Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, Volume One

Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, Volume One

by Richard Burton

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Volume 1 of classic work. Posing as a wandering dervish, Burton gained admittance to the holy Kaabah and to the tomb of the prophet at Medina and participated in all the rituals of the Hadj (pilgrimage). A treasury of material on Arab life, beliefs, manners and morals, etc.  See more details below


Volume 1 of classic work. Posing as a wandering dervish, Burton gained admittance to the holy Kaabah and to the tomb of the prophet at Medina and participated in all the rituals of the Hadj (pilgrimage). A treasury of material on Arab life, beliefs, manners and morals, etc.

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Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah

By Richard F. Burton, Isabel Burton

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1964 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12309-7



A few Words concerning what induced me to a Pilgrimage.

IN the autumn of 1852, through the medium of my excellent friend, the late General Monteith, I offered my services to the Royal Geographical Society of London, for the purpose of removing that opprobrium to modern adventure, the huge white blot which in our maps still notes the Eastern and the Central regions of Arabia. Sir Roderick I. Murchison, Colonel P. Yorke and Dr. Shaw, a deputation from that distinguished body, with their usual zeal for discovery and readiness to encourage the discoverer, honoured me by warmly supporting, in a personal interview with the then Chairman of the then Court of Directors to the then Honourable East India Company, my application for three years' leave of absence on special duty from India to Maskat. But they were unable to prevail upon the said Chairman, the late Sir James Hogg, who, remembering the fatalities which of late years have befallen sundry soldier-travellers in the East, refused his sanction, alleging as a reason that the contemplated journey was of too dangerous a nature. In compensation, however, for the disappointment, I was allowed the additional furlough of a year, in order to pursue my Arabic studies in lands where the language is best learned.

What remained for me but to prove, by trial, that what might be perilous to other travellers was safe to me? The "experimentum crucis "was a visit to Al-Híjaz, at once the most difficult and the most dangerous point by which a European can enter Arabia. I had intended, had the period of leave originally applied for been granted, to land at Maskat—a favourable starting-place—and there to apply myself, slowly and surely, to the task of spanning the deserts. But now I was to hurry, in the midst of summer, after a four years' sojourn in Europe, during which many things Oriental had faded away from my memory, and—after passing through the ordeal of Egypt, a country where the police is curious as in Rome or Milan—to begin with the Moslem's Holy Land, the jealously guarded and exclusive Harím. However, being liberally supplied with the means of travel by the Royal Geographical Society; thoroughly tired of "progress" and of "civilisation;" curious to see with my eyes what others are content to "hear with ears," namely, Moslem inner life in a really Mohammedan country; and longing, if truth be told, to set foot on that mysterious spot which no vacation tourist has yet described, measured, sketched and photographed, I resolved to resume my old character of a Persian wanderer, a "Darwaysh," and to make the attempt.

The principal object with which I started was this: to cross the unknown Arabian Peninsula, in a direct line from either Al-Madínah to Maskat, or diagonally from Meccah to Makallah on the Indian Ocean. By what "Circumstance, the miscreator" my plans were defeated, the reader will discover in the course of these volumes. The secondary objects were numerous. I was desirous to find out if any market for horses could be opened between Central Arabia and India, where the studs were beginning to excite general dissatisfaction; to obtain information concerning the Great Eastern wilderness, the vast expanse marked Rub'a al-Khálí (the "Empty Abode") in our maps; to inquire into the hydrography of the Hijaz, its water-shed, the disputed slope of the country, and the existence or non-existence of perennial streams; and finally, to try, by actual observation, the truth of a theory proposed by Colonel W. Sykes, namely, that if tradition be true, in the population of the vast Peninsula there must exist certain physiological differences sufficient to warrant our questioning the common origin of the Arab family. As regards horses, I am satisfied that from the Eastern coast something might be done,—nothing on the Western, where the animals, though thorough-bred, are mere "weeds," of a foolish price and procurable only by chance. Of the Rub'a al-Khali I have heard enough, from credible relators, to conclude that its horrid depths swarm with a large and half-starving population; that it abounds in Wadys, valleys, gullies and ravines, partially fertilised by intermittent torrents; and, therefore, that the land is open to the adventurous traveller. Moreover, I am satisfied, that in spite of all geographers, from Ptolemy to Jomard, Arabia, which abounds in fumaras, possesses not a single perennial stream worthy the name of river; and the testimony of the natives induces me to think, with Wallin, contrary to Ritter and others, that the Peninsula falls instead of rising towards the south. Finally, I have found proof, to be produced in a future part of this publication, for believing in three distinct races. 1. The aborigines of the country, driven like the Bhìls and other autoch-thonic Indians, into the eastern and south-eastern wilds bordering upon the ocean. 2. A Syrian or Mesopotamian stock, typified by Shem and Joktan, that drove the Indigenæ from the choicest tracts of country; these invaders still enjoy their conquests, representing the great Arabian people. And 3. An impure Syro-Egyptian clan—we personify it by Ishmael, by his son Nabajoth, and by Edom, (Esau, the son of Isaac) — that populated and still populates the Sinaitic Peninsula. And in most places, even in the heart of Meccah, I met with debris of heathenry, proscribed by Mohammed, yet still popular, while the ignorant observers of the old customs assign to them a modern and a rationalistic origin.

I have entitled this account of my summer's tour through Al-Hijaz, a Personal Narrative, and I have laboured to make its nature correspond with its name, simply because "it is the personal that interests mankind." Many may not follow my example; but some perchance will be curious to see what measures I adopted, in order to appear suddenly as an Eastern upon the stage of Oriental life; and as the recital may be found useful by future adventurers, I make no apology for the egotistical semblance of the narrative. Those who have felt the want of some "silent friend" to aid them with advice, when it must not be asked, will appreciate what may appear to the uninterested critic mere outpourings of a mind full of self.

On the evening of April 3, 1853, I left London for Southampton. By the advice of a brother officer, Captain (now Colonel) Henry Grindlay, of the Bengal Cavalry,—little thought at that time the adviser or the advised how valuable was the suggestion!—my Eastern dress was called into requisition before leaving town, and all my "impedimenta "were taught to look exceedingly Oriental. Early the next day a "Persian Prince," accompanied by Captain Grindlay, embarked on board the Peninsular and Oriental Company's magnificent screw steamer "Bengal."

A fortnight was profitably spent in getting into the train of Oriental manners. For what polite Chesterfield says of the difference between a gentleman and his reverse,—namely, that both perform the same offices of life, but each in a several and widely different way—is notably as applicable to the manners of the Eastern as of the Western man. Look, for instance, at that Indian Moslem drinking a glass of water. With us the operation is simple enough, but his performance includes no fewer than five novelties. In the first place he clutches his tumbler as though it were the throat of a foe; secondly, he ejaculates, "In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful!" before wetting his lips; thirdly, he imbibes the contents, swallowing them, not sipping them as he ought to do, and ending with a satisfied grunt; fourthly, before setting down the cup, he sighs forth, "Praise be to Allah!"— of which you will understand the full meaning in the Desert; and, fifthly, he replies, "May Allah make it pleasant to thee!" in answer to his friend's polite "Pleasurably and health!" Also he is careful to avoid the irreligious action of drinking the pure element in a standing position, mindful, however, of the three recognised exceptions, the fluid of the Holy Well Zemzem, water distributed in charity, and that which remains after Wuzu, the lesser ablution. Moreover, in Europe, where both extremities are used indiscriminately, one forgets the exclusive use of the right hand, the manipulation of the rosary, the abuse of the chair,—your genuine Oriental gathers up his legs, looking almost as comfortable in it as a sailor upon the back of a high-trotting horse—the rolling gait with the toes straight to the front, the grave look and the habit of pious ejaculations.

Our voyage over the "summer sea" was eventless. In a steamer of two or three thousand tons you discover the once dreaded, now contemptible, "stormy waters" only by the band—a standing nuisance be it remarked— performing

"There we lay
All the day,
In the Bay of Biscay, O!"

The sight of glorious Trafalgar excites none of the sentiments with which a tedious sail used to invest it. "Gib "is, probably, better known to you, by Théophile Gautier and Eliot Warburton, than the regions about Cornhill; besides which, you anchor under the Rock exactly long enough to land and to breakfast. Malta, too, wears an old familiar face, which bids you order a dinner and superintend the iceing of claret (beginning of Oriental barbarism), instead of galloping about on donkey-back through fiery air in memory of St. Paul and White-Cross Knights. But though our journey might be called monotonous, there was nothing to complain of. The ship was in every way comfortable; the cook, strange to say, was good, and the voyage lasted long enough, and not too long. On the evening of the thirteenth day after our start, the big-trowsered pilot, so lovely in his deformities to western eyes, made his appearance, and the good screw "Bengal" found herself at anchor off the Headland of Clay.

Having been invited to start from the house of a kind friend, John W. Larking, I disembarked with him, and rejoiced to see that by dint of a beard and a shaven head I had succeeded, like the Lord of Geesh, in "misleading the inquisitive spirit of the populace." The mingled herd of spectators before whom we passed in review on the landing-place, hearing an audible "Alhamdolillah" whispered "Muslim!" The infant population spared me the compliments usually addressed to hatted heads; and when a little boy, presuming that the occasion might possibly open the hand of generosity, looked in my face and exclaimed "Bakhshìsh," he obtained in reply a "Mafísh;" which convinced the bystanders that the sheep-skin covered a real sheep. We then mounted a carriage, fought our way through the donkeys, and in half an hour found ourselves, chibúk in mouth and coffee-cup in hand, seated on the dìwán of my friend Larking's hospitable home.

Wonderful was the contrast between the steamer and that villa on the Mahmudiyah canal! Startling the sudden change from presto to adagio life! In thirteen days we had passed from the clammy grey fog, that at-mosphere of industry which kept us at anchor off the Isle of Wight, through the loveliest air of the Inland Sea, whose sparkling blue and purple haze spread charms even on N. Africa's beldame features, and now we are sitting silent and still, listening to the monotonous melody of the East—the soft night-breeze wandering through starlit skies and tufted trees, with a voice of melancholy meaning.

And this is the Arab's Kayf. The savouring of animal existence; the passive enjoyment of mere sense; the pleasant languor, the dreamy tranquillity, the airy castle-building, which in Asia stand in lieu of the vigorous, intensive, passionate life of Europe. It is the result of a lively, impressible, excitable nature, and exquisite sensibility of nerve; it argues a facility for voluptuousness unknown to northern regions, where happiness is placed in the exertion of mental and physical powers; where Ernst ist das Leben; where niggard earth commands ceaseless sweat of face, and damp chill air demands perpetual excitement, exercise, or change, or adventure, or dissipation, for want of something better. In the East, man wants but rest and shade: upon the banks of a bubbling stream, or under the cool shelter of a perfumed tree, he is perfectly happy, smoking a pipe, or sipping a cup of coffee, or drinking a glass of sherbet, but above all things deranging body and mind as little as possible; the trouble of conversations, the displeasures of memory, and the vanity of thought being the most unpleasant interruptions to his Kayf. No wonder that "Kayf" is a word untranslatable in our mother-tongue I

"Laudabunt alii claram Rhodon aut Mytelenen."

Let others describe the once famous Capital of Egypt, this City of Misnomers, whose dry docks are ever wet, and whose marble fountain is eternally dry, whose "Cleopatra's Needle" is neither a needle nor Cleopatra's; whose "Pompey's Pillar" never had any earthly connection with Pompey; and whose Cleopatra's Baths are, according to veracious travellers, no baths at all. Yet it is a wonderful place, this "Libyan suburb "of our day, this outpost of civilisation planted upon the skirts of barbarism, this Osiris seated side by side with Typhon, his great old enemy. Still may be said of it, "it ever beareth something new;" and Alexandria, a threadbare subject in Bruce's time, is even yet, from its perpetual changes, a fit field for modern description.

The better to blind the inquisitive eyes of servants and visitors, my friend, Larking, lodged me in an outhouse, where I could revel in the utmost freedom of life and manners. And although some Armenian Dragoman, a restless spy like all his race, occasionally remarked voilá un Persan diablement dégagé, none, except those who were entrusted with the secret, had any idea of the part I was playing. The domestics, devout Moslems, pronounced me an 'Ajami, a kind of Mohammedan, not a good one like themselves, but, still better than nothing. I lost no time in securing the assistance of a Shaykh, and plunged once more into the intricacies of the Faith; revived my recollections of religious ablutions, read the Koran, and again became an adept in the art of prostration. My leisure hours were employed in visiting the baths and coffee-houses, in attending the bazars, and in shopping,—an operation which hereabouts consists of sitting upon a chapman's counter, smoking, sipping coffee, and telling your beads the while, to show that you are not of the slaves for whom time is made; in fact, in pitting your patience against that of your adversary, the vendor. I found time for a short excursion to a country village on the banks of the canal; nor was an opportunity of seeing "Al-nahl," the "Bee-dance," neglected, for it would be some months before my eyes might dwell on such a pleasant spectacle again.

"Delicias videam, Nile jocose, tuas!"

Careful of graver matters, I attended the mosque, and visited the venerable localities in which modern Alexandria abounds. Pilgrimaging Moslems are here shown the tomb of Alnabi Daniyal (Daniel the Prophet), discovered upon a spot where the late Sultan Mahmúd dreamed that he saw an ancient man at prayer. Sikandar al-Rumi, the Moslem Alexander the Great, of course left his bones in the place bearing his name, or, as he ought to have done so, bones have been found for him. Alexandria also boasts of two celebrated Walís—holy men. One is Mohammed al-Busiri, the author of a poem called Al- Burdah, universally read by the world of Islam, and locally recited at funerals and on other solemn occasions. The other is Abu Abbas al-Andalúsi, a sage and saint of the first water, at whose tomb prayer is never breathed in vain.

It is not to be supposed that the people of Alexandria could look upon my phials and pill- boxes without a yearning for their contents. An Indian doctor, too, was a novelty to them; Franks they despised,—but a man who had come so far from East and West! Then there was something infinitely seducing in the character of a magician, doctor, and fakir, each admirable of itself, thus combined to make "great medicine." Men, women, and children besieged my door, by which means I could see the people face to face, and especially the fair sex, of which Europeans, generally speaking, know only the worst specimens. Even respectable natives, after witnessing a performance of "Mandal" and the Magic mirror, opined that the stranger was a holy man, gifted with supernatural powers, and knowing everything. One old person sent to offer me his daughter in marriage; he said nothing about dowry,—but I thought proper to decline the honour. And a middle-aged lady proffered me the sum of one hundred piastres, nearly one pound sterling, if I would stay at Alexandria, and superintend the restoration of her blind left eye.


Excerpted from Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah by Richard F. Burton, Isabel Burton. Copyright © 1964 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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