Once Upon a Time on the Road to Mecca

Start Slideshow View as a List

This year, from Oct. 13 to 18, over a million pilgrims will descend on Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to perform the rituals of the "most significant manifestation of Islamic faith and unity," as the Saudi Embassy in Washington describes it. In the late 1880s and early 1900s, pilgrims endured long, treacherous journeys from all corners of the world to travel to Mecca so they could undertake the hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam. Performing the hajj, a spiritual journey that takes place over the course of five days and is the largest religious gathering of Muslims in the world, is a requirement for all Muslims who are physically and financially capable of participating.

While the steps and traditions of the hajj have remained the same over the centuries, the advent of air travel, Saudi infrastructure development, and the commercialization of Mecca and Medina have dramatically altered the landscape over the last century; today, hotels dot the landscape, including one so massive that it towers over the Kaaba, a sacred site in Islam. The journey to Mecca is not what  it was 100 years ago. As F.E. Peters, professor emeritus of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and history at New York University, writes in his work The Hajj, "the total pilgrimage experience was often an arduous and frightening and painful one, sometimes enormously profitable and sometimes financially ruinous, filled with extraordinary sights and sounds and sentiments."

What follows are photographs from two distinct collections: those in grainy black and white (like the one above) reveal Mecca of the early 1900s; the sepia-toned photos that follow were taken by Dutch scholar Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje in 1885 and published in 1888 and 1889. Together, these images offer a window into a different and distant time, when Mecca was under Ottoman control and camels were still the best way to get around.

Above, a caravan with howdahs (canopy seats) on the camels' backs heads toward Mecca, circa 1910.



The above photo, taken by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje in 1885, shows Sharif Yahya, a relative of the emir of Mecca (a semiautonomous ruler who shared power with the Ottomans); two lesser sharifs; and a slave bearing a rifle. The camel is draped with a lavish fabric embroidered in threads of silver.

Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter Mecca or take part in the hajj. Snouck converted to Islam and assumed the Muslim name Abd al-Ghaffar. His conversion allowed him to gain firsthand experience of Mecca, first setting foot in the city on Feb. 22, 1885. He "circled the Kaaba, kissed the Black Stone and drank the holy water of Zam Zam," writes Lizette van Hecke in The National. Several months later, in August, after being (falsely) accused of plotting an art heist, authorities booted him out of Mecca "under armed escort, leaving his pregnant Ethiopian slave wife and photo equipment behind. He never returned."

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-qformat:yes; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin-top:0in; mso-para-margin-right:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:10.0pt; mso-para-margin-left:0in; line-height:115%; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; font-family:"Calibri","sans-serif"; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}

He wrote extensively about his experiences. One such passage describes the slavery he encountered in Mecca, "It may seem incredible to many and yet it is true that the Mekka slave market, which now through political circumstances is the chief slave-market, gets occasionally small consignments of slaves from the British and Dutch East Indies."



Pilgrims sit on the deck of a ship heading to Sinai via the Red Sea in the early 20th century. The spread of steamship travel in the mid-1800s greatly cut down on the time it took pilgrims to reach their destination and dramatically increased the number of people who could afford to undertake the hajj.

Those pilgrims traveling by land faced many dangers during the Ottoman period. Robberies and raids by Bedouin tribes were common occurrences. In 1926, the Saudis took control of Mecca when Abd al-Aziz became king of the Hijaz, with his rule marking a new era in Mecca.


Beginning in the 1860s, governments around the world began taking a more systematic approach to the hajj. Fears of epidemics -- especially after a cholera outbreak in 1865 killed around 15,000 pilgrims -- and the desire to keep track of statistics, led the Ottomans, British, French, Dutch, and Russians to attempt to better regulate hajj travel.

This 1886 ticket (above) is an example of the travel arrangements the colonial Indian government asked John Mason Cook (the son of Thomas Cook, founder of a British travel agency that became famous for tours in the Middle East) to organize for thousands of pilgrims traveling from what is today Mumbai to Jeddah. Cook operated the pilgrim ticket system until 1893. Some governments also issued pilgrim passports, a documentation that allowed governments to organize quarantine regulations and keep track of their citizens.

This year, fears of a modern-day epidemic of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV, or MERS) loom over the hajj.


In the Arafat Valley near the Mountain of Mercy (Jabal al-Rahma), east of Mecca, pilgrims set up tents and take a rest with their camels. Pilgrims spend one day in the plain and ask for forgiveness for sins they have committed.



Pilgrims crowd around the Kaaba in this photo circa 1910. Pilgrims may choose to undertake a journey to Mecca outside the specific period of the hajj. This pilgrimage is known as umrah.



This photo from around 1910 shows men and women walking around the Kaaba. During hajj and umrah, pilgrims perform the tawaf, seven counterclockwise circuits around the Kaaba.


This photo from around 1910 gives a bird's-eye view of the Kaaba with the city of Mecca in the background. Snouck described the different residents of Mecca ranging from those who lived there for "purely religious motives" to those who earned their livelihood from the pilgrims, including guides, merchants, and prostitutes. "Nowhere has the Moslim calendar with its lunar year greater practical significance than here," he wrote.


This photo shows a wide view of Mecca in the late 1880s. In his account, Snouck wrote, "There is no uniform style of building, and it is difficult to say anything true in general of all the houses." In the 1880s, pilgrims would stay with locals. "Mekka has no hotels, but, on the other hand, in the last months of the year every Meccan becomes an hotel-keeper."



Above, pilgrims arrive in Muzdalifah, between Arafat and Mina, in the evening in 1885. In Muzdalifah, pilgrims collect stones that will later be used in Mina in a symbolic Stoning of the Devil ritual.

While government responses and the pilgrims' modes of transportation have changed greatly over the past 100 years -- 288 hajj flights are expected to take off from Pakistan alone this year -- the purpose behind the trip remains the same. The journey is meant to reflect the unifying value of a faith that 1.6 billion Muslims share worldwide and transcend the cultural and ethnic divides of everyday life. As these century-old images can testify, that essence has been at the core of what has made the hajj such a remarkable event from the beginning.

Special thanks to Michael Christopher Low of Columbia University's Department of History and Jonathan Brown, associate professor of Islamic studies and Muslim Christian understanding at Georgetown University, for their consultation on this project.

Previous Next Close