Travels in Arabia, by John Lewis Burckhardt

Climate and Diseases of Medina.

I FOUND the climate at Medina, during the winter months, much colder than that of Mekka. Snow is unknown here, though I heard that some old people remembered to have seen it in the neighbouring mountains. The rains have no fixed period in winter, but fall at intervals, and usually in violent storms, which last for one day, or perhaps two days, only: sometimes a whole winter passes without more than one fall of rain, excepting a few light showers; the consequence of which is a general dearth. The Medinans say, that three or four gushes of rain are necessary to irrigate their soil; the water of the torrents then inundating many parts of the country, especially the pasturing grounds of the Bedouins. Uninterrupted rains for a week, or longer, such as often occur in Syria, are quite unknown here; and after every gush of rain, which lasts for twenty-four hours, the sky clears up, and the finest spring weather prevails for several weeks. The last storms are usually in April, but occasional showers are not unfrequent even in the middle of summer.

The Medinans, and many foreigners, assert, that the summer-heat is greater here than in any other part of the Hedjaz: I was not able to judge myself. I have already stated that the saline nature of the soil and water, the stagnant pools of rain-water round the town, and perhaps the exhalation and vapours produced by the thick date-groves in its neighbourhood, render the air of Medina little favourable to health.

Fevers are the most common disease, to which many of the inhabitants themselves are subject, and from which strangers who remain here any time seldom escape, especially in spring. Yahya Effendi, the physician of Tousoun Pasha, assured me, when I was sick, that he had eighty persons ill of fever under his care; and it appeared that he was more fortunate in their cure than in mine. The fevers are almost all intermittent, and attended after their cure by great languor: relapses are much dreaded. When I went out after my recovery, I found the streets filled with convalescents, whose appearance but too clearly showed how numerous were my fellow-sufferers in the town. If not cured within a certain time, these fevers often occasion hard swellings in the stomach and legs, which are not removed without great difficulty. The Medinans care little about this intermittent fever, to which they are accustomed, and with them it seldom proves fatal; but the case is otherwise with strangers. In some seasons it assumes an epidemic character, when as many as eighty persons are known to have died in one week; instances of this kind, however, seldom happen.

Dysenteries are said to be rare here. Bilious complaints, and jaundice, are very common. There appears to be in general a much greater mortality here than in any other part of the East that I have visited. My lodgings were very near to one of the principal gates of the mosque, through which the corpses were carried when prayers were to be said over them; and I could hear, from my sick bed, the exclamations of “La illah il Allah,” with which that ceremony was accompanied. During my three months’ confinement one funeral at least, and often two, passed every day under my window. If we reckon on the average three bodies per day carried into the mosque through this gate, as well as the others, besides the poor Arabs who die in the suburbs, and over whose bodies prayers are said in the mosque situated in the Monakh, we shall have about twelve hundred deaths annually, in this small town, the whole population of which, I believe to be at most from sixteen to twenty thousand; a mortality which cannot be repaired by births, and would long ago have depopulated the place, did not the arrival of foreigners continually supply the loss. Of this population I reckon about ten or twelve thousand for the town itself, and the rest for the suburbs.

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