Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, is the mandatory religious duty a Muslim must perform at least once in their lifetime. For centuries, the Attabukiyah, the 1,300 km long Syrian Hajj Road linking Damascus to Mecca was the main thoroughfare.
In the old days Hajj didn’t only have a religious implication; it also expanded the possibilities of science, commerce and politics in the Islamic world. Hajj pilgrims would have carried with them the exotic goods from home to pay their way, others bore the latest concepts and ideas - the essentials of the intellectual life of the Islamic World. This would in turn inspire Muslim advances in mathematics, optics, astronomy, navigation, transportation, geography, education, medicine, finance, culture and even politics.
The Attabukiyah was by and large Arabia’s own ‘Silk Road’.
'Pilgrims going to Mecca' (1861) by French painter Léon Belly (1827-1877). It depicts the column of pilgrims' caravan on Hajj towards Mecca. Notice the different clothings, including a pilgrim in his white Chokha, the long cloak with front-breasted pockets for bullets, native to the Caucasian mountains.
In the 16th century, Arabia became part of the Ottoman Empire’s possession, and so did the organisation of Hajj. Under the leadership of the Emir al-Hajj, the ‘Commander of the Pilgrims’, caravan of Muslim pilgrims once stretched across miles of hostile desert, following the very road that Mohammed would have used in his early years as a merchant.
Back then, to have earned the honorific title ‘Haji’, meaning someone who has successfully completed their Hajj, was not an easy task. This stretch of desert was notorious for Bedouin raiding and was extremely dangerous. In response the Ottomans constructed a series of Hajj forts along the way, protecting the pilgrims and traders on their long journey to the Holy Cities.
It resembles a typical caravanserai in the Middle East, with a huge courtyard presumably for the keeping of animals in the middle. A pool was constructed just a stone throw’s away – as water scarcity was another very real threat in this hospitable landscape. A large mihrab on the southern end of the ground floor is the only surviving evident of the piety of centuries of passing pilgrims.
To get ready for the night, we had chosen the upper level as our ‘bedroom’, where we could have a commanding view of the surrounding valley and the gatehouse below in case there were to be any unexpected visitors approaching at night. It was around here that the Hajj caravan was attacked by the Bani Sakr tribesmen in 1757. 20,000 pilgrims died as a result, many were killed, others were stripped and died from thirst and exposure in the desert. One of them was the the Ottoman Sultan’s own sister. Although modern travellers no longer have to worry about Bedouin raiding, and ultimately there are not much you can do being out and exposed in the desert alone, I thought it would be a good idea to keep an eye on things, just to be on the safe side.
After a particularly sandy dinner, we had rearranged a few stones against the wind, set up our sleeping bags and braced ourselves for the freezing night. Despite my down sleeping bag, a down jacket and another layer of a waterproof jacket with a fleece lining, it was becoming clear that they were not going to be enough. This was the desert where Lawrence of Arabia wrote about having to wake up and discovered a few of his companions dead – from exposure during the night.
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I like to travel, and I like to find out about things so I have created this blog to share what I saw on my journeys.
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