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Volume 25, Number 6November/December 1974

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Caravans To Mecca

"Forty easie days journey it is distant from hence: divided by a wilderness of sand, that lyeth in drifts, and dangerously moveth with the wind..."

Written by Paul Lunde
Illustrated by Tawfiq Tariq
Additional photographs by Burnett H. Moody and Khalil Abou El Nasr

Until the 19th century there were three main caravans to Mecca. The Egyptian caravan set out from Cairo, crossed the Sinai Peninsula and then followed the coastal plain of western Arabia to Mecca, a journey which took from 35 to 40 days. It included pilgrims from North Africa, who crossed the deserts of Libya and joined the caravan in Cairo. The other great caravan assembled in Damascus, Syria, and moved south via Medina, reaching Mecca in about 30 days. After the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, this caravan began in Istanbul, gathered pilgrims from throughout Asia Minor along the way, and then proceeded to Mecca from Damascus. The third major caravan crossed the Peninsula from Baghdad.

The caravans were highly organized. An official, called Amir al-Hajj , was responsible for the safety of the pilgrims. He had a troop of soldiers under his command, as well as a phalanx of officials. The caravan was organized like a moving city, with the amir, a judge, two notaries, a secretary and an official charged with the care of the animals, another in charge of provisions, a saddler, a chef with a staff of cooks, and even an inspector of weights and measures. The caravans usually marched at night in order to avoid the heat of the sun, and pitched camp near wells where they could, posting sentries to guard against attack by bandits. Each watering place along the route was provided with a small fortress and a rest house. The pilgrims were grouped in the caravan according to their point of origin—all pilgrims from the same town traveled together—and maintained the same position in the line of march.

From the 13th century on, the Egyptian and Syrian caravans were each accompanied by a Mahmal, a kind of wooden litter, sumptuously decorated, that contained a copy of the Koran. The Mahmal itself was a symbol of political sovereignity over the holy places of Islam, the Koran inside symbolizing the unity of the religious and secular authorities of Islam. For centuries the Egyptian caravan also bore with it, each year, the new Kiswah or draping for the Ka'bah, but this is now prepared in Mecca itself (see p. 6).

Some of the medieval caravans were very elaborate. Arab historians have preserved the memory of a pilgrimage made by Harun al-Rashid and his wife Zubaydah. They are said to have walked all the way from Baghdad to Mecca wearing the Ihram. Rest houses were specially built for them at each stopping place, and the track upon which they walked was covered with carpets.

Ibn Jubayr, a famous traveler during the time of the Crusades, describes the encampment of the Amir of Iraq on the Plain of 'Arafat as follows:

"The encampment of this Amir of Iraq was beautiful to look upon and superbly provided, with large handsome tents ... and wonderful pavilions and awnings, for it was surrounded by a linen screen like a wall, in form a sort of closed-in garden or an ornamental building. Within this were the pitched pavilions, all black on a white background and dappled and variegated as if they were flowers in a garden. ... In these wall-like screens were tall doors, like those of lofty castles, through which one entered into vestibules and mazes ... It is as if this Amir lives in a walled city that moves when he moves and settles when he settles."

One of the-most spectacular pilgrimages ever made was certainly that of Mansa Musa, the King of Mali. In 1324 he set off across the Sahara with 500 servitors, each carrying a golden staff weighing six pounds. He was followed by 100 camels, each carrying a load of gold weighing 300 pounds. Mansa Musa was truly pious and very generous—so much so that 12 years after his stay in Cairo, the price of gold had still not recovered. He distributed the bulk of his fortune in charity in Mecca and Medina, returning home practically a pauper, but having assured himself of the praises of posterity.

The return of the pilgrims from Mecca each year was anxiously awaited by their loved ones, and celebrated with great pomp by the citizens of Cairo and Damascus. George Sandys, the remarkable 17th-century poet, traveler and eventual member of the government of Virginia, left a unique description of the return of the Egyptian caravan in 1610, when he was touring Cairo:

"During our aboad here, a Caravan went forth with much solemnity to meet and relieve the Great Caravan in their return from Mecha; which consisteth of many thousands of Pilgrims that travell yearly thither in devotion ... every one with his ban-roll (bedding) in his hand: and their Camels gallantly trickt (decorated)—the Alcoran-carried upon one in a precious case covered over with needle-work, and laid on a rich pillow ... guarded by divers companies of souldiers, and certain field peeces. Forty easie (short marches) days journey it is distant from hence: divided by a wildemesse of sand, that lyeth in drifts, and dangerously moveth with the wind: thorow which they are guided in many places by stars, as ships in the Ocean."

In some areas, caravans continued to flourish through the end of the 19th century. One from Damascus, in whose train marched the famous Charles Doughty, counted 6,000 pilgrims and 10,000 camels. But in Cairo the end was in sight by mid-century. A sea route down the Red Sea, started when the Crusaders blocked the overland track from Cairo, had been luring some pilgrims away since the 12th century and with the introduction of fast, dependable steamships lit easily supplanted the overland route. The last major camel caravan set out from Cairo in 1883 with 1,170 pilgrims joining it.

In Syria and Asia Minor the end came with the construction of the Hijaz Railway, an 800-mile project designed to provide pilgrims with cheap fast transport as far as Medina, (Aramco World , September-October, 1967). The railway literally supplanted the caravans; the Turkish engineer surveying for the railroad simply followed a caravan from Damascus and mapped the route, reasoning with some justification that after all those centuries the caravan masters would certainly know the best way.

The Hijaz Railway—called the "Iron Camel" by Bedouins—was announced in 1900 by Sultan Abdul Hamid, started a few months later, finished in 1908 and virtually closed down 10 years later by the famous Lawrence of Arabia and his Bedouin raiders after the railway had begun to transport more soldiers than pilgrims. As Great Britain and France were not, in the Mandate period, anxious to promote any form of Arab unity, efforts to rebuild the railroad were quietly but effectively quashed. And when a commission to rebuild the railway excitedly reported in 1956 that reconstruction was feasible, it was too late. Improved roads—asphalted and lined with gasoline stations and food stores—air-conditioned buses, fast cars and booming air travel had made the railroad superfluous. Although a contract was eventually let, no substantial work has been done and immediate reconstruction now seems unlikely.

— P. L.

This article appeared on pages 8-11 of the November/December 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1974 images.