Travels in Arabia, by John Lewis Burckhardt

Journey from Medina to Yembo.

April 21st. 1815. OUR small caravan assembled in the afternoon near the outer gate of the town, and at five o’clock P.M. we passed through the same gate by which I entered, on my arrival, three months ago. Then I was in full health and spirits, and indulging the fond hopes of exploring unknown and interesting parts of the Desert on my return to Egypt; but now, worn down by lingering disease, dejected, and desponding, with no more anxious wish than to reach a friendly and salubrious spot, where I might regain my health. The ground leading to the town on this side is rocky. About three quarters of an hour distant, the road has a steep short descent, hemmed in by rocks, and is paved, to facilitate the passage of caravans. Our direction was S.W. by S. In one hour we came to the bed of a torrent called Wady el Akyk, which during the late rains had received so copious a supply from the neighbouring mountains, that it had become like a deep and broad river, which our camels could not attempt to pass. As the day was fine, we expected to see it considerably diminished the next morning, and therefore encamped on its banks, at a place called El Madderidje. Here is a small ruined village, the houses of which were well built of stone, with a small birket or reservoir, and a ruined well close by. Its inhabitants cultivate some fields on the bank of Wady Akyk, but the incursions of the Bedouins had obliged them to retire.

Wady Akyk is celebrated by the Arabian poets. [Samhoudy says, that this torrent empties itself into the same low ground called El Ghaba, or Zaghaba, to the west of Medina, in the mountains where all the torrents in this neighbourhood discharge themselves. He says also, that on the banks of this torrent, eastward, stood the small Arab fortification called Kasr el Meradjel; and from thence towards Ghaba the torrent crosses a district called El Nakya. About five miles distant from Medina was a station of the Hadj, called Zy’l Haleyfe, situated on the banks of Wady Akyk, with a small castle and a birket, which was rebuilt in A.H. 861. Perhaps this Madderidje is meant by it.] On its banks stand a number of ashour trees, which were now in full flower. We were accompanied thus far by a number of people from Medina, in compliment to one of the Muftis of Mekka, who had been on a visit to the town, and was now returning to his home, intending to leave our caravan at Szafra. He had several tents and women with him. My other fellow-travellers were petty merchants of Medina going to await at Djidda the arrival of the Indian ships, and a rich merchant from Maskat, whom I had seen at Mekka, where he was on the pilgrimage: he had ten camels to carry his women, his infant children, his servants, and his baggage; and he spent, at every station, considerable sums in charity. He appeared, in every respect, a liberal and worthy Arab.

April 22nd. The torrent had decreased, and we crossed it in the afternoon. We rode for an hour in a narrow valley, following the torrent upwards. At the end of an hour and half we left the torrent: the plain opened to the east, and is here called Esselsele; our road over it was in the direction W.S.W. The rocks spread over the plain were calcareous. At the end of three hours and a half we again entered the mountain, and continued in its vallies, slowly descending, for the whole night. At the break of day we passed the plain called El Fereysh, where I had encamped the day before I reached Medina; and alighted, after a march of twelve hours and a half, in the upper part of Wady es Shohada. [The distances of this journey do not exactly agree with those given in coming to Medina; but I prefer stating them as I found them noted down in my journal.]

April 23rd. We had no sooner deposited our baggage than a heavy rain set in, accompanied with tremendous peals of thunder and flashes of lightning. The whole Wady was flooded in a moment, and we expected that it would be necessary to pass the whole day here. I found shelter in the tent of the merchant of Maskat. In the afternoon the storm ceased. At two P.M. we started, and at the end of an hour passed the tombs of the Martyrs or Shohada, the followers of Mohammed, forty of whom, it was said, lie buried there. We continued slowly descending in the Wady, mostly in the direction S.S.W. At the top of Wady Shohada, the granite rocks begin, the upper ranges of that chain being calcareous. At the end of five hours we issued from the Wady. In the night we passed the plains of Shab el Hal and Nazye; and, after a march of thirteen hours and a half, encamped in the mountains, in the wide valley called Wady Medyk, which lies in the road from Nazye to Djedeyde, two hours distant from the former, and which we had passed at night in my former journey. I heard that in these mountains between Medina and the sea, all the way northward, mountain-goats are met with, and that leopards are not uncommon.

April 24th. A few Arabs of Beni Salem here sow some fields with durra, which they irrigate by means of a fine spring of running water issuing from a cleft in the mountains, where it forms several small basins and pretty cascades — the best water I had drank since leaving the mountains of Tayf. We started from hence in the afternoon, and encountered more heavy rain from mid-day to sun-set. In the caravan were several sick and convalescents, especially women, who were all complaining. I had had a strong attack of fever during the night, which returned today, and lasted till I reached Yembo. It was particularly distressing to me, being accompanied by profuse perspiration during the night, followed by shivering fits towards day-break; and as the caravan could not halt on my account, I had no opportunity to change my linen. We were, moreover, obliged to encamp upon wet ground; and as the number of camel-drivers was very small, considering the quantity of baggage, I could not avoid assisting to load, my own Bedouin being one of the most ill-natured and lazy fellows I ever met with among people of his nation.

We rode in the winding valley for two hours and a half, to El Kheyf, the beginning of Wady Djedeyde, where the chief of the Turkish post stationed there inquired for news from head-quarters: he had been a whole fortnight without hearing what was done at Medina. During the whole Turkish campaign in the Hedjaz, no regular couriers had been any where established. Tousoun Pasha was often left for months at Medina, ignorant of the state of the army under his father; and even the latter usually received his intelligence from Mekka and Djidda by ordinary conveyances of caravans; expresses were seldom despatched, and still less any regular communication established over land between Cairo and Mekka. Not merely in this respect, but in many other details of warfare, the best Turkish commanders show an incredible want of activity or foresight, which causes the surprise even of Bedouins, and must expose their operations to certain failure whenever they encounter a more vigilant enemy with no disparity of force.

The camp of the soldiers at Kheyf was completely inundated, and the whole breadth of the wady covered with a rapid stream of water. Without stopping any where we passed Djedeyde at the end of three hours and a half, and further on Dar el Hamra, where the inhabitants had cultivated several new plantations, since I passed this way in January. The copious rains were a sure prognostic of a plentiful year, and the ever-recurring questions put to our guides by the people they passed on the road were, whether such and such a spot in the upper country was well drenched with rain. In seven hours we came to Szafra. The party from Mekka that was with us, separated here, having hired their camels only thus far, from whence they intended to take others for the journey to Mekka; and those which had carried them thus far, followed our party to Yembo. All those camels which are engaged in the transport and carriage between the coast and Medina, belong to the Beni Harb tribe.

We remained a few minutes only, about midnight, at Szafra, to drink some coffee in one of the shops, and then continued our road to the westward of the route by which I reached Szafra in coming from Mekka. Thick date-plantations form an uninterrupted line on both sides of the narrow valley in which we slowly descended. After nine hours and a half we passed a village called El Waset, built among the date-groves, and having extensive gardens of fruit-trees in its vicinity. At every step water is found in wells or fountains. A little beyond this village we left the valley to the right, and took our way up a steep mountain, this being a nearer road than that through the valley. The route over the mountain was rocky and steep; our guides obliged us to walk, and it was with difficulty that I mustered strength sufficient to reach the summit; from thence we descended by a less rough declivity, and, after twelve hours’ march, again fell into the road in the valley, near a small village called Djedyd. The mountain we had crossed has the name of Thenyet Waset. The valley we had left to our right takes a western circuitous tour, and includes several other villages, of which I heard the following mentioned: Hosseynye, (nearest to Waset); then, lower down, Fara and Barake, in the vicinity of Djedyd. Below Waset the the valley is considered as belonging to Wady Beder, and above it to Szafra. Djedyd has very few date-trees and fields; it stands upon a plain, through which the torrent passes, after having irrigated the upper plantations of the wady. We continued on this plain for one hour, direction S. 50 W. After a thirteen hours’ march we entered a chain of mountains, extending westward, the same which I have mentioned in my journey to Medina, as branching out westward from the great chain near Bir-es’-Sheikh. Our road lay in a broad sandy valley, with little windings, which brought us, after a very fatiguing march of fourteen hours and a half, to Beder.

April 25th. Beder, or as it is also called, Beder Honeyn, is a small town, the houses of which are built either of stone or mud, and of better appearance, although less numerous, than those of Szafra. It is surrounded by a miserable mud wall, ruined in many places. A copious rivulet flows through the town, which rises in the ridge of mountains we had just passed, and is conducted in a stone channel: it waters extensive date-groves, with gardens and fields on the south-west side of the place; and, although at a distance from its source, is still somewhat tepid. El Assamy, the historian of Mekka, says that El Ghoury, Sultan of Egypt, built a fine reservoir at Beder, for the Hadj; but I did not see it, and am ignorant whether it be yet in existence.

Beder is situated in a plain bounded towards the N. and E. by steep mountains; to the S. by rocky hills, and to the W. by hills of moving sand. The Hadj caravans usually make this a station; and we found the place where they had encamped just by the gate of the town, four months ago, still covered with carcases of camels, rags of clothes, and remains of broken utensils, &c. Beder is famous in Arabian history for the battle fought here by Mohammed, in the second year of the Hedjra, with a superior force of the Koreysh Arabs, who had come in aid of a rich caravan expected from Syria, which Mohammed intended to waylay on this spot. Although very ill, I walked out with the Maskat hadjys, to inspect the field of battle, to which we were guided by a man from Beder. To the south of the town, about one mile distant, at the foot of the hills, are the tombs of the thirteen followers and friends of the Prophet, who fell by his side. They are mere heaps of earth, enclosed by a row of loose stones, and are all close together. The Koreysh, as our guide explained to us, were posted upon the hill behind the tombs, while Mohammed had divided his small force into two parts, with one of which he himself advanced in the plain against the enemy, and the reserve was entrusted to Aly ibn Aby Taleb, with orders to take his post upon the sand-hill on the western side. The battle could not be won without the interposition of heaven; and three thousand angels, with Gabriel at their head, were sent to Mohammed’s assistance. The above-mentioned thirteen persons were slain in the first onset. The Prophet, hard pressed, hid himself behind a large rock, which opened miraculously to admit him, and enabled him to reach his reserve; he then made a second attack, and with the heavenly auxiliaries was victorious, not losing another man, although seventy of his adversaries were killed on the spot. A handful of stones, or dust, which he (or according to the Koran, which God) threw towards his enemies, caused them to fly. After he had forced their position, he rested a little upon a stone, which, sensible of the honour, forthwith assumed the form of a seat. The rock and the stone are shown; and, at all events answer one good purpose, which is to excite the visiter’s charity towards the poor of Beder, who assemble at it whenever a caravan arrives. The position of Aly’s troop upon the distant hill, that of the party of Mohammed close to the enemy, and the plain beyond that hill, where the caravan from Syria pursued its route during the battle, are made to explain the passage of the Koran, which alludes to it thus; “You were on the nearer side of the valley, and they on the further side, and the caravan was below,” (Sur. 8.): but I could not well understand that passage, according to the usual interpretation; and rather believe that by the word rukb, which is taken here as synonymous with caravan, the party of horsemen under Aly must be understood, whose position, although upon a hill, was, with relation to Beder, a low one, the ground descending slightly. Several small domes, which had been erected here, were ruined by the Wahabys. In returning to the village, we walked, on its south side, into the mosque called Mesdjed el Ghemáme, built on the spot where Mohammed once sat exposed to the sun’s rays, and prayed to God for a cloud which might overshadow him; this was immediately granted; and the mosque derives its name from the cloud. It is better built and more spacious than might be expected in such a poor place.

The market of Beder is furnished with the same articles as that of Szafra. Some water-melons, the produce of the gardens, were offered for sale. The Maskat merchant purchased, without my knowledge, five pounds of Mekka balsam, all that remained in the market, which he intended for a present to the Imám of Maskat. It was in the same adulterated state as that I had formerly seen at Szafra. The inhabitants of Beder are chiefly Bedouins of the tribe of Sobh, belonging to Harb, some of whom have become settlers here. Others only have their shops here, and return every evening to the tents of their family in the neighbouring mountains. Beder being a place much frequented by Bedouins and travellers, the houses are in great request, and a small shop in the market pays as much as twenty dollars a year rent. Some Sherif families are also established here, to whom the Hadj pays at passing considerable stipends.

In the evening several hundred camels belonging to Bedouins came to be watered at the rivulet, escorted principally by women, who freely entered into conversation with us. The Beni Harb established at Djedeyde, Szafra, and Beder, give their daughters in marriage to strangers, and even to settlers; and a few Turkish soldiers, attracted by the beauty of some Bedouin girls, had fixed themselves here, and married them: one of them, an Arnaut, who spoke good Arabic, and had been accustomed from his youth to the wild life of warlike mountaineers, intended to follow his young wife to the mountain. In the neighbouring mountains are immense numbers of the eagle (rakham); hundreds of them were constantly hovering about us; and some actually pounced down, and carried off the meat from our dishes.

April 26th. We had remained here the whole of yesterday. Some people of Beder kept watch at night over our caravan, for which they received a small compliment. This place abounds with robbers, and we were encamped outside the gate of the town. We left Beder in the evening, and took a direction N. 45 W. After proceeding for three quarters of an hour, we came to the ridge of sand-hills above mentioned, the highest summit of which is called Goz Aly, in memory of the position occupied there by Aly, during the battle of Beder. We crossed these hills for half an hour with difficulty, the sands being very deep, and then descended into the great western plain, extending as far as the sea, which is reached from Beder in one night’s march, at a small harbour, south of Yembo, called Bereyke, much frequented by shipping. The plain, which we entered in the direction W. 1 N. is overgrown with shrubs. During our night-march we saw the fires of different Bedouin encampments. We met two negro pilgrims, who had started from Yembo by themselves, and were in great distress for water: we gave them both meat and drink, and directed them towards the Bedouin encampments. Without a compass, these enterprising travellers find their route across deserts: the direction of the road is shown to them at starting, and they pursue it in a straight line by night and by day, until they arrive at the destined spot. After a ride of ten hours from Beder, we encamped at the break of day in a part of the plain, where low acacia-trees grow, called adheyba.

April 27. I found myself in a very low state this morning. Violent vomiting and profuse sweats had rendered the last night one of the most disagreeable nights I passed in my travels. A quarrel with my guide, about victuals, further increased my fever today, to which perhaps the late relaxation of my nerves through illness contributed. To our right, northwards, about six hours distant, a chain of high mountains extends towards the sea. Nearer to us a lower ridge takes the same direction. The plain upon which we encamped is sandy, covered with small pebbles and petrosilex. We set out after mid-day. Four hours and a half, direction N.W. by N., trees and shrubs are no longer seen; a few saline shrubs only indicate the proximity of the sea; and a little further on, the ground becomes covered with a salt crust, while the air is strongly impregnated with sea-vapours. At the end of seven hours and a half, we again found some trees in the plain, interspersed with salt-increased spots. At fourteen hours, having travelled the whole night over bad ground, we saw Yembo at sun-rise; and after a ride of fifteen hours and a half, at a very slow pace, we reached the gate of the town: just before it we crossed an inlet of the harbour, it being then low water, but which extends to a considerable distance inland at high tide.

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