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NORTH BRITISH REVIEW.
MARCH 18 6 6.
ART. I. Narrative of a Year's Journey through Central and
Eastern Arabia, 1862-3. By WILLIAM GIFFORD PALGRAVE. 2 vols. 8vo. Lond., 1865.
MR. PALGRAVE'S Central Arabia is, we think, upon the whole, the most provoking book that we can remember to have read. It is not only a very clever and amusing book, but it is evidently the work of a clever man. Having told us that he is to 'fill up a blank in the map of Asia,' by giving us a description of a country of which we know little or nothing,-' its plains and mountains, its tribes and cities,—he proceeds to describe a country which has been as well known for nearly half a century as it is now. He leads us to expect from him a full, accurate, and faithful account of its inhabitants, their
governments and institutions, their 'ways and customs, and their “social condition ;' but, instead of fulfilling these expectations, which he was quite capable of fulfilling, he gives us an account which is not only defective in many essential particulars, but which contains such inaccuracies and fictions, that we know not what to accept as true, and what to reject as erroneous or fabulous. That the book, at the same time, has great merits, which have obtained for it extensive popularity and much praise, we readily acknowledge. This indeed is the reason why we have considered it our duty, even at this late hour, to state freely some at least of the grounds on which we consider it calculated to mislead the numerous readers who may have been induced to rely upon it.
We have said that the book has great merits, but they do not consist in the more ambitious discussions in which the author freely indulges. For everything relating to Mohammedan theology, the origin and connexion of Arab races, and such grave matters, there are other authorities on which, for sufficient reasons, we should be more disposed to rely. We
VOL. XLIV. ---NO. LXXXVII.
cannot say that he has added anything appreciable to our knowledge of the geography of Central Arabia, or of any branch of physical science in connexion with it; indeed, he tells us that
the men of the land, rather than the land of the men, were my main object of research and principal study. Of much that relates to the men of the land, however, and both influences and illustrates their life and character; of the municipal organization prevailing in the numerous towns and villages scattered over the country, and in which there must be, to a great extent, local self-government, as in all the countries of Asia ; of the means of education which the Mohammedans have never neglected, where there was a settled population to take advantage of them ; of the tenure of land, so important an element in the social condition of every Asiatic people; of the nature and extent of the agriculture of the country, its condition, or its produce; of the commerce carried on by the numerous traders of Central Arabia who frequent Egypt, Damascus, Aleppo, Bagdad, and other places; in short, of anything material or tangible he tells us little or nothing. Neither does he tell us much about the condition—the comparative comfort or misery-of the great mass of the settled population ; but of some of the higher, and a portion of the middle classes of Central Arabia, he gives such an account as we have not from any one else, and as no one who had not lived amongst them on the familiar terms on which Mr. Palgrave describes himself as associating with them, could be expected or could pretend to give.
Mr. Palgrave writes well ; his pen is fluent, we had almost said affluent; his command of language, his powers of description and dramatic delineation are considerable; and we cannot doubt that he writes with facility. These are great advantages, but they are also great temptations. To a man who commands those powers, and to whom it costs no unpleasant effort to exercise them, the temptation to rely upon these, rather than upon the accuracy that demands patient investigation, is strong; and to a man who feels in himself the power to embellish almost indefinitely any story or narrative that may take his fancy, the temptation to 'touch it up' may be irresistible.
When Sir Walter Scott, in playful mischief, anticipated his friend William Clerk, and told the story which he knew it was Clerk's intention to tell that evening, he could not refrain from embellishing it, or, as he said, putting a cocked hat on its head and a cane in its hand. But Clerk, a keen and accurate historical antiquary, who valued the story because it was strictly true, accused Scott of spoiling it. Scott had no doubt improved it as a story, and perhaps had not much impaired it as a picture of manners; but he had converted a fragment of authentic history into a bit of fiction, more attractive, no doubt, than the original, but no longer an authentic record. It may perhaps be more Mr. Palgrave's misfortune than his fault that his story, which is always well told, should so often suggest the idea of the cocked hat and the cane. At the same time, a somewhat careful perusal of the book has led us to the conclusion, that whatever may be the ideal embellishments, they do not destroy the general likeness, and that the portraiture is still true, at least in the sense in which the higher kind of fiction is true, to the life and manners which it professes to delineate.
What were the special objects which led Mr. Palgrave to undertake a journey attended with so much personal risk, in a country of which we already knew nearly all that we much cared to know, except latitudes and longitudes, which he had not the means of ascertaining, he does not distinctly inform us. He tells us indeed that he was then ‘in connexion with the order of the Jesuits, an order well known in the annals of philanthropic daring; and that his expenses were paid by the Emperor of the French. He hints, too, at some mysterious object, the nature of which he does not choose, or does not feel at liberty, to divulge. What so clear-sighted a sovereign could employ Mr. Palgrave to do for him in Central Arabia, unless to purchase Arab horses, we confess ourselves unable to conjecture; but if we are to judge of Mr. Palgrave's qualifications for that office by his vague and unsatisfactory observations on the steeds which he saw in Nejd, we should be led to fear that he could not have been a very suitable agent to execute such a commission for one who knows a good horse as well as most men. What Mr. Palgrave's real views or purposes may have been, we have no means of knowing; and for our present purpose we have no concern with these, except in as far as they may be supposed to have influenced his manner of regarding what he saw and heard, or the freedom and fidelity of his communications to the public. At the same time, we have found it impossible to resist the conviction that his journey into Central Arabia must have been unpremeditated and suddenly undertaken. Had it been otherwise, it cannot be supposed that he could have failed to make himself acquainted with what was already publicly known of the region in which he contemplated travelling. We have not, however, discovered any trace of his having sought such information. On the contrary, unless we were to attribute to him unworthy motives, we are bound to assume that he was not aware that Central Arabia had been visited and described by any European ; and that when he entered the desert at Màan, on his way to Nejd, he imagined that he was about to enter a country
unknown to Europeans. It is very remarkable, too, that he never appears to have got rid of this curious notion. His book, we presume, must have been written after his return home; yet none of his readers, we think, could have discovered, from anything that he has told them, that he was not the first European who had ever been in that country. It is not the less true that, since the conquest of Nejd and the overthrow of the Wahaby power by the army of Mohammed Aly of Egypt, in 1818,—that is, for nearly half a century,–Nejd, or Central Arabia, has been better known in Europe than perhaps any other part of the Peninsula. The European officers who held prominent places in the army with which Ibrahim Pacha subdued the Wahaby kingdom, and which continued to occupy the country for several years, did not fail to collect, and to make public, an amount of detailed information regarding Nejd, such as only their position in the service of the conqueror could have enabled them to obtain from trustworthy sources, and such as we do not possess, in a shape so authentic, regarding any other part of Arabia."
The Wahabys, as is well known, are not a nation, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, but a sect, composed of men of many different tribes and principalities. They may be shortly described as Mohammedan Puritans. The sect takes its designation from its founder, Ibn-Abd-ul-Wahab, who, about A.D. 1746, began to inculcate his religious opinions at Derayeh, which became the Wahaby capital. He required the most rigid observance of all the precepts of the Coran, from which the Mussulmans had everywhere widely departed. He rejected all the legends, and all but the well-authenticated traditions, with which successive commentators had overlaid the original text. He taught that to address prayers or supplications to Mohammed, or any other departed mortal, or even to associate in prayer any other name with that of the One God, is idolatrous. He enforced the obligation of praying five times daily, and strictly observing the fast of Ramadan. He prohibited the use of anything intoxicating, and of games of chance; required that certain crimes and moral delinquencies should no longer be tolerated, but should be severely punished; enforced the obligation of giving a certain proportion of a man's means in alms, and of putting a stop to usury; and he enjoined at least one pilgrimage to Mecca. These are all in strict conformity with the precepts and injunctions of the Coran. He further forbade the use of tobacco, and of silk or gold in man's attire, holding these and other adornments of the person to be fit only for women. He ordered all domes and other monuments that had been erected over the graves of reputed saints to be destroyed, and forbade the erection of any such, because persons were thereby induced to address prayers or supplications to beings who had been but mortals like themselves, and thus to be guilty of idolatry.
1 It may be proper to explain that the term Central Arabia, as used by Mr. Palgrave, means the Wahaby kingdom, commonly known as Nejd, which embraces not only the ancient province of Nejd, or the high lands, but several other petty principalities, which have been annexed to it either by conquest or by voluntary submission.
Such are the leading .doctrines inculcated by Ibn-Abd-ulWahab more than a century ago. They were enforced by the sword of Saoud, chief of Derayeh, the reformer's efficient patron and disciple, and are still professed and enforced in like manner by the Wababys, with the whole power of their government, and with unabated fanaticism.
A succession of hereditary chiefs, who were able administrators and distinguished military leaders, enabled the Wahabys to extend their dominions, to consolidate their power, and to found a kingdom, which now includes the whole country from the shores of the Persian Gulf to the vicinity of Mecca and Medina, and which for a time included also the whole of the Hejaz.
In a country the normal condition of which was such as prevailed in Arabia, where every tribe was at war with its neighbour, and not unfrequently one division of a tribe at war with another; where revenge for blood was regarded as a sacred obligation, and the object of almost every contest was plunder, and its result devastation, the growth of any power strong enough to maintain peace and give security to agriculture and commerce, to person and property, must be a mighty gain. But, strange as it may seem, it is still true that the only basis on which such a power has hitherto been established or maintained in Central and Northern Arabia has been religious fanaticism. It was so with the first Mohammedan empire; it has been so with the other minor powers that have established their domination over a part of the country for a time; it has been, and it is so now, with the Wahabys. No other bond seems to be strong enough to bind these Arabs together, and when the fanaticism has cooled the bond has been loosed. It may, however, be centuries before it has so cooled in Nejd. The facts that the Wahabys are a small minority, yet strong enough to be aggressive, and that they occupy a country singularly difficult of access to an organized force, from whatever side it may advance, together with the knowledge that they are hated, as only Orientals can hate, by the Mohammedan populations around them, may probably suffice to keep alive the burning fire of their zeal.