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Volume 31, Number 3May/June 1980

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A Journey to Hail

Written by Zahra Freeth and Victor Winstone

As the opening words of A Pilgrimage to Nejd suggest, Lady Anne Blunt, like many Victorians, was fascinated by the East. "It is strange," she writes, "how gloomy thoughts vanish once one sets foot in Asia."

By "Asia," however, Lady Anne meant what is today called the Arab East - where, just over 100 years ago, she became the first Western woman ever to penetrate as far as Hail, in today's Saudi Arabia, then the capital of the region called Najd.

The daughter of the Earl of Lovelace - and the granddaughter of Lord Byron - Lady Anne Blunt first went to "Asia" - that is, to the Levant - in 1873 after her husband had retired from Britain's diplomatic corps. As both she and her husband, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, a fierce opponent of Victorian imperialism and a poet, were instantly captivated, they began to study Arabic and in 1878 went on an expedition to the Euphrates. The point of the trip was to buy Arab horses - which they shipped back to their estate in Sussex - but while at Palmyra (Tadmor) they met Muhammad ibn Aruk, son of the shaikh of Palmyra, who was about to set out for Jauf in Najd to find a wife.

To the Blunts, who shared a passionate interest in horses, this seemed like a splendid chance to see the famed horses of Ibn Rashid - then the ruler in Najd - and perhaps explore the great central deserts of Arabia, still largely unknown to the West. Except for Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (See Aramco World, November-December 1974 and September-October 1967) Richard Burton and two or three other Europeans, few Westerners had explored any part of Arabia, and fewer still had managed to reach the central regions. Indeed, William Palgrave's great account of his trip there was only 10 years old and Charles M. Doughty, whose book on the region would become a classic, had left Arabia only a few months before when the Blunts - having persuaded Muhammad to let them go with him - set out on a journey to Hail - the subject of one of the better books written by the Western explorers of Arabia.

Lady Anne's story is told in diary form—its narrative style admirably clear - and from it she emerges as anything but the traditional Victorian lady. To the contrary, she emerges as a cool, self-assured, strong-willed and totally unsentimental woman. When buying camels and stores for the journey, for example, Wilfrid, as one writer put it, was the Commander-in-Chief, but Anne was the Quartermaster-General.

These qualities emerged even more clearly when - on December 13,1878 - they set out for Arabia. Discarding her Victorian hat, she donned a kaffiya, threw a Bedouin cloak over her normal coat and, as the trip went on, calmly accepted all the unconventional food that came her way - from a young camel to locusts which their men collected and fried for her in Wadi Sirhan. "There was never anybody/' wrote her husband, "so courageous as she."

The Wadi Sirhan, however, had more in store for the Blunts than fried locusts: a Bedouin raid. This was not unexpected; raiding, 100 years ago, was common in the desert and the Blunts' party, rich in horses and provisions, was a natural target. Nevertheless, Lady Anne wrote, the attack caught them off guard - just as she and Wilfred had dismounted some distance from their escort. "As I scrambled round the bush to my mare I saw a troop of horsemen charging down at full gallop with their lances, not 200 yards off. There was no time to think and I had hardly struggled to my feet, when the enemy was upon us, and I was knocked down by a spear. They then all turned on Wilfrid. He fortunately had on very thick clothes,... so the lances did him no harm. Resistance seemed to me useless and I shouted to the nearest horseman the usual form of surrender."

At this point, the raiders paused for breath, and Muhammad declared that the Blunts were "Tranjis" (Europeans) and friends of Ibn Shaalan, the great chief of the Ruwala. Ibn Shaalan, Lady Anne explains, had been their host in the desert the previous year, and "was bound to protect us." Her assumptions, it turned out, were correct. As soon as the raiders learned that the Blunts knew Ibn Shaalan they began to make amends by returning the Blunts' horses and guns. "The young fellows who had taken the mares made rather wry faces, bitterly lamenting their bad fortune in finding us friends. Ah the beautiful mares,' they said, 'and the beautiful gun.'...

"Presently we were all on very good terms," Lady Anne says, "sitting in a circle on the sand, eating dates and passing round the pipe of peace." Anne's final verdict on their attackers is characteristic: "We liked the look of these young Ruwala. In spite of their rough behavior, we could see that they were gentlemen. They were very much ashamed of having used their spears against me... they only saw a person wearing a cloak, and never suspected but that it belonged to a man."

The adventure behind them, the Blunts again set out and a day later arrived at Jauf. They had covered the 190 miles from Kaf in eight days.

Now that they were among Muhammad's kinfolk, the matter of finding a wife for him became of immediate importance and Anne lost no time in sounding out the women of the family. It turned out that their host had a 15-year-old niece, who, Anne told Muhammad, was pretty, intelligent and amiable, and after three days of discussions and negotiations it was arranged that Muhammad would come and collect his bride in a year or two.

In between their match-making activities the Blunts had called on Johar, Ibn Rashid's governor in Jauf, and persuaded him to provide a guide across the desert called the Nafud to Hail.

Anne was excited at the prospect of seeing the Nafud. Although the established caravan route between Hail and the north held no mysteries for the Bedouins, the sheer size of the desert ahead presented real danger to the unprepared traveler. "We shall want all our strength for the next 10 days," wrote Anne on the eve of their departure. On January 12 they set out and at first, Anne's diary suggests, the journey was exhilarating. "We have been all day in the Nafud, which is interesting beyond our hopes, and charming into the bargain. It is, moreover, quite unlike the description I remember to have read of it by Mr. Palgrave, which affects one as a nightmare of impossible horror. It is true he passed it in summer, and we are now in mid-winter, but the physical features cannot be much changed by the change of seasons, and I cannot understand how he overlooked its main characteristics. The thing that strikes one first about the Nafud is its color. It is not white like the sand dunes we passed yesterday, nor yellow as the sand is in parts of the Egyptian desert, but a really bright red, almost crimson in the morning when it is wet with dew... It is however a great mistake to suppose it barren. The Nafud, on the contrary, is better wooded and richer in pasture than any part of the desert we have passed in leaving Damascus. It is tufted all over with ghada bushes, and bushes of another kind called yerta..."

Moving through the red dunes, the Blunts also observed a series of huge hollows, some a quarter of a mile across, which, to these two expert horsemen, suggested enormous hoof-marks. "These, though varying in size... are all precisely alike in shape and direction. They resemble very exactly the track of an unshod horse... the toe is sharply cut and perpendicular, while the rim of the hoof tapers gradually to nothing at the heel, the frog even being roughly represented by broken ground in the centre. "Today it is accepted that the uniform shape of the huge dunes which circle these horse hoof hollows (called falj  in Arabic) is due to wind-action. To the Blunts the answer did not seem immediately obvious. "Wilfrid... has not been able to decide whether they are owing to the action of wind or water or to the inequalities of the solid ground below. But at present he inclines to the theory of water."

They were also very pleased, Lady Anne says, with Radi, the guide provided by Jofar. "He is a curious little old man, as dry and black and withered as the dead stumps of theyerta bushes one sees here... He has his delul with him, an ancient bag of bones which looks as if it would never last through the journey, and on which he sits perched hour after hour in silence, pointing now and then with his shriveled hand towards the road we are to take."

When he did choose to speak, however, Radi told them hair-raising tales of travelers who had perished in the desert and backed up his stories with evidence: in nearly every hollow there were camel bones, and in one falj they saw the remains of a Ruwala party which had run out of water and failed to reach Shakik after raiding southwards 10 years before.

During the morning of January 16, the Blunts sighted the cheerful landmark of Aalam, the twin conical hills which reassure travelers that they are on the right line for Jubba, site of the next wells. "It was an immense relief to see them, for we had begun to distrust the sagacity of our guide on account of the tortuous line we followed." Still, Lady Anne goes on, "the next days were not easy. Three of the camels were showing signs of distress and one was incapable of carrying his pack. By the 19th two of the beasts could not stand under their loads; and a third was too exhausted to keep up." Wilfrid and Anne were the only ones who rode, though at times Wilfrid persuaded Hanna, the old cook, to mount his mare for a while.

But the end of the waterless crossing was at hand. That afternoon they reached the rocky hills outside Jubba, and with relief left the sand for hard ground. Just after sunset they arrived at the oasis itself. At the end of that day Anne admitted in her diary that she feared they would never make the crossing, "adding a new chapter to old Radi's tales of horror." By then too, they had another worry; thinking they would be the first self-confessed English Christians to reach the Jabal Shammar, they were worried by the unfriendliness of the Jubba people. They did not know that Doughty had preceded them to Hail; he had left Arabia not long before they started out, and the story of his travels had not yet reached them. Thus, as they headed toward Hail, the Blunts felt that all would depend on the attitude of Ibn Rashid.

"Without his countenance and protection, we should be running considerable risk in entering Hail," she wrote.

But Anne's brisk common sense soon reasserted itself. "Still, the die was cast. We had crossed our Rubicon, the Red Desert... There was nothing to be done but to put a good face on things and proceed on our way."

Meanwhile they were determined to enjoy the four days' ride which still lay before them. "There is something in the air of Najd which would exhilarate even a condemned man, and we were far from being condemned. "The high spirits of their companions returned and in the evenings as they sat around great bonfires of yerta their men competed in feats of skill.

During this time they discussed how they should introduce themselves to the amir of Hail, and concluded - with that astounding Victorian self-confidence - that they would "tell Ibn Rashid that we are persons of distinction in search of other persons of distinction." In words reminiscent of the Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon, Anne says they planned to tell Ibn Rashid that they had met all the great shaikhs of the north, and "each time we have been told that these were nothing in point of splendor to Hail, and that hearing this, and being on our way to Basra, we have crossed the Nafud to visit him..." And so it was settled.

Radi fully approved of the dignified attitude that they had decided upon, and promised that he would sing the Blunts' praises "below stairs" in the palace. Now, for the first time, he mentioned that a Franji had already been to Hail, and had gone away with money and clothes from Ibn Rashid. The Blunts, still unaware of Doughry's trip, were puzzled. "Who this can be we cannot imagine, for Mr. Palgrave was not known there as a European."

At last, on January 23, they reached Jabal Shammar, an event that obviously moved Lady Anne deeply. "The view in front of us was beautiful beyond description, a perfectly even plain sloping gradually upwards, out of which these rocks and tells cropped up like islands, and beyond it the violet-colored mountains... with a precipitous cliff which has been our landmark for several days towering over all. The outline of Jabal Shammar is strangely fantastic, running up to spires and domes and pinnacles, with here and there a loophole through which you can see the sky, or a wonderful boulder perched like a rocking-stone... It is like a dream to be sitting here, writing a journal on a rock in Jabal Shammar. When I remember how, years ago, I read that romantic account by Mr. Palgrave, which nobody believed, of an ideal state in the heart of Arabia... and how impossibly remote and unreal it all appeared; and how, later during our travels, we heard of Najd and Hail and this very Jabal Shammar, spoken of with a kind of awe by all who knew the name... I feel that we have achieved something which is not given to everyone to do..."

Early next morning they sent Radi ahead with letters to Ibn Rashid, for they were only a few miles from the capital. While feeling a certain nervousness, they sensibly prepared to create the right impression by putting on their best clothes and making their mares look smart. Soon they met Radi coming back, with a message that the amir would be delighted to receive them and that a guesthouse would be prepared for them. "Nothing more remained for us to do, than to present ourselves at the qasr." Which they did.

Their letters to Ibn Rashid had evidently struck the right note, for their reception in the square outside the castle was "everything we could have wished."They were met by 20 handsomely dressed palace guards, and Wilfrid's "Salaam alaikum" was cordially returned by a chorus of voices. Then the Blunts, with Muhammad ibn Aruk - after choosing his wife, he had accompanied them - were led to the great pillared coffee-room where Palgrave, Guarmani and Doughty had been received before them and after coffee finally met Muhammad ibn Rashid. He held out his hand to the three visitors in turn, exchanging the usual salutations with them in the most friendly way. "It was plain that we now had nothing to fear," says Anne.

It was also plain that Ibn Rashid impressed Anne."... clothed as he was in purple and fine linen, he looked every inch a king," she said, adding that the weapons he carried were of a quality to match his status. "He wore several golden-hilted daggers and a handsome golden-hilted sword, ornamented with turquoises and rubies."

This first meeting with Ibn Rashid lasted only a quarter of an hour but later they attended the morning majlis in the square and were taken down to sit with the amir as he dispensed justice. Of all the Europeans who have described this colorful occasion, none was more impressed than the Blunts. "We were quite dazzled by the spectacle which met our eyes." Anne counted 800 of the amir's soldiers lining the square and behind them was a great throng of pilgrims: Persians returning from the Hajj at Mecca, and enroute to Persia.

Later they toured the palace gardens and after passing through an orchard of orange and lemon trees, came finally to a stable-yard full of mares tethered in rows, each to a manger. "I was almost too excited to look," writes Anne, "for it was principally to see these that we had come so far." Altogether the Blunts saw about 40 mares, 8 stallions, and 30 or 40 foals, but on this occasion they were allowed only a brief look, and there was little time to ask questions. "We had seen enough, however, to make us very happy... There was no doubt whatever that these were Ibn Rashid's celebrated mares..."

During the following days Wilfrid and Ibn Aruk paid courtesy calls on the notables of the city, escorted always by a soldier from the palace, and, in the evening, visited the amir who, Anne writes, aroused conflicting reactions. "He has something of the spoiled child in his way of wandering on from one subject to another; and... of asking questions which he does not always wait to hear answered." But at these meetings she enjoyed hearing desert news of the Ruwala and the Shammar whom they had known in the north. Far from sitting back and letting the men talk, she took an active part in the discussions, a novel experience for Ibn Rashid, who had never met a European woman, let alone one so spirited and intelligent as Anne.

The Blunts also surprised their hosts with their knowledge of horses. As Lady Anne put it, "Our knowledge caused general astonishment." Since horses were the Blunts' major interest, Anne devotes a whole chapter to the subject, giving detailed descriptions of some of the finer animals in Ibn Rashid's stables. Because the horses in the palace yard were ungroomed and practically never exercised, Anne, at first, had decided that they did not compare with Syrian horses, but later realized that under the slovenly appearance were, some very fine animals. "Mounted and in motion, these at once became transfigured," she said.

On another occasion the Blunts rode I out with Ibn Rashid to the plain where the Persian pilgrim caravan was camped, and where the amir's soldiers and mares were preparing to give a display of horsemanship. "We saw what we would have come the whole journey to see... all the best of the amir's horses out and galloping about." After tedious days in town Anne felt alive once again. "It was one of those mornings one only finds in Najd. The air brilliant and sparkling to a degree one cannot imagine in Europe,... the sky of an intense blue, and the hills in front of us carved out of sapphire."The horsemen, she continues, were galloping over the plain and indulging in sham fights, "charging and doubling back, yelling with Bedouin zest until at last the amir could resist it no longer, and seizing a ... palmstick from one of the riders, went off himself among the others. In a moment his dignity was forgotten,... bare-headed with his long Bedouin plaits streaming in the wind... he galloped hither and thither."

At last, however, it was time to depart. Wilfrid had decided that it would be a good idea for his party to travel to Najaf in Iraq with the pilgrim caravan; and on February 1 they took formal leave of Muhammad ibn Rashid, then mounted and rode out of town.

To Anne the trip onward from Hail was as colorful as their trip out and she vividly describes the spectacle of the vast caravan coming towards them across the plain: 4,000 camels in a procession three miles long, with hundreds of men on foot, a mounted troop of caparisoned camels and in their midst the bearer of Ibn Rashid's standard, a great purple flag with a green border and a white inscription in the middle.

Six days later, however, the Blunts, finding the pace of the caravan too slow, decided to make their own way at a greater speed, and were soon making much faster progress. In the evening they could see the zodiacal light. "It is a very remarkable and beautiful phenomenon, seen only, I believe, in Arabia. It is a cone of light extending from the horizon half-way to the zenith, and is rather brighter than the Milky Way." She was, of course, wrong in this; the "light" varies in brightness and can be seen elsewhere. By now they had come to the series of cisterns built along the pilgrimage route by Zubaida, queen of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Many were in ruins but a few still held some water.

On February 16 the pilgrims' caravan, now at its full strength and double its former size, caught up with them and swept past. They decided to rejoin it and by February 21 it was clear that they had made a wise decision; two of their camels began to show signs of exhaustion. When their route took them up a steep escarpment the next day, one of their beasts collapsed and they had to abandon him. "We left him, I am glad to say, in a bit of a wady, where there was some grass, but I fear his chance is a small one."

After four hard days, averaging about 28 miles a day, the caravan reached Qasr Ruhaim on the edge of the Euphrates district. The last day had been a terrible one: 10 hours of marching against a bitterly cold north wind which blew sand constantly into their faces. The Blunts had lost no more camels, but "many of the pilgrims' camels, 60, or some say 70, lay down and died on the road... In the last six days we have marched a hundred and seventy miles, the greater part of the Hajj on foot and almost fasting." It was a marvelous relief at Ruhaim to camp amid green grass on the bank of a running stream.

On the morning of February 27 they were cheered by the sight of the golden dome of the mosque rising above the town of Najaf, which topped a line of cliffs on the far side of a lake. "It was a beautiful sight as far as nature was concerned, but made horrible by the sufferings of the poor dying camels, which now lay thick upon the road, with their unfortunate owners, poor Bedouins perhaps with nothing else in the world, standing beside them..."

After resting and buying supplies in Najaf, Anne and Wilfrid moved on to Baghdad in a more leisurely fashion, and there they were welcomed at the British Residency. "On the 6th of March we slept once more in beds, having been without' that luxury for almost three months." Their Arabian journey was over.

In 1881 the Blunts bought an estate, named after Shaikh Obeyd, in Egypt; from then on they divided their time between this home and Sussex, until in 1906 they parted, and she decided to live in Egypt, where she died in 1917. She was the first European woman to penetrate the heart of the Peninsula, and one of the most attractive and sympathetic figures among the great travelers of her age.

Zahra Freeth, daughter of the famous H.R.P. Dickson, is the author of A New Look at Kuwait.

Victor Winstone, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, has written for The Guardian and is the author of a biography of the little-known explorer Captain W.l.H. Shakespear.

This article appeared on pages 8-13 of the May/June 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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