Over time we have lost so many of the beautiful traditions of Islam. One of them includes the Hajj Caravans. These Caravans were groups of people who traveled long distances together and met up with larger caravans, and from there they would travel to Makkah for the Hajj. The most famous of these are from Cairo and from Damascus. There are many fascinating stories about these caravans and travels, suspense and danger, from the time of Ibn Battuta, to the Hajj railroad, until even the steamship age of Hajj in the earlier part of the 20th century.
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“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.”
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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.
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’.
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.
The end of the Hajj caravans came surprisingly fast. It took a mere 75 years for steamships, trains, buses and aircraft to render obsolete the pilgrimage routes that had endured for nearly 13 centuries. In the late 19th century, particularly after the opening of the Suez Canal, increasing numbers of pilgrims journeyed to Makkah by ship via Yanbu‘ or Jiddah. Not only Egyptians took to the sea, but Syrians and Anatolians sailed from Beirut through the canal, and ever-increasing numbers of Indian and Indonesian pilgrims arrived across the Indian Ocean. The 1908 opening of the Hijaz Railway from Damascus to Jiddah sounded the death knell of the Damascus caravan. After World War II, the route to Makkah was marked out increasingly by air, until by the 1990’s fully 95 percent of non-Saudi pilgrims (and more than a few of the Saudi ones) arrived on chartered or commercial aircraft. The remaining handful of overland pilgrims, mostly from Middle Eastern countries adjoining Saudi Arabia, traveled high-speed highways in air-conditioned buses.
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“And that was the end of Hajj caravans or was it the end of sacrifice, effort, fervor and mostly faith with which the pilgrims use to venture into those unknown, adventurous and dangerous journeys one took through the desert on camels with no other support but their ‘Trust In Allah (SWT).”