Travels in Arabia, by John Lewis Burckhardt

Description of Several Other Holy Places, Visited by Pilgrims at Mekka, and in its Neighbourhood.

DURING the time of the Wahabys, no person dared to visit these places without exposing himself to their hostility; and all the buildings which had been erected on these spots were ruined by them, or their domes were, at least, destroyed.

In the town are shown:—

Mouled el Neby, the birth-place of Mohammed, in the quarter named from it. In the time of Fasy a mosque stood near it, called Mesdjed el Mokhtaba. During my stay, workmen were busily employed in re-constructing the building over the Mouled upon its former plan. It consists of a rotunda, the floor of which is about twenty-five feet below the level of the street, with a staircase leading down to it. A small hole is shown in the floor, in which Mohammed’s mother sat when she was delivered of him. This is said to have been the house of Abdillah, Mohammed’s father.

Mouled Setna Fatme, or the birth-place of Fatme, the daughter of Mohammed, is shown in a good stone building, said to have been the house of her mother Khadidje, in the street called Zogag el Hadjar. A staircase leads down to the floor of this building, which, like that of the former, is considerably below the street. This small edifice includes two holy places: in one is a hole, similar to that in the Mouled el Neby, to mark the place where Fatme was born; and just by is another, of smaller depth, where she is said to have turned her hand-mill, or rahha, after she was grown up. In an apartment near this, a narrow cell is shown, where Mohammed used to sit, and receive from the angel Gabriel the leaves of the Koran brought from heaven. This place is called Kobbet el Wahy.

Mouled el Imam Aly, in the quarter called Shab Aly. This is a small chapel, in the floor of which a hole marks the spot where Aly, the cousin of Mohammed, is said to have been born.

Mouled Seydna Abou Beker, a small chapel, just opposite to the stone which gave a salutation, “Salam Aleykum,” to Mohammed whenever he passed it. No sacred spot is here shown; but its floor is covered with very fine Persian carpets.

All these Mouleds had undergone complete repair since the retreat of the Wahabys, except that of Mohammed, on which the workmen were still employed. The guardianship of these places is shared by several families, principally Sherifs, who attend by turns, with a train of servants. At every corner of the buildings are spread white handker-chiefs, or small carpets, upon which visitors are expected to throw some money; and the gates are lined with women, who occupy their seats by right, and expect a contribution from the pilgrim’s purse. The value of a shilling, distributed in paras at each of the Mouleds, fully answers the expectation of the greedy and the indigent.

Mouled Abou Taleb, in the Mala, is completely destroyed, as I have already said; and will, probably, not be rebuilt.

Kaber Setna Khadidje: the tomb of Khadidje, the wife of Mohammed, the dome of which was broken down by the Wahabys, and is not yet rebuilt; it is regularly visited by hadjys, especially on Friday mornings. It lies in the large burial-ground of the Mala, at the declivity of the western chain; is enclosed by a square wall, and presents no objects of curiosity except the tomb-stone, which has a fine inscription in Cufic characters, containing a passage of the Koran from the chapter entitled, Souret el Kursy. As the character is not the ancient Cufic, I suspect that the stone was not intended originally to cover this grave: there is no date in the inscription. The Sherif Serour, predecessor of Ghaleb, had the vanity, on his death-bed, to order his family to bury his body close to the tomb of Khadidje, in the same enclosure where it still remains. At a short distance from hence, the tomb of Umna, the mother of Mohammed, is shown. It was covered with a slab of fine marble, bearing a Cufic inscription, in an older character than the former. The Wahabys broke it, and removed the two pieces, to show their indignation at the visits paid to the receptacles of the bones of mortals, which was, in their estimation, a species of idolatry. Even at these tombs I found women, to whom permission was granted to spread their handkerchiefs, and ask alms of every visitor.

In walking about these extensive cemeteries, I found many other tomb-stones with Cufic inscriptions, but not in a very ancient character. I could decipher no date prior to the sixth century of the Hedjra (the twelfth of our era); but the greater part of them contain mere prayers, without either the name of the deceased, or a date. The tombs, in general, are formed of four large stones placed in an oblong square, with a broad stone set upright at one end, bearing the inscription. I saw no massive tomb or turban cut in stone, or any such ornament as is used in other parts of Asia. A few small buildings have been raised by the first families of Mekka, to enclose the tombs of their relations; they are paved inside, but have no roof, and are of the most simple construction. In two or three of them I found trees planted, which are irrigated from cisterns built within the enclosure for the reception of rain-water: here, the families to whom they belong sometimes pass the day. Of several buildings, surmounted with domes, in which men celebrated for their learning had been interred, the domes were invariably broken down by the Wahabys: these fanatics, however, never touched the tombs themselves, and every where respected the remains of the dead. Among the tombs are those of several Pashas of Syria and of Egypt, constructed with little ornament.

At the extremity of almost every tomb, opposite to the epitaph, I found the low shrub saber, a species of aloe, planted in the ground: it is an evergreen, and requires very little water, as its Arabic name, saber, (patience) implies: it is chosen for this purpose from an allusion to the patience necessary in waiting for the resurrection. On the whole, this burial-ground is in a state of ruin, caused, it is said, by the devastations of the Wahabys; but, I believe, still more by the little care which the Mekkawys take of the graves containing the bodies of their relations and friends.

The places visited out of the town are:—

Djebel Abou Kobeys. This mountain is one of the highest in the immediate neighbourhood of the town, and commands it from the east. Muselman tradition says that it was the first mountain created upon earth; its name is found in almost every Arabic historian and poet. Two different spots upon its summit are visited by the pilgrims. The one is called Mekan el Hedjar (the spot of the stone), where Omar, who afterwards succeeded to the Khalifat, used to call the people to prayers, in the first years of Islam, when the Koreysh or inhabitants of Mekka were, for the greater part, idolaters. Here is shown a cavity cut in the rock, resembling a small tomb, in which it is said that God, at the deluge, ordered the guardian angels to place the black stone, revered by them long before Abraham built the Kaaba, and to make the rock unite over it, that the waters might not touch it; and that, after the deluge, the angel Gabriel split the rock, and conveyed the stone back to the site of the Kaaba. The other place of visit, or Zyara, is across a narrow valley, at a short distance from the former, on the summit of the mountain; it is called Mekan Shak el Kamr, or place where the moon was split-one of Mohammed’s greatest miracles. The story, however, is now differently related by the Mekkawys, who say that, when he was praying here at mid-day, the first people among the incredulous Koreysh came and desired him to convince them at once, by some miracles, [It is recorded by historians, that at the desire of some unbelieving Koreysh, he caused the full moon to appear as if cleft asunder, so that one half was visible behind Djebel Abou Kobeys, and the other at the opposite side of the hemisphere, above Djebel Kaykaan.] that he was really the prophet of the Almighty. “What shall I do,” he replied, “to make you true believers?” “Let the sun retire,” said they, “and the moon and stars appear; let the moon descend upon earth, come to this mountain, enter into one of the sleeves of your gown, issue by the other, return to the firmament, and then let day-light shine again upon us.” Mohammed retired, addressed a short prayer to the Deity, and the whole miracle was forthwith performed; after which the Koreysh were converted. These and similar tales, applied to different places by the Mekkawys, for the purpose of extorting money from the pilgrims, are quite unsupported by the authenticated traditions of the prophet. To this spot the people of Mekka resort, that they may enjoy a view of the new moon of Ramadhan, and of the month following it. Between these two places, and a little to the east of them, are the ruins of a solid building, some walls only remaining. It is said to have formerly been a state prison of the sherifs of Mekka. In it are several dungeon-like towers, and it was probably a castle built upon Djebel Kobeys by Mekether el Hashemy, a chief of Mekka, about the year 530 or 540 of the Hedjra; or it may have been a mosque called Mesdjid Ibrahim, which, according to Azraky, stood here in the seventh century of our era. It is vulgarly believed at Mekka that whoever eats a roasted sheep’s head upon Djebel Kobeys, will be for ever cured of all head-aches.

Djebel Nour, the mountain of light. This lies to the north of the town. Passing the Sherif’s garden-house on the road towards Arafat, a little further on, we enter a valley, which extends in a direction N.E. by N. and is terminated by the mountain, which is conical. Steps were formerly cut in the steep ascent, but they are now ruined; and it required three quarters of an hour, and much fatiguing exertion, to reach the top. In the rocky floor of a small building, ruined by the Wahabys, a cleft is shown, about the size of a man in length and breadth. It is said that Mohammed, wearied, and grieved at the assertions of his enemies and dubious adherents at Mekka, who had given out that God had entirely abandoned him, retired to this mountain, and stretched himself out in the cleft, imploring help from above. The angel Gabriel was despatched to him with that short chapter of the Koran, which we call the ninety-fourth, beginning with the words “Have we not gladdened thy breast?”— the previous chapter alludes also to his state of grief. A little below this place is a small cavern in the red granite rock, which forms the upper stratum of this mountain; it is called Mogharat el Hira. [In the time of the Pagan Arabs this mountain was called Djebel Hira. I may here add, that a great many mountains and valleys in the Hedjaz have lost their ancient names. This is amply proved by the topographical notices of Azraky, of the historians of Medina, and of Zamakhshary, in his valuable work entitled El Myat o’ el djebal.] Here several other passages of the Koran are said to have been revealed to the prophet, who often repaired to this elevated spot; but none of those present could tell me what those passages were. The guardians of these two places are Bedouins of the tribe of Lahyan (or Laha-yn).

I had left Mekka on foot, at night, with a large party of hadjys, to visit this place, which is usually done on Saturdays. We were on the summit before dawn; and when the sun rose, a very extensive view presented itself to the north and west, the other points being bounded by mountains. The country before us had a dreary aspect, not a single green spot being visible: barren black and grey hills, and white sandy valleys, were the only objects in sight. On the declivity of the mountain, a little way from the top, is a small stone reservoir, built to supply the visitors with water. It was dry when I saw it, and in bad repair.

Djebel Thor. About an hour and a half south of Mekka, to the left of the road to the village of Hosseynye, is a lofty mountain of this name, higher, it is said, than Djebel Nour. On the summit of it is a cavern in which Mohammed and his friend Abou Beker took refuge from the Mekkawys before he fled to Medina. A spider had spun its web before the entrance, and his pursuers seeing this, supposed, of course, that the fugitives could not be within. To this circumstance an allusion is made in the Koran (chap. ix.) I did not visit the spot.

El Omra. Of this building I have already spoken: it is a small chapel with a single row of columns, on the road to Wady Fatme. Every pilgrim is required to visit it; but he is left to his own discretion respecting the places before mentioned. The Omra is surrounded by ruins of several habitations: there is a copious well near it, and traces of cultivation are seen in the valley. I believe the well to be that called by the historians of Mekka “Bir Tenaym.” According to Fasy, a mosque, called Mesdjed Ahlyledje, stood here in the earliest times of Islam. I shall conclude my description of Mekka with that of the opening of the Kaaba, which I deferred, that the description of the mosque might not be interrupted.

The Kaaba is opened only three times in the year: on the 20th of the month of Ramadhan, on the 15th of Zulkade, and on the 10th of Moharram (or Ashour, as the Arabs call it). The opening takes place one hour after sun-rise, when the steps are wheeled up to the gate of the building: as soon as they touch the wall, immense crowds rush upon them, and in a moment fill the whole interior of the Kaaba. The steps are lined by the eunuchs of the mosque, who endeavour in vain to keep order, and whose sticks fall heavy upon those who do not drop a fee into their hands; many of the crowd, however, are often unmercifully crushed. In the interior every visitor is to pray eight rikats, or make sixteen prostrations; in every corner of it two rikats: but it may easily be conceived how these prayers are performed, and that while one is bowing down, another walks over him. After the prayers are finished, the visitor is to lean with extended arms against any part of the wall, with his face pressed against it, and thus to recite two pious ejaculations. Sobbing and moaning fill the room; and I thought I perceived most heartfelt emotions and sincere repentance in many of the visitors: the following, and other similar ejaculations, are heard, and many faces are bedewed with tears: “O God of the house, O God forgive me, and forgive my parents, and my children! O God, admit me into paradise! O God, deliver our necks from hell-fire, O thou God of the old house!” I could not stay longer than five minutes; the heat was so great that I almost fainted, and several persons were carried out with great difficulty, quite senseless.

At the entrance sits a Sherif, holding the silver key of the Kaaba in his hand, which he presents to be kissed by the pilgrim, who for this pays a fee, on coming out; money is also given to a eunuch, who sits by that Sherif. Some eunuchs on the steps, and several menial officers and servants on the pavement below, which surrounds the Kaaba, expect also to be paid. I heard many hadjys animadvert severely upon this shameful practice, saying that the most holy spot upon earth should not be made the scene of human avarice and greediness; but the Mekkawys are invulnerable to such reproaches.

The Kaaba remains open till about eleven o’clock. On the following day it is opened exclusively for women. After visiting the Kaaba it is thought necessary to perform the towaf round it.

The interior of the Kaaba consists of a single room, the roof of which is supported by two columns, and it has no other light than what is received by the door. The ceiling, the upper half of the two columns, and the side walls, to within about five feet of the floor, are hung with a thick stuff of red silk, richly interwoven with flowers and inscriptions in large characters of silver; the lower part of each column is lined with carved aloe-wood; and that part of the walls below the silk hangings is lined with fine white marble, ornamented with inscriptions cut in relief, and with elegant arabesques; the whole being of exquisite workmanship. The floor, which is upon a level with the door, and therefore about seven feet above the level of the area of the mosque, is laid with marble of different colours. Between the pillars numerous lamps are suspended, donations of the faithful, and said to be of solid gold; they were not touched by the Wahabys. [Kotobeddyn relates, that the Sheikhs of Mekka stole the golden lamps suspended in the Kaaba, and conveyed them away in the wide sleeves of their gowns. Many golden lamps were sent here by Sultan Soleyman.] In the north-west corner of the chamber is a small gate, which leads up to the flat roof of the building. I observed nothing else worthy of remark; but the room is so dark, that it requires some time before any thing can be seen in it. The interior ornaments are coeval with the restoration of the Kaaba, which took place A.D. 1627. I am unacquainted with any holy ceremony observed in washing the floor of the Kaaba, as mentioned in the Travels of Aly Bey el Abasy: I have seen the Towasheys perform that duty, in the same manner as on the pavement around it; although it appears from the history of Asamy, that the floor of the Kaaba is sometimes washed by great personages.

The visit to the interior of the Kaaba forms no part of the religious duty of the pilgrim, and many of them quit Mekka without seeing it. I saw it twice; on the 15th of Zulkade, and the 10th of Moharram. At the latter period the new hangings, brought from Cairo by Mohammed Aly, had been put up: they were of very rich stuff, much finer and closer in texture than the black exterior cover. The old hangings, which had been up for more than twenty years, were now publicly sold to devotees at the rate of about one dollar for a piece of six inches square. The right of offering these hangings was in the person who gave the exterior kessoua, though exceptions sometimes occurred, as in A.H. 865, when Shah Rokh, king of Persia, sent a magnificent covering for the interior. [See Kotobeddyn.]

Before the gate called Bab-es-Salam is a shop where pieces both of the exterior and interior coverings are constantly for sale: those of the latter are most esteemed. I have seen waistcoats made of them, which, of course, are reckoned the safest coat of mail that one of the faithful can wear. In the same shop are sold drawings of Mekka and Medina, done in a coarse and most gaudy style upon paper or linen, and small impressions of prayers, &c. from engravings on wood. I bought some of these, for the same purpose as the Zemzem bottles which I took front hence.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51