Travels in Arabia, by John Lewis Burckhardt

Account of Some Places of Zyara, or Objects of Pious Visitation in the Neighbourhood of Medina.

ON the day after the pilgrim has performed his first duties at the mosque and the tomb, he usually visits the burial-ground of the town, in memory of the many saints who lie buried there. It is just beyond the town-walls, near the gate of Bab Djoma, and bears the name of El Bekya. A square of several hundred paces is enclosed by a wall which, on the southern side, joins the suburb, and on the others is surrounded with date-groves. Considering the sanctity of the persons whose bodies it contains, it is a very mean place; and perhaps the most dirty and miserable burial-ground in any eastern town of the size of Medina. It does not contain a single good tomb, nor even any large inscribed blocks of stone covering tombs; but instead, mere rude heaps of earth, with low borders of loose stones placed about them. The Wahabys are accused of having defaced the tombs; and in proof of this, the ruins of small domes and buildings are pointed out, which formerly covered the tombs of Othman, Abbas, Setna Fatme, and the aunts of Mohammed, which owed their destruction to those sectaries: but they would certainly not have annihilated every other simple tomb built of stone here, which they did neither at Mekka nor any other place. The miserable state of this cemetery must have existed prior to the Wahaby conquest, and is to be ascribed to the niggardly minds of the towns-people, who are little disposed to incur any expense in honouring the remains of their celebrated countrymen. The whole place is a confused accumulation of heaps of earth, wide pits, rubbish, without a single regular tomb-stone. The pilgrim is made to visit a number of graves, and, while standing before them, to repeat prayers for the dead. Many persons make it their exclusive profession to watch the whole day near each of the principal tombs, with a handkerchief spread out, in expectation of the pilgrims who come to visit them; and this is the exclusive privilege of certain Ferráshyns and their families, who have divided the tombs among themselves, where each takes his post, or sends his servant in his stead.

The most conspicuous personages that lie buried here are Ibrahim, the son of Mohammed, who died in his youth; Fatme, his daughter, according to the opinion of many, who say that she was buried here and not in the mosque; several of the wives of Mohammed; some of his daughters; his foster-mother; Fatme, the daughter of Asad, and mother of Aly; Abbas ibn Abd el Motalleb; Othman ibn Affan, one of the immediate successors of Mohammed, who collected the scattered leaves of the Koran into one volume; the Martyrs, or Shohada, as they are called, who were slain here by the army of the heretics under Yezyd ibn Mawya, whose commander, Moslim, in A.H. 60, (others say 62,) came from Syria and sacked the town, the inhabitants of which had acknowledged the rebel Abdallah ibn Hantala as their chief; Hassan ibn Aly, whose trunk only lies buried here, his head having been sent to Cairo, where it is preserved in the fine mosque called El Hassamya; the Imam Malek ibn Anes, the founder of the sect of the Malekites. Indeed so rich is Medina in the remains of great saints that they have almost lost their individual importance, while the relics of one of the persons just mentioned would be sufficient to render celebrated any other Moslim town. As a formula of the invocation addressed here to the manes of the saint, I shall transcribe that which is said with uplifted hands, after having performed a short prayer of two rikats, over the tomb of Othman ibn Affan: “Peace be with thee, O Othman! Peace be with thee, O friend of the chosen! Peace be with thee, O collector of the Koran! Mayest thou deserve the contentment of God! May God ordain Paradise as thy dwelling, thy resting-place, thy habitation, and thy abode! I deposit on this spot, and near thee, O Othman, the profession everlasting, from this day to the day of judgment, that there is no God but God, and that Mohammed is his servant and his prophet.”

The inhabitants of Medina bury all their dead on this ground, in the same homely tombs as those of the saints. Branches of palm-trees are stuck upon the graves, and changed once a year, at the feast of Ramadhan, when the family visits the grave of its relations, where it sometimes remains for several days.

VISIT TO DJEBEL OHOD. — One of the principal Zyara or places of sacred visitation of Medina, is Ohod, with the tomb of Hamze, the uncle of Mohammed. The mountain of Ohod forms part of the great chain, branching out from it into the eastern plain, so as to stand almost insulated. It is three quarters of an hour’s walk from the town. In the fourth year of the Hedjra, when Mohammed had fixed his residence at Medina, the idolatrous Koreysh, headed by Abou Sofyan, invaded these parts, and took post at this mountain. Mohammed issued from the town, and there fought, with great disparity of force, the most arduous battle in which he was ever engaged. His uncle Hamze was killed, together with seventy-five of his followers: he himself was wounded, but he killed with his own lance one of the bravest men of the opposite party, and gained at last a complete victory. The tomb of Hamze and of the seventy-five martyrs, as they are called, form the object of the visit to Djebel Ohod.

I started on foot, with my cicerone, by the Syrian gate, in the company of several other visiters; for it was thought unsafe to go there alone, from fear of Bedouin robbers. The visit is generally performed on Thursdays. We passed the place where the Syrian Hadj encamp, and where several wells and half-ruined tanks, cased with stone, supply the pilgrims with water during their three days’ stay at this place, in their way to and from Mekka. A little further on is a pretty kiosk, with a dome, now likewise half-ruined, called El Goreyn, where the chief of that caravan usually takes up his temporary abode. The road further on is completely level; date-trees stand here and there, and several spots are seen which the people only cultivate when the rains are copious. About one mile from the town stands a ruined edifice of stones and bricks, where a short prayer is recited in remembrance of Mohammed having here put on his coat of mail, when he went to engage the enemy. Farther on is a large stone, upon which it is said that Mohammed leaned for a few minutes on his way to Ohod; the visiter is enjoined to press his back against this stone, and to recite the Fateha, or opening chapter of the Koran.

In approaching the mountain, we passed a torrent, coming from E. or S.E. with water to the depth of two feet, the remains of the rain that had fallen five days ago. It swells sometimes so high as to become impassable, and inundates the whole surrounding country. To the east of this torrent, the ground leading towards the mountain is barren, stony, with a slight ascent, on the slope of which stands a mosque, surrounded by about a dozen ruined houses, once the pleasure villas of wealthy towns-people; near them is a cistern, filled by the torrent-water. The mosque is a square solid-built edifice of small dimensions. Its dome was thrown down by the Wahabys, but they spared the tomb. The mosque encloses the tomb of Hamze, and those of his principal men who were slain in the battle; namely, Mesab ibn Omeyr, Djafar ibn Shemmas, and Abdallah ibn Djahsh. The tombs are in a small open yard, and, like those of the Bekya, mere heaps of earth, with a few loose stones placed around them. Beside them is a small portico, which serves as a mosque: a short prayer is said here, and the pilgrims then advance to the tombs, where they recite the chapter of Yasein (from the Koran), or the short chapter of El Khalas forty times; after which Hamze and his friends are invoked to intercede with the Almighty, and obtain for the pilgrim and all his family, faith, health, wealth, and the utter destruction of all their enemies. Money is given, as usual, at every corner, to the guardians of the mosque, of the tombs, to the Mueddin, Imám, &c. &c.

A little further on, towards the mountain, which is only at a gun-shot distance, a small cupola marks the place where Mohammed was struck in battle by a stone, which knocked out four of his front teeth, and felled him to the ground. [This story is related here, though the historians of the Prophet do not agree on the subject.] His party thought he was killed; but the angel Gabriel immediately appeared, and exclaimed that he was still alive. At a short distance from this cupola, which like all the rest has been demolished, are the tombs of twelve other partisans of the Prophet, who were killed in the battle. They form together several mounds of rubbish and stones, in which their respective tombs can no longer be distinguished. Prayers are again recited, with that passage of the Koran which says, in speaking of the slain: “Do not think that those who were killed in war with the infidels are dead; no, they are living, and their reward is with their Lord:” a sentence still used to encourage, even in our days, the Turkish soldiers in their battles with Europeans.

The mountain of Ohod consists of different coloured granite; on its sides I likewise found flint, but no lava. The entire mountain is almost four miles in length, from west to east. Having been the scene of the famous battle, which so much contributed to strengthen the party of Mohammed and his new religion, it is not surprising that Djebel Ohod should be the object of peculiar veneration. The people of Medina believe that on the day of resurrection it will be transported into Paradise; and that when mankind shall appear before the Almighty for judgment, they will be assembled upon it, as the most favoured station. The mountain of Ayra, mentioned above as situated to the S.W. of the town, (about the same distance from it as Ohod is, on the other side,) will on that day experience a much less enviable fate. Having denied water to the Prophet, who once lost his way in its valleys, and became thirsty, it will be punished for inhospitality, by being cast at once into hell.

The people of Medina frequently visit Ohod, pitching their tents in the ruined houses, where they remain a few days, especially convalescents, who during their illness had made a vow to slaughter a sheep in honour of Hamze, if they recovered. Once a year, (in July, I believe,) the inhabitants flock thither in crowds, and remain for three days, as if it were during the feast days of the saint. Regular markets are then kept there: and this visit forms one of the principal public amusements of the town.

KOBA. — In this neighbouring village all the pilgrims visit the spot where Mohammed first alighted on coming from Mekka: it lies to the south of the town, distant about three quarters of an hour. The road to it passes through a plain, overgrown with date-trees, and covered in many spots with white sand. At half an hour from the town begin gardens, which spread over a space of four or five miles in circuit, and form, perhaps, the most fertile and agreeable spot in the Northern Hedjaz. All kinds of fruit-trees (with the exception of apple and pear, none of which I believe grow in Arabia,) are seen in the gardens, which are all enclosed by walls, and irrigated by numerous wells. It is from hence that Medina is supplied with fruits: lemon and orange trees, pomegranates, bananas, vines, peach, apricot, and fig trees, are planted amidst the date and nebek trees, and form as thick groves as in Syria and Egypt, while their shade renders Koba a delightful residence. The kheroa (Ricinus, or Palma Christi,) is likewise very common here. The village is frequently visited by the people of Medina; parties are continually made to spend the day, and many sick people are carried to enjoy the benefits of a cooler atmosphere.

In the midst of these groves stands the Mesdjed of Koba, with about thirty or forty houses. It is a mean building, and much decayed. In the interior of it several holy spots are visited, at each of which a short prayer of two rikats is performed, and some additional invocations recited in honour of the place. We first see here the Mobrak el Naka, the very spot on the floor of the mosque where the she-camel which Mohammed rode, in his flight from Mekka, crouched down, and would not rise again, thus advising her master to stop here, which he did for a few days, previous to his entering Medina. It was to consecrate this spot, that the mosque was founded by Mohammed himself with loose stones, which were changed into a regular building the year after, by Benou Ammer ibn Owf; but the present building is of modern construction. Further on is shown the spot upon which Mohammed once stood, after his prayers, and distinctly saw from thence Mekka, and all that the Koreysh were doing there; and, thirdly, the spot where the Koranic passage relating to the inhabitants of Koba was revealed to Mohammed: “A temple, from its first day founded in piety; there thou best standest up to prayers. There men live who like to be purified: and God loves the clean.” In this passage an allusion is discovered to the extraordinary personal cleanliness of those who inhabited Koba, more especially in certain acts of ablution.

I saw no inscriptions in this mosque, except those of hadjys who had written their names on the white-washed walls; a practice in which Eastern travellers indulge as frequently as European tourists, adding often to the names some verses of favourite poets, or sentences of the Koran. The mosque forms a narrow colonnade round a small open courtyard, in which the Mobrak el Naka stands, with a small cupola over it, rising to the height of about six feet. On issuing from the mosque, we were assailed by a crowd of beggars. At a short distance from it, among the cluster of houses, stands a small chapel, called Mesdjed Aly, in honour of Aly, the cousin of Mohammed. Close to it, in a garden, a deep well is shown, called Ayn Ezzerka, with a small chapel, built at its mouth. This was a favourite spot with Mohammed, who used often to sit among the trees with his disciples, enjoying the pleasure of seeing the water issuing in a limpid stream; an object which at the present day powerfully attracts the natives of the East, and, with the addition of a shady tree, is perhaps the only feature of landscape which they admire. When he once was sitting here, the Prophet’s seal-ring dropped into the well, and could never be again found; and the supposition that the ring is still there, renders the well famous. The water is tepid at its source, with a slight sulphureous taste, which it loses in its course. It is collected together with that of several other springs into the canal which supplies Medina, and which is kept constantly flowing by the supply of various channels of well-water. Omar el Khatab first carried the spring to Medina; but the present canal was built at the expense of the Sultan Soleyman, son of Selim I., about A.H. 973: it is a very solid subterranean work.

This canal, and that of Mekka, are the greatest architectural curiosities in the Hedjaz. Near to the mosque of Koba stands a building erected by Sultan Morad, for dervishes. A little beyond the village, on the road towards the town, stands a small chapel, called Mesdjed Djoma, in remembrance of the spot where the people of Medina met Mohammed upon his arrival.

EL KEBLETYN. — Towards the N.W. of the town, about one hour distant, a place is visited bearing this name. It is said to consist of two rude pillars (for I did not see it myself,) and was the spot where Mohammed first changed the Kebly, or the direction in which prayers are said, in the seventeenth month after the Hedjra, or his flight to Medina. Together with the Jewish Bedouins, his own adherents had till then Jerusalem as their Kebly; but Mohammed now turned it towards the Kaaba, to which that fine passage of the Koran alludes: “Say, to God belong the east and the west; he directs whomsoever he pleases in the road of piety:”— a sentence written to convince the Moslims, that wherever they turned, in their prayers, God stood before them. Near this spot stands a small ruined chapel.

The above are the only places visited by pilgrims. The country round Koba, and towards the S.E. of the town, presents many spots of nearly equal beauty with Koba, which in summer are places of recreation to the people of Medina; but I believe there are no villages any where to be seen, only insulated houses, or small groupes of buildings, scattered amongst the date-trees.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31