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Sir Richard Francis Burton:

A Pilgrimage to Mecca, 1853

Having resolved to perform the Mecca pilgrimage, I spent a few months at Cairo, and on the 22d of May embarked in a small steamer at Suez with the mahmil, or litter, and its military escort, conveying the kiswah, or covering for the kabah. On the 25th the man at the wheel informed us that we were about to pass the village of Rabikh, on the Arabian coast, and that the time had consequently arrived for changing our usual habiliments for the ihram, or pilgrim-costume of two towels, and for taking the various interdictory vows involved in its assumption: such as not to tie knots in any portion of our dress, not to oil the body, and not to cut our nails or hair, nor to improve the tints of the latter with the coppery hue of henna. Transgression of these and other ceremonial exactments is expiated either by animal sacrifice, or gifts of fruit or cereals to the poor.

After a complete ablution and assuming the ihram, we performed two prayer-flections, and recited the meritorious sentences beginning with the words, "Labbaik Allah, huma labbaik!" "Here I am, O God, here I am! Here I am, O Unassociated One, here I am, for unto You belong praise, grace, and empire, O Unassociated One!" This prayer was repeated so often, people not unfrequently rushing up to their friends and shrieking the sacred sentence into their ears, that at last it became a signal for merriment rather than an indication of piety.

On the 26th we reached Jeddah, where the utter sterility of Arabia, with its dunes and rocky hills, becomes apparent. The town, however, viewed from the sea, is not unpicturesque. Many European vessels were at anchor off the coast: and as we entered the port, innumerable small fishing boats darting in all directions, their sails no longer white, but emerald green from the intense luster of the water, crowded around us on all sides, and reminded one by their dazzling colors and rapidity of motion of the shoals of porpoises so often seen on a voyage round the Cape.

On disembarking we were accosted by several mutawwafs, or circuit-men, so termed in Arabic, because, besides serving as religious guides in general, their special duty is to lead the pilgrim in his seven obligatory circuits around the Kabah. We encamped outside the town, and having visited the tomb of "our Mother Eve," mounted our camels for Mecca.

After a journey of twenty hours across the Desert, we passed the barriers which mark the outermost limit of the sacred city, and ascending some giant steps, pitched our tents on a plain, or rather plateau, surrounded by barren rock, some of which, distant, but a few yards, mask from view the birthplace of the Prophet. It was midnight; a few drops of rain were falling, and lightning played around us. Day after day we had watched its brightness from the sea, and many a faithful haji had pointed out to his companions those fires which were Heaven's witness to the sanctity of the spot. "Alhamdu Lillah!" Thanks be to God! we were now at length to gaze upon the Kiblah, to which every Mussulman has turned in prayer since before the days of Muhammed, and which, for long ages before the birth of Christianity was reverenced by the Patriarchs of the East. Soon after dawn arose from our midst the shout of "Labbaik! Labbaik!" and passing between the rocks, we found ourselves in the main street of Mecca, and approached the "Gateway of Salvation," one of the thirty-nine portals of the "Temple of Salvation."

On crossing the threshold we entered a vast unroofed quadrangle, a mighty amplification of the Palais Royal, having on each side of its four sides a broad colonnade, divided into three aisles by a multitude of slender columns, and rising to the height of about thirty feet. Surmounting each arch of the colonnade is a small dome: in all there are a hundred and twenty, and at different points arise seven minarets, dating from various epochs, and of somewhat varying altitudes and architecture. The numerous pigeons which have their home within the temple have been believed never to alight upon any portion of its roof, thus miraculously testifying to the holiness of the building. This marvel, however, of late years having been suspended, many discern another omen of the approach of the long-predicted period when unbelievers shall desecrate the hallowed soil.

In the center of the square area rises the far-famed Kabah, the funereal shade of which contrasts vividly with the sunlit walls and precipices of the town. It is a cubical structure of massive stone, the upper two-thirds of which are mantled by a black cloth embroidered with silver, and the lower portion hung with white linen. At a distance of several yards it is surrounded by a balustrade provided with lamps, which are lighted in the evening, and the space thus enclosed is the circuit ground along which, day and night, crowds of pilgrims, performing the circular ceremony of Tawaf, realize the idea of perpetual motion. We at once advanced to the black stone embedded in the angle of the Kabah, kissed it, and exclaimed "Bismillah wa Allahu Akbar," --- "In God's name, and God is Greatest." Then we commenced the usual seven rounds, three at a walking pace, and four at a brisk trot. Next followed two prayer-flections at the tomb of Abraham, after which we drank of the water of Zamzam, said to be the same which quenched the thirst of Hagar's exhausted son.

Besides the Kabah, eight minor structures adorn the quadrangle, the well of Zamzam, the library, the clockroom, the triangular staircase, and four ornamental resting-places for the orthodox sects of Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali.

We terminated our morning duties by walking and running seven times along the streets of Safa and Marwa, so named from the flight of seven steps at each of its extremities. After a few days spent in visiting various places of interest, such as the slave-market and forts, and the houses of the Prophet and the Caliphs Ali and Abu bakr, we started on our six hours' journey to the mountain of Arifat, an hour's sojourn at which, even in a state of insensibility, confers the rank of haji. It is a mountain spur of about a hundred and fifty feet in height, presenting an artificial appearance from the wall encircling it and the terrace on its slope, from which the iman delivers a sermon before the departure of his congregation for Mecca. His auditors were, indeed, numerous, their tents being scattered over two or three miles of the country. A great number of their inmates were fellow-subjects of ours from India [Burton posed as a native Afghan]. I surprised some of my Mecca friends by informing them that Queen Victoria numbers among twenty millions of Mohammedans among her subjects.

On the 5th of June, at sunset, commencing our return, we slept at the village of Muzdalifah, and there gathered and washed seven pebbles of the size of peas, to be flung at three piles of whitewashed masonry known as the Satans of Muna. We acquitted ourselves satisfactorily of this duty on the festival of the 6th of June, the 10th day of the Arabian month Zu'lhijah. Each of us then sacrificed a sheep, had his hair and nails cut, exchanged the ikram for his best apparel, and embracing his friends, paid them the compliments of the season. The two following days the Great, the Middle, and the Little Satan were again pelted, and, bequeathing to the unfortunate inhabitants of Muna the unburied and odorous remains of nearly a hundred thousand animals, we returned, eighty thousand strong, to Mecca. A week later, having helped to insult the tumulus of stones which marks, according to popular belief, the burial place of Abulahab, the unbeliever, who we learn from the Koran, has descended into hell with his wife, gatherer of sticks, I was not sorry to relinquish a shade temperature of 120 degrees and wend my way to Jeddah en route for England, after delegating to my brethren the recital of a prayer in my behalf at the Tomb of the Prophet in Medina.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., Egypt, Africa, and Arabia, Vol. III in The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 537-542.

Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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