Travels in Arabia, by John Lewis Burckhardt

Description of Mekka. [Explanation of the Plan. [not included]]

Mekka is dignified among the Arabs with many lofty-sounding titles. The most common are Om el Kora (the mother of towns); El Mosherefe (the noble); Beled al Ameyn (the region of the faithful). Firuzabadi, the celebrated author of the Kamus, has composed a whole treatise on the different names of Mekka. This town is situated in a valley, narrow and sandy, the main direction of which is from north to south; but it inclines towards the north-west near the southern extremity of the town. In breadth this valley varies from one hundred to seven hundred paces, the chief part of the city being placed where the valley is most broad. In the narrower part are single rows of houses only, or detached shops. The town itself covers a space of about fifteen hundred paces in length, from the quarter called El Shebeyka to the extremity of the Mala; but the whole extent of ground comprehended under the denomination of Mekka, from the suburb called Djerouel (where is the entrance from Djidda) to the suburb called Moabede (on the Tayf road), amounts to three thousand five hundred paces. The mountains inclosing this valley (which, before the town was built, the Arabs had named Wady Mekka or Bekka) are from two to five hundred feet in height, completely barren and destitute of trees. The principal chain lies on the eastern side of the town: the valley slopes gently towards the south, where stands the quarter called El Mesfale (the low place). The rain-water from the town is lost towards the south of Mesfale in the open valley named Wady el Tarafeyn. Most of the town is situated in the valley itself; but there are also parts built on the sides of the mountains, principally of the eastern chain, where the primitive habitations of the Koreysh, and the ancient town appear to have been placed.

Mekka may be styled a handsome town: its streets are in general broader than those of eastern cities; the houses lofty, and built of stone; and the numerous windows that face the streets give them a more lively and European aspect than those of Egypt or Syria, where the houses present but few windows towards the exterior. Mekka (like Djidda) contains many houses three stories high; few at Mekka are white-washed; but the dark grey colour of the stone is much pre­ferable to the glaring white that offends the eye in Djidda. In most towns of the Levant the narrowness of a street contributes to its coolness; and in countries where wheel-carriages are not used, a space that allows two loaded camels to pass each other is deemed sufficient. At Mekka, however, it was necessary to leave the passages wide, for the innumerable visitors who here crowd together; and it is in the houses adapted for the reception of pilgrims and other sojourners, that the windows are so contrived as to command a view of the streets.

The city is open on every side; but the neighbouring mountains, if properly defended, would form a barrier of considerable strength against an enemy. In former times it had three walls to protect its extremities; one was built across the valley, at the street of Mala; another at the quarter of Shebeyka; and the third at the valley opening into the Mesfale. These walls were repaired in A.H. 816 and 828, and in a century after some traces of them still remained. [See Azraky, Fasy, and Kotobeddyn.]

The only public place in the body of the town is the ample square of the great mosque; no trees or gardens cheer the eye; and the scene is enlivened only during the Hadj by the great number of well-stored shops which are found in every quarter. Except four or five large houses belonging to the Sherif, two medreses or colleges (now converted into corn magazines), and the mosque, with some buildings and schools attached to it, Mekka cannot boast of any public edifices, and in this respect is, perhaps, more deficient than any other eastern city of the same size. Neither khans, for the accommodation of travellers, or for the deposit of merchandize, nor palaces of grandees, nor mosques, which adorn every quarter of other towns in the East, are here to be seen; and we may perhaps attribute this want of splendid buildings to the veneration which its inhabi­tants entertain for their temple; this prevents them from construct­ing any edifice which might possibly pretend to rival it.

The mode of building is the same as that adopted at Djidda, with the addition of windows looking towards the street; of these many project from the wall, and have their frame-work elaborately carved, or gaudily painted. Before them hang blinds made of slight reeds, which exclude flies and gnats while they admit fresh air. Every house has its terrace, the floor of which (composed of a preparation from lime-stone) is built with a slight inclination, so that the rain­water runs off through gutters into the street; for the rains here are so irregular that it is not worth while to collect the water of them in cisterns, as is done in Syria. The terraces are concealed from view by slight parapet walls; for throughout the east it is reckoned discreditable that a man should appear upon the terrace, whence he might be accused of looking at women in the neighbour­ing houses, as the females pass much of their time on the terraces, employed in various domestic occupations, such as drying corn, hanging up linen, &c. The Europeans of Aleppo alone enjoy the privilege of frequenting their terraces, which are often beautifully built of stone; here they resort during the summer evenings, and often to sup and pass the night. All the houses of the Mekkawys, except those of the principal and richest inhabitants, are constructed for the accommodation of lodgers, being divided into many apart­ments, separated from each other, and each consisting of a sitting­room and a small kitchen. Since the pilgrimage, which has begun to decline, (this happened before the Wahaby conquest,) many of the Mekkawys, no longer deriving profit from the letting of their lodgings, found themselves unable to afford the expense of repairs; and thus numerous buildings in the out-skirts have fallen completely into ruin, and the town itself exhibits in every street houses rapidly decaying.

I saw only one of recent construction; it was in the quarter of El Shebeyka, belonged to a sherif, and cost, as report said, one hundred and fifty purses; such a house might have been built at Cairo for sixty purses.

The streets are all unpaved; and in summer time the sand and dust in them are as great a nuisance as the mud is in the rainy season, during which they are scarcely passable after a shower; for in the interior of the town the water does not run off, but remains till it is dried up. It may be ascribed to the destructive rains, which, though of shorter duration than in other tropical countries, fall with considerable violence, that no ancient buildings are found in Mekka. The mosque itself has undergone so many repairs under different sultans, that it may be called a modern structure; and of the houses, I do not think there exists one older than four centuries; it is not, therefore, in this place, that the traveller must look for interesting specimens of architecture or such beautiful remains of Saracenic structures as are still admired in Syria, Egypt, Barbary, and Spain. In this respect the ancient and far-famed Mekka is surpassed by the smallest provincial towns of Syria or Egypt. The same may be said with respect to Medina, and I suspect that the towns of Yemen are generally poor in architectural remains.

Mekka is deficient in those regulations of police which are customary in Eastern cities. The streets are totally dark at night, no lamps of any kind being lighted; its different quarters are without gates, differing in this respect also from most Eastern towns, where each quarter is regularly shut up after the last evening prayers. The town may therefore be crossed at any time of the night, and the same attention is not paid here to the security of merchants, as well as of husbands, (on whose account principally, the quarters are closed,) as in Syrian or Egyptian towns of equal magnitude. The dirt and sweepings of the houses are cast into the streets, where they soon become dust or mud according to the season. The same custom seems to have prevailed equally in ancient times; for I did not perceive in the skirts of the town any of those heaps of rubbish which are usually found near the large towns of Turkey.

With respect to water, the most important of all supplies, and that which always forms the first object of inquiry among Asiatics, Mekka is not much better provided than Djidda; there are but few cisterns for collecting rain, and the well-water is so brackish that it is used only for culinary purposes, except during the time of the pilgrimage, when the lowest class of hadjys drink it. The famous well of Zemzem, in the great mosque, is indeed sufficiently copious to supply the whole town; but, however holy, its water is heavy to the taste and impedes digestion; the poorer classes besides have not permission to fill their water-skins with it at pleasure. The best water in Mekka is brought by a conduit from the vicinity of Arafat, six or seven hours distant. The present government, instead of constructing similar works, neglects even the repairs and requisite cleansing of this aqueduct. It is wholly built of stone; and all those parts of it which appear above ground, are covered with a thick layer of stone and cement. I heard that it had not been cleaned during the last fifty years; the consequence of this negligence is, that the most of the water is lost in its passage to the city through apertures, or slowly forces its way through the obstructing sediment, though it flows in a full stream into the head of the aqueduct at Arafat. The supply which it affords in ordinary times is barely sufficient for the use of the inhabitants, and during the pilgrimage sweet water becomes an absolute scarcity; a small skin of water (two of which skins a person may carry) being then often sold for one shilling — a very high price among Arabs.

There are two places in the interior of Mekka where the aqueduct runs above ground; there the water is let off into small channels or fountains, at which some slaves of the Sherif are stationed, to exact a toll from persons filling their water-skins. In the time of the Hadj, these fountains are surrounded day and night by crowds of people quarrelling and fighting for access to the water. During the late siege the Wahabys cut off the supply of water from the aqueduct; and it was not till some time after, that the injury which this structure then received, was partially repaired.

The history of this aqueduct, a work of vast labour and magnitude, is given by the Arabian historians at great length. Zebeyda, the wife of Haroun-er’-Rashid, first carried the spring, called Ayn Noman, from its source in Djebel Kora to the town. The spring of Ayn Arf from the foot of Djebel Shamekh to the north of Djebel Kora, which watered the fertile valley called Wady Honeyn, was next brought to join the Ayn Noman; and, finally, four other sources were added to the aqueduct — El Beroud, Zafaran, Meymoun, and Ayn Meshash.

Subsequently it seems to have been obstructed; but in A.H. 643 it was repaired by Kokeboury, King of Arbela; again in 762, by order of Sultan Sayd Khadanbede; and a third time, but not completely, in 811, by the Sheri£ Hassan Ibn Adjelan, then reigning. Kaiabey, Sultan of Egypt, expended a large sum upon it in 879; and in 916, Kansoue el Ghoury, one of the last of the Zirkassian kings of Egypt, contributed to its repair: but the aqueduct was still often obstructed; and whenever that happened, the Mekkawys and Hadjys were ex­posed to great privations. In 931, Sultan Soleyman attempted to construct it anew; but the design was not completed. At last, his son, Selym Ibn Soleyman, or Selim II., after many years labour, and at enormous expense, excavated a passage through the rocks behind Arafat, and formed a new conduit, which alone now subsists. He succeeded in bringing water very abundantly to the town, in A.H. 979. The whole length of the aqueduct is seven or eight hours.

There is a small spring which oozes from under the rocks behind the great palace of the Sherif, called Beit el Sad; it is said to afford the best water in this country, but the supply is very scanty. The spring is inclosed, and appropriated wholly to the Sherif’s family.

Beggars, and infirm or indigent hadjys, often intreat the passengers in the streets of Mekka for a draught of sweet water; they particularly surround the water-stands, which are seen in every corner, and where, for two paras in the time of the Hadj, and for one para, at other times, as much water may be obtained as will fill a jar.

I shall now proceed to describe the different quarters of Mekka, reserving an account of the great mosque to the last; and then add some notices respecting the inhabitants and government.

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