1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Caravan

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CARAVAN (more correctly Karwan), a Persian word, adopted into the later Arabic vocabulary, and denoting, throughout Asiatic Turkey and Persia,[1] a body of traders travelling together for greater security against robbers (and in particular against Bedouins, Kurds, Tatars and the like, whose grazing-grounds the proposed route may traverse) and for mutual assistance in the matter of provisions, water and so forth. These precautions are due to the absence of settled government, inns and roads. These conditions having existed from time immemorial in the major part of western Asia, and still existing, caravans always have been the principal means for the transfer of merchandise. In these companies camels are generally employed for the transport of heavy goods, especially where the track, like that between Damascus and Bagdad, for example, lies across level, sandy and arid districts. The camels are harnessed in strings of fifty or more at a time, a hair-rope connecting the rear of one beast with the head of another; the leader is gaily decorated with parti-coloured trappings, tassels and bells; an unladen ass precedes the file, for luck, say some, for guidance, say others. Where the route is rocky and steep, as that between Damascus and Aleppo, mules, or even asses, are used for burdens. The wealthier members ride, where possible, on horseback. Every man carries arms; but these are in truth more for show than for use, and are commonly flung away in the presence of any serious robber attack. Should greater peril than ordinary be anticipated, the protection of a company of soldiers is habitually pre-engaged,—an expensive, and ordinarily a useless adjunct. A leader or director, called Karawan-Bashi (headman), or, out of compliment, Karawan-Seraskier (general), but most often simply designated Raïs (chief), is before starting appointed by common consent. His duties are those of general manager, spokesman, arbitrator and so forth; his remuneration is indefinite. But in the matter of sales or purchases, either on the way or at the destination, each member of the caravan acts for himself.

The number of camels or mules in a single caravan varies from forty or so up to six hundred and more; sometimes, as on the reopening of a long-closed route, it reaches a thousand. The ordinary caravan seasons are the months of spring, early summer and later autumn. Friday, in accordance with a recommendation made in the Koran itself, is the favourite day for setting out, the most auspicious hour being that immediately following noonday prayer. The first day’s march never does more than just clear the starting-point. Subsequently each day’s route is divided into two stages,—from 3 or 4 a.m. to about 10 in the forenoon, and from between 2 and 3 p.m. till 6 or even 8 in the evening. Thus the time passed daily on the road averages from ten to twelve hours, and, as the ordinary pace of a laden camel does not exceed 2 m. an hour, that of a mule being 2¾, a distance varying from 23 to 28 m. is gone over every marching day. But prolonged halts of two, three, four and even more days often occur. The hours of halt, start and movement, the precise lines of route, and the selection or avoidance of particular localities are determined by common consent. But if, as sometimes happens, the services of a professional guide, or those of a military officer have been engaged, his decisions are final. While the caravan is on its way, the five stated daily prayers are, within certain limits, anticipated, deferred or curtailed, so as the better to coincide with the regular and necessary halts,—a practice authorized by orthodox Mahommedan custom and tradition.

Two caravans are mentioned in Genesis xxxvii.; the route on which they were passing seems to have coincided with that nowadays travelled by Syrian caravans on their way to Egypt. Other allusions to caravans may be found in Job, in Isaiah and in the Psalms. Eastern literature is full of such references.

The yearly pilgrim-bands, bound from various quarters of the Mahommedan world to their common destination, Mecca, are sometimes, but inaccurately, styled by European writers caravans; their proper designation is Hajj, a collective word for pilgrimages and pilgrims. The two principal pilgrim-caravans start yearly, the one from Damascus, or, to speak more exactly, from Mozarib, a village station three days’ journey to the south of the Syrian capital, the other from Cairo in Egypt.[2] This latter was formerly joined on its route, near Akaba of the Red Sea, by the North African Hajj, which, however, now goes from Egypt by sea from Suez; the former gathers up bands from Anatolia, Kurdistan, Mesopotamia and Syria. Besides these a third, but smaller Hajj of Persians, chiefly sets out from Suk-esh-Sheiukh, in the neighbourhood of Meshed Ali, on the lower Euphrates; a fourth of negroes, Nubians, etc., unites at Yambu on the Hejaz coast, whither they have crossed from Kosseir in Upper Egypt; a fifth of Indians and Malays, centres at Jidda; a sixth and seventh, of southern or eastern Arabs arrive, the former from Yemen, the latter from Nejd.

The Syrian Hajj is headed by the pasha of Damascus, either in person or by a vicarious official of high rank, and is further accompanied by the Sorrah Amir or “Guardian of the Purse,” a Turkish officer from Constantinople. The Egyptian company is commanded by an amir or ruler, appointed by the Cairene government, and is accompanied by the famous “Maḥmal,” or sacred pavilion. The other bands above mentioned have each their own amir, besides their mekowwams or agents, whose business it is to see after provisions, water and the like, and are not seldom encumbered with a numerous retinue of servants and other attendants. Lastly, a considerable force of soldiery accompanies both the Syrian and the Egyptian Hajj.

No guides properly so-called attend these pilgrim-caravans, the routes followed being invariably the same, and well known. But Bedouin bands generally offer themselves by way of escort, and not seldom designedly lead their clients into the dangers from which they bargain to keep them safe. This they are the readier to do because, in addition to the personal luxuries with which many of the pilgrims provide themselves for the journey, a large amount of wealth, both in merchandise and coins, is habitually to be found among the travellers, who, in accordance with Mahommedan tradition, consider it not merely lawful but praiseworthy to unite mercantile speculation with religious duty. Nor has any one, the pasha himself or the amir and the military, when present, excepted, any acknowledged authority or general control in the pilgrim-caravans; nor is there any orderly subdivision of management or service. The pilgrims do, indeed, often coalesce in companies among themselves for mutual help, but necessity, circumstance or caprice governs all details, and thus it happens that numbers, sometimes as many as a third of the entire Hajj, yearly perish by their own negligence or by misfortune,—dying, some of thirst, others of fatigue and sickness, others at the hand of robbers on the way. In fact the principal routes are in many places lined for miles together with the bones of camels and men.

The numbers which compose these pilgrim caravans are much exaggerated by popular rumour; yet it is certain that the Syrian and Egyptian sometimes amount to 5000 each, with 25,000 or 30,000 camels in train. Large supplies of food and water have to be carried, the more so at times that the pilgrim season, following as it does the Mahommedan calendar, which is lunar, falls for years together in the very hottest season. Hence, too, the journey is usually accomplished by night marches, the hours being from 3 to 4 p.m. to 6 or 7 a.m. of the following day. Torches are lighted on the road, the pace is slower than that of an ordinary caravan, and does not exceed 2 m. an hour.

  1. In Arabia proper it is rarely employed in speech and never in writing, strictly Arabic words such as Rikb (“assembled riders”) or Qāfila (“wayfaring band”) being in ordinary use.
  2. The Syrian and Egyptian hajj have been able, since 1908, to travel by the railway from Damascus to the Hejaz.