Ramadan is a period of fasting that takes place in the ninth month of the Islamic Lunar calendar. Muslims are not permitted to eat, drink or smoke between sunrise and sunset. Sex and chewing gum are also forbidden. As well as fasting, muslims are expected to pray more than usual, and avoid anything that may detract from purity of thought. Ramadan is intended to focus the muslim mind away from worldly concerns and towards God.
The Saudi Arabian city of Mecca is the most holy site in Islam. It was built around a natural well, and is said to be the first place God created. In Islamic tradition, Ibrahim and his son Ismael built the Ka'ba here, a rectangular brick structure which now stands in the centre of the great mosque, Masjid al-Haram. Mecca was already a significant trade hub when Muhammad was born there in 570.
Today, Mecca is a modern and cosmopolitan city of 2 million people.
The Black Stone is the eastern cornerstone of the Ka'ba, and is supposed to have been found by Ibrahim and Ishmael. Thought to be a meteorite, it is 30cm in diameter. In Islamic tradition, Muhammad was said to have kissed the stone, and today's pilgrims try to do the same if they can reach it. It was broken into pieces several centuries ago, and is now held together by a silver frame.
The explorer Richard Burton was one of the few non-Muslims to reach the Ka'ba, and he described the stone in 1853:
The colour appeared to me black and metallic, and the centre of the stone was sunk about two inches below the metallic circle. Round the sides was a reddish brown cement, almost level with the metal, and sloping down to the middle of the stone. The band is now a massive arch of gold or silver gilt. I found the aperture in which the stone is, one span and three fingers broad.
A hookah is a large tobacco pipe, commonly found in the Middle East, Turkey and North Africa, incorporating a jar of water through which the smoke is drawn to cool it. Hot coals are used to burn the tobacco, which is often supplemented with a fruit flavour.
Originally from India, the pipe is also sometimes referred to as a shisha, narghile or a hubbly bubbly.
Alchemy was popularly understood to be the mystical science of turning base metals into gold, but as this book makes clear it was a much broader discipline. In fact alchemy was more like a philosophy, which incorporated ideas like transmutation, immortality and self-awareness.
The word "alchemy" stems from the Arabic "al-kimia" meaning "the art of transformation". However the earliest alchemists are believed to have worked in China or the Persian Empire. Modern inorganic chemistry owes much to early alchemical investigations.
Esperanto was invented in 1887 by the Polish eye specialist Dr Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof. Phonetic, regular, and with simple rules of grammar and pronunciation, it was intended as a universal second language. It has never taken off to any significant degree. Nevertheless, an esperanto, in Esperanto, is "one who hopes".
" fruitlessly seeking the Philosopher’s stone "
The Philosopher's Stone was said to be a catalyst that turned base metals into gold, or possibly endowed immortality. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic theologian, was supposed to have come into possession of such a stone.
The Elixir of Life was effectively a liquid version of the Philosopher's Stone. When drunk, the potion bestowed eternal youth, or cured mortal illnesses. It restored perfection to any object. Hermes Trimegistus was said to have drunk it, although it can't have been entirely effective as he ended up mummified in a cave.
" It was shepherds who were the first to recognize a king "
Although little is generally known about the true meaning of these two stones, one white and one black, it is thought that they were used to divine answers from God. The stones’ names are speculated to mean ‘lights and perfections’ or ‘revelation and truth’.
The journey through the desert acts as a potent symbol of the journey through life and people’s pursuit of their calling. It is also reminiscent of the journey of the Magi to witness the birth of divinity on earth:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magifrom the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the eastand have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2
The Magi had links to alchemy. They were "wise ones", Zoroastrian philosophers, magicians or astrologers, and as such were believed to be in possession of occult secrets.
The term Bedouin is a generic name for desert-dwelling Arabs. It does not refer to a particular ethnic group. As nomads, the Bedouin once roamed across North Africa and the Middle East, but very few Arabs maintain this life.