‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-‘Āmilī and the Aggressive Meccan Tour Guide

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An eighteenth century Safavid depiction of the Ka’ba, around which our story’s protagonist wanted to circumambulate; here Majnūn and his father behold the sacred precints. From a copy of the Khamsa of Niẓāmī Ganjavī (Walters W.609).

Probably for as long as there have been pilgrims and tourists (with the line between the two categories often indistinct) there have been people who sought to make a living off of pilgrims and tourists, through means both licit and less so. Tour guides in both the form of written (and often illustrated) manuals and in the form of individuals knowledgeable of a given site are both venerable features of travel from the medieval world to the present. And just as most travelers in the present, self included, have had both good and bad experiences with guides, a range of responses to guides and guidance, solicited or not, can be found in the historical record.

The story translated below, which comes from the autobiographical section of a work by the Safavid Shi’i scholar ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-‘Āmilī (d. 1692), reflects the sometimes tense encounters pilgrims and tourists down to the present (well, pre-covid at least!) can have with self-appointed tour guides and their claims of expertise. The story takes place when a sixteen year old ‘Alī, whose family was from the important Shi’i center of learning Jabal ʿĀmil (located in what is now Lebanon), made the ḥajj for the first time, a few years after the death of his father. His story is largely self-explanatory (though see this helpful essay and images for background on the rituals and sites of the ḥajj if they are unfamiliar), and will no doubt resonate with any reader who has had a similar unpleasant experience negotiating unsolicited offers of guidance in a new place.

Ardabil Carpet

When I entered Mecca the Noble I preceded in front of the ḥajj caravan along with a couple of companions, riding mules from ‘Usfān [1]. When I reached Mecca the Noble I went to the Ḥaram in order to perform the ritual circumambulation (ṭawāf) of the ‘umrah (the ‘minor pilgrimage’). I was alone. First, I circled around al-Bayt al-Ḥarām so that I would recognize the designated locations which one needs to know during the circumambulation [2]. Then I wanted to start on the circumambulation, but a man from among those who there lead the people in the circumambulation came up to me and said, ‘I will take you on the circumambulation!’

But I replied to him, ‘I am a man from Syria and I arrived ahead of the Syrian ḥajj caravan, so I don’t have any dirhams with me right now to give to you—I’ve got nothing on me save what a pilgrim needs in his ritual state. Now, if you’re alright with it then instruct me for free, otherwise, leave me alone and I’ll perform the circumambulation by myself!’

Then he set to arguing with me and saying nasty things, until, while we were in the middle of it, a man approached and drew the man aside, saying to him, ‘Leave this one alone to circumambulate by himself! You want to instruct him in the circumambulation—but he and his father before him have themselves instructed a thousand people like you in the circumambulation!—’ or something to that effect— ‘so leave him alone so that he can perform the circumambulation.’ So he left me alone and I performed the circumambulation as I wished.

‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-‘Āmilī, Durr al-manthūr min al-maʼthūr wa-ghayr al-maʼthūr (Qum : Maṭbaʻah-i Mihr, 1398 [1977]), 230-231.

Footnotes:

[1] In the medieval and early modern world pilgrims typically traveled as part of a much larger caravan, whether during the ‘major’ pilgrimage season or while making the ‘minor’ pilgrimage. ‘Alī has left the rest of the group behind and with his companions youthfully dashed ahead.

[2] Meaning the various spatial points in and around the Ka’ba that are the focal point of various ritual actions and movements in a proscribed order.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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