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The An-Nakhl fortress, a stage on the pilgrimage route to Mecca

Date of Submission: 28/07/2003
Criteria: (iii)(iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture - Supreme Council of Antiquities
Coordinates: Midway between the Gulf of Aqaba, on the road crossing the Sinai from West to East starting in Cairo and ending in Mecca
Ref.: 1829

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The pilgrimage to Mecca The greatest dream of a pious Moslem, whether he be African, Asian, European, of Arab culture or not, a Sunnite or a Shiite, is to tread on the very same sacred ground (haram) of Mecca to which he turns at each prayer, in order to repeat the gestures of the Prophet who, whilst accomplishing them, became part of the Brahminical tradition. Two types of pilgrimage can be made: the hajj, a group pilgrimage which is compulsory for all those who can afford it and which takes place on a fixed date once a year between the 7th and 10th of the month of the lunar year of the dhul’Hijja. Then there is the Umra, which can be undertaken by an individual at any time of the year. Thus, from the Atlantic to China, from Europe to Africa, a huge network of pilgrimage routes (the durub al-hajj) arose from the VIIIth century on with the expansion of Islam. Among the “durub” those of Egypt were the most dense and most used since the Middle Ages. The importance of Egypt Egypt was always a commercial and cultural staging point for the travellers from the East or from the West. Its position within the Arab world was always quite privileged as well as the pilgrimage or hajj routes which were always congested throughout the year and which were used by both pilgrims and traders. Ibn Battuta, from Tangiers, in the XIVth century, undertook his tremendous journey (from 1325 to 1353) which lasted 29 years and which took him as far as the Maldives, Sumatra, Java, then China and Niger, went to Mecca no less than four times and passed twice through Cairo, Sinaï and Gaza. These itineraries should be protected and provided with the necessary equipment to welcome the travellers during their stay, provide food and especially drinking water. Shelters existed at almost equal distances along these routes and the pilgrims bivouaced there with their mounts and their guards. From time to time a fortress with soldiers ensured safety along the route and came to the rescue of caravans in difficulty or which had been attacked by brigands. But these itineraries could change depending on political and economic circumstances or for reasons of safety. The Sultans were interested in ensuring the well-being of pilgrims going through their territories as proved by the inscription dug into the rock 18 km from Naqab, on the Sinaï route between Suez and Aqaba. The Mameluke milestone of Araguib al BaghlaThis milestone lists the works ordered by Al-Malik al-Ashraf Nasir Qansuwa al-Ghuri which were to “pierce the mountain called Araguib al-Baghla so as to open up a route for Moslem pilgrims going towards the House of God the All Powerful, carry out works in Mecca, Medina, Manahil Ajroud, Nakhl; pierce the mountain near Eila and undertake other works in Qalaa and in the well; then other works in Qalaa al-Azlam, Al Muwashaha, Magharib, Nabat al-Fagi and all along the holy routes of pilgrimage.” Sultan al-Ghouri, who reigned between 1506 and 1516, a year before the end of the Mameluke dynasty, thus described part of the hajj route with some of the staging points where he ordered works to be done. This route seems to correspond to the one described by travellers in the Middle Ages. Description of the Itinerary“Pilgrims from various nations but especially Egyptians, North Africans and Sudanese gathered together in a place near Cairo (al-Marj) where a market was held near a water cistern. At dawn, the convoy left the place for the Suez desert until it reached the ‘Ajroud citadel (referred to in the inscription under the name of Manahil Ajroud), the first stop-over with a well. The convoy set off again the next morning towards the north of Suez, crossing the sandy plain until Wadi al-Hajj, then going down the al-Hatan plateau in the middle of Sinaï, then the At-Tihr plain, then other valleys until the An-Nakhl citadel was reached (one of the most important stop-overs 130 km from Suez). Then the caravan turned east, crossed one of the branches of the Wadi al Avis, then the Bir at-Tamr, then the Diyat al-Baghla (called Araguib al-Baghla in the inscription 18 km from Nagab). The convoy continued, following the Wadi al-Garafi until the region of Naqab and then on to El-Aqaba (on the gulf bearing the same name where the citadel is located referred to in the al-Ghouri inscription). From El Aqaba the convoy continued south, following the banks of the Red Sea along the Arab peninsula. Mecca was reached only after passing through at least fifteen stop-overs (see map). This whole journey took quite some time and the travellers had to spent three to four weeks on camelback. This “darb” corresponds to the one from the time of Sultan Baybars (1260-1277), the founder of the Mameluke dynasty (1260-1517) who seized the Eila citadel on the Gulf of Aqaba from the Crusaders in 1267, and, after Saladin, opened up again the land route for pilgrimage (the route just described) which took over from (or was used in parallel) the much older one whereby the pilgrim went down along the Nile valley until Aydhab and al-Qus on the bank of the Black Sea, where he took a boat to cross the Gulf as far as Jeddah in the holy land. Nowadays these itineraries are strewn with remains corresponding to the places where the pilgrims bivouacked for the night, to freshen up, to recover their strength, get their supply of water and of food (caravanserai, wells, forts). They started being abandoned from the middle of the XIX century, when the Khedives of Egypt opened up a new sea route starting from Suez. Among these remains is the An-Nakhl citadel, a significant example of the importance of the “darb al-Hajj”, in Egypt and in the Moslem world, before the advent of steam boats and the airplane. However, sight must not be lost of other types of monuments and equipment which were to be found along these routes, such as inns, caravanserais and wells which were the constitutive elements of the “darb” all along the pilgrims’ route. Description of Qalaat an-NakhlThis is one of the most import fortresses of Sinaï, about 130 km from Suez and often referred to by travellers. Considerable restoration works were carried out at the end of the Mameluke period under Sultan al-Ghouri (1506-15016, see below) and other works later on dated by an inscription (1117-1705). It is square with 28 m along the side with a central courtyard surrounded by rooms to accommodate the guards, with storerooms and also rooms to accommodate the visitors.It arises not far from the route which it dominates, away from the ruins of the former stop-over, on a slightly raised relief of 7,5 m with walls with re-inforced circular angle towers and a tower in the middle of the northern wall.A 22 m canal situated below the eastern tower brought water in from the outside towards Qalaa where three underground reservoirs had been dug to store the water. Other cisterns had been built outside for the pilgrims and their animals. It was in use until the middle of the XIXth century.