters; a brilliant star set in diamonds and pearls, which was suspended directly over the Prophet’s tomb; with all sorts of vessels filled with jewels, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and other ornaments sent as presents from all parts of the empire.  Most of these articles were carried away by the Wahabees when they sacked and plundered the sacred cities.”



View of El-Medina


Burckhardt reached Yambo (the port of Medina), at the end of April, and, after running great danger from the plague, succeeded in obtaining passage to the Peninsula of Sinai, whence he slowly made his way back to Cairo.  Here he waited for two years, vainly hoping for the departure of a caravan for Central Africa, and meanwhile assisting Belzoni in his explorations at Thebes.  In October, 1817, he died, and the people who knew him only as Shekh Abdallah, laid his body in the Moslem burying-ground, on the eastern side of Cairo.

Bayard Taylor

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