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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence, 'Extracts from a diary of a journey'

Arab Bulletin, 18 November 1916, SD 12-20


October 21

At 6p.m. started off from Aziz Bey El-Masri's tent at Rabugh. Sidi Ali, Sidi Zeid and Nuri saw me off. I had Sidi Ali's own camel, with its very splendid trappings. This secured me a vicarious consideration on the way. The Abadilla wasm is the 'secret sign' of the Port Sudan messengers.

Sheikh Obeid el-Rashid of the Hawazim Beni Salim Harb, and his son Abdullah came with me.

We marched through the palm-groves, and then out along the Tihama, the flat and featureless coastal desert of Arabia. The Sultani road runs along this for the first fifty miles.

At 7p.m. we crossed a belt of blown sand and scrub, about 500 yards broad, but only about a foot deep. It could probably be circumvented, but it was too dark to see. After that between 7.30 and 8p.m. crossed several similar but smaller sandy hollows, and at 9.20p.m. a deeper one. At 9.30 we stopped and slept.

October 22

Got going again at 3a.m. The same sort of country till 4a.m. when we came to the foot of a very low stony ridge, which proved to be a narrow saddle of harrah, joining a small flat block of harrah near the sea to the main mass inland. I could not see how far off the sea was, but it is said to be only five or six thousand yards, and if so the place should be ranged for ship's fire. The neck crossed by the road is stony, and rather narrow, between low shoulders. It has been cumbered up by many tiny cairns, but it is not a difficult passage, except for low-built cars, for which some of the larger stones would have to be rolled aside. By 4.45a.m. we were across the ridge and had descended into the Masturah, which is really the delta of Wadi Fura. Bir Masturah is at the north bank of the wadi bed, which is a gravel and sand area, well covered with scrub and thorn trees up to twenty feet in height. It seems to extend for some fifteen minutes west of the road, after which bare country extends towards the sea, and inland seems to run back for some two hours, and then contracts into the mouth of Wadi Fura, one hour up which is Khoreiba. Khoreiba may be a point of great importance, and should be examined. It is reported to contain wells, and a spring and running water, with palm-groves.

We reached Bir Masturah at 6.45 and stayed till 8a.m. The well is stone lined, and about twenty feet deep and nine feet in diameter. On one side is a chimney (with hand and foot holes) running down to the water, which might be plentiful, if the well were clean. As it is the bottom is half full of stones. Forty yards south of the well is a rubble shelter, perhaps visible from the sea, and some reed huts for three or four families.

We left Bir Masturah at 8a.m. and marched till 11a.m., and again from 12.30p.m. till 4p.m. when the Sultani road leaves the Tihama towards the N.E. Till this point the going has been much as before, though it gets slowly worse for wheels, as the surface becomes softer. The ground is made up of chips of porphyry and basalt, set in sand, or sometimes of pure sand only, with a hard under-soil. Thorn trees are not plentiful after Bir Masturah. Tareif Beni Ayub, a very steep and bare range of hills, stretches away on the east of the Tihama. It seems to be about fifteen miles long, and rather narrow. North of it is a tangle of small rocky hills (covering much the same space) and then Jehel Subh, a great mass of rocks going up to beyond Bir ibn Hassani. North of Jebel Subh is Jebel Gheidh. Jebel Radhwa is in sight to the N.W., and across the top of the Tihama, from near Ras el-Abyadh (Rueis) from S.W. to E.N.E. runs a range of low hills (Jebel Hesna) as though to meet Jebel Subh. The Sultani road runs north up Wadi Hesna towards these hills; but we turned off N.E. at 4p.m. by a short cut. Wadi Hesna was sand with much broom-like scrub, and it marked the beginning of an intermediate area, between the flat Tihama and the rocky hills of the interior. The underlying characteristics of this intermediate area were low basalt ridges, but nearly everywhere they are covered with sand, on which is a good deal of coarse grass and trees, and sheep and goats were grazing in the shallow valleys which drained S. E.

At 5p.m. we passed a stone that marked the north boundary of the Masruh dira, and the south end of the Beni Salim. At 5.30 we rejoined the main road, and followed it down slopes of loose and rather heavy sand to Bir el-Sheikh at 6p.m. This is a Beni Salim village, with a short, broad street of brushwood huts and a few shops; also two stone-lined wells (said to be thirty feet deep) with plenty of good water. We left again at 9p.m., and in the dark struck up more rough sandy slopes with some hard patches, trees, etc., till 12p.m., when we slept.

October 23

Started again at 3a.m., and followed down Wadi Maared between sharp hills. Many trees about. At dawn (5a.m.) reached Bir ibn Hassani, at the junction of three great wadies. The confluence is about half-a-mile wide, of hard soil, and the village (where lives Ahmed el-Mansur, brother of Mohsin of Jiddah, and the Sherif’s Emir-el-Harb) consists of about thirty stone houses. There are three wells. The Sultani road to Bir Abbas turns off to the N.E. up Wadi Milif or Mreiga, which drains off S.W. as Wadi Milif, towards Bir el-Sheikh and the sea.

Jebel Subh, just E. of Bir ibn Hassani, is fretted into the most fantastic shapes along the sky-line.

As we came by night I cannot say if cars would pass Bir el-Sheikh. I think not, though the run down to Bir ibn Hassani and the surface of the valleys there are quite excellent. The mountains are apparently impassable except for Arabs or birds.

At 6a.m. we left Bir ibn Hassani, turning N.W. up Wadi Bir ibn Hassani. The country changed instantly, as we had reached the third zone of the Hejaz littoral, that in which sand hills give place to bare rocks. The hills on each side of the wadi were as steep as possible, perhaps 2,000 feet high, of dull red granite or porphyry with pink patches, but with foot-hills, about one hundred feet high, of a dark green rock, that gave the lower slopes a cultivated tint. There were many trees (acacia to thirty feet, sunt, etc.), and enough tamarisk and soft shrubs to make the view from a little distance most delightful, almost park-like. The ground surface was of shingle and light soil, quite firm, with occasional rocky patches, and the valley was from 200 to 500 yards wide. We ascended it (a very gentle rise) till 8.15a.m., when we reached a low watershed, across which were the ruins of two small rooms, and a wall of broken blocks from sky-line to sky-line. It may have been a former tribal boundary, or a fortified frontier. Across the watershed we were in the basin of Wadi Safra. The valley became more bare and stony, and the hills each side less variegated. After half an hour we passed a well on the east, next a little stone ziaret in the mouth of a side valley. An hour later the valley joined a larger one coming from the N.E. and running S.W. down a gorge into Wadi Safra, on the further side of which we could just see the palm-groves of Jedida. Our track crossed this larger wadi, and went up a small affluent for half an hour, across another divide, and down a broad wadi for three-quarters of an hour to Wadi Safra in the middle of Wasta. The going underfoot from Wadi Bir ibn Hassani to Wasta, was rough and hard.

Wasta used to be a town of about 1,000 houses, divided into four hamlets scattered about Wadi Safra, which is here broad. The houses are built on earth mounds or the foot-hills, to be out of the floods, and there are palm-groves all about them. The place had had about 4,000 people, but a flood has broken through the banks and destroyed much of the groves, so that to-day many of the houses are deserted. It will take years to repair the damage, as the soil is gone.

We stopped in Wasta till 2 p.m. The houses are mud built, with ceiling of quarter palm logs, palm ribs, and pressed earth over all. There is a small market, in which the best things were dates, very sweet and good, and still plentiful, in spite of the locusts, which were bad this year. There is a running stream in Wasta; where this is artificially confined, it is a swift channel a foot or two wide. Lower down it is released, and becomes a clear slow rivulet, about ten feet broad, and eighteen inches deep, between thick strips of soft green turf. The palm-trees have little canals, a foot or two deep, dug among them, and are watered in rotation; in consequence there is a lot of rank grass in all the groves, and flowering shrubs. The same is the case in every hollow in the wadi, for water can apparently be found almost anywhere about two feet deep. The spring (the right to so many minutes of whose water daily or weekly is sold with each plot of ground), is not very good water, being a little brackish, and warm. Some of the wells of private water in the groves are excellent. Wadi Safra floods every year, sometimes several times. The water may be eight feet deep, and occasionally runs for two or three days. This is not astonishing, for every drop of water that falls on these polished hills must run off them as off glass, and Wadi Safra is the channel of a great drainage area.

The land and the trees are all owned by Beni Salim Harb, and the whole tribe lives on the produce of the valley. This is mainly dates, though a little tobacco, and some melons, marrows and cucumbers are grown, and grapes and fruits have been tried with success. The surplus dates are exported viâ Reis and Boreika to the Sudan, etc., and there exchanged for cereals and luxuries. This export seems to reach about 1,000 to 1,500 tons in a normal year.

The householders of the valley are all Beni Salim, but the actual work of cultivation is done by slaves (Khadim), of which every well-to-do house has four or five. These slaves are negroid, and with their thick bodies and fat legs look curiously out of place among the bird-like Arabs. They come from Suakin and Port Sudan originally, when small, with Takruri pilgrims, passing as their children, and are sold on arrival in the Hejaz. When grown, the price of a male ranges from £60 to £30, according to season and trade conditions. Being of such value, they are treated fairly well. In the towns they do household work, and have easy lives. In the villages they have to work hard, hut have the envied solace of being allowed to marry the female slaves, and bring up families. These families are, of course, the property of the master, but etiquette prescribes the granting of reasonable privileges to a father and mother. Their work becomes light, and they are usually not separated from their children until these are grown up. They are all Moslems, but have no legal status, and cannot appeal to tribal custom, or even to the Sherif's court. When they fail to satisfy their master they are beaten, but by public opinion cruelty is discouraged, and on the whole they seemed a very contented lot. They are generally allowed a little pocket money, with which they add to their stock of clothes. About 5 per cent of Feisal's army was composed of them, the younger lads being preferred for service. There are supposed to be about 10,000 of them in Wadi Safra, and perhaps half as many again in Wadi Yenbo, which is the other great cultivated area in the middle Hejaz. The villages in Wadi Safra from its mouth to its source are Bedr Honein (the largest, said to have about 6,000 people), Bruka, Alia, Fara, Jedida, Husseiniya, Dghubij, Wasta, Kharma, Hamra, Um Dheiyal, Hazma and Kheif (or Jedida as the Turks call it).

I left Wasta at 2p.m., and rode up Wadi Safra past Kharma (ten minutes) to Hamra at 3p.m. The Wadi is from 100 to 300 yards broad, of fine shingle and sand, very smooth swept by the floods. The walls are of absolutely bare red and black rock, with edges and ridges sharp as knife blades reflecting the sun like metal. Thanks to the green of the grass and the gardens, the whole effect was very beautiful. At Hamra the place was swarming with Sidi Feisal's camel convoys and soldiers. I found him in a little mud house built on a twenty-foot knoll of earth, busied with many visitors. Had a short and rather lively talk, and then excused myself. Zeki Bey received me warmly, and pitched me a tent in a grassy glade, where I had a bath and slept really well, after dining and arguing with Feisal (who was most unreasonable) for hours and hours.

October 24

Awoke late. Sidi Feisal came to see me at 6.30a.m., and we had another hot discussion, which ended amicably. This lasted till nearly noon, when I went out and explored Hamra, and went up towards Kheif to the sentinels, who were not in any danger! Hamra itself is a small place of, perhaps, 150 houses (hidden in trees on twenty-foot earth mounds), a little stream, and very luxuriant groves and grass plots. I talked to all of Feisal's men I could. They were dotted about all over the place, mostly Juheinah, and Beni Salim, Ahamda, Subh, Rahala, and Beni Amr. They seemed a very tough lot, and were most amusing; also, in the best of spirits imaginable for a defeated army.

Then saw Feisal again. This time everything went most smoothly, and he seemed less nervy. His optimism, or his contempt of the possibility of a Turkish advance, was curiously fixed.

At 4p.m. mounted; with a new escort of fourteen Sherifs, all Juheinah, and mostly relatives of Mohammed Ali el-Bedawi of Yenbo, whither l am to go, by the Haj road. To reach this we went down Wadi Safra for a few minutes, crossed its bank, and entered a side wadi which opens on Kharma. The going is excellent, at first through very thick brushwood, but from 5.30 to 5.45 the path turns more west, up a stiff and narrow pass, confined on both sides by dry walls of large unhewn stones. This work continues down the other side of the watershed, for about two miles. It had obviously been a graded road, which had been in places only a revetted bank, but elsewhere a causeway sometimes six to eight feet high, through the gorge. The surface may have been paved, but is to-day all in ruins, and breached by the stream. From the remains it may have been twenty feet wide, but I saw it in the dark only, and could not examine it. It might have been the work of almost anybody, down to Mohammed Ali.

At 6.30p.m. reached the bottom of the pass (now a very steep and rough descent) and took a road that passes a little to the north of Bir Said, across a most intricate system of wadies and small hills with some larger wadies bearing S. or S.W. and loose blocks of lava here and there. At 8.30p.m. we reached Bir el-Moiya or Moiya el-Kalaat, a well just under the ruins of a small fort on a low hill. It was probably a guard house of the Pilgrim road, over the water.

October 25

Started again at 3a.m., up and down the same labyrinth of wadis, till 5a.m., when dawn broke finding us in the middle of a confused harrah with sandy floor. The rocks were bent and twisted and cracked, most oddly. At 5.45a.m. had got clear of this harrah, which died away in a great sea of sand dunes, interspersed with rocky hills, all spattered with sand to their tops. Numerous wadis drained this area, trending rather rapidly down-hill towards the sea, which was visible to the S.S.W.

We now held steadily west, with an occasional aimless tack towards the north. At 7.30a.m. we were over the dunes and came out on a flat sandy plain, with a good deal of scrub and acacia on it at first, and with low hills, to the south, prolonged westward into a small coastal range. On the north were other low hills, spurs of the central mass to the north of them. (An easier road bending to the north, avoids the worst of the dunes.) From 7.30 to 8.45a.m. we stopped, and then rode across an empty shingle plain till 10a.m., when we entered a northern off-shoot of the small coastal range. Between it and the inland range was a rolling open space, falling from an indeterminate watershed a little north of our road into Wadi Yenbo, whose palm-groves were visible about six miles away on the N.N.W. Behind the groves was the huge bulk of Jebel Rudhwa, the most striking hill in the district.

The foot-hills we crossed were low, and enclosed a thorn-grown plain with a sandy floor. At 11a.m. we came to the end of this, and rode over a small saddle on to the basin of Wadi Yenbo, which here was a very broad green belt of tamarisk and thorn, having on its eastern edge a conspicuous low hill with domed lava head, called Jebel Araur el-Milh, which deflects the wadi from S.S.W. to S.W. or even W.S.W. Above us the main channel trended up 30° N, for some distance. We stopped under an acacia tree in the wadi from 11.15a.m. to 3p.m. and then again at 3.15 to water the camels at a little water-hole of brackish water, about four feet below the surface in the main wadi, behind a wall of tamarisk. After that we went on for an hour and three-quarters and stopped for the night. The country is again Tihama, made up of ten-foot slowly-swelling ridges and shallow valleys between. Wadi Yenbo main bed, where we crossed it, is about a mile and a half wide, but there are several smaller wadies, apparently subsidiary mouths, further west, and the stream, after crossing the track seems to swing round far to the west. The land between the track and the sea has a lot of scrub growing on it, so that the actual outlet of the wadi was not visible. The Tihama here is all so flat, that most of it goes under water whenever Wadi Yenbo comes down in strong flood.

October 26

Started again at 2a.m. and reached Yenbo at 5.30a.m. across a featureless but hard shingle and wet sand fiat. Yenbo stands on a low stone outcrop, a few feet above the plain. I went to the home of Abd el-Kadir el-Abdo, Feisal's agent for military business, and a very well informed, efficient, and well-inclined official. He put me up for four days, during which I wandered back to Wadi Yenbo again to see the palm-groves.

On November 1, got on board the Suva.

Yenbo,
October 29.

T.E.L.

Source: SD 12-20
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 20 January 2006


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