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Gabriel Audisio

The Momentous Pilgrimage to Mecca

Toward the end of the year 802, Harun al-Rashid conducted a pilgrimage to Mecca. He was accompanied by many important persons: his two sons, Amin and Mamun, the designated heirs; his half-brother Ibrahim; and the Barmecide chiefs, notably Yahia and Jafar, who, though busy with their functions as viziers, were directed to join the pilgrimage.

Thousands of the faithful were assembled at Bagdad, gathered together from distant regions of Persia and India. They had completed the various rites of atonement and crossed the thresholds of their dwellings right foot first. The courtyards of the inns were thronged with turbulent crowds of people, stamping steeds, baggage, retainers, petty merchants, jugglers, snake-charmers, minstrels, fortune-tellers, money-lenders, and thieves. Nervous mares pawed the ground violently and broke their thongs; tethered camels uttered their doleful cries, and famished dogs prowled about among the beggars. Relatives and friends were giving their blessing to the pilgrims, jostling one another to see this mob pass by, to salute the passing of the sovereign's litter, and behold the sumptuous carpet which he was taking to he consecrated at the temple of the Kaaba.

The caravan got into motion at last. It swayed on towards the South over a rough road that traversed arid plateaus, stony valleys and sandy deserts before it finally reached the holy places. No one considered the hardships of the journey. Faces were illumined by the light of the Faith, a hope of reaching, some day, the house of Allah, foreseen dimly in distant mirages of torrid suns. Spirits rose high at the thought of kissing the Black Stone and going home eventually adorned with the noble title of had ji, to be welcomed amid great enthusiasm and popular rejoicings. Yet many an over-zealous graybeard who hoped for a rebirth of vigor would perish pathetically on the way, stretched out, shivering with fever, in the gruding shade of a pistachio tree or huddled against a milestone.

The caravan headed steadily towards the South, entering the barren regions of Arabia. Sunken eyes in hard, thin faces fixed themselves more and more desperately on the goal toward which they were bound. Harun was grave. No one could have read his thoughts as with head bent low he stroked his beard in silence. His companions would not have noticed his abstraction anyway. The close hot air was wearing down their spirits. The jars of snow that they had brought along for drinking were all dried up and thirst had bound their tongues with a bitter silence. They could think of nothing now but finding wells for their halting-places, deep pools of the brackish water which must be located to avoid leaving a grisly pastureland for vultures. In the salons of Bagdad they had often joked about the fat Bedouins of Arabia, those lizard-eaters! They felt now that they might have been better employed in planning repairs to water holes, and mapping the oases in this country. This was a moment for making vows and donating new wells, cisterns and refuges for pilgrims. Harun and Ibrahim were very assiduous in these promises to God, especially after Ibrahim had gone through a painful ordeal of thirst.

One evening, when the caravan was about to make camp, it was discovered that Ibrahim was missing. Harun was very anxious and agitated. He could not easily spare this rare companion who was the life of his company. "O Allah," he murmured, "do not let him get lost without water in this barren waste!" Camp fires were already flaming brightly and the cool of the evening was spreading rapidly over the scorched earth. The pilgrims were gathered close to reassure one another against the perils of the night, to await dawn and the morning sun glorified by the Prophet. Ibrahim did not appear. Harun sent horsemen and couriers on camels in all directions to explore the shadows.

But Ibrahim, unnoticed by his companions, had fallen asleep by the roadside in the noonday warmth, and when he awoke the caravan had disappeared. He was lost. At once he started to hunt the trail. He thought he remembered it and walked his horse a hundred steps to the left. Nothing there but undisturbed sand. He traced the hundred steps towards the right. Again, nothing. Now he could not even identify his napping place, nor the footprints of his horse. The animal lifted its head and sniffed the air, quivering. Ibrahim was warm and thirsty. He prayed to Allah for help, then went on to meet his fate whatever it might be. . . . Suddenly the tent of a nomad appeared before him, near a little cupola that sheltered a well. Was it only a mirage? His mouth watered. "Allah, spare Thy creature!" Ibrahim urged his horse forward and approached the well timidly, but it did not recede. Praise to Him, the Most High!

A man was sleeping near the tent. Ibrahim hailed him.

"Hola! get up, fellow!"

The man awoke and got up. He was a huge negro with great red eyes like two cups filled with blood. Ibrahim, thinking this fantastic apparition must surely be a phantom, dared not believe his eyes at first, but he finally summoned up his courage and cried:

"Come, black man! draw me some water from that well!"

The negro did not move, but replied lazily: "If you are thirsty, why do you not get down and drink?"

Ibrahim, however, did not dare to get off his horse. The animal was restless and if left alone might disappear. Then he would be deserted and helpless, abandoned in the desert with a phantom of human being and near a stream which might, after all, be completely dry. Suddenly the artist in him had a divine inspiration. Ibrahim the singer began to intone in a shaking voice:

If I die, O my friends,

leave my body in some soft meadowland,

that I may drink there from a spring:

near Ajaj is an April camping ground,

near Kuba is an August pastureland:

during winter the water is as warm

as it is cool in summer,

gleaming always

like a gracious full moon.

This voice, rising in the desert, had an extraordinary effect. The black slave was fascinated by it. Trembling like one under a spell, he filled a gourd, poured the water into a vase and held it up to the singer. Ilbrahim took long, deep draughts, while the slave beat his head and breast crying:

"Oh, how ,my bosom burns! Oh, how my heart flames! Master, master, sing again and I will pour forever!"

Ibrahim drank again.

"Master, you are a long way from the trail. You could never find it alone. You will be thirsty. See, I will fill my gourd and carry it before you!"

They set out. The black, gourd on shoulder, skipped along ahead while Ibrahim on his horse, scanning the road, sang the song of the desert.

By nightfall they had caught up with the caravan of the pilgrims and were received with shouts of joy. Harun embraced his brother closely and generously recompensed the negro who had brought him back. Around the crackling fires they listened long to Ibrahim telling his story. It was more thrilling than a legend, a real adventure touching on the marvelous. Harun encouraged Ibrahim to talk on and on. It had been days and days since any one had seen the Caliph smile.

"Labbeika, ya rabbi, labbeika!"  At last the caravan had reached the outskirts of sacred territory, it had passed the sacramental stations, and was entering the Holy City of Mecca, the city of God. The pilgrims seemed to feel their souls dissolve within them as they shouted in the direction of the Temple: "Labbeika, ya rabbi, labbeika!  here I am, all Thine, O my Master, all Thine!"


Holy Mecca and the sacred black Kaaba on which was hung the document naming the Caliph's successors.

For ten days and nights the ceremonies continued according to custom. Harun, as chief of the pilgrims, had donned a penitential cloak and leather sandals like Abraham, the father of Islam. The pilgrims prayed, kissed the stone blackened by the sins of man, and walked seven times round the Kaaba, draped in its new covering of silk and gold, the offering of the Caliph. They drank water from the well of Zemzen which had long ago quenched the thirst of Hagar and her son after they were driven out by Abraham. They went from the Mina to the Arafat, threw pebbles to drive away demons, and made sacrifices.

Harun al-Rashid acquitted himself punctiliously of all his pious devotions, but his soul was a prey to heavy anguish. He sank to the ground before the Kaaba and prayed from the very depths of his heart:

"O Thou, that hearest our troubles, that goest before us in all things, Thou that clothest our bodies and bringest back the dead, I pray Thee by Thy greatest title, the most sublime, hidden and mysterious ever known. Beneficent Allah, whose patience is inexhaustible, most gracious God, whose favors are as eternal as they are plentiful, come to the help of Thy servant!"

Not far from Harun, Yahia was also praying. A vague anxiety weighed on him and fears which he could not formulate. But he murmured to the All-Highest:

"O Allah, if Thy plan be to remove from me the temporal prosperity granted to me in this life, if it be Thy will to take away my material possessions and my family, take them, O Allah! But spare to me my well-loved son Fadl!" Then he prostrated himself in the dust and began to murmur again:

"O Lord, unfortunate is he, indeed, who like myself dares to hold back anything from Thee! O Allah, if it must be, take Fadl also from me!"

To relieve his torment Yahia multiplied his alms and gifts. When he rode, he carried at his saddle several purses filled with money which he distributed here and there, greatly exciting the Meccans. They went about proclaiming the glory of their benefactors. Local poets sang ardent dithyrambs:

When the Barmecides honor the valleys of Mecca

with their presence, a new sun rises over this city:

Bagdad is then wrapped in darkness,

for Night, embracing the Holy City,

dissolves in the brilliance of borrowed stars,

capable of eclipsing the lustre of three full moons!

From all directions flattering words surrounded them. Some said that they were to their period like a white spot on the forehead of a horse. Others likened them to oceans, to irresistible torrents, to benevolent breezes which bring down clouds to water the earth. Reports of these compliments reached Harun and made him sullen. Even here the pomp and popularity of his ministers persisted in annoying him.

Jafar did not share his father's anxious forebodings. While acquitting himself most correctly of his religious obligations, his mind was dwelling all the while on the pleasant soirees awaiting him in Bagdad. He disliked these Meccan profiteers, the miserable herd of pilgrims, and wanted to leave as soon as possible this insupportably hot country of thirst and weariness, to enjoy again his gorgeous gardens and palaces.

It remained only to settle this affair of the succession to the throne which was on the program of the trip. This eternal problem was then confronting Harun as it had, at one time or another, confronted all of the sovereigns of Islam. It was rather a painful subject to him but he discussed it with his intimates. Some praised Amin highly. When Mamun was mentioned, they said that he was "a pleasant pastureland" but not such likely material as "the thorn of iron." Others, on the contrary, strongly favored Mamun. 'Some crafty ones like al-Asmai got out of it by cryptic replies or noncommittal persiflage. The Caliph remained perplexed, convinced in any case that the wisest decision would, after all, come from Yahia: "Master of men," he had said, to Harun, "any blunder may be retrieved except a blunder touching the succession to the throne."

After much hesitation, Harun had at first chosen al-Amin, son of Zubaida. He was a pure Hashimite and had, like her, the support of the orthodox Arabian following; moreover, unlike all the other Abbassid sovereigns, he could boast of not being born of a slave. But Yahia wisely advised a careful consideration of internal politics and the necessity of granting some pledge to the Persian factions. He was strongly backed up by Jafar who was tutor to Mamun, the son of a Persian slave, and they finally persuaded the Caliph to designate this other son for second place. Harun then added a third eventual successor, the young al-Qasim. Were the three brothers to succeed each other in this order on the death of their father? The Caliph knew better than any one else how such a triple succession might work out, so at all costs he determined to give inviolable authority to his arrangements by putting them under the protection of religion and the holy places. Papers were drawn up which settled not only the order of the succession but even its procedure. At Harun's death the caliphate was first to pass to Amin: he would have all the spiritual authority and a nominal supreme power. Meanwhile, the empire was to be divided into two parts. Amin, at Bagdad, would reign directly over Arabia, Syria, Egypt and North Africa, which were Arabian countries; while Mamun, at Merv, would be sovereign of the Oriental Persian provinces. In case of the death of one or the other, the entire empire was to be united under the authority of the survivor who, at his own death, would leave the power to al-Qasim.

This arrangement was clever and well-intentioned but, aimed at pleasing every one, it ended by pleasing no one. In abstract theory it was a wise plan, but it was full of menace in actual practice. The Roman Empire had been destroyed by the Chimera of Partition, and that of Charlemagne was even now going the same way.

One can see why the Caliph judged it wise to invoke the power and authority of the Holy Places, but it is amazing to find him so ingenuous as to trust that no one would ever dare break faith with a path solemnly sworn to! Documents were therefore drawn up to consummate this agreement. They were countersigned by high court dignitaries and, the pilgrimage over, were to be formally hung up on the wall of the Kaaba beside the famous poetry of Antar and the ante-Islamic poets.

In the temple itself, before the nobles and the people, the two brothers, Muhammad al-Amin (which means "The Sure") and Abdallah al-Mamun ("He-in-whom-one-has-confidence") bound themselves by solemn vows to obey the will of their father and always respect each other's rights religiously.

As they came out of the Temple, Jafar, who, had little confidence in his pupil's rival, could not refrain from shouting at Amin the Sure: "May Allah curse you if you ever betray your father!" This remark naturally increased the ill-will of Zubaida and that of the followers of her offspring, who already hated Jafar. It was the sort of hate that burns steadily, but for the moment both factions knew enough to control themselves.

It now remained to end the ceremony by hanging the documents on the Kaaba wall. A man took them up in trembling hands, and was about to attach the parchments when they slipped from his hands and well to the feet of the onlookers. A subdued murmur arose, followed by heavy silence, as the papers were hastily rescued and finally adjusted. The crowd was dumbfounded and somewhat frightened. They talked of the mishap to one another, and the rumor of it spread through the land like wildfire.

A Bedouin of the tribe of Hudhayl, who was starting home to his city of tents, went away murmuring: "Promises will be broken, fire is about to break out. . . ." His companion of the road seized his hand. "Unhappy one!" he cried. "What are you saying?"

"I am saying that sabres are coming out of the scabbards. I see a camel, standing still, and two crows wallowing in blood! As God is my witness, it will end with wars and devastation!"

There was no need of more mystic signs to draw the gravest inferences. Doubtless that was what Harun and his company were thinking when, once more, they took the road to Bagdad.