Richard Francis Burton, born in the nineteenth-century, rightfully belonged to the Renaissance, and should have been contemporary with Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. Instead he was trapped in the century least capable of appraising his talents, confined and penalized by the pruderies of Victorian England, praised for only the most obvious of his abilities, and condemned for a curiosity as prodigious as it was penetrating. He was an explorer of immense courage and endurance who penetrated the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina at great risk and wrote a detailed description of his experiences. He was the first European to discover and properly identify Lake Tanganyika.
Like many other distinguished authors, he visited America and wrote a book about his adventures. He lacked the animus of Francis Trollope and Charles Dickens, and looked at everything with a friendly and generally unprejudiced eye. He was not captivated by the political processes, as were Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Bryce, but concentrated instead on exotic phenomena such as the American Indian and the American polygamist. The flourishing Mormon Zion in Utah drew him like a magnet, and the resulting City of the Saints was the best book on the Mormons published during the nineteenth century.
As a disciplined journalist, Burton saw and recorded everything wherever he went, buttressing his notes with the wide background reading of a dedicated scholar. He was also an ethnologist, archaeologist, linguist, poet and translator. Besides this he was an amateur botanist, zoologist, doctor and surgeon, and incidentally a superb swordsman and celebrated raconteur. He published thirty-nine volumes on his travels and explorations, three grammars of Oriental languages, five volumes of folklore. He translated several volumes of poetry, and achieved enduring fame with his great sixteen volume edition of The Arabian Nights, which he larded with ethnological notes to make it a treasure house on the culture of the East.
“Discovery is mostly my mania,” he once wrote. And although his journeyings,particularly his hazardous search for the source of the White Nile, would seem to indicate a passion for geographical discovery, actually his real preoccupation was with the people. His mania was for the discovery of the hidden in man, for the unknowable, and inevitably, the unthinkable. Here he ran afoul of British society, which was already having difficulty digesting the findings of Charles Darwin, and which greeted with glacial hostility the tentative gropings of the precursors of Sigmund Freud.
For human communication in his travels Richard Burton would go to extraordinary lengths. First he eliminated the language barrier. As a boy he had alternately lived in France and England; he was not quite English in England and not quite French in France. France he always preferred. “England,” he said, “is the only country where I never feel at home.” But once having tasted the pleasure of mastering a language, he found it a necessity. With each new tongue he would master the elementary grammar, then absorb a minimum vocabulary of eight hundred words, memorizing from notes he kept in his pockets, always practicing aloud. Reading followed, and sedulous learning to master the tricks of pronunciation. After two months of this regimen, he tells us, “the back of the language was broken.”
But being a linguist was not enough. For absolute penetration of a new culture Burton liked to go into disguise. In India he masqueraded as a Bushiri merchant, in Egypt as an Indian doctor, in Arabia as a Pathan, in Ethiopia as a Moslem,. He was always
anger of being exposed, which no doubt greatly heightened the excitement; but he was artful enough to pose as someone not quite native, a traveling peddler, a pilgrim, always a stranger from some distance so that his language, dress, and mannerisms would go unchallenged. The rewards were extraordinary; so, as it turned out were the penalties.
( see link at end) …It was Burton’s plan to disguise himself as a Muslim pilgrim, join the Hajj and enter the holy city. Burton had been preparing for his adventure for years. As a British soldier stationed in India, He had immersed himself in Islam and learned Arabic. In the early 1850s he gained permission to take a leave from the British Army and traveled to Egypt to prepare for his adventure. He immediately took on the disguise of a Muslim, his success prompting him to begin his journey into Arabia in July 1853. He traveled by caravan first to Medina and from there to Mecca. Within a few months he returned to Egypt.
Burton published his description of his journey in a three-volume book that became an immediate sensation in England. The adventurer was elevated to the status of folk hero and later enhanced his reputation by beginning an unsuccessful quest to find the source of the Nile River.
“…a splendid camel in front of me was shot through the heart.”
“We dismounted to gaze at the venerable minarets and the green dome which covers the tomb of the Prophet. The heat was dreadful, the climate dangerous, and the beasts died in numbers. Fresh carcasses strewed our way, and were covered by foul vultures. The Caravan was most picturesque. We traveled principally at night, but the camels had to perform the work of goats, and step from block to block of basalt like mountaineers, which being unnatural to them, they kept up a continual piteous moan. The simoom and pillars of sand continually threw them over.
Water is the great trouble of a Caravan journey, and the only remedy is to be patient and not to talk. The first two hours gives you the mastery, but if you drink you cannot stop. Forty-seven miles before we reached Mecca, at EI Zaribah, we had to perform the ceremony of EI Ihram, meaning ‘to assume the pilgrim garb’. A barber shaved us, trimmed our moustaches; we bathed and perfumed, and then we put on two new cotton cloths, each six feet long by three and a half broad. It is white, with narrow red strips and fringe, and worn something as you wear it in the baths. Our heads and feet, right shoulder and arm, are exposed.
We had another fight before we got to Mecca, and a splendid camel in front of me was shot through the heart. Our Sherif Zayd was an Arab Chieftain of the purest blood, and very brave. He took two or three hundred men, and charged our attackers. However, they shot many of our dromedaries and camels, and boxes and baggage strewed the place; and whence we were gone the Bedawi would come back, loot the baggage; and eat the camels.
On Saturday, the 10th of September, at one in the morning, there was great excitement in the Caravan, and loud cries of ‘Mecca! Mecca! Oh, the Sanctuary, the Sanctuary!’ All burst into loud praises and many wept. We reached it next morning, after ten days and nights from EI Medinah. I became the guest of the boy Mohammed, in the house of his mother.
First I did the circumambulation of the Haram. Early next morning I was admitted to the house of our Lord; and we went to the holy well Zemzem, the holy water of Mecca, and then the Ka’abah, in which is inserted the famous black stone, where they say a prayer for the Unity of Allah.
Then I performed the seven circuits round the Ka’abah, called the Tawaf. I then managed to have a way pushed for me through the immense crowd to kiss it. While kissing it, and rubbing hands and forehead upon it, I narrowly observed it, and came away persuaded that it is an aerolite. It is curious that almost all agree upon one point, namely, that the stone is volcanic. Ali Bey calls it mineralogically a ‘block of volcanic basalt, whose circumference is sprinkled with little crystals, pointed and straw-like, with rhombs of tile-red felspath upon a dark ground like velvet or charcoal, except one of its protuberances, which is reddish’. It is also described as ‘a lava containing several small extraneous particles of a whitish and of a yellowish substance’.”
…Burton returned to Mecca about a week later and was able to actually enter the sacred Kaaba.
“A crowd stood gathered round the Ka’abah, and I having no wish to stand bareheaded and barefooted in the midday September sun. At the cry of ‘Open a path for the Haji (pilgrim) who would enter the House!’ the gazers made way. Two stout Meccans, who stood below the door raised me in their arms, whilst a third drew me from above into the building. At the entrance I was accosted by several officials, dark-looking Meccans, of whom the blackest and plainest was a youth of the,Ben!l Shaybah family, the true blood of the EI Hejaz.. He held in his hand the huge silver-gilt padlock o fthe Ka’abah, and presently, taking his seat upon a kind of wooden press in the left corner of the hall, he officially inquired my name, nation, and other particulars. The replies were satisfactory, and the boy Mohammed was authoritatively ordered to conduct me round the building, and to recite the prayers. I will not deny that, looking at the windowless walls, the officials at the door, and a crowd of excited fanatics below…my feelings were of the trapped-rat description,…A blunder, a hasty action, a misjudged word, a prayer or bow, not strictly the right shibboleth, and my bones would have whitened the desert sand. Read More:http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/mecca.htm