Crossing the desert: from incense route to pilgrimage route

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pilgrimage route

The initial sight that greeted pilgrims was a mesmerizing array of date trees. Amidst the striking sandstone mountains, these spiked green palms stood out as a symbol of hope, offering a respite from the harsh conditions of their desert expedition. AlUla Old Town, nestled close to these refreshing oases, provided weary travelers with everything they needed—houses, shops, markets, and mosques. It was a sanctuary where they could replenish their water supply, enjoy fresh food, and find a safe place to rest. This oasis city, like many others, played a crucial role in sustaining the pilgrimage routes to Makkah over the centuries.

Crossing the treacherous deserts of Saudi Arabia was an arduous task, nearly impossible without the presence of lush oases that punctuated the barren landscape. These oases emerged where water surfaced due to geological quirks, giving birth to villages, towns, and cities. Traveling between these green havens allowed people to navigate the vast expanse of the desert. However, undertaking such perilous journeys required a compelling reason. For centuries, trade served as the primary motivation, as valuable commodities like frankincense, myrrh, and other luxury goods from southern Arabia were transported along the Incense Route through AlUla to eager markets in Egypt, the Mediterranean, and Mesopotamia. The profits from this trade made the desert crossing worthwhile, fueling the growth of oasis cities such as Dadan and Hegra. But as trade routes shifted and the incense trade declined, the deserts of AlUla grew quieter, awaiting a new era.

The rise of Islam brought about a significant transformation. For nearly 1,400 years, the pilgrimage to Makkah, known as the hajj, has been a vital milestone for Muslims, forming one of the fundamental religious practices known as the Five Pillars of Islam. Every physically and financially capable Muslim is obligated to visit the holy city of Makkah at least once in their lifetime. As the Islamic faith spread across the Middle East and North Africa, devout Muslims sought ways to reach the Holy City, and for many, that meant crossing the deserts of Arabia. The life-giving waters of oases like AlUla played a crucial role in making this journey possible.

AlUla, with its abundant oasis, served as a central point along the overland pilgrimage route connecting Makkah and the holy city of Madinah. Thousands of pilgrims gathered in cities such as Cairo or Damascus, where they joined organized caravans often arranged by local rulers. Traveling in caravans offered pilgrims safety, comfort, and companionship throughout the arduous journey that took approximately 40 days from Damascus to Makkah. Camels were the preferred animals for transportation, thanks to their ability to carry heavy loads and survive on minimal water. These caravans, consisting of thousands of camels tied together in lines and columns, traversed the sandy landscape, following routes marked by rocks. Depending on the terrain, the caravan covered about five kilometers per hour, for up to 14 hours a day, aiming to reach the next oasis and arrive in Makkah before the eighth day of the Islamic lunar month of Dhū al-Ḥijja, when the hajj rituals commenced.

Qurh, the city within AlUla, served as a significant stopover point for early pilgrims. It was an established trading center that thrived even more with the arrival of the caravans of pious Muslims. Described as a flourishing and populous town by the 10th-century geographer Al-Muqadassi, Qurh boasted elegantly adorned houses, a refreshing sight after the desert expanse. From the 12th century onwards, AlUla Old Town became the primary rest stop for pilgrims in the AlUla valley. In addition to its densely populated houses, the town featured numerous mosques and markets. Pilgrims could camp outside the city, taking the opportunity to rest, wash, and gather essential supplies. They often sold trade goods they had brought along to cover their expenses, leaving any excess baggage behind as the caravans set off once more toward Makkah.

These travelers left their mark on the landscape. Apart from documenting their experiences in journals, many engraved inscriptions on the sandstone rocks along their route, particularly as they approached Qurh and AlUla. Among these inscriptions are the earliest known Arabic inscription in stone and over 450 other carvings on the rocks of Jabal Aqra’a. These inscriptions, often prayers or expressions of faith, included pleas to God for protection during their perilous travels. The journey was fraught with hardships, doubt, and dangers that exhausted travelers and led to the demise of companions. Even with the refuge of oases, physical exertion could prove fatal, and pilgrims faced constant threats of disease and banditry, resulting in high mortality rates.

Recognizing the importance of religion and the hajj, Muslim authorities undertook significant efforts to improve conditions along the pilgrimage routes. They marked the roads with boundary stones, dug wells, constructed open-air reservoirs called birkahs, and established fortified rest stops and watchtowers to protect pilgrims from attacks. These provisions continued through the caliphate and subsequent centuries until the construction of the Hijaz Railway commenced in 1900. The railway aimed to connect Makkah with Damascus and eventually Istanbul, providing an affordable and efficient means for pilgrims to reach Makkah in just four days. By 1908, the railway extended as far as Madinah, passing through multiple stations in the AlUla region and significantly increasing the number of pilgrims embarking on the hajj. However, the Hijaz Railway never reached Makkah; it suffered repeated attacks during the First World War and never fully recovered. By the 1920s, substantial sections of the railway were abandoned.

Today, as pilgrims fly into Jeddah, the historic gateway to Makkah by sea, they might catch a glimpse of AlUla from the air. The journey has become safer and more accessible, enabling over a million pilgrims to perform the hajj each year. However, for centuries, without the presence of abundant water, fertile lands, and hospitable inhabitants in AlUla, the hajj would have been nearly impossible for all but the most determined. The words of Ibn Battuta, a 14th-century pilgrim and traveler, encapsulate the essence of the desert crossing: “He who enters it is lost, and he who leaves it is born.”

Embark on a captivating journey through time to explore the vibrant history of AlUla here.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about pilgrimage route

What was the main reason for crossing the deserts of Saudi Arabia in ancient times?

The main reason for crossing the deserts of Saudi Arabia in ancient times was trade. Valuable commodities like frankincense, myrrh, and luxury goods from southern Arabia were transported along the Incense Route to markets in Egypt, the Mediterranean, and Mesopotamia, making the perilous desert crossing worthwhile.

How did AlUla’s oases contribute to the pilgrimage to Makkah?

AlUla’s oases played a crucial role in facilitating the pilgrimage to Makkah. Pilgrims traveling in caravans would rest, refresh, and stock up on supplies in AlUla’s oasis cities. These oases provided the necessary water, essential for survival in the desert, allowing pilgrims to continue their journey and reach Makkah for the hajj.

What were the means of transportation during the pilgrimage?

Camels were the primary means of transportation during the pilgrimage. They were well-suited for traversing the desert, as they could carry heavy loads and survive on minimal water. Pilgrims traveled in caravans, with thousands of camels tied together, following marked routes through the sandy landscape.

How did the authorities improve conditions for pilgrims along the pilgrimage routes?

To ensure the safety and well-being of pilgrims, the Muslim authorities took several measures. They marked the roads with boundary stones, dug wells, built open-air reservoirs called birkahs, and established fortified rest stops and watchtowers. These provisions aimed to protect pilgrims from attacks and provide them with essential resources during their journey.

What impact did the Hijaz Railway have on the pilgrimage?

The Hijaz Railway, constructed in the early 20th century, aimed to connect Makkah with Damascus and Istanbul, providing a faster and more affordable means of transportation for pilgrims. It doubled the number of pilgrims embarking on the hajj, as they could reach Makkah in just four days. However, the railway was repeatedly attacked during the First World War and never reached Makkah, resulting in its abandonment in certain sections by the 1920s.

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