1902 Encyclopedia > Medina, Arabia


MEDINA, or rather EL-MEDINA (the city), or MEDINAT RASUL ALLAH (the city of the apostle of God), a town of the Hijaz in Arabia, in 25° N. lat., 40 E. long.,[817-1] the refuge of Mohammed on his flight from Mecca, and a renowned place of Moslem pilgrimage, consecrated by the possession of his tomb. The name El-Medina goes back to the Koran (sur. xxxiii. 60); the old name was Yathrib, the Lathrippa of Ptolemy and Iathrippa of Stephanus Byzantius.

Medina stands in a sort of basin at the northern extremity of an elevated plain, on the western skirt of the mountain range which divides the Red Sea coast-lands from the central plateau of Arabia. At an hour's distance to the north it is dominated by Mount Ohod, an outlying spur of the great mountains, which is now visited by the pious as the scene of the well-known battle (see MOHAMMED), and the site of the tomb and mosque of the Prophet's uncle Hamza. To the east the plain is bounded by a long line of hills eight or ten hours distant, over which the Nejd road runs. A number of torrent courses (of which W. Kanat to the north, at the foot of Mount Ohod, and W.' Akik, some miles to the south, are the most important) descend from the mountains, forming considerable streams and pools after rain, and converge in the neighbourhood of the town to unite farther west at a place called Zaghaba, whence they descend to the sea through the "mountains of the Tihama"—the rough country between Medina and its port of Yanbu—under the name of W. Idam. Southwards from Medina the plain extends unbroken, but with a slight rise, as far as the eye can reach. The convergence of torrent courses in the neighbourhood of Medina makes this one of the best-watered spots in northern Arabia. The city lies close to one of the great volcanic centres of the peninsula, which was in violent eruption as late as 1266 A.D., when the lava stream approached within au hour's distance of the walls, and dammed up W. Kanat. The result of this and older pre-historic eruptions has been to confine the underground water, so important in Arabian tillage, which can be reached at any point of the oasis by sinking deep wells. Many of the wells are brackish, and the natural fertility of the volcanic soil is in many places impaired by the salt with which it is impregnated ; but the date palm grows well everywhere, and the groves, interspersed with gardens and corn-fields, which surround the city on all sides except the west, have been famous from the time of the Prophet. Thus situated, Medina was originally a city of agriculturists, not like Mecca a city of merchants ; nor, apart from the indispensable trade in provisions, has it ever acquired commercial importance like that which Mecca owes to the pilgrimage.[818-1] Landowners and cultivators are still a chief element in the population of the city and suburbs. The latter, who are called Nawakhila, and more or less openly profess the Shi'a opinions, form a sort of separate caste, marrying only among themselves. The townsmen proper, on the other hand, are a very motley race.[818-2] The mechanical arts, which the true Arab despises, are chiefly practised by foreigners. New settlers remain behind with each pilgrimage ; and the many offices of profit connected with the mosque, the stipends paid by the sultan to every inhabitant, and the gains to be derived by pilgrim-cicerones (Muzawwirs) or by those who make it a business to say prayers at the Prophet's mosque for persons who send a fee from a distance, as well as the alms which the citizens are accustomed to collect when they go abroad, especially in Turkey, keep up au idle population greatly in excess of that which the district would naturally support in the present defective state of agriculture. The population of the city and suburbs may be from 16,000 to 20,000 souls.

The city proper is surrounded by a solid stone wall,[818-3] with towers aud four massive gateways of good architecture, forming an irregular oval running to a kind of angle at the north-west, where stands the castle, held by a Turkish garrison. The houses are good stone buildings similar in style to those of Mecca ; the streets are narrow but clean, and in part paved.[818-4] There is a copious supply of water conducted from a tepid source at the village of Kuba, 2 miles south, and distributed in underground cisterns in each quarter.[818-5] The glory of Medina, and the only important building, is the mosque of the Prophet, in the eastern part of the city, a spacious enclosed court between 400 and 500 feet in length from north to south, and two-thirds as much in breadth. The minarets and the lofty dome above the sacred graves are imposing features, but the circuit is hemmed in by houses or narrow lanes, and is not remarkable except for the principal gate (Bab el-Salam) at the southern end of the west front, facing the sacred graves, which is richly inlaid with marbles and fine tiles, and adorned with golden inscriptions. This gate leads into a deep portico, with ten rows of pillars, running along the southern wall. Near the further end of the portico, but not adjoining the walls, is a sort of doorless house or chamber hung with rich curtains, which is supposed to contain the graves of Mohammed, Abubekr, and 'Omar. To the north of this is a smaller chamber of the same kind, draped in black, which is said to represent the house or tomb of Fatima. Both are enclosed within an iron railing, so closely interwoven with brass wire-work that a glimpse of the so-called tombs can only be got through certain apertures where intercessory prayer is addressed to the prophet, and pious salutations are paid to the other saints.[818-6] The portico in front of the railing is not ineffective, at least by night light. It is paved with marble, and in the eastern part with mosaic, laid with rich carpets; the southern wall is clothed with marble pierced with windows of good stained glass, and the great railing has a striking aspect; but an air of tawdriness is imparted by the vulgar painting of the columns, especially in the space between the tomb and the pulpit, which has received, in accordance with a tradition of the Prophet, the name of the Garden (rauda), and is decorated with barbaric attempts to carry out this idea in colour.[818-7] The throng of visitors passing along the south wall from the Bab el-Salam to salute the tombs is separated from the Garden by a wooden partition about 8 feet high, painted in arabesques. The other three sides of the interior court have porticos of less depth and mean aspect, with three or four rows of pillars. Within the court are the well of the Prophet and some palm trees said to have been planted by Fatima.

The original mosque was a low building of brick roofed with palm branches, and much smaller than the present structure. The wooden pulpit from which Mohammed preached appears to have stood on the same place with the present pulpit in the middle of the south portico. The dwelling of the Prophet and the huts of his women adjoined the mosque. Mohammed died in the hut of 'Aisha, and was buried where he died; Abubekr and 'Omar were afterwards buried beside him. Now in 711 A.D. the mosque, which had previously been enlarged by 'Omar and 'Othman, was entirely reconstructed on a grander scale and in Byzantine style by Greek and Coptic artificers at the command of the caliph Walid and under the direction of 'Omar ibn 'Abd el-'Aziz. The enlarged plan included the huts above named, which were pulled down. Thus the place of the Prophet's burial was brought within the mosque; but the recorded discontent of the city at this step shows that the feeling which regards the tomb as the great glory of the mosque, and the pilgrimage to it as the most meritorious that can be undertaken except that to Mecca, was still quite unknown. It is not even certain what was done at this time to mark off the graves. Ibn 'Abd Rabbih, in the beginning of the 10th century ('Ikd, Cairo ed., iii. 366), describes the enclosure as a hexagonal wall, rising within three cubits of the ceiling of the portico, clothed in marble for more than a man's height, and above that height daubed with the unguent called khaluk. This may be supplemented from Istakhri, who calls it a lofty house without a door. That there are no gravestones or visible tombs within is certain from what is recorded of occasions when the place was opened up for repairs. Ibn Jubair (p. 193 sq.) and Samhudi speak of a small casket adorned with silver, fixed in the eastern wall, which was supposed to be opposite the head of the Prophet, while a silver nail in the south wall indicated the point to which the corpse faced, and from which the salutation of worshippers was to be addressed (Burton misquotes). The European fable of the coffin suspended by magnets is totally unknown to Moslem tradition. The smaller chamber of Fatima is pretty modern. In the time of Ibn Jubair and of Ibn Batuta (unless the latter, as is so often the case, is merely copying his predecessor) there was only a small marble trough north of the rauda (or grave) which "is said to be the house of Fatima or her grave, but God only knows." It is more probable that Fatima was buried in the Baki, where her tomb was also shown in the 12th century (Ibn Jubair, p. 198 sq.).

The mosque was again extended by El-Mahdi (781 A.D.), and was burned down in 1256. Of its appearance before the fire we have two authentic accounts by Ibn 'Abel Rabbih early in the 10th century, and by Ibn Jubair, who visited it in 1184. The old mosque had a much finer and more regular appearance than the present one; the interior walls were richly adorned with marble and mosaic arabesques of trees and the like, and the outer walls with stone marquetry; the pillars of the south portico (seventeen in each row) were in white plaster with gilt capitals, the other pillars were of marble. Ibn 'Abd Rabbih speaks of eighteen gates, of which in Ibn Jubair's time, as at present, all but four were walled up. There were then three minarets. After the fire which took place just at the time of the fall of the caliphate, the mosque long lay in a miserable condition. Its repair was chiefly due to the Egyptian sultans, especially to Kait Bey, whose restoration after a second fire in 1481 amounted almost to a complete reconstruction. Of the old building nothing seems to have remained but some of the columns and part of the walls ; and, as the minarets have also been rebuilt and two new ones added, the architectural character is now essentially Egyptian. The great dome above the tomb, the railing round it, and the pulpit, all date from Kait Bey's restoration.

The suburbs, which occupy as much space as the city proper, and are partly walled in, lie south-west of the town, from which they are separated by an open space, the halting-place of caravans. Through the suburbs runs the watercourse called W. Buthan, a tributary of W. Kanat, which the Yanbu road crosses by a stone bridge. The suburbs are the quarter of the peasants. Thirty or forty families with their cattle occupy a single courtyard (hosh), and form a kind of community often at feud with its neighbours. The several clans of Medina must have lived in much the same way at the time of the Prophet. The famous cemetery called Baki el-Gharkad, the resting-place of a multitude of the "companions " of the Prophet, lies immediately to the west of the city. It once contained many monuments, the chief of which are described by Ibn Jubair. Burckhardt in 1815 found it a mere waste, but some of the mosques have since been rebuilt.

History.—The story of the Amalekites in Yathrib and of their conquest by the Hebrews in the time of Moses is purely fabulous, see Nöldeke, Ueber die Amalekiter, 1864, p. 36. The oasis, when it first comes into the light of history, was held by Jews, among whom emigrants from Yemen afterwards settled. From the time of the flight of Mohammed (622 A.D. ) till the Omayyads removed the seat of empire from Medina to Damascus, the town springs into historic prominence as the capital of the new power that so rapidly changed the fate of the East. Its fall was not less rapid and complete, and since the battle of Harra and the sack of the city in 683 it has never regained political importance. The history of Medina in this period will be told in the articles MOHAMMED and MOHAMMEDAN EMPIRE. Mohammed invested the country round Medina with an inviolable character like that of the Haram round Mecca ; but this provision has never been observed with strictness. After the fall of the caliphs, who maintained a governor in Medina, the native emirs enjoyed a fluctuating measure of independence, interrupted by the aggressions of the sherifs of Mecca, or controlled by an intermittent Egyptian protectorate. The Turks after the conquest of Egypt held Medina for a time with a firmer hand ; but their rule grew weak, and was almost nominal long before the Wahhabis took the city in 1804. A Turko-Egyptian force retook it in 1812, and the Turks still maintain a pasha with a military establishment, while the cadi and chief agha of the mosque (a eunuch) are sent from Constantinople. But the internal government is largely in Arab hands, and is said to be much better than that of Mecca.

Sources.—Medina has been described from personal observation by Burckhardt, who visited it in 1815, and Burton, who made the pilgrimage in 1853. Sadlier on his journey from Katif to Yanbu' (1819) was not allowed to enter the holy city. Burckhardt was prevented by ill health from examining the city and country with his usual thoroughness. Little is added to our information by the report of 'Abd el-Razzak, who performed the pilgrimage in 1878, on a medical commission from the English Government, The chief Arabic authority besides Ibn 'Abd Rabbih and Ibn Jubair is Samhudi, of whose history Wüstenfeld published an abstract in the Göttingen Abhandungen, vol. ix., 1861. It goes down to the end of the I5th century. The topography of the country about Medina is interesting both historically and geographically ; Bekri, Yakut, and other Arabic geographers supply much material on this topic, but completer European accounts are wanting to permit of its full utilization. Medina now offers a more promising, but also a more perilous, field for an explorer than Mecca. (W. R. S.)


817-1 This can only be view as a very rough estimate. The road from Yanbu' on the Read Sea, wich runs somewhat north of east, is by Barton's estimate 132 miles. From Medina to Mecca by the inland or the high road he makes 248 miles. The usual road near the coast by Rabigh and Kholeys and thence to W. Fatima cannot be be very different in length. Caravans traverse it in about ten or eleven days.

818-1 The pilgrimage to Medina, though highly meritorious, is not obli-gatory, and it is not tied to a single season, so that there is no great concourse at one time, and no fair like that of Mecca.

818-2 A small number of families in Mecca still claim to represent the ancient Ansar, the "defenders" of Mohammed. But in fact the old population emigrated en masse after the sack of Medina by Muslim in 683, anil passed into Spain in the armies of Musa. In the 13th century one old man of the Khazraj and one old woman of the Aus tribe were all that remained of the old stock .in Medina (Makkari, i. 187; Dozy, Mus. d'Espayne, i. 111). The aristocratic family of the Beni Hoseyn, who claim descent from the martyr of Kerbela, and so from the Prophet, have apparently a better established pedigree.

818-3 According to Ibn Khallikan (Slane's transl., iii. 927) the walls are of the 12th century, the work of Jamal el-Din el-Ispaham.

818-4 The Balat or great paved street of Medina, a very unusual feature in an Eastern town, dates from the 1st century of Islam. See Wusten-telil's abstract of Samhudi, p. 115.

818-5 Kuba is famous as the place where the prophet lived before he entered Medina, and the site of the first mosque in which he prayed. It lies amidst orchards in the richest part of the oasis

818-6 The space between the railing and the tomb is seldom entered except by the servants of the mosque. It contains the treasures of the mosque in jewels and plate, Avhich were once very considerable but have been repeatedly plundered, last of all by the Wahhabrs in the beginning of the present century.

818-7 The word rauda also means a mausoleum, and is applied by Ibn Jubair to the tomb itself. Thus the tradition that the space between the pulpit and tomb was called by the Prophet one of the gardens of Paradise probably arose from a mistake.

The above article was written by: William Robertson Smith.

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