Travels in Arabia, by John Lewis Burckhardt

No. IV.

Notices respecting the Country south of Mekka.

I HAVE already described the road from Mekka to Tayf. Four hours distant from Tayf, in a S.E. direction, is Lye, a wady with a rivulet, fine gardens, and many houses on the borders of the stream. About two hours S. of Lye, in the mountain, stands the celebrated castle of Byssel, built by the late chief of all the Hedjaz Arabs, Othman el Medhayfe, who was taken prisoner near it in autumn 1812. Here Mohammed Aly Pasha, in January 1815, fought his decisive battle with the united Wababy forces. From Lye the road leads over mountains for about two hours, and then descends into the great Eastern plain, where, at a distance of seven or eight hours from Lye, and twelve from Tayf, lies the small town of Kolákh: here were the head-quarters of the Turkish army for several months in 1814. It is an open place, without trees or enclosures, with many water-pits. It lies from Tayf in the direction of E.S.E. About Lye and Kolákh, live the Arabs of the Ossama tribe, who form part of the great Ateybe tribe. Between Kolákh and Taraba, off the straight road, lies Abyla, once the residence of the great chief Medhayfe. By Kolákh passes the most frequented road from Nedjed to Zohran, and from thence to the sea-ports of Yemen. Continuing over the plain from Kolákh in a more southern direction for about eighteen hours, we come to the town of Taraba, as the people of Tayf and Mekka call it, or Toroba according to the Bedouin pronunciation. A soldier who possessed a watch told me that he had counted three hours on the march between Tayf and Taraba. This is a considerable town, as large as Tayf, and remarkable for its plantations, that furnish all the surrounding country with dates; and famous for its resistance against the Turkish forces of Mohammed Aly, until January 1815, when its inhabitants were compelled to submit. Taraba is environed with palm-groves and gardens, watered by numerous rivulets; near it are some inconsiderable hills, at the foot of which the Arabs cultivate durra and barley: the inhabitants are of the Begoum tribe, and their Sheikh is Ibn Korshán. One Ghálye, the widow of a deceased Sheikh, had immortalised her name by devoting her property to the defence of the town, and taking an active part in the council of the chiefs. The country about Taraba, and thence to Kolákh, is inhabited by the Ateybe Arabs, the most numerous of the Hedjaz tribes. The Begoums had enclosed Taraba with a wall, and constructed some towers: at present a Turkish garrison is stationed here, this being a principal position and the grand thoroughfare between Nedjed and Yemen.

Pursuing the road from Taraba southwards to the east of the great chain of mountains, over an uneven ground intersected by many wadys, we come, at two days from Taraba, to the town of Ranye, inhabited by the Arab tribe of Sabya, whose Sheikh is Ibn Katnán, a personage distinguished for his bravery in the campaign against the Pasha’s Turkish troops. Three or four days from Ranye is the town of Beishe, the intermediate space being peopled by the Beni Oklob tribe. Beishe, the most important position between Tayf and Sanaa, is a very fertile district, extremely rich in date-trees. The Turkish army of Mohammed Aly, with its followers and allied Bedouins, amounting in all to ten or twelve thousand men, found here sufficient provisions for a fortnight’s halt, and for a supply on their march of several days towards the south. The Arabs entitle Beishe the key of Yemen: it lies on one of the great roads from Nedjed to Yemen; and it was said that heavy-laden camels from Mekka to Yemen could not come by any other way, and that on the sea-shore beyond Beishe is an easy passage westward through the great chain of mountains. At Beishe many battles were fought between Sherif Ghaleb and Saoud the Wahaby general, who being victorious erected two castles in the neighbourhood, and gave them in charge to Ibn Shokbán, whom he also made chief of the Beni Salem tribe, the inhabitants of Beishe, who could furnish from eight to ten thousand matchlocks. Ibn Shokbán afterwards gallantly opposed the Turkish army. I believe that in former times the Sherifs of Mekka possessed at least a nominal authority over all the country, from Tayf to Beishe. In Asamy’s history we find many instances of the Sherifs residing occasionally at Beishe, and having in their army auxiliaries of the Beni Salem tribe.

Beishe is a broad valley, from six to eight hours in length, abounding with rivulets, wells, and gardens. The houses here are better than those of Tayf, and irregularly scattered over the whole tract. The principal castle is very strong, with substantial and lofty walls, and surrounded by a ditch. About three or four days’ journey to the E. and S.E. of Beishe, the plain is covered with numerous encampments of the Kahtan Arabs, one of the most ancient tribes, that flourished long before Mohammed, in the idolatrous ages. Some of these Beni Kahtan emigrated to Egypt, where the historian Mesoudi knew them as inhabitants of Assouan. The Wahabys found great difficulty in subduing this tribe, which, however, subsequently became attached to the conquerors, and still continues so. The Beni Kahtan possess excellent pasturage, and breed many fine horses: the vast number of their camels have become proverbial in Arabia. The tribe is divided into two main branches, Es Saháma, and El Aasy. In December 1814 the Kahans made an incursion towards Djidda, and carried off the whole baggage of some Turkish cavalry, stationed to protect the road between Djidda and Mekka: large parties of them sometimes pasture their cattle in the province of Nedjed.

From Beishe to Aryn, in the country of the Abyda Arabs, is a journey of five days, according to the Bedouin mode of travelling, but six or seven days as the Kebsy pilgrims march. Beishe itself is about two days distant from the western mountain. It is a journey of at least four days from Beishe to the district of Zohran: all the Arabs from Taraba to Beishe, and from thence westward, are cultivators or agriculturists; those due south and east, are Bedouins, or wandering Nomades.

South-east of Beishe, four or five days, live the Dowáser Arabs during the winter; but in summer they remove to the more fertile pasture-lands of Nedjed, the nearest frontiers of which are only eight days distant. They have no horses, but furnish to the Wahabys in their wars about three thousand camel-riders. The Dowáser are said to be very tall men, and almost black. In former times they used to sell at Mekka ostrich feathers to the northern pilgrims, and many pedlars of Mekka came here in winter to exchange cotton stuffs for those feathers.

Adjoining the Dowáser, but I cannot exactly ascertain in what direction, are the Beni Kelb, Bedouins of whom many absurd fables are related in the Hedjaz: thus it is said, the men never speak Arabic, but bark like dogs; a notion, perhaps, arising from the name Kelb, which signifies a dog. Their women, however, it is allowed, can speak Arabic; but the truth is, that the stranger who alights at their tents is entertained by the women, and not by the men.

Half way between Wady Dowáser, or the winter pasture-land of the Dowáser tribe, and Sanaa the capital of Yemen, a short day’s journey east of Thohrán, (the territory of the Wadaa Arabs,) and four or five days from the town of Sada, lies the Wady Nedjrán, on the first of the great chain of mountains. It is a fertile valley between inaccessible mountains, in which the passes are so narrow that two camels cannot go abreast. The valley is watered by rivulets, and abounds with date-trees. Here reside the Beni Yam, an ancient tribe, distinguished lately by their opposition to the Wahabys: they consist of settlers and Bedouins; the former being Shyas, or heretics of the Persian sect, followers of Aly, while the Bedouins are mostly Sunne or orthodox Muselmans. The latter are subdivided into the tribes of Okmán and El Marra, weaker than the disciples of Aly, and often at variance with them, although both parties unite whenever Nedjrán is attacked by a foreign enemy. The settlers can muster about fifteen hundred firelocks. They twice repulsed the Wahaby chief Saoud, who had subdued all the other Arab tribes except the Beni Sobh, of the Harb race, in the northern parts of the Hedjaz. The Beni Yam made a kind of treaty with the Wahabys, and were allowed to perform the pilgrimage annually. Some of them visit the tomb of Aly, at Meshehed Aly, but under circumstances of great difficulty; for their lives would pay the forfeit of their religious zeal, should they be detected on the road; and this frequently happens, as they are betrayed by their peculiar accent or dialect: one who has performed his devotions at Aly’s tomb is regarded as a saint at Nedjrán.

When a man of this Beni Yam tribe undertakes a journey, he sends his wife to the house of a friend, who, it is understood, must in all respects supply the husband’s place during his absence, and restore the lady to him at his return. It may be here remarked, that the name of Nedjran el Yemen is mentioned in the Catechism of the Druses; one of the questions being, “Is Nedjran of Yemen in ruins or not?” The tanneries of Nedjran are famous throughout Arabia.

The less mountainous districts mentioned here, south of Mekka, are even in time of peace accessible only to Bedouins, or Bedouin merchants, and have not any regular communication with Mekka by caravans — Taraba excepted, the inhabitants of which carry their dates in monthly caravans to Mekka and Djidda. The people of Nedjed pass continually through this district in search of coffee-beans, and during the Wahaby dominion there was no other intercourse between Yemen and the northern provinces of Arabia. This country seldom enjoys peace, the mountaineers being hostile to the pastoral inhabitants of the low districts, and often at variance among themselves. They are all very warlike, but the Wahabys have succeeded in checking their private feuds.

The country from Mekka southwards near the sea-shore, to the west of the chain of mountains, is flat, intersected with hills that gradually disappear as we approach the sea, of which the shore presents a level plain in almost every direction at the distance of several hours. In time of peace the land road is most frequented by caravans, which either proceed along the coast close to the barbour, or by the foot of the mountains. The former way affords but little water. The first inhabited place south of Djidda is Leyth, four days distant, a small harbour, which the people were now deserting through dread of the mountaineers. The inhabitants of Leyth are mostly of the Beni Harb tribe, numerous and powerful in the country between Mekka and Medina. On this coast are many encampments of the Heteym Arabs. From Leyth up the mountains to the district of Zohrán, is a journey of three days and a half: from Leyth to Shagga, a small town, is one day’s journey: from thence to Doga, the same distance. Doga lies near the mountainous region, and is a considerable market-place; but its houses, or rather huts, are constructed only of brush-wood and reeds, not of stone. The inhabitants are mostly Sherifs, connected in kindred with the Sherif families of Mekka, to whom they often granted an asylum in the late civil wars. It is a journey of one day from Doga to Gonfode, the well-known harbour. One day and a half south of Gonfode, is the small harbour of Haly: this was the southern limit of the territory belonging to the Sherif of Mekka, who kept custom-house officers at Gonfode and Haly. The Wahaby chieftain, Othman el Medhayfe, in 1805 (or 1806), took Gonfode from the Sherif, and the whole coast from thence to Djidda fell under the Wahaby dominion. In 1814 the Turkish troops of Mohammed Aly Pasha endeavoured to establish themselves there, but were soon dislodged with considerable loss by Tamy. Gonfode, however, was retaken in 1815 by Mohammed Aly himself, after his return from the expedition against Tamy, the Sheikh of Asyr.

The caravan distance from Djidda to Gonfode along the coast is seven days, easy travelling. From Djidda to Leyth, another more eastern road, somewhat mountainous, five days’ journey, yielding plenty of water: while on the coast road, but one well is found between the two towns.

The other road from Mekka to Yemen, close along the western foot of the great mountains, is much frequented in time of peace: there are weekly arrivals of caravans, chiefly from Mokhowa, which is distant fifteen hours from Doga, and one day from the district of Zohrán in the mountains. Mokhowa is a large town, nine days’ journey from Mekka, for caravans travelling slowly: it has stone buildings, and is the market where the husbandmen of Zohrán and the neighbouring districts sell the produce of their labour to the merchants of Mokhowa, who send it to Mekka and Djidda. The country about Mokhowa is very fertile, and inhabited by the three tribes of Beni Selym, Beni Seydán, and Beni Aly: the two latter had submitted to the Wahabys, and were commanded by Tamy, the Sheikh of Asyr. There are likewise at Mokhowa many of the Beni Ghamed tribe. In time of peace the intercourse between this town and Mekka is very considerable; perhaps one third of the supplies of Mekka in grain of different kinds come from this place. Between these towns the road lies chiefly through valleys, and crosses but few hills: on it are some villages, of which the huts are inhabited by Bedouins as well as agriculturists. I must here repeat that Mokhowa is not to be confounded with Mokha.

The two first days’ journeys lie in the territory of the Djebádele tribe, whose boundary on the S. is Wady Lemlem, a fertile valley with springs. Beyond that live the Beni Fahem, an ancient tribe, now much reduced in numbers: they are celebrated throughout the Hedjaz for having retained the purity of their language in a higher degree than other tribes; and those who hear one of their boys speak, will be convinced that they deserve thin praise.

The country west of the great mountainous chain down to the sea is called Tehama; an appellation not given, at least in this part of Arabia, to any particular province, but assigned generally to the comparatively low grounds towards the coast; and the Bedouins extend this appellation northwards as far as Yembo. The people of Tehama are poor, those excepted who engage in trade; for the country has few fertile spots, and less pasturage than the mountains, where rain falls more abundantly. In the lower Tehama there are sometimes, during a whole year, but three or four days of rain. The Tehama Bedouins south of Mekka had mostly retired up into the mountains, when Mohammed Aly invaded the Hedjaz, not from dread of the Turks, but because, in such an unsettled state of affairs, weak tribes were not secure, in the open country, from being surprised by straggling Bedouins from the more powerful hostile tribes, who during the power of the Wahabys did not venture to show their enmity, and now impatiently broke loose. Among the Bedouins of Tehama are many tribes of the Beni Heteym, a tribe more widely spread than any other in Arabia.

The Great Desert, east of Beishe and Wady Dowáser, and south of the province of Nedjed, extending eastwards to the frontiers of Oman, is called by the Bedouins Roba el Khaly, “the empty or deserted abode.” In summer it is wholly deserted, being without any wells. In winter, after rains, when the sands produce herbage, all the great tribes of the Nedjed, Hedjaz and Yemen pasture their flocks in the parts of this desert bordering respectively on their own countries. The sandy soil is much frequented by ostriches, which are killed by the Dowáser Arabs. Several Bedouins assured me, that in the Robá el Khály there are many parts which have never yet been explored; because towards the east it does not, even in winter time, afford the slightest vegetation. The only habitable spot on this dreary expanse of sand is the Wady Djebryn. There the road passes, by which, in winter, the Arabs of Nedjed travel to Hadramaut: it is a low ground with date-trees and wells; but the pestilential climate deters people from residing there. The dates are gathered by the passing travellers.

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