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Volume 15, Number 1January/February 1964

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Mecca Winter Caravan

For a three-mile-long string of treasure-laden camels to pass safely across lonely stretches of desertland, every caravanee had to know his job.

Zayd, the caravan guide, already riding swift as the wind, strained and goaded his steed for every last ounce of effort. The safety of the annual Mecca-to-Damascus caravan, worth nearly a million dollars, was at stake.

Assigned to scout the territory along the highway, Zayd had just found unmistakable evidence that a band of desert brigands was planning to halt and plunder the rich cargoes as the caravan neared the el-Dakar oasis in the late afternoon. Within minutes he reached a rise in the road where he could see the advance guard riding two miles in front of the plodding caravan, which stretched along the vulnerable trail for over three miles.

Who were these desert travelers Zayd sought to warn, and why was it so urgent that he not fail in his mission?

Since the introduction of the camel to Arabia about 1000 B.C., the Arab economy had increasingly emphasized commerce with distant nations and cities. Located at the crossroads of routes between Syria and Yemen, Abyssinia and Mesopotamia, Mecca became the most important Arab city as the demands of the Hellenistic and Roman world expanded. In spite of the rise and fall of many empires, Mecca's overland caravan trade continued to thrive with few exceptions until modern times.

Trade between Mecca and Europe entered one of its most prosperous periods after Emperor Justinian restored order to the Byzantine Empire with his famous legal code of 534 A.D. So eagerly, in fact, did the European traders seek the gold, silver, ivory, spices, perfumes, dates, and Chinese silk offered by the Arab merchants that by 600 A.D. the annual caravan to Byzantine Damascus was Mecca's biggest business. The economic well-being of the entire Meccan community hinged directly on the accuracy and timeliness of Zayd's warning.

Everyone in Mecca, rich and poor alike, invested in the lucrative caravan trade. All the merchants formed themselves into an association, pooled their capital to equip the caravans, and then shared proportionately in the returns. A 50 per cent return was guaranteed on all investments, since the caravan profits normally ranged between that figure and 100 per cent.

A single prominent family acted as bankers for the association, receiving deposits from interested parties, and then administering the funds as economically as possible. Even the poorest families from the small-tenant and shop-keeping classes saved every available dinar in order to have a share in the venture.

These ancient desert caravans were not small affairs with forty or fifty, or even a hundred camels. Major caravans from Mecca generally required from 2,000 to 3,000 camels, and called for a capital investment in the neighborhood of $450,000. Accompanied by several hundred armed guards, a caravan of this great size afforded maximum security and minimized the individual expenses of each merchant.

Two of these large caravans were launched each year: one went to Abyssinia during the summer, and the other carried goods from Mecca to Damascus during the winter, when rainfall was more frequent in the Syrian interior.

In spite of the guards and the size of the convoy, how could a merchant be sure his goods would not be stolen or destroyed by brigands operating in the remote desert? An ingenious insurance system placed a single leader from a well-to-do and highly respected family in charge of the shipment. This family was required to repay merchants for any property lost, damaged, or stolen en route.

For this reason, the caravan leader had absolute control over the conduct of the voyage and sole responsibility for its safety. He was usually a man of great personal integrity who was feared and respected by everyone. Naturally, he delegated many responsibilities to lesser officials.

Next to the leader in importance was the caravan's official guide (the daleel, a word still used today). Zayd's intense watch for robbers illustrates the guide's principal concern. But he also acted as interpreter and arranged the details of the itinerary, including the length of each day's march and the nightly encampments. It was particularly important to keep the caravan within three or four days' travel of a sizable watering place. During periods of political or military unrest, the guides acted as spies.

Such intimate knowledge of desert landmarks was required that the position of guide took on the status of a highly regarded profession. As soon as he was old enough, the guide's son began making the trip from Mecca with his father as an apprentice so that the information could be passed on directly from generation to generation.

The couriers were called basheers when they carried good news, nadeers when the news was bad. The nadeer raced to the nearest town for aid when the caravan was in danger. He could be recognized from afar by his reversed saddle and torn garments.

The basheer, on the other hand, heralded the safe arrival of the caravan in the few towns along the route. Greeting the caravan was a public event which generated holiday excitement as large crowds gathered in the market place.

Many of the camel drivers owned their own camels (like some American truck drivers), and contracted directly with the merchants.

Once beyond the friendly regions surrounding Mecca, the caravan settled into a time-honored routine. The leader and his immediate staff rode ahead of the convoy as a sort, of advance guard. A large banner carried in front indicated all was well as long as it remained furled.

After a normal day's journey of 30 to 40 miles, a carefully arranged encampment was made for the night. The camp was grouped in a circle or square around the tents of the leader and his staff. The boxes of merchandise were unloaded and stacked around the edge to make a low wall in case of attack. After supper, the leader held a court session, if necessary, to deal with matters of justice that had arisen during the day. Since the safety of all depended on strict discipline, the orders of the caravan court were carried out with dispatch.

To help insure the safety of the Meccan cargo in each part of the trip, the leader negotiated protection contracts with local Bedouin tribes. Large subsidies were paid for guarantees of immunity from all kinds of disturbance and attack. Not only were transit tolls collected at many points, but the use of a fine well or pasture carried a worthy price.

The nomads, in return, desired to spend part of their income on the caravan's goods. Each year some of the camels were laden in Mecca with goods to be sold along the route. These goods were opened and displayed wherever the caravan stopped to encourage safe and legitimate business with the nomads.

But Zayd's caravan faces armed nomads intent on plundering. How can the three-mile-long convoy defend itself on the open desert?

Zayd's warning to the caravan leader causes immediate mobilization for the pitched battle which is only an hour or two away. The caravan shifts into a close march and increases its normal rate of 2.5 miles per hour in hopes of reaching the oasis before stopping.

When the battle becomes inevitable, the caravan quickly turns itself into a formidable, armed fortress. The camels crouch down behind a stout rampart four to five feet high, formed from the bales of cargo. Not only the armed guards but everyone in the caravan fights valiantly for the common defense. Whatever their individual differences, the men of a desert caravan stand united in a fierce loyalty and brotherhood that is binding unto death. When the attackers are repulsed and sent reeling back into the desert, the caravan marches on.

In time, the skill and swiftness of such guards as Zayd made it extremely unprofitable to attempt any thievery from the annual caravans from Mecca. One can almost visualize the serene yet cautious look on the face of the guide as he rides the crest of a hill overlooking the oasis, satisfied in the knowledge that the men and goods in his care are, at least for the moment, safe to continue their journey to the market place of Damascus.

This article appeared on pages 10-12 of the January/February 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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