The Arrival of the Great Caravan, Medinah, 1852

But how describe’ the utter confusion in the crowding, the bustling, and the vast variety and volume of sound? Huge white Syrian dromedaries, compared with which those of El-Hejaz appeared mere pony-camels, jingling large bells, and bearing Shugdufs (litters) like miniature green tents, swaying and tossing upon their backs; gorgeous Takhtrawan, or litters carried between camels or mules, with scarlet and brass trappings; Bedawin bestriding naked-backed “Daluls” (dromedaries), and clinging like apes to the hairy humps; Arnaut, Kurd, and Turkish Irregular Cavalry, fiercer looking in their mirth than Roman peasants in their rage; fainting Persian pilgrims, forcing their stubborn camels to kneel, or dismounted grumbling from jaded donkeys; Kahwajis, sherbet sellers, and ambulant tobacconists crying their goods; countrypeople driving flocks of sheep and goats with infinite clamor through lines of horses fiercely snorting and biting and kicking and rearing; towns-people seeking their friends; returned travellers exchanging affectionate salutes; devout Hajis jostling one another, running under the legs of camels, and tumbling over the tents’ ropes in their hurry to reach the Haram; cannon roaring from the citadel; shopmen, water-carriers, and fruit vendors fighting over their bargains; boys bullying heretics with loud screams; a well-mounted party of fine old Arab Shaykhs of the Hamidah clan, preceded by their varlets, performing the Arzah or war dance, —compared with which the Pyrenean bear’s performance is grace itself,—firing their duck-guns upwards, or blowing the powder into the calves of those before them, brandishing their swords, leaping frantically the while, with their bright-colored rags floating in the wind, tossing their long spears tufted with ostrich feathers high in the air, reckless where they fall; servants seeking their masters, and masters their tents, with vain cries of Ya Mohammed ;l grandees riding mules or stalking on foot, preceded by their crowd-beaters, shouting to clear the way; here the loud shrieks of women and children, whose litters are bumping and rasping against one another; there the low moaning of some poor wretch that is seeking a shady corner to die in : add a thick dust which blurs the outlines like a London fog, with a flaming sun that draws sparkles of fire from the burnished weapons of the crowd, and the brass balls of tent and litter; and—I doubt, gentle reader, that even the length, the jar, and the confusion of this description is adequate to its subject, or that any ” wordpainting” of mine can convey a just idea of the scene.

Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Meccah and Medinah, Sir Richard Francis Burton

12 thoughts on “The Arrival of the Great Caravan, Medinah, 1852”

  1. That reminds me of this

    They met a troop of long-haired, strong-scented Sansis with baskets of lizards and other unclean food on their backs, the lean dogs sniffing at their heels. These people kept their own side of the road, moving at a quick, furtive jog-trot, and all other castes gave them ample room; for the Sansi is deep pollution. Behind them, walking wide and stiffly across the strong shadows, the memory of his leg-irons still on him, strode one newly released from the jail; his full stomach and shiny skin to prove that the Government fed its prisoners better than most honest men could feed themselves. Kim knew that walk well, and made shrill jest of it as they passed. Then an Akali, a wild-eyed, wild-haired Sikh devotee in the bluechecked clothes of his faith, with polished-steel quoits glistening on the cone of his tall blue turban, stalked past, returning from a visit to one of the independent Sikh States, where he had been singing the ancient glories of the Khalsa to College-trained princelings in top-boots and white-cord breeches. Kim was careful not to irritate that man; for the Akali’s temper is short and his arm quick. Here and there they met or were overtaken by the gaily dressed crowds of whole villages turning out to some local fair; the women, with their babes on their hips, walking behind the men, the older boys prancing on sticks of sugar-cane, dragging rude brass models of locomotives such as they sell for a halfpenny, or flashing the sun into the eyes of their betters from cheap toy mirrors. One could see at a glance what each had bought; and if there were any doubt it needed oaly to watch the wives comparing, brown arm against brown arm, the newly purchased dull glass bracelets that come from the Northwest. The merry-makers stepped slowly, calling one to the other and stopping to haggle with sweetmeat-sellers, or to make a prayer before one of the wayside shrines — sometimes Hindu, sometimes Mussalman — which the low caste of both creeds shared with beautiful impartiality. A solid line of blue rising and falling like the back of a caterpillar in haste, would swing up through the quivering dust and trot past to a chorus of shrill cackling. That was a gang of changars — the women who have taken all the embankments of all the Northern railways under their charge — a flat-footed, big-bosomed, strong-limbed, blue-petticoated clan of earth-carriers, hurrying north on news of a job, and wasting no time by the road. They belong to the caste whose men do not count, and they walked with squared elbows, swinging hips, and heads on high, as suits women who carry heavy weights. A little later a marriage procession would strike into the Grand Trunk with music and shoutings, and a smell of marigold and jasmine stronger even than the reek of the dust. One could see the bride’s dhooly, a blur of red and tinsel, staggering through the haze, while the bridegroom’s bewreathed pony turned aside to snatch a mouthful from a passing fodder-cart. Then THm would join the Kentish fire of good wishes and broad jokes, wishing the couple a hundred sons and no daughters, as the saying is. Still more interesting and more to be shouted over it was when a strolling juggler with some half-trained monkeys, or a panting, feeble bear, or a woman who tied goats’ horns to her feet, and with these danced on a slack-rope, set the horses to shying and the women to shrill, long-drawn quavers of amazement.

  2. Kim is one of my favorite books.

    Have you seen Hopkirk’s “The Quest for Kim“? I have it sitting there … . I’ll get to it.

    I have at least one Kipling biography at home. I will see if there is any reference to Burton. However, Burton was a popular and well-known writer, and would have been pretty much universally known.

  3. I haven’t seen “The Quest.” It looks fabulous. As does the same author’s book on the Silk Road.

    I love “Kim,” which I came to late, having ignored my father’s pleas to read it as a kid.

  4. David Gilmour’s biography of Kipling is the one I’ve got here. It mentions Burton as the inspiration for one Kipling character. I think there must be more of an influence there.

  5. “Back when the world wasn’t so known, travel writing wasn’t so much about being entertaining, or about letting the writer’s persona run wild. The point was to describe the world rather than to dance upon its stage. The purpose was to transport people to another part of the world in an edifiying, Victorian kind of way. It was something to make readers who couldn’t see the world become more worldly. It was more education than entertainment or art.”

    – Madhu (via Arts and Letters Daily)

  6. The Dickens piece was interesting, but since I can never go to Mecca and I can’t travel back to the Grand Trunk Road as it was in the time of “Kim,” I’m grateful to both authors for letting me hitch a ride on their shoulders. And though both passages are long on description they’re teeming with life.

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