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Eldon Rutter

The Holy Cities of Arabia, 1928.

Chapter ?: The Haram of Mekka.


The religious service of the Mosque, and the menial service necessary for its upkeep and preservation, are performed by a large staff of employees. At the head of these is the Nâib el Haram. In Turkish times this official was appointed by the Sûltan, and frequently held the rank of Pasha. He is designated as Nâib (deputy) because the governor of Mekka is nominally the chief, or shaykh, of the Haram. At present the Nâib el Haram is appointed by Ibn Sa'ud himself.

The second officer, in order of precedence, is the Opener of God's House, who is always the head of the family of Bani Shayba. A Shaybi is never appointed Nâib el Haram, and nobody save a Shaybi may be appointed Opener of the House.

The Nâib is assisted by two or three lieutenants or supervisors, and under the latter there is a great host of lesser personages and actual performers of work. This work, though menial in itself, is performed directly for God about his Holy House. The Mosque servants have varied in number from time to time, according to the political situation, but there have been as many as eight hundred employed at one time. During the lean months of the Wahhâbî invasion, when Mekka was cut off from her usual sources of revenue, there were less than half that number attached to the Haram service. Formerly there were more than a hundred imâms and preachers, a hundred teachers of religious subjects, fifty muaddins, and hundreds of sweepers, lamp-cleaners, door-keepers, and water-drawers for the well Zemzem. Every one of these people received a stipend from the endowment funds of the Mosque.

The care of the Matâf [area of circumambulation] is the peculiar duty of a corps of fifty black eunuchs, who also act as the Mosque police. They are African negroes. They are known as Aghas, or, vulgarly, as Tawâshîs, and their chief takes rank after the Shaybi in order of precedence. The Aghas wear a special form of dress, which includes a jubba of any colour, with very long loose sleeves which hang down to the wearer's knees, completely concealing his hands. They wear very large white turbans, and also broad sashes, the ends of which hang down from the waist to below the knee. They usually carry each a long staff. Several of the Aghas are always present on the Matâf, and when engaged in that duty they wear white jubbas. Upon the smallest piece of dirt making its appearance on the marble pavement, two of them quickly take up a large metal jug of water, a metal bowl, a broom, a shovel, a pair of iron tongs, and a sponge, and proceed at once to remove the pollution. If this be a piece of solid matter - mud, gravel, paper, or similar object - one of the Aghas picks it up with the iron tongs, and rops it into the metal bowl. Then, one of them taking the broom, and the other the shovel, they sweep up any remaining particles. This accomplished, they pour water on the spot where the dirt has lain, and clean it thoroughly with the aid of the sponge. Almost constantly several of these eunuchs are to be seen sweeping the Matâf with long-fibred flapping brooms.

The reason why eunuchs are especially employed on the Matâf, and for police purposes is, that in the event of a disturbance occurring in which women are concerned, or in the event of a woman appearing on the Matâf in unseemly attire or in a state of uncleanness, they may handle such offenders and expel them without impropriety, as they are not really men in the full sense of the word. It is a shameful thing for a man to touch a woman who is not his wife or near relative, and in the Haram of Mekka such an act would be doubly shameful, as the majority of the learned say that all actions, good or bad, performed on that holy ground assume a greatly increased significance. What would be wicked in Cairo is thrice wicked in Mekka: what would be a mere display of bad taste in Bagdad would be an outrage in Mekka. Similarly a meritorious action is much more admirable at Mekka than elsewhere.

The first Khalîfa to institute the corps of Aghas at Mekka was the Abbâside, Abu Jaafar el Mansûr (136 to 158 A.H.), the builder of Bagdad. Many of the eunuchs have been presented to the Mosque by pious princes or other wealthy Muhammadans, but since slavery was officially abolished in the Turkish Empire, it has become the custom of the chief of the Aghas to buy likely boys with the aid of funds known as waqfs (religious bequests or endownments) which are placed at his disposal. The unfortunate youngsters are usually operated on before being sent out of Africa, as owing to the hazardous nature of the mutilation, the chief of the Aghas will not purchase them until they have safely undergone it.

The Aghas receive a very large income from waqfs (designated Owqâf el Aghawât), settled upon them by Muhammadans in many parts of the world. Their income from the neighbourhood of Basra is, or was, particularly large, and as their dues from that source were not forwarded to them in the year of my visit to Mekka, owing to the stoppage of the hajj, one of them was despatched on a journey across Arabia to Basra in order to collect them. The Aghas spend their incomes in the upkeep of expensive establishments which, strange as it may appear, include wives and slave-girls, in addition to male attendants. They all live in the quarter of El Hajla, at the junction of Sûk es-Saghîr and El Misfala; and here the young boys live together in a large house, where they are instructed by the elders in religious matters and in their proper duties.

Owing to the official standing of the Chief Agha, he and his corps are treated with great veneration by the more simple hâjjis. I saw a eunuch, sitting on a raised place beneath the cloisters near Bâb es-Safâ, which is their favourite praying-place, summon an Indian hâjji with a lordly gesture and a brief word. The hâjji hastened to him, and grovelling on his knees, kissed the black hand of the Agha and awaited his commands in awed subservience. the middle-class Mekkans also invariably rise when addressed by an Agha, and treat him in every way asa superior.

The Aghas are nearly all repulsively ugly. They are usually of a startlingly emaciated appearance, tall, and terrifyingly bony. One or two of them, however, are handsome, and all exhibit an expression of supermundane aloofness. An Agha is usually followed by his slave, who picks up his sandals as soon as he discards them at the door of the Mosque, and remains at hand to await his master's orders. Technically, the Aghas belong to the Haram as part of its endowment, having been purchased with the money of the waqfs, or presented as a waqf, and they could not buy their freedom if they wished to do so. They are God's slaves, and cannot be manumitted by man, nor leave the Mosque service for any other work...