The Land of Midian, by Richard F. Burton

Chapter XVIII.

Coal a “Myth”— March to Marwát — Arrival at the Wady Hamz.

Before leaving Badá I was careful to make all manner of inquiries concerning stone-coal; and the guides confirmed the suspicions which had long suggested themselves. His Highness the Viceroy had laid great stress upon the search: the first question to me on return was whether the fuel had been found; and a shade of disappointment appeared when the answer distinctly declared it a myth.

This coal, it appears, is an old story. My learned friend Sprenger wrote to me (June 13, 1877): “It is likely that west of Marwa, on the way to Hawrá (which lies on the sea-shore), coal is found: I confess that the prospect of discovering much coal in Arabia does not appear to me very great; still it would be worth while to make inquiries.” Subsequently (December 8, 1877), he gave up all hopes of the pure mineral, but he still clave to bituminous schist. El–Mukaddasi (p. 103),226 treating of the marvels of the land, has the following passage unconnected with those which precede and succeed it:—“A fire arose between El–Marwat and El–Haurá, and it burned, even as charcoal (el-Fahm) burns.” Probably Sprenger had read, “and it (the stone) burned as charcoal burns,” suggesting that the houses and huts were built of inflammable material, like the bituminous schist of the Brazil; and that the Arabs were surprised to find them taking fire. Evidently, however, the text refers to an eruption in one of the many Harrahs or volcanic districts. El–Mukaddasi describes the “houses artful (farihín, alluding to the Thamúdites in the Koran, xxvi. 149), and made of admirable stone (alabaster?); over the doors were knots (‘Ukúd), and ornaments (Turúh), and carvings (Nukúsh).”

Landing at El–Wijh, I at once consulted our intelligent friend, the Wakíl Mohammed Shahádah. He had sent for a camel-load of the stuff, which, he declared, would not burn, although it had burned his money. He then travelled in person to the Jebel el-Muharrak (“Burnt Mountain”), five short marches inland from El–Badá plain, and behind its northern curtain, the Jibál el-Shafah. According to him, El–Muharrak is part of the great Harrah; and the unexplored Jaww, which lies north (?) of it, is a prolongation of the Hismá plateau, here belonging to the Balawíyyah or Baliyy-land. The mountain is tall and black, apparently consisting of the “coal.” Near its summit lies the Bir el-Shifá’ (“Well of Healing”), a pit of cold sulphur-water, excellent for the eyes; and generally a “Pool of Bethesda,” whither Arabs flock from afar. At Abá‘l-Gezáz, Mohammed destroyed all our surviving hopes by picking up a black stone which, he declared, belonged to El–Muharrak. It was schist, with a natural fracture not unlike coal, and weathered into the semblance of wood: unfortunately it was hard as iron, and it did not contain an atom of bitumen.

At Badá old Shaykh ‘Afnán, whose tents are now pitched one day ahead of us, was taken into consultation upon the subject. He confirmed these statements of the Wakíl, adding that the Shafah Mountains are a mere ridge, not the seaward walls of a plateau, and that the land east of them is exactly that which we have already traversed. He had bathed in the sulphur-water; he spoke of brimstone being picked up on the hill-flanks, and he had heard of El–Kohl (stibium, collyrium, antimony) being found about El–Muharrak.227

These details, apparently authentic, did not tempt me to waste precious time upon El–Muharrak. I do not yet despair, as has been said, of finding coal in Arabia; but we must hardly expect volcanic ground to yield it.

Our preparations for a march southwards were made under difficulties. The Baliyy evidently like the prospect of some £6 per diem; and do not like the idea of approaching the frontier, where their camels may be stolen. Every silly, childish pretext was used to suggest delay. We ought not to move without seeing the “Nazarenes’ Ruin” at El-‘Arayfát. Again, I had sent a certain Salim, a cousin of the Shaykh, with orders for fresh supplies from El–Wijh: he was certain to miss us if we marched. Still again, old ‘Afnán’s dromedary had a thorn in the foot — u. s. w.

Nevertheless, an order was given for the return march on April 5th.

No matter how philosophical the traveller may be, I defy him not to feel some emotion when, his Desert work being duly done, he throws his leg over the saddle, and turn the animal’s head homewards — towards London. Such was our pleasant predicament; for, though the détour would be considerable, and the delay still more so, I could distinguish the bourne at the far end of the very long perspective.

We were now in excellent marching order, not, however, including the mules, of which two had broken down with sore backs, and the others were breaking fast. The réveillé sounded at 3 to 3.30 p.m.; the “general” followed at four; and the start took place immediately afterwards. The camels are wretched animals, that work equally badly full and fasting: when hungry, they break their halters to graze along the path; and when gorged they are too lazy to go beyond a saunter of two miles an hour. Yet they can work well when pushed: the man Sa’lim came up with us on the evening of the fourth day, after a forced march of thirty-two hours.

We took the track which crosses the Bújat-Badá to the south-east. For a short way it was vilely rat-eaten; presently it issued upon good, hard, stony ground; and, after four miles, it entered the Wady el-Marwát. This gorge, marked by the Jebel Wásil, a round head to the north, is a commonplace affair of trap and white clay; broad, rough, and unpicturesque. The sole shows many piles of dry stone, ruins of “boxes,” in which the travelling Arab passes the night, whilst his camels are tethered outside. The watercourse heads in a Khuraytah, the usual rock-ladder; we reached it after eleven miles’ riding. Nájí, the sea-lawyer of the party, assured us that we had not finished a third of the way, when two-thirds would have been nearer the truth.

The Wady sides and head showed traces of hard work, especially where three veins of snowy quartz had been deeply cut into. The summit of the Col, some 2100 feet above sea-level, carried a fine reef of “Marú,” measuring eight feet at the widest, and trending 332° (mag.) Around it lay the usual barbarous ruins, mere basements, surrounded by spalled stone: from this place I carried off a portable Kufic inscription. The view down the regular and tree-dotted slope of the Wady el-Marwát, as far as the flats of Badá, was charming, an Argelèz without its over-verdure.

From the Col two roads lead to our day’s destination. The short cut to the right was reported stony: as most of our mules were casting their irons and falling lame, I avoided it by the advice of Furayj, thereby giving huge offence to old ‘Afnán. We followed the long slope trending to the Wady el-Kurr, which drains the notable block of that name. Seeing the Wakíl, and the others in front, cutting over the root to prevent rounding a prodigiously long tongue-tip, I was on the qui vive for the normal dodge; and presently the mulatto Abdullah screamed out that the Nakb must be avoided, as it was all rock. We persisted and found the path almost as smooth as a main road. The object was to halt for the night at a neighbouring water-hole in the rocks; and, when their trick failed, the Baliyy with a naive infantine candour, talked and laughed over their failure, sans vergogne and within earshot.

Despite the many Zawábahs (“dust-devils”), this was one of our finest travelling days. After the usual ante-meridian halt, we pushed on down the valley, meeting only a few donkey-drivers. At 2.15 p.m. (seven hours = twenty miles and a half), we reached the beautiful ‘Ayn el-Kurr, some ten direct miles east of the Wady Rábigh; and the caravan was only one hour behind us. This Wady is a great and important affluent of the Wady el-Miyáh already mentioned. The reach where we camped runs from north to south; and the “gate” of porphyritic trap, red, green, yellow, and white with clay, almost envelops the quartz-streaked granite. The walls are high enough to give shade between eight a.m. and 2.15 p.m.; and the level sole of the cleanest sand is dotted, near the right side, with holes and pools of the sweetest water. Here “green grow the rushes,” especially the big-headed Kasbá (Arundo donax); the yellow-tipped Namas or flags (Scirpus holoschænus) form a dense thicket; the ‘Ushr, with its cork-like bark which makes the best tinder, is a tree, not a shrub; and there are large natural plantations of the saffron-flowered, tobacco-like Verbascum, the Arab’s Uzn el-Humár (“Donkey’s Ear”). Add scattered clusters of date-trees, domineering over clumps of fan-palm; and, lastly, marvellous to relate, a few hundred feet of greensward, of regular turf — a luxury not expected in North–Western Arabia — a paradise for frogs and toads (Bufo vulgaris), grasshoppers, and white pigeons; and you will sympathize with our enjoyment at the ‘Ayn el-Kurr. In such a place extensive ruins of the “Old Ones” were to be expected. Apparently there is no trace of man beyond Wasm on the rocks; a few old Bedawi graves in a dwarf Wady inflowing from the west; a rude modern watercourse close above its mouth, and Arab fences round the trimmed dates and newly set palm shoots.

During the afternoon the Shaykhs came to us with very long faces. At this season, and as long as the Baliyy are in the Shafah uplands, the almost deserted frontier districts, which we are about to enter, suffer from the Gaum, or razzia, of the neighbouring ‘Anezah and the Juhaynah; — the two tribes, however, not mixing. The bandits, numbering, they say, from fifty to sixty, mounted on horses and dromedaries, only aspire to plunder some poor devil-shepherd of a few camels, goats, and muttons. They never attack in rear; they always sleep at night, save when every moment is precious for “loot”-driving; and their weapons, which may be deadly in the narrows, are despicable in the open country.

I suspected at first that this was another “dodge” to enhance the services of our Arabs, but the amount of risk we were to run was soon found out by consulting Furayj. He said that we must march in rear of the caravan for a day or two; and that such attacks were possible, but only once in a hundred cases. There might have been treachery in camp; the Egyptian officers suggested that a Baliyy scout could have been sent on to announce the approach of a rich caravan. Accordingly, I ordered an evening review of our “Remingtons;” and chose a large mark purposely, that the Bedawi lookers-on might not have cause to scoff. The escort redeemed many a past lâche, by showing that their weapons had been kept bright and clean, and by firing neatly enough. The Baliyy, who had never seen a breech-loader, were delighted; but one of our party so disliked the smell of powder, that he almost quarrelled with me for bringing him into such imminent deadly risk. He was hardly to be blamed; his nerves had been terribly shaken by a viper killed in his tent.

Next morning (April 6th) saw the most unpleasant of our marches. The young Shaykh Sulaymán, accompanied by his cousin Sálim, set out in the dark as éclaireurs: they were supposed to lead eight or ten of the best matchlock-men, whereas I doubt whether the whole camp contained that total. Presently it appeared that they were alone, and the farce was hardly kept up through the next day. At 5.15 a.m. we followed them, marching militairement, as my friend Sefer Pasha had strongly advised at Cairo. It is no joke to follow starveling beasts whose best speed seldom attains two miles and a half per hour. However, the effect was excellent: never had there been so little straggling; never had the halting-places been reached in such good time and good order.

A pleasant surprise awaited us in the grandest display of quartz that we had yet seen. The descent of the Wady el-Kurr seemed to be as flat, stale, and profitless as possible, when “Mará” appeared on the left side in mounds, veins, and strews. Presently we turned south, and passed the brackish well, El–Hufayrah (“the Little Pit”), in a bay of the left bank, distant about eight miles from our last camp. Here the whole Wady, some two miles broad, was barred with quartz, in gravel of the same rock, and in veins which, protruding from the dark schist, suggested that it underlies the whole surface. Nothing more remarkable than the variety of forms and tints mingling in the mighty mass — the amorphous, the crystallized, the hyaline, the burnt; here mottled and banded, there plain red and pink, green and brown, slaty and chocolate, purple, kaolin-white; and, rarest of all, honeycomb-yellow. The richest part was at the Majrá el-Kabsh (“Divide of the Ram”), where we alighted and secured specimens.

From this point the Wady el-Kurr flows down the right side of its valley, and disappears to the west; while the far side of the Majrá shows the Wady Gámirah (Kámirah), another influent of the Wady el-Miyáh. Various minor divides led to the Wady el-Laylah, where ruins were spoken of by our confidant, ‘Audah, although his information was discredited by the Shaykhs. Quartz-hills now appeared on either side, creamy-coated cones, each capped by its own sparkle whose brilliancy was set off by the gloomy traps which they sheeted and topped. In some places the material may have been the usual hard, white, heat-altered clay; but the valley-sole showed only the purest “Marú.” The height of several hills was nearly double that of the northern Jebel el-Abyaz; and the reef-crests were apparently unworked.

After the march had extended to seven hours (= 18 miles), there were loud complaints about its length, the venerable ‘Afnán himself begging us to spare his camels — which, being interpreted, meant spoiling our pockets. I therefore gave orders to camp in the broad and open Wady Laylah. We were far from water, but the evening was pleasant, and the night was still more agreeable.

At five a.m. next day (April 7th) we rode up the Wady Laylah, which gave us another surprise, and an unexpected joy, in the shifting scenery of the Jibál el-Safhah. The “Mountains of the Plain,” so called because they start suddenly from a dead level, are a section of the Tihámat-Balawíyyah range; yet they are worthy links of a chain which boasts of a Shárr. Rising hard on our left, beyond the dull traps that hem in the Wadys, these blocks, especially the lower features, the mere foot-hills, assume every quaintest nuance of hue and form. The fawn-grey colour, here shining as if polished by “slickensides,” there dull and roughened by the rude touch of Time, is a neutral ground that takes all the tints with which sun and moon, mist and cloud, paint and glaze the world: changeable as the chameleon’s, the coating is never the same for two brief hours. The protean shape, seen in profile and foreshortened from the north or south, appears a block bristling with “Pins” and points, horns and beaks. Viewed from the east the range splits into a double line, whose ranks have never been “dressed” nor sized; whilst a diagonal prospect so alters their forms and relations that they apparently belong to another range.

The background, lying upon the most distant visible plane, is the white-streaked and regular wall of the Jebel el-Ward, which we have already seen from the sea. Its northern foot-ranges are the pale-white and jagged ‘Afayr, whose utter isolation makes it interesting; and the low and long, the dark and dumpy Jebel Tufayyah. It is separated by a broad valley from its southern neighbour, the Jebel el-Ughlub, or El–Ghalab as some call it. This typical block consists chiefly of a monstrous “Parrot’s Beak” of granite, continued by a long dorsum to the south. Its outliers number four. These are, first, the Umm Natash, two sets of perpendicular buttresses pressed together like sausages or cigars. Then comes the Talát Muhajjah, a broken saddleback, whose cantle from the south-east appears split into a pair of steeple-like boulders — an architect of Alexander the Great’s day would have easily cut and trimmed them into such towers as the world has never seen. Follows the Umm el-Natákah, bristling like the fretful porcupine, and apparently disdaining to receive the foot of man; while the last item, the Jebel el-Khausilah, has outlines so thoroughly architectural that we seem to gaze upon a pile of building.

About five miles behind or south of El–Khausilah runs the Wady Hamz. Thus the two blocks, El–Ward and El–Ughlub, form the Safhah proper. The line is continued, after a considerable break, by the two blue and conical peaks in the Tihámat-Jahaníyyah, known as the Jebelayn el-Rál. They are divided and drained to the Wady Hamz by the broad Wady el-Sula’; and the latter is the short cut down which the Egyptian Hajj, returning northwards from El–Medínah, debouches upon the maritime plain of South Midian.

The Wady Laylah, draining both the Shafah and the Tihámah ranges, including the block El–Ward, assumes, as usual, various names: we shall follow it till it is received into the mighty arms of the Wady Hamz, some three miles from the sea. After riding eight hours, we sighted the long line of Daum-palms which announce the approach to El–Birkah, “the Tank.” Here the huge Fiumara, sweeping grandly from north-east to south-west, forms a charming narrow and a river-like run about a mile and a half long — phenomenal again in sun-scorched Arabia. The water, collecting under the masses of trap which wall in the left bank, flows down for some distance in threads, à ciel ouvert, and finally combines in a single large blue-green pool on the right side. A turquoise set in enamel of the brightest verdure, it attracts by its dense and shady beds of rushes a variety of water-fowl — one of our Bedawin killed a black-headed duck with a bullet, which spoilt it as a specimen. About the water-run are dwarf enclosures, and even water-melons were sown; unhappily the torrent came down and carried all away.

We halted near the upper spring at 8.20 a.m., after the usual accident which now occurred daily about that hour. On this occasion Lieutenant Yusuf’s shoe stuck in the stirrup when he was dismounting from an unsteady mule; the animal threw him, and he had a somewhat narrow escape from being dragged to death. Man and beast would have lingered long over the pleasures of watering and refection, but I forced them onwards at nine a.m., whilst the hot sun-rays were still tempered by the cool land-breeze. The threads of water and the wet ground extended some two kilometres beyond the Birkat. Further on was another fine “gate,” whose eastern or right jamb was the Jibál el-Tibgh, fronting the Wady M’jirmah. The narrows showed two Arab wells, with the usual platform of dry trunks that make a footing round the mouth. There was no break in the continuity of the quartz: the black trap enclosed, here sheets, there veins, and there almonds in puddings.

At the halting-place a “cerastes” (Echis carinata, Merr.), so called from the warty hollows over the eyes (?), was brought to me in a water-bag; the bearer transferred it to the spirit-bottle by neatly thrusting a packing-needle through the head. The pretty specimen of an amiable, and much oppressed, race did not show an atom of vice. I cannot conceive what has caused the absurd prejudice against snakes, even the most harmless. Perhaps we must trace it to the curious resemblance of the profile, with the flattened forehead, the steely bright eye, the formidable biting apparatus, and the vanishing chin, to the genus woman, species Lorette. It is hard to imagine that this little beast, which some one called a “Cleopatra’s hasp,” could be fatal: its small bag can hardly contain a couple of drops. Yet the vox populi is distinctly against me.

The Shaykhs were anxious to push on for another half-hour, where, they declared, a rain-hole is found in the next ravine, the Sha’b el-Kahafah. But we had been privily told of another further down the valley, at the Sha’b el-Hárr; and, although we much wanted a bottleful for photography, we determined to run the risk. The result is curious, showing how jealously water-secrets are kept in these lands. The next thing I heard was that the water had waxed salt; then it had dried up; and, lastly, it was in the best condition, the truth being that there was none at all. Consequently we were compelled to send back four camels and two cameleers from our next camping-ground to the Kahafah. Venerable ‘Afnán made many a difficulty, and an uncommon favour, of risking the plundering of the dromedaries and the lives of his caterans by a razzia. The fellows set off after nightfall towards the upper ravine, distant some two hours’ slow march: they must there have had a pleasant, refreshing sleep; and they did not return, doubtless by order, till late next morning. This gave the Shaykhs a good opportunity of fearing greatly for the safety of their people, and of delaying our march as much as possible.

Resuming the road at 2.30 p.m., we entered the western prolongation of the Wady el-Birkah. Here it becomes the Wady Abá‘l-‘Agág (‘Ajáj), and preserves that name till it anastomoses with the Hamz. There have been some wells in the bed; but all are now filled up, and water must be carried from El–Birkah. We camped at a noble reach, garnished with a mimic forest of old tamarisks, whose small voices, united in chorus, passably imitated the mighty murmur of the sea. Our day’s march had covered a score of miles; hard work, considering the condition of the mules.

After a splendid night, we set out London-wards at five a.m., April 8th, delayed, as has been said, by the politiké of the Shaykhs. Moreover, one of the party, whose motto should have been halt’s maul, had remarked that the camels appeared fewer than before — another reason for stopping to count them. Half an hour placed us at a lower and a grander carrefour, abounding in fuel and seducing with tamarisk-shade: its water is known as the Máyat el-Badí‘ah. Presently the hilly encasement of the Wady el-‘Ajáj ended with El-‘Adrá, a red butte to the left, and the Jebel el-Yakhmúm on the right. This knob was copiously veined with quartz, of which a prodigious depôt, explored on the next day, exists in the heights behind it. The Wady now flares out; we have done with the Tihámah Mountains, and we are again in maritime South Midian.

Although we were standing some four hundred feet above the wassersspiegel, there was no view of the sea, and we had to cross a wave of ground before we pulled off our hats to Father Neptune, as he lay smiling in front of us. There was nothing monotonous in the scene. The mirage raised high in air the yellow mound of Ras Kurkumah (“Turmeric Head”), which bounded the water-line to the south. Nearer, but still far to the left, ran the high right bank of the Wady Hamz, sweeping with a great curve from north-east to west, till it stood athwart our path. Knobby hills were scattered over the plain; and on our right rose El–Juwayy, a black mound with white-sided and scarred head, whose peculiar shape, a crest upon a slope, showed us once more the familiar Secondary formation of North–Western Arabia. Thus the gypsum has been traced from the Sinaitic shore as far south as the Wady Hamz.

We rode sharply forwards, impatient to see the classical ruins, leaving the caravan to follow us. The Girdi (“sand-rat”) had ceased to burrow the banks; but the jerboa had made regular rabbit-warrens. At half-past seven we crossed a winding and broad-spreading track, the upper Hajj-road, by which the Egyptian Mahmal passes when returning from El–Medi’nah viâ the Wady Hamz. A few yards further on showed us a similar line, the route taken by the caravan when going to Meccah viâ Yambú’, now distant five marches. The two meet at the Wady Wafdíyyah, to the north-east of the Abá‘l-Marú range, which we shall visit tomorrow.

Shortly after 10 a.m. we crossed the deepest vein of the Wady Hamz, urged the mules up the stiff left bank, and sprang from the saddle to enjoy a first view of the Gasr (Kasr) Gurayyim Sa’id.

226 The MS. of this geographer was brought to light by Professor Sprenger, and Part I. has been published by Professor de Goeje in his “Bibliotheca Geographarum Arabicorum,” here alluded to.

227 We have seen (Chap. II.) that the Arabs of Midian mistake iron for antimony; and the same is the case in the Sinaitic Peninsula.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burton/richard/b97m/chapter18.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:36