Cambridge Underground 1981 pp 33-35


James Hickson

The discovery of new caves all over Yorkshire and other parts of the world, and the development of caving techniques, have proceeded rapidly in the last twenty years or so. So much so that the up and coming caver of today, surrounded by a proliferation of gear, suits wet and dry, tape, racks, wellies and NiCads and all the other paraphernalia of 1980's caving, and inspired only by verticality, may fail to appreciate the speleological heritage of centuries past. In the dash from novice to hard person, he or she may not appreciate fully the elemental nature of the sport: neither caves nor cavers have altered much with the passage of time, particularly where squeezes are concerned. The following two short accounts of a cave and caving in Thirteenth and Fourteenth century Arabia illustrate nicely that even since the time of the Prophet, tight places have made themselves felt underground, but that the attractions of a through trip provided a strong incentive to get the technique of passing them right; even "special methods" for enlarging the way on are not all that new. The passages describe a cave in which Muhammad hid during his flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D. God opened up a larger exit after Muhammad had entered by the route described in the first of them.

Most people visit this blessed cave several times. Instead of entering by the door that God made in it, they attempt to enter through the fissure through which the Prophet entered, in order to obtain a blessing by doing so. The person making the attempt lies down on the ground with his cheek beside the fissure. He inserts his arms and his head first and then tries to insinuate the rest of his body. Some people can do this easily, since their bodies are slender, but others get their bodies half-way into the mouth of the cave and get stuck there, unable to go on or to withdraw. They are held fast in great distress and discomfort, until they are pulled out backwards by force. Wise people avoid it both for this reason, and, more particularly, for another most humiliating reason: it is popularly alleged that a man who finds it too narrow and who gets caught in it and is unable to proceed is of illegitimate birth. This story is so wide-spread that people have absolutely no doubt as to its truth. Anyone, therefore, who gets stuck and cannot proceed has to reckon with being the object of this most humiliating suspicion in addition to the physical distress he suffers from being squeezed in that narrow crack, with the expectation of a painful death, deprived of breath and in agony.

Ibn Jubayr (c 1200 A.D.)

Well many of us will be familiar with at least some of that sort of thing. A later writer showed some knowledge of technique, writing around 1350 A.D., about the same cave.

I have been told by an intelligent Shaykh of ours who has made the pilgrimage that the reason why it is difficult to enter it is that inside, close up to the fissure through which one enters, there is a large stone blocking the way. Anyone who enters lying face downwards finds his head up against this stone and so cannot go on and cannot twist himself upwards, having his face and chest against the floor. These are the people who get stuck and can only be extracted with effort and by being pulled out. Anyone, however, who enters lying on his back can manage it, because, when his head comes up against the obstructing stone, he can raise his head and bring himself to sitting position. His back is against the stone, his middle is in the fissure, and his legs outside the cave; he can then stand up inside the cave.

Ibn Juzay (c. 1350 A.D.)(editor and annotator of
works of Ibn Battuta)

Somewhere or other, most of its been done before. This new-fangled gear is all very well, but when you get right down to it, its the body movements that count and always have been.

I am indebted to Dr J.N. Mattock (Senior Lecturer in Arabic at the University of Glasgow and sometime Fellow of Pembroke) for translating these passages and bringing them to my notice. Though not himself a caver, he has nevertheless been able to appreciate the problems of a squeeze and so bring a sensitivity to the rendering of the Arabic that will at once strike a chord in adepts of the sport. The illustrations have been provided by Mr Malcolm, who has been through some squeezes.

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