With most of the pilgrims home by now, we remember a formidable woman: lady Zubaydah the daughter of Jaafar (786-831). She was the granddaughter of a Caliph, al Mansour, and the beloved wife of the Abassid Caliph Haroun ar-Rashid. She was a woman with great merits and a philanthropist par excellence.
She was born into immense riches when the Abassid caliphate was at its peak. A lot has been said about her, her costumes and jewelries. But whether she was a fashion trend setter of her time or the first one to introduce slippers encrusted with precious stones; what is clearly illustrated on the pages of history without any dispute is the immense scale of her public work and her formidable character. As the 13th century scholar and historian Ibn Khallikan mentioned in his reference biographical dictionary "وفيات الأعيان وأنباء أهل الزمان " "Deaths of Eminent Men and History of the Sons of the Epoch", her charity was ample and her conduct virtuous. He also mentioned that her chambers resounded with a humming like that of the bees due to the fact that she had a hundred servant girls, who memorized the Koran and whose task was to recite one-tenth of the Koran daily. When she was cautioned by the engineers about the prohibitive cost and technical difficulties of running the water to Arafat and Mecca, the project that became her main legacy, she told them that she was determined to go through with this project "even if every stroke of a pickax were to cost a dinar".
Zubaydah made pilgrimage to Mecca many times. In the year 805 AH, she was distressed to see the severe shortage of water in Mecca that gravely affected the pilgrims and the inhabitants of Mecca. She then commissioned the construction of an aqueduct to bring water to Arafat and Mecca. She personally financed this masterpiece of hydro engineering, a project that would continue to benefit the Muslims for centuries to come. (The estimates in today’s money are the equivalent of more than $500 million ). It was in use until 1950. Until today parts of this water canal known as 'Ayn Zubaydah are clearly seen by the pilgrims on their way to Arafat. Zubaydah also improved the pilgrimage route from Baghdad to Mecca by placing wells, artificial pools, markers and milestones, rest houses on the road, traces of which can still be seen today. The historical route from Kuffah in Iraq to Makkah (1277 Km ) is named Darb Zubaydah after her, and is proposed to be listed as a UNESCO heritage site.
Many women with power and ample money today would compete to build the nicest palace (some of the dwellings might not be occupied more than once a year) or who gets the most luxurious clothes and accessories. We now hear of a princess whom her wedding alone costs over $ 20 millions, Rolls Royce designed with 24K gold, even chairs made out of gold. We hear of rulers, their wives and other family members stealing and depleting the resources of their countries for their own personal lifestyle.
Lady Zubaydah sponsored many charitable works and huge projects to improve the infrastructure, not as part of a publicity campaign, but out of a genuine concern for the welfare of the Muslim Nation. Lady Zubaydah is a unique historical figure and a role model for women in position of power and of means.
"The pilgrims poured out the water they had and took of this good water, rejoicing at its abundance. The people took joy swimming and bathing in it and washing their garments. It was for them a day of rest upon the journey, a gift bestowed by God" Ibn Jubayr ( 1145-1217) (Matt Bigg, British Museum).
These were the words of the geographer and traveler Ibn Jubayr, describing a scenery at one of the rest house and artificial pool on Darb Zubaydah (during his pilgrimage trip that he chronicled), such as the one in the image in Al Aqiq (العقيق) Saudi Arabia, still functional more than one thousand year after its construction under the sponsorship of lady Zubaydah, May God reward her greatly.