Monday, 3 October 2011

Classic European accounts of the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj)

From the article "Christians at Mecca" by Arthur Jeffery (first published in The Muslim World 19 (1929)):

"Forbidden cities have always exercised a fascination over a certain type of mind both in ancient and in modern times, and for both the cities which are forbidden in our day, namely, Lhassa and Mecca, there is a considerable list of works of travellers who in one disguise or another have penetrated to their sanctuaries, though, as Dr. Margoliouth somewhere remarks, the number of those who have been and survived to tell the tale is but a small percentage of those who have tried and perished in the attempt. Reliable authorities have told us in regard to Mecca, that hardly a pilgrimage season passes without somebody being done to death on the suspicion of being a Christian in disguise....

The roll of these Christian pilgrims is an interesting one, and their record has a fascination of its own, quite as much from the varied characters of the pilgrims as from the adventurous nature of their journey. First among them comes the Italian gentleman Ludivico di Varthema, who was in Mecca and Medina in 1503.... Disguising himself as a Mameluke, he joined the band, travelling the forty days' journey with the caravan, and stopping at Medina en route....

His account of the ceremonies at Mecca and his description of the city are not very full, for he was more anxious to describe his own adventures than to describe the city. Moreover he was inclined to exaggerate, for he tells us quite casually that he saw two unicorns in the court of the great Mosque, and even gives the length of their horns, so that one is inclined to minimize somewhat his accounts of the profuseness of the gold and silver decoration about the sacred precincts. Varthema has little good to say of Islam. He describes the Medina Library as filled with the "filthy traditions and life of Mohammed and his fellows," and tells us that they left the city "wearied with the filthiness and loathsomeness of the trumperies, deceits, trifles and hypocrisies of the religion of Mohammed." His disguise was penetrated at Mecca by another Mameluke, who had been in Genoa and Venice, and openly charged him with being a Christian. He was forced to admit his nationality, but maintained that he was a convert. When recognized a second time, however, in Aden, and required by the Sultan to make the profession of faith in Islam, he refused, admitting that he never could bring himself to pronounce that creed. He was then imprisoned for many months, and only escaped by pretending madness, in which he contrived to convert a great fat sheep to Mohammedanism, and to kill a jackass for refusing to become a proselyte, thereby bringing the religion of Islam into contempt. Finally he managed to escape to Persia....

In 1607 an Austrian youth, Johann Wild, visited the forbidden cities, but he visited them as a captive. He was taken prisoner by the Hungarians while a youth in the Imperial army, and sold to the Turks. After passing from one master to another, he at last came into the possession of a miserly Persian, who took Wild as his personal servant with him on the pilgrimage with the Egyptian caravan of 1607.... He was impressed at Mecca by the flagrant immorality of the place more than by anything else.

It was also as a prisoner that the next visitor, Joseph Pitts, an Englishman, made the journey in 1680. He was an Exeter boy who went to sea at the age of fifteen, and on a return journey from Newfoundland in 1678, was sold as a slave, when his ship was captured by Barbary corsairs off the coast of Spain. He was forced by the bastinado to make an outward profession of Islam, but hated the religion, and tells us that he "ate heartily in private of hog." In 1680 his third master, an ancient and corpulent man of kindly nature, took him on pilgrimage to Mecca.... The glory of Mecca must have dimmed since Varthema's day, for Pitts found little admirable in it. He describes it as a dismal barren place in the midst of many little hills, the buildings being mean and ordinary, with nothing of beauty, and the inhabitants a poor sort, very thin and lean. He was in Mecca four months, and entered the Ka'ba twice, but saw in it nothing worth mentioning. In Mecca Pitts met an Irishman, who had been for thirty years a slave in the galleys, and had then become a Moslem, and came to end his days in peace at Mecca, which was probably the last place in the world where they would be wanting men for galley service.

The next Christian pilgrim we meet is one of the most famous of them all, the Spaniard Domingo Badia y Leblich, who took the name of Ali Bey al-Abbasi, and made the pilgrimage in 1807 in a most princely fashion, giving out that he was a descendant of the Abbassid Caliphs of the West, and travelling in state with a great retinue of servants and attendants, and scattering largesse in all directions as he journeyed....

Badia was received in state by Mohammed Ali Pasha in Cairo, and joined the caravan for Mecca in December, 1806, travelling by Suez and Jiddah. At Mecca he lived in a special mansion adjoining that of the Sherif, and he had the unusual honor of assisting the Sherif in the official cleansing of the Ka'ba....

While the Wahhabis were still in possession, or at least in control of Mecca, in 1809, it was visited by a Russian subject of Teutonic origin, Ulrich Jaspar Seetzen, a man who had had twenty years of training in Germany for Eastern exploration.... Seetzen remained some time in Jiddah, and then travelled on foot to Mecca to make his first reconnaissance. Returning to Jiddah he journeyed from there to Medina, getting back to Jiddah in time to join the annual pilgrimage group of 1810. The crowd, he says, was so great that his caravan could hardly enter the city.

Seetzen's thirst for acquiring scientific information brought him into suspicion both at Medina and at Mecca. At Medina he was summoned before the Amir and questioned as to who and whence he was, why he carried so many books, and what he was doing poking around in all the odd corners of the city. At Mecca also he was cross-questioned....

Five years later there appeared at Mecca the Swiss explorer John Lewis Burckhardt.... After travelling for some years in Syria, Nubia and Egypt, he left for Jiddah in 1814 in the disguise of a beggar. Mohammed Ali Pasha was at Ta'if at the time, and Burckhardt having been recognized by some people who had known him in Cairo, was summoned to the Pasha's presence. There were considerable suspicions as to his Moslem orthodoxy, but when the Pasha summoned two of the ablest Professors of Islamic Law then resident in Arabia to examine him in the Koran, they concluded that not only was he a Moslem, but a most learned one. He still, however, did not escape the suspicion of being a spy of the English, who had now conquered Napoleon, and who the Pasha feared would turn their attention to Eastern conquest, so that Burckhardt had to walk warily the rest of his stay in both Mecca and Medina.

Burckhardt had had quite unusual scholarly preparation for his task of describing the Holy Cities and the rites of the pilgrimage. Thus he was able after only a limited sojourn in the cities to describe them with a minuteness and accuracy that leave nothing to be desired.... No other writer has painted so vividly the life of the Meccan community which lives on the blood it can suck from the pilgrims, and he has no high opinion of this parasitic community. The guides he describes as the idlest, most impudent and vilest individuals in the city, and the whole community, he says, squanders its gains in dress, feasting and sensual gratification. No wealthy Meccan, he avers, prefers domestic peace to the gratification of his passions. He found little learning and much hypocrisy there, and both Mecca and Medina he characterizes as the Paradise of beggars, to whose importunities there is no end....

Almost thirty years elapse before we read of our next Christian pilgrim, a French officer Leon Roches.... He himself joined the army in Algeria, and for several years, in the guise of a convert to Islam, lived as a secret service agent in the camp of the renowned religious maniac and warrior Abd al-Qadir. It was after his escape from the camp of Abd al-Qadir that he became convinced, after long conversations with some of the native chieftains, that the only basis of a lasting peace would be a fatwa, signed by the learned Doctors of Islam, to the effect that armed resistance to the French occupation of Algeria was not a religious duty incumbent on all the Moslem tribes.... Accordingly in November, 1841, he set off in disguise with the pilgrim caravan, landing at Yambu and proceeding first to Medina and then on to Mecca. Like Burckhardt he comments strongly on the extortions of the Meccans, and on the tawdriness of the city and the hypocrisy and blatant immorality of its inhabitants. He secured his fatwa, however, and made his way to Arafat for the concluding rites of the pilgrimage. Here unfortunately he came across two Algerian rascals whom he had been instrumental in having condemned to imprisonment while an interpreter to the army in Algiers. Also, having to perform the greater ablution in public, in spite of his precautions he was recognized as uncircumcized, and the cry of "Seize the Christian" was raised. The negro bodyguard of the friendly Sherif, however, under pretence of arresting him, rescued him and packed him off on swift camels to Jiddah, where he could take ship for Egypt.

The Finnish traveller and Orientalist Wallin is the next on our list.... If for no other reason, his account of his journey is of importance for the picture it gives us of the tribulations endured by the Shi'a pilgrims on their way to and at the Sunni shrines.

His successor is the most famous and popular of all the Christian pilgrims - Sir Richard Burton, one of the most romantic figures of his generation, whose volumes on the pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah have become classics.... In 1853 he got leave for exploration, and came to Cairo disguised as a Persian to make preparations for the pilgrimage. Realizing, however, that the dangers of discovery would be much greater if he went as a Persian, he changed his disguise to that of an Afghan doctor from India....

Burton has described his journey and adventures in great detail, and though in his description of Mecca he found little that he could add to that of Burckhardt, his personal impressions of the place and the pilgrimage have permanent value. He expatiates on the extravagance with which the Meccans expend their easily won gains of the pilgrimage season, and on their pride, immorality and irreligiousness, though he has words of praise for their courage, intelligence and good manners.

On Burton's return to Cairo, he met at Shepherd's Hotel a young German named von Maltzan, who was already planning a trip to Mecca. It was seven years later, however, before he actually started on his journey, in the character of a Moor.... His description of the ceremonies of the pilgrimage at Mecca is that it was a sight to be expected nowhere outside a lunatic asylum - thousands of semi-naked people, half crazed from the heat of the sun on their shaven heads, frantic with religious excitement, covered with dust and perspiration, panting, sweating, yelling, sobbing, sometimes screaming in delirium, as, tired to death with all the ceremonies, they still plodded on with the performance of the rites. On the return from Arafat, von Maltzan was suspected of being a Christian, and had to make a hurried exit from Mecca to Jiddah, and give up the hope of seeing Medina.

In 1877 another Englishman, John Fryer Keane reached Mecca. He had run away to sea as a boy, and lived for seven years among Mohammedans before he ventured into the forbidden territory.... At Jiddah he attached himself to the suite of an Indian prince who was doing the pilgrimage in style, and thus escaped many of the minor tribulations of pilgrims who travelled alone. Keane's visit is famous to the world at large because of his discovery of a white woman at Mecca. Her name was Mackintosh, and she was a girl of the lower classes who had been taken prisoner at the siege of Lucknow and added to the harim of one of the rebels. When the rebels were defeated, and the English had set a price on this man's head, he sought refuge at Mecca, and brought her with him. She had been living there for a considerable number of years when Keane found her, and had almost forgotten the English tongue. Keane had several narrow escapes of recognition as a Christian, but managed to accompany his Indian patron to Medina and ultimately to Bombay.

Our standard scientific work on Mecca and the pilgrimage we owe to the next Christian pilgrim on our roll, Prof. C. Snouck Hurgronje, the Dutch Orientalist.... His treatise on the origin and nature of the pilgrimage was written in 1880, and in 1885, after having spent five months in the Dutch Consulate at Jiddah, he journeyed to Mecca, where for six months he lived as a student of the Koran, and gathered the material for his monumental work on that city. As Burckhardt had been mainly interested in the topography of the city, and the pilgrimage ceremony, Snouck Hurgronje interested himself particularly in a social study of the Meccan community, and so complete is his work that he has left nothing to later writers save to note the changes made by passing years....

Hurgronje seems to have enjoyed the freest intercourse with all strata of society in Mecca, and with an adequate scholarly preparation for his task has been able to make Meccan social life a thing of living interest to us. No other writer has so clearly pictured the condition of a society which is welded from an unusually varied conglomeration of nationalities, and which has been affected by the superstitions and prejudices of them all. His picture of the blatant immorality of the city is blacker even than Burckhardt's, and is the evidence of a witness who certainly cannot be accused of prejudice against Islam.

Almost ten years later the French Algerian, Gervais Courtellemont, a photographer of some note, visited Mecca on some secret commission from the French Government. He had several years of apprenticeship to living among Moslems before setting out on his journey, but even from his own account he was almost unbelievably tactless and awkward, and his companion Akli was in constant terror of his being discovered and getting into trouble. On more than one occasion, indeed, he was hailed before the authorities, and it needed all Akli's Arab eloquence to straighten things out. Courtellemont's personal account of his adventures is interesting and diverting, but his only addition to our knowledge of the Holy City is that he managed to take a number of excellent photographs....

Lastly comes [a young Englishman from Malaysia, Mr. C. E. Rutter] whose account... has three special claims on our interest. Firstly, Rutter entered Mecca from the south, crossing the Red Sea very much further south than is usually the practice, and coming up by land by way of Al-Gahm, Al-Lith and Yalamlam; whereas all the other travellers we know of entered the city from the other direction.... Secondly, he was in Mecca and Medina at the time of the second Wahhabi occupation, and even had an interview with Ibn Sa'ud himself.... Thirdly, he has gone into some detail in his description of both cities, and thus enables us to note the many changes that time has wrought since Burckhardt's day. The main interest of the book, however, is in his personal narrative, which is written in a pleasing fashion and occasionally with no little humor. It was curious to note that though Rutter was recognized and had to confess his nationality quite early in his sojourn in Mecca, he was yet able to continue there, and in fact spend a longer period in the forbidden city than any other European...."