Travels in Arabia, by John Lewis Burckhardt

No. II.

Of the country through which the Kebsy pilgrims travel, and the extraordinary customs of some Arabian tribes.

THE route of this pilgrimage lies wholly along the mountains of the Hedjaz and Yemen, having the Eastern plain on one side, and Tehama, or the sea-coast, on the other. The road often leads through difficult passes on the very summit of the mountains. Water abounds, in wells, springs, and rivulets: the entire tract of country is well peopled, although not every where cultivated, enclosed fields and trees being only found in the vicinity of water. There is a village at every station of the Hadj: most of these villages are built of stone, and inhabited by Arab tribes, originally of these mountains, and now spread over the adjoining plains. Some are very considerable tribes, such as Zohran, Ghamed, Shomran, Asyr, and Abyda, of whom each can muster from six to eight thousand firelocks: their principal strength consists in matchlocks. Horses are but few in these mountains; yet the Kahtan, Refeydha, and Abyda tribes, who likewise spread over the plain, possess the good Koheyl breed. This country produces not only enough for the inhabitants, but enables them to export great quantities of coffee-beans, corn, beans, raisins, almonds, dried apricots, &c.

It is said that the coffee-tree does not grow northward beyond Meshnye, in the Zohran country; the tree improves in quality southward: the best coffee is produced in the neighbourhood of Sanaa. Grapes abound in these mountains. Raisins constitute a common article of food with the Arabs, and are exported to the towns on the sea-coast, and to Djidda and Mekka, where a kind of wine is made from them, as follows:— The raisins are put into earthen jars, which are then filled with water, buried in the ground, and left there for a whole month, during which the fermentation takes place. Most other fruits are cultivated in these mountains, where water is at all times abundant, and the climate temperate. Snow has sometimes fallen, and water been frozen as far as Sada. The Arabs purchase their cotton dresses in the market-places of Tehama, or on the coast: the passing pilgrims sell to them a few drugs, spices, and needles, and proceed on their way in perfect security, at least since the Wahabys have subjugated the whole country, by overpowering, after many sanguinary battles, the hostile Sheikhs, who were forced to pay an annual tribute.

Most of the Arab tribes south of Zohran belong to the sect of Zeyd: they live in villages, and are chiefly what the Arabs call Hadhar, or settlers, not Bedouins; but as they keep large herds of cattle, they descend, in time of rain, into the Eastern plain, which affords rich pasturage for cows, camels, and sheep. They procure clothes, drugs, utensils, &c. from the sea-ports of Yemen, where they sell dried fruits, dates, honey, butter, coffee-beans, &c. With the Bedouins of the Eastern plain they exchange durra for cattle. The Spanish dollar is current among them; but in their markets all things are valued by measures of corn. The dress of these Bedouins generally consists in cotton stuffs and leather.

Before the Wahabys taught them the true Mohammedan doctrines, they knew nothing more of their religion than the creed, La Illaha ill’ Allah, wa Mohammed rasoul Allah, (There is no God but God, and Mohammed is the prophet of God); nor did they ever perform the prescribed rites. The El Merekede, a branch of the great Asyr tribe, indulged in an ancient custom of their forefathers by assigning to the stranger, who alighted at their tents or houses, some female of the family to be his companion during the night, most commonly the host’s own wife; but to this barbarous system of hospitality young virgins were never sacrificed. If the stranger rendered himself agreeable to his fair partner, he was treated next morning with the utmost attention by his host, and furnished, on parting, with provisions sufficient for the remainder of his journey: but if, unfortunately, he did not please the lady, his cloak was found next day to want a piece, cut off by her as a signal of contempt. This circumstance being known, the unlucky traveller was driven away with disgrace by all the women and children of the village or encampment. It was not without much difficulty that the Wahabys forced them to renounce this custom; and as there was a scarcity of rain for two years after, the Merekedes regarded this misfortune as a punishment for having abandoned the laudable rites of hospitality, practised during so many centuries by their ancestors.

That this extraordinary custom prevailed in the Merekede tribe, I had often heard during my travels among the Syrian Bedouins, but could not readily believe a report so inconsistent with our established notions of the respect in which female honour is held by the Arabs; but I can no longer entertain a doubt on the subject, having received, both at Mekka and Tayf, from various persons who had actually witnessed the fact, most unequivocal evidence in confirmation of the statement.

Before the Wahaby conquest it was a custom among the Asyr Arabs, to take their marriageable daughters, attired in their best clothes, to the public market, and there, walking before them, to cry out, Man yshtery el Aadera? “Who will buy the virgin?” The match, sometimes previously settled, was always concluded in the market-place; and no girl was permitted to marry in any other manner.

I heard that tigers and wolves abound in these mountains, but that there are not any lions. The Arabs have here a fine breed of mules and asses.

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