Pathways of Faith, Connected Histories

Ibn Jubayr Describes a 12th Century Hajj Caravan

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The annual caravans that set out from major cities on the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, were huge, moving  towns under the leadership of an Emir, or governor, with guards, guides, merchants, craftspersons, and members of all social classes. The hajj caravans traveled well-known routes with all of the necessary infrastructure for supplying them with food, water, and shelter, and resembled a vast fair that supplied less essential goods and services. The hajj was thus a major stimulus to travel, trade and migration, as well as the diffusion of goods, ideas, and technologies across land and water routes of Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe. Ibn Jubayr (1145-1215 CE) lived in al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain. He set out on the hajj by crossing the Mediterranean to Sicily and Cairo, and visited the Holy Land during the Crusades, during the time of Salah al-Din (Saladin). He was an excellent observer who captured the ironies of life during a time of warfare and great change. Ibn Jubayr’s travel narrative was influential and much imitated among Muslim travel writers, in addition to its great value as a historical document. The miniature painting of a caravan of pilgrims on the road to Makkah is by 13th century illustrator al-Wasiti for the Maqamat of al-Hariri.


Khulays has a spring of abundant waters to which are joined underground conduits whence water is drawn... At these men renew their supplies of water, for there is little of it upon the way on account of the continuous drought. May God send rains in plenty to His country and His servants. At this place the caravan paused on the morning of Monday to water the camels and to collect a supply of water.

This assembly of Iraqis, together with the people from Khurasan, Mosul, and other lands who were united in the company of this Emir of the Pilgrimage, formed a multitude whose number only God Most High could count. The vast plain was teeming with them, and the far-extending desert could barely contain them. You could see the earth shake giddily because of them, and form waves through their great number. You might behold them as a sea of swollen billows; its waters the mirage, its ships the mounts, and its sails the raised canopies and palanquins. Like piled up clouds they moved along, commingling with each other, and brushing against each other's sides. Upon the wide desert plain you would observe such a throng as would fill you with fear and alarm, with the collisions of the...wood of the litters beating against each other. He who has not witnessed this journeying of the Iraqis has not seen one of those wonders of time that are discussed amongst men and that beguile listeners by their strangeness. Power and strength belong to God alone. It is enough to tell you that should one who has a station in this encampment go forth on any need and leave no sign to guide him back to his location, he will go astray and, exhausted, wander crying out amongst the number of the lost. At times the situation will compel such a one to repair to the pavilion of the Emir and raise the matter to him. He will instruct one of his heralds to give out a proclamation and direct one of the public criers appointed for the purpose to take the man behind him on his camel and tour with him that clamorous camp. He will have given his name, and those of his camel-master and of the land from whence he came, to the crier, who then will raise his voice in notice of this lost one, calling out the name of the camel-master and of his country until he comes upon him and delivers the man to him. Were this not done, he never again would meet his companion, unless he met him unawares or came upon him in some chance encounter. This is one of the amazing features of this caravan, whose marvels are such that a description cannot comprehend them. Its members possess such wealth and resources as will help them to all they will need upon their way. Possessions are in the hand of God, who grants them to whomsoever He wills.

Each year, if these ladies the princesses do not themselves perform the pilgrimage, they dispatch with trusted men some water-bearing camels that quench the thirst of forlorn travelers upon the pilgrim road. This they do in places where water is known to be, throughout the road, on 'Arafat, and in the sacred Mosque, each day and night. For this their reward in heaven shall be great. From God alone assistance comes. Exalted is His majesty. You will hear the crier with the water-camels announcing with loud voice the free water, and those whose store has been exhausted will hasten to him with their water-skins and ewers that they might fill them. With all his breath the crier will proclaim: 'God preserve the royal Khatun [princess], daughter of the king of such and such a state and consequence,' and extolling him, and announcing her name and making known her good deed, and bringing the people to offer prayers for her. God will not fail to reward her good works...

Among the remarkable features of this caravan is that despite its size and magnitude - for indeed it is a world of its own - when, its baggage being unladen and camping site adopted, the Emir's drum, which they call 'kus', is beaten as a signal for departure, not a moment will pass between the saddling and loading of the camels and their being mounted; and the drummer will scarce have made his third beat when the beasts will have taken their way. All this comes from the careful preparations and diligent precautions taken by the travelers. Power and strength belong to God alone. There is no God but He.

By night they march by lighted torches held in the hands of footmen, and you can see no litter that is not led by one, so that the people march between wandering stars that lighten the darkness of the night, while the earth vies in splendour with the stars of the sky. The appurtenances of industry, the worldly conveniences, and the requisites of animal satisfaction, all were present in this nothing-lacking caravan. Long it would take to describe it, and its story cannot all be embraced.


Broadhurst, R.J.C., tr. The Travels of Ibn Jubayr. London: Jonathan Cape, 1952, pages 191-193. Image credit: Caravan of pilgrims on road to Mecca, miniature by al-Wasiti from “Maqamat” al-Hariri, 13th century (Photo by Apic/Getty Images), Hulton Archive.

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #271: Ibn Jubayr Describes a 12th Century Hajj Caravan", June 20, 2024


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