Travels in Arabia, by John Lewis Burckhardt

No. VI.

Geographical Notices of the Country northward and eastward of Medina.

THE stations of the caravan between Damascus and Medina are well known. The most interesting spot on this road, within the limits of Arabia, appears to be Hedjer, or, as it is sometimes called, Medayen Saleb, seven days north of Medina. This place, according to many passages of the Koran, (which has a chapter entitled Hedjer,) was inhabited by a gigantic race of men, called Beni Thamoud, whose dwellings were destroyed because they refused to obey the admonitions of the prophet Saleh. In circumference Hedjer extends several miles; the soil is fertile, watered by many wells and a running stream: here are generally large encampments of Bedouins. The Wahaby chief, Saoud, intended to build a town on this spot; his olemas deterred him, by declaring that it would be impious to restore a place that the Almighty had visited with his wrath. An inconsiderable mountain bounds this fertile plain on the west, at about four miles’ distance from the ground where the pilgrim caravan usually encamps.

In that mountain are large caves or habitations cut out of the rock, with sculptured figures of men and various animals, small pillars on both sides of the entrances, and, if I may believe the testimony of Bedouins, numerous inscriptions over the doors; but I am inclined to think that the Arabs may have mistaken sculptured ornaments for letters. The rock is of a blackish colour, probably volcanic, for there is a lukewarm well in the vicinity. My illness at Medina, and subsequent weakness, prevented me from visiting this spot, from whence I might, in a straight direction, have proceeded to Akaba, on the extremity of the eastern gulf of the Red Sea.

The Bedouins call the whole country between Hedye and Oela (a more northern station of the pilgrims) the district of Sheffa. From thence to Akaba el Shám, or the Syrian Akaba, (likewise a Hadj station), the country is called Essafha. It is this Akaba that may be properly described as the boundary of Arabia towards Syria. Here a steep mountain extends for several days’ journey westward towards the Red Sea, and eastward towards the interior of the Desert. On the north of that mountain we enter the higher or upper plain, which continues to Damascus. Between the Syrian Akaba and the Egyptian Akaba is another pass through the same mountain, called Báb el Nedjed, or the “Gate of Nedjed,” because here the Bedouins of southern Syria (or, as they are called by the Arabian Bedouins, Ahl el Shemál, “People of the North,”) pass on their way to Nedjed. In those passes the Wahabys, when they make excursions against the Bedouins, leave strong guards, to secure their own retreat.

The Hadj route from Medina direct to Syria is not much frequented even in time of peace. Sometimes a few Bedouin merchants take camel-loads of coffee-beans by this road to Damascus; but it is infested by strolling parties of the Beni Omran and Howeytat tribes, who live in the western mountain, and frequently descend to rob travellers in the plain. The most frequented route to the north of Medina is towards the country of Kasym, which, as I have already mentioned, supplies Medina in time of peace with all sorts of provisions. The route to Kasym lies between the Hadj route on one side, and the straight road to Derayeh (the Wahaby capital) on the other. The direction of the province of Kasym, as well as of Nedjed, was often pointed out to me at Medina, and I always found it to be E. ½ N. for Kasym E. by S. for Derayeh bearing from Medina.

Between the Hadj road and that to Kasym lies a third route, leading straight from Medina to the province of Djebel Shammar, which in peaceable times is much frequented; but the most common way from Medina to Djebel Shammar is by Kasym, two days longer than the last route, but less fatiguing for camels, because there is abundance of water on this road, and very little on the other.

Caravans going from Medina to Kasym visit the following stations:

Medina. — At one hour’s walk beyond the gardens (the road passing E. of Djebel Ohod) is an open space called El Areydh, with the tomb of a sheikh, having a cupola over it. Near this is a well, named Byr Rasheyd.

3 hours from thence is El Hafná, with the bed of a torrent.

19 hours. Soweyder. The road from Hafná to this place is rocky, with two ascents, difficult for camels, and wholly without water. Soweyder lies between two mountains, and has some wells of brackish water dug in the ground; also Doum date-trees. The road from Medina to this place is inhabited by Mezeyne (or Omzeyne) Arabs, of the Beni Harb tribe, and by the Heteym and Beni Safar Arabs, also of the same tribe.

4 hours. A valley, with wells and Doum date-trees.

7 hours. Hanakye, in the plain, with many ponds and wells of sweet water dug in the ground. At a certain depth water is always found here. The ruins of an ancient castle, in the Saracen style, are visible; and here date-trees grow. This important position is frequently visited by the Bedouin tribes.

6 hours. Abou Khesheyb. The road from Hanakye to this place is on a sandy plain. Abou Khesheyb lies between two mountains, and affords good well-water.

12 hours. El Heymedj, a station having sweet and saltish water.

8 hours. El Mawát. The road from Heymedj to this place is sandy, with low mountains, no trees; the herb called adjref grows here. The pasture-ground of the Beni Harb tribe extends as far as Heymedj: then begin the pastures of the Meteyr Arabs. El Máwát has the best water on the whole route: it is a sandy spot in an inlet of the mountains.

16 hours. El Badje. The road from Mawát to this place is without water, on a sandy plain, having mountains on both sides: the chain on the left is called Taâye. Badje is an extensive tract, with trees and herbage, and wells both of sweet and brackish water.

3 hours. Neffoud, or, as it is called from the soil, Gherek-ed-Dessem, a plain of deep sand, four hours long, after which the road becomes less sandy and difficult, being covered with small stones.

14 hours. Djerdáwye, a plain with wells of good water; from thence in

7 hours, to Dát, the first town of Kasym. — In all, one hundred hours.

From Dát to Rass, one of the chief towns of Kasym, is four or five hours. From Rass to a place called Khabara, five hours; and from Khabara to Shebeybe, four hours. According to the night journies of the Bedouins, one hundred hours are equal to ten or eleven marches by day. The journey here detailed was performed by Tousoun Pasha’s army at night. Three days from Medina to Hanakye, and eight days from thence to Dát. A person belonging to the court of Tousoun Pasha measured the distance by his watch. The caravans, loaded with corn, are generally ten or eleven days on the road between Medina and Rass.

Kasym, which is the most fertile district in the province of Nedjed, begins at Dát. The name of Nedjed, signifying high or elevated ground, is given to this country in opposition to Tehama or “low lands,” applied to the sea-coast. It seems to be an oblong tract, extending between three and four days’ journies from west to east, and two journies in breadth south to north. Within this space are above twenty-six small towns or villages, well peopled, in a cultivated territory, irrigated by water from numerous wells. The chief town is Bereyda, where resides the Sheikh of Kasym, an old man named El Hedjeylan, once an enemy to the Wahabys, now a convert to their doctrine. The neighbourhood of Rass produces the most corn; and that part of Kasym about Dát and Rass lies nearest to Medina. In time of peace, regular caravans arrive every month at Medina from Rass. Tousoun Pasha’s army found plenty of provisions in the few villages of Kasym which they occupied.

The most considerable place in Kasym is Aneyzy, said to be equal in size to Siout in Upper Egypt, which contained, according to the French computation, three thousand houses. Aneyzy has bazars, and is inhabited by respectable Arab merchants. Of the other towns and villages, the following are most noted:— Es’ Shenáne, Balgha, Heshashye, El Helalye, El Bekeyrye, Batah el Nebhanye, Ashebeybe, Ayoun, Kowár, and Mozneb.

Small tribes of the Aenezes, of Ateybe (whose chief seat is on the Hedjaz mountains inhabited by the Beni Harb), of Meteyr, and others, encamp during the whole year among the plains of Kasym, which afford excellent pasturage.

Between Kasym and Derayeh, the capital of Nedjed, the intermediate district, mostly a desert, is called El Woshem: from the eastern extremity of the district of Kasym to Derayeh is a distance of five days. The last place in Kasym, on this side, is Mozneb then begins Wady Sarr, a broad sandy valley with pasturage, which continues for several days towards Derayeh through the district of Woshem.

Nedjed, near Derayeh, assumes the name of El Aredh, a district once separate from Nedjed, but now considered as belonging to it. El Aredh is less fertile than El Kasym, from which, in fact, it is partly supplied with provisions. Its principal town, Derayeb, has always been a place of note, but much increased since it has become the capital of the Wahaby power and sect. Its direction was often indicated to me; and I found it to bear from Medina E. by S. (variation not computed); the bearing of Kasym from Medina,

E. ½ N. Derayeh is situated in a valley, the inlets and outlets of which on the N. and S. sides are very narrow, admitting only one camel at a time. The houses (many built of stone) are placed on the declivities of both mountains, the valley itself being throughout very narrow. The town is not walled. The number of inhabitants may be estimated, according to the report of the Bedouins, who state that the town furnished three thousand men armed with firelocks to the Wahaby chief: they are composed of different tribes, principally the Mekren, a branch of the Messalykh, part of the great Aeneze race. All the inhabitants of Nedjed trace their pedigrees to some ancient Bedouin tribe; thus the people of Rass claim descent from the Beni Yam, who now reside at Nedjran, in Yemen. The smaller tribe of Beni Lam (related to those of the same name on the river Tigris, but not, like them, of the sect of Aly), and the small tribe of Essehoun, dwell in the Aredh, and seldom encamp beyond its limits. Derayeh is supplied with water from wells. Ibn Saoud, the late Wahaby chief, discovered a spring behind this house, which he built, and wished to persuade the people that God had inspired him on the occasion. The mansion of the Wahaby chief stands on the mountain, at about ten minutes’ walk from the town: it is spacious, but without any splendid apartments: all the married members of the reigning family have their own chambers; and there are many rooms for guests, with whom the house is constantly filled; for all the chiefs of tribes who come to Derayeh on business are invited to the mansion or palace of the great Sheikh. There are not any khans or public inns, so that every stranger quarters himself upon some inhabitant; and the people of Derayeh are proverbially hospitable. The immediate neighbourhood is barren, yielding only some date-trees. Derayeh is supplied with provisions chiefly from Dhoroma, a large and populous village, one day’s journey towards the E. or N.E., which has gardens and orchards well watered from copious wells.

From Derayeh to Mekka is a distance of eleven or twelve long caravan days’ journies. For three days beyond Derayeh are found cultivated spots and small settlements of Arabs; the rest of the road is through a desert country, as far as Wady Zeyme, two days from Mekka. The distance from Rass (in Kasym) to Mekka is also computed at twelve days’ journey. This latter road abounds more with water than the former, and likewise passes by Wady Zeyme.

A straight road from Nedjed to the mountains of Hedjaz (I use this word here in the Bedouin sense, meaning the mountains south of Tayf), and to the country of Beishe and Yemen, passes by the village of Derye, on the southern extremity of Nedjed, on the great road from Kasym to Mekka. The road from Derye to Beishe lies four or five days east of Mekka. Between Derye and Taraba (above mentioned) is a pasture-land, with many wells, called El Bakarra, a well-known halting-place of all the Bedouins of these countries. It belongs to the Kereyshát tribe, a branch of the Sabya Arabs inhabiting Ranye.

Nedjed is celebrated throughout Arabia for its excellent pastures, which abound even in its deserts after rain: its plains are frequented by innumerable Bedouins, who continue there for most of the year, and purchase corn and barley from the inhabitants. During the rainy season these Bedouins retire towards the interior of the Desert, where they remain until the rain-water collected in the hollow grounds is consumed by their cattle. Previous to the Wahaby establishment, the pasturage of Nedjed belonged exclusively to the Aenezes, which I have already mentioned as the largest of all the Bedouin tribes of Arabia. Great numbers of them frequented this territory in spring, and kept off all the other tribes, except the powerful Meteyr, who reside in the Desert between Kasym and Medina. These strengthened their party by an alliance with the Kahtan Arabs, while the Aenezes were assisted by the Beni Shaman. Between these tribes an inveterate hatred subsisted, which every spring was the cause of much bloodshed, and checked the commercial intercourse with the Hedjaz; and both parties levied contributions on the settled inhabitants of Nedjed: but this custom has been abolished by the Wahabys, whose chief, instead, receives a regular tribute, and has reconciled the hostile parties, and opened the pastures of Nedjed to any tribes of Wahabys who may choose to frequent them. A Bedouin assured me that twenty encampments of different tribes may now be seen here in the course of one day’s march — such is the security maintained by the Wahaby chief, who is inexorable in the punishment of robbers.

The fine pastures of Nedjed have produced an excellent breed of camels, more numerous here than in any other Arabian province of equal extent. The Arabs call this country Om el Bel, or “the mother of camels,” and resort to it from all quarters for the supply of their own herds; and it constantly furnishes not only Hedjaz, but Syria and Yemen, with camels, of which useful creatures an ordinary one is sold for about ten dollars in Nedjed. In this country there is also a most excellent breed of horses, so remarkable that the finest blood Arabs are properly denominated Kheyl Nedjade, or Nedjed horses. But the Wahaby power has caused a diminution of this breed; for many Arabs have sold their best horses in foreign parts, lest they should be forced to attend the Wahaby chief, who, in his wars, frequently required cavalry.

Nedjed, however, is often subject to scarcity, caused by the failure of rain, and consequently of herbage: this soon affects the cattle of the Bedouins, who seldom expect, in this country, more than three or four successive years of plenty, although absolute famine does not occur above once in ten, or perhaps fifteen years. It is generally accompanied by epidemical diseases, much like the plague, consisting of violent fevers (but without biles or buboes,) that prove fatal to great numbers. Nedjed is peopled by small tribes of Bedouins, who never leave it, and by settlers intermarried with them, and often travelling as merchants to Damascus, Baghdad, Medina, Mekka, and Yemen: they export camels and woollen cloaks (abbas), of which the best are manufactured at El Hassa; and from Baghdad they receive rice, (the produce of the banks of the Tigris), and articles of dress, especially the keffies, or handkerchiefs, striped green and yellow, of cotton, wool, or silk: these the Bedouins wear over their bonnets. From Mekka they get coffee, drugs, and perfumes, much used among them, particularly the perfume called Arez, which comes from Mokha. In general there is a spirit of commerce very prevalent in Nedjed, where the merchants are wealthy and of better repute for honesty than most of the Eastern traders. The settlers here are armed with matchlocks, and constitute the best portion of the Wababy infantry: they are generally successful against the Bedouins who invade their crops or pastures; and, as saltpetre is found in Nedjed, every family makes its own yearly provision of gunpowder.

In Nedjed are many ancient wells, lined with stone, and ascribed by the inhabitants to a primeval race of giants. They are generally from twenty-five to thirty fathoms deep, and mostly the property of individuals, who exact a certain contribution from the tribes whose cattle they supply with water. Here likewise are numerous remains of ancient buildings, of very massive structure and large dimensions, but in a state of complete ruin. These are attributed to a primitive (or perhaps a fabulous) tribe of Arabs, the Beni Tamour, of whose supposed works some vestiges are likewise seen in the Syrian deserts eastward of the plains of Hauran.

Of all the Bedouin tribes that exist in Arabia, some few families at least may be found in Nedjed, to which refugees fly for security against their enemies. This country, in fact, is not only the seat of the Wahaby government, but seems the most important of the interior districts of Arabia, from its fertility and population, its central position, and facility of intercourse with other provinces. To acquire a perfect knowledge of the Bedouins, it would be necessary to examine them in Nedjed, where their manners continue unaltered by conquest, and retaining all their original purity: nor have they been contaminated by an influx of strangers; for, except the Hadj caravan coming from Baghdad, no foreigners ever pass through Nedjed. For this reason I consider Nedjed and the mountains between Tayf and Sanaa as the most interesting portion of Arabia, affording more objects of inquiry to a traveller than any other part of the peninsula.

From Derayeh eastward towards the Persian Gulf, the country is called Zedeyr, as far as the limits of the province of El Hassa, six days distant from Derayeh, of which three days are without water. The district of Hassa (or, as it is sometimes written, El Ahsa) is celebrated for its numerous wells, and extends for about two days’ journey parallel with the sea-coast, from which it is distant, inland, fifty or sixty miles. In breadth it is about thirty-five miles. The abundance of water enables the Arabs to cultivate clover, which serves to feed their finest horses. The Wahaby chief sends all his horses to this place every season.

The town of El Hassa (built by the Karmates in the tenth century) is populous; in it reside some wealthy merchants. It has walls and towers, and was successfully defended against the Pasha of Baghdad in 1797. It is one of the principal strongholds of the Wahabys; and their chief derives from this fertile district the greater part of his income. The sea-port for El Hassa is Akyr, a small town on the Persian Gulf, much frequented by the Arabs of Maskat and the pirates of the Kowasem (qy. Jowasem) tribe, who inhabit the port of Ras el Kheyme. The woollen cloaks, of abbas, made at El Hassa are in great demand all over Arabia and Mesopotamia: they cost from ten to fifty dollars each.

The territory of Hassa contains about twenty villages: the principal Bedouins that inhabit it are the Beni Khaled (a tribe extended over many parts of Arabia), the Bisher Arabs, a tribe of the Aenezes, and the El Zab tribe. Here also, as well as in Nedjed, are some of the Beni Hosseyn, a tribe belonging to the Persian sect of Moslims.

Between El Hassa and. Basra, water abounds. The road from Derayeh to Baghdad leads through the provinces of Kasym and Djebel Shammar, taking a western direction, because in a direct line no water is found in the Desert. Having reached Kowar, a small town on the frontiers of Kasym, towards Djebel Shammar (eight days from Derayeh), the traveller proceeds one day’s journey to Kahfe, a village within the territory of Djebel Shammar. The road continues two days in the cultivated parts of this province as far as the well of Shebeyke, which bounds Shammar on this side. From thence is one day’s journey to Lyne, famous for its numerous and abundant wells, that supplied the whole Wababy army with water: this place is much frequented by the Aeneze Arabs. Between Nedjed and the Euphrates a well in the Desert furnishes sulphur to the powder manufactories of Nedjed.

From Lyne three days’ journey, in a desert without water, brings the traveller to the well of Shebekka, and from that one day to the town of Meshehd Aly. This is the summer route in winter, when the rain-water is collected in ponds on the way, the Arabs travel from the well of Shebekka by the road called Derb Bereydha, the ancient Hadj route of the Khalifes when they went on pilgrimage. Here are many tanks, cased with stone, constructed by the Khalifes to supply the pilgrims with water; and the road passes straight on from Meshehd Aly towards Djebel Shammar, without touching at Lyne. From Meshehd Aly to Djebel Shammar the distance is reckoned eight days, and the traveller from Baghdad to Nedjed always passes by the tomb of Aly. This route is much frequented, especially by the Ageyl Arabs of Baghdad, of whom many are from Nedjed, which they often visit as pedlars. All the Arabian Bedouins settled in the suburbs of Baghdad are comprised under the name of Ageyl. This was once a powerful tribe, but it has much degenerated.

Through the province of Djebel Shammar, or, as it is commonly called, El Djebel, lies also the road from Nedjed to Damascus. It is a mountainous tract to the N.E. of the province of Kasym, bearing from Medina E.N.E. Its inhabitants are the powerful Beni Shammar, a tribe of which some have passed over to Mesopotamia. Their Sheikh, Ibn Aly, is a main supporter of the Wahaby government. They are said to muster seven thousand matchlocks; and, like their neighbours in Nedjed, they cultivate palm-trees by means of water drawn up from wells in leathern buckets by camels. One of the principal towns in Djebel Shammar, is El Mestadjedde: the chief town is said to be El Hayl; and the neat in size, Kofár.

From Djebel Shammar to Damascus the road passes by the district El Djof, which is five days distant from it. The road is of deep sand, without any water but what is afforded by the well of Shageyg, four days from Djebel Shammar, and one from Djof. I believe that there is no other station of equal length entirely destitute of water, in any part of Arabia frequented by caravans, like the four days between Djebel and Shageyg. The well of Shageyg belongs to the Aenezy tribe of Rowalla; and whoever wishes to go from Southern Syria to Nedjed, must necessarily pass here. There is not any water from Djof southwards, in a direct line towards Khaibar and Medina; the road is therefore not frequented. Arabs going from Djof to Medina must pass by Shageyg and Shammar and Kasym, taking a circuitous route.

My residence at Medina in time of war, when the eastern and northern Bedouins were hostile, and did not come into the town, prevented me from acquiring as much information as if a peaceable intercourse had subsisted. Whenever this is the case, small caravans from Khaibar and Teyme frequently repair to Medina. Khaibar is well known in Arabian history, as the scene of early Muselman wars under Mohammed, Aly, and their successors. It is said to be four or five days (some say only three) from Medina, the road passing between the Hadj route to Damascus and the route to Kasym. The Arabs of Khaibar, in time of peace, bring their dates for sale to Medina. They are said to be of a darker complexion than the surrounding Bedouins: this may be caused by the great heat in the low situation of that place. Khaibar is about six hours distant from the Hadj route to Syria, and lies, I believe, in a direction N.E. from Medina. It appears in former times to have formed part of the territory of the Sherif of Mekka. When the Sherif Hassan Abou Nema was installed in 966, (A.H.) his territory, as we learn from Asamy, comprised Mekka, Tayf, Gonfode, Haly, Yembo, Medina, and Khaibar. The present inhabitants of Khaibar are the Wold Aly, a tribe of Aenezes mustering about three hundred horsemen, whose sheikh Aleyda distinguished himself in the Wahaby war. Another branch of the Wold Aly inhabit the deserts near Hauran, south of Damascus. At Khaibar also are encampments of the Oulad Soleyman, a tribe of the Bisher Arabs (likewise of the Aeneze nation); but the Wold Aly possess the ground and the date-plantations.

A colony of Jews formerly settled at Khaibar has wholly disappeared. It is commonly believed at Mekka and Djidda, that their descendants still exist there, strictly performing the duties of their religion; but, upon minute inquiry at Medina, I found this notion to be unfounded, nor are there any Jews in the northern parts of the Arabian Desert. The Jews who were formerly settled in Arabia, belonged to the tribe of Beni Koreyta (Caraites). They came to Medina after Nebuchadnezzar had taken Jerusalem; when Kerb Ibn Hassan el Hemyary (one of the Toba kings of Yemen who had possessed themselves of Mekka) made an inroad towards Medina, which he besieged, and on his return from thence carried some of the Beni Koreyta with him to Yemen. These are the first Jews who settled in that country, and their descendants still remain at Szanaa. (See Samhoudy’s History of Medina.)

The small town of Teyme is three days from Khaibar, and as many from Hedjer, in an eastern direction. It is inhabited by the Aeneze Arabs, and abounds with dates. It belongs neither to Nedjed nor Kasym, and, like Kbaibar, was an independent Bedouin settlement before the time of the Wahabys. Those small towns in the interior of the Arabian Desert, are like the Oases in the Libyan; and serve as points of intercourse between the Bedouins and the neighbouring cultivated countries. Their Bedouin inhabitants are agriculturists, and mostly petty merchants who sell to their wandering brethren of the Desert the goods which they purchase at the first cost in the Syrian or Arabian towns. Beginning northward with the small town of Deir on the Euphrates, we can trace a line of these oases that form advanced points towards the Desert all the way south as far as Medina. Deir, Sokhne, Tedmor, Djof, Maan, Ola, Khaibar, and Teyme, are all inhabited by Bedouins, who cultivate the soil, and form an intermediate class between Bedouins and peasants. These positions would be highly important to those who might wish to subdue, or at least to check the Bedouins; and they might become of still greater importance, in being rendered the means of inspiring the whole Bedouin nation with more amicable sentiments towards the Syrian and Hedjaz inhabitants.

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