The People of Makkah in 17th Century

It is not concealed to men of discernment that, as recorded in the Kıyafetname of Akşemseddinzade Hamdi Çelebi (d. 1503), the people of Mecca are dark skinned, some of them reddish or brownish, with eyes like gazelles, sweet speech, rounded faces, keeping their own counsel, gentlemen of pure Hashimite lineage. But because of the hot climate they are very skinny. They are not much versed in the crafts, and do not have the ability to work with heavy loads; rather, most of them are merchants, while another class get by on the charity of the Sultan.

The majority of Meccans, being of a melancholic humour, are not very sociable. They are rough spoken in their trade dealings and in conventional discourse. If you wish to buy some merchandise from them it is customary to ask the price. They will say, for example, ‘Ten guruş.’ You may think it appropriate to bargain and counter with eight, but if you do, they will flare up and demand fifteen. If you say nine they will say twenty, and stubbornly stick to that price. That is how contentious they are. Among themselves, on the other hand, they join hands under their sleeves and engage in dumb barter over prices by squeezing with conventional signs, like the Pythagoreans. So it is better to just give the first price they ask, since they won’t engage in bargaining and they eschew ill-gotten gains.

Indeed they are very fine gentlemen, all of them pure in lineage and descendants of the Prophet. However, because of their rebelliousness during the reign of the Egyptian Sultan Qaytbay (reg. 1468–96), the Sultan made a surprise attack on Mecca with 12,000 piebald horsemen and put all the sherifs in chains. He exiled most of them, retaining only seven noble seyyids inside Mecca. The sherifs agreed that henceforth they would not wear green turbans but only white. They also agreed not to mount horses with docked tails, to put on their saddle cloths front to back, and to mount barefoot. This agreement is still in force, although in the course of time the sherifs returned and Mecca is now full of them. But they never wear green turbans.

As for the rest of their attire, they use splendid Indian silks, plain white shirts with embroidery, zaği and mollayi stuffs, weaves and germsud and hümaşahi and mohair cloaks of various colours, which they proudly prance about in. From their white turbans in front and back they let down Muhammadan turban-ends, each a Meccan cubit long.

Some wear varicoloured precious Kashmir and Lahore cottons. The reason is that the sherifs receive such items as gifts from the emperors and notables of India. From the Ottomans, on the other hand, they mostly get grain.

The Meccans never wear trousers but rather baggy pants and beddavi shirts. On their feet they wear Circassian and cimcime shoes and slippers. A scarf of Kashmir cotton around their neck is de rigeur. They put kohl on their eyes, following the Sunna of the Prophet, and put henna on their hands and feet and beards.

They never eat greasy foods, only coffee and hard bread, beans, olives, dates, sweetmeats, sherbets, pilavs and soups. They are very abstemious. If they eat too much they cannot digest it, because the heat anyway roasts a man. Living so abstemiously they are very healthy, so healthy that there are no physicians in Mecca; if one does come he cannot make a living and moves elsewhere. The people of Mecca also abstain from sex six months of the year because of the heat. One day they go to the summer pasture known as Wadi Abbas …. (? – lacuna in the text). They do not light fires, except for the merchants and the sherifs.

They are 100 per cent Shafi‘i. Some … (? – lacuna in the text) are called Zaydi. (They are thought to practice) mut‘a marriage. This is an arrangement whereby a man on a campaign or journey can contract to have sexual relations with a woman for up to one month for one guruş. At the end of the month he pays the fee and goes elsewhere. If he has to stay more than a month he contracts with the same woman for one guruş or five guruş, or else with a different woman, and they can do what they will. This is called mut‘a marriage. It is said to have been the practice in Mecca in olden times, and the Meccans are reproached for it, but in our day I have not been aware that it is practised. It is a vicious slander. They are gentlemen of pure religion. And they have little boys who are charming and clever; as in the verse:

When he walks he is spirit in form in motion;

When he talks he breathes life like the words of Jesus.

The people are well-born, high and mighty individuals. They don’t like the Turks who sojourn in Mecca. The Turks (on the other hand) are quite comfortable in Medina, where indeed most of them live and where the sherifs hardly have any influence.

The clay of Mecca is so fine and delicate that they fashion from it all sorts of jugs and pitchers which they use for the water of Zamzam.

The women here are known for their beauty and grace; with fairy faces and angel looks, like the moon at mid-month or like garden peacocks; and with gaits like skipping partridges; pure virgins and mature matrons who are clearly the object of the Koranic verse: You may marry other women who seem good to you: two, three, or four of them (4:3). They are the source and origin of mankind. They too wear fine fabrics and put on jewellery from head to toe. On their heads they wear caps of gold and silver or else cloth threaded with gold, wrapping a black silk cover over that, and they cover their radiant faces with veils of multicoloured silk so that one sees only their gazelle-like eyes daubed with kohl. They are very covered-up women.

But there are also Ethiopian slavegirls, actually singing-girls, tawny as raw ambergris, who set hearts aflutter. Some dance in public in the coffee houses. They are the pride of Arabia and no cause for shame. They all wear light-blue stockings and blue slippers. If a woman passes by a man of God, his brain is suffused with the perfumes of musk and ambergris and civet. One day as I was going to visit the shrine of Sufyan al-Thawri (scholar of early Islam, d. 778) I ran into a flock of women. It turned out to be a wedding procession. One of the maiden girls was drowned in gold bangles. Even from a distance of ten paces my brain was suffused with fragrances. More than 500 schoolboys followed the procession crying Amin amin! as they made their way to their destination. […]

But the Meccans, being of a melancholic and saturnine disposition, are not much engaged in learning. They are all merchants. The study of Hadith and the memorisation of the Koran are rather Egyptian specialities. In Mecca it is only some of the Turkish sojourners who engage in the religious sciences; other than that, Mecca has no reputation for it. Also one does not find saintly individuals engaged in mystical exercises and performing miracles as one finds in other countries. The reason is that, being of melancholic humour, they are more given to frivolity and also to building activities. The multi-storeyed buildings here are not to be found in Aleppo or Damascus or in Iraq, though one does find them in Cairo.

Another quality of the Meccans is uxoriousness. They are in thrall to their wives: whatever their wives tell them to do, they do. In this respect, the men are the wings of the women. You never find a Meccan who is prominent for courage. They only put on fine clothes, apply henna to their feet and beards, go from coffee house to coffee house, then go home with a coffee mug in one hand and a biscuit in the other and fall asleep on their pillow sipping coffee and munching on biscuit.

For food and drink they completely rely on the marketplace. Since they are in thrall to their wives, nothing gets cooked in their houses. The women themselves are slow and heavy. They never do any work, never wash laundry or spin yarn or sweep the house. All their needs are supplied from the marketplace.

These are very extravagant people; but since they possess the wealth of Korah, they spend freely and indulge in magnificent clothes and furnishings. That is how it has been over the generations. My aim (in reporting this) is not to reproach them in any way – God forbid! I have only recorded the facts.

Source: Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim, An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi, pp. 344-346.

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