The Land of Midian, by Richard F. Burton

Chapter IX.

Work in and Around El–Muwaylah.

We arrived at El–Muwaylah too late to meet the Hajj-caravan, which, home returning, had passed hurriedly through the station on February 9th. This institution has sadly fallen off from its high estate of a quarter of a century ago. Then commanded by an Amir el-Hajj —“Lord of the Pilgrimage”— in the shape of two Pashas (generals), it is now under the direction of a single Bey (colonel). The “True Believers,” once numbering thousands, were reduced in 1877–78 to some eight hundred souls, of whom only eighty appeared at El–Muwaylah; and the peculiar modification of modern days is that the Mahmal is escorted only by paupers. Yet the actual number of the Hájis who stand upon Jebel ‘Arafát, instead of diminishing, has greatly increased. The majority prefer voyaging to travelling; the rich hire state-cabins on board well-appointed “Infidel” steamers, and the poor content themselves with “Faithful” Sambúks. Indeed, it would seem that all the present measures, quarantines of sixty days (!) and detention at wretched Tor, comfortless enough to make the healthiest lose health, are intended to discourage and deter “palmers” from proceeding by land. If this course be continued, a very few years will see the venerable institution represented by only the Mahmal and its guard. The late Sa’id Pasha of Egypt once consigned the memorial litter per steam-frigate to Jeddah: the innovation saved Ghafr (“blackmail”) to the Bedawin; but it was not approved of by the Moslem world.

The Hájis were so poor that they had nothing for barter or for sale. Happily, however, there was a farrier amongst them, and Lieutenant Yusuf took care that our mules were properly shod. M. Philipin had been a maréchal ferrant, but a kick or two had left him no stomach for the craft. Our two fellow-travellers, with the whole camp, had set out from Makná on February 6th, and marched up the great Wady el-Kharaj. Along the eastern flank of the Jebel el-Fahísát, the “Iron Mountain,” they found many outcrops of quartz, a rock which appears sporadically all the way to the northern soufrière. In two places it was green-stained, showing copper, while in another hydrated oxide and chromate of iron (hematite)143 abounded. After a stage of four hours and twenty minutes they left the caravan, struck off to the west, accompanied by Shaykh Furayj, and reached their destination. Here, however, they met with accidents: the mules bolted, followed by the Shaykh’s dromedary, and they were obliged to hurry off for fear of losing the caravan, now well ahead of them. Thus, when I had ordered Lieutenant Yusuf to make a detailed plan of the formation, he had spent exactly ten minutes on the spot, and he appeared not a little proud of his work.

This young officer was not a pleasant companion. He had doubtless received his orders, but he carried them out in a peculiarly disagreeable way, taking notes of all our proceedings under our eyes. Together with Lieutenant Amir, he began to make a collection of geology: both, being utterly innocent of all knowledge, imitated us in picking up specimens; mixed them together without notes or labels; and, on return to Cairo, duly presented them at the Citadel. This was all that was required. The papers were “written to” and reported as follows: “Closer examination has shown that the ‘turquoises’ brought to Cairo are merely malachite (!); and that the existence of any such quantity of gold as would pay for the working is, to say the least of it, very doubtful.”144

The whole camp, indeed, was seized with a mania for collecting: old Háji Wali again gathered bits of quartz, which he once more presented as gold-stone to his friends and acquaintances at Zagázig; and Anton, the dragoman, triumphantly bore away fragments bristling with mica-slate, whose glitter he fondly conceived to be silver.

Lieutenant Yusuf was presently despatched with three soldiers, three quarrymen, Jází, the Arab guide of a former visit, and eight camels, to bring back specimens of the copper silicate to the south of ‘Aynánah, and to make a regular survey of the northern solfatara. He set out early on February 18th, and after twenty-one hours of caravan-marching reached the Jebel el-Fara’. Here the outcrop is bounded north by the Wady el-Fara’, and south by the Wadys el-Maríkhah and Umm Nírán, the latter forming the general recipient of these Nullahs. The Jebel is about 120 feet high, of oval form, stretching 1750 metres from north-north-west to south-south-east. The rich silicate (not carbonate) of copper, which disdains a streak and affects the file, is found, as usual with this ore, only in one part of the valley to the south-west, some thirty-five feet above the sole: it is a pocket, a “circumscribed deposit,” as opposed to a “true vein” or a “vein-fissure.” The adjoining rocks contain carbonates of iron and copper, and the ore-mass is apparently carbonate of lime. This second visit generally confirmed the report of Ahmed Kaptán, except that there were no signs of working, as he had supposed. The travellers passed the whole of February 20th at the diggings, made a plan, and sent back two camel-loads (four sacks) of the gangue, in charge of a soldier, to the Fort of El–Muwaylah.

On the next day the little party made for the Wady ‘Aynúnah, and, striking to the left of the straight line, crossed the maritime country, here a mass of Wadys, including our old friend the ‘Afál. This highway to the northern Hismá falls, I have said, into the Mínat el-‘Ayánát, a portlet useful to Sambúks: its sickle-shaped natural breakwater, curving from west to south, resembles that of Sinaitic Marsá el-Ginái, and those which are so common in Western Iceland. On February 22nd, a very devious path, narrow and rocky, lasting for one hour, led them, about noon, to the northern Jebel el-Kibrít. The distance from El–Muwaylah is about sixty-six miles; and the country west of a line drawn from ‘Aynúnah to Makná was, before this march, utterly unknown to us, consequently to all the civilized world.

Lieutenant Yusuf’s two journals checking each other, his plan and his specimens enable me to describe the northern deposit with more or less accuracy. The Sulphur-hill is a long oval of four hundred metres (east-west), by a maximum of one hundred and eighty (north-south); but it extends branches in all directions: the mineral was also found in a rounded piton, a knob on the Wady Musayr, attached to the north-eastern side. The flattened dome is from fifty to sixty feet high, and the piton one hundred and forty. The metal underlying a dark crust, some twelve to fifteen centimetres thick, appears in regular crystals and amorphous fragments of pure brimstone pitting the chalky sulphate of lime: blasting was not required; the soft material yielded readily to the pick. This gypseous or Secondary formation was found to extend, not only over the adjacent hills, but everywhere along the road to Makná. The important point which now remains to be determined is, I repeat, whether sulphur-veins can be found diffused throughout these non-plutonic rocks.

Lieutenant Yusuf fixed his position by climbing the adjacent hills, whence Sina’fir bore 190°, and Shu’shu’ 150° (both magnetic); while greater elevations to the west shut out the view of lofty Ti’ra’n, and even of the Sinaitic range. The nearest water in the Wady el-Nakhil to the north-east was reported to be a two hours’ march with loaded camels (= five miles) Several little ports, quite unknown to the Hydrographic Chart, were visited. These are, beginning from the north, the Mínat Hamdán, lying between Makná and Dabbah; a refuge for Sambúks defended, like that of old “Madyan,” by rising ground to the north. About three miles and a quarter further south is the Sharm Dabbah, the “Sherm Dhaba, good anchorage” of the Chart: this mass of reefs and shoals may have been one of the “excellent harbours” mentioned by Procopius. It receives the Wady Sha’b el-Gánn (Jánn), “the Watercourse of the Demons’ (Ja’nn) Ravine,” flowing from a haunted hill of red stone, near which no Arab dares to sleep. From that point the travellers struck nine miles and a half to south-east of Ghubbat Suwayhil: this roadstead, used only by native craft, lies eastward of the long point forming the Arabian staple of the Gulf el-‘Akabah’s gate, where the coast-line of Midian bends at a right angle towards the rising sun. Adjoining it to the east, and separated by a long thin spit, is the Ghubbat el-Wagab (Wajb), the mouth of the watercourse similarly named: it is also known to the Katírah or “smaller vessel,” and about a mile up its bed, which comes from the north-east, there is a well. According to Jázi, the guide, this Ghubbah (“gulf”), distant only four to five hours of slow marching from the Sulphur-hill, will be the properest place for shipping produce. In another eastern feature, the Wady Giyál (Jiyál), distant some eleven miles and a half from ‘Aynúnah and ending in a kind of sink, there is a fine growth of palms, about a quarter of a mile long, and a supply of “wild” (brackish) water in wells and rain-pools. These uninteresting details will become valuable when the sulphur-mines of North Midian are ripe for working.

From the Ghubbat el-Wagab, the path, easy travelling over flat ground, strikes to the north-east; and, fourteen miles and a half beyond, joins the ‘Aynúnah highway. On February 26th, at the end of nine days’ work, Lieutenant Yusuf returned to El–Muwaylah with two sacks of sulphur-bearing chalk which justified his previous report. As will appear, the Expedition was still travelling through the interior: after a halt for rest at head-quarters, he rejoined us on our northward route from Zibá, and I again found useful occupation for his energies.

Upon our happy return “home,” i.e. Sharm Yáhárr, preparations for a march upon the Hismá were at once begun. My heart was firmly fixed upon this project, hoping to find an “unworked California” to the east of the Harrah volcanoes; but the Shaykhs and camel-men, who did not like the prospect of a rough reception by the Ma’ázah bandits, threw sundry small stumbling-blocks in our path. It was evidently useless to notice them so far from the spot; they would develop themselves only too well as we approached the tribal frontier. While these obstacles were being cleared away, we carefully examined the little dock that had so often given us shelter in the hour of need; and I set a small party to work at the central Jebel el-Kibri’t, which had been explored by the first Expedition.

Sharm Yáhárr is the usual distorted T, a long channel heading in a shorter cross-piece: it is formed by the confluence of four valleys, all composed of corallines and conglomerates of new sandstone. Those to the north and the north-west show distinct signs of upheaval; the two eastern features, known as the Wady el-Hárr (“the Hot Watercourse”), of which Yáhárr appears to be a corruption, bear marks of man’s hand. The dock is divided into an outer and inner “port” by a projecting northern point which is not sufficiently marked in the Chart (enlarged plan). At this place, where the tide rises a full metre, the crew of the Mukhbir had built a jetty of rough boulders, by way of passe-temps and to prevent wading. Native craft lie inside, opposite the ruins of a stone house: the existence of a former population is shown by the many graves on the upper plateau. In the northern Wady el-Hárr, also, we picked up specimens of obsidian, oligistic iron, and admirably treated modern (?) slags showing copper and iron; evidently some Gypsy-like atelier must once have worked upon the Wady Yáhárr. The obsidian also has apparently been subjected to the artificial fire; and a splinter of it contains a paillette of free copper.

What concerned us most, however, was the discovery of oysters, which, adhering to the reefs projected under water from the rocky northern cliff, formed a live conglomerate; and from the present time forwards we found the succulent molluscs in almost every bay. Those to the south, where the shallows overlie sand and mud, are not so good. At this season the Ustrída is flat, fleshy, and full sized; the shell has a purple border, and the hinge muscle of the savage, far stronger than that of the civilized animal, together with its exceeding irregularity of shape, giving no purchase to the knife, makes oyster-opening a sore trouble. We tried fire, but the thick-skinned things resisted it for a long time; and, when they did gape, the liquor had disappeared, thereby spoiling the flavour. The “beard” was neither black, like that of the Irish, nor colourless, as in the English oyster. The Bedawin, who ignore the delicacy, could not answer any questions about the “spatting season”— probably it is earlier than ours, which extends through June; whether also a close time is required, as in England to August 4th, we could not guess. The young probably find a natural “culch” in the many shells, cockle and others, that strew the rock, sand, and clay.

Knowing that my gallant friend, Admiral McKillop (Pasha) of Alexandria, takes great interest in “ostreoculture,” I sent him from Suez a barrel of the best Midianites The water had escaped by the carelessness of the magazine-man: enough, however, remained alive to be thrown into the harbour Eunostos, where they will, I hope, become the parents of a fine large progeny of “natives.” Similarly we had laid in a store of forty-two langoustes (crayfish) for presentation at Court, and to gladden the hearts of Cairéne friends: our Greeks placed the tubs in the sun and so close to the funnel, that, after about three hours, all the fine collection perished ignobly.

We will now proceed to the central Jebel el-Kibri’t; a superficial examination of which by the first Expedition145 proved that the upper rock yielded four, and the lower nine, per cent. of tolerably pure brimstone. The shortest cut from the dock-harbour lies up the southern Wady Ha’rr, with its strangely weathered sandstone rocks, soft modern grits that look worm-eaten. Amongst them is a ledge-like block with undermined base projecting from the left bank: both the upper and the lower parts are scattered over with Wasm, or Arab tribal marks. On our return from El–Wijh we found this sandstone tongue broken in two: the massive root remained in situ, but the terminal half had fallen on the ground. This was probably the work of an earthquake which we felt at Sharm Dumayghah on March 22nd.146 The track then strikes the modern Hajj-road, which runs west of and close to the Sulphur-hill; the line is a succession of watercourses,147 and in Wady Khirgah we found blocks of the hydrous silicate, corundophyllite which may be Serpentine: it is composed of a multitude of elements, especially pyrites. After an hour and a quarter’s sharp walking, we hit the broad Wady el-Kibrít, which rounds its Jebel to the south-east, and which feeds the Wady el-Jibbah, itself a feeder of the Sharm Jibbah. The latter, which gave us shelter in the corvette Sinnár (Captain Ali Bey), is a long blue line of water bounding the western base of the Sulphur-hill.

This central Tuwayyil el-Kibrít is an isolated knob, rising abruptly from Wady-ground; measuring some 240 feet in height, and about 880 metres in diameter, not including its tail of four vertebræ which sets off from north-west to south-east. Viewed from the north it is, as the Egyptian officers remarked, a regular Haram (“pyramid”), with a kidney-formed capping of precipitous rock. Drinkable water, like that of the Wady el-Ghál, is said to be found in the Wady el-Kibrít to the north-east; and the country is everywhere tolerably wooded. The Bedawin brought us small specimens of rock-crystal and fragments of Negro-quartz, apparently rich in metal, from a neighbouring “Maru.” They placed it amongst the hill-masses to the east and south; and we afterwards found it for ourselves.148

Our middle Sulphur-hill differs essentially from the other two deposits, the northern near Makná, and the southern near El–Wijh, in being plutonic and not sedimentary. One would almost say that it smokes, and the heat-altered condition of the granite, the greenstone, and other rocks, looking as if fresh from a fire, suggests that it may be one of the igneous veins, thrown westward by the great volcanic region, El–Harrah. In parts it is a conglomerate, where a quantity of quartz takes the place of chalk and gypsum. Other deposits are iron-stained and have the appearance of the decomposed iron pyrites which abounds in this neighbourhood. Usually the yield is the normal brimstone-yellow, yet some of the beds are deep red, as if coloured by ochre or oxide of iron: this variety is very common in the solfataras of Iceland; and I have heard of it in the Jebel Mokattam, near Cairo. The colour is probably due to molecular changes, and possibly shows greater age than the yellow.

M. Philipin was directed to take charge of Sergeant Mabrúk, the nine quarrymen, and the Bedawi owners of two camels to carry his boring-irons, forge, and water from El–Muwaylah. I advised him to dig at least forty feet down all round the pyramid, wherever surface-indications attracted notice: old experience had taught me that such depth is necessary before one can expect to find brimstone beds like those of Sicily. The borings brought up sulphur from fourteen metres; beyond these, six were pierced, but they yielded nothing. In and around the pyramid M. Philipin sank five pits; the northernmost shaft, half-way up the hill, gave crystals of the purest sulphur.

If the depth of the deposit be not great, the surface extent is. The pyramid evidently forms the apex of a large vein which strikes north-south. The field consists of this cone with its dependencies, especially the yellow cliffs to the north and the south, facing, in the latter direction, a large plain cut by the Wady el-Kibrít. Moreover, a vein of the red variety, about three kilometres long by twenty-five to thirty metres broad, lies to the south-east near a gypsum hill: the latter also yields the crystallized salt which so often accompanies sulphur, and heaps of gigantic half-fossilized oyster-shells are strewed about it.

M. Philipin here remained sixteen days (February 18 — March 5), during our absence in the East Country; on return we found our good blacksmith much changed for the worse. Whilst in hard work he had been half-starved, the Jeráfín Bedawin of the neighbourhood having disappeared with their flocks; he had been terribly worried by the cameleers, and he had been at perpetual feud with the miserable quarrymen. I never saw a man less fitted to deal with (two-legged) “natives.” The latter instinctively divined that he would rather work himself than force others to work; and they acted accordingly.

The Expedition was thus divided into four, three working parties and one of idlers. Anton and Petros were left behind to do nothing as magazine-men.

Lieutenant Darwaysh (the linesman) who was too weak to ride, and Sub–Lieutenant Mohammed (the miner) who was too old to travel, had charge of the sick; both found the far niente equally sweet. On February 17th I again bade adieu to the gunboat Mukhbir, and marched with the largest party upon our camp at El–Muwaylah, distant about six miles (=one hour and forty-five minutes). The path from Sharm Yáhárr crosses the hard sands of the maritime plain, metalled with the natural macadam of the Desert. The stone is mostly dark silex, the “hen’s liver” of the Brazil, and its surface is kept finely polished, and free from “patina,” by the friction of the dust-laden winds. The line is deeply gashed by short, broad gullies: the Hajj-road, running further east, heads these ugly Nullahs. The third and largest channel is Wady Surr, the great valley of El–Muwaylah, which may be regarded as the southern frontier of “Madyan” (Proper): we shall trace it to its head in the Hismá.

I had left the camp-pitching at El–Muwaylah to the Egyptian officers, who naturally chose the site nearest the two northern wells; a wave of ground hot by day, cold at night, windy and dusty at all times; moreover, the water was near enough to be horribly fouled. No wonder that in such a place many of the men fell ill, and that one subsequently died — our only loss during the four months’ march.

On February 18th we proceeded, under the misguidance of a Básh-Buzúk of the fort, Ahmed Sálih el-Mal’ún, to inspect a neighbouring ruin called Abá Hawáwít —“the Father of (Dwelling-) Walls.” Wallin (p. 30) declares that, “finding no mention made of Muweilih in Arab manuscripts, nor traces or traditions among the existing generation in the land, pointing to a high antiquity,” he is inclined to consider it a town of modern origin, in fact the growth of the Egyptian pilgrimage. His error is excusable. He was a passing traveller; and I well remember that for a whole year the true name of a hill immediately behind our house at Damascus remained unknown to me: we had called it after our own fashion, and the term had at once been adopted by all our over-polite native friends. Indeed, this is one of the serious difficulties to be encountered, throughout the East, by the scrupulous traveller whose greatest fear is that of misleading others. The Expedition had paid four several visits to El–Muwaylah, and had never heard a word about ruins, when I happened to read out before the Shaykhs assembled at Magháir Shu’ayb a passage from El–Makrízi treating of the destroyed cities of Madyan. They at once mentioned half a dozen names lying within short distances of the “little salt.” Amongst them was Abú Hawáwít, literally meaning “tenement walls,” but here applied, in the short form Hawáwít, to ruins in general.

Had “Wali Háji,” as Wallin was called by the Bedawin, looked only ten feet beyond the north-eastern tower of the fort, near the ruins of a modern Mastabah (“masonry bench”), he would have found long-forgotten vestiges of ovens and slags containing copper and iron. The same will prove to be the case about the inland defence of El–Wijh; in fact, all these works seem for obvious reasons to have been built upon sites that have been utilized long before their modern day. El–Muwaylah was probably a more important place than it is at present, when the reef-harbour, which now admits native craft only by a gap to the south-west, had not been choked by shoals. The sandy soil wants only water to produce a luxuriant perennial growth, and every garden can have its well. But more life is wanting; a man heaps up a thorn-hedge, or builds a swish-wall of the brick-clay underlying the Wady, and he forgets only to lay out the field within. Local history does not, it is true, extend beyond two hundred years or so, the probable date of Shaykh Abdullah’s venerated sepulchre, a truncated parallelogram of cut coralline on the Wady Sughayyir to the north of the settlement. Yet this “little salt” is too remarkable a site to have remained unoccupied. Possibly it is the “[Greek],” the Horse Village (and fort?), which Ptolemy (vi. II) places in north lat. 26° 40’ (true 27° 40’), whilst his “[Greek]” would be the glorious Shárr, correctly consigned to north lat. 27° 20’. This argues an error of nearly sixty miles by the geographer or his copyists. But Chapter XII. will attempt to show that the latitude of [Greek], the modern Shuwák, is also one degree too low. So on the East African coast Ptolemy places his Aromata Promontorium, which can only be “Guardafui,” between north lat. 5° and 7°, whereas it lies in north lat. 11° 41’ 4”.

The Awwal Hawáwít, or first ruins, begin on the right bank of the Surr after one mile and three quarters from camp; and bear north-east (55° mag.) from the minaret of El–Muwaylah Fort. The position is a sandy basin, containing old Bedawi graves, bounded by a low ridge forming a boulder-clad buttress to the Wady, while the circuit of the two may be a mile and a half. A crumbling modern tower, crowning the right bank, and two Mahrákah (“rub-stones”) were the principal remains. The situation must have been well chosen in the days when the heights were wooded, and the Wady was a river. We afterwards mapped the body of the place, lying about three miles from the fort, showing the Yubú’ bank to north-west (298° mag.); and nearly due west (260° mag.) El–Muwaylah’s only house, the Sayyid’s. The site is a holm or island in the Wady Surr, which here runs east-west, and splits: the main line is the southern, and a small branch, a mere gully, occupies the northern bed-side.

The chief ruin is an oblong of twenty metres by sixteen, the short ends facing 195° (mag.); the whole built of huge pebbles. The interior is composed of one large room to the north, with sundry smaller divisions to the south, east, and west. Defence was secured by a wall, distant 142 metres, thrown across the whole eastern part of the islet: outside it are three large pits, evidently the site of cisterns. The people also told us of a well, the Bir el-Ashgham, which has long been mysteriously hidden. Immense labour has also been expended in revetting the northern and southern banks, both of the islet and the smaller branch-bed, for many hundreds of yards with round and water-rolled boulders, even on a larger scale than at Magháir Shu’ayb. What all this work meant we were unable to divine. Perhaps it belonged to the days when the seaboard of Midian was agricultural; and it was intended as a protection against the two torrents, the Wadys el-Zila’ and Abú Zabah, which here fall into the northern bank.

The 18th of February also made itself memorable to the second Expedition. M. Marie was strolling near the old furnaces to the north-east of the fort where, in 1877, he had picked up an auriferous specimen, unfortunately lost before it reached Cairo. Here he again found a fragment of serpentine, broken and water-rolled into the semblance of half a globe; it showed crust and stains of iron, filets of white quartz, and a curve (~) of bright yellow dots, disposed like the chainlet of an aneroid. Thereupon, we gravely debated whether these were the remains of a vein, or had been brought to the surface by the rubbing and polishing of the stone in water.

I could not but remark that the interior, which appeared pyritiferous, did not show the slightest trace of precious metal. Still the discovery gave fresh courage to all our people. The trophy was shown to every Bedawi, far and near, with the promise of a large reward (fifty dollars) to the lucky wight who could lead us to the rock in situ. The general voice declared that the “gold-stone” was the produce of Jebel Malayh (Malíh): we afterwards ascertained by marching up the Wady Surr that it was not. In fact, the whole neighbourhood was thoroughly well scoured; but the results were nil. In due course of time the tarnishing and the disappearance of the metal reduced my scepticism to a certainty: the “gold dots” were the trace of some pilgrim or soldier’s copper-nailed boot. It was the first time that this ludicrous mistake arose, but not the last — our native friends were ever falling into the same trap.

Amongst the minor industries of the Fort el-Muwaylah must be reckoned selling gazelles. The Bedawin bring them in, and so succeed in taming the timid things that they will follow their owner like dogs, and amuse themselves with hopping upon his shoulders. When thus trained, “Ariel” is supposed to be worth half a napoleon. The wild ones may be bought at almost every fort, as Zibá or El–Wijh.

143 Lieutenant–Colonel Bolton kindly compared the specimens with those in his cabinet. The first, which was accompanied by quartz, resembled the produce of Orenburg. A Peruvian mine-proprietor had pronounced it to be “Rosicler” silver. The magnetic sand bore a tantalizing resemblance to the highly auriferous black sand of Ekaterinburg.

144 Correspondence of the Sheffield Telegraph (May 18), copied into the Globe of May 25, etc., etc., etc.

145 “The Gold–Mines of Midian,” Chap. XI. It was then visited from its creek, Sharm Jibbah.

146 Chap. XIV.

147 A water-rolled fragment of this rock is called Korundogeschieb by Dr. L. Karl Moser, Professor of Natural History at the Gymnasium of Trieste, who kindly examined my little private collection of “show things.”

148 Chap. XII.

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