Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
M. B. Synge

Arab Wayfarers

A ND now we leave the fierce energy of the Northmen westwards and turn to another energy, which was leading men toward the east, to the lands beyond the Euphrates, to India, across central Asia, even into far Cathay.

These early travellers to the east were for the most part Arabs. Mohammed had bidden his followers to spread his teaching far and wide; this teaching had always appealed more to the eastern than to the western mind. So farther and farther to the east travelled the Arabs, converting the uncivilised tribes that Christianity had not reached.

What a contrast are these Arabs to the explorers of the vigorous north. They always travelled by land and not by that sea which was life to the Viking folk. To the Arabs the encircling ocean was a very "Sea of Darkness"; indeed, the unknown ocean beyond China was called the "Sea of Pitchy Darkness." Their creed taught that the ocean was boundless, so that ships dared not venture out of sight of land, for there was no inhabited country beyond, and mariners would assuredly be lost in mists and fogs. So, while the Vikings tossed fearlessly about the wild northern seas, the Arab wayfarers rode eastward by well-known caravan tracks, trading and teaching the ways of Mohammed. Arabic enterprise had pushed on far beyond Ptolemy's world. The Arab centre lay in the city of Bagdad, the headquarters of the ruler or Khalif of the Mohammedan world. They had already opened up a considerable trade with the rapidly rising Mongol Empire, which no European had yet reached.

But as this country was to play a large part in the travels of the near future, it will be interesting to hear the account given by two Mohammedan friends who journeyed thither in the year 881, just four hundred years before Marco Polo's famous account. The early part of their story is missing, and we raise the curtain when they have arrived in the land of China itself, then a very small empire compared with what it is now.


A Khalif on his throne.

"The Emperor of China reckons himself next after the King of the Arabs, who they all allow to be the first and beyond all dispute the most powerful of kings, because he is the head of a great religion. In this great kingdom of China they tell us there are over two hundred cities; each city has four gates, at each of which are five trumpets, which the Chinese sound at certain hours of the day and of the night. There are also within each city ten drums, which they beat at the same time as a public token of their obedience to the Emperor, as also to signify the hour of the day and of the night, to which end they also have dials and clocks with weights.

"China is a pleasant and fruitful country; the air is much better than the Indian provinces: much rain falls in both these countries. In India are many desert tracts, but China is inhabited and peopled throughout its whole extent. The Chinese are handsomer than the Indians, and come nearer the Arabs, not only in countenance, but in dress, in their way of riding, in their manners, and in their ceremonies. They wear long garments and girdles in form of belts. The Chinese are dressed in silk both winter and summer, and this kind of dress is common to the prince and the peasant. Their food is rice, which they often eat with a broth which they pour upon the rice. They have several sorts of fruits, apples, lemons, quinces, figs, grapes, cucumbers, walnuts, almonds, plums, apricots, and cocoanuts."


A Chinese Emperor giving audience, ninth century.

Here, too, we get the first mention of tea, which was not introduced into Europe for another seven hundred years, but which formed a Chinese drink in the ninth century. This Chinese drink "is a herb or shrub, more bushy than the pomegranate tree and of a more pleasant scent, but somewhat bitter to the taste. The Chinese boil water and pour it in scalding hot upon this leaf, and this infusion keeps them from all distempers."

Here, too, we get the first mention of china ware. "They have an excellent kind of earth, wherewith they make a ware of equal fineness with glass and equally transparent."

There is no time here to tell of all the curious manners and customs related by these two Mohammedans. One thing struck them as indeed it must strike us to-day. "The Chinese, poor and rich, great and small, learn to read and write. There are schools in every town for teaching the poor children, and the masters are maintained at public charge . . . . The Chinese have a stone ten cubits high erected in the public squares of their cities, and on this stone are engraved the names of all the medicines, with the exact price of each; and when the poor stand in need of physic they go to the treasury where they receive the price each medicine is rated at."

It was out of such travels as these that the famous romance of "Sindbad the Sailor" took shape—a true story of Arab adventures of the ninth and tenth centuries in a romantic setting. As in the case of Ulysses, the adventures of many voyages are ascribed to one man and related in a collection of tales which bears the title of The Arabian Nights.

Of course, Sindbad was a native of Bagdad, the Arab centre of everything at this time, and of course he journeyed eastwards as did most Mohammedans.

"It occurred to my mind," says Sindbad, "to travel to the countries of other people; then I arose and collected what I had of effects and apparel and sold them, after which I sold my buildings and all that my hand possessed and amassed three thousand pieces of silver. So I embarked in a ship, and with a company of merchants we traversed the sea for many days and nights. We had passed by island after island and from sea to sea and land to land, and in every place we sold and bought and exchanged merchandise. We continued our voyage until we arrived at an island like one of the gardens of Paradise."

Here they anchored and lit fires, when suddenly the master of the ship cried aloud in great distress: "Oh, ye passengers, come up quickly into the ship, leave your merchandise and flee for your lives, for this apparent island, upon which ye are, is not really an island; but it is a great fish that hath become stationary in the midst of the sea, and the sand hath accumulated upon it and trees have grown upon it, and when ye lighted a fire it felt the heat, and now it will descend with you into the sea and ye will all be drowned." As he spoke the island moved and "descended to the bottom of the sea with all that were upon it, and the roaring sea, agitated with waves, closed over it."

Let Sindbad continue his own story: "I sank in the sea with the rest. But God delivered me and saved me from drowning and supplied me with a great wooden bowl, and I laid hold upon it and gat into it and beat the water with my feet as with oars, while the waves sported with me. I remained so a day and a night, until the bowl came to a stoppage under a high island whereupon were trees overhanging the sea. So I laid hold upon the branch of a lofty tree and clung to it until I landed on the island. Then I threw myself upon the island like one dead."

After wandering about he found servants of the King of Borneo, and all sailed together to an island beyond the Malay Peninsula. And the King of Borneo sent for Sindbad and heaped him with honours. He gave him costly dress and made him superintendent of the seaport and adviser of affairs of state. And Sindbad saw many wonders in this far-distant sea. At last "one day I stood upon the shore of the sea, with a staff in my hand, as was my custom, and lo! a great vessel approached wherein were many merchants." They unloaded their wares, telling Sindbad that the owner of their goods, a man from Bagdad, had been drowned and they were selling his things.

"What was the name of the owner of the goods?" asked Sindbad.

"His name was Sindbad of the Sea."

Then Sindbad cried "Oh, master, know that I am the owner of the goods and I am Sindbad of the Sea."

Then there was great rejoicing and Sindbad took leave of this King of Borneo and set sail for Bagdad—the Abode of Peace.

But the spirit of unrest was upon him and soon he was off again. Indeed, he made seven voyages in all, but there is only room here to note a few of the most important points in each. This time he sailed to the coast of Zanzibar, East Africa, and, anchoring on the beautiful island of Madagascar, amid sweet-smelling flowers, pure rivers, and warbling birds, Sindbad fell asleep. He awoke to find the ship had sailed away, leaving him without food or drink, and not a human being was to be seen on the island.

"Then I climbed up into a lofty tree and began to look from it to the right and left, but saw nothing save sky and water and trees and birds and islands and sands."

At last he found an enormous bird. Unwinding his turban, he twisted it into a rope and, tying one end round his wrist, tied the other to one of the bird's great feet. Up flew the giant bird high into the sky and Sindbad with it, descending somewhere in India in the Valley of Diamonds. This bird was afterwards identified as an enormous eagle.

"And I arose and walked in that valley," says Sindbad, "and I beheld its ground to be composed of diamonds, with which they perforate minerals and jewels, porcelain, and the onyx, and it is a stone so hard that neither iron nor rock have any effect upon it. All that valley was likewise occupied by serpents and venomous snakes."

Here Sindbad found the camphor trees, "under each of which trees a hundred men might shade themselves." From these trees flowed liquid camphor. "In this island, too, is a kind of wild beast, called rhinoceros—it is a huge beast with a single horn, thick, in the middle of its head, and it lifteth the great elephant upon its horn."


Sindbad's Giant Roc.

Thus, after collecting heaps of diamonds, Sindbad returned to Bagdad—a rich man.

Again his soul yearns for travel. This time he starts for China, but his ship is driven out of its course and cast on the Island of Apes, probably Sumatra. These apes, "the most hideous of beasts, covered with hair like black felt," surrounded the ship. They climbed up the cables and severed them with their teeth to Sindbad's great alarm. He escaped to the neighbouring islands known as the Clove Islands, and again reached Bagdad safely. Again and yet again he starts forth on fresh adventures. Now he is sailing on the seas beyond Ceylon, now his ship is being pursued by a giant roe whose young have been killed and eaten by Sindbad. Sindbad as usual escapes upon a plank, and sails to an island, where he meets the "Old Man of the Sea," probably a huge ape from Borneo. On he passed to the "Island of Apes," where, every night, the people who reside in it go forth from the doors of the city that open upon the sea in their fear of the apes lest they should come down upon them in the night from the mountains. After this we find Sindbad trading in pepper on the Coromandel coast of modern India and discovering a wealth of pearls by the seashore of Ceylon. But at last he grew tired of seafaring, which was never congenial to Arabs.

"Hateful was the dark blue sky,

Vaulted o'er the dark blue sea;

Sore task to heart, worn out by many wars;

And eyes grown dim with gazing on the pilot stars."

So he leaves private adventuring alone and is appointed by the Khalif of Bagdad to convey a letter and present to the Indian prince of Ceylon—an expedition that lasts him twenty-seven years. The presents were magnificent. They included a horse worth ten thousand pieces of gold, with its saddle adorned with gold set with jewels, a book, a splendid dress, and some beautiful white Egyptian cloth, Greek carpets, and a crystal cup. Having duly delivered these gifts, he took his leave, meaning to return to his own country. But the usual adventures befell him. This time his ship was surrounded by a number of boats on board of which were men like little devils with swords and daggers. These attacked the ship, captured Sindbad, and sold him to a rich man as a slave. He set him to shoot elephants from a tree with bows and arrows. At last, after many other adventures and having made seven long voyages, poor Sindbad reached his home.


Sindbad's Voyages as shown on Edrisi's Map, 1154

The romance of "Sindbad the Sailor" is reallly a true story of Arab adventures at sea during the ninth and tenth centuries, put into a romantic setting and ascribed to one man. In the above map, which is a portion of the map of the world made by the famous Arab geographer, Edrisi, in 1154 A.D., many of the places to which Sindbad's story relates have been identified. Their modern names are as follows:—

Kotroba is probably Socotra.

Koulam Meli is Coulan, near Cape Comorin.

Hind is India.

Serendib is Ceylon.

Murphili (or Monsul) the "Valley of Diamonds," is Masulipatam.

Roibahat, the "Clove Islands," are the Maldive Islands.

Rami, the "Island of Apes," is Sumatra.

Maid Dzaba, the "island with the volcano," is Banca.

Senf is Tsiampa, S. Conchin-China.

Mudza (or Mehrage) is Borneo.

Kamrun is Java.

Maid, the Camphor Island, is Formosa.

Edrisi's names are those which are used in the Arabian Nights.