Two Camels for a Life
John Lewis Burckhardt (1784–1817), born in Switzerland and raised in Germany, was an extraordinary traveler and Orientalist. In the summer of 1806, he traveled to England, where, for two years, he wandered the streets of London in search of employment. He was ultimately hired by the African Association, which was seeking explorers to investigate Arabic Africa; the last six young men employed in that capacity had vanished without a trace. The African Association first sent Burckhardt to Cambridge to study Arabic and medicine, among other subjects. He also prepared himself for the rigors of his travels by wandering bareheaded through the English countryside during a heat wave, subsisting on vegetables and water, and sleeping on the ground.
In 1809 he made his way to Aleppo. There he disguised himself as a Muslim and adopted the name Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdullah, a façade that allowed him to perfect his Arabic, learn the customs of the Arab world, and enter areas off-limits to non-Muslims. He studied the Koran so diligently that his identity went unchallenged even after a critical examination by learned Muslims. On a trip in 1812 into Jordan, he rediscovered the ruins of Petra.
After several years in Syria, Burckhardt continued to Cairo. He traveled up the Nile and then began a pilgrimage to Mecca via Jidda. He stayed in Mecca for three months posing as a beggar before returning to Cairo in a state of extreme exhaustion. The following spring he traveled to Mount Sinai, and again returned to Cairo, this time to prepare for a journey to Fezzan. His caravan was preparing to depart in April 1817 when Burckhardt was taken ill with dysentery and died at the age of 33.
The following is an excerpt from Burckhardt’s Travels in Syria and the Holy Land detailing his expedition to Mount Sinai in 1816. He was accompanied by his two loyal guides, Ayd and Hamd of the Towara Tribe, as well as Hamd’s Uncle Szaleh, the less dependable, spineless camel driver.
This account has been slightly condensed.
April 27th—At one hour and three quarters we passed the well of Howara, round which a few date trees grow. The water of the well of Howara is so bitter, that men cannot drink it; and even camels, if not very thirsty, refuse to taste it. The bitter well at Marah [Exodus 15:23], which was sweetened by Moses, corresponds exactly with that of Howara. The complaints of the bitterness of the water by the children of Israel, who had been accustomed to the sweet water of the Nile, are such as may daily be heard from the Egyptian servants and peasants who travel in Arabia. Accustomed from their youth to the excellent water of the Nile, there is nothing which they so much regret in countries distant from Egypt.
May 9th—Ayd still expressed his certainty that somebody had approached us last night, so much confidence did he place in the barking of his dog; he therefore advised me to hasten my way back, as some Arabs might see our footsteps in the sand, and pursue us in quest of a booty. On departing, Ayd, who was barefooted, and whose feet had become sore with walking, took from under the date-bush round which we had passed the night, a pair of leathern sandals, which he knew belonged to his Heywat friend, the fisherman, and which the latter had hidden here till his return. In order to inform the owner that it was he who had taken the sandals, he impressed his footstep in the sand just by, which he knew the other would immediately recognise, and he turned the toes towards the south, to indicate that he had proceeded with the sandals in that direction.
We now returned across the plain to the basalt cliffs and descended from our camels, which Szaleh was driving before him, about fifty paces in advance. As we had seen nobody during the whole journey, and were now returning into the friendly districts of the Towara [tribe], we had ceased to entertain any fears from enemies, and were laughing at Ayd for recommending us to cross the valleys as quickly as possible. My gun was upon my camel, and I had just turned leisurely round an angle of the valley, when I heard Ayd cry out with all his might, “Get your arms! Here they are!”
I immediately ran up to the camels, to take my gun, but the cowardly Szaleh, instead of stopping to assist his companions, made the camels gallop off at full speed up the valley. I, however, overtook them, and seized my gun, but before I could return to Hamd, I heard two shots fired, and Ayd’s war-hoop, “Have at him! are we not Towara?”
Immediately afterwards I saw Hamd spring round the angle, his eyes flashing with rage, his shirt sprinkled with blood, his gun in one hand, and in the other his knife covered with blood; his foot was bleeding, he had lost his turban, and his long black hair hung down over his shoulders. “I have done for him!” he exclaimed, as he wiped his knife; “but let us fly.”
“Not without Ayd,” said I: “No indeed,” he replied; “without him we should all be lost.” We returned round the corner, and saw Ayd exerting his utmost agility to come up with us. At forty paces distance an Arab lay on the ground, and three others were standing over him. We took hold of Ayd’s arm and hastened to our camels, though we knew not where to find them. Szaleh had frightened them so greatly by striking them with his gun, that they went off at full-gallop, and it was half an hour before we reached them; one of them had burst its girths, and thrown off its saddle and load. We replaced the load, mounted Ayd, and hastened to pass the rocks of Djebel Sherafe.
We then found ourselves in a more open country, less liable to be waylaid amongst rocks, and better able to defend ourselves. Hamd now told me that Ayd had first seen four Bedouins running down upon us; they had evidently intended 074to waylay us from behind the corner, but came a little too late. When Hamd heard Ayd cry out, he had just time to strike fire and to light the match of his gun, when the boldest of the assailants approached within twenty paces of him and fired; the ball passed through Hamd’s shirt; he returned the fire but missed his aim. Ayd cried out to Hamd, to attack the robber with his knife, and advanced to his support with a short spear which he carried; Hamd drew his knife, rushed upon the adversary, and after receiving a wound in the foot, brought him to the ground, but left him immediately on seeing his companions hastening to his relief.
Ayd now said that if the man was killed, we should certainly be pursued, but that if he was only wounded the others would remain with him, and give up the pursuit. We travelled with all possible haste, not knowing whether more enemies might not be behind, or whether the encampment of the wounded man might not be in the vicinity, from whence his friends might collect to revenge his blood.
Ayd had certainly not been mistaken last night; these robbers had no doubt seen our fire, and had approached us, but were frightened by the barking of the dog. Uncertain whether we were proceeding northward or southward, they had waited till they saw us set out, and then by a circuitous route in the mountains had endeavoured, unseen, to get the start of us in order to waylay us in the passes of the Wady Mezeiryk. If they had reached the spot where we were attacked two or three minutes sooner, and had been able to take aim at us from behind the rock, we must all have inevitably perished.
We returned along the coast by the same road we had come. Hamd’s wound was not dangerous; I dressed it as well as I could, and four days afterwards it was nearly healed.
Hamd, afraid of being liable to pay the fine of blood, if it should become known that the robber had fallen by his hand, had made us all give him our solemn promise not to mention any thing of the affair. When I discharged him and Ayd, I made them both some presents, which they had well deserved, particularly Hamd. He was so imprudent as to mention this to his uncle Szaleh, who was so vexed at not receiving a present, that he immediately divulged all the circumstances of our rencounter. Hamd in consequence was under the greatest apprehensions from the relations of the robber. Having accompanied me on my return to Cairo, Hamd remained with me some time there, in anxious expectation of hearing whether the robber’s blood was likely to be revenged. Not hearing any thing, he then returned to his mountain, four months after which a party of Omran, to whose tribe the [robbers] had belonged, came to the tent of the Sheikh of the Towara to demand the fine of blood. The man had died a few days after receiving the wound, and although he was a robber and the first aggressor, the Bedouin laws entitled his relations to the fine, if they waved the right of retaliation; Hamd was therefore glad to come to a compromise, and paid them two camels (which the two principal Sheikhs of the Towara gave him for the purpose), and twenty dollars, which I thought myself bound to reimburse to him, when he afterwards called on me at Cairo.
John Lewis Burckhardt (1784–1817), born in Switzerland and raised in Germany, was an extraordinary traveler and Orientalist. In the summer of 1806, he traveled to England, where, for two years, he wandered the streets of London in search of employment. He was ultimately hired by the African Association, which was seeking explorers to investigate Arabic Africa; the last six young men employed in that capacity had vanished without a trace. The African Association first sent Burckhardt to Cambridge to study Arabic and medicine, among other subjects. He also prepared himself for the rigors of his travels by wandering bareheaded […]