The Land of Midian, by Richard F. Burton

Chapter XVII.

The March Continued to El–Badá–Description of the Plain Badais.

After the exciting scenes of the last three days, this stage was dull riding, and consequently, I fear, it will be dull reading as well as writing. We set off afoot betimes (5.10 a.m.) in the still warm morning that augured Khamsín: the third day was now telling heavily on man and beast. A walk of ten minutes led down the rough line of the little water-course draining the Marú Rubayyigh to the Wady Rábigh. At a re-entering angle of the junction, a shallow pit was sunk; the sand became moist and red, and presently it was underlaid by a rubble of porphyritic trap. Nothing more!

We then crossed the Wady Rábigh, another of the short broad valleys which distinguish this section of South Midian. The bed sides, especially the right, are heaps and mounds of snowy quartz, with glittering crowns of block and boulder: all prove to be veins in the grey granite, whose large coarse elements are decomposed by weather. The dark and rusty walls of the valley also discharge the white stone in shunts and shoots: here and there they might be mistaken for Goz (“sand-banks”) heaped up by the wind, except that these are clad in thin vegetation, whereas the “Maru’” is mostly mother-naked. We halted here for rest and to examine these features: despite the Khamsín, the Great Gaster became querulous; hunger was now the chief complaint, and even the bon ordinaire had lost much of its attraction. A harmless snake was killed and bottled; its silver robe was beautifully banded with a line, pink as the circles of the “cobra coral,” which ran along the whole length of the back. It proved to be a new species; and Dr. Gunther named it Zamenis elegantissimus.

Beyond the Rábigh, we ascended a lateral valley, whence a low divide led to the Wady el-Bahrah (“of the Basin”), another feeder of the Sirr. It was also snow-white, and on the right of the path lay black heaps, Hawáwít, “ruins” not worth the delay of a visit. Then began a short up-slope with a longer counterslope, on which we met a party of Huwaytát, camel-men and foot-men going to buy grain at El–Wigh. Another apparition was a spear-man bestriding a bare-backed colt; after reconnoitering us for some time, he yielded to the temptations of curiosity. It afterwards struck us that, mounted on our mules, preceded and followed by the Shaykhs riding their dromedaries, we must have looked mighty like a party of prisoners being marched inland. The horseman was followed by a rough-coated, bear-eared hound of the kind described by Wellsted221 as “resembling the English mastiff”— he did not know how common is the beast further north. The Kalb gasúr (jasur) or “bold dog,” also called Kalb el-hámi, or “the hot” (tempered), is found even amongst the Bedawin to the east of the Suez Canal; but there the half-bred is more common than the whole-blood. It is trained to tend the flocks; it never barks, nor bites its charges; and it is said to work as well as the shepherd-dog of Europe.

The Wady Mulaybij shows fine specimens of mica dorí in the quartz-vein streaking the slate: it deceived all the caravan, save those who tested it with their daggers. The bed, after forming a basin, narrows to a sandy gut, smooth and pleasant riding; and, after crossing several valley-heads, the path debouches upon the Wady Abál-Gezaz. This “Father of Glass,” though a day and a half’s march from the sea, is even broader than the great Sirr to which it is tributary. Its line, which reminded us of the Dámah, is well marked by unusually fine vegetation: and the basin bears large clumps of fan-palm, scattered Daum-trees, the giant asclepiad El-‘Ushr,222 thickets of tamarisk and scatters of the wild castor-plant, whose use is unknown to the Arabs. Water wells up abundantly from a dozen shallow pits, old and new, in the sand of the southern or left bank. Here the flow is apparently arrested by a tall buttress of coarse granite, red with orthose, and sliced by a trap-dyke striking north-south.

Our day’s work had been only four slow hours; but we were compelled to await the caravan, which did not arrive till after noon. It had passed round by the Wady Rábigh, into and up the “Father of Glass;” in fact, it had described an easy semicircle; while we had ridden in a series of zigzags, over rough and difficult short cuts. A delay was also necessary for our mappers to connect this march with their itinerary of the central region. Already the Wady Mulaybij had shown us the familiar peak and dorsum of Jebel Raydán; and we had “chaffed” Furayj about his sudden return home. From our camp in the Abá‘l-Gezáz, the Zigláb block of Shaghab bore nearly north (350° mag.); and the adjoining Jebel el-Aslah, also a blue cone on the horizon, rose about two degrees further north.

After the big mess-tent had been duly blown down, and the usual discipline had been administered for washing in the drinking-pool; we crossed to the left of the Wady by way of an evening stroll, and at once came upon an atelier of some importance. The guides seemed to ignore its existence, so we christened it Mashghal Alá‘l-Gezáz. On the slope of a trap-hill facing the Wady el-Ghami’s, the southern valley which we had last crossed, stood a square of masonry scattered round with fragments of pottery, glass, and basalt. Below it, on the “mesopotamian” plain, lay the foundations of houses still showing their cemented floors. The lowlands and highlands around the settlement looked white-patched with mounds, veins, and scatters of quartz. The evening was stillness itself, broken only by the cries of the Katás, which are now nesting, as they flocked to drink; and the night was cool — a promise, and a false promise, that the Khamsín had ended on its usual third day.

The next morning (April 3rd) showed us El–Bada’, the whole march lying up the Wady Abá‘l-Gezáz, which changes its name with every water. The early air was delightfully fresh and brisk, and the cattle stepped out as if walking were a pleasure: yet the Arabs declared that neither camels nor mules had found a full feed in the apparently luxuriant vegetation of the Fiumara-bed. The tract began badly over loose sandy soil, so honeycombed that neither man nor beast could tread safely: the Girdi (Jirdi), or “field rat,” is evidently nocturnal like the jerboa, during the whole journey we never saw a specimen of either. A yellow wolf was descried skulking among the bushes, and a fine large hare was shot; porcupine-quills were common, and we picked up the mummy of a little hedgehog. The birds were swift-winged hawks and owls, pigeons and ring-doves; crows again became common, and the water-wagtail was tame as the Brazilian thrush, João de Barros: it hopped about within a few feet of us, quite ignoring the presence of Frenchmen armed with murderous guns. I cannot discern the origin of the pseudo-Oriental legend which declares that the “crow of the wilderness” (raven) taught Cain to bury his brother by slaying a brother crow, and scraping a grave for it with beak and claw. The murderous bird then perched upon a palm-tree, whose branches, before erect, have ever drooped, and croaked the truth into Adam’s ear: hence it has ever been of evil augury to mankind. The hoopoe, which the French absurdly call coq de montagne, also trotted by the path-side without timidity; and the butcher-bird impudently reviewed the caravan from its vantage-ground, a commanding tree. The large swift shot screaming overhead; and the cries of the troops of Merops, with silver-lined wings, resembled those of the sand-grouse.

After some five miles the “Father of Glass” changed his name to Abú Daumah (of the “one Theban Palm”). Porphyritic trap lay on both sides of us. To the right rose the Jebel ‘Ukbal, whose grey form (El–Ash’hab) we had seen from the heights above Umm el-Haráb: the whole range of four heads, forming the south-western rim of the Badá saucer, is known as El-‘Akábil. Below these blocks the Wady-sides were cut into buttresses of yellow clay, powdered white with Sabkh, or “impure salt.” Charred circlets in the sand showed where alkali had been burned: the ashes, packed in skins, are shipped at El–Wijh for Syria, where they serve to make soap. The Bedawin call it Aslah (Athlah); the Egyptians Ghassálah (“the washer”), because, when rubbed in the hands, its succulent shoots clean the skin. Camels eat it, whereas mules refuse it, unless half-starved. This plant apparently did not extend all up the Wady. The water, where there is any, swings under the left bank; an ample supply had been promised to us, with the implied condition that we should camp at this Mahattat el-‘Urbán (“Halting place of the Arabs”), after a marching day of two hours! Seeing that we rode on, the Baliyy declared that they had searched for the two principal pools, and that both were dry, or rather had been buried by the Bedawin. But, with characteristic futility, they had allowed me to overhear their conversation; and the word was passed to the soldiers, who at once filled themselves and their water-skins.

Hitherto we had been marching south of east. Presently, where the pretty green Wady el-Surám falls into the left bank, we turned a corner, and sighted in front, or to the north, the great plain of Badá. The block, El-‘Akábil, had projected a loop of some ten miles to be rounded, whereas a short cut across it would not have exceeded three. And now the Wady Abá Daumah abruptly changed formation. The red and green traps of the right side made way for grey granite, known by its rounded bulging blocks on the sides and summit, by its false stratification, by its veins of quartz that strewed the sand, and by its quaint weathering — one rock exactly resembled a sitting eagle; a second was a turtle, and a third showed a sphinx in the rough. The Badá plain is backed by a curtain so tall that we seemed, by a common optical delusion, to be descending when we were really ascending rapidly.

Anxiety to begin our studies of the spot made the ride across the basin, soled with rises comfortably metalled, and with falls of sand unpleasantly loose and honeycombed, appear very long. The palm-clump, where men camp, with its two date-trees towering over the rest, receded as it were. At last, after a total of four hours and forty-five minutes (= sixteen miles), we dismounted at the celebrated groves, just before the ugly Khamsín arose and made the world look dull, as though all its colours had been washed out.

The dates form a kind of square with a sharp triangle to the south, upon the left bank of the thalweg, which overflows them during floods. The enceinte is the normal Arab “snake-fence” of dry and barked branches, which imperfectly defends the nurseries of young trees and the plots of Khubbayzah (“edible mallows”) from the adjoining camping-place of bald yellow clay. The wells, inside and outside the enclosure, are nine; three stone-revetted, and the rest mere pits in the inchoate modern sandstone. The trees want thinning; the undergrowth is so dense as to be impenetrable; but the heads are all carefully trimmed, the first time we have seen such industry in Midian. The shade attracts vipers, chiefly the Echis: and I was startled by hearing the gay warble of the Bulbul — a nightingale in Arabia!

The next day was devoted to inspecting this far-famed site, with the following results. We have already seen a Bada’ [Arabic] and a Badí‘a [Arabic], whilst there is a Badí‘ah [Arabic]223 further north. We are now at a Badá [Arabic] which fulfils all the conditions required by the centre and head-quarters of “Thamuditis.” The site of the Bújat Badá, “the Wide Plain of Badá,” as it is distinguished by the Arabs, represents, topographically speaking, a bulge in the Wady Nejd, before it becomes the Wady Abú Daumah, between the Shafah Mountains to the east and the Tihámah range seawards. The latitude is 26° 45’ 30” = 0° 31’ 30” north of El–Wijh [Footnote: Ahmed Kaptán’s observation of Polaris. The [Greek] (Bades) of Ptolemy is in north lat. 25° 30’.]. From its centre, a little south of our camping-place, the Jebel Zigláb of Shaghab, distant, according to Yákút, one march, bears 32°, and the Aslah (Athlah) cone 30° (both mag.): it lies therefore south of Shuwák, with a little westing. The altitude is upwards of twelve hundred feet above sea-level (aner. 28.72). The size of the oval is about nine statute miles from north to south, where the main watercourse breaks; and twelve miles from east to west, giving an area of some 108 square miles. The general aspect of the basin suggests that of El–Haurá; the growth is richer than the northern, but not equal to that of the southern country. The ruins belong to the Magháir Shu’ayb category, and the guides compare the Hawáwít with those of Madáin Sálih.

Such is the great station on the Nabathæan overland highway between Leukè’ Kóme and Petra; the commercial and industrial, the agricultural and mineral centre, which the Greeks called [Greek] the Romans, Badanatha (Pliny, vi. 32); and the mediæval Arab geographers, Badá Ya’kúb, in the days when the Hajj-caravan used to descend the Wadys Nejd and the “Father of Glass.” Now it is simply El–Badá: the name of the “Prophet” Jacob, supposed to have visited it from Egypt or Syria, being clean forgotten.

The rolling plain is floored with grey granite, underlying sandstones not unlike coral-rag, and still in course of formation. Through this crust outcrop curious hillocks, or rather piles of hard, red, and iron-revetted rock, with a white or a rusty fracture — these are the characteristics of the basin. The lower levels are furrowed with their threads of sand, beds of rain-torrents discharged from the mountains; and each is edged by brighter growths of thorn and fan-palm. The fattening Salíb grass is scattered about the water; the large sorrel hugs the Fiumara-sides; the hardy ‘Aushaz-thorn (Lycium), spangled with white bloom and red currants, which the Arabs say taste like grapes, affects the drier levels; and Tanzubs, almost all timber when old, become trees as large as the Jujube.

The Bújat is everywhere set in a regular rim of mountains. The Shafah curtain to the north is fretted with a number of peaks, called as usual after their Wadys;224 the west is open with a great slope, the Wady Manab, whose breadth is broken only by the “Magráh” Naza’án, a remarkable saddleback with reclining cantle. It is distant a ride of two hours, and we have now seen it for three marches. A little south of east yawns the gorge-mouth of the Wady Nejd, the upper course of the Abá‘l-Gezáz: a jagged black curtain, the Jebel Dausal, forms its southern jaw. Further south the Tihámah Mountains begin with the peaky Jebel el-Kurr, another remarkable block which has long been in sight. Its neighbour is the bluff-headed Jebel el-Wásil of Marwát; whilst the trap-blocks, already mentioned as the Jibál el-‘Akábil, finish the circle.

The better to understand the shape of the ruins, we will ascend the irregular block which rises a few furlongs to the north-east of the palm-orchard. It has only three names: ‘Araygat Badá (“Veinlet of Badá”); Zeba’yat Badá, “the Low-lying (Hill) of Badá;” and Shahíb el-Búm, “the Ash-coloured (Hill) of the Owl.” I will prefer the latter, as we actually sighted one of those dear birds on its western flank. It is an outcrop of grey granite, pigeon-holed by weather, and veined by a variety of dykes. Here we find greenstone breccia’d with the blackest hornblende; there huge filons of hard, red, heat-altered clays, faced with iron, whilst the fracture is white as trachyte; and there filets of quartz, traversing large curtains and sheets of light-coloured argils. This was evidently the main quarry: the sides still show signs of made zigzags; and the red blocks and boulders, all round the hill, bear the prayers and pious ejaculations of the Faithful. The characters range between square Kufic, hardly antedating four centuries, and the cursive form of our day. Some are merely scraped; others are deeply and laboriously cut in the hard material, a work more appropriate for the miner than for the passing pilgrim.

From the ruined look-out on the summit the shape of the city shows a highly irregular triangle of nine facets, forming an apex at the east end of our “Owl’s Hill:” the rises and falls of the ground have evidently determined the outline. The palm-orchard, whose total circumference is five hundred and thirty-six metres, occupies a small portion of its south-eastern corner; and our camping-place, further east, was evidently included in the ancient enceinte. The emplacement, extending along the eastern bank of the main watercourse, is marked by a number of mounds scattered over with broken glass and pottery of all kinds: no coins were found, but rude bits of metal, all verdigris, were picked up north of the palm-orchard. Here, too, lay queer fish-bones, with tusks and teeth, chiefly the jaws of Scaridæ and Sparidæ (seabreams).225

Descending the Shahíb el-Búm, and passing a smaller black and white block appended to its south-south-western side, we now cross to the left bank of the main drain. Here lies the broken tank, the normal construction of El–Islam’s flourishing days. It is a square of thirty-two metres, whose faces and angles do not front the cardinal points. At each corner a flight of steps has been; two have almost disappeared, and the others are very shaky. The floor, originally stone-paved, is now a sheet of hard silt, growing trees and bush: dense Tanzub-clumps (Sodada decidua), with edible red berries, sheltering a couple of birds’-nests, suggested a comparison between the present and the past. At the east end is the Makhzan el-Máyah, or “smaller reservoir,” an oblong of 7.80 by 6.60 metres: the waggon-tilt roof has disappeared, and the fissures show brick within the ashlar. Along the eastern side are huge standing slabs of the coarse new sandstone with which the tank is lined: these may be remains of a conduit. Around the cistern lies a ruined graveyard, whose yawning graves supplied a couple of skulls. A broken line of masonry, probably an aqueduct, runs south-south-east (143° mag.) towards the palms: after two hundred metres all traces of it are lost.

The mining industry could not have been a prominent feature at Badá, or we should have found, as in Shaghab and Shuwák, furnaces and scoriæ. Yet about the tank we lit upon large scatters of spalled quartz, which, according to the Baliyy, is brought from the neighbouring mountains. Some of it was rosy outside: other specimens bore stains of copper; and others showed, when broken, little pyramids of ore. Tested in England, it proved to be pure lead, a metal so rare that some metallurgists have doubted its existence: the finds have been mostly confined to auriferous lands. The blow-pipe soon showed that it was not galena (the sulphide), but some of it contained traces of silver. Without knowing the rarity of these specimens, certain American officers at the Citadel, Cairo, compared them with the true galenas of the Dár-Forian mines, called Mahattat el-Risás (the “Deposit of Lead”), in the Wady Gotam, three days north-east of the capital El–Fashr. The African metal is rich. Large quantities, analyzed by Gastinel Bey, gave fifty per cent. of lead, and of silver fifty dollars per ton; but the distance from any possible market will reserve these diggings for the use of the future. Some were sanguine enough to propose smelting the metal at Khartúm, where Risás is ever in demand; and accordingly, for a time Dar–For was “run,” by a mild “ring,” against Midian.

The plain, I have said, is everywhere broken by piles of stone forming knobby hills. Leaving the outlined sphinx to the right, we ascended a second block, which rises on the west of the chief watercourse, further down than the “Owl’s Hill.” This Tell el-Ahmar (“Red Hill”), alias Ja’dat Badá (the “Curved Hill of Bada’”), is a quoin of grey granite bluff to the south-west. The north-eastern flank shows the normal revetment of ruddy and black heat-altered grit, which gives a red back to the pale-sided, drab-coloured heap. Over the easy ascent is run a zigzag path; half-way, up it passes piles of stone that denote building, and it abuts at the summit upon one of those “look-outs” which are essentially Arab.

Again, to the south-east of the palms is the Huzaybat Badá, the “(Isolated) Hillock of Badá,” a low ridge of naked grey granite, much scaled and pigeon-holed. On the plain to its north stretch regular lines of stone, probably the remnants of a work intended to defend the city’s eastern approach. South of the Huzaybah appear the usual signs of an atelier: these workshops are doubtless scattered all around the centre; but a week, not a day, would be required to examine them. On the very eve of our departure the guides pointed northwards (350° mag.) to a “Mountain of Marú,” called El–Arayfát, and declared that it contained a Zaríbat el-Nasárá, or “enclosure made by the Nazarenes.” I offered a liberal present for specimens; all, however, swore that the distance ranged from two to three hours of dromedary, and that no mounted messenger could catch us unless we halted the next day.

The Bedawin, still relegated to the upper country, were sending their scouts to ascertain if the water-supply was sufficient in Badá plain. The adjacent valleys were dotted with she-camels and their colts. The adult animal here sells for twelve to thirty dollars. During the cotton-full in Egypt, and the cotton-famine of the United States, they fetched as many pounds sterling at the frontier; and the traders of El–Wijh own to having made two hundred per cent., which we may safely double. I asked them why they did not import good stallions from the banks of the Nile; and the reply was that of the North Country — the experiment had ended in the death of the more civilized brutes. This is easily understood: the Baliyy camel seems to live on sand.

The camp was visited by a few Bedawi stragglers, and the reports of their immense numbers were simply absurd. The males were not to be distinguished, in costume and weapons, from their neighbours; and the “females” were all dark and dressed in amorphous blue shirts. At last came an old man and woman of the Huwaytát tribe, bringing for sale a quantity of liquefied butter. They asked a price which would have been dear on the seaboard; and naively confessed that they had taken us for pilgrims — birds to be plucked. But sheep and goats were not to be found in the neighbourhood: yesterday we had failed to buy meat; and today the young Shaykh, Sulaymán, was compelled to mount his dromedary and ride afar in quest of it. The results were seven small sheep, which, lean with walking, cost eleven dollars; and all were slaughtered before they had time to put on fat.

During our stay a pitiable object, with a hide — bandaged lower leg, often limped past the tents; and, thinking the limb broken, I asked the history of the accident. Our hero, it appears, was a doughty personage, famed for valour, who had lately slipped into the Juhayni country with the laudable intention of “lifting” a camel. He had, indeed, “taken his sword, and went his way to rob and steal,” under the profound conviction that nothing could be more honourable — in case of success. He was driving off the booty, when its master sallied out to recover the stolen goods by force and by arms. Both bared their blades and exchanged cuts, when the Baliyy found that his old flamberge was too blunt to do damage. Consequently he had the worse of the affair; a slicing of the right hand forced him to drop his “silly sword.” He then closed with his adversary, who again proved himself the better man, throwing the assailant, and at the same time slashing open his left leg. The wounded man lay in the “bush” till he gathered strength to “dot and go one” homewards. Amongst these tribes the Diyat, or “blood-money,” reaches eight hundred dollars; consequently men will maim, but carefully avoid killing, one another.

The evening of our halt, with its lurid haze and its ominous brooding stillness, was distinguished by a storm, a regular Arab affair, consisting of dust by the ton to water by the drop. This infliction of the “fearful fiend, Samiel, fatal to caravans,” began in the west. A cloud of red sand advanced like a prairie-fire at headlong speed before the mighty rushing wind, whose damp breath smelt of rain; and presently the mountain-rim was veiled in brown and ruddy and purple earth-haze. A bow in the eastern sky strongly suggested, in the apparent absence of a shower, refraction by dust — if such thing be possible. We were disappointed, by the sinister wind, in our hopes of collecting a bottle of rain-water for the photographer; nor did the storm, though it had all the diffused violence of a wintry gale, materially alter the weather. The next two nights were brisk and cool, but the afternoons blew either the Khamsín (“south-wester”) or the Azyab (“south-easter”).

The only Bedawi tradition concerning the Bada’ plain is the following. Many centuries ago, some say before the Apostle, the Baliyy held the land, which was a valley of gardens, a foretaste of Irem; the people were happy as the martyrs of Paradise, and the date-trees numbered two thousand. The grove then belonged to a certain Ibn Mukarrib, who dwelt in it with his son and a slave, not caring to maintain a large guard of Arabs. Consequently he became on bad terms with the Ahámidah-Baliyy tribe, who began systematically to rob his orchard. At last one of a large plundering party said to him, “O Ibn Mukarrib! wilt thou sell this place of two thousand (trees), and not retreat (from thy bargain)?” He responded “Buy!” (i.e. make an offer). The other, taking off his sandal, exclaimed. “With this!” and the proprietor, in wrath, rejoined, “I have sold!”

Ibn Mukarrib then arose and went forth, with his son and the slave, to the place whence came the water (that fed the palms): this he closed up, and fared towards the north. One day it so happened that the three were sitting under the shade of a Marakh-tree and eating its berries. Quoth the sire to the son, “Say, which is the sweeter, the eating of the Marakh fruit or the dates of our orchard?” And the youth rejoined, “O my father! far sweeter is the eating of the fruit of our palm-yard;” when his sire at once arose and slew him with the sword (to wipe away the disgrace of such want of manliness).

Then Ibn Mukarrib turned to the slave, and asked him the question which he had asked of his son. Whereupon the slave replied in this quatrain:

“Eating wild grain in the house of respect;
And not eating dates in the house of contempt:
And walking in honour but a single day;
And not sitting in disgrace for a thousand years!”

Ibn Mukarrib, pleased with these words, forthwith adopted the slave; both marched to the north and dwelt there till the end of their days. The palm-trees, deprived of irrigation, all died; and Bújat-Badá, the beautiful, became a wilderness. About twenty years ago, the wells were reopened and the dates were replanted. So much for the past: as for the future, we may safely predict that, unless occupied by a civilized people, the Badá plain will again see worse times. Nothing would be easier than to rebuild the town, and to prepare the basin for irrigation and cultivation; but destruction is more in the Bedawi line.

221 Vol. II. Chap. X.

222 Described in “The Gold–Mines of Midian,” Chap. XII.

223 Chap. XVIII.

224 The barbarous names, beginning from the west, are Jebels Sehayyir, ‘Unká (“of the griffon”), Marákh (name of a shrub), Genayy (Jenayy), El–Hazzah, El–Madhanah, Buza’mah, and Urnuwah.

225 Dr. C. Carter Blake examined the four brought home, and identified No. 1, superior pharyngeal bone and teeth (Scarus); No. 2, inferior bone and teeth of a large fish allied to Labrus or Chrysophrys; No. 3, left side, pre-maxillary, possibly same species; and No. 4, lower right mandible of Sphœrodon grandoculis, Rüppell.

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