Travels in Arabia, by John Lewis Burckhardt


Whoever enters Mekka, whether pilgrim or not, is enjoined by the law to visit the Temple immediately, and not to attend to any worldly concern whatever, before he has done so. We crossed the line of shops and houses, up to the gates of the mosque, where my ass-driver took his fare and set me down: here I was accosted by half a dozen metowef, or guides to the holy places, who knew, from my being dressed in the ihram, that I intended to visit the Kaaba. I chose one of them as my guide, and, after having deposited my baggage in a neighbouring shop, entered the mosque at the gate called Bab-es’-Salam, by which the new-comer is recommended to enter. The ceremonies to be performed in visiting the mosque are the following:— 1. Certain religious rites to be practised in the interior of the temple; 2. The walk between Szafa and Meroua; 3. The visit to the Omra. These ceremonies ought to be repeated by every Moslem whenever he enters Mekka from a journey farther than two days’ distance, and they must again be more particularly performed at the time of the pilgrimage to Arafat. I shall here describe them as briefly as possible; a full detail and explanation of the Mohammedan law on this subject would be extremely tedious; indeed there exist many voluminous works in Arabic which treat of nothing else.

1. Rites to be performed in the Interior of the Temple.

At the entrance, under the colonnade, some prayers are recited on first sight of the Kaaba, and then two rikats, or four prostrations addressed to the divinity, in thanks for having reached the holy spot, and in salutation of the mosque itself; after which the pilgrim approaches the Kaaba by one of the paved ways to it, through the open area in which it stands. In passing under the insulated arch in front of the Kaaba, called Bab-es’-Salam, certain prayers are said. Other prayers are recited in a low voice, and the visitor then places himself opposite to the black stone of the Kaaba, and prays two rikats; at the conclusion of which, the stone is touched with the right hand, or kissed, if there is no great pressure of people. The devotee then begins the Towaf, or walk round the Kaaba, keeping that building on his left hand. This ceremony is to be repeated seven times; the three first are in a quick pace, in imitation of the Prophet, whose enemies having reported that he was dangerously ill, he contradicted them by running thrice round the Kaaba at full speed. Every circuit must be accompanied with prescribed prayers, which are recited in a low voice, and appropriated to the different parts of the building that are passed: the black stone is kissed or touched at the conclusion of each circuit, as well as another stone, walled in at one corner of the black stone. When the seven circuits are finished, the visiter approaches the wall of the Kaaba, between the black stone and the door of the building, which space is called El Meltezem. There, with widely outstretched arms, and with his breast closely pressed against the wall, he beseeches the Lord to pardon his sins. He then retires towards the neighbouring Mekam Ibrahim, and there prays two rikats, called Sunnet-et-towaf, after which he repairs to the adjoining well of Zemzem; and, after a short pious address in honour of the well, drinks as much of the water as he wishes, or as he can on occasions when the crowd is very great; and this completes the ceremonies to be observed within the temple.

I may here add, that the Towaf is a Muselman ceremony not exclusively practised in the temple at Mekka. In the summer of 1813, I was present at the annual festival of the patron saint of Kenne, in Upper Egypt, called Seid Abderrahman el Kennawy. Many thousands of the people of the country were assembled on the plain, in which stands the saint’s tomb, at a distance of one mile from the town. Each person, as he arrived, walked seven times round the small mosque which contains the tomb; and when the new covering intended to be laid over it for that year was brought in solemn procession, the whole assembly followed it seven times round the building, after which it was placed upon the tomb.

2. Walk between Szafa and Meroua.

My guide, who, during the whole of the ceremonies above men­tioned, had been close at my heels, reciting all the necessary prayers, which I repeated after him, now led me out of the mosque by the gate called Bab-es’-Szafa. About fifty yards from the S.E. side of the mosque, on a slightly ascending ground, stand three small open arches, connected by an architrave above, having below three broad stone steps leading up to them.

This is called the Hill of Szafa: here, standing on the upper step, with his face turned towards the mosque, which is hidden from view by intervening houses, the pilgrim raises his hands towards heaven, addresses a short prayer to the Deity, and implores his assistance in the holy walk, or Say, as it is called; he then descends, to begin the walk, along a level street about six hundred paces in length, which the Arabian historians call Wady Szafa, leading towards Meroua, which is at its farther extremity, where stands a stone platform, ele­vated about six or eight feet above the level of the street, with several broad steps ascending to it. The visiter is enjoined to walk at a quick pace from Szafa to Meroua; and for a short space, which is marked by four stones or pilasters, called El Myleyn el Akhdereyn, built into the walls of the houses on both sides, he must run. Two of these stones seemed to be of a green colour; they exhibit nume­rous inscriptions; but these are so high in the walls, that it would be difficult to read them. Prayers are recited uninterruptedly in a loud voice during this walk. Persons who are unwell may ride, or be borne in a litter. On reaching Meroua, the pilgrim ascends the steps, and, with uplifted hands, repeats a short prayer like that of Szaffa, to which place he must now return. The walk between the two places is to be repeated seven times, concluding at Meroua; four times from Szaffa to Meroua; and three times from Meroua to Szaffa.

3. The Visit to the Omra.

In the vicinity of Meroua are many barbers’ shops; into one of these the pilgrim enters, having completed the Say, and the barber shaves his head, reciting a particular prayer, which the pilgrim repeats after him. The Hanefys, one of the four orthodox sects of Moslims, shave only one-fourth part of the head; the other three-fourths continuing untouched till they return from the Omra. After the ceremony of shaving is finished, the visitor is at liberty to lay aside the ihram, and put on his ordinary dress; or, if he choose, he may go immediately from thence to the Omra, in which case he still wears the ihram, and says only two rikats on setting out. This, however, is seldom done, as the ceremonies of the Towaf and Say are sufficiently fatiguing to render repose desirable on their completion the visitor, therefore, dresses in his usual clothes; but the next or any following day, (the sooner the better,) he resumes the ihram, with the same ceremonies as are observed on first assuming it, and then proceeds to the Omra, a place one hour and a half from Mekka. Here he repeats two rikats in a small chapel, and returns to the city, chanting all the way the pious ejaculations called Telby, beginning with the words, “Lebeyk, Alla humma, Lebeyk.” He must now again perform the Towaf and the Say, have his head completely shaved, and lay aside the ihram, which closes those ceremonies. A visit to the Omra is enjoined by the law as absolutely necessary; but many individuals, notwithstanding, dispense with it. I went thither, on the third day after my arrival in the city, performing the walk in the night-time, which is the fashion during the hot season.

At the time of the Hadj, all these ceremonies must be repeated after returning from Wady Muna, and again on taking leave of Mekka. The Towaf, or walk round the Kaaba, should also be performed as often as convenient; and few foreigners live at Mekka, who do not make it a point to execute it twice daily; in the evening and before day-break.

Prior to the age of Mohammed, when idolatry prevailed in Arabia, the Kaaba was regarded as a sacred object, and visited with religious veneration by persons who performed the Towaf nearly in the same manner as their descendants do at present. The building, however, was, in those times, ornamented with three hundred and sixty idols, and there was a very important difference in the cere­mony; for men and women were then obliged to appear in a state of perfect nudity, that their sins might be thrown off with their garments. The Mohammedan Hadj or pilgrimage, and the visit to the Kaaba, are, therefore, nothing more than a continuation and con­firmation of the ancient custom. In like manner, Szafa and Meroua were esteemed by the old Arabians as holy places, which contained images of the gods Motam and Nehyk; and here the idolaters used to walk from the one place to the other, after their return from the pilgrimage to Arafat. Here, if we may believe Mohammedan tradition, Hadjer, the mother of Ismayl, wandered about in the Desert, after she had been driven from Abraham’s house, that she might not witness the death of her infant son, whom she had laid down almost expiring from thirst; when the angel Gabriel appearing, struck the ground with his foot, which caused the well of Zemzem immediately to spring forth. In commemoration of the wanderings of Hadjer, who in her affliction had gone seven times between Szafa and Meroua, the walk from one place to the other is said to have been instituted.

El Azraky relates that, when the idolatrous Arabs had concluded the ceremonies of the Hadj at Arafat, all the different tribes that had been present, assembled, on their return to Mekka, at the holy place called Szafa, there to extol, in loud and impassioned strains, the glory of their ancestors, their battles, and the fame of their nation. From each tribe, in its turn, arose a poet who addressed the multitude. “To our tribe,” exclaimed he, “belonged such and such eminent warriors and generous Arabs; and now,” he added, “we boast of others.” He then recited their names, and sang their praises; concluding with a strain of heroic poetry, and an appeal to the other tribes, in words like the following:—“Let him who denies the truth of what I have said, or who lays claim to as much glory, honour, and virtue as we do, prove it here!”

Some rival poet then arose, and celebrated in similar language the equal or superior glory attached to his own tribe, endeavouring, at the same time, to under­value or ridicule his rival’s pretensions.

To allay the animosity and jealousies produced by this custom; or, perhaps, to break the independent spirit of his fierce Bedouins, Mohammed abolished it by a passage in the Koran, which says:—“When you have completed the rites of the pilgrimage, remember God, as you formerly were wont to commemorate your forefathers, and with still greater fervency.” Thus, probably, was removed the cause of many quarrels; but, at the same time, this stern lawgiver destroyed the influence which the songs of those rival national bards exercised over the martial virtues and literary genius of their countrymen.

The visit of the Omra was likewise an ancient custom. Mohammed retained the practice; and it is said that he frequently recited his evening prayers on that spot.

Having completed the fatiguing ceremonies of the Towaf and Say, I had a part of my head shaved, and remained sitting in the barber’s shop, not knowing any other place of repose. I inquired after lodgings, but learned that the town was already full of pil­grims, and that many others, who were expected, had engaged apartments. After some time, however, I found a man who offered me a ready-furnished room: of this I took possession, and having no servant, boarded with the owner. He and his family, consisting of a wife and two children, retired into a small, open court-yard, on the side of my room. The landlord was a poor man from Medina, and by profession a Metowaf, or cicerone. Although his mode of living was much below that of even the second class of Mekkawys, yet it cost me fifteen piastres a day; and I found, after we parted, that several articles of dress had been pilfered from my travelling sack; but this was not all: on the feast-day he invited me to a splendid supper, in company with half a dozen of his friends, in my room, and on the following morning he presented me with a bill for the whole expense of this entertainment.

The thousands of lamps lighted during Ramadhan in the great mosque, rendered it the nightly resort of all foreigners at Mekka; here they took their walk, or sat conversing till after midnight. The scene presented altogether a spectacle which (excepting the absence of women) resembled rather an European midnight assemblage, than what I should have expected in the sanctuary of the Mohammedan religion. The night which closes Ramadhan, did not present those brilliant displays of rejoicing that are seen in other parts of the East; and the three subsequent days of the festival are equally devoid of public amusements. A few swinging machines were placed in the streets to amuse children, and some Egyptian jugglers exhibited their feats to multitudes assembled in the streets; but little else occurred to mark the feast, except a display of gaudy dresses, in which the Arabians surpass both Syrians and Egyptians.

I paid the visit, customary on occasion of this feast, to the Kadhy, and at the expiration of the third day, (on the 15th of September,) set out for Djidda, to complete my travelling equipments, which are more easily procured there than at Mekka. On my way to the coast, I was nearly made prisoner at Bahra by a flying corps of Wahabys. My stay at Djidda was prolonged to three weeks, chiefly in consequence of sore legs; a disease very prevalent on this unhealthy coast, where every bite of a gnat, if neglected, becomes a serious wound.

About the middle of October I returned to Mekka, accompanied by a slave whom I had purchased. This boy had been in the caravan with which I went from the Black Country to Sowakin, and was quite astonished at seeing me in a condition so superior to that in which he had before known me. I took with me a camel-load of provisions, mostly flour, biscuit, and butter, procured in Djidda at one third of the price demanded at Mekka, where, immediately on my arrival, I hired decent apartments in a quarter of the town not much frequented, called Haret el Mesfale. I had here the advantage of several large trees growing before my windows, the verdure of which, among the barren and sun-burnt rocks of Mekka, was to me more exhilarating than the finest landscape could have been under different circumstances. At this place I enjoyed an enviable freedom and independence, known only to the Kadhy and his followers, who soon after took their departure. The Pasha and his court remained at Tayf till the days of the Hadj. I frequented only such society as pleased me, and, mixing with a crowd of foreign pilgrims from all parts of the world, I was not liable to impertinent remarks or disagreeable inquiries. If any question arose about my origin (a circum­stance that rarely happened in a place which always abounds with strangers), I stated myself to be a reduced member of the Mamelouk corps of Egypt, and found it easy to avoid those persons whose intimate knowledge of that country might perhaps have enabled them to detect the falsehood. But there was little to be appre­hended even from the consequences of such detection; for the assumption of a false character is frequent among all eastern travellers, and especially at Mekka, where every one affects poverty in order to escape imposition, or being led into great expenses. During all my journies in the East, I never enjoyed such perfect ease as at Mekka; and I shall always retain a pleasing recollection of my residence there, although the state of my health did not permit me to benefit by all the advantages that my situation offered. I shall now proceed to describe the town, its inhabitants, and the pilgrimage, and then resume the narrative of my travels.

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