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Volume 25, Number 6November/December 1974

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The Lure Of Mecca

"Even scoundrels, apparently, are not immune to the impact of the Hajj."

Written by Paul Lunde

Peking, Lhasa, Timbuctu, Harrar, Medina, Mecca—these were the forbidden cities that for centuries captured the imagination of the West. One by one they have given up their secrets to intrepid travelers until today all are open to anyone with sufficient patience and the right political credentials. All, that is, but Mecca and Medina—the two holiest cities of Islam.

By law Mecca and Medina are strictly forbidden to non-Muslims. Pilgrims are carefully screened at Saudi embassies and consulates before they leave their homelands and their visas—special visas allowing them to visit only the holy cities and the environs—are inspected at the borders of the holy cities themselves (see p.2).

But that's now. In the past, although prohibitions were equally strict and although the pilgrimage was long, difficult and dangerous, intruders were not at all uncommon. Between 1503 and 1931, for example, some 25 Westerners visited Mecca and returned to write about it. They included a Renaissance tourist, an English prisoner of war, a Spanish spy, an Italian deserter, a Swiss scholar, the incomparable Sir Richard Burton, translator of the Arabian Nights, and an Austrian Jew who, after his conversion to Islam, became Pakistan's Minister Plenipotentiary to the United Nations.

Not all of these men went to Mecca for admirable reasons. Some went in a spirit of scientific inquiry, some sought fame, some adventure. But all went at least nominally as Muslims, most were sincerely interested in Islam and, whatever their original motives, all usually returned moved by what they had seen and experienced.

If we except the confused account of a 15th-century German pilgrim, the first known European to enter Mecca was an Italian named Ludovico de Varthema, a contemporary of Vasco da Gama and Leonardo da Vinci. Nothing is known of his early life and education except that he was born about 1465 and, as the preface to his book of voyages suggests, possessed the curiosity and love of adventure typical of the Renaissance man. "Not having any inclination (knowing myself to be of very slender understanding) to arrive at my desire by study or conjecture, I determined, personally, and with my own eyes, to endeavor to ascertain the situations of places, the qualities of peoples, the diversities of animals, the varieties of fruit-bearing and odoriferous trees of Egypt, Syria, Arabia Deserta and Felix [that is, northern and southern Arabia], Persia, India, and Ethiopia, remembering well that the testimony of one eye-witness is worth more than 10 hear-says."

In the year 1500, De Varthema sailed from Venice to Alexandria. After a short stay in Cairo, he sailed along the coast to Beirut and eventually made his way to Damascus, where he spent two years studying Arabic. On April 8, 1503, masquerading as a Syrian, he joined a pilgrim caravan bound for Mecca. It was a harrowing journey—many pilgrims perished along the way—but when the caravan reached Mecca, De Varthema was much impressed. He found the markets crammed with the luxury goods of the East—silks, jewels, spices, frankincense and myrrh—and compares the houses favorably to those of his native Italy and the Sacred Mosque, which encloses the Ka'bah, to the Colosseum. He was also astounded by the vast size of the crowd of pilgrims—Muslims from Ethiopia, India, Persia, Egypt and Syria—"Truly I never saw so many people collected in one spot as during the 20 days I remained there."

De Varthema provides the first description in a Western language of the rites of the Pilgrimage. He describes the Ka'bah with its Kiswah, or draping of black cloth. He gives an account of the Tawaf, the seven circuits around the Ka'bah, notes the kissing of the Black Stone and comments upon the brackish taste of the water from the Well of Zamzam. He also categorically refutes the widespread medieval notion that the tomb of Muhammad was at Mecca (it is in Medina, 277 miles to the north), and dismisses as nonsense the medieval European legend that the tomb of the Prophet of Islam is suspended in mid-air by lodestones. He had the added good fortune to see two "unicorns"—possibly oryx, a form of antelope—tethered in the courtyard of the Sacred Mosque. "The older is formed like a colt . . . and he has a horn in the forehead, which horn is about three braccia (six feet, two inches) in length . . . The color of the said animal resembles that of a dark bay horse, and his head resembles that of a stag ... his legs are slender and lean like those of a goat . . . truly this monster must be a very fierce and solitary animal."

After visiting Mecca, De Varthema joined a caravan to Aden, where he was imprisoned as a Portuguese spy, set free through the good offices of the sultan's wife (thereby hangs a tale), traveled extensively in the Yemen (he was the first European to do so), and then set off for the Far East. He finally returned to Europe, after circumnavigating Africa, and died in Rome in 1517, the year the Ottoman Turks captured Egypt. It was to be 170 years before another European would provide a description of Mecca to rival that of De Varthema.

Joseph Pitts was an English sailor. Unlike De Varthema, Pitts had no interest in "odoriferous trees" or anything else. He was a prisoner of war and all he wanted was to go home.

At 17 Pitts had been captured by Barbary pirates, then the scourge of the Mediterranean, and as, a prisoner of war became the property of an Algerian soldier, who treated him well and set him up in business. In time Pitts became a Muslim and in 1680 accompanied his master to Mecca. He was not as enthusiastic about the physical appearance of the city as De Varthema—he describes the buildings as "ordinary" and the inhabitants as "poor"—but gives a similar account of the Ka'bah, and the ceremonies of the Pilgrimage. He also describes the trade in precious stones, Chinese porcelain, and musk that made Mecca one of the great emporiums of the time.

From Mecca, Pitts went on to Medina, still in the company of his master, and visited the mosque and tomb of Muhammad. On the way he met an Irishman who, like Pitts, had been captured at an early age by pirates. Raised as a Muslim, he had been recaptured by Christian pirates and enslaved, but eventually escaped. He was making the Pilgrimage in order to thank God for delivering him out of "hell on earth" (meaning Europe) and bringing him into "heaven on earth," viz. Mecca.

Pitts eventually escaped from his Muslim captors but like the Irish kajji he had met, he may have wished he had stayed with Islam. On his first night back in England, he was impressed into His Majesty's Navy. He was freed later, however, and immediately wrote an account of life among the Muslims which he filled with what, in 17th-century Christian Europe, were conventional denunciations of Islam, which, he said, he was forced to embrace. Indeed, few accounts of the subject have been so critical. But with respect to the Hajj, this wholly unsympathetic observer was so moved by the assembly of pilgrims at 'Arafat that he wrote: "It was a sight indeed, able to pierce one's heart, to behold so many thousands in their garments of humility and mortification, with their naked heads, and cheeks watered with tears; and to hear their grievous sighs and sobs, begging earnestly for the remission of their sins, promising newness of life, using a form of penitential expression, and thus continuing for the space of four or five hours."

After Pitts, it was 127 years before another European entered Mecca. This was the mysterious Spanish traveler, Domingo Badia Leblich, alias Aly Bey, who introduces the account of his travels with the following, somewhat equivocal, words: "After having passed many years in the Christian states, studying there the sciences of nature, and the arts most useful to man in society, whatever be his faith or the religion of his heart, I determined at last to visit the Mohametan countries, and, while engaged in performing a pilgrimage to Mecca, to observe the manners, customs, and nature of the countries through which I should pass, in order that I might make the laborious journey of some utility to the country which I might at last select for my abode."

Aly Bey was born in 1766, but all that is known of his early life is what he himself chooses to tell us in his travels. As a young man, he says, he applied himself to the study of Arabic, apparently with success since, in 1803, in setting off, he assumed the identity of a scion of the House of Abbas, which produced the Caliph Harun al-Rashid himself.

Aly Bey began his travels in North Africa. He journeyed from Morocco to Cairo, providing detailed descriptions of the countries along the way. In Cairo, Aly Bey joined the pilgrim caravan to Mecca, arriving in the Holy City on January 23, 1807, where he was impressed by the clean, sanded streets, the high stone houses, the terraces and the mashrabiyas, the latticed balconies still a feature of some Arab cities (Aramco World, July-August, 1974).

He was also impressed by the ceremonies of the Hajj, which he himself performed; his description is much more detailed and extended than the descriptions provided by De Varthema or Pitts. Aly Bey was even able to gain access to the inner chamber of the Ka'bah, and in his character of a descendant of the Abbasids, was given the signal honor of sweeping its floor.

Aly Bey was powerfully moved by his first sight of the Ka'bah. "We had already traversed the portal or gallery, and were upon the point of entering the great space where the house of God, or El Kaaba, is situated, when our guide arrested our steps, and pointing with his finger towards it, said with emphasis, 'Schouf, Schouf, el beit Allah el Haram!' (Look, look, the house of God, the Prohibited!) The crowd that surrounded me; the portico of columns half hid from view; the immense size of the temple; the Kaaba, or house of God, covered with the black cloth from top to bottom, and surrounded with a circle of lamps or lanterns; the hour; the silence of the night; and this man speaking in a solemn tone, as if he had been inspired; all served to form an imposing picture, which will never be effaced from my memory."

The travels of Aly Bey, when they were published upon his return to Europe, were studiously neglected by his contemporaries—which is unfortunate but understandable. For although his account was a sympathetic, tolerant and up-to-date description of Middle Eastern lands and politics it came from a man whose motives were distrusted. For Aly Bey was a spy, secretly in the employ of the French Government and the main purpose of his travels was to report upon the political and economic status of the Middle East to the government of Napoleon Bonaparte.

In return for his services, Aly Bey, when he returned to Spain, then under French domination, was made governor, first of Cordova, then of Seville. When the French were driven out of Spain, Aly Bey was forced to flee with the retreating French army and lived in exile in France. He later undertook another mission to the Middle East, once again disguising himself as a descendant of a noble family. But he had tempted fate once too often and died in Aleppo in suspicious circumstances, his cover apparently blown at last.

Of all the Western travelers to Mecca, Giovanni Finati is the only out-and-out scoundrel—as the two-volume account of his travels, published in 1830, makes perfectly clear. Even Burton, by no means a prude, disapproved of Signor Finati, and it is not hard for the modern reader to see why.

Giovanni Finati began his career at the age of 18—by deserting from the Napoleonic troops then occupying Italy. Arrested and condemned to death, he was saved by the fortuitous arrival of Napoleon, who decided to free all deserters and send them to Albania to fight the Montenegrans. As the Montenegrans were formidable foes, the prudent Giovanni decided to desert again and eventually wound up, with 16 companions, joining the Turkish Army, which quickly put him to work in a quarry. Finati, however, embraced Islam and after several scrapes, enlisted in still another army: a contingent of Albanian mercenaries on their way to Cairo to take part in Muhammad Ali Pasha's wars against the Mamelukes. This time he stayed long enough to participate in Muhammad Ali's massacre of the Mamelukes in 1811, then joined the Egyptian army just as it was setting out for Arabia.

At the great battle of the Jadida Pass, the strategic spot that controlled the caravan route from Egypt, the Egyptians were virtually annihilated, but Giovanni escaped and returned to Cairo. Growing restless, he joined a second expedition to Arabia during which—as the Egyptians suffered reverses—he deserted again, made his way to Mecca and went into hiding until he could escape.

As that summary suggests, Giovanni's life had not left him too much time to cultivate his sensibilities. Yet this is what he later wrote of his entrance into Mecca: "Exulting in my escape, my mind was in a state to receive very strong impressions, and I was much struck with all I saw upon entering the city; for though it is neither large nor beautiful in itself, there is something in it that is calculated to impress a sort of awe, and it was the hour of noon when everything is very silent, except the muezzins calling from the minarets." Even scoundrels, apparently, are not immune to the impact of the Hajj.

The same year that Finati went into hiding in Mecca another—and far more important—Westerner arrived. This was Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, discoverer of Petra, and one of the more illustrious Western visitors to Mecca.

Johann Burckhardt was born in Lausanne in 1784, and studied in Leipzig, Gottingen and Cambridge. Hoping to settle what was then one of the burning questions in geography—the true course of the Niger River—he applied to the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior of Africa for a grant. His application accepted, Burckhardt set off in 1809 for Aleppo in Syria to perfect his knowledge of Arabic and Islam—in the belief that he could travel in Africa more easily as a Muslim. Later he made a series of exploratory trips through the Middle East during which he discovered Petra, the fabulous rock-hewn city in Jordan that had been "lost" for almost 1000 years (Aramco World, September-October, 1967). This discovery in itself would have satisfied a lesser man, but Burckhardt, determined to carry out his exploration of the Niger, went to Cairo planning to join a caravan to Fezzan, in Libya. When the caravan was delayed, Burckhardt, hating to remain idly in Cairo, sailed down the Nile to explore Nubia, and then decided to cross the Red Sea and make the Pilgrimage to Mecca. There he so exhaustively described the rites of the Pilgrimage, the Ka'bah, the Sacred Mosque, the history of Mecca, the surrounding holy places as well as the customs and dress of the various classes of Meccan society, that he left little for later travelers to do. Even Burton reprinted Burckhardt's description of the Ka'bah and the Sacred Mosque as an appendix to his own travels.

Burckhardt had the advantage of an extended stay in Mecca—he was there three months—so he had an opportunity for investigation that previous travelers had not. He mapped the city, gathered information from a wide variety of informants about the virtually unknown southern and eastern parts of the Arabian Peninsula and went on to Medina, where he stayed another three months, amassing a great deal of valuable information. But he was also taken ill and had to return to Cairo, where in 1817, worn out by disease and hardship, he died at the age of 33 on the eve of the departure of the long awaited caravan to Fezzan. In 1830, 13 years after Burckhardt's death, Richard Lander finally discovered the true course of the Niger River.

Unlike some travelers, Burckhardt was a modest and self-effacing man whose careful accounts of his travels in Syria and Arabia are classics, and whose conversion to Islam was apparently sincere. He was greatly admired by Burton, who made a point of visiting his tomb outside Cairo before embarking upon his own Pilgrimage to Mecca.

The most famous Western traveler to Arabia, of course, was Sir Richard Burton, who in 1853 set off on the Pilgrimage, his knighthood and his fame as the translator of the Arabian Nights still far in the future.

At 32, Burton had reached a stage in his life when he felt he must do something spectacular to win the official recognition of his abilities which he had always felt to be his due. When, therefore, the Royal Geographical Society refused him a grant to explore Arabia (on the grounds that it was too dangerous) he decided to go anyway. As he confided to his journal, "What remained for me but to prove, by trial, that what might be perilous to other travelers was safe to me?"

Burton originally intended to use Mecca merely as a jumping-off place to cross the Arabian Desert, explore the as-yet-unknown Eastern Province, take a quick look at that great blank on the map, the Empty Quarter (which would not be crossed by a Western traveler until 1931), investigate the possibility of opening up a market for Arabian horses in order to improve the breed used by the Indian cavalry, settle the vexing question of the hydrology of the Hijaz, and, finally, perform certain anthropological researches among the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula. Instead he produced one of the greatest travel books ever written— A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah. The word "Personal" in the title is no misnomer; the book reveals as much about Burton as it does about the two holiest cities of Islam.

To get to Mecca, Burton disguised himself as an Afghan holy man and set off on the grueling ride across the desert to the port of Suez. At Suez he booked passage on a 50-ton ship, spent 12 days sailing to Yanbu' on the Arabian Red Sea coast, where having injured his foot by stepping on a sea urchin, he hired a shuqduf, a kind of closed litter carried on the back of a camel, to facilitate his journey. En route the caravan was ambushed by bandits, but Burton, with his customary aplomb under fire, merely took the opportunity to make some minor repairs to his shuqduf. His companions regarded him as insane.

On July 25, the pilgrims caught their first glimpse of Medina, the last resting place of the Prophet Muhammad. "We halted our beasts as if by word of command. All of us descended, in imitation of the pious of old, and sat down, jaded and hungry as we were, to feast our eyes with a view of the Holy City." Burton spent a month in Medina. He adds a great deal to Burckhardt's account, for illness had prevented the Swiss scholar from visiting the environs of the city.

When the pilgrim caravan from Damascus arrived in Medina on its way to Mecca, Burton joined it. He was excited by the prospect of following the inland route from Medina to Mecca, for this was the route taken by Harun al-Rashid, and no European had taken it since the time of De Varthema, 350 years before. Unfortunately, the caravan traveled at night in order to avoid the summer sun, and Burton was unable to make any but the most cursory observations of the route. Balked in that direction, Burton turned his lively curiosity on his fellow pilgrims. He succeeded in ingratiating himself with the Bedouins who accompanied the caravan by reciting Arabic poetry—always a sure way to the heart of the desert Arab. Then, just before reaching Mecca, caught in a narrow pass, the caravan was again attacked by robbers. Several pilgrims lost their lives, and the camel in front of Burton was shot through the heart. A detachment of troops who were guarding the caravan swarmed up the sides of the canyon and after a fierce battle drove the bandits away.

The pilgrims entered Mecca late the same night, and Burton had to wait until the next morning for his first sight of the Sacred Mosque and the Ka'bah. This was the culminating point of his journey—"There at last it lay, the bourn of my long weary pilgrimage, realizing the plans and hopes of many and many a year. The mirage medium of Fancy invested the huge catafalque and its gloomy pall with peculiar charms. There were no giant fragments of hoar antiquity as in Egypt, no remains of graceful and harmonious beauty as in Greece and Italy, no barbarous gorgeousness as in the buildings of India; yet the view was strange, unique—and how few have looked upon the celebrated shrine! I may truly say that, of all the worshippers who clung weeping to the curtain, or who pressed their beating hearts to the stone, none felt for the moment a deeper emotion that did the hajji (pilgrim) from the far-north."

Profoundly moved not only by the sight of the Ka'bah, but by the devotion of the pilgrims, Burton went through the complicated ceremonies of the Hajj, describing in detail the actions and prayers which accompany the various rites. He measured the Ka'bah, entered its interior chamber and sketched a plan of it on the hem of his white pilgrim's garb. He visited all the places of interest in the country around Mecca, made copious notes on the customs and dress of the inhabitants of the Hijaz and at last took passage to Bombay to write his famous three-volume work considered by many to be the classic English account of the Hajj.

The last great 19th-century European traveler to Mecca was the Dutch scholar Snouck Hurgronje, who spent a year in Mecca in 1884. His two-volume work on the history and ethnography of Mecca is the classic scientific account, and a mine of information about all aspects of the Hajj, particularly about pilgrims from the former Dutch possessions in the East Indies.

All the European travelers who made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, from De Varthema to Hurgronje, had dressed in native costume and concealed their original nationality. The first European to enter the Holy City without disguising himself in any way was an English Muslim named Herman Bicknell. Unfortunately, although Bicknell must have had some intriguing encounters, dressed as he was in trousers and boiled shirt, until he put off his English identity with the assumption of the Ihram, he has left no account of his Hajj. But he is important in any survey of Western visitors to Mecca, for he marks a turning point in the relations of the West with the world of Islam. He is representative of the increasing number of Europeans who embraced Islam in the latter half of the 19th century—and embraced it sincerely.

The 20th century abounds in sympathetic accounts by Western Muslims of their Pilgrimages to Mecca—those of Eldon Rutter, Harry St. John Philby, Lady Evelyn Cobbold—perhaps the first European woman to make the Hajj—and, just a few years ago, Thomas Abercrombie, a National Geographic photographer and writer who embraced Islam and later recorded the Pilgrimage for the magazine. But the most interesting modern pilgrim of all is Leopold Weiss, who made five Pilgrimages between 1927 and 1932.

Leopold Weiss was born of Jewish parents in the Polish city of Lwow—then under Austrian domination—and after an adventurous early life became the Middle East correspondent for the prestigious German newspaper, the Frankfurter Zeitung. In 1926 he embraced Islam, adopted the Muslim name of Muhammad Asad, and went to Saudi Arabia, where he became a close friend of King 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud. His autobiography—The Road to Mecca—makes fascinating reading. Within, the framework of a journey by camel across the Arabian Desert, from Tayma to Mecca, Muhammad Asad reflects upon the events of his former life and how they led ineluctably to his own Pilgrimage to the Holy City: "It was during those twenty-three days that the pattern of my life became fully apparent to myself."

After some six years in Saudi Arabia, Muhammad Asad went to India where he met Muhammad Iqbal, the spiritual founder of modern Pakistan. He devoted himself to the establishment of that Islamic state, and in 1947 became the Director of Pakistan's Department of Islamic Reconstruction. Other government posts followed, culminating in his appointment as Minister Plenipotentiary to the U.N.

But in 1932, as he performed the Tawaf around the Ka'bah, only one of thousands of pilgrims, these honors lay far in the future. "I walked on and on, the minutes passed, all that had been small and bitter in my heart began to leave my heart, I became part of a circular stream—oh, was this the meaning of what we were doing: to become aware that one is a part of a movement in an orbit? Was this, perhaps, all confusion's end? And the minutes dissolved, and time itself stood still, and this was the centre of the universe ..."

Muhammad Asad was the last European pilgrim to arrive in Mecca on the back of a camel—the old caravans, with all their aura of romance, are now a thing of the past. But although the modern pilgrim now arrives in Saudi Arabia by plane, bus or car, and although everything possible is done by the Saudi Government to facilitate his stay in Mecca during the month of the Pilgrimage, the ancient and holy ceremonies of the Hajj have remained unchanged. And Mecca and Medina are still the last of the "forbidden cities"—forbidden, that is, to all but those who share the faith that was nurtured there, and has since spread across the world.

This article appeared on pages 14-21 of the November/December 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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