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Varthema appears to have left Europe towards the end of 1502, and reached Alexandria about the beginning of the following year, from whence he proceeded by the Nile to Cairo. In his brief remarks on that city, he corrects the exaggerated idea of its extent which seems to have prevailed in the West even after his time; for we find Giovan Leoni Africano enumerating it as “une delle maggiore e mirabili città che siano nel mondo."'1 account of the people and government is surprisingly accurate :—“The inhabitants are Moors [Arabs) and Mamlûks. The lord over them is the Grand Sultan, who is served by the Mamlûks, and the Mamlûks are lords over the Moors.” Egypt, at the time, was governed by the Borjëeh Mamlûk Sultân, El-Ashraf Kansooh el-Ghôrî, whose territories comprised Syria as far as the Taurus in Cilicia on the north, and the Euphrates on the east. Already, the Turks under Bayazîd II. had attempted to wrest Egypt from the hands of the Mamlûks; but their invasion in 1490 resulted in nothing beyond the annexation of Tarsûs and Ádana. It remained for Bayazid's second son, Selîm I., surnamed El-Yäûz, about thirty years later, to put an end to a military dynasty which for upwards of two centuries and a half had usurped the authority of the 'Abbaside Khalífs, whose representative in the person of El-Mustánsik b’Illâh must have been residing in Egypt, in comparative obscurity, at the period of our author's visit. From Egypt Varthema sailed to Syria, landed at
I RAMusio, vol. i. p. 83.
Beyroot, and travelled by Tripoli to Aleppo. He notices the concourse of Persians and other foreigners at the latter place, which, until the route viủ the Cape of Good Hope became the great highway to and from India, was one of the principal stations of the overland transit trade between the Mediterranean on the one side, and Persia and the Persian Gulf on the other. Passing through Hamâh, the Hamath of Scripture, and Menîn in the vicinity of Helbon, still famous for the quality of its grapes, he arrived at Damascus, where he appears to have sojourned several weeks, and to have made good use of his time in acquiring some knowledge of colloquial Arabic. Here, he became acquainted with the Mamlûks of the garrison, and by means of money, according to his own statement, induced a captain of that body, who was a renegade Christian, to attach him to a company under his command; but he cautiously reserves, what is highly probable, that a profession of Islamism was exacted as a necessary condition of his enrolment among the Mamlûks. Whether on assuming the new name of Yûnas, (Jonah,) he underwent any more special initiation than that of repeating the simple formula, “ There is no god but the God, and Muhammed is His Apostle,” does not transpire ; but the sequel of his narrative proves, that he had been tolerably well instructed in the outward ceremonies of Islâm, and by practice, combined with an inquiring disposition, and a great facility in adapting himself to circumstances, eventually attained as correct an insight into the doctrines of the Korân as is possessed by the generality of Mussulmans.
This is not the place to discuss the morality of an act, involving the deliberate and voluntary denial of what a man holds to be the Truth in a matter so sacred as that of Religion. Such a violation of conscience is not justifiable by the end which the renegade may have in view, however abstractedly praiseworthy it may be; and even granting that his demerit should be gauged by the amount of knowledge which he possesses of what is true and what false, the conclusion is inevitable, that nothing short of utter ignorance of the precepts of his faith, or a conscientious disbelief in them, can fairly relieve the Christian, who conforms to Islamism without a corresponding persuasion of its verity, of the deserved odium which all honest men attach to apostasy and hypocrisy.
Forming one of the Mamlûk escort of the Hajj Caravan, Varthema set out from Damascus on the 8th of April 1503 on the march towards El-Medînah. Among the few Europeans who have recorded their visits to the Holy Places of the Mussulmans, he is still the only one who has succeeded in reaching them by that route. Joseph Pitts of Exeter in A.D. 1680, Ali Bey in 1807, Giovanni Finati in 1811, Burckhardt in 1814, and Burton in 1853, all penetrated into the Hijâz and returned therefrom by the Red Sea. In this respect, therefore, our author's narrative is unique; nevertheless, we have the means of testing its authenticity by the Hajj Itinerary from Damascus compiled with so much care by Burckhardt. This has been attempted in the annotations on the text of the present edition, and the result is alike confirmatory of Varthema's intelligence and accuracy. A journey of thirty days through a desert, which Sir John Maundeville and other travellers long after him would have filled with images of their own marvellous imaginations, is recounted in the sober colouring of a tourist of our own times, enlivened ever and anon with vivid sketches of the wild country and tribes through which the Caravan wended its solitary way. His description of the Bedawîn, of their marauding incursions and mode of warfare, is minutely correct, and the picture which he portrays of an Arab encampment is as true to life now as it was three centuries and a half
ago. Among the most interesting incidents contained in this portion of Varthema's peregrinations is the Caravan halt near " a mountain inhabited by Jews,” within three days' march of El-Medinah. The stature of these people, which he limits to two feet in height, was either taken on trust from his Muhammedan companions, or estimated irrespective of the distance at which he saw them; but tinged with borrowed fable as this part of his narrative undoubtedly is, the existence of a Jewish colony in that locality for ages anterior to his time is a well authenticated fact, though every trace of them, beyond an unfounded rumour that their descendants still existed there, performing in secret all the ceremonies of their religion, had disappeared when Burckhardt visited the Hijâz. Arabian authors refer the foundation of the settlement to different periods extending as far back as the days of Moses; but the most probable account is that their first immigration occurred after the devastation of Judea by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, and that the colony was enlarged by successive bands of refugees in after times down to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, and the persecutions to which they were subjected under the Em
On entering El-Medînah, “ wishing to see every thing,” our traveller's party engaged the services of a Muzawwir, or guide, whose duty it doubtless was then, as it is still, to instruct the pilgrims in the appointed ceremonies of the Hajj, as well as to accompany them in the character of ordinary ciceroni. The principal object of interest here was the tomb of Muhammed, and with one or two minor exceptions, attributable probably to his imperfect knowledge of Arabic, our author's detailed description of the interior and exterior of the Mosque is strikingly verified by the later accounts of it as given by Burckhardt and Burton. He takes occasion, moreover, in the course of his observations, to correct the absurd notion, which prevailed extensively in those days, that the Prophet's coffin was made of metal, and hung in mid air by the attraction of a powerful magnet.
Another superstition which the party ventured to question on the spot, was the supernatural light which the more credulous Moslems believe to issue from the sepulchre of their Prophet, as firmly as pious Christians of the Greek rite believe in the fable of the Holy Fire as it is manufactured at Jerusalem.