Masterpiece of a Misfit–II Burton’s Word Paintings

Richard burton

This is the second of three reviews of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s masterful travelogue of his journey in 1853 to Mecca and Medina, disguised as a faithful pilgrim.

Discover why Burton is an iconoclast in Misfit I

Burton brings the pilgrimage to life in Misfit III

Sir Richard Francis Burton’s A Secret Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina was published in 1856. Photography had yet to begin its rife presence in travel literature. In its stead, authors “word – painted.” Burton’s brush strokes are wonderfully entertaining verbal pictures that bring to life the cavalcade of pilgrims advancing toward Mecca. The best one is a triumphant 389-word dazzler. It has 18 dependent clauses. All serve to illustrate the phrase’s underlying proposition: no combination of words can portray 7,000 souls journeying to their sacred place of prayer.

Huge white Syrian dromedaries… camels, jingling large bells, and bearing litters like miniature green tents, swaying and tossing upon their backs; gorgeous litters carried between camels or mules with scarlet and brass trappings; Bedouin bestriding naked backed dromedaries, and clinging like apes to the hairy humps; Arnaut, Kurd, and Turkish Irregular Cavalry, fiercer looking in their mirth than Roman peasants in their rage; fainting Persian pilgrims, forcing their stubborn camels to kneel, or dismounted grumbling from jaded donkeys; sherbet sellers, and ambulant tobacconists crying their goods; country people driving flocks of sheep and goats with infinite clamour through lines of horses fiercely snorting and biting and kicking and rearing; townspeople seeking their friends; returned travelers exchanging affectionate salutes; devout Hajis jostling one another, running under the legs of camels, and tumbling over the tents’ ropes in their hurry to reach the Haram; cannon roaring from the Citadel; shopmen, water carriers, and fruit vendors fighting over their bargains; boys bullying heretics with loud screams; a well mounted party of fine old Arab sheiks of the Hamidah clan, preceded by their valets, performing the Arzah or war dance – compared with which the Pyrenean bear’s performance is grace itself – firing their duck guns upwards, or blowing the powder into the calves of those before them, brandishing their swords, leaping frantically the while, with their bright colored rags floating in the wind, tossing their long spears tufted with ostrich feathers high in the wind, reckless where they fall; servants seeking their masters, and Masters their tents, with vain cries of “Ya Mohammed;” grandees riding mules or stalking on foot, preceded by their crowd beaters, shouting to clear the way; here the loud shrieks of women and children, whose litters are bumping and rasping against one another; there the low moaning of some poor wretch that is seeking a shady corner to die in: add a thick dust which blurs the outlines like a London fog, with a flaming sun that draws sparkles of fire from the burnished weapons of the crowd, and the brass balls of tent and litter; and – I doubt, gentle reader, that even the length, the jar, and the confusion of this description is adequate to its subject, or that any word-painting of mine can convey a just idea of the scene.

Next week (the last in this review): Burton masterfully captures the essence of a pilgrim’s raison d’être.

Return to part I, “Discover why Burton is an iconoclast

Return to part III, “Peace of Mind and Getting There


— Tucker Cox

Both photos courtesy of Bing Images.


  1. Pingback: Masterpiece of a Misfit – I | Z e t e o

  2. Pingback: Masterpiece of a Misfit III – Peace of Mind and Getting There | Z e t e o

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