EDITED AND INTRODUCED BY
(Reproduced from ONE THOUSAND ROADS TO MECCA © by Michael Wolfe with the permission of the publisher Grove/Atlantic, Inc.)
Naser-e Khosraw’s Book of Travels is a classic text that has set the tone for a thousand years of Persian travel writing. In this offhand roadside diary, a seasoned traveler records great sights and endures hardship gamely. He may not strike us as a self-revealing narrator, and yet his book begins with a confession: that his travels are the result of a midlife crisis.
Naser-e Khosraw was born in 1003 in the province of Khurasan in eastern Persia. Until he left for Mecca at forty-two, he occupied administrative posts at Marv (present-day Mary) and Balkh and occasionally attended upon princes. His satiric poem “The Aging Rake” appears to be based on firsthand knowledge of a dissolute court life. By his own account, he overindulged in the most un-Islamic vice of alcohol until in the fall of 1045 he had a dream. He had been traveling for about a month, he says, and drinking steadily, when a figure appeared in his sleep one night and advised him to seek wisdom. When Khosraw asked where wisdom lay, his visitor pointed toward Mecca and disappeared.
In eleventh-century Persia, a dream like this marked a turning point on the spiritual path of an esoteric Shi‘ite sect, the lsma‘ilis. Intellectually, they were sophisticated scholars with a passion for science and hidden meanings. Politically, they were tainted in Sunni-governed Khurasan for their allegiance to the Fatimid ruler in Cairo and for their faith in an imminent millennium, with its promise of revolution and social justice. Whether Khosrow was already an Isma‘ili or whether he became one on the road remains unclear. We do know, however, that at about this time Isma‘ilis were being increasingly persecuted by the newly arrived and aggressively Sunni Seljuks. For these mercenary soldiers, the sect (and Shi‘ism in general) posed a threat by insisting on allegiance to a special leadership apart from the Caliph and by honoring a secret body of traditions. Holding a government post under the Seljuks may have been one of the “torments of the world” Khosraw complained of.
For whatever reasons, he dropped everything to be under way. He resigned his post at the treasury in Marv, announced he was going to Mecca, and apparently destroyed his early poems. Departing ahead of the annual caravan, joined by one brother and a servant, Khosraw was packed and on the road without delay. He did not make straight for Baghdad, however, then drop south by the usual route to Mecca. Instead, he took a roundabout way across northern Persia, moving by twists and turns through towns and regions friendly to Isma‘ilis. (In this part of his book, notes on food, architecture, and culture are mixed with accounts of visits to scholars and pre-Crusader shrines in Persia, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt.) Avoiding the Hajj caravan is telling, for after all it provided security. In his present situation, however, Khosraw valued anonymity over safety, especially on roadways secured by Sunni guards.
If the Isma‘ilis were suspect in much of Persia and Mesopotamia, in Fatimid Egypt they were on the throne. Not surprisingly, after a first pilgrimage to Mecca, Khosraw headed for Egypt. Cairo was in its heyday then, under the great Fatimid Sultan al-Mustansir (reigned 1036-94), whose ancestors had laid out the city on the Nile. Under his enlightened policies, Cairo became the center of a rich market ranging over a vast trade zone from Tunisia to Gujarat (India). The ﬁrst Muslim university, al-Azhar, was founded here, adding prestige and scholarship to a well-governed capital famed for its support of arts and letters. Khosraw’s fluent descriptions of the prosperity he found, the rooftop gardens and several thousand mosques, free hospitals, safe roads, worthy scholars, and charitable laws all bespeak a cultural golden age. The extent of the Sultan’s sway and the fanfare surrounding him may seem flamboyant to modern readers, but they are not exaggerations. Al-Mustansir’s reign of nearly six decades marks one of the high points of Muslim culture.
Khosraw seems to have taken up permanent quarters at the royal court, becoming a pupil of Daud Shirazi, a great Isma‘ili sage, and being prepared as a da’i, or chief missionary. During his extended stay, he also visited Mecca three more times. The last journey forms the center of his book. The excerpts from it presented here condense the stages of his itinerary. They begin with early travels through Persia and Syria. They continue with a longer view of the wonders of Fatimid Cairo, include extracts from his period in Mecca, and end with enough of his hard trek home to indicate the risks in traveling through Arabia alone at the time of the Battle of Hastings.
Khosraw’s description of Mecca is spare—a matter of a few pages. In this, it resembles the accounts of other early Muslim pilgrims. The reason for their brevity is simple: they wrote for an audience of fellow Muslims, readers to whom Mecca was the most familiar, not the most secret, city on Earth. Although unadorned Khosraw’s view of the ritual grounds within the Meccan mosque is not only accurate; it presents the core arena as it stands today: the two-story Ka‘ba at its center, where pilgrims circulate; the Zamzam Well, where they quench their thirst; and Safa and Marwa, the hills they pace between. Here we have our first course in the arrival rites of the Hajj, the sacred geography of Mecca, and the procession from the city to the Plain of Arafat. These and other themes (the economy of Mecca, the “sojourner” pilgrims who extend their stay, the city’s water system) appear here in miniature. Later travelers will treat these topics extensively. Khosraw’s book articulates them first.
After his fourth pilgrimage, Khosraw did not return to Cairo. He struck out for home instead, on a roundabout route through eastern Arabia. His choice of itineraries led to disaster. Preyed upon by raiders, without the protection of a caravan, here Khosraw gives us our first look at the merciless deserts off Arabia and at the predatory ways of the Arab Bedouin, whose control of the roads traversing their lands provides a gruesome set piece in pilgrim books for centuries to come. In Khosraw’s case, the desert quickly devolved into a toll road manned by camel-riding pirates. The price of safe passage cost his party their money, then their clothes.
This choice of routes yields one great consolation—a purported nine-month stay in the city of Lahsa. A legendary land of plenty in the eastern Hasa Desert, Lahsa lay a day’s ride from Bahrain. Khosraw seems to have felt it worth the detour to experience firsthand this (not coincidentally) Shi’ite capital, with its six monarchs sharing power and an equitable society protected from attack behind high walls. Here, in a place surrounded by social chaos, Khosraw treats us to a brief meticulous portrait of a city where the arts of civilization plainly flourished. Forsaking its comforts to travel north could not have been easy. The long trip through savage deserts was unbearably exhausting. Limping into Basra eight months later, Khosraw and his two companions appeared so destitute that the head of the public baths refused to admit them.
I was a clerk by profession and one of those in charge of the sultan’s revenue service. In my administrative position I had applied myself for a period of time and acquired no small reputation among my peers.
In the month of Rabi‘II in the year 437 [October 1045], when the prince of Khurasan was Abu Solayman Chaghri Beg Daud son of Mika’il son of Seljuk, I set out from Marv on official business to the district of Panjdeh in Marv Rud, where I stopped off . . .
From there I went to ]uzjanan, where I stayed nearly a month and was constantly drunk on wine. (The Prophet says, “Tell the truth, even if on your own selves”). One night in a dream I saw someone saying to me, “How long will you continue to drink of this wine, which destroys man’s intellect? If you were to stay sober, it would be better for you.”
In reply I said, “The wise have not been able to come up with anything other than this to lessen the sorrow of this world.”
“To be without one’s senses is no repose,” he answered me. “He cannot be called wise who leads men to senselessness. Rather, one should seek out that which increases reason and wisdom.”
“Where can I find such a thing?” I asked.
“Seek and ye shall ﬁnd,” he said, and then he pointed toward the qibla  and said nothing more. When I awoke, I remembered everything, which had truly made a great impression on me. “You have waked from last night’s sleep,” I said to myself. “When are you going to wake from that of forty years?” And I reflected that until I changed all my ways I would never ﬁnd happiness.
On Thursday….[19 December 1045]…., I cleansed myself from head to foot, went to the mosque, and prayed to God for help both in accomplishing what I had to do and in abstaining from what he had forbidden. Afterwards I went to Shoburghan and spent the night in a village in Faryab. From there I went via Samangan and Talaqan to Marv Rud and thence to Marv. Taking leave from my job, I announced that I was setting out for the Pilgrimage to Mecca, I settled what debts I owed and renounced everything worldly, except for a few necessities.
On….[5 March 1046] I set out for Nishapur, traveling from Marv to Sarakhs, which is a distance of thirty parasangs.  From there to Nishapur is forty parasangs….
On the second of Dhu al-Qada I left Nishapur and, in the company of Khwaja Mowaffaq, the sultan’s agent, came to Qumes via Gavan. There I paid a visit to the tomb of Shaykh Bayazid of Bestam.
On Friday the eighth of Dhu al-Qada [17 May] I went out to Damghan. The ﬁrst of Dhu al-Hijja 437 [9 June 1046] I came to Semnan by way of Abkhwari and Chashtkhwaran, and there I stayed for a period of time, seeking out the learned. I was told of a man called Master Ali Nasa’i, whom I went to see. He was a young man who spoke Persian with a Daylamite accent and wore his hair uncovered. He had a group of people about him reading Euclid, while another group read medicine and yet another mathematics. During our conversation he kept saying, “I read this with Avicenna,” and “I heard this from Avicenna.” His object of this was, of course, for me to know that he had been a student of Avicenna.  When I became engaged in discourse with some of these people, he said, “I know nothing of arithmetic [siyaq] and would like to learn something of the arithmetic art.” I came away wondering how, if he himself knew nothing, he could teach others….
On the eleventh of Rajab [11 January] we left the city of Aleppo. Three parasangs distant was a village called Jond Qennasrin. The next day, after traveling six parasangs, we arrived in the town of Sarmin, which has no fortification walls.
Six parasangs farther on was Ma‘arrat al-No‘man, which is quite populous. It has a stone wall. Beside the city gate I saw a cylindrical column of stone, which had something written on it in a script that was not Arabic. I asked someone what it was, and he said that it was a talisman against scorpions. If ever a scorpion were brought in from outside and turned loose, it would run away and not stay in the town. I estimated that column to be about ten ells  high. I found the bazaars to be flourishing, and the Friday mosque built on a rise in the middle of town so that from whatever place one wants to go up to the mosque, one has to ascend thirteen steps. Their whole agriculture consists of wheat, which is plentiful. Figs, olives, pistachios, almonds, and grapes also abound. The city water comes from both rain and wells.
In the city was a man named Abu al-Ala of Ma‘arra. Although blind, he was the head of the city and very wealthy, with many slaves and servants. Everyone in the city, in fact, was like a slave to him, but he himself had chosen the ascetic life. He wore coarse garments and stayed at home. Half a maund  of barley bread he would divide into nine pieces and content himself with only one piece throughout the entire day and night. Besides that, he ate nothing. I heard it said that the door to his house was always open and that his agents and deputies did all the work of the city, except for the overall supervision, which he saw to himself. He denied his wealth to no one, although he himself was constantly fasting and vigilant at night, taking no part in the affairs of the world. This man has attained such a rank in poetry and literature that all the learned of Syria, the Maghrib, and Iraq confess that in this age there is no one of comparable stature. He has composed a book….. in which he speaks in enigmatic parables. Although eloquent and amazing, the book can be understood only by a very few and by those who have read it with him. He has even been accused of trying to rival the Quran. There are always more than two hundred persons from all over gathered about him reading literature and poetry. I have heard that he himself has composed more than a hundred thousand lines of poetry. Someone once asked him why, since God had given him all this wealth and property, he gave it away to the people and hardly ate anything himself. His answer was, “I own nothing more than what I eat.” When I passed through that place he was still alive….
JOURNEY TO EGYPT
After Jerusalem I decided to voyage to Egypt by sea and thence again to Mecca….Shortly, I arrived at a port called Tina, from which you proceed to Tennis. I boarded a boat and sailed over to Tennis, which is on an island. It is a pleasant city and so far from the mainland that you cannot even see the shore from rooftops. The city is populous and has good bazaars and two cathedral mosques. I estimated there were ten thousand shops, a hundred of which were pharmacies….
They weave multicolored linen for turbans, bandages, and women’s clothing. The colored linen of Tennis is unequaled anywhere except by the white linen woven in Damietta. That which is woven in the royal workshop is not sold to anyone. I heard that the king of Fars once sent twenty thousand dinars to Tennis to buy one suit of clothing of their special material. [His agents] stayed there for several years but were unsuccessful in obtaining any. What the weavers are most famous for is their “special” material. I heard that someone there had woven a turban for the Sultan of Egypt that cost ﬁve hundred gold dinars. I saw the turban myself and was told it was worth four thousand dinars. In this city of Tennis they weave [a type of cloth called] buqalamun, which is found nowhere else in the world. It is an iridescent cloth that appears of different hues at different times of the day. It is exported east and west from Tennis. I heard that the ruler of Byzantium once sent a message to the Sultan of Egypt that he would exchange a hundred cities of his realm for Tennis alone. The sultan did not accept, of course, knowing that what he wanted with this city was its linen and buqalamun.
When the water of the Nile rises, it pushes the salt water of the sea away from Tennis so that the Water is fresh for ten parasangs. For that time of the year large, reinforced, underground cisterns called masna‘as have been constructed on the island. When the Nile water forces the salty seawater back, they fill these cisterns by opening a watercourse from the sea into them, and the city exists for a whole year on this supply. When anyone has an excess of water, he will sell to others, and there are also endowed masna‘as from which water is given out to foreigners.
The population of this city is fifty thousand, and there are at any given time at least a thousand ships at anchor belonging both to private merchants and to the sultan; since nothing is there, everything that is consumed must be brought in from the outside. All external transactions with the island are made therefore by ship, and there is a fully armed garrison stationed there as a precaution against attack by Franks and Byzantines. I heard from reliable sources that one thousand dinars a day go from there into the sultan’s treasury. Every day the people of the city turn that amount over to the tax collector, and he in turn remits it to the treasury before it shows a deficit. Nothing is taken from anyone by force. The full price is paid for all the linen and buqalamun woven for the Sultan, so that the people work willingly—not as in some other countries, where the artisans are forced to labor for the Vizier and Sultan! They weave covers for camel litters and striped saddlecloths for the aristocrats; in return, they import fruits and foodstuffs from the Egyptian countryside.
They also make superior iron tools such as shears, knives, and so on. I saw a pair of shears imported from there to Egypt and selling for five dinars. They were made so that when the pin was taken out, the shears came apart, and when the pin was replaced they worked again….
We set out for Egypt. When we reached the seashore, we found a boat going up the Nile. As the Nile nears the coast, it splits into many branches and ﬂows fragmented into the sea. The branch we were on is called Rumesh. The boat sailed along until we came to a town called Salehiyya, which is very fertile. Many ships capable of carrying up to two hundred kharvars  of commodities for sale in the groceries of Cairo are made there. Were it not done in that manner, it would be impossible to bring provisions into the city by animal with such efficiency. We disembarked at Salehiyya and proceeded that very night to the city.
On Sunday….[3 August 1047],…we were in Cairo.
Date Posted: Monday, October 15, 2012.
Last updated: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 (links to Part II and III, below, and typo corrections)
Simerg is deeply indebted to Michael Wolfe and Grove/Atlantic, Inc. the publishers of ONE THOUSAND ROADS TO MECCA © 1997 by Michael Wolfe for giving us the permission to reproduce the entire first chapter of the book on this website.
Notes by Michael Wolfe:
 qibla: the direction of the Ka‘ba in Mecca, toward which Muslims orient themselves when they pray.
 parasang: three and a half miles.
 Avicenna: Western name of Ibn Sina (980-1037), renowned Persian philosopher and physician.
 ell: roughly one and a half feet.
 maund: roughly three and a half pounds.
 kharvar: 100 maunds or roughly 350 pounds.
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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