Pilgrims from Europe
Ludovico di Varthema (Witnessed Hajj 1503)
On the 18th of May we entered into the said city of Mecca ; we entered from the north, and afterwards we descended into the plain. On the side towards the south there are two mountains which almost touch each other, where is the pass to go to the gate of Mecca. On the other side, where the sun rises, there is another mountain pass, like a valley, through which is the road to the mountain where they celebrate the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac, which mountain is distant from the said city about eight or ten miles. The height of this mountain is two or three casts of a stone by hand, and it is of some kind of stone, not marble, but of another colour. On the top of this said mountain there is a mosque according to their custom, which has three doors. At the foot of the said mountain there are two very beautiful reservoirs of water. One is for the caravan from Cairo, and the other for the caravan from Damascus.
Ludovico di Varthema (1470?–1517) was the first non-Muslim European to visit Mecca and witness the Hajj. He left Europe in 1502, travelling to Syria via Egypt. Adopting the name Yunas, he enrolled in the Mamluk garrison in Damascus. From April to June 1503 he accompanied the Syrian Hajj caravan to Mecca as part of the military escort. Once at Mecca he made careful observations of the city, describing it as ‘most beautiful, well inhabited with about six thousand families’. His descriptions, particularly of the rituals of Mecca, are remarkably accurate. He did affirm however, that there were two unicorns within the sanctuary, a gift from the King of Ethiopia to the ‘Sultan’ of Mecca and ‘the finest things that could be found in the world at the present day’. These were probably onyxes.
Joseph Pitts (Performed Hajj in 1680)
The Beat-Allah (Bayt Allah, the House of God or The Ka‘ba), which stands in the middle of the Temple, is Four-square, about twenty four Paces each Square, and nearly four Foot in Height. ‘Tis built with great Stone, all smooth and plain, without the least bit of carv’d Work on it. ‘Tis covered all over from top to bottom, with a sort of Silk....The top of the Beat is flat, beaten with Lime and Sand; and there is a long Gutter or Spout, so carry off the Water when it rains; at which time the people will run, throng, and struggle, to get under the said Gutter, that so the Water that comes off the Beat may fall upon them, accounting it as the Dew of Heaven, and looking on it as of great Happiness to have it drop upon them.
Joseph Pitts (1663 –1735), a sailor from Exeter, wrote the first English account of Mecca and the Hajj in 1704. At the age of 17 he was captured by Algerian pirates off the Spanish coast and was sold at auction in Algiers and forcibly converted to Islam. His third owner treated him well and took him on Hajj in 1680.
A keen observer, Pitts described how Mecca was a centre of trade for precious stones, Chinese porcelain and musk. He was impressed with Muslims’ devotion to their faith. At Arafat, he was incredibly moved: ‘It was a sight indeed, able to pierce one’s heart, to behold so many thousands of Muslims in their garments of humility and mortification, with their naked heads, and cheeks watered with tears.’ While in Mecca Pitts was freed, but he remained a paid servant until 1693.
Sir Richard Burton (1821-90)
There at last it lay, the bourn of my long and weary Pilgrimage, realising 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. … 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 than did the Haji from the far-north. It was as if the poetical legends of the Arab spoke the truth, and that the waving wings of angels, not the sweet breeze of morning, were agitating and swelling the black covering of the shrine. But, to confess the humbling truth, theirs was the high feeling of religious enthusiasm, mine was the ecstasy of gratified pride.
Sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, disguised as an Afghan doctor, Burton accompanied the Egyptian Hajj caravan in 1853. As a soldier in India between 1842 and 1853, Burton learnt several languages including Arabic and developed a love of Islamic culture. His monumental work Pilgrimage Meccah and Medinah is the most famous account of Hajj performed by a European in disguise. It was an immediate best-seller, confirming Sir Richard Burton’s status as one of the great explorers of the Victorian era.
Burton bought this metal flask in Mecca in 1853. Drinking from the well of Zamzam forms part of the rituals of Hajj. Known in Arabic as ‘Zamzamiyya’, flasks and bottles of Zamzam water were popular amongst pilgrims, who bought them to use on Hajj. Burton’s wife Isobel donated the flask to the British Museum after her husband’s death in 1890.
Lady Evelyn Cobbold (Performed Hajj in 1933)
Angus Sladen, Estate of Lady Evelyn Cobbold
We walk on the smooth marble towards the Holy of Holies, the House of Allah, the great black cube rising in simple majesty, the goal for which millions have forfeited their lives and yet more millions have found heaven in beholding it … the ‘Tawaf’ is a symbol, to use the words of the poet , of a lover making a circuit round the house of his beloved, completely surrendering himself and sacrificing all his interests for the sake of the Beloved. It is in that spirit of self-surrender that the pilgrim makes the ‘Tawaf’.
Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867 –1963) was the first British woman to perform the Hajj, at the age of 65 travelling to Jedda via Cairo. In the letter shown here and dated 14 March 1933 Lady Cobbold told her grandson Toby Sladen: ‘I have now got permission from the king [‘Abd al-‘Aziz] to do my pilgrimage – I will be the first European woman to enter the Sacred Cities.’
Once King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Sa‘ud granted his permission, Lady Cobbold travelled to Medina to visit the Prophet’s tomb and then arrived in Mecca to perform Hajj on 26 March 1933. Her pilgrimage account, published in 1934, received favourable reviews in most British newspapers and periodicals. Unlike other authors of Hajj accounts, she was able to describe women’s life in the holy cities. As a child, Lady Evelyn spent the winters in North Africa. While she never formally converted to Islam, it is clear from her papers that she considered herself a Muslim by 1914 and adopted the name Zainab. She later wrote that she did not know ‘the precise moment when the truth of Islam dawned on me. It seems that I have always been a Moslem.’ Her stay in Mecca was organised for her by St. John Philby.
Harry St. John Philby (Performed Hajj in 1931)
To enter the Ka‘ba is the ambition of every Muslim…and the opportunity came to me in a manner absolutely unique’. It is a great honour to participate in this ritual, which still takes place today, and foreign dignitaries are often invited. The ceremony re-enacts a tradition begun by the Prophet Muhammad, and is an act of deep respect.
Harry St. John Philby (father of the Cambridge spy Kim Philby) converted to Islam in 1930. In A Pilgrim in Arabia he describes his experience of Hajj in 1931, giving detailed descriptions of Hajj rituals and life in Mecca and Medina.
In 1933 King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz invited Harry St. John Philby to take part in the ceremonial cleaning of the interior of the Ka‘ba. The Ka‘ba is cleaned with water from the Zamzam well and perfumed with incense, before the laying of a new textile covering for the Ka‘ba is laid.
Philby was first a British official in India and the Middle East, then a businessman in Jedda. He was a prolific writer and explorer of the Arabian Peninsula and author of numerous publications.