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Burton's Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Meccah

Book Review: Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Meccah.
By Lieut. R. F. Burton, Bombay Army. 3 vols. (2 only published), with Maps and Illustrations. Longmans.

WE could fancy scrupulous persons having an objection to read this graphic and valuable book, for the same reason that David refused to drink the water which his captains had risked their lives to procure for him. For the amusement and information here offered is, so to say, the price of blood : it has only been provided by a deliberate assumption of Mahometanism. However, to do Mr. Burton justice, we must give him the benefit of his ignorance. It was supposed by the ancients that to profess to be an infidel was next door to being one at heart; that to purchase a certificate of conformity to a false religion was equivalent to having really conformed to it; that though it was sometimes lawful to conceal your own religion, it was never so to assume that which you held not. Mr. Burton is of a different opinion. According to him, these people

"Were weak, and little knew
What free-born conscience may do."

So he makes a distinction; he turns Moslem, but pretends to have been a Moslem born; for his spirit could not bend to own itself a renegadep; partly perhaps, because of a painful operation he would be called on to undergo; partly because it would not so well serve his purpose, because the renegade is pointed at, shunned, and inconveniently catechised, - is an object of suspicion and contempt, and so quite unable to procure the information which Mr. Burton wanted; but chiefly, let us hope, because his conscience made a wide difference between the "lark" of shamming - of acting a most dangerous part, and decieving the staid old Moslem doctors and, on the other hand, abjuring his Christianity and making a public recantation. The rights that Butler claims for the Puritan have descended to the free-born Briton; he

may allege

For any thing his privilege,
And to the devil himself may go,

If he have motives thereunto.


Mr. Burton's motive for his journey to El Medinah, we mean, not to the devil - was partly a wish to remove that opprobrium to modern aventure, the huge blank in the maps of Arabia; partly a wild restless spirit, thoroughly tired of progress and civilisation, and longing to see the curious places which no tourist has yet seen and properly described. The object which he proposed to himself was to visit El Medinah and Meccah, and from them cross the peninsula to the shores of the Indian Ocean. This however, he did not accomplish; though he performed a great part of it.

He set out from England on the 4th of April 1853, wisely enough commencing his incognito from the beginning, and travelling as a Persian prince; employing his time in practising Oriental manners, exclamations, positions, gait and gravity. On landing at Alexandria, he reaps his reward in being taken by every one for a Moslem; and in spite of the spying propensities of an Armenian dragoman "devilish degage" for a Persian, he found his disguise perfectly successful. There he put himself under a teacher, to revive his recollections of Mahometan practices and doctrines, attended mosque, practised as a doctor, and fitted himself to assume the character of a wandering dirvish as being the safest disguise - one assumed by all ranks, from the great man under a cloud to the lazy peasant; a disguise which enables you to dispense with the established usages of ceremony and politeness ; in which you may pray as much or as little as you please, be married or single, dress as you choose, and go where you like, with what attendants you please, without questioning. The more the dervish swaggers, the more the people respect him ; and in the hour of danger, he has only to become a maniac, and he is immediately a sacred person, whom it would be sacrilege to hurt.

Having once thoroughly disguised himself in this way, Mr. Burton had to experience all the delays and all the insolence of European and other officials with which Orientals have to put up. It took him days to get his passport; no official could or would tell him at what office he was to apply ; even at the transit-office the clerk would not move from his Galig- nani to find out for him the hour of the departure of the Nile steamboat for Cairo, but put him off with a guess, which proved to be wrong. Mr. Burton, in fact, like the disguised duke in Measure for Measure, was in the position of spying out all the petty wrongs of our Oriental government.

All difficulties at last overcome, our traveller finds himself traversing the Mahmoudieh canal, on the deck of the Little Asthmatic, in company with British officers, who mutter curses on his eyes when he accidentally touches their elbows ; with French shopkeepers, who threaten to " briser" his "figure" for putting his pipe near their pantaloons, and the rest of the motley crew of a Nile passage-boat. On the passage he makes acquaintance with an Indian merchant, whose hospitality he enjoyed for a few days at Cairo, till he could enjoy it no longer, when he got a room at the caravanserai. The essence of Oriental hospitality seems to be, never to allow the guest a moment to himself: he must be one of the family, must sit and talk, and sip his sherbet, and smoke with them ; must be ever ready to answer the most puerile question ; must submit to have his friend peering over his shoulder if he takes up a book, or his papers ; must spend the day in talking or listening, must converse himself to sleep in a public dormitory, and must be waked by his companions snoring at midnight. And then, the Western in disguise has to put up with all kinds of remarks most grating to his feelings, especially from an Indian host, who soon puts off his flatteries, and becomes in turn easily friendly, disagreeably familiar, and offensively rude.

The rest of our pilgrim's time at Cairo was spent in the caravanserai, where, though every thing was in the dirty picturesque style, he found himself much better off. Here he fell in with a Russian Hajji, a pleasant companion and shrewd traveller, who professed to believe in nothing but Allah and the Prophte, and who gave him so most sensible advice as to his conduct; on his recommendation he dropped the Persian and became an Affghan, ceased to belong to the lax and half-heretical Moslem sect of the Adjemi, and aggregated himself to one of the recognised orthodox schools. At Cairo, as at Alexandria, he practised medicine, which, by the way, does not seem to be a very lucrativeprofession in the East; for the doctor has to cure the poor gratis, and to give them a backshish besides; like the famous Western barber , who professed to shave his customers for nothing, and give them drink also. WIth the rich, he has to bargain for his fees, and he must think himself fortunate if he gets them at last. The Oriental, it appears, cannot understand a remedy that does not make itself felt; he does not think he has the value of his money unless his tongue is blistered with physic, his limbs scarified with external applications; like the peasants in Lancashire who esteem no whisky whose effects do not remind one of swallowing a tom-cat and pulling him back by his tail.

As at Alexandria, our pilgrim put himself under a shaykh, or teacher, at Cairo, and with him he studied theology and the right pronunciation of the Koran; for in some of the book mispronunciation is a sin. Here also he had to do for Mahomet what probably he never did for Christianity, and that is, fast - not in the style of our present, relaxed European abstinence, but in bona fide hunger and thirst, unallayed from two o'clock in the morning till sunset. For a "blessed month" he had to endure this discipline, which, he says, darkens men's tempers to gloom, gives their voices a terribly harsh and creaking sound, makes the men curse one another and beat the women, while the women slap and abuse the children, and these in their turn , torment the dogs and cats. A month, which fills the stationshouses with men who have beaten their wives, and wives who have scratched their husbands' faces; which fills the mosques with a sulky, grumbling population, making themselves offensive to one another; which takes all the spirit out of children's play and all the civility from the language of the grown-up people; which stops business and study, and wantonly throws away a twelfth part of the year. All this our pilgrim underwent, performing at the same time all the devotions enjoined by the Koran upon good Mussulmen.

After the Ramazan he prepares for his journey; again he has to provide himself with a passport. After in vain endeavouring to obtain a Persian one, he changes his nationality, and becomes an Affghan, and succeeds in getting a pass from the Superior of the Affghan College. His departure from Cairo was hastened by his getting into a scrape. He and a fast Arnaout captain had a drinking-bout a kind of sin which the Albanian considered decidedly facetious, funny as well as pleasant. After having well drunk, they persuaded the staid old Russian Hajji to join them ; and as he absolutely refused the forbidden waters, his conscience only being lax enough to smoke the forbidden hashish, they defiled the slippers and pipe, which he, Joseph-like, had left behind him in his flight from temptation, with the strongly-smelling abomination of the raki. Shortly after the captain sallied forth in an uproarious state, and was with difficulty put to bed, after disturbing and scandalising the whole caravanserai. Our pilgrim soon found that he had in a manner done for himself; so he took his friend's advice, and set off immediately.

The journey across the desert is well described; the Bedouins smoking, questioning the traveller till they know as much about him as he knows about himself; then talking about food, as people in civilised countries do about money; and, when this subject is exhausted, singing songs all about bright verdure, cool shades, bubbling fountains always something which they have not there and then, but which their soul desires. They are, he tells us, when not spoiled, the most good-humoured and sociable of men; delighting in a jest, and readily managed by kindness and courtesy; but passionate, nice upon points of honour, revengeful, and easily offended where their peculiar prejudices are misunderstood. Then the desert, which sharpens the senses by its very monotony, and makes man attentive to every detail, till, like a shepherd with his flock, he knows the face of every sand-hill and naked rock; with a sky above terrible in its stainless beauty, with the air around caressing you like a lion with flaming breath, with sand beneath your feet in solid waves, " flayed rocks, the very skeletons of mountains, hard unbroken plains, over which he who rides is spurred by the idea that the bursting of a waterskin, or the pricking of a camel's hoof, would be a certain death of torture, a haggard land, infested with wild beasts and wilder men, what can be more exciting, what more sublime?" In such places the civilised mind has new sensations; though your throat is parched, you feel no languor; your lungs are lightened, your sight brightens, your memory recovers its tone, and your spirits become exuberant; you are ready for exertion, danger, or strife; you become frank and cordial, hospitable and single-minded, and you put off the hypocrisies of civilised life.

We will not linger with our author at Suez, where he has fresh difficulties about his passport, and where he meets with the companions to whose society he travels to El Medinah, and to whom he gives us quite a dramatic introduction; neither will we tarry over the valuable statistical details he gives us concerning the population and commerce of this important seaport. The description fo the pilgrim ship, in which he performed the voyage between Suez and Yambu, is highly graphic, the narrow-bowed vessel, undecked except upon the poop, which was high enough to act as a sail in a gale of wind; without means of reefing, without compass, log, soundling-lines or chart; crowded so that there was scarce standing-room, and carrying among its passengers some ferocious Magrabis, who could only be persuaded to forego their claim upon the poop by the argument of broken heads and quarter-staves. Every night the ship brought to, and our pilgrim had twelve days to view the grand aspects of nature on the Red Sea; and these he describes vividly and picturesquely.

  • Morning. The air is mild and balmy as that of an Italian spring; thick mists roll down the valleys along the sea, and a haze like mother-o-pearl crowns the headlands. The distant rocks show Titanic walls, lofty donjons, huge projecting bastions, and moats full of deep shade. At their base runs a sea of amythest; and as Earth receives the first touches of light, their summits, almost transparent, mingle with the jasper-tints of the sky. But this soon fades. The sun bursts up from behind the main - a fierce enemy, that will compel every one to crouch before him. He dyes the sky orange, and the sea 'incarnadine,' where its violet-surface is stained by his rays, and mercilessly puts to flight the mists and haze and the little agate-coloured masses of cloud that were before floating in the firmament. The atmosphere is so clear, that now and then a planet is visible. [...]
  • Noon The wind, reverberated by the hills, is like the blast of a lime-kiln. All colour melts away with the canescence from above. The sky is a dead milk-white; and the mirror-like sea so reflects the tint, that you can scarcely distinguishthe line of the horizon. [...] There is a deep stillness; men are half-senseless;; they feel as if a few more degrees would be death.
  • Sunset The enemy sinks behind the deep cerulean sea, under a canopy of gigantic rainbow, which covers half the heaven. Nearest to the horizon is an arch of tawny orange; above it is another of the brightest gold; and based upon these a semi-circle of tender sea-green blends with a score of delicate gradations into the sapphire sky. Across the rainbow the sun throws its rays in the form of spokes, tinged with a beautiful pink. The eastern sky is mantled with a purple flash that picks out the forms of the hazy desert and the sharp-cut hills.

Our pilgrim has evidently the eye of an artist and the tongue of a poet; his gift of word-painting is something above the average. Nor is he less vivid in his sketches of personal appearance and character; he seems to have caught something of the acuteness of the perceptive faculties which he attributes to the Arab, and which the air and scenery of the desert is so apt to produce and foster. It is only want of space which prevents us from quoting many admirable sketches of his companions; of the Meccan boy Mohammed, with his Egyptian face and cunning acuteness, who suspected our pilgrim's disguise from the first, and even communicated his suspicions to his companions at Suez, but who was summarily declared by them to be a pauper, a " fakir," an owl, a cut-off one, a stranger, and a Wahhabi, for daring to impugn the faith of a brother believer; of the Shaykh Hamid, an inhabitant of El Medinah, at whose house he dwelt while staying in that city; of Omar Effendi, and his manumitted negro-servant Said the devil, the pure African, noisily merry at one moment, at another silently sulky, affectionate and abusive, reckless and crafty, exceedingly quarrelsome, and unscrupulous to the last degree; with great love for and respect to his young master, but sometimes scolding him in a paroxysm of fury, and always stea^'ng from him whatever he can lay his hands on; generous, but always borrowing and never paying; dressed like a beggar, but with his boxes full of handsome apparel.

With these and several others, our pilgrim, now dressed as an Arab shaykh, in which character he gives us a very respectable portrait of himself, crosses the desert from Yambu to El Medinah, not without sundry alarms of thieves, and losing no less than twelve of his escort by the fire of a marauding tribe.

Mr. Burton's second volume treats chiefly of El Medinah, a city which has never been fully described by a European; for Burkhardt was ill while there, and could not make his observations as he did on the rest of his route; and the other travellers who have reached it have been prevented by other causes from taking notes on the spot. Our author acted as a bond jide pilgrim should act; he visited several times the Prophet's tomb, and all the holy wells, and the subsidiary mosques, which cover spots hallowed by some deed of the Prophet, and are, of course, abundant in the neighbourhood of the holy city. All the points of peculiar devotion are noted, and all the prayers are given at length. He and his guide stop before a tomb, or a niche, or a grated window, and address Mohammed, or Abubekr, or Omar, or Fatimah, reciting prayers to Allah, invoking the intercession of the Prophet, or capliph, or mother of the faithful, and making their profession of faith, "the everlasting profession, from this day to the day of judgment, that there is no Allah but Allah, and that our Lord Mohammed is his servant and prophet. Amen." With regard to these intercessions, Mr. Burton is careful to impress upon his readers that the Mahometan does not worship either the Prophet or any of his saints. The most ignorant Arab would reject such an imputation with disdain, as an insult to himself and as a blasphemy against religion. Among the half-naked barbarians of the desert, the distinction between latria and dulia, the worship of God and the cultus of the saint, is universally understood, in spite of the protestations of controversialists, that it is a distinction that can only be comprehended by the learned, but which will be altogether misunderstood by the vulgar, who will always confound divinewith human worship. This is a mere question of natural religion, or rather a question preliminary to all religions; and it is certainly answered in a Catholic sense by the people of El Islam.

The pilgrim furnishes full details on the plan, the architecture, and the furniture of the great mosque; on the ministers, from the eunuchs who keep the tomb to the farrashin who sweep the steps of the temple. on the sources of the revenues of the temple and its history. On all these subjects we have a mass of information, much of which shows great power of observation. The mosque itself is a great square, with five minarets, containing within a courtyard surrounded on three sides with deep colonnades, the pillars being of all styles and sizes, and in design so irregular that is is more like a museum of second-rate art, a curiosity-shop full of ornaments that are not accessories, and decorated with pauper splendour, than a temple. The well-fed eunuches of the tomb, who alone may look within the curtain which veils it, and who lord it as muich as they can over their fellow-believers, are described as "disconnected with humanity; cruel, fierce, brave and capably of any villainy.: The eunuch's frame is unnaturally long and lean, especially the arms and legs, with high shoulders, protruding joints and a face by contrast extraordinarily large; he is unusually expert in the use of weapons, and rides to admiration; his hoarse thick voice investing him with all the circumstance of command."

We have also abundant observations on the physical and political statistics of Medinah and its territory; the diseases of the population, their means of livelihood, the prices of provisions, and the caravans which enliven and support the town. Mr. Burton shows a more than ordinary talent for painting personal characteristics, as ma} r be seen in the following account of the agricultural Arabs who farm the gardens in the neighbourhood of El Medinah. On a visit to these green places he encounters a number of the children of these savages, who, of course, shout for backshish, a demand with which our pilgrim willingly complies, " for the purpose of establishing an intercourse with fellow-creatures so fearfully and wonderfully resembling the tailless baboon."

"Their bodies, unlike those of Egyptian children, were slim and straight, but their ribs stood out with a curious distinctness; the colour of the skin was that oily lamp-black seen upon the face of a European sweep, and the elf-locks peeping out of the cocoa-nut heads had been stained by the sun, wind, and rain to that reddish-brown hue which Hindoo romances have appropriated to their Rakshasas or demons. Each anatomy carried in his arms a stark naked miniature of himself, fierce-looking babies, with faces all eyes; and the strong little wretches were still able to extend the right hand, and exert their lungs with direful clamour. - Their mothers were fit progenitors for such progeny; long, gaunt, with emaciated limbs, wall-sided, high-shouldered, with pendulous bosoms, spider-like arms, and splay feet. Their long elf-locks, wrinkled faces, and high cheek-bones, their lips darker than the epidermis, hollow, staring eyes, sparkling as if to light up the extreme ugliness around, and voices screaming as if in a perennial rage, invested them with all the ' charms of Sycorax.' These ' houris of hell ' were habited in long night-gowns, dyed blue to conceal want of washing, and the squalid children had about a yard of the same material wrapped round their waist for all toilet. This is not an overdrawn portrait of the farmer race of Arabs, the most despised by their fellow-countrymen, and the most hard-favoured, morally as well as physically, of all the breed."

Such are the people who can worship Allah, and render to their Prophet and saints a relative honour. A distinction which is found to be no difficulty to persons in this low stage of cultivation, is probably, if possible, a less difficulty to the peasantry of Italy, France, or Ireland, however low any self-complacent Saxon controversialist is disposed to place these races in the scale of humanity and civilisation.

The old story, long believed in the West, that Mahomet's coffin was suspended in mid-air by magnets or witchcraft, has long been exploded. Our pilgrim carries on the stream of criticism, and makes it doubtful whether the Prophet lies in his tomb at all. The mosque is built round a chamber in the house where the Prophet died, and where he was also buried. Two caliphs lie buried by him; and the chamber is said to contain space for one more grave, which the Mahometans believe will be occupied by "Isa ben Maryam", i.e. our Blessed Lord, when, after His second coming before the end of the world, He will pay the debt of nature. These tombs are surrounded by a plain enclosure, outside of which is hung a curtain, like that of a four-post bed. A narrow passage surrounds this drapery, outside of which is an iron filigree railing, painted a vivid green, with a brass ionscription inserted, testifying to the unity of Allah , the mission of the Prophet, and similar articles of faith. On the south the railing is gilt. On this side there are three windows, supposed to be opposite to each tombbefore which the prayers are recited. There are four grates to the enclosure, only one of which is ever opened, and then only to admit the treasurers and the eunuchs who serve the tomb. Above it is the green dome, with its gilt crescent, over which, say the Moslems, the faithful perceive a great pillar of light, which directs, from three days' distance, the pilgrim's steps towards El Medinah. Authorities are not at all agreed about the tombs within the veil; some say there are mere slabs on the pavement, others declare them to be boxes of ebony; some consider them to be square altar-tombs, others to be covered with a convex coping. One authoritiy says that the tombs are only deep holes. Our author doubts whether the place of the Prophet's sepulchre is known at all, or, at any rate, whether his body has not either crumbled into dust, or been stolen by the schismatics who had for so long a time charge of the tomb.

The third volume, which is to contain our pilgrim's observancations at Meccah, is to be published in the autumn.

We think we have now shown our readers enough to make them desire to see this book for themselves. We assure them, that if they once get over their scruple, they will find the author a very pleasant companion. Haters of slavery find slave-grown sugar just as sweet as the product of free labour; we may be as virtuous as we please, but ginger will be hot in the mouth still. So this book is interesting and valuable, though our author took such unwarrantable means to procure his information. Yet, probably, there are many who will consider him a martyr to science, and will think it even wiser for him to risk his soul to procure his adventures and his information, than for the naturalist to peril his neck to determine the height of a mountain or to procure a specimen of a new plant. The world is now full of people who that that knowledge is to be gained at any price; hardly one table-turner out of a hundred but suspects that the Evil One has something to do with the effects of the manipulation and passes which he nevertheless persists in practising. These would-be dealers with the devil are so numerous, that they even propose to set up a theosophic college in London, for the purpose of investigating natural and spiritual truth up to its fountain-head in the divine magia. We do not rank our author with these drivelling blasphemers. We consider that, carried away by his high spirits and his enthusiastic love of adventure, he has thoughtlessly done something which, with better knowledge, he would not have done. As to the way in which he has recorded his adventures, we have not much fault to find; the flippancy and satire which he delights in are quite in the modern taste, and serve very well to gild the pill of the drier and more scientific details which he gives with profusion. He is really well read in Mahometan theology and Oriental literature. He travels for scientific and useful political objects; and all the time he keeps his eyes open for subjects on which he may exercise a power of word-painting as great as is found in any of our modern travellers, and for opportunities for adventure which would rejoice the heart of a hunter in the Himalayas or in the wilds of Central Africa. The book is a valuable present, not only to the ethnographer and philosophical inquirer, but to the miscellaneous readers of circulating-libraries.