They traveled sometimes with a signaling cannon. This was how they communicated. Their columns were a football field wide and miles long. Closely packed. Dusty. Creaking. Tinkling. Moaning. Sighing. A stream of people and animals: rivers of life that trickled in slow motion across one of the most forbidding landscapes of the Levant, the austere deserts and lunar mountains of the Hejaz. The rich pilgrims rode camels (the women sequestered in boxy coaches). The poor, as always, walked. They traveled en masse for protection from marauding Bedouin bands. Fifty days from Damascus. Twenty-four days from Sanaa. Two months from Cairo. All were performing the sacred Hajj duty—every Muslim’s dream of visiting Islam’s holy city of Mecca once in their lifetime.
“It was near ten o’clock when we heard the signal gun fired, and then, without any disorder, litters were suddenly heaved and braced upon the bearing beasts, and the thousands of riders mounted in silence. The length of the slow-footed multitude was near two miles, and the width some hundred yards in the open plains. We marched in an empty waste, a plain of gravel, where nothing appeared and never a road before us.”
— Charles M. Doughty, British explorer, who joined a Hajj caravan of 6,000 people and 10,000 cargo animals in 1876.
Old Hajj trails still stripe the deserts of Saudi Arabia.
We follow them.
We walk between the two lines of stone denoting the curbs of these ancient foot-roads—forgotten byways that unspool like pale ribbons across the dark lumpy hills of the Hejaz mountains. We plod between abstract works of art that are beautiful wells of hand-chiseled stone. We slog past the battlements of crumbled citadels erected by the Ottoman pashas of Constantinople, the last builders of these old caravan routes. We walk on dust compressed to concrete hardness by centuries of ghostly camel pads, sandaled feet, donkeys’ hooves. Ibn Battuta, the Muslim Marco Polo (he wandered more than 70,000 miles in the 14th century) walked such roads. So did merchants in gold and frankincense. So did kings from Mali. And poets from Yemen: Ahmad Ibn ‘Isa al Rada’ I composed a detailed ode to the route north to Mecca from his homeland. Camel drivers learned the stanzas by heart, thus memorizing a map in verse.
“A traveler is a person worthiest of receiving protection,” the Caliph ‘Umar declared in 638 A.D. after ordering the first watering stations to be built between Mecca and Medina in 638 A.D. Unwittingly, he inaugurated a program of Islamic public road works that would span more than 1,200 years: forts, cisterns, rest houses, date groves, canals, even road signs made of granite. Sometimes these services were not enough.
“Something appeared to the pilgrims as they came to the salty seaside,” a 15th-century traveler in the Hejaz, Al Mokhaerzi, wrote poetically of the killing desert sun. “It was a planet that rises and gets bigger and bigger. Out of it comes a great evil. The pilgrims gathered and the sun struck them hard. Many walkers died. And then many riders died. And their camels and donkeys died. Their losses were great.”
This fading road system across the Arabian Peninsula, traveled across time by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, is a civilizational artifact that deserves far greater awareness than it currently enjoys. It is a global heritage site bleaching away in the Hejaz. It was one of the world’s original information superhighways—an arterial network of language, ethnicity, trade, ideas—linking Arabia and North Africa, the Mediterranean and the East. The Saudi government’s Commission on Tourism and Antiquities has begun to highlight this treasure in a traveling exhibition, “The Roads of Arabia.” Today such roads could be a unifying symbol for the Muslim world: not simply a relict of past greatness but lines of cohesion that tether the wider Middle East to Mecca.
The last official caravan on our walking route—the Egyptian Road—was inked by an Ottoman clerk into a ledger book in 1883. But people still wandered these roads into the 1940s.
“That’s when cars came in to Saudi Arabia and modern roads replaced them,” the historian Sami al Nawar says. “In fact one of the first Saudi traffic laws was, ‘No honking at camel caravans.'”
We see no caravans as we thread the fading tarik al hajj north toward Bilad al-Sham—toward Jordan.
We see an occasional Toyota Hilux pickup truck steered by Bedouins searching for their animals.
They always make a beeline to us. They squint, open mouthed, out their truck windows. They say they have never seen walkers this way before. On this road that is kadim—old. A road their fathers knew stories about. But that today they do not follow.