Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 March 2000
Issue No. 473
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

A journey of faith

Most Muslims wish above all else to accomplish the pilgrimage to Mecca -- one of the five pillars of the faith -- at least once in their lives. In bygone days, the journey was fraught with untold hardship, yet the pious made it in their thousands. Fayza Hassan retraces the path of the Hajj caravans

Pilgrims going to Mecca

"Pilgrims going to Mecca", oil on canvas by Leon Belly (Musée d'Orsay, Paris, in Orientalism, ed. Roger Benjamin, Art Galleries of NSW, 1997)"Pilgrims going to Mecca", oil on canvas by Leon Belly (Musée d'Orsay, Paris, in Orientalism, ed. Roger Benjamin, Art Galleries of NSW, 1997)


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'Amm Sayed's clientele is made up, for the most part, of small government employees. He has never been able to charge them too much for the clothes they order, he says, because he knows that they are far from well off yet have to keep up appearances. Still, he has managed to put aside a few pounds every year in order to realise his dream and visit the holy places before he dies.

Three months ago, 'Amm Sayed delivered a suit to one of his clients and announced that he would not be taking any orders for a while. His assistant would keep the shop open and make adjustments -- a hemline here, a buttonhole there -- but, apart from that, clients would have to wait until after the Eid Al-Kabir (Bayram, or the feast of the sacrifice, which takes place on the last day of the Hajj). He was leaving before the official date because it would be easier and cheaper to secure a passage on one of the ships ferrying the pilgrims from Suez. "They will not be so crowded and once I get there it will be easier to secure an accommodation," he explained.

mahmal Prophet's Mosque
Left: The Egyptian Palenquin (mahmal) entering Mecca carrying the Ka'ba's veil (kiswa); right: The Prophet's Mosque (Al-Mussawwar, 8 January 1926)
'Amm Sayed was taking his wife with him, "before she is too old to walk," he joked. He had not counted on her coming along, but once, when she had taken ill, he had vowed that he would if she got better. So there he was, with an extra mouth to feed on the voyage and the need to stretch the little money he had to the limit. His sons had helped, of course, as much as they could afford to, and he knew that good people would not deny him their gifts. His wife was taking provisions to last them on the trip and during their first few days there. Later... Well, 'Amm Sayed was sure that God would provide. "And if we happen to die there, it will mean that we have been twice blessed," he added with a smile.

Compared to the affluent pilgrims who can now travel by plane and stay in five-star hotels overlooking the Ka'ba, 'Amm Sayed's sea journey to Mecca is a difficult endeavour, but far easier than it would have been in past centuries, when the pilgrims' only means of reaching their destination was to join the Hajj caravans.

TRAVELLERS IN DANGER: From the seventh century AD on, a multitude of pilgrims from very diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds began to flock to Mecca. By the 15th century, the pilgrims visiting the holy site would have included Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Tatars, Central Asians, Indians and Africans.

Suraiya Faroqhi, professor of Ottoman Studies at Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, has pored over travellers' accounts of the period pre-dating 1517 in order to reconstruct the history of the pilgrimage in mediaeval times. In Pilgrims and Sultans, The Hajj under the Ottomans (IB Tauris, 1994), she relates the stories of those who made the voyage then, and were wise enough to consign their impressions to their diaries.

Black Stone
Ka'aba Door
Ka'aba's Veil
From top: Kissing the Black Stone in its silver casing; the Ka'ba's gold and silver door; hanging the Ka'ba's veil
The poet Nasir-i Khasrow is one of those who left a detailed account of his experience. Originally from Afghanistan, he moved to Egypt during the Fatimid era and embraced Shi'ism before undertaking his voyage to Mecca in the year 1047, a time of drought and famine that badly affected the Hijaz as well as other Muslim countries. For this reason, very few caravans ventured on the pilgrimage trail that year. "The Fatimid ruler dispatched an embassy, no more, to escort the covering of the Ka'ba, which even in this early period was sent every year from Cairo and Nasir-i Khasrow formed part of this embassy. After crossing the Red Sea, the travellers visited the Prophet's mosque in Medina, then followed the pilgrimage route through the desert. They found the Holy City all but abandoned, but as the time for the Hajj had just arrived, Nasir-i Khasrow was able to perform the rites of the pilgrimage," writes Faroqhi. Although he stayed a very short time -- two days in Medina and not much longer in Mecca -- he left a description of geographical locations, with details of the walls that close off the wadis leading to Mecca and other important sites surrounding the city. He also provided ample information on water supplies, possibly to help future pilgrims.

Ibn Jubayr's experience was slightly different. A courtier and secretary in the service of the governor of Granada and well-known for his literary talents, Ibn Jubayr travelled to Ceuta in Morocco where he embarked on a ship that took him to Alexandria in 1183. He then journeyed to the Upper Egyptian port of Aydhab. His negative impression was probably formed by the poor treatment meted out to pilgrims who embarked from this port: "The ships on which [they] were made to cross the Red Sea were always perilously overloaded, so that the passengers were squeezed together like chickens in a basket. In this fashion the owners of the boats attempted to maximise their earnings without any regard for the safety of the passengers: some even said... that the owner only provided the ship, the responsibility for safe arrival resting on the passengers alone," comments Faroqhi. Disheartened, Ibn Jubayr warned pilgrims to avoid this route at all cost and advised travellers coming from the western Mediterranean region to head toward Baghdad via Syria and continue their journey with the Baghdad caravan. He also offered an alternative, shorter route near the coast, leading from Egypt to the Sinai and the port of Aqaba and from there to Medina. This second path probably corresponded to the itinerary Egyptian pilgrims took in the 17th century. Ibn Jubayr himself returned by way of Baghdad, so ghastly had he found his experience at sea: "Shortly before landing in Jeddah, his ship was caught in a severe storm and swept off its course, so that eight days were needed to cover the short distance between Aydhab and Jeddah," recounts Faroqhi. Nor was his arrival in Mecca, which was at the time a modest settlement of houses built of reeds, a more propitious event. The inhabitants of Mecca, complained Ibn Jubayr, were mostly intent on exploiting the pilgrims ruthlessly, depriving them of their food and money. Worse was to come, however: "The amir [of Mecca]... viewed the pilgrims as no more than a source of revenue... and when Sultan Salaheddin's grant [a yearly donation of money and foodstuffs, forwarded by the rulers of Egypt to Mecca in order to provide for both the pilgrims and the inhabitants of the city during the pilgrimage season] was slow to arrive, the wealthy traveller from Andalusia seemed as good a substitute as any," wrote Faroqhi. "Ibn Jubayr was detained and he and his companions were made to serve as hostages to guarantee the continuing prestation of Egyptian wheat and money."

With the arrival of Salaheddin's gifts, Ibn Jubayr and his group were released and he left a much more positive account of the rest of his visit.

THE CAIRO CARAVAN: Abdel-Qader Al-Jazari was able to draw extensively on his personal experience as well as that of his family in compiling his mid-16th century account of the pilgrimage caravan, for he and his father were both involved in its administration as scribes to the caravan commander. Until 1407, there was no fixed order in the Cairo caravan, which resulted in much confusion when crossing the narrow desert passes. When the number of pilgrims increased, it became necessary to create an order of precedence in the procession; this, however, had the disadvantage of favouring the rich, who were able to secure faster mounts, wrote Al-Jazari. The caravan commander (Amir Al-Hajj), who usually joined the caravan in Ajroud, not far from Suez, was in charge of assigning the pilgrims their places. The caravan was then divided into subsections. At the very head travelled the guides -- usually Bedouins thoroughly familiar with the route -- followed by the water carriers and the notables. Next came the cash supplies, gifts and donations carried by the caravan to be distributed to the inhabitants of the holy cities, as well as subsidies to be paid to the Bedouins for various services rendered to the pilgrims. These contributions were provided for by public foundations established by the Mameluke sultans. The cash was guarded by troops of soldiers and the caravan's artillery. Next came another treasury, also provided by the Mameluke sultans and meant to cover the ordinary expenses of the caravan. Sharpshooters armed with bows and arrows and torchbearers were responsible for this section. Merchants carrying valuable goods travelled alongside the treasuries, while ordinary pilgrims made up the rear.

"Among the numerous officials accompanying the Cairo caravan," wrote Al-Jazari, "the commander's secretary occupied a key position. He had to be consulted whenever important decisions were taken and he was responsible for the payment of subsidies to the Bedouins who travelled with the caravan and thus insured its safety. A qadi settled disputes among the pilgrims...[he] was accompanied by a number of subordinates: pilgrims wishing to conclude contracts or make their wills needed men of irreproachable lifestyles to act as witnesses...Other officials were in charge of supervising the camels and horses as well as the official stores of food, fodder and water."

Top: Arial view of the Sacred Mosque of Mecca with the Ka'ba at its centre; Standing on the Mount of Mercy (Arafat), asking for forgiveness; Stoning Satan at Mina
photos: National Geographic, November 1978

PROPHETIC RELICS AND PALANQUINS: In Istanbul, Damascus and particularly in Cairo, the departure of the pilgrims constituted a momentous event and an occasion for extensive celebrations. The Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi, who lived in Cairo for a decade in the 1670s, was closely acquainted with imperial ceremonial procedure. His important account of these festivities is related by Faroqhi. "The high point of the departure ceremony came when the caravan commander appeared on the square of Kara Maydan... He was accompanied by a numerous suite of soldiers and officers, while the band played, and Janissaries and other soldiers saluted their commander. The caravan commander then visited the governor of Egypt [the Pasha] in his tent, which must have been put up in this place for the occasion. Now artillery was brought to the square, presumably the cannons which the commander was to take along with him on his desert journey. The flag of the Prophet, a major relic, was paraded about the grounds along with the palanquin [Mahmal] symbolising the sultan's presence, which was to accompany the caravan to Mecca; the palanquin was carried by a camel. At the formal audience, with all the notables of Cairo present, the Pasha asked the caravan commander whether he had received the money he was going to need -- subsidies for the Bedouin sheikhs along the desert route and for the Sherif of Mecca, donations to the people living in the Holy Cities, and ready cash for all the other needs of the caravan. The caravan commander formally acknowledged that everything had been handed over 'down to the last grain and the last cloak', certain gifts taking the shape of clothing. The Pasha instructed a judge to record the matter in his register and then with a ritual invocation of God rose from his seat and walked up to the camel carrying the palanquin. After rubbing his face and hands against this symbol of the Sultan's presence, he once again invoked God and took the camel's silver chain to lead the animal around the Kara Maydan [thus proclaiming himself the Prophet's camel driver, i.e. his humble servant]. In the meantime the soldiers in a loud voice invoked the intercession of the Prophet. Then the Pasha turned to the caravan commander, affirming that the Ottoman Sultan controlled Mecca and Medina, acting as servitor of the two Holy Places. He, as the Pasha, was at once the Sultan's representative and the ruler's slave. Acting in his official capacity... the Pasha now handed over the palanquin to the caravan commander and commended the pilgrims to the protection of God, wishing them a victorious and safe return. The Pasha then returned to his seat in the tent and now it was the turn of the caravan commander to parade the palanquin. After that, the caravan set on its way."

The return of the caravan was celebrated with equal pomp: "When the caravan had reached Birkat Al-Hajj, the last stop before Cairo, the commander stayed in this locality overnight and gave a feast to the notables and officers of Cairo. The soldiers fired their muskets and cannons and at the end there were fireworks... The next morning's principal event was the ceremonial entry into the city. The notables of Cairo and the palanquin preceded the commander, who stopped at the tents of various officers to salute them. At the entrance of the city, by the gate of Bab Al-Nasr, the governor's soldiers awaited the returning pilgrims. Leaving his suite behind, the Pasha galloped ahead to meet the arriving palanquin. He then dismounted and for forty or fifty steps ran beside the camel carrying the symbol of the sultanic presence. Invoking the prayers of the Prophet, the governor kissed the palanquin's covering. The caravan commander now welcomed his illustrious visitor with military music and dismounted to rub his face against the foot of the Pasha, who thereupon honoured the new arrival with a gown of honour lined with sable. In response the caravan commander kissed the ground, then entered the city by the gate of Bab Al-Nasr."

Builders and carpenters

"The sanctuary at Mecca, in the time of Muhammad, merely consisted of a small roofless enclosure, oblong in shape, formed by four walls a little higher than a man, according to Ibn Hisham or about 9 cubits (say 4.5m; 15 ft) according to Azraqi, built of rough stone laid dry... Within this enclosure was the sacred well of Zemzem. This little sanctuary, known as the Ka'ba, lay at the bottom of a valley surrounded by the houses of Mecca, which came close up to it and we are expressly told that when 'Umar wanted to surround it by an open space, large enough to contain the faithful, he had to demolish many houses.

"The Ka'ba, being in a bad state, was demolished and reconstructed by Quraysh, when Muhammad was in his thirty-fifth year, i.e. in AD 608. The Quraysh took the wood of a ship which had been wrecked, and employed a carpenter and builder named Baqum, who had been on the ship, to help them in the rebuilding. Azraqi says that the new Ka'ba was built with a course of stone alternating with a course of wood up to the roof, there being sixteen courses of stone and fifteen of wood, that is to say there were thirty one courses beginning and ending with a course of stone. Azraqi's statement that Baqum was a builder and carpenter now becomes understandable -- to erect such a structure a man would need to be both. The walls were probably covered with a coating of stucco, because it would appear, from Azraqi's account of the burning of the Ka'ba in AD 683, that it was only then that the people discovered, apparently with surprise, that its walls were partly constructed of wood. The door, which had previously been at ground level, was now placed with its sill 4 cubits and a span from the ground. The roof rested on six pillars... arranged in rows of three each. Total height of the structure: 18 cubits , from which it follows that each course was roughly 31 cm high. Azraqi says that on the ceiling, walls and columns were pictures of the Prophets, trees and angels. On the column nearest the door was a picture of Abraham, and another of Mary with Jesus on her knee. This statement is so little known, and so remarkable that I think it advisable to mention that Azraqi, who died in AD 858, is the oldest historian of Mecca. His history is mainly based on material collected by his grandfather before the end of the eighth century...

"Where can this remarkable style of building with alternate courses of stone and wood have come from? Certainly not from a country like Arabia, where timber is scarce; it only can have been evolved in a country where wood is plentiful, and it is precisely in such a country -- Abyssinia -- that many example of this extraordinary technique are to be found..."

(KAC Creswell, A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, revised and supplemented by James W Allen, the American University in Cairo Press, 1989)

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