Makkah: the Heart of the World

Makkah: the Heart of the World

We were all heading for Makkah, but it did not appear clearly before all of us, as we could not see it from far away. It remained rather like a surprise hidden in the middle of a wilderness. Chains of volcanic amphitheaters appeared before us, which took on the form of prayer beads, rising gradually to transform themselves into ranges of sullen granite mountains, between which an asphalt road stretched gently, like a dried up river, the same road on which caravans had traveled for thousands of years, and on which had trod the feet of God s noble Messenger the Prophet Muhammad (blessing and peace be upon him ).

We passed through the Kady Tunnel which pierces the besieging mountains, and Makkah appeared at last, sparkling with light, full of life, sleeping peacefully in its narrow valley surrounded by high mountains on all sides. We stopped to catch our breath in wonderment. There it is, the Mother of Cities. There is no place on Earth that does not contain a heart which yearns for it. There is no unisolated group of human beings which does not contain someone who turns his face towards it, in emotion and intellect, every day. It is the heart of this world, which has never ceased to beat over thousands of years. Through a father s supplication and a mother s plea for water life suddenly entered a desolate valley where no plant had grown and no farm animal had drunk water before. Wherever groups of people made journeys, it would end up in them bringing life to a land, but here it was human settlement which gave this land continuity of life.

It can only have been a miracle from Heaven that led God s Prophet Abraham to this low-lying valley in the middle of the Sarawat Mountains with their black masses which inspire awe in one s soul. It must be the logic of a miracle itself, which transcends human logic, that made him leave his wife and her baby in that desolate place, perhaps because it was the only place that no one coveted, even the wolves. They were strange moments in which all the laws of the desert were suspended. Water burst out in a flowing spring under the bewildered mother s feet, and the migrant tribe of Jarham had stopped in astonishment in front of this lone woman. They did not try to seize the well by force as the logic of existence dictates, but asked her permission to remain in her neighborhood. The lady Hagar wanted their protection as much as they were thirsty for her water. The laws of the desert remained suspended, leaving the opportunity for the occurrence of miracles and supernatural phenomena, which never stopped in that narrow valley. So it was not strange that God s Messenger (bpuh) stood on one of the rocks of Jabal Abu Qubays, and say, By God, you are the best of God s countries, and the most beloved to God on God s Earth, and had I not been driven out from you I would not have left.

At a meeting of the Ministerial Council of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a project was adopted to choose a cultural capital for the Islamic world. It was natural that Makkah should be the first such capital. Its spiritual and historical status, which cannot be compared with any other capital, qualifies it for that. In a seminar held by the Saudi Ministry for the Pilgrimage on this occasion, the participants agreed unanimously that the seminar should continue the following year under the same name, so that more researches could be completed about the history of this eternal city.

There is no town that has as many names as Makkah. Books on the cultural heritage have mentioned forty names for it, including Bakkah, Umm Al-Qura (the Mother of Cities), Al-Balad Al-Amin (the Secure City), Umm Rahm, Al-Qadisiya, Sabouhat Al-Hram, Al-Mu attasha, Al-Rataj, Umm Al-Masha ir, and many other names. All of them have different meanings regarding the role which Makkah has fulfilled both materially and spiritually. Since the Prophet Abraham built the Ancient House, every stone in this area has acquired a history that is mentioned, and the smallest events have become worthy to be preserved and recorded. Inevitably with a long history like that, the imagination of legend becomes mingled with the pattern of reality. But what is certain is that this valley became an important axis which tribes fought each other to acquire and to establish control over it. The conflict was fierce, and those who were expelled from it were more than those who settled in it.

Quraysh was the tribe which settled in the ravines of Makkah for a long time. They were aware of the historical importance of the Sacred House, and surrounded it with idols which represented the gods of all the tribes. They chose a suitable time for the pilgrimage season, that would be in the autumn after the Ukaz market had ended. Indeed, they altered the ceremonies of the pilgrimage to suit their own interests, and forced the pilgrims to wear special clothes which they prepared for them or to walk round the sanctuary naked. On the basis of their own ingenuity, Quraysh combined commerce with religious ceremonies, and gave themselves a distinctive status above all the tribes. In addition to that they have given us, the descendants of the Arabs who first spoke Arabic, the most important elements of our culture, Islam, whose message was conveyed by the noblest of their sons, and the Arabic language, which is the language of the Quran and the language of life.

With the advent of Islam, Makkah was purified of the pollution of idolatry and the Ancient House regained its sanctity, but Makkah was given a harsh punishment. The inevitability of the merciless events of history did not forget that it forced the last of the Prophets to emigrate from it. Consequently the political center of gravity shifted from it to the Enlightened City of Madina, although the Amirs and Caliphs were from Quraysh, and Makkah accepted that reluctantly for a time. But this obstinate center continued to distance itself from it, and moved northwards to Damascus, then eastwards to Baghdad, and then westwards to Cairo. Although Makkah witnessed many revolts and insurgent movements, these were violently crushed. Perhaps the most eloquent proof of this was the movement of Ibn Al-Zubayr, who rebelled against Umayyad rule and called for a Caliphate in a state with Makkah as its capital.

Ibn Al-Zubayr was a child of Heaven, religious and idealist. Nobody knew whether he would have been suitable as a ruler or not, but the age was not suitable. His mother was Asma the daughter of Abu Bakr, and he was the first child born to the Muslim emigrants after they had settled in Madina. The Jews had spread a rumor that the Muslims were suffering from sterility and could not reproduce from then on. When Abdullah Ibn Al-Zubayr was born, it seemed as if he were good news from Heaven, and the Prophet (bpuh) carried him and continued to walk around all over the city. But the armies of the Umayyads did not treat Ibn Al-Zubayr with such kindness. They besieged him inside the Holy Sanctuary and bombarded him with mangonels until the Kaaba was destroyed over his head. They did not content themselves with killing him, but also mutilated his body. When the combatants had finished that, they all walked round the ruins of the Holy Sanctuary, thanking God for giving them victory over the enemy of God. Who was really the enemy of God, and who was His supporter?

This atrocity may have done good for the role and status of Makkah. It kept it completely away from the political battleground with all the intrigues and trickery that involved. It became what God had decreed it should be, a city purely for worship, as the Saudi writer Hussein Bafaqih put it. The Sanctuary became the true refuge of theologians, poets and scholars of language, logic, jurisprudence and Islamic law, transmitters of the sayings of the Prophet, explorers of the horizons, ascetics, and penitents, people kneeling and bowing their heads in prayer.

Hijazi Elegance

Yet Makkah did not become fanatical. It stopped rebelling and turned to effeteness. Money from the Islamic conquests poured into it, and bribes of the Caliphs, and stories of love affairs and shamelessness circulated, and the heroes of that age became poets like Omar Ibn Abi Rabia, Al-Arji and Al-Makhzoumi. Love poems were spread by the tongues of men, and of women who went around with their faces uncovered. Song and music sessions became common, and the Hijazi voice became a feature of the age, which spread from there to other countries. Ahmad Al-Sibai, a well-known Saudi writer and historian, says: This weakness of effeteness affected some theologians of Hijaz, who became more delicate in their feelings and more tolerant than other theologians. This Hijazi elegance was an expression of a different nature of a different age. They said goodbye to hardship and welcomed luxury only in an attempt to hide a kind of deep disappointment because of the failure of their rebellions and the end of their role, after the spark that changed the world had emanated from their valley.

Al-Sibai strongly criticizes the method followed by rulers throughout history against Makkah, the method of bribery, showering its inhabitants with money and keeping them away from any sphere that would influence government. Successive rulers used to shower their gifts on the Hijazis, he said angrily, so that they would live preoccupied with these grants, oblivious of the seriousness of life, with no care but to eat, enjoy music, withdraw from the world and pray for victory for the Caliph of the Muslims. Had they wanted to be sincere in what they gave, they would have replaced these gifts with institutes of learning that they would build, waste land that they would cultivate, and houses of industry that they would establish, but they had ulterior motives. On the conscience of history are the indifference we inherited, the poverty on which we were brought up, the begging from pilgrims and visitors that we learnt, and the glory that we lost, we of all the Muslims are most worthy of its heritage and most deserving of its rights.

I was not able to see the women of Makkah, even though I spoke to some of them. They were professors in Umm Al-Qura University, and in voluntary work, a true fruit of the modernization and renaissance if civilization which Makkah is living. They are open to the thinking in the world in spite of the black hijab which covers them. In their depths they have great appreciation for culture and learning, and this is not strange for the place, which has always remained a fount of all the Islamic sciences. But Ibn Battuta saw them without their hijab, and he described them in the following words: extremely lovely, of outstanding beauty, honest and chaste. They use a lot of perfume, so that one of them would even sleep on an empty stomach in order to buy perfume with her earnings. They would go to walk round the Sacred House, and the effect of the perfume would remain as a fragrance after they have gone.

The personality of the inhabitants of Makkah has developed through the ages, as its civilization has developed. Dr. Abu Bakr Baqadir, Professor of Sociology and Adviser to the Ministry for the Pilgrimage, says that the key to the Holy City of Makkah is the pilgrimage. It is also the key to the character of the Makkans, and that is represented in acceptance of others, openness towards them, and an invitation to dialogue with them, with a high degree of tolerance and pluralism . The inhabitants of Makkah divide the year into two periods, the Season namely the Pilgrimage Season and the basara which contains the remaining days of the year. What shocks a pilgrim during the Season in this city, which he imagines to be ideal, is that its inhabitants are trying to make a profit out of him by any means. For many years the Season remained the vital source of income for the inhabitants of Makkah. They would await it from one year to the next, and the most important profession in which Makkans preferred to work was always a tawwaf, a pilgrim s guide. But Dr. Snouck Hurgronje, who visited Makkah in the nineteenth century AD and resided among its inhabitants, affirmed that whoever saw the inhabitants of Makkah outside the pilgrimage season would find them pleasant company, fun-loving, generous to the point of extravagance, devoting their efforts to their social life. Whoever observed their lives closely would find, beside the harshness and rudeness of some of them, people who were noble companions with generous characters, pious, virtuous and honest.

It is difficult to find inhabitants of Makkah during the Pilgrimage Season. They are transformed into indistinct drops in the middle of the great throng. Makkah is never empty of strangers. Visitors on trips to perform the Umra, the lesser pilgrimage, never stop all the year round. People working and residing there are realistic samples of the whole Islamic world. Before the term globalization became prevalent, Makkah was the real example of a global village, in which all features of humanity take part. It is certain that the inhabitants of Makkah were influenced by all these types of character who came to them. This human mosaic intermingled with those familiar Makkan features, according to Dr. Baqadir. In spite of them being formed from various different elements, in the end they all flow into the overall Makkan character. The Egyptian writer Muhammad Labib Al-Batanuni, in his book Al-Rihla Al-Hijaziya (The Hijazi Journey), described this human mixture: A mixture in their disposition: you see that they have combined in their characters Anatolian gentleness, Turkish greatness, Javan quietness, Persian pride, Egyptian suppleness, Circassian stubbornness, Chinese calmness, Moroccan sharpness, Indian simplicity, Yemeni cunning, Syrian activity and Abyssinian color, indeed you find that they have combined the refinement of civilization and the asceticism of desert nomadism.

The Most Difficult of Journeys

Early in the twentieth century my grandfather resolved to go on the pilgrimage. This was a real risk, although this did not cause him to hesitate. He went around the houses of all our relatives in order to say goodbye to them. He was aware, and they were aware, that it could be a journey of no return. My grandfather traveled north to Farma, and from there to the town of Mudawwara. He was thus able to catch a train of the Hijaz Railway which had begun to operate about ten years earlier. The train was a real revolution, which shortened the journey to Madina to three days only, after it used to take about three weeks by sea. But my grandfather s journey by train was no less dangerous. He was captured more than once by warring tribes, and each tribe regarded him as an ally of the enemy tribe. He lost his money and possessions, slept for many days in the open air, and pleaded with his captors that he was just a pilgrim, a stranger who did not know who was fighting and did not care. The journey turned into a continuous nightmare.

It is surprising that my grandfather returned safe, although agonized and emaciated, having lost the material means of life. He had been missing for four whole months, and was feared to be dead. No one knows for certain whether he was able to perform his obligation of the pilgrimage or not, or whether he was able to get there in time to go through the ceremonies. When one is imprisoned, all days seem alike. My grandfather did not talk about this matter, but he considered that all the days he lived after that trip had been given to him in addition to his original life. And so he preserved the blankets with which he had wrapped himself, and perfumed them with wormwood and saffron, so that he could be shrouded in them when he died.

The pilgrimage journey to Makkah may have been one of the most difficult journeys in human history. It might be a real miracle that it went on continuously for hundreds of years. In spite of death, drought, wars, the spread of epidemics, scarcity of water and Bedouin attacks, pilgrims continued to come to this region uninterruptedly. Indeed, the numbers were on the increase in spite of the gravity of the dangers. The journey to Makkah was a dream stronger than fears of death, indeed death itself was regarded as a cheap price in order to reach and hold on to the cover of the Kaaba. The desire of everyone for repentance and forgiveness was ardent, and no one imagined that he would be granted these things without making the journey for the pilgrimage.

Joseph Conrad did not know precisely what the pilgrimage was. Before he became one of the most famous novelists who wrote in the English language, he was a sailor and semi-pirate who worked in the seas south of Asia on board huge and broken-down ships which traversed stormy seas, ships more like floating coffins. In his famous novel Lord Jim, Conrad describes how these ships were transformed during the Pilgrimage Season into freighters for human beings, thousands of impoverished human beings emerged from the ports of Muslim Asia to be piled up in the gloomy holds amidst cargoes and mice without a breath of fresh air or a decent meal. Before the journey ended large numbers of them would have died. After that the more horrifying part of this journey remained, in the Arabian desert itself.

The road to Makkah and Madina remained in its primitive condition from the advent of Islam until recent times, at the beginning of the last century. It seems that all the different Muslim rulers were united in keeping Hijaz remote, isolated and difficult to reach or to leave. The task of governors - \umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid and Ottoman was to turn the desert between them and Hijaz into an insulating screen. None of them remembered it except on occasions, when a revolution or revolt would flare up, and they would suppress it with extreme violence, or when it would occur to one of the amirs or caliphs to do the pilgrimage. In that event some temporary wells would be dug which would soon be filled up with sand, or they would seek to please some of the tribes which would soon go back to their previous practice of stealing and looting. Only the Muslim poor would remember Makkah and Madina, and the religious scholars with their burning hearts which regarded being near to the Sanctuary as a return to the first sources of knowledge. But the Sanctuary remained remote and far-away, surrounded only by hungry tribes which regard the Pilgrimage Season merely as a great opportunity to exploit, and the pilgrims only as victims whose blood must be sucked and who must be killed if necessary.

This matter became increasingly serious in the age of the Sharifs, who are among the descendants of the Prophet. They ruled Makkah and Madina successively with the encouragement of the Fatimid rulers, and they came to have a kind of autonomy. They carried out some architectural repairs and administrative reforms, but they were extremely harsh to the pilgrims to God s House. They imposed taxes not only on each individual pilgrim but also on their baggage and the animals they rode. In the age of Saladin, one of these Sharifs was so greedy that he used to impose a tax of seven golden dinars on each pilgrim. He used to imprison the pilgrims and their camels in narrow pens in Jidda harbor. In spite of Saladin s power, he realized that force would not be of any use with this Sharif. And so he agreed with him that this oppressive tax would be stopped in return for consignments of wheat which he would send him each year. Saladin assigned the land tax from several villages in Egypt for this purpose. Indeed it is said that Saladin ended eighty kinds of tax and tolls imposed on pilgrims. Even the straps on pilgrims sandals did not escape taxation. In any case, this agreement did not last long. No sooner had Saladin died and his successors stopped sending wheat to the Sharif, than the latter reverted to his behavior of imprisoning pilgrims and robbing them of their money.

Ibrahim Rifaat Pasha, the Egyptian organizer of the pilgrimage describes for us in his famous memoirs how the Bedouins used to surround him and extract fees and tributes from him, although he was a military man accompanied by a contingent of soldiers. But he was aware that resistance would only cause the loss of many lives. However, no sooner had he finished negotiating with one tribe than another tribe would appear demanding new tributes. Indeed the guides of the caravans themselves deliberately led the caravans away from the normal roads and leave them as a prey for thieves with whom they had agreed before, and the incident would turn into a real massacre if there was any type of resistance from the caravan. According to the Imam Muhammad Rashid Rida, the only pilgrims who felt themselves safe were the African pilgrims, since they went on foot without possessing any worldly goods to be stolen. The poet Ahmad Shawqi wrote a long poem entitled The Pilgrims Clamored in which he appealed to the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid to save his Muslim subjects from the attacks of the Bedouins. The poet was not aware that the Sultan had become powerless to protect the capital of his kingdom, even his life itself, from the assaults of the janissaries, and that fate was preparing the way for another man to emerge from the depth of the desert, who would restore the lost security to the pilgrims to God s house and lay the foundation to establish the first modern state, namely Abdulaziz Ibn Saud.

The other problem which faced pilgrims in that arid desert was water. Its price during the Pilgrimage Season would multiply many times over, and perhaps hardly be available at all. The well of Zamzam and other springs in Makkah were not available to everybody, and whoever controlled them would take charge of them and impose the price he wanted. Most of the water which was available was brackish, dirty and full of sand, and the water carriers charged double if the pilgrim s tent was rather far away. Indeed, pilgrims used to wash themselves in ritual ablutions for prayers from the same tank from which the animals drank. Mirza Dawud, the Minister of Employment in Iran, wrote in his book of travels about the pilgrimage: I cannot forget the sight of that Egyptian woman whose tongue was dry from thirst, and she offered me a bracelet from her hand in exchange for a drink of water. When I gave her the water and refused to take the bracelet from her, she reached for my hand and kissed it, and wanted to bow down in front of my humble person. That day I gave away all the water I had, and I had nothing left from it to wash before prayers.

The Great Epidemic

However, all that was nothing compared to the spread of epidemics. These were not confined to the season and place of pilgrimage, but also traveled with the pilgrims to their countries. That is, they emerged from their narrow hiding place to the wide world, where they became a real disaster. To be fair to the truth, Makkah was innocent of being the origin of these epidemics, as it is a dry region with a constantly high temperature, so that it did not permit germs to grow and multiply. But the annual gathering of pilgrims is what created this problem. If we add to that the scarcity of water and lack of personal hygiene, as well as the slaughter of sacrifices and leaving them in the open air for many days to rot, all that upset the environmental balance in this narrow area. The problem would always come from pilgrims from southern India, Java, Malaysia and Indonesia who carried diseases like cholera and plague, which were always endemic in their countries. When there was contact between them and Muslims coming from the north, like pilgrims from Syria, Egypt and North Africa, these fatal diseases would be transmitted.

After the epidemic that occurred in 1865, the largest epidemic known to the world which continued for a long time, the British ship Sidney returned from Jidda loaded with masses of passengers infected with cholera. Although the English captain had thrown dozens of corpses into the sea, he lied when he arrived at Suez harbor, and told the authorities that everything was in order. Only two days later the epidemic spread in the city of Suez. The first victims were the captain and his wife, then the epidemic began to spread to the whole town, to which pilgrims were returning by train. In three months alone 60,000 people died. From Alexandria the epidemic infiltrated to Europe and swept through it. It also swept through Central Asia, indeed it crossed the Atlantic to settle in New York and Guadeloupe. The epidemic only disappeared after nine whole years.

As I said, the real miracle is this obligation continued to be performed in spite of all the death traps. The second miracle, indeed, is that most of these problems have ended, the traps have closed their mouths and the numbers of deaths have shrunk, except from people being crushed in dense crowds. Whoever sees these huge numbers of pilgrims, who sleep on pavements and in streets and tunnels and even in remote mountain areas without fear, is aware of the extent of security and calm which now prevails in Makkah. And sources of water are available free of charge in every place. The traditional riding animals have been replaced by fleets of buses and cars. Health care has increased to an astonishing degree. Although Makkah is one of the most crowded cities of the world, it is one of the cleanest. Whoever knows history and contemplates the present is aware that what is happening today is a real miracle.

Who Clothes the Stones?

There is no sight which makes more of an impression on the soul than that of the Sacred Kaaba, covered in black which has become its traditional color for decades. In the Pilgrimage Season these covers are raised slightly, to keep them away from shoving hands which could tear them, and also so that everyone may see the humble stones devoid of any decoration, which remind them of its desert origin.

I was not able to approach and touch the coverings of the Kaaba as I had hoped, as the jostling near it was deadly. There were also other lines of half-naked people sitting on the ground, holding onto the ropes which surround the Kaaba, so that the crowd would not pull them out. I had not imagined that I would be able to retreat and find a way to get out safely. I was aware that any attempt to get close to the Kaaba in the Pilgrimage Season is to risk unpleasant consequences. But I did not completely miss the opportunity. I was able to touch, even to examine, the kiswa (covering) which would be placed on the Kaaba in a few days. That happened when I visited the factory which makes the kiswa for the sacred Kaaba in the suburbs of Makkah.

The threads for the kiswa were of black silk woven slowly on hand looms, a traditional method which has not changed for hundreds of years. The threads are so fine that they modern machines are too violent for them. Two workers stand by each loom, one to cast the shuttle and the other to guide it to the threads which it must weave so that the required design is completed. For the first time I noticed that there were designs on the black kiswa, that we could not see except at very close quarters, squares standing out from a jakard design in which was written in Arabic O God there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God O Merciful O Beneficent . And in the other hall there were dozens of workers busily engaged in embroidering the belt which surrounds the Kaaba, and which is 43 metres long and 5.70 metres wide. The threads made from silver coated with gold were being completed, to go around the walls of the Kaaba on all sides and become a distinctive emblem of it. The verses of Surat Al-Ikhlas (Chapter 112 of the Holy Quran) were written at each corner of the Kaaba. Under the belt there are other verses and detailed ornamentation. The belt contains a collection of verses taken from Surat Al-Hajj (Chapter 22 of the Holy Quran).

The factory does not only manufacture the kiswa all the year round, although that does require precision and delicacy, but also makes the outside curtain which covers the door of the Kaaba. This is an artistic marvel of Arabic calligraphy. It also manufactures the green curtains which cover the Kaaba from the inside, as well as the curtains which cover the Rawda Al-Sharifa in the tomb of the Prophet (bpuh) in Madina. At the end of the tour, which in addition to that included the designing, printing and dyeing sections, I asked the supervisor in all seriousness, " Can I obtain a piece of the old Kiswa of the Kaaba?"

Of course, the man replied laughing, pitying my naivety. Bring me an order from His Majesty the King, an I'll give you what you want.

The pieces of the kiswa were the King s presents to kings and presidents who visit the Kingdom during the year. I had to content myself with only the honor of looking. Throughout history the kiswa of the Kaaba has been an honor received only by those who deserve it. After it was built the Kaaba remained bare for hundreds of years, but King Asaad of Himyar, who set out from Yemen intending to destroy the Ancient House, was the first to cover it. The House constantly used to give sleepless nights to the kings of Yemen, who wanted all the trading caravans from Syria in the north and from India in the east to come to them, instead of going always to the Sacred House. But the King of Himyar like the others was unable to reach the Kaaba, instead he was afflicted by illnesses which forced him to stop where he was. One of the Bedouins told him that he would not be cured of the curse of the illness unless he propitiated the Ancient House. The King of Himyar did that, and covered the Kaaba with colored Yemeni cloths. He was cured of his illness and was able to return to his country. Kiswas began to pour in for the Kaaba every year. All types of cloths known to the ancient world were hung on its walls, Yemeni striped cloth, Egyptian qabati, Iraqi panels, and Indian brocades and silks. Abdullah Al-Makhzoumi, one of the most famous rich men of Quraysh, used to cover the Kaaba one year, and Quraysh would cover it the next year. For this reason they called him the Equal, because he was equal to all the others. The Prophet (blessing and peace be upon him) did not cover the Kaaba until after the conquest of Makkah. These curtains were burnt when a woman was fumigating them, and he covered it after that. Then kiswas followed in succession from the Umayyad, and later the Abbasid, caliphs and amirs. No one dared to remove the old kiswa, which was left to disintegrate untill it fell down by itself. But kiswas accumulated until they threatened to cause the Kaaba itself to collapse. The Abbasid Caliph Al-Mahdi came for the pilgrimage, and ordered that all these old curtains be removed so that only one curtain would remain on it.

With the rise of the Fatimid state, and in view of the special relationship which it established with the Sharifs of Makkah, the responsibility for making the kiswa was transferred to Egypt. In the Mamluke period the first establishment to manufacture the kiswa was founded in Egypt. It included the elite of tailors, embroiderers and calligraphers in Egypt. As Dr. Baqadir states, the Mamlukes made the profits from five villages an endowment for this establishment, and soon increased these to seven, including Sandis, Santris and others. Before entering the establishment the workers used to perform ablutions in rose-scented water, and glorify God all the time they were at work. Through these masters the kiswa assumed its basic form: the color, the ornamentation and the written calligraphy. The departure of the kiswa in the direction of Makkah was a memorable day every year. It would be preceded by soldiers and the leaders of the Egyptian pilgrimage, and the mahmal bearing gifts for the inhabitants of Makkah. The whole of Cairo would turn out to watch it, in the midst of music, glorification of God s greatness, and supplications, until the caravan turned in its final direction to depart.

In 1965 political disagreements escalated between Saudi Arabia and Egypt because of the war in Yemen. The Saudi authorities believed that the kiswa was being exploited politically. And the massive development that occurred in Saudi Arabia had provided it with the ability to carry out the manufacture of the kiswa itself. It refused to receive the Egyptian kiswa and kept the old kiswa on the Kaaba for a whole year until its own factory was able to manufacture the new kiswa, and add to it from the accumulation of the years more decorations and innovations.

Forgiveness in Mina

When you emerge from the tunnel into the narrow valley of Mina, you feel how open-minded the pilgrimage is and how much it affects the soul. In this extended open space, the land is covered with millions of people thirsting for forgiveness. The Muslim poor are the raw material for the pilgrims, for whom the pilgrimage is the first and last journey of a lifetime. Every day I used to walk through narrow passages which their bodies left, with difficulty, on my way to throw pebbles. I would contemplate their faces tanned by the sun, and their frail bodies covered only by the humble cloths of the pilgrimage, and wonder what deep feeling of guilt was this from which they suffered, as they beseeched and did not stop beseeching. It was the open space of those who were granted that rare opportunity for self-purification. Sleeping on the ground, and the humiliation of this body which tormented them for so long with its desires, were their means for that. Mina gathered on its land gathered the diversities of the rich world of Islam, a mixture of Turks, Asians, flushed and yellow faces with narrow eyes, all of them equal on the land which was bare of all ornamentation. But the pilgrims who had come from South-East Asia inevitably caught my gaze. Their commitment to the seriousness of the pilgrimage, their teachings, and their attempt to bring order to it are a matter that arouses astonishment. It is an experience for us all as Muslims and we should take an example from it. From the time that a baby is born to them, his family open a bank account for him into which they put a sum of money every month, so that when he grows up and is old enough to fulfill the obligation, he finds this money ready. Then training for the pilgrimage follows that. Walking round the Kaaba, Arafat, going to the pebble throwing, all these exercises each one of them must do, and succeed in them, so that he becomes qualified to travel. They walk along in groups, each one carrying his umbrella and wearing a mask on his face to protect him from infectious diseases, and even more important he places round his neck a small bag in which to keep the pebbles which he will throw. They represent a new Islam, organized and advanced. It is subject to the rituals and tries to develop ways to perform them. In my view, if we followed their orderliness, that would reduce the suffering that we feel at the time of the pilgrimage, and would reduce the jostling, the overcrowding and the number of those who fall dead as a result of that.

The Dream of the Strangers

Makkah was and still is forbidden to non-Muslims, but this has not prevented European explorers from trying to enter it. They had a kind of insistence and frenzy which made them push their lives to the brink of danger and to change their destinies. They included thieves, vagabonds, adventurers, scholars, priests and professional spies, who set out from all countries of Europe. Their motive was one, the desire to get to know the first sources of this religion and to make sure that its strength would not rise up again. Feelings acted within them, the romantic view of discovering the desert intermingled with colonialist motives and the religious challenge in the land of the religion that had so long defied them. Some of them were fair, like the Dane Karsten Niebuhr, who wrote that as soon as one comes close to the Arabs, one becomes aware that their history goes back directly to the ancient ages that followed the Flood. In Europe, he went on, people like to imagine themselves the fathers of humanity, admiring the naïve adventures in which they indulge. Even the language with which they speak is subject to daily variation. What does all this represent compared with the ancient origins of the Arabs?

A Crusader knight called Renaud de Chatillon began a journey to infiltrate the sacred lands in 1189. He and his army wanted to reach Madina to destroy the Mosque of the Prophet (bpuh). In actual fact he wanted to steal the treasures which legends claimed were buried in the Prophet s tomb. But he was defeated by a Muslim fleet from Egypt commanded by Husam Al-Din Lu lu . At the Battle of Hittin in 1187 Renaud de Chatillon was captured by Saladin who executed him for the many crimes he had committed.

No Crusader army dared to attack the Arabian Peninsula again after that, although adventurers attempts did not cease. An Italian vagabond called Ludovico Farsima left Venice in 1502 and traveled to Syria. He was able to disguise himself as a pilgrim and join one of the caravans which left Damascus. Farsima s head was full of superstitions of the Renaissance age, so he gave an unrealistic description of the holy places in order to satisfy the imaginings of the European mentality about the strange things in that land. He claimed, for example, that there was an animal like a unicorn living in the sanctuary at Makkah, which claimed its victim every day from among the pilgrims. After the pilgrims had left, Farsima disappeared, and continued to wander around in the desert for seven whole months, until he went to Aden where he was arrested as a Christian spy.

The attempts of adventurers followed each other in succession. Some of them failed, while others were able in fact to infiltrate, and give testimonies of differing value. But the most important of them was Karsten Niebuhr, who was cited above. He was the last witness on the journey of death that included the mission of which he was one of the members. The mission was made up of six people, a doctor, a botanist, a linguist, a geologist, a naturalist and an artist, who was Niebuhr. King Frederick II of Denmark sent the mission. Its task was to explore the Arabian desert, or rather the places in which biblical events had occurred.

Niebuhr wandered a great deal in the Arabian desert after his mission had arrived in Yemen, and its members died one after the other. He continued to travel northwards until he arrived in the region of Hijaz, but he was not able to get near to Makkah. The local people told him that there were heavenly forces which guarded this region from desecration by strangers. No sooner did any unbeliever like him come close than hungry mad dogs would emerge and tear him to pieces. This frightened Niebuhr, so he contented himself with drawing the sights of the Hijaz region like its valleys and mountains.

Yet the Arabian desert never knew an adventurer like Burckhardt, although going there had not been his prime aim. What he had wanted was to go to Africa and discover the sources of the Nile, but he went first to Syria to learn Arabic. He lived in Aleppo among the local inhabitants, took on their characteristics and learnt their language fluently, so that he became an expert in religious knowledge, and it was said that the Governor of Makkah himself could not discover that he was not a Muslim. His plan was to go on the pilgrimage then return with one of the African caravans to Timbuktu, where he would begin his journey of a lifetime. With the help of the Governor of Egypt, who at that time was Muhammad Ali Pasha, Burckhardt managed to join the Egyptian pilgrimage caravan. But everything changed when he arrived in Makkah. He fell in love with the place, and said that if he were asked about the place where he would like to live for ever, this place would be Makkah. This love was translated into about 350 pages of warm words and a description of Makkah that left nothing for any other explorer to do.

The traveler who never calmed down was Richard Burton. One can say that he wrote a whole encyclopedia about the Arabian desert, in which he spoke about falcons, religious rituals, antiquities, snakes, mountains and singing. He had a rare skill at learning languages, of it was said that he could speak about 29. He traveled to Cairo where he became fluent in Arabic, and visited Al-Azhar frequently in order to learn more about the teachings of Islam. Then he traveled in disguise with a caravan of pilgrims to Makkah. He gave a precise description of that journey, and especially of Madina. When he arrived in Makkah he had completely integrated, so that he managed to enter the Kaaba, and push through the pilgrims in order to kiss the Black Stone. He later said that he had seen religious celebrations in many places, but they were not as majestic and awe-inspiring as the sight of pilgrims walking round the Kaaba.

The attempts did not stop, and the journeying did not cease to that narrow valley in the midst of the mountains of Makkah, as if there were powerful ties which drew them to this place. It is the heart of the world which never stops beating. The call which our forefather Abraham uttered, to visit the House will remain a latent yearning in the depths of the wombs and the cells of embryos until God takes hold of the Earth and those on it.


Muhammad Al-Munsi Qandil


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