Travels in Arabia, by John Lewis Burckhardt

Climate and Diseases of Mekka and Djidda.

THE climate of Mekka is sultry and unwholesome; the rocks which enclose its narrow valley, intercept the wind, especially that from the north, and reflect the rays of the sun with redoubled heat. In the months of August, September, and October, the heat is excessive: during my residence at Mekka a suffocating hot wind pervaded the atmosphere for five successive days in September. The rainy season usually begins in December; but the rains are not uninterrupted, as in other tropical countries falling only at intervals of five or six days but then with great violence. Showers are not unfrequent, even in summer: the Mekkawys say that the clouds coming from the sea-side are those which copiously irrigate the ground; while those which come from the East, or the high mountains, produce only mere showers, or gushes. The want of rain is very frequently felt here: I was told that four successive years of copious rains are seldom experienced; which is, probably, the main reason why all the Bedouins in this neighbourhood are poor, the greater part of their cattle dying in years of drought, from want of pasturage.

The air of Mekka is generally very dry. Dews begin to fall in the month of January, after a few heavy showers of rain: the contrary is the case at Djidda, where the atmosphere, even during the greatest heat, is damp, arising from the sea vapours, and the numerous marshes on that low coast. The dampness of the air is there so great, that in the month of September, in a hot and perfectly clear day, I found my upper gown wet completely through, from being two hours in the open air. There are heavy dews also by night, during that month and in October; thick fogs appeared on the coast, in the evening and morning. During the summer months, the wind blows generally between east and south, seldom veering to the west, but sometimes to the north. In September, the regular northerly winds set in, and continue during the whole winter. In the Hedjaz, as on the sea-coast of Egypt, the north-east wind is more damp than any other; and during its prevalence, the stone pavement in the interior of the houses always appeared as if covered with moisture.

The diseases prevalent in both towns are much the same; and the coast of the Hedjaz is perhaps among the most unhealthy countries of the East. Intermittent fevers are extremely common, as are likewise dysenteries, which usually terminate in swellings of the abdomen, and often prove fatal. Few persons pass a whole year without a slight attack of these disorders; and no stranger settles at Mekka or Djidda, without being obliged to submit, during the first months of his residence, to one of these distempers; a fact, of which ample proof was afforded in the Turkish army, under Mohammed Aly Pacha. Inflammatory fevers are less frequent at Djidda than at Mekka; but the former place is often visited with a putrid fever, which, as the inhabitants told me, sometimes appeared to be contagious; fifty persons having been known to die of it in one day. Asamy and Fasy mention frequent epidemical diseases at Mekka: in A.H. 671, a pestilence broke out, which carried off fifty persons a day; and in 749, 793, and 829, others also infected the town: in the latter year two thousand persons died. These authors, however, never mention the plague; nor had it made its appearance in the Hedjaz within the memory of the oldest inhabitants; whence a belief was entertained, that the Almighty protected this holy province from its ravages; but, in the spring of 1815, it broke out with great violence, as I shall mention in another place, and Mekka and Djidda lost, perhaps, one-sixth of their population.

Ophthalmia is very little known in the Hedjaz. I saw a single instance of leprosy, in a Bedouin at Tayf. The elephantiasis and Guinea-worm are not uncommon, especially the former, of which I have seen many frightful cases. It is said that stone in the bladder is frequent at Mekka, caused, perhaps, by the peculiar quality of the water; to the badness of which many other diseases also may be ascribed in this hot country, where such quantities of it are daily drunk. I heard that the only surgeons who knew how to perform the operation of extracting the stone from the bladder, are Bedouins of the tribe of Beni Sad, who live in the mountains, about thirty miles south of Tayf. In time of peace, some of them repair annually to Mekka, to perform this operation, the knowledge of which they consider as a secret hereditary in some families of their tribe. They are said to use a common razor, and, in general, with success.

Sores on the legs, especially on the shin-bone, are extremely common both at Mekka and Djidda; but more so at the latter place, where the dampness of the atmosphere renders their cure much more difficult; indeed, in that damp climate, the smallest scratch, or bite of any insect, if neglected, becomes a sore, and soon after an open wound: nothing is more common than to see persons walking in the streets, having on their legs sores of this kind, which, if neglected, often corrode the bone. As their cure demands patience, and, above all, repose, the lower classes seldom apply the proper remedies in time; and when they have increased to such a state as to render their application indispensably necessary, no good surgeons are to be found; fever ensues, and many of the patients die. I believe that one-fourth of the population of Djidda is constantly afflicted with ulcers on their legs; the bad nature of these sores is further aggravated by the use of seawater for ablutions.

During my stay at Mekka, I seldom enjoyed perfect good health. I was twice attacked by fever; and, after the departure of the Syrian Hadj, by a violent diarrhœa, from which I had scarcely recovered when I set out for Medina. In those days, even when I was free from disease, I felt great lassitude, a depression of spirits, and a total want of appetite. During the five days of the Hadj, I was luckily in good health, though I was under great apprehensions from the consequences of taking the ihram. My strength was greatly diminished, and it required much effort, whenever I left my room, to walk about.

I attributed my illness chiefly to bad water, previous experience having taught me that my constitution is very susceptible of the want of good light water, that prime article of life in eastern countries. Brackish water in the Desert is perhaps salutary to travellers: heated as they are by the journey, and often labouring under obstructions from the quality of their food on the road, it acts as a gentle aperient, and thus supplies the place of medicinal draughts; but the contrary is the case when the same water is used during a continued sedentary residence, when long habit only can accustom the stomach to receive it. Had I found myself in better health and spirits, I should probably have visited some of the neighbouring valleys to the south, or passed a few months among the Bedouins of the Hedjaz; but the worst effect of ill health upon a traveller, is the pusillanimity which accompanies it, and the apprehensions with which it fills the mind, of fatigues and dangers, that, under other circumstances, would be thought undeserving of notice.

The current price of provisions at Mekka in December, 1814, was as follows:—

Piastres. Paras.
1 lb. of beef. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. 2 10
1 lb. of mutton. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
1 lb. of camel’s flesh. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
1 lb. of butter. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
1 lb. of fresh unsalted cheese. . . . . . . . . 3
A fowl. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
An egg. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0 8
1 lb. of milk. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. 2
1 lb. of vegetables, viz. leek, spinach, turnips, radishes, calabashes, egg-plants, green onions, petrosiles, &c. . . . 0 30
Piastres. Paras.
A small, round, flat loaf of bread. . . . . 0 20
1 lb. of dry biscuits. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. 0 32
1 lb. of raisins from Tayf. . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 20
1 lb. of dates. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0 25
1 lb. of sugar (Indian). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 10
1 lb. of coffee. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 20
A pomegranate. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. 0 15
An orange. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. 0 15
A lemon, (the size of a walnut, the Same species as the Egyptian lemon) 0 10
1 lb. of good Syrian tobacco. . . . . . . . . . . 6
1 lb. of common tobacco. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 30
1 lb. of tombac, or tobacco for the Persian pipe. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
1 keyle of wheat. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
1 do. of flour. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 20
1 do. of Indian rice. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
1 do. Of lentils from Egypt. . . . . . . . . . . . 2 30
1 do. Of dried locusts. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
A skin of water. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 20
As much wood as will cook two dishes . . . 0 20
A labourer for the day. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
A porter for going in town the distance Of half a mile. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. 1
Common wages of servants,[FN#1] besides Wages of craftsmen, as smiths, carpen-ters, &c. per day, besides food . . . . . . . . .. 5
Clothes and food, per month. . . . . . . . 30

N.B. The Spanish dollar was worth from nine to twelve piastres during my residence at Mekka, changing its value almost daily.

One piastre equal to forty paras or diwanys, as they are called in the Hedjaz. The pound, or rotolo, of Mekka, has a hundred and forty-four drams. The Egyptian erdeb, equivalent to about fifteen English bushels, is divided here into fifty keyles or measures. At Medina the erdeb is divided into ninety-six keyles. The pound of Djidda is nearly double that of Mekka. [The Mekkawys have only slaves; but many Egyptians are ready to enter into the service of hadjys. The most common servants in the families of Mekka are the younger sons or some poor relations.]

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