National Geographic : 1966 Jan
National Geographic, January, 1966 garb. Once a uniform white, crowds now are brightened by colorful costumes from many lands: brilliant red calicos from Nigeria, green turbans from Iran, blue Yemeni caf tans, striped Egyptian galabias, and sarongs from Indonesia. Medina Exerts a Special Pull Few pilgrims return home without making the 300-mile trip north to Medina, Arabia's second holy city. Mohammed spent the last ten years of his life there after idol worshipers, alarmed at his rising popularity, drove him and a handful of followers from his native Mecca. The Moslem calendar dates from the year of his Hegira, or flight, in A.D. 622. Before I left Arabia, I paid my respects to Mohammed's memory at his tomb in Medina, under the green dome in the Masjid ar-Rasul, the Mosque of the Prophet (opposite). Praying to Mohammed is forbidden by the Koran, but most visitors offer a prayer here to Allah for the Prophet. With his own hands, the Prophet helped build the first mosque on this spot. Over the centuries it has been rebuilt and enlarged, most recently by the Saudi Gov ernment in 1955. Although the pilgrimage season was over, crowds still filled the mosque at prayer time and afterward bargained with cloth mer chants on the front steps over bright-colored bolts of cotton and silk (below). Others, in the market place, purchased prayer beads and Korans. I bought a small morocco-bound edi tion for myself, taking care to argue only about the price of the binding. The holy pages inside are always included free. That evening from the roof of my air conditioned hotel I stared out across the city. In the rose twilight the first lights began to twinkle, then quickly outshone the starry desert night. Al Madinah al-Munawwarah, the City of Light; it seemed a fitting name tonight. The sacred precincts were illuminated by roaring generators outside the town, manned by two lonely Englishmen. Welcome, 20th century, says Arabia, but don't rush me. Medina was the seed from which sprouted the great Arab empires that stretched from Gibraltar to India. Dipping into the wisdom of Greece, Persia, and Byzantium, they re lighted the lamps of Europe's Dark Ages. Now the West returns in kind. Slowly the impact is felt, modified, and finally accepted. Arabia shone with the light of Islam long before Edison's electric illumination. It pros pered without oil wells, occupied the deserts without trucks and fertilizers, conquered great distances without jet planes. Now with all these modern boons, it will rise from its slumber, Allah willing, to shine anew, and put Aladdin's lamp to shame. THE END Bolts of bright cotton in a Medina market contrast with the somber garb of four Saudi women. Banded arches of lime stone and basalt with geo metric designs-orthodox Moslem art bans human images-support the ceil ing of Medina's Mosque of the Prophet. On rich red carpets men pray and read their Korans. They believe Mohammed helped build the original mosque of clay and palm trunks. Religion remains the guiding force of Saudi Arabia, dictating its civil laws, monitoring its man ners, and refreshing its spirit with the ecstasy of worship at holy sites.