Travels in Arabia, by John Lewis Burckhardt

On the Government of Medina.

Medina, since the commencement of Islam, has always been considered as a separate principality. When the Hedjaz came under subjection to the Khalifes, Medina was governed by persons appointed by them, and independent of the governors of Mekka. When the power of the Khalifes declined, the chiefs of Medina made themselves independent, and exercised the same influence in the northern Hedjaz that those of Mekka did in the southern. Sometimes the chiefs of Mekka succeeded in extending a temporary authority over Medina; and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries this power seems to have been well established; but it often became dependent on the mighty Sultans of Egypt, whenever they assumed the sovereignty over Mekka. When the family of Othman mounted the Turkish throne, the Emperor Selym I., and his son Soleyman, (who paid, in general, more attention to the welfare of the Hedjaz than any of their predecessors,) thought it necessary to acquire a firmer footing in this town, which is the key of the Hedjaz, and became of so much importance to the great pilgrim caravans. They sent hither a garrison of Turkish soldiers, composed of Janissaries and Spahies, under the command of an Aga, who was to be the military commander of the town; while the civil government was placed in the hands of the Sheikh el Haram, or Aga el Haram, the prefect of the temple, who was to correspond regularly with the capital, and to have the same rank as Pashas in other towns. With the exception of a short period towards the end of the seventeenth century, when the Sheikh el Haram and the whole town fell under the jurisdiction of the Sherif of Mekka, this mode of government continued until the period of the Wahaby invasion. An Aga was at the head of a few soldiers, some of whom were in possession of the castle; and the Aga el Haram, who also had a small train of soldiers, was the nominal chief of the town. But great abuses had prevailed for the last century: the military commander was no longer chosen by the Sultans, but by his own people, and there were no longer any Turkish soldiers, but only the descendants of those originally sent hither, who had intermarried with the natives. This Aga had become the real master of the town, and his party was spread over all the first families. He had no other soldiers than the rabble of the town itself, and was chosen by the first officers of the garrison, whose employments were still kept up by their descendants, as they had been settled in former times, although the greater part of them had renounced the military profession. This tribe of soldiers, called Merabetein, had been enlarged to strengthen the Aga’s party, and its privileges extended to many other inhabitants of the town, and foreigners who settled here. They were entitled to share in the yearly salaries originally fixed by the Sultan, for the pay of the garrison, and regularly transmitted from Constantinople; and had, besides, usurped a share of the surra or stipends sent to the mosque and to the whole town.

The Aga el Haram, together with the Kadhy, who was sent hither annually from Constantinople, to preside over the tribunal of justice, became, under the above circumstances, mere ciphers. The former was usually a eunuch, who knew nothing of Arabic, and who received the appointment rather in the way of exile, than as a preferment. His income, which he received from Constantinople, although handsome, did not enable him to keep up any military guard sufficient to cope with his rival, the Aga of the town; and he soon found himself only left in the charge of the temple, and the command of the eunuchs and Ferráshyn. But the Aga of the town himself was not complete master; several of the chiefs of the different quarters had great authority; the Sherifs settled here had their own chief, called Sheikh-es’-Sadat, a man of great power; and thus, much disorder prevailed. The people of the town, and the gardeners and inhabitants of the suburbs, were often contending for months together: in the interior of the town itself bloody affrays often occurred between the inhabitants of the different quarters, on which occasions they sometimes barricadoed the streets, and kept up a firing upon each other from the tops of their houses. Instances are related of people firing even into the mosque upon their enemies, while engaged in prayer.

Within the last twenty years a man named Hassan had been appointed Aga of the castle, which gave him the surname of Hassan el Kalay. Born among the dregs of the people, his great skill and cunning, and determined hardihood, had raised him to this office. He was a man of a very short stature and a limping gait, but notwithstanding of great bodily strength; and his voice, when he was in anger, is said to have terrified even the boldest. After several years’ hard struggle, this man succeeded in becoming complete master and tyrant of the town: he kept a guard of town’s-people, of Bedouins, and Moggrebyns in his service, and had all the rabble on his side. He was guilty of the most flagrant acts of injustice; he oppressed the pilgrims, extorted money from them, confiscated the property of all the hadjys and foreigners who died here, withheld the surra brought from Constantinople by the Hadj, from the people for whom it was destined, and amassed great wealth. Instances are recorded of tyranny and brutality which cover his name with infamy. A rich old widow, with her daughter, having arrived at Medina, from Constantinople, to visit the tomb, he seized on her, and compelled her to marry him; two days after, she was found dead, her property was seized by him; and a short time after he forced the daughter to yield to his embraces. Many complaints were made at Constantinople against this man, but the Sultan had not power enough to dispossess him; and whenever the caravan arrived from Syria, Hassan el Kalay showed so imposing an attitude, that its chiefs could attempt nothing against him. He threw great obstacles in their way; and it is generally ascribed to him, that the last caravan from Damascus, which attempted to perform the journey after the Wahaby conquest, was obliged to return to Syria.

When the Wahabys began to make inroads into the Hedjaz, and to direct their forces against Medina, the conduct of Hassan became still more violent. During the two or three years which preceded the capture of the town, he set no bounds to his oppressions, and was often seen to inflict the severest punishments upon persons who happened to be laughing among themselves when he passed by, pretending that his limping gait was the cause of their mirth. During the night shops were robbed by the Arabs in his service, who patrolled the streets in large parties, and no justice could be obtained against them. When he saw the impossibility of holding the town longer against the Wahabys, after all the surrounding Bedouins, and Mekka itself, had surrendered, he gave up the place to Saoud, on condition that he should be continued in his command; this was promised, and the promise was kept: a Wahaby garrison was then placed in the castle; the Aga el Haram, with all the Turks residing in Medina, were obliged to leave the town, where he had been for several years a mere shadow; and Hassan el Kalay remained governor under the Wahabys. Being now unable to act with the same injustice as he had before done, he affected the greatest zeal for the new religion, and oppressed the inhabitants, by enforcing upon them, with the most scrupulous severity, the precepts of the Wababy creed. Saoud showed much less respect for Medina than he had done for Mekka: the income of the latter town was left, as it was, in the hands of the Sherif, and the inhabitants were exempted from the zekat, or tribute, which the other Wahaby subjects paid to the chief, who here abandoned his right in favour of Ghaleb. The same conciliatory system was not observed at Medina: the inhabitants, who had never before known what imposts were, except the payment of some trifling land-tax, found themselves grievously oppressed; and Hassan el Kalay, with the tax-gatherers of Saoud, enforced the taxes with the utmost rigour.

The Hadj caravans now ceased; few pilgrims arrived by way of Yembo; Saoud, soon after, prohibited the passage to the town to all Turkish pilgrims; and the surra or stipends were of course withheld. Under these circumstances the Medinans felt most heavily the pressure of the times, and became exasperated against the Wahabys. Some further details on the subject will be found in my account of Mohammed Aly’s campaign.

When Mohammed Aly first prepared an expedition against the Hedjaz, a strong garrison was placed in Medina, consisting principally of warlike Bedouins from Nedjed and the southern provinces, under the command of Medheyan, whom Saoud had named Sheikh of the tribe of Harb. Hassan el Kalay showed great zeal for the common cause; and, after the first defeat of Tousoun Pasha at Djedeyde, was confirmed in his situation at Medina; but when Tousoun returned a second time with a larger force, Hassan, foreseeing his success, entered into secret negotiations with him, and received the promise of being continued in his office, provided he would facilitate the capture of the town by the Osmanlys. On their arrival before its gates, he joined them, and was received by Ahmed Bonaparte, the Turkish commander, with distinguished honours; the town was soon after attacked, and the castle taken by capitulation: but after the Wahaby party was totally suppressed in these parts, both Medheyan, to whom safe-conduct had been promised, and Hassan el Kalay, were seized, put in chains, and sent by way of Cairo to Constantinople, where they experienced the fate which, the latter at least, well merited, though his crimes can never excuse the treachery of those who seized him.

Soon after the above events, the Aga el Haram, a Kislar Agassi of Sultan Selym, returned, and partly recovered his authority; but the real command was now in the hands of the Turkish governor. Towards the end of the year 1814, Tousoun Pasha came here as governor, preparatory to his intended attack upon Nedjed; and here I found him on my arrival. His government was not bad, because his intentions were good, and he was liked by the inhabitants for his generosity and devotion; but his proceedings were foolish enough: he frightened away the Bedouins, by seizing their camels; he thus cut off the supplies from the town, created a general want of every kind of provision, and other necessaries; and his soldiers then soon began to commit excesses, which he neglected to suppress by punishment. After Tousoun’s departure, his father, Mohammed Aly, arrived here in April, 1815, and with his more experienced judgment immediately took the proper measures for repairing the errors of his son.

Medina now continues under the government of a Turkish commander; a post filled for a few months by the Scotchman, Thomas Keith, or Ibrahim Aga, whom I have mentioned as being the treasurer of Tousoun Pasha. The Aga el Haram keeps about sixty or eighty soldiers, a motley crew of Turks, Arabs, Moggrebyns, and people of Medina; and all ecclesiastical affairs, and the pecuniary business of the mosque, are left in his hands. Next to him in importance stands the Kadhy, who, in the time of the Wahabys, had been obliged to retire. The Sheikh of the Sherifs, or Sadat, continues to enjoy great respect, as well as several other Sheikhs of the town; and I believe, after all, that the Medinans dislike their present masters, the Turks, less than any other class of the people of the Hedjaz, although they certainly have not yet been cordially reconciled to them.

Prior to the Wahaby invasion, the Sherif of Mekka kept an officer here of inferior rank, to receive some trifling duties upon vegetables, flesh, and other provisions brought to market; the only tax of the kind paid by the Medinans, and the last remnant of the jurisdiction once enjoyed by the Sherif of Mekka over Medina, and which, in later times, has been entirely lost. Sherif Ghaleb had no authority here whatever; but I believe, though I am not quite sure, that he still assumed the nominal superiority, or the title of Chief of Medina; and that Medina was supposed by the Porte to form part of the Hedjaz, under the command of the Sherif of Mekka.

Several respectable Arabian writers affirm, that Medina forms a part of Nedjed, and not of the Hedjaz, situated as it is on the eastern side of the great chain; and this opinion seems to be well founded, if the natural boundary be considered; but, in the common acceptation of the word on the coast, and at Mekka and Medina, the latter town is supposed to form part of the Hedjaz, although the Bedouins of the interior give quite a different meaning to this appellation.

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