Naser-e Khosraw’s Dangerous Homeward Journey: From “One Thousand Roads to Mecca” by Michael Wolfe

“Hiring a camel from an Arab for the thirteen day journey to Lahsa, I bade farewell to God’s House,” writes Naser-e Khosraw after his pilgrimage to Mecca. But as he sets out for home, his choice of itineraries lead to disaster. Khosraw gives his first grim look at the merciless deserts of Arabia and the predatory ways of the Arab Bedouin. The desert devolves into a toll road manned by camel riding pirates, and the price of safe-passage costs him and his party their money and their clothes. But in all this he finds one great consolation with a nine-month stay in the city of Lhasa.

Filled with anecdotes and insightful observations, including light-hearted moments — “some seventy-year-old men told me that in their whole lives they had drunk nothing but camels’ milk, since in the desert there is nothing but bitter scrub eaten by the camels. They actually imagined that the whole world was like this !” —  this piece from Michael Wolfe’s chapter on Naser-e Khosraw in “One Thousand Roads to Mecca” concludes our series on the Ismaili traveller’s meticulous accounts of a journey that took him across Persia and Syria into Egypt, where he spent time in Cairo during the golden reign of the Fatimid Ismaili Caliph, Imam al-Mustansir. He visited Mecca four-times during his stay in Cairo, before taking a route back home that endangered his life on more than one occasion, as we read below. Readers are invited to click on the following links to read the previous three parts of a superb travel narrative:

MECCA TO TA’IF

On Friday….[4 May 1051], the first of the old month of Gemini, I traveled seven parasangs from Mecca [a parasang is three and a half miles - Ed]. There was an open plain with a mountain visible in the distance. Heading toward that mountain, we passed by fields and villages. There was a well called Bir al-Husayn ibn Salama (Well of Husayn son of Salama0). The weather was cold. We continued eastward and on Monday arrived in Ta‘if, which is twelve parasangs from Mecca….

AT JAZ‘ – LIVING DANGEROUSLY

We continued on past that place and saw a fortress called ]az’. Within half a parasang we passed four fortresses, the largest of which, where we stopped, was called the Banu Nosayr Fortress, and it had a few date palms.

As the man from whom I had hired my camel was from ]az’, I stayed there for fifteen days, there being no khafir [safe-conduct] to take us on farther. The Arab tribes of that region each have a particular territory in which they graze their flocks, and no stranger can enter one of these territories, since anyone who does not have a khafir will be captured and plundered. Therefore, from each tribe there is khafir, who can pass through a given territory. The khafir is also called qalavoz.

By chance, the leader of the Arabs with whom we had traveled, the Banu Sawad, came to ]az’, and we took him as our khafir. His name was Abu Ghanem Abs son of al-Ba‘ir, and we set out under his protection. A group of Arabs, thinking they had found “prey” (as they call all strangers), came headed toward us; but since their leader was with us, they passed without saying anything. Had he not been with us, they most certainly would have destroyed us.

…I was taken and handed over from tribe to tribe, the entire time in constant mortal danger. God, however, willed that we [should] come out of there alive….

We had to remain among these people for a while because there was no khafir to take us farther. Finally, we found two men to act as khafirs and paid them ten dinars each to take us to the next tribe. Among one tribe, some seventy-year-old men told me that in their whole lives they had drunk nothing but camels’ milk, since in the desert there is nothing but bitter scrub eaten by the camels. They actually imagined that the whole world was like this!

Thus I was taken and handed over from tribe to tribe, the entire time in constant mortal danger. God, however, willed that we [should] come out of there alive.

In the midst of an expanse of rubble, we reached a place called Sarba, where there were mountains shaped like domes. I have never seen anything like them anywhere. They were not so high that an arrow could not have been shot to the top, and they were as bald and smooth as an egg, not the slightest crack or flaw showing.

Along the way, whenever my companions saw a lizard they killed and ate it. The Arabs, wherever they are, milk their camels for drink. I could neither eat the lizard nor drink camels’ milk; therefore, wherever I saw a kind of bush that yielded small berries the size of a pea, I picked a few and subsisted on that.

AT FALAJ – IGNORANT BANDITS, BAD CONDITIONS AND KILLINGS OVER DATES

After enduring much hardship and suffering great discomfort, on… [6 July] We came to Falaj, a distance of 180 parasangs from Mecca. Falaj lies in the middle of the desert and had once been an important region, but internal strife had destroyed it. The only part left inhabited when we arrived was a strip half a parasang long and a mile wide. Inside this area there were fourteen fortresses inhabited by a bunch of filthy, ignorant bandits. These fourteen fortresses had been divided up between two rival factions who were constantly engaged in hostilities. They claimed to be the Lords of al-Raqim mentioned in the Qur’an [18:9 - Ed.]. They had four irrigation canals for their palm grove, and their fields were on higher ground and watered from wells. They plow with camels, not cows. As a matter of fact, I never saw a cow there. They produce very little in the way of agriculture, and each man has to ration himself with two seers of grain a day [seer: about one and a half ounces - Ed.]. This is baked as bread and suffices from the evening prayer until the next evening, as in the month of Ramadan, although they do eat dates during the day. I saw excellent dates there, much better than in Basra and other places. These people are extremely poverty-stricken and destitute; nonetheless, they spend the whole day fighting and killing each other. They have a kind of date called maydun that weighs ten dirhems the pit weighing not more than one-half danaks [dirhem: the equivalent of four danaks; and danak: the equivalent of eight grains - Ed.]. They claimed that this particular date could be kept for twenty years without spoilage. Their currency is Nishapuri gold.

….Everyone who came to pray brought his sword and shield with him as a matter of course. They had no reason to buy books….

I stayed four months in this Falaj under the worst possible conditions: nothing of this world remained in my possession except two satchels of books, and they were a hungry, naked, and ignorant people. Everyone who came to pray brought his sword and shield with him as a matter of course. They had no reason to buy books.

There was a mosque in which we stayed. I had a little red and blue paint with me, so I wrote a line of poetry on the wall and drew a branch with leaves up through the writing. When they saw it, they were amazed, and everybody in the compound gathered around to look at what I had done. They told me that if I would paint the mihrab they would give me one hundred maunds of dates [maund: roughly three and a half pounds - Ed]. Now a hundred maunds of dates was a fortune for them. Once while I was there, a company of Arab soldiers came and demanded five hundred maunds of dates. They refused to give it and fought, which resulted in the death of ten people from the compound. A thousand palms were cut down, but they did not give up even ten maunds of dates.  Therefore when they offered me that much I painted the mihrab, and that hundred maunds of dates was an answer to our prayers, since we had not been able to obtain any food.

We had almost given up hope of ever being able to get out of that desert, the nearest trace of civilization in any direction being two hundred parasangs away through fearful, devastating desert. In all those four months, I never saw five maunds of wheat in one place. Finally, however, a caravan came from Yamama to take goat’s leather to Lahsa. Goat’s leather is brought from the Yemen via Falaj and sold to merchants. An Arab offered to take me to Basra, but I had no money to pay the fare. It is only two hundred parasangs to Basra from there, and the hire for a camel was one dinar, whereas a good camel can be bought outright for two or three dinars. Since I had no cash with me, they took me on credit on condition that I pay thirty dinars in Basra. I was forced to agree to these terms, although I had never in my life so much as set foot in Basra!

The Arabs packed my books and seated my brother on a camel, and thus, with me on foot, we set out, headed toward the ascent of the Pleiades. The ground was flat, without so much as a mountain or hill, and wherever the earth was a bit harder, there was rainwater standing in pools. As these people travel night and day, without the slightest trace of a road visible, they must go by instinct. What is amazing is that, with no indication or warning, suddenly they come upon a well.

 ….An Arab offered to take me to Basra, but I had no money to pay the fare…. the hire for a camel was one dinar, whereas a good camel can be bought outright for two or three dinars. Since I had no cash with me, they took me on credit on condition that I pay thirty dinars in Basra….

To make a long story short, in four days and nights we came to Yamama, which has inside a large, old fortress and outside a town with a bazaar containing all sorts of artisans and a fine mosque. The amirs there are Alids of old, and no one has ever been able to wrest the region from their control, since, in the first place, there is not, nor has there been, a conquering sultan or king anywhere near and, in the second, those Alids possess such might that they can mount three to four hundred horsemen. They are of the Zaydi sect, and when they stand in prayer they say, “Mohammad and Ali are the best of mankind,” and “Come to the best deed! [These words characterize the Shi‘ite, including the Zaydi, call to prayer. The Sunni call to includes neither phrase. In Khosraw's terminology, “Alid” refers to any of the Shi‘a - Ed.].

The inhabitants of this town are sharifs, and they have running water, irrigation canals, and many palm groves in the district. They told me that when dates are plentiful, a thousand maunds are only one dinar.

It is forty parasangs from Yamama to Lahsa. During the winter it is possible to travel because potable rainwater collects in pools, but not in summer.

A DESCRIPTION OF LAHSA

To reach the town of Lahsa from any direction, you have to cross vast expanses of desert. The nearest Muslim city to Lahsa that has a ruler is Basra, and that is one hundred and fifty parasangs away. There has never been a ruler of Basra, however, who has attempted an attack on Lahsa.

All of the town’s outlying villages and dependencies are enclosed by four strong concentric walls made of reinforced mud brick. The distance between these walls is about a parasang, and there are enormous wells inside the town, each the size of five millstones around. All the water of the district is put to use so that none goes outside the walls. A really splendid town is situated inside these fortifications, with all the appurtenances of a large city, and there are more than twenty thousand soldiers.

They said that the ruler had been a sharif who prevented the people from practicing Islam and relieved them of the obligations of prayer and the fast claiming that he was the ultimate authority on such matters. His name was Abu Sa‘id and when you ask the townspeople what sect they belong they say they are Busa’idis. They neither pray nor fast, but they do believe in Muhammad and his mission. Abu Sa‘id told them that he would come among them again after his death, and his tomb, a fine shrine, is located inside the city. He directed that six of his [spiritual] sons should maintain his rule with justice and equity and without dispute among themselves until he should come again. Now they have a palace that is the seat of state and a throne that accommodates all six kings in one place, and they rule in complete accord and harmony. The have also six viziers, and when the kings are all seated on their throne, the six viziers are seated opposite on another bench. Thus all affairs are handled in mutual consultation. At the time I was there they had thirty thousand Zanzibari and Abyssinian slaves working in the fields and gardens.

They take no tax from the peasantry, and whenever anyone is stricken by poverty or contracts a debt, they take care of his needs until the debtor’s affairs should be cleared up. And if anyone is in debt to another, the creditor cannot claim more than the amount of the debt. Any stranger to the city who possesses a craft by which to earn his livelihood is given enough money to buy the tools of his trade and establish himself, when he repays however much he has given. If anyone’s property or implements suffer loss and the owner is unable to undertake necessary repairs, they appoint their own slaves to make the repairs and charge the owner nothing. The rulers have several grist mills in Lahsa where the citizenry can have their meal ground into flour for free, and the maintenance of the buildings and the wages are paid by the rulers. The rulers are called simply “lord” and the viziers, “counsel.”

There was once no Friday mosque in Lahsa, and the sermon and congregational prayer were not held. A Persian man, however, named Ali son of Ahmad, who was a Muslim, a pilgrim and very wealthy, did build a mosque in order to provide for pilgrims who arrived in the city….

They do not prevent anyone from performing prayers, although they themselves do not pray. The ruler answers most politely and humbly anyone who speaks to him, and wine is not indulged in.

…..They take no tax from the peasantry, and whenever anyone is stricken by poverty or contracts a debt, they take care of his needs until the debtor’s affairs should be cleared up….

A horse outfitted with collar and crown is kept always tied close by the tomb of Abu Sa‘id, and a watch is continually maintained day and night for such time as he should rise again and mount the horse. Abu Sai’d said to his sons, “When I come again among you, you will not recognize me. The sign will be that you strike my neck with my sword. If it be me, I will immediately come back to life.” He made this stipulation so that no one else could claim to be him.

In the time of the Baghdad caliphs one of the rulers attacked Mecca and killed a number of people who were circumambulating the Ka’ba at the time. They removed the Black Stone from its corner and took it to Lahsa. They said that the Stone was a “human magnet” that attracted people, not knowing that it was the nobility and magnificence of Muhammad that drew people there, for the Stone had lain there for long ages without anyone paying any particular attention to it. In the end, the Black Stone was bought back and returned to its place.

Seven parasangs east of Lahsa is the sea. In this sea is the island of Bahrain, which is fifteen parasangs long. There is a large city there and many palm groves. Pearls are found in the sea thereabouts, and half of the divers’ take belongs to the Sultan of Lahsa. South of Lahsa is Oman, which is on the Arabian Peninsula, but three sides face desert that is impossible to cross. The region of Oman is eighty parasangs square and tropical; there they grow coconuts, which they call nargil. Directly east of Oman across the sea are Kish and Mokran. South of Oman is Aden, while in the other direction is the province of Fars.

There are so many dates in Lahsa that animals are fattened on them and at times more than one thousand maunds are sold for one dinar. Seven parasangs north of Lahsa is a region called Qatif, where there is also a large town and many date palms. An Arab amir from there once attacked Lahsa, where he maintained siege for a year. One of those fortification walls he captured and wrought much havoc, although he did not obtain much of anything. When he saw me, he asked whether or not it was in the stars for him to take Lahsa, as they were irreligious. I told him what was expedient [for me to say], since, in my opinion also, the Bedouins and people of Lahsa were as close as anyone could be to irreligiosity, there being people there who, from one year to the next, never perform ritual ablutions. This that I record is told from my own experience and not from false rumors, since I was there among them for nine consecutive months, and not at intervals….

A DESCRIPTION OF BASRA

The city has a large wall, except for the portion that faces the water, where there is no wall. The water here is all marsh, the Tigris and Euphrates coming together at the beginning of the Basra district, and when the water of the Hawiza joins the confluence, it is called Shatt-al-Arab. From this Shatt-al-Arab, two large channels have been cut, between the mouths of which is a distance of one parasang, running in the direction of the qibla for four parasangs, after which they converge and run another one parasang to the south. From these channels numerous canals have been dug in all directions among palm groves and orchards. Of these two channels, the higher one, which is northeast, is called Nahr Ma‘qel, whereas the southwestern one is called Nahr Obolla. These two channels form an enormous rectangular “island,” on the shortest side of which Basra is situated. To the southwest of Basra is open plain that supports neither settlement nor agriculture.

When I arrived, most of the city lay in ruins, the inhabited parts being greatly dispersed, with up to half a parasang from one-quarter to another. Nonetheless, the walls were strong and well-kept, the populace numerous, and the ruler with plenty of income. At that time, the Amir of Basra was the son of Aba Kalijar the Daylamite, King of Fars. His Vizier was a Persian, Abu Mansur Shahmardan by name.

Every day there are three bazaars in Basra: in the morning transactions are held at a place called Souk al-Khoza‘a [Market of the Khoza‘a tribe]; in the middle of the day at Souk ‘Othman [‘Othman’s Market]; and at the end of the day at Souk al-Qaddahin [Flintmakers’ Market]. The procedure at the bazaar is as follows: you turn over whatever you have to a money changer and get in return a draft; then you buy whatever you need, deducting the price from the money changer’s draft. N o matter how long one might stay in the city, one would never need anything more than a money changer’s draft.

….Even the children who were playing at the bathhouse door thought we were madmen and, throwing stones and yelling, chased after us. We retired into a corner and reflected in amazement on the state of the world….

When we arrived we were as naked and destitute as madmen, for it had been three months since we had unloosed our hair. I wanted to enter a bath in order to get warm, the weather being chilly and our clothing scant. My brother and I were clad only in old lungis with a piece of coarse fabric on our backs to keep out the cold. “In this state who would let us into a bath?” I asked. Therefore, I sold a small satchel in which I kept my books and wrapped the few rusty dirhems I had received in a piece of paper to give the bath attendant, thinking that he might give us a little while longer in the bath in order for us to remove the grime from our bodies. When I handed him the change, he looked at us as though we were madmen and said, “Get away from here! People are coming out of the bath.” As he would not allow us in, we came away humiliated and in haste. Even the children who were playing at the bathhouse door thought we were madmen and, throwing stones and yelling, chased after us. We retired into a corner and reflected in amazement on the state of the world.

Now, as we were in debt to the camel driver for thirty dinars, we had no recourse save the Vizier of the King of Ahwaz, Abu al-Fath Ali son of Ahmad, a worthy man, learned in poetry and belles-lettres, and very generous, who had come to Basra with his sons and retinue and taken up residence but who, at present, had no administrative position. Therefore, I got in touch with a Persian, also a man of learning, with whom I had some acquaintance and who had entrée to the Vizier but who was also in straightened circumstances and totally without means to be of assistance to me. He mentioned my situation to the Vizier, who, as soon as he heard, sent a man with a horse for me to come to him just as I was. Too ashamed of my destitution and nakedness, I hardly thought it fitting to appear before him, so I wrote a note of regret, saying that I would come to him later. I had two reasons for doing this: one was my poverty, and the other was, as I said to myself, that he now imagines that I have some claim to being learned, but when he sees my note he will figure out what my worth is, so that when I go before him I need not be ashamed.

Immediately he sent me thirty dinars to have a suit of clothing made. With that amount I bought two fine suits and on the third day appeared at the Vizier’s assembly. I found him to be a worthy, polite, and scholarly man of pleasant appearance, humble, religious, and well-spoken. He had four sons, the eldest of whom was an eloquent, polite, and reasonable youth called Ra’is Abu Abd Allah Ahmad son of Ali son of Ahmad. Not only a poet and administrator, he was wise and devout beyond his youthful age. We were taken in and stayed there from the first of Shaban until the middle of Ramadan. The thirty dinars due the Arab for our camel were paid by the Vizier, and I was relieved of that burden. (May God thus deliver all his servants from the torment of debt!)

When I desired to depart he sent me off by sea with gifts and bounteous good things so that I reached Fars in ease and comfort, thanks to the generosity of that noble man. (May God delight in such noble men!)….

After our worldly condition had taken a turn for the better and we each had on decent clothing, we went back one day to the bathhouse we had not been allowed to enter. As soon as we came through the door the attendant and everyone there stood up respectfully. We went inside, and the scrubber and servant came to attend to us. When we emerged from the bath all who were in the dressing room rose and remained standing until we had put on our clothes and departed. During that time the attendant had said to a friend of his, “These are those very young men whom we refused admission one day.” They imagined that we did not know their language, but I said in Arabic, “You are perfectly correct. We are the very ones who had old sacks tied to our backs.” The man was ashamed and most apologetic. Now these two events transpired within twenty days, and I have included the story so that men may know not to lament adversity brought on by fate and not to despair of the Creator’s mercy, for he is merciful indeed.

Date posted: Wednesday November 8, 2012.

Ed. notes in brackets [....] are Michael Wolfe’s.

Reproduced from ONE THOUSAND ROADS TO MECCA © by Michael Wolfe with the permission of the publisher Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

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The complete series:

Part I. One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Naser-e Khosraw’s Writing About the Muslim Pilgrimage
Part II. Naser-e Khosraw in Fatimid Cairo
PART III. One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Naser-e Khosraw’s Writing About the Muslim Pilgrimage
PART IV. Naser-e Khosraw’s Dangerous Homeward Journey: From “One Thousand Roads to Mecca” by Michael Wolfe

Michael Wolfe. Photo and profile credit: Wikipedia.

About the author: Michael Wolfe is an American poet, author, and the President and Executive Producer of Unity Productions Foundation. He is a frequent lecturer on Islamic issues at universities across the United States including Harvard, Georgetown, Stanford, SUNY Buffalo, and Princeton. He holds a degree in Classics from Wesleyan University. As a Muslim convert he performed the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1990 and wrote extensively about it. Wolfe’s first works on Islam were a pair of books from Grove Press on the pilgrimage to Mecca: The Hadj (1993),a first-person travel account, and One Thousand Roads to Mecca (1997, Grove/Atlantic), an anthology of 10 centuries of travelers writing about the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Shortly after 11 September 2001, he edited a collection of essays by American Muslims called Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith which won the 2003 annual Wilbur Award for “Best Book of the year on a Religious Theme”. In 1999, Wolfe helped found an educational media foundation focused on promoting peace through the media, Unity Productions Foundation (UPF). In 2002, UPF produced its first full-length film, called Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, a two-hour television documentary on the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad. The film, which Wolfe co-created, co-produced, and co-executive edited, received a national broadcast on PBS and subsequent international broadcasts on National Geographic International. Wolfe also co-produced in 2007 Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain, which was aired in the same year on PBS, 2007. Wolfe continues to produce long and short-form documentaries for PBS and other broadcasters in the US and abroad with Unity Productions Foundation. His co-production partner on all these films is Alex Kronemer.

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Michael Wolfe’s articles on this website:

“Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet” – A Film Created and Produced by Alex Kronemer and Michael Wolfe
Jesus Through a Muslim Lens
How a Muslim Sees Muhammad

Grove/Atlantic website:

GroveAtlantic – One Thousand Roads to Mecca

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