Saturday, 8 October 2011

Burckhardt's account of Mecca

A somewhat critical account of premodern Mecca from Travels in Arabia by John Lewis Burckhardt (1829).

"I arrived at Mekka about mid-day, when my companions went in search of their acquaintance among the soldiers, and left me to shift for myself, without knowing a single individual in the town, and without being recommended to any body but the Kadhy, whom, as I have already said, I wished to avoid.

Whoever enters Mekka, whether pilgrim or not, is enjoined by the law to visit the Temple immediately, and not to attend to any worldly concern whatever, before he has done so. We crossed the line of shops and houses, up to the gates of the mosque, where my ass-driver took his fare and set me down; here I was accosted by half a dozen metowef, or guides to the holy places, who knew, from my being dressed in the ihram, that I intended to visit the Kaaba. I chose one of them as my guide, and, after having deposited my baggage in a neighbouring shop, entered the mosque at the gate called Bab-es'-Salani, by which the new-comer is recommended to enter. The ceremonies to be performed in visiting the mosque are the following:— 1. Certain religious rites to be practised in the interior of the temple; 2. The walk between Szafa and Meroua; 3. The visit to the Omra. These ceremonies ought to be repeated by every Moslem whenever he enters Mekka from a journey farther than two days' distance, and they must again be more particularly performed at the time of the pilgrimage to Arafat. I shall here describe them as briefly as possible; a full detail and explanation of the Mohammedan law on this subject would be extremely tedious; indeed there exist many voluminous works in Arabic which treat of nothing else.

1 . Rites to be performed in the Interior of the Temple.

At the entrance, under the colonnade, some prayers are recited on first sight of the Kaaba, and then two rikats, or four prostrations addressed to the divinity, in thanks for having reached the holy spot, and in salutation of the mosque itself; after which the pilgrim approaches the Kaaba by one of the paved ways to it, through the open area in which it stands. In passing under the insulated arch in front of the Kaaba, called Bab-es'-Salam, certain prayers are said. Other prayers are recited in a low voice, and the visitor then places himself opposite to the black stone of the Kaaba, and prays two rikats; at the conclusion of which, the stone is touched with the right hand, or kissed, if there is no great pressure of people. The devotee then begins the Towaf, or walk round the Kaaba, keeping that building on his left hand. This ceremony is to be repeated seven times; the three first are in a quick pace, in imitation of the Prophet, whose enemies having reported that he was dangerously ill, he contradicted them by running thrice round the Kaaba at full speed. Every circuit must be accompanied with prescribed prayers, which are recited in a low voice, and appropriated to the different parts of the building that are passed: the black stone is kissed or touched at the conclusion of each circuit, as well as another stone, walled in at one corner of the black stone. When the seven circuits are finished, the visiter approaches the wall of the Kaaba, between the black stone and the door of the building, which space is called El Metzem. There, with widely outstretched arms, and with his breast closely pressed against the wall, he beseeches the Lord to pardon his sins. He then retires towards the neighbouring Mekam Ibrahim, and there prays two rikats, called Sunnet-et-towaf, after which he repairs to the adjoining well of Zemzem; and, after a short pious address in honour of the well, drinks as much of the water as he wishes, or as he can on occasions when the crowd is very great; and this completes the ceremonies to be observed within the temple....

Having completed the fatiguing ceremonies of the Towaf and Say, I had a part of my head shaved, and remained sitting in the barber's shop, not knowing any other place of repose. I inquired after lodgings, but learned that the town was already full of pilgrims, and that many others, who were expected, had engaged apartments. After some time, however, I found a man who offered me a ready-furnished room: of this I took possession, and having no servant, boarded with the owner. He and his family, consisting of a wife and two children, retired into a small, open court-yard, on the side of my room. The landlord was a poor man from Medina, and by profession a Metowa or cicerone. Although his mode of living was much below that of even the second class of Mekkawys, yet it cost me fifteen piastres a day; and I found, after we parted, that several articles of dress had been pilfered from my travelling sack; but this was not all: on the feast-day he invited me to a splendid supper, in company with half a dozen of his friends, in my room, and on the following morning he presented me with a bill for the whole expense of this entertainment....

About the middle of October I returned to Mekka, accompanied by a slave whom I had purchased.... I took with me a camel-load of provisions, mostly flour, biscuit, and butter, procured in Djidda at one third of the price demanded at Mekka, where, immediately on my arrival, I hired decent apartments in a quarter of the town not much frequented, called Haret el Mesfale. I had here the advantage of several large trees growing before my windows, the verdure of which, among the barren and sun-burnt rocks of Mekka, was to me more exhilarating than the finest landscape could have been under different circumstances. At this place I enjoyed an enviable freedom and independence, known only to the Kadhy and his followers, who soon after took their departure. The Pasha and his court remained at Tayf till the days of the Hadj. I frequented only such society as pleased me, and, mixing with a crowd of foreign pilgrims from all parts of the world, I was not liable to impertinent remarks or disagreeable inquiries. If any question arose about my origin (a circumstance that rarely happened in a place which always abounds with strangers), I stated myself to be a reduced member of the Mamelouk corps of Egypt, and found it easy to avoid those persons whose intimate knowledge of that country might perhaps have enabled them to detect the falsehood. But there was little to be apprehended even from the consequences of such detection; for the assumption of a false character is frequent among all eastern travellers, and especially at Mekka, where every one affects poverty in order to escape imposition, or being led into great expenses. During all my journies in the East, I never enjoyed such perfect ease as at Mekka; and I shall always retain a pleasing recollection of my residence there....

Mekka may be styled a handsome town: its streets are in general broader than those of eastern cities; the houses lofty, and built of stone.... Mekka (like Djidda) contains many houses three stories high; few at Mekka are white-washed; but the dark grey colour of the stone is much preferable to the glaring white that offends the eye in Djidda. In most towns of the Levant the narrowness of a street contributes to its coolness; and in countries where wheel-carriages are not used, a space that allows two loaded camels to pass each other is deemed sufficient. At Mekka, however, it was necessary to leave the passages wide, for the innumerable visitors who here crowd together; and it is in the houses adapted for the reception of pilgrims and other sojourners, that the windows are so contrived as to command a view of the streets....

Where the valley is wider than in other interior parts of the town, stands the mosque, called Beitullah, or El Haram, a building remarkable only on account of the Kaaba, which it encloses; for there are several mosques in other places of the East nearly equal to this in size, and much superior to it in beauty.

The Kaaba stands in an oblong square, two hundred and fifty paces long, and two hundred broad, none of the sides of which run quite in a straight line, though at first sight the whole appears to be of a regular shape. This open square is enclosed on the eastern side by a colonnade: the pillars stand in a quadruple row: they are three deep on the other sides, and united by pointed arches, every four of which support a small dome, plastered and whitened on the outside. These domes, according to Kotobeddyn, are one hundred and fifty-two in number....

This temple has been so often ruined and repaired, that no traces of remote antiquity are to be found about it. On the inside of the great wall which encloses the colonnades, a single Arabic inscription is seen, in large characters, but containing merely the names of Mohammed and his immediate successors: Abou Beker, Omar, Othman, and Aly. The name of Allah, in large characters, occurs also in several places. On the outside, over the gates, are long inscriptions, in the Solouth character, commemorating the names of those by whom the gates were built, long and minute details of which are given by the historians of Mekka. The inscription on the south side, over Bab Ibrahim, is most conspicuous; all that side was rebuilt by the Egyptian Sultan El Ghoury, in A. H. 906. Over the Bab Aly and Bab Abbas is a long inscription, also in the Solouth character, placed there by Sultan Murad Ibn Soleyman in A. H. 984, after he had repaired the whole building. Kotobeddyn has given this inscription at length; it occupies several pages in his history, and is a monument of the Sultan's vanity. This side of the mosque having escaped destruction in 1626, the inscription remains uninjured.

Some parts of the walls and arches are gaudily painted, in stripes of yellow, red, and blue, as are also the minarets. Paintings of flowers, in the usual Muselman style, are no where seen; the floors of the colonnades are paved with large stones badly cemented together.

Seven paved causeways lead from the colonnades towards the Kaaba, or holy house, in the centre. They are of sufficient breadth to admit four or five persons to walk abreast, and they are elevated about nine inches above the ground. Between these causeways, which are covered with fine gravel or sand, grass appears growing in several places, produced by the Zemzem water oozing out of the jars, which are placed in the ground in long rows during the day. The whole area of the mosque is upon a lower level than any of the streets surrounding it. There is a descent of eight or ten steps from the gates on the north side into the platform of the colonnade, and of three or four steps from the gates, on the south side.

Towards the middle of this area stands the Kaaba; it is one hundred and fifteen paces from the north colonnade, and eighty-eight from the south. For this want of symmetry we may readily account, the Kaaba having existed prior to the mosque, which was built around it, and enlarged at different periods. The Kaaba is an oblong massive structure, eighteen paces in length, fourteen in breadth, and from thirty-five to forty feet in height.... It is constructed of the grey Mekka stone, in large blocks of different sizes, joined together in a very tough manner, and with bad cement. It was entirely rebuilt as it now stands in A. D. 1627: the torrent, in the preceding year, had thrown down three of its sides; and preparatory to its re-erection, the fourth side was, according to Asamy, pulled down, after the olemas, or learned divines, had been consulted on the question, whether mortals might be permitted to destroy any part of the holy edifice without incurring the charge of sacrilege and infidelity....

The only public place in the body of the town is the ample square of the great mosque; no trees or gardens cheer the eye; and the scene is enlivened only during the Hadj by the great number of well-stored shops which are found in every quarter. Except four or five large houses belonging to the Sherif, two medreses or colleges (now converted into corn magazines), and the mosque, with some buildings and schools attached to it, Mekka cannot boast of any public edifices, and in this respect is, perhaps, more deficient than any other eastern city of the same size. Neither khans, for the accommodation of travellers, or for the deposit of merchandize, nor palaces of grandees, nor mosques, which adorn every quarter of other towns in the East, are here to be seen; and we may perhaps attribute this want of splendid buildings to the veneration which its inhabitants entertain for their temple; this prevents them from constructing any edifice which might possibly pretend to rival it.

The inhabitants of Mekka may be all styled foreigners, or the offspring of foreigners, except a few Hedjaz Bedouins, or their descendants, who have settled here. The ancient tribe of Koreysh, which was divided into a wandering and a settled branch, is almost extinct.... In every hadj some of the pilgrims remain behind: the Mohammedan, whenever resident for any time in a town, takes a wife, and is thus often induced to settle permanently on the spot. Hence most of the Mekkawys are descendants of foreigners from distant parts of the globe, who have adopted Arabian manners, and, by intermarrying, have produced a race which can no longer be distinguished from the indigenous Arabians. On questioning shopkeepers, merchants, olemas, metowafs, and indeed people of every description, they are found to be the sons, grandsons, or descendants of foreigners. The most numerous are those whose fathers came from Yemen and Hadramaut; next to them in numbers are the descendants of Indians, Egyptians, Syrians, Mogrebyns, and Turks. There are also Mekkawys of Persian origin; Tatars, Bokhars, Kurds, Afghans; in short, of almost every Mohammedan country in the world. The Mekkawy is careful in preserving, by tradition, the knowledge of his original country. My metowaf or guide traced his descent to an Usbek Tatar, from the neighbourhood of Bokhara, and whenever any hadjys arrived from that quarter, he never failed to recommend himself as their guide, though entirely ignorant of their language....

Though a mixed population, the inhabitants of Mekka wear the same sort of dress, and have the same customs; and although of different origin, they seem to be much less tenacious of their national costume and manners in this holy city than any where else. In Syria and Egypt, strangers from all parts of Asia retain with the greatest strictness the dress and mode of living of their native countries, though established for life in their new abodes; a circumstance which renders the view of an eastern bazar infinitely more interesting than any large assemblage of people in Europe. In the Hedjaz, on the contrary, most of the foreign visitors change their native costume for that of the people of the country; and their children born there are brought up and clothed in the fashion of the Mekkawys....

There are few families at Mekka, in moderate circumstances, that do not keep slaves. Mohammed found the African slave-trade so firmly established in Arabia, that he made no effort to abolish it; and thus he has confirmed, and extended throughout Northern Africa, this traffic, with all its attendant cruelties, besides those which have followed the propagation of Islam. The male and female servants are negroes, or noubas, usually brought from Sowakin: the concubines are always Abyssinian slaves. No wealthy Mekkawy prefers domestic peace to the gratification of his passions; they all keep mistresses in common with their lawful wives: but if a slave gives birth to a child, the master generally marries her, or, if he fails to do so, is censured by the community. The keeping of Abyssinian concubines is still more prevalent at Djidda. Many Mekkawys have no other than Abyssinian wives, finding the Arabians more expensive, and less disposed to yield to the will of the husband. The same practice is adopted by many foreigners, who reside in the Hedjaz for a short time. Upon their arrival, they buy a female companion, with the design of selling her at their departure; but sometimes their stay is protracted; the slave bears a child; they marry her, and become stationary in the town. There are very few men unmarried, or without a slave....

It will naturally be supposed that Mekka is a rich town: it would be still more so, if the lower classes did not so rapidly spend their gains in personal indulgences. The wholesale merchants are rich....

The idlest, most impudent, and vilest individuals of Mekka adopt the profession of guides... and as there is no want of those qualities, and a sufficient demand for guides during the Hadj, they are very numerous....

From trade, stipends, and the profits afforded by hadjys, the riches which annually flow into Mekka are very considerable, and might have rendered it one of the richest cities in the East, were it not for the dissolute habits of its inhabitants. With the exception of the first class of merchants, who, though they keep splendid establishments, generally live below their income, and a great part of the second class, who hoard up money with the view of attaining the first rank, the generality of Mekkawys, of all descriptions and professions, are loose and disorderly spendthrifts. The great gains which they make during three or four months, are squandered in good living, dress, and the grossest gratifications; and in proportion as they feel assured of the profits of the following year, they care little about saving any part of those of the present. In the month of Moharram, as soon as the Hadj is over, and the greater part of the pilgrims have departed, it is customary to celebrate marriage and circumcision feasts. These are celebrated at Mekka in a very splendid style; and a man that has not more than three hundred dollars to spends in the year, will then throw away half that sum in the marriage or the circumcision of his child. Neither the sanctity of the holy city, nor the solemn injunctions of the Koran are able to deter the inhabitants of Mekka from the using of spirituous liquors, and indulging in all the excesses which are the usual consequences of drunkenness....

The Mekkawys are very expensive in their houses: the rooms are embellished with fine carpets, and an abundance of cushions and sofas covered with brocade: amidst the furniture is seen much beautiful china-ware, and several nargiles adorned with silver. A petty shopkeeper would be ashamed to receive his acquaintances in a house less splendidly fitted up. Their tables also are better supplied than in any other country of the East, where even respectable families live economically in this respect. A Mekkawy, even of the lower class, must have daily on his table meat which costs from one and a half to two piastres the pound; his coffee-pot is never removed from the fire; and himself his women and children are almost constantly using the nargile, and the tobacco which supplies it cannot be a very trifling expense....

The inhabitants of Mekka, Djidda, and (in a less degree) of Medina, are generally of a more lively disposition than either the Syrians or Egyptians....

The character of the Mekkawy resembles, in this respect, that of the Bedouin; and did not greediness of gain often distort their features, the smile of mirth would always be on their lips. In the streets and bazars, in the house, and even in the mosque, the Mekkawy loves to laugh and joke. In dealing with each other, or in talking on grave subjects, a proverb, a pun, or some witty allusion, is often introduced, and produces laughter. As the Mekkawys possess, with this vivacity of temper, much intellect, sagacity, and great suavity of manners, which they well know how to reconcile with their innate pride, their conversation is very agreeable; and whoever cultivates a mere superficial acquaintance with them, seldom fails to be delighted with their character. They are more polite towards each other, as well towards strangers, than the inhabitants of Syria and Egypt, and retain something of the good-natured disposition of the Bedouins, from whom they derive their origin. When they accost each other in the streets for the first time in the course of the day, the young man kisses the elder's hand, or the inferior that of his superior in rank, while the latter returns the salute by a kiss upon the forehead. Individuals of equal rank and age, not of the first class, mutually kiss each other's hands. They say to a stranger, "O faithful," or "brother;" and the saying of the prophet, "that all faithful are brethren," is constantly upon their lips. "Welcome, a thousand times welcome," says a shopkeeper to his foreign customer; "you are the Stranger of God, the guest of the holy city; my whole property is at your disposal."... If in the mosque a foreigner is exposed to the sun, the Mekkawy will make room for him in a shady place; if he passes a coffee-shop, he will hear voices calling him to enter and take a cup of coffee; if a Mekkawy takes a jar to drink from any public water-seller, he will offer it, before he sets it to his mouth, to any passenger; and upon the slightest acquaintance, he will say to his new friend, "When will you honour me at home, and take your supper with me?"...

The Mekkawys believe that their city, with all the inhabitants, is under the especial care of Providence, and that they are so far favoured above all other nations. "This is Mekka! this is the city of God!" they exclaim, when any surprise is expressed at the greater part of them having remained in the town during the stagnation of trade and the absence of pilgrims: "None ever wants his daily bread here; none fears here the incursion of enemies."...

The exterior politeness of the people of Mekka is in the same proportion to their sincerity, as are their professions of zealous faith and adherence to their religion, with the observance of its precepts. Many of them, especially those who have no particular interest in imposing upon the hadjys by an appearance of extreme strictness, are very relaxed in observing the forms of their religion, thinking it quite sufficient to be Mekkawys, and to utter pious ejaculations in public, or supposing that the rigid practice of its precepts is more particularly incumbent upon foreign visitors, who see Mekka only once in their life. Like the Bedouins, many of them are either very irregular in their prayers, or do not pray at all. During the Friday's prayers, which every Moslim resident in a town is bound to attend, the mosque is filled chiefly with strangers, while many of the people of Mekka are seen smoking in their shops. After the pilgrims have left the town, the service in the mosque is very thinly attended. They never distribute alms, excusing themselves by saying that they were placed by Providence in this town to receive charity, and not to bestow it. They ape the manners recorded of Mohammed, but in his most trifling habits only: their mustachios are cut short, and their beard kept regularly under the scissors, because it was the prophet's custom to do so.... They know by heart many passages of the Koran and Hadyth, (or sacred traditions,) and allude to or quote them every moment; but they forget that these precepts were given for rules of conduct, and not for mere repetition. Intoxicating liquors are sold at the very gates of the mosque.... It is also a transgression against the law, when the intoxicating hashysh is openly smoked: cards are played in almost every Arab coffee-house, (they use small Chinese cards,) though the Koran directly forbids games of hazard. The open protection afforded by the government to persons both male and female of the most profligate character, is a further encouragement to daily transgressions against the rigid principles of the Mohammedan law. Cheating and false swearing have ceased to be crimes among them. They are fully conscious of the scandal of these vices: every delyl exclaims against the corruption of manners, but none set an example of reformation...."