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I must endeavor to convey to the reader some idea of the domestic establishment of a great Arab Sheikh. Sofuk, at the time of our visit, was the husband of three wives, who were considered to have special claims to his affection and his constant protection; for it was one of Sofuk's weaknesses, arising either from a desire to impress the Arabs with a notion of his greatness and power, or from a partiality to the first stage of married life, to take a new partner nearly every month; and at the end of that period to divorce her, and marry her to one of his attendants. The happy man thus lived in a continual honeymoon. Of the three ladies now forming his harem, the chief was Amsha, a lady celebrated in the song of every Arab of the desert for her beauty and noble blood. She was daughter of Hassan, Sheikh of the Tai, a tribe tracing its origin from the remotest antiquity, and one of whose chiefs, Hatem, her ancestor, is a hero of Eastern romance. Sofuk had carried her away by force from her father; but had always treated her with great respect. From her rank and beauty, she had earned the title of “Queen of the Desert.” Her form, traceable through the thin shirt which she wore like other Arab women, was well proportioned and graceful. She was tall in stature, and fair in complexion. Her features were regular, and her eyes large, dark, and brilliant. She had undoubtedly claims to more than ordinary beauty; to the Arabs she was perfection, for all the resources of their art had been exhausted to complete what nature had begun. Her lips were dyed deep blue, her eyebrows were continued in indigo until they united over the nose, her cheeks and forehead were spotted with beauty-marks, her eyelashes darkened by kohl; and on her legs and bosom could be seen the tattooed ends of flowers and fanciful ornaments, which were carried in festoons and network over her whole body. Hanging from each ear, and reaching to her waist, was an enormous earring of gold, terminating in a tablet of the same material, carved and ornamented with four turquoises. Her nose was also adorned with a prodigious gold ring, set with jewels, of such ample dimensions that it covered her mouth, and had to be removed when she ate. Ponderous rows of strung beads, Assyrian cylinders, fragments of coral, agates, and parti-colored stones hung from her neck; silver rings encircled her wrists and ankles, making a loud jingling as she walked. Over her blue shirt was thrown, when she issued from her tent, a coarse striped cloak, and a common black kerchief was bound loosely round her temples by a rope of twisted camel's hair. Her ménage combined, if the old song be true, the domestic and the queenly, and was carried on with a nice appreciation of economy. The immense sheet of black goat-hair canvass, which formed the tent, was supported by twelve or fourteen stout poles, and was completely open on one side. Being entirely set apart for the women, it had no partitions, like the tent of the common Arab, who is obliged to reserve a corner for the reception of his guests. Between the centre poles were placed, upright and close to one another, large goat-hair sacks, filled with rice, corn, barley, coffee, and other household stuff; their mouths being, of course, upwards. Upon them were spread carpets and cushions, on which Amsha reclined. Around her, squatted on the ground, were some fifty handmaidens, tending the wide cauldrons, baking bread on the iron plates heated over the ashes, or shaking between them the skins suspended from three stakes, and filled with milk to be thus churned into butter. It is the privilege of the head wife to prepare in her tent the dinners of the Sheikh's guests. Fires, lighted on all sides, sent forth a cloud of smoke, which hung heavily under the folds of the tent, and would have long before dimmed any eyes less bright than those of Amsha. As supplies were asked for by the women, she lifted the corner of her carpet, untied the mouths of the sacks, and distributed their contents. Everything passed through her hands. To show her authority and rank, she poured continually upon her attendants a torrent of abuse, and honored them with epithets of which I may be excused attempting to give a translation; her vocabulary equalling, if not exceeding, in richness, that of the highly educated lady of the
city.* The combination of the domestic and authoritative was thus complete. Her children, three naked little urchins, black with sun and mud, and adorned with long tails of plaited hair hanging from the crown of their heads, rolled in the ashes, or on the grass.
Amsha, as I have observed, shared the affections, though not the tent of Sofuk-for each establishment had a tent of its own —with two other ladies ; Atouia, an Arab not much inferior to her rival in personal appearance; and Ferrah, originally a Yezidi slave, who had no pretensions to beauty. Amsha, however, always maintained her sway, and the others could not sit, without her leave, in her presence. To her alone were confided the keys of the larder - supposing Sofuk to have had either keys or larder - and there was no appeal from her authority on all subjects of domestic economy..
Mrs. Rassam was received with great ceremony by the ladies. To show the rank and luxurious habits of her husband, Amsha offered her guest a glass of “eau sucrée,” which Mrs. Rassam, who is over nice, assured me she could not drink, as it was mixed by a particularly dirty negro, in the absence of a spoon, with his fingers, which he sucked continually during the process.
In the evening Amsha and Ferrah returned Mrs. Rassam's visit; Sofuk having, however, first obtained a distinct promise that they were to be received in a tent from which gentlemen were to be excluded. They were very inquisitive, and their indiscreet curiosity could with difficulty be satisfied.
Sofuk was the owner of a mare of matchless beauty, called, as if the property of the tribe, the Shammeriyah. Her dam, who died about ten years ago, was the celebrated Kubleh, whose renown extended from the sources of the Khabour to the end of the Arabian promontory, and the day of whose death is an
* It may not perhaps be known that the fair inmate of the harem, whom we picture to ourselves conversing with her lover in language too delicate and refined to be expressed by anything but flowers, uses ordinarily words which would shock the ears of even the most depraved amongst us.
epoch from which the Arabs of Mesopotamia date events concerning their tribe. Mohammed-Fmin, Sheikh of the Jebours, assured me that he had seen Sofuk ride down the wild ass of the Sinjar on her back, and the most marvellous stories are current in the desert of her fleetness and powers of endurance. Sofuk esteemed her and her daughter above all the riches of the tribe; for her he would have forfeited all his wealth, and even Amsha herself. Owing to the visit of the irregular troops, the best horses of the Sheikh and his followers were concealed in a secluded ravine at some distance from the tentS.
Al Hather was about eighteen miles from Sofuk’s encampment. He gave us two well-known horsemen to accompany us to the ruins. Their names were Dathan and Abiram. The former was a black slave, to whom the Sheikh had given his liberty and a wife — two things, it may be observed, which are in the desert perfectly consistent. He was the most faithful and brave of all the adherents of Sofuk, and the fame of his exploits had spread through the tribes of Arabia. As we rode along, I endeavored to obtain from him some information concerning his people, but he would only speak on one subject. “Ya Bej,” said he, “the Arab only thinks of two things, war and love: war, Ya Bej, every one understands; let us, therefore, talk of love.”
As we rode to Al Hather, we passed large bodies of the Shammar moving with their tents, flocks, and families. On all sides appeared the huge expanding wings of the ladies' camel-saddle, looking, as it rose above the horizon, like some stupendous butterfly skimming slowly over the plain. Dathan was known to all. As the horsemen approached, they dismounted and embraced him, kissing him, as is customary, on both cheeks, and holding him by the hand until many compliments had been exchanged.
* “O my Lord :” he so prefaced every sentence. The Shammar Arabs pronounce the word Beg, which the Constantinopolitans soften into Bey, Bej.
A dark thunder-cloud rose behind the time-worn ruins of Al Hather as we approached them. The sun, still throwing its rays upon the walls, lighted up the yellow stones until they shone like gold.” Mr. Ross and myself, accompanied by an Arab, urged our horses onwards, that we might escape the coming storm; but it burst upon us in its fury ere we reached the palace. The lightning played through the vast buildings, the thunder re-echoed through its deserted halls, and the hail compelled us to rein up our horses, and turn our backs to the tempest. It was a fit moment to enter such ruins as these. They rose in solitary grandeur in the midst of a desert, “ in media solitudine positae,” as they stood fifteen centuries before, when described by the Roman historian.f On my previous visit, the first view I obtained of Al Hather was perhaps no less striking. We had been wandering for three days in the wilderness without seeing one human habitation. On the fourth morning a thick mist hung over the place. We had given up the search when the vapors were drawn up like a curtain, and we saw the ruins before us. At that time within the walls were the tents of some Shammar Arabs, but now as we crossed the confused heaps of fragments, forming a circle round the city, we saw that the place was tenantless. Flocks on a neighboring rising ground showed, however, that Arabs were not distant. We pitched our tents in the great court-yard, in front of the palace, and near the entrance to the inner inclosure. During the three days we remained amongst the ruins I had ample time to take accurate measurements, and to make plans of the various buildings still partly standing within the walls. As Al Hather has already been described by others, and as the information I was able to collect has been placed before the public f, I need * The rich golden tint of the limestone, of which the great monuments of Syria are built, is known to every traveller in that country. The ruins of Al Hather have the same bright colour; they look as if they had been steeped in the sunbeams. Ammianus Marcellinus, lib. xxv. cap. 8. See Dr. Ross's Memoir in the Geographical Society's Journal, and Dr.
Ainsworth's Travels. A memoir on the place by me, accompanied by plans, &c., was read before the Institute of British Architects.