Written by David W. Tschanz
Roped four abreast, the column of camels shuffled in the darkness across the rocky plain, each following the shadowy forms of the four in front. The drivers and passengers intermittently dozed in the saddle, then jerked awake, then dozed again. From a distance the sweeping train was marked by the swaying of lanterns and the faint accompaniment of tambourines.
In the east the sky lightened, marking the caravan's 40th morning, now in a landscape shaped by volcanic upheavals. As the sun rose, so did the temperature. Camels gurgled, brayed, balked and strode on, as tired as the pilgrims riding them and the hardy ones on foot, all stolidly going on at the insistent command of the caravan leaders.
It was a sharp-eyed camel boy at the head of the column who first spotted the tiny smudge on the horizon, appearing, then disappearing in the shimmering light. Pushing toward it, the caravan moved onto the floor of a small valley, then forced its way up a steep ridge and stopped. Everyone looked, their gazes awash with emotion born of a lifetime of faith and months, even years, of travel. In the valley of Abraham not far off, its whitewashed houses glistening in a little island of green, was the realization of the pilgrims' extraordinary exertions: Makkah, the City of God.
he Hajj, as the pilgrimage to Makkah is called in Arabic, is the fifth and final pillar of Islam. Performing it at least once is required of every Muslim who is able. A deeply spiritual event, it underscores the historical continuity of Islam's 14 centuries. By returning to pray at the site of the Ka'bah, and by commemorating in the rites of the ‘Id al-Adha Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son at God's command, Muslims annually reinforce the links that bind them to each other, to the Prophet Muhammad and to the beginnings of monotheism.
From Islam's earliest years in the seventh century, the desire to perform the Hajj set large numbers of people traveling to Makkah, the heart of Islam, and to Madinah, the city where the first Muslim community formed and where the Prophet Muhammad is buried. As a result, certain existing trade roads took on new importance and new routes developed that crisscrossed the Muslim world. To ease the pilgrims' journey, and for the sake of reward in the hereafter, rulers and wealthy patrons built caravanserais, supplied water and provided protection along these roads to Makkah and Madinah. Individual Muslims, in the name of charity, helped others to make the journey, and giving to poor pilgrims was considered a pious act.
So beyond what each pilgrim's Hajj meant to him or her spiritually, the Hajj took on great importance as a social phenomenon, contributing enormously to forging a melded Islamic culture and a worldwide Islamic community whose shared characteristics bridged differences of nationality, ethnicity and custom.
Over the centuries, the padding of human and animal feet and the muffled sounds of their caravans were heard through every valley, village and mosque from the Atlantic shores of Africa and the Iberian Peninsula to the Pacific coast of China, from Zanzibar in the south to the Caucasus and Central Asia in the north. The stream of pilgrims passed even the most out-of-the-way corner of the Dar al-Islam (the Islamic world), and everywhere everyone knew someone who had been on the Hajj. Each passing pilgrim was a tangible reminder of the scope of the faith and the reach of the culture.
|Paintings by one or more anonymous artists appear in The Maqamat (The Assemblies) of al-Hariri, a collection of stories and poetry that the author wrote in Baghdad near the beginning of the 12th century. It was recopied many times, and the paintings date from the early 13th century. Above, a group of pilgrims sets off toward the Holy Cities. (Photos12 / Bibliothèque Nationale De France.)|
Hajj was the heartbeat of the Earth's first genuinely transcontinental culture. The Dar al-Islam, for nearly a millennium, was a composite Afro-Eurasian free-trade zone through which not only pilgrims but also traders, merchants and bureaucrats traveled with relative freedom and ease. By creating and nurturing this commons, the Hajj expanded the possibilities of science, commerce, politics and religion.
Pilgrims quickly discovered that, within the vast network of the Hajj, they were never really outsiders. Music, dress and accent could change a dozen times between Tangier and Delhi or between Samarkand and Makkah, yet the calendar, etiquette and much of human behavior remained almost identical. Everywhere Muslims prayed five times at the same times each day facing Makkah, everywhere they fasted together during Ramadan, everywhere they joined the pilgrims in sacrificing an animal at the end of the Hajj rituals, everywhere they practiced hospitality, and everywhere they drew their laws from the Qur'an.
Commerce was supported by the system of caravan and sea routes. The closer one got to Makkah, the more the Hajj roads were the main arteries of this system, swelling with pilgrims from all points of the compass. No traveler came to the Holy Cities empty-handed, for some carried goods to pay their way, others bore local news that they carried among the provinces, and more learned ones brought the latest concepts and ideas, essential nutrients for the intellectual life of the Dar al-Islam.
The Hajj likewise affected many who were not on the road. The desire to assist the pilgrim's orientation, observation and movements spurred Muslim advances in mathematics, optics, astronomy, navigation, transportation, geography, education, medicine, finance, culture and even politics. The constant flow of pilgrims turned the trails into channels of cultural and intellectual ferment.
|Two of The Maqamat’s characters, al-Harith and the narrator and traveler Abu Zayd, bid each other farewell before the pilgrimage. (Art Resource / Erich Lessing / Bibliothèque Nationale De France, MS. ARABE 58747, FOL.22.)|
To go on the Hajj during the first 13 centuries of Islam required far more than booking a flight through a travel agent. It was an extraordinarily long and difficult marathon across often unforgiving terrain, and an individual's travel could take years or even decades if he had to stop en route to work and save before setting out again. The land routes were often littered with the remains of caravans ravaged by raiding tribes, stricken by disease, short of water or just plain lost, and every seafaring pilgrim knew that the sea had swallowed many a boat. The risks often taxed pilgrims to their limits, but this did little to inhibit the remarkably steady flow of the Hajj. It outlasted empires and persisted through war, famines and plagues.
The journeys of the past inspired Muslims for centuries and provided images and experiences of real sacrifice, absolute faith and exaltation. The Hajj—or more precisely, the pilgrims, the caravans and the routes that comprised it—became the glue binding together the whole of Islamic civilization. The journey to Makkah has always been more than just the destination.
An old man and a young man of modest means take their rest in front of the fine tents of wealthy pilgrims. (Art Resource / Giraudon / Institute of Oriental Studies, St. Petersburg, MS. C-23, FOL. 438.)
aravan travel is probably as old as civilization. Most pilgrims experienced two segments of it, the first, the journey between home and one of the three great marshaling points at Baghdad, Cairo or Damascus. From there, the second segment was the formal, annual Hajj caravan to Makkah.
To reach the marshaling points, some came by boat, braving the waters of the Red, Black, Mediterranean or Arabian Seas, as well as the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The vast majority, however, spent months slowly crossing great tracts of land. Pilgrimage from lands such as Indonesia or Morocco could entail round-trip journeys of 16,000 kilometers (10,000 mi) or more. In the 14th century, it took Ibn Battuta nine months to traverse just the northern coast of Africa, from Tangier to Cairo.
Some part of the distance and duration was by design. Some outlying Hajj roads do not follow the shortest distance between two points, but were intended to allow the pilgrim to visit mosques and holy places along the way to Makkah. For the pilgrim, the Hajj was not merely a religious duty, but also a process of personal renewal and growth.
Pilgrims carried the provisions they needed. The inbound caravans were well-supplied if the person traveling were rich, but the poor often ran short, and they often interrupted their journeys to work, save up their earnings and continue.
Until about 1930, when King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud brought the tribes of Arabia under one flag, the pilgrims' danger was greater the nearer they came to the Holy Cities. The climate was harshest in the Hijaz, where water was at its scarcest and banditry by tribes who made a living on caravans of all sorts was at its most rampant. Together, these factors made joining one of the major caravans a virtual necessity, and protecting those caravans became a major responsibility of the ruling power of the time. Failure to assure the security of the Hajj caravan was seen as a tacit abdication of political legitimacy.
Although some pilgrims always came to Makkah by sea, through the port of Jiddah, their numbers were far less significant than overland travelers' until the 19th century. Likewise, while there were also northbound caravans from Yemen, their numbers too paled by comparison with the great caravans from Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad.