Ali Bey in Makkah as a Pilgrim or a Spy of Napoleon

By Spahic Omer

(Contents: Ali Bey as an intricate mystery; was Ali Bey a Muslim?; was Ali Bey a spy?; the meaning of the concept of “civilisation”; Ali Bey on the Wahhabis; the Wahhabis and civilisation; Ali Bey on the Ottoman Turks and their barbarism; Ali Bey as a scientist; Makkah’s domestic architecture; descriptions of the Ka’bah and the holy mosque; conclusion)

Ali Bey el Abbassi (1767-1818) was the fifth known European non-Muslim to secretly visit Makkah and perform the hajj pilgrimage. It is generally believed that he was a Spanish scientist, explorer, soldier and spy. His original Spanish name was Domenec Francesc Jordi Badia i Leblich.

He supported and worked for the Bonapartist ideology and administration, associated with the political thought and work of Napoleon Bonaparte (d. 1821) and his successors. When France invaded Spain in 1808, and was subsequently ruled by Joseph I, Napoleon’s elder brother, Ali Bey fully supported and collaborated with the occupiers. He was made intendant (administrative official) firstly of Segovia then of Cordoba. However, following the defeat and withdrawal of France from Spain in 1813, Ali Bey had to flee too. He fled to and settled in France. 

Between 1803 and 1807, Ali Bey traversed much of the Muslim world. He was in Makkah for hajj in 1807. Due to the unfavourable political climate in the Hijaz region, he was prevented from visiting Madinah. It was these travels that made Ali Bey famous, warranting him an undeletable place in the history of the early modern Muslim-European (Orient-Occident) relations. The efforts resulted in a book titled “Travels of Ali Bey in Morocco, Tripoli, Cyprus, Egypt, Arabia, Syria and Turkey between the years 1803 and 1807” (written by himself). The book has two volumes. It was firstly published in French in 1814. An English translation followed two years later, in 1816.

Ali Bey as an intricate mystery

Ali Bey was an enigma. Little is certain about him. He mysteriously burst onto the scientific and historical scene, lived out dramatically his life as a sumptuous mystery, and in the end disappeared from the world stage as mysteriously as he had arrived and had lived. What is typically held about him could yet be part of a public and perhaps greatest delusion. It could be a mirage and the greatest stunt. Was Ali Bey a Muslim? What were his origins? Was he a Jew? Was he a Christian who in the name of scientific exploration and inquiry, disguised, visited Makkah and ostensibly performed hajj? Was he a spy whose visit to Makkah was part of a broader agenda intended for the possible creation of a new world order? Was he a real personality, after all?

The questions keep pouring. One cannot help but consider that the circumstance was premeditated. In his celebrated book “Travels of Ali Bey” he gives away extremely little about himself and his case. And whenever he does, he seems not as though clearing the air, but rather as though adding further to the ambiguity. 

One certainly expects some positive development on this matter in the introduction of the book, in that the purpose of academic introductions is to introduce, initiate and familiarise the readership with the purpose, nature and goals of undertaken studies. However, Ali Bey’s introduction is barely existent. There is only a succinct proclamation which, in essence, elucidates nothing. It only additionally obscures the subject. Everything mentioned is in general and vague terms, almost reminiscent of codes. 

He says that after spending many years in the Christian states, he determined at last to visit Muslim (Mahometan) countries. The purpose of his visit was tripartite: to engage in performing a pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca); to observe the manners, customs and nature of the countries through which he should pass; and to make his laborious journeys of some utility  to the country which he will eventually select for his abode. He also reveals that before that, while in the Christian states, he was studying the sciences of nature, and the arts most useful to people (man and mankind) in their societies, whatever be their faiths or the religions of their hearts. 

That is all the author said. The general expressions, such as “Christian states”, “Mahometan countries”, “sciences”, “arts”, “man (as a species)”, “(whatever) religion”, “(whatever) faith” – divulge nothing specific, containing rather infinite possibilities and latent implications. He highlights that he is yet to settle down and find a permanent abode, but does that mean a socio-cultural, political, or a spiritual “home”? Or is “abode” equivalent to “peace” or even “enlightenment”, both inner and outer, personal and collective? Does he furthermore imply by “utility” a form of political expediency, intellectual functionality, or religious certitude? 

The said proclamation is preceded by an elaborate supplication in Arabic, where he acknowledges and shows gratitude to Almighty God for His bounties, guidance and the opportunity to perform the pilgrimage in the sacred land. Bearing in mind the earlier observations, one may additionally wonder what exactly Ali Bey meant by God (which one?), guidance, pilgrimage and the sacred land. Did he go to Makkah as a Muslim for the Muslim pilgrimage; or was he, either as a Jew or a Christian, on his way to Jerusalem for a pilgrimage; or did he perhaps regard the whole undertaking as a journey and “pilgrimage” of potential self-discovery and self-identification? Or was he, as a servant of a sophisticated espionage procedure, on a journey (pilgrimage) of unholy conspiracies and plots whose outcomes were expected to be of a consecrated import within the framework of an emerging new world order? 

Indeed, the way Ali Bey wrote his concise introduction, numerous probabilities could fit inside its mould and could bear scrutiny. That seems to have been the object, though. The author needed to say something, but reveal nothing. He needed to inform, but misdirect and mislead. He needed to display his veneer, but keep readers in the dark as to his true identity.

That the matter was very serious testifies, moreover, the content of the “Advertisement” of the London publishers which were responsible for publishing the English version of the “Travels of Ali Bey”. The “Advertisement” is placed at the very beginning of the book and it almost served the purpose of a disclaimer. 

According to it, the publishers pledged themselves to the public that they were laying before it – and before the whole world – a genuine, not false, work. They then admitted that the name and pretensions assumed by Ali Bey had induced some people to be inquisitive as to the personal reality and authenticity of the author. But immediately they underlined that they believed that there should be no doubt or misconception on the subject. They assured people that both the author and his book were genuine, “that they have become personally acquainted with this traveller; that he was well known to several individuals in this country (England) before he began his journey, that he came to London in the summer of 1814 to make arrangements for the publication of this translation; and that he is now living on the continent much respected by the foreign literati.”

Nonetheless, at the same time, the publishers abstained from providing, or even hinting at, any details pertaining to the actual identity and character of a person known by his pseudonym and nom de plume Ali Bey el Abbassi. They claimed that they were not in a position to either oppose or state the reasons for which the individual behind the stage name of Ali Bey behaved as he did. The reasons were “personal” and veiled, and the publishers believed they should have remained as such. As restrained as they had to be, the publishers only reiterated that they had known the person and that he and his voyages were real – as one side of the coin – but could not cross the line and disclose more than that. Doing so was neither their interest nor jurisdiction.  

They said: “The publishers do not feel themselves at liberty either to oppose or to state the personal reasons which have induced the author to write and print his travels under the name of Ali Bey. As these reasons are personal to the author and his family, it is not necessary to lay them before the public; and indeed as he was always known abroad by the name of Ali Bey and by no other, there is no incongruity and very little impropriety in continuing it. But as the publishers feel that the name may create impressions unfavourable to the belief of the genuineness both of the author and of his work, they think it right, out of respect to that public which it is their wish to please and their duty to satisfy, to state a few circumstances which they trust will remove all doubt of the reality both of Ali Bey and of his travels.”

Was Ali Bey a Muslim?

One of many possibilities relating to the personality and case of Ali Bey is that he was a Muslim. But this in itself poses a mystery. Whether he was from Aleppo, Syria (as he admitted firstly to the captain of the port of Tangier, Morocco, where he had arrived from London via Cadiz, and secondly to the Sultan, i.e., Sharif, of Makkah) or of Moroccan origin but of Spanish education, which some people supposed on account of his actual life activities – is anybody’s guess. 

For instance, he vaguely claimed that he was from Aleppo and that he had left that country long time ago when he was still young, albeit without any elaboration as to his former and subsequent relationship with his country of origin, and if he had a chance to do so, he proved as evasive as ever. When the Sharif of Makkah asked him where he had gone and had been following his migration from Aleppo, Ali Bey desisted from divulging any clues. He only remarked: “I related my history to him”.

However, his especially earlier life was very much Spain-centric, with occasional affiliations with some other European civilisational hubs. Hence, when asked upon his arrival in Tangier to produce his passport, the passport was from Cadiz. Once then questioned why he had none from London as he was coming from there, his reply was: “Because the governor at Cadiz took the one I had from London, and gave me this instead.”

Ali Bey might have regularly shuttled between Morocco and Spain (and elsewhere in Europe by way of the latter) for whatever educational, scientific, political, or even religious reasons, irrespective of whether he was based in Morocco or somewhere else in Europe, and irrespective of whether he originated from the former or the latter, or even from somewhere else. When he travelled to Morocco, as the first stage of his epic explorations, remaining there from June 1803 to October 1805 (two years and three months), whence he proceeded to Tripoli and other eastern destinations – that might just have been a part of his established operational and life patterns. Morocco might have signified as much the home as the locus of the first phase of his travels. It might have been as important a launching pad for his history-making enterprise as Spain itself.

The author’s name itself is confusing. It was deliberately concocted as such in order to create vagueness, and whenever necessary, to afford opportunities for manoeuvres and manipulations. The name “Ali Bey el-Abbassi” could mean at once much and nothing. It could be merely an acronym or a symbol. It is an incomplete name, much like a moniker. “Ali” is one of the most common names in Islamic culture; “Bey” is an honorific title given either officially or informally to people of superior lineages and socio-political ranks; while “el Abbassi” is the nisba (relative) adjective and indicates the man’s pretension to the lineage of the Abbasid caliphs and their erstwhile caliphate. 

It was only once that the author said he was the son of a certain Othman Bey, when he was bragging against a presumptuous governor of Jeddah who “was a negro, named Ouisir, and had been a slave to the Sultan Scheriff of Mecca.” Mentioning that he was the son of Othman Bey only once, and doing so in an awkward situation, could be one of those calculated – and anticipated – manoeuvres and manipulations.

In the course of his travels, Ali Bey managed to acquire many more honorific titles by which he was known in “Mahometan countries”. Some were assured due to his projected status, and others were acquired due to his “devotion” and “piety”. These titles stand out: “religious”, “the prince”, “learned”, “jurist or doctor of the law”, “of the blood of Prophet Muhammad”, “pilgrim”, “of the race of the Abbasids” and “servant of the holy mosque in Makkah”.

At any rate, Ali Bey explicitly claimed to be a Muslim, calling Islam “my religion”. He was a follower of the Maliki madhab (school of law). Once at mount Arafat for the most important ceremony of hajj, upon whose summit there was a “chapel” (mosque), he said he could not climb and visit the chapel because individuals who followed the same rite as himself, that is to say, the Maliki, were forbidden to do so as per the instructions of their imam Malik, the founder of the rite. It was therefore that they stopped when they were half way up and recited their prayer.

As someone in Jerusalem rather aggressively suspected that Ali Bey was a Christian, he calmly replied: “Man, I am a Mussulman; I am the Scherif Abbassi; I have just performed my pilgrimage to Mecca.” The man then asked Ali Bey his faith, which he repeated to satisfy the person, after which Ali Bey and his procession were allowed to continue their journey.

Ali Bey also said while condemning the Turks: “Although a Mussulman myself, I must own that the Turks are still barbarians.”

Ali Bey’s Arabic, apparently, was excellent, so much so that the Sharif of Makkah observed: “He speaks Arabic very well; his accent is pure.” To the publishers of his travels, in addition, he was “master of the Arabic language” and his scientific knowledge, and knowledge in general, were profound and were “carefully studied”. 

However, just like everything else related to Ali Bey, this too has been questioned. One of the partakers was William John Bankes (d. 1855), an English politician, Egyptologist and explorer. He said about Ali Bey that his knowledge was generally poor and his Arabic very imperfect (very deficient), based on the accounts of those in the East who had conversed with him.

Moreover, Ali Bey concurrently acknowledged to the Sharif of Makkah that he knew the Italian and Spanish languages, and a bit of French. He also conceded that he was acquainted with the news of Christian lands, and when pressed, he related briefly to the ruler the actual state of Europe. No wonder that William John Bankes was confident that Ali Bey, in fact, was a Spaniard from Catalonia. He also suspected that he was secretly brought up as a Jew. Bankes based his inferences on Ali Bey’s original papers to which he had access in Constantinople (Istanbul). The author’s alleged Islam, accordingly, was a cover-up and his knowledge about it a decoy. A story relates that when he died at Aleppo in 1818, a cross was found beneath his vest, and so, he was refused Islamic burial.

Denying that Ali Bey in reality was a Muslim, Augustus Ralli believed that such a thing was an illusion, and that Ali Bey retained in his book that illusion. As a result, the opening paragraph of the book is an elaborate invocation to Almighty God. Further polarising the scientific world, Victor Hugo (d. 1885), a French poet and novelist, characterised Ali Bey as original and witty. “He had great courage and coolness in danger, and remarkable scientific and linguistic acquirements.” Whether or not he was a Muslim was out of question. Whereas Burckhardt (d. 1817), a Swiss explorer, geographer and orientalist, mentioned in 1816 that Ali Bey’s “knowledge of Arabic was imperfect, and that he did not impose upon the natives, but they were assured of his being a Mussulman.”

These are additional points that work in favour of Ali Bey being a Muslim.

He called Prophet Muhammad “our holy Prophet”, “the greatest of prophets”, “the great man” and “this great man, placed in the rank of prophets”. He regularly and with a great amount of zeal performed religious rituals, including those of hajj, which at times tended to be taxing. He never displayed any signs of being tired or weary, however the circumstances and his personal conditions might have been; his health, by way of example, was not always good and he sometimes needed the help of his servants just to stand up and move around.

He also did not find it objectionable, nor disgusting, to drink as much as possible of the “dirty” water which was used for washing the interior of the Ka’bah. He did so because it was a sign of devoutness and the water was blessed by God. He described the scene in a somewhat dramatic fashion: “All the water carriers in Mecca were advancing with their vessels full of water, which they passed from hand to hand, until they reached the guards at the door. They also passed a great number of very small brooms, made of the leaves of palm trees, in the same manner. The negroes began to throw the water upon the marble pavement of the Kaaba; they also cast rose water upon it, which, flowing out at a hole under the door, was caught with great avidity by the faithful. But as it did not run out fast enough to satisfy the wants of those at a distance, who were desirous to obtain it, they cried out for some of it to drink, and to wash themselves with,  the negroes, with cups, and with their hands, threw it in quantities over them. They were civil enough to pass a small pitcher and a cup full of it to me, of which I drank as much as possible, and poured the rest over myself, for although this water is very dirty, it is a benediction of God, and is besides much perfumed with rose water.”

Ali Bey most emphatically denounced the sources on Islam and Prophet Muhammad as were replete with prejudices and misrepresentations. Unfortunately, those sources were produced by many writers from diverse nations. That compelled Ali Bey to repudiate the dishonest ideas and to paint a proper picture instead, portraying thus himself as a defender of Islam, so to speak. If he was writing only to Muslims, he said, his task would have been easy and he would have compressed his discussions. However, since he was targeting with his tasks and labours mankind in general, and as he was addressing himself to the men of all nations and of all religions, he thought it proper and even necessary to publish “a description of Mahometan countries, to give at least an idea of their religion, and of the life of a Legislator who has drawn into his system one fifth of the population of the globe. This sketch will at least spare the reader the trouble of referring to other (frequently unreliable) authorities.”

Positively, a great many accounts of Ali Bey are not only technically precise and correct, but also linguistically as well as artistically delightful. Some are yet breath-taking. For instance, he explains the simplicity and perfection of the religion of Islam in the following manner, encapsulating thereby the very essence of the jurisprudential, philosophical and mystical outlooks: “The Mahometan religion is extremely simple; it has no mysteries, no sacraments, no intermediate persons between God and man, known by the name of priests or ministers; no altars, images, or ornaments. God is invisible, the heart of man is his altar, and every Mussulman is high priest.”

This is how Ali Bey brings to mind the impression of his entering the sanctuary of the holy mosque in Makkah (al-masjid al-haram), led by a guide, and of seeing the Ka’bah for the first time. He never forgot the experience, so he wanted to impress the same sentiment as much as possible on the consciousness of his audience: “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: ‘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 (holy mosque); 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 (the guide) 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.”

Was Ali Bey a spy?

Another possibility in connection with the personality and case of Ali Bey is that he was a spy, which however is neither less controversial, nor uncertain, than the prospect of him being a Muslim. 

The end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century was a turning point in the history of Islamic nations and Islamic civilisation at large. The period also marked a watershed in the Muslim-European (Orient-Occident) relations. Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaigns in the Ottoman-controlled territories of Egypt and Syria from 1798 to 1801 changed everything. The campaigns were conducted for some short-term and, if possible, also long-term political, military, economic and scientific purposes. 

Napoleon’s main nemesis were the British and their vast expansionist and imperialist programs. Everything else was contingent on that, one way or another, including the French relations with the Ottomans. The two were bound by the Franco-Ottoman alliance that had been formed in 1536. The alliance lasted for more than two and a half centuries until Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. No sooner had the aggression materialised, than one of the oldest alliances collapsed and caused France and the Ottomans to be at daggers drawn. Subsequently, a new alliance, involving Great Britain, Russia and Ottoman Empire, was formed in 1798. Its aim was to face up to the French threats.

According to Edward Said, the difference between representations of the Orient before the last third of the 18th century and those after it is that the range of representation expanded enormously in the later period. After Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, Europe came to know the Orient more scientifically and to live in it with greater authority and discipline than ever before. The same epoch was one which Edward Said calls “modern Orientalism”. “With Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt processes were set in motion between East and West that still dominate our contemporary cultural and political perspectives.”

In his book “The Penetration of Arabia”, David George Hogarth (d. 1927) understands the developments along the lines of the religious and civilisational systems of Mahomet (Prophet Muhammad) attaining the limit of their extension in Europe, and of Christianity beginning to prevail once more against Islam. The tide was turning in Europe’s favour. The continent was ever more on the offensive in virtually all departments of civilisational awareness and output, threatening the entire Muslim world and putting it on the defensive. 

Finding themselves on the back foot more gravely than ever before, Muslims, by and large spearheaded by the Ottomans, tried to respond accordingly. The responses varied, consistent with the multidimensionality of the threats. Some responses were military, others economic and political, and yet others were intellectual, educational and spiritual. 

However, one thing was undisputed: the Orient-Occident (Europe-Islamic world) encounters were taking on unprecedented dimensions. They were increasingly culture- and civilisation-oriented. Outwardly, battles still seemed conventional, but were gradually more rooted in and saturated with thought, ideas and values. The political and military clashes were morphing into those of paradigms and standards, sowing the seeds of what Basil Matthews in 1928 and Samuel Huntington in 1996 designated as “clash of civilisations”. The former did so in his book “Young Islam on Trek: A Study in the Clash of Civilisations” and the latter in his own book “The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order”.

Due to all that, Napoleon’s military crusade concomitantly was a scientific one. As many as 167 scientists and scholars accompanied Napoleon with the intention of working on the ideological and intellectual sides of the operation. The aim was to introduce and propagate the ideas and values of the European, particularly French, Enlightenment in the newly conquered territories, and – on the whole – to lay the foundation for the development of European culture.

It was due to all that, furthermore, that the 18th and 19th centuries marked the first attempts at modernising the Islamic world. Even though the attempts were impetuous and often reactionary, they nevertheless were real and spoke volumes about the predicaments Muslims and Islamic civilisation had to put up with. Only against such a backdrop should one study and try to understand, for example, the Tulip Period in the Ottoman history (1718-1730) when the Empire began to orient itself towards Europe; Nizam-I Cedid (New Order) (the late 18th and the early 19th centuries) as a series of Ottoman reforms aimed to get closer politically, militarily and technologically to Europe; and the Tanzimat (Reorganisation) (1839-1876) as a series of Ottoman modernisation reforms which were heavily influenced by European thought and values.

Two years after the capitulation of French administration in Egypt, which denoted a significant Anglo-Ottoman victory and the failure of the French campaigns, Ali Bey commenced his ambitious travels. It is hard to believe that the nature, scope, timing, as well as itinerary, of his undertaking, were coincidental.

Bankes, who claimed to have access to the primary and most original sources concerning the instance of Ali Bey, also claimed to have in his possession authentic proof of Ali Bey “having been employed by the French government as a spy, in the original draught in his own handwriting of a memorial to Bonaparte, reciting his services and claiming his reward.”

Hogarth, moreover, while writing about Ali Bey and his travels, said that his “professed object was scientific observation, and for that task he was singularly well qualified by knowledge of Arabic, of instruments, and of geology and botany. But much remains mysterious about him. He came from and returned to obscurity in his oriental guise.” However, one must wonder why before his travels Ali Bey was in constant contacts with and consulted eminent figures both in Paris and London, and why, when in Alexandria in Egypt, he met and spoke to Chateaubriand (d. 1848), a prominent French writer, politician and diplomat. Certainly, concerning the life and professionalism of Ali Bey, appearances could be deceiving. There was more to the man than meets the eye. 

Hogarth continues – in principle concurring with Bankes’ assessment that Ali Bey was a spy of Napoleon – to the effect that it was highly probable that “the emperor, who, even when foiled in his hope of oriental dominion, still retained hope and sometimes avowed himself a Moslem, did despatch this man (Ali Bey) through Morocco and Tripoli to Mecca in order to gather information about the attitude of the eastern world to the new Moslem (Wahhabi) movement; and to see if this could not be guided in any way to the furtherance of his own designs on Egypt, Syria, and the east. Badia (Ali Bey) seems to have been no mere pretender to Islam, but to have confessed that creed both before and after he was in Mecca, and while he was there, to have been proved so genuine a Mussulman, and so thoroughly worthy of his illustrious pretension in speech and conduct, that he was accorded not only unusual honour and privileges, but full liberty to use instruments and take notes. The Meccans at any rate, while recognising him as a master of European science, cannot have suspected him for a European renegade.”

Richard Francis Burton (d. 1890) – a British orientalist, explorer, geographer, writer, soldier and spy – also agreed. To him, Ali Bey has not been duly appreciated firstly because his disguise was against him, and secondly, he was a spy of the French Government. He ultimately claimed from Napoleon a reward for his services. In his book, he laboured to persuade the world that he was a real Oriental, but he perpetually betrayed himself.

In harmony with his clandestine mission, Ali Bey was able to travel like a prince with a troop of servants, scientific instruments and “such other apparatus of learning as recalled the liberal days of the Moors.” Everything about him was extravagant and pompous. His wealth seemed unlimited, ego oversized, inquisitiveness unmatched, and passion unrestrained. His name, status and reputation were illusory; nonetheless, he was always able to generate an aura of respect, exhilaration and trust. It was extremely rare that he did not impose himself on situations and their proceedings. 

This begs the question of how an hitherto anonymous person could suddenly emerge on the scene of history and gain fame and recognition, with the sources of his princely wealth and prominence, accompanied by incredible flairs and talents, all being unaccounted for. The likely answer is that everything was staged and fully sponsored, and was part of an intricate espionage affair at the centre of which stood the personality of Aly Bey. There were not many people who could traverse the world for about four years as immoderately and bigheartedly as Ali Bey did. He was trained for the purpose. His extensive studies, comprising the study of Arabic and Islamic subjects, both in Spain and Morocco, were part of the process. 

Definitely, as it could be deduced from the content of his book, Ali Bey was a master of his trade and his performances were flawless, with his diplomatic executions and such as were correlated to practicing Islam, standing out. He must have been a top gun. Following his first journeys, he embarked eleven years later in 1818 on a second follow-up round. Under the assumed name of Ali Uthman and accredited as a political agent by the French government, he set out firstly for Syria. However, he only reached Aleppo, where he died on 30th August 1818 as mysteriously as he had once surfaced and had lived his personal enigma. Many suspected he had been poisoned. It stands to reason that a number of issues – and secrets – should have perished with his abrupt death.

In his travelogue, Ali Bey mentions the emperor Napoleon only once. He does so in a way that hints in part at the sophistication of his secret pedigree. After the French had captured two fully laden ships that belonged to the Sharif of Makkah and which were India-bound – subsequently returning only one ship, albeit divested of its load – the Sharif was understandably upset. Upon his arrival in Jeddah, the city’s merchants spoke to Ali Bey about the incident, and no sooner had he arrived in Makkah, than the Sharif did the same. They all knew that Ali Bey had intercourse with Europe. The Sharif begged he would inform his friends of the circumstance. Ali Bey told him that the affair required that he should write about it himself to the French government. At length, after many discussions, the Sharif charged Ali Bey with a letter, beseeching him to send it by a safe conveyance to one of his correspondents in Europe, to forward it directly to the emperor Napoleon.

The job of Ali Bey was to penetrate the top brass of the leading territories of the Muslim world and to find out how people thought and behaved vis-à-vis the latest political developments locally and abroad. The prime targets were the Ottomans – and indirectly the function of the British. As far as the Hijaz region was concerned, Ali Bey was also interested in exploring the strengths and weaknesses, and the potential opportunities and threats, of the Wahhabi movement, and whether it could be used for advancing the French designs in the region. That the Wahhabis were at loggerheads with the Ottomans was a positive thing. Having a common enemy could serve as a unifying force for the otherwise incongruous French and Wahhabi interests. Because of that, Ali Bey was usually critical of the Ottomans and accommodating of the Wahhabis – as will be shown later – making overtures, as it were, to the latter.

It was Ali Bey’s psychology of espionage that prompted him to be ever on the alert. Merely one wrong step, or miscalculation, could spell serious danger and even death. The epoch was tumultuous and trust vanishing. There was no love lost between belligerent factions either in the East or the West, and between the East (Orient) and the West (Occident) themselves. Ali Bey revealed that he took the precaution to keep three doses of vitriolated zinc, “a much more active emetic than tartar emetic”, always in his pocket, to take the moment he should have perceived the least indication of treason.

Ali Bey said this in the context of a disclosure that, likewise, could come only from the mind of a spy, or from someone who was two-faced and hence, was playing with fire. He warned his audience that what was to follow was very disturbing: “Take courage, reader, lest I should make you tremble for me.” 

Ali Bey then proceeded expounding that as soon as he came to Makkah he got close to the chief of the well of the holy Zamzam water inside Makkah’s holy mosque. The chief gave him a magnificent dinner, and sent him every day two small pitchers of the Zamzam water. He even watched the moments when Ali Bey went to the holy mosque and ran with the most winning grace and sweetness to present him a handsome cup filled with the same water, which Ali Bey used to drink to the last drop, “because it would have been considered a sort of crime or impiety to have refused it.”

Ali Bey described the person as interesting, gracious and a friend. He was a young man, about twenty-two or twenty-four years of age, extremely handsome, with very fine eyes. He dressed remarkably well, and was very polished. He had an air of sweetness, which was seducing, and appeared to be endowed with all the qualities which render a person amiable.

However, there was a catch. Ali Bey also called the person dangerous and a wretch. The man, though the chief of the Zamzam well, possessed the entire confidence of the Sharif (ruler) of Makkah, and he filled the most important place at his court. His actual title was “the poisoner”. His job description featured poisoning by means of the Zamzam water anybody deemed suspicious or dangerous. 

Ali Bey next elaborated: “From time immemorial the Sultan Scherifs of Mecca have had a poisoner at their court; and it is remarkable that they do not try to conceal it, since it is well known, in Egypt and Constantinople, that the Divan has several times sent to Mecca, Pachas, or other persons, to be sacrificed in this manner.”

Ali Bey realised – and wanted to share – that he, indeed, had treaded a thin line. Somebody might have doubted him and might have kept an eye on him. His “friend”, the chief of Zamzam, could have been entrusted with the assignment. It dawned upon Ali Bey only sometime later how dangerous the situation had been and that his life had depended on this man who aptly could be described as the arbiter of the lives of everyone and who had already sacrificed many victims. In truth, Ali Bey befriended and entrusted his life to a “grim reaper”. 

Ali Bey later understood as well why his Moroccan friends (“the Mogrebins or Arabs of the West”), who were entirely devoted to him, hastened to warn him upon his arrival in Makkah to be careful. They waited for him at the entrance of the holy city with little pitchers of the Zamzam water. They presented the water to him to drink, imploring him not to take it of any other person. Moreover, they told him secretly never to drink the water which the chief of the Zamzam well should offer to him.

Ali Bey concluded the incident by stating that his servants wished this traitor at the devil, but he himself – having taken the necessary precautions – “treated him with the greatest marks of confidence. I accepted his water and his entertainments with an unalterable serenity and coolness.”

During his earlier altercation with the governor of Jeddah, also, Ali Bey was careful how he should take the offence. Bearing the insult of a slave was too much for him as a “royal aristocrat”, nonetheless, he wanted to avoid a disturbance at all costs. The governor and his attendants were armed, so, if Ali Bey had allowed himself to be mastered by his passion, “they would have abused their authority”, and much then would have been put in jeopardy. 

The meaning of the concept of “civilisation” 

It is generally accepted that the first known use of the word “civilisation” was in the 18th century. The first use in French was in 1757 by Victor de Riquety Marquis de Mirabeau, a French economist; and the first use in English was in 1767 by Adam Ferguson, a Scottish philosopher and historian of the Scottish Enlightenment, in his influential book “the History of Civil Society”. 

Adam Ferguson, for example, wrote: “Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilisation.” And: “We are ourselves the supposed standards of politeness and civilisation; and where our own features do not appear, we apprehend, that there is nothing which deserves to be known.”

However, the term “civilisation” did not mean then what it means now. Just like most concepts and phenomena, the term was subjected to an evolution. As a matter of comparison, Edward Gibbon (d. 1794) did not employ the “civilisation” concept per se in his magnum opus “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, but rather employed such concepts as “civil power”, “civil jurisdiction”, “civil authority”, “civil law”, “civil rights”, “civil metropolis”, “civil government” and “civil society”.

In the 18th and the early 19th centuries, “civilisation” was an elitist concept and carried more than a few imperialistic undertones. It was associated with imperialism, colonisation and domination. “To civilise” was almost synonymous with “to colonise” and “to control”. Civilisation was the antonym of barbarism and savagery, where there existed neither the rule of law nor the refinement of culture by which a nation could be brought under control.

Therefore, the civilising mission of the European colonisers was two-fold. It was aimed to bring the colonised peoples to the rule and sway of the new law(s), institutional (governmental) policies and systems, and to thus gradually divest them of any abilities, qualities and unpredictability that could potentially cause danger to the colonising masters. The mission was all about institutionalised power, control, hegemony and suppression. 

Secondly, the civilising mission, at first site, also entailed an affirmative aspect. It targeted the extermination of benighted and inept indigenous cultures, values and lifestyles, replacing them with better Western values and culture in areas such as industry, science, technology, politics, government, economics, lifestyle, values, norms, law, customs, traditions, philosophy, language, alphabet, clothing, diet and religion. 

As outwardly appealing as it was, the second dimension of the civilising mission was as devastating and painful as the first one. It was designed but to achieve absolute conquest and domination through the prospects of alienation, westernisation, assimilation and integration. It spelled a cultural death and a future civilisational existence on a Western life support. This was to be realised by means of governmental apparatus and the hierarchy of its institutions.

No wonder that Adam Ferguson stressed that it was impossible for a people to be (more) civilised “till they have established some regular government, and have courts of justice to hear their complaints.”

Ali Bey on the Wahhabis

Ali Bey was a product – and agent – of this European mentality, as well as tactic. To that mentality, the Muslim world signified “the most tempting prize which the East holds out to the ambition of Europe” (to quote Burton who in this manner depicted the riches and massive potential of Egypt). The times were turbulent and dynamic. They were murky, enticing in particular such as were morally questionable and had entertained murky ends. Novel changes and conditions, occasioning exciting opportunities, were taking place on a regular basis. 

Recent developments in the spiritual midpoint of the Muslim world were encouraging. They were thought of being able to offer a new dimension. The objective was to utilise the newly-emerged protagonists, in the shape of the uncultivated and austere, albeit highly motivated and auspicious, Wahhabis, for the sake of discrediting and destabilising the ideological, together with functional, legitimacy of the Ottomans. The Ottomans at the time were displaying signs of some serious weaknesses, above all on military front, hence it was appropriate to try to undermine their potency from within.

The emergence of the Wahhabis was planned for the purpose. Undoubtedly, such could prove crucial, as the Ottomans – who ruled the Hijaz region, including the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, through a series of local governors and Sharifs representing the imperial authority in Constantinople – could never imagine relinquishing the benefit of ruling the holy cities, and surrendering the advantage of their names being favourably mentioned and extolled on the pulpits of the two holy mosques: al-masjid al-haram in Makkah and the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah. They were immensely proud of serving the two holy cities and their holy mosques, and through them the interests of the whole Muslim community. The Ottoman sultans happily garlanded their respective reigns and personal profiles with the credence entailed in the honorific title of khadim al-haramayn (the protector and servant of the two holly sanctuaries of Makkah and Madinah) whose creation dated back to the reign – and standing – of sultan Saladin or Salahuddin al-Ayyubi (d. 1193). Thus, when Makkah and Madinah were taken by the Wahhabis in 1803 and 1804 respectively, the events were perceived by the Sublime, or Ottoman, Porte as a catastrophe. They sent shockwaves through the empire.

During Ali Bey’s tenure in Makkah, the political situation was precarious. The Wahhabis, though the conquerors, were yet to be in absolute control of the city. The position of the Sharif of Makkah was nominal and his authority was diminishing by the day. Ali Bey puts the state of affairs thus: “The Sultan Saaoud, whose authority was founded by force, made himself obeyed; but he had not made himself master of the government. He exacted no contributions, and appeared even to respect the power of the Scherif…It results, from these conflicts for power, that the poor inhabitants know not who is their true master. The authority being divided among so many chiefs, prevents the administration of justice, compromises the property and liberty of the subject, and consequently accelerates very greatly the ruin of public happiness.”

The Wahhabis managed to establish full control of Makkah in 1807, the year – and the exact time – when Ali Bey was in the city. The episode took place shortly after the completion of the hajj ceremony. Ali Bey, an eyewitness, explains: “Such was the situation of this country, when, on the 26th of February 1807, it was published by order of the Sultan Saaoud, in all public places, that all the pilgrims and soldiers, Turkish as well as Mogrebin, belonging to the Scherif, should quit Mecca on the afternoon of the following day, preparatory to their being sent out of Arabia. This order extended to the Turkish Pacha, and the old and new Kadis of Mecca, Medina, and the other places; so that there was not a single Turk remaining in the country. The Scherif was disarmed, his authority annihilated, and the judicial power passed into the hands of the Wehhabites.”

However, Ali Bey mistook the event for the original conquest of Makkah. He did not see the earlier three years – or so – as the consolidation of the Wahhabi power in Makkah, which nevertheless were preceded by the initial conquest. He saw the events of 1807 as a landmark, rather than a part of an ongoing process. 

In any case, Burckhardt took Ali Bey to task for the misreading and for the shallow understanding of such momentous occurrences, saying: “I shall here observe that Aly Bey el Abassy has made a strange mistake with respect to the host of Wahabys, whom he saw entering Mekka at the time of the pilgrimage; for he fancied that they came to take possession of the town, and flattered himself that he was present at the first conquest of Mekka by the Wahabys, while every child in the place could have informed him that this event happened three years before his arrival in the Hedjaz.”

Augustus Ralli similarly elucidates that the Wahhabis from 1803 to 1807 were real, though not official, masters of the city of Makkah. They forbade all ceremonial mention of the name of the Ottoman sultan, but in appearance they respected the Sharif. The Sharif, while obeying them, maintained the semblance of his former power. Such was the situation that the residents of Makkah did not know who their real masters were. There was great confusion and maladministration of justice.

Thus, the battle lines between the Wahhabis and the Ottomans were drawn. A looming power struggle, and bloody conflicts, between the two camps were unavoidable, and much of the Muslim world braced itself for the consequences. European hawks were also on the watch. 

There was nothing but mutual dislike between the Ottomans and the Wahhabis. The relations were soon to turn into a war of attrition. The position of the Ottomans was quite known, as they were the official voice and face of Islamdom, but the position of the Wahhabis was no less excessive. Indeed, the affairs amounted to a tit-for-tat escalation. In the opinion of Ali Bey, the menaces and bad conduct of the Wahhabis towards the Ottoman Turks were only the consequences of their resentment and hatred to that nation, the name of which alone sufficed to rouse them to a fury.

Representing essentially the French side, Ali Bey did not, in the least, hesitate to express his opinions and to articulate his expectations. Doing so he perceived opportune and profitable. After all, he was in Makkah principally for his field work. 

As one would expect, Ali Bey favoured the case of the Wahhabis at the expense of their Ottoman adversaries – and the adversaries of the French. Hence, he hastened to recognise their positive qualities and latent potentials, and tried his best to put into perspective such as seemed to him – and to the outlook he was representing – less favourable. He did all that while at the same time performing the exact opposite in relation to the Ottomans. 

Ali Bey, clearly, was making overtures to the Wahhabis and was paving the way for possible future alliances. He was explicit, by way of example, that the English were looked upon as the best friends of the Sharifs – as a reflection of the Ottoman policies – on account of the direct interest they enjoyed by their traffic with the Indies through their means.

Accordingly, to Ali Bey the term “Wahhabis” was not a pejorative term. Rather, it was a creditable one, for it was about a praiseworthy Islamic reform. He repeatedly calls Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), the founder of the Wahhabi movement, “reformer”. Once he even called him “learned Scheik reformer”. The entire Wahhabi enterprise was seen as “reform” or “reformation”, and the followers – Wahhabis – were members of, and active participants in, the reform.

The shortcomings connected with the founder and his reform Ali Bey significantly downplays and reduces them to intrinsic human vulnerabilities and weaknesses. They occurred because Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab was just a man: imperfect, fallible and volatile. He was not a prophet.

Ali Bey summarised his view of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab as follows: “Abdoulwehhab never offered himself as a prophet, as has been supposed. He has only acted a learned Scheik reformer, who was desirous of purifying the worship of all the additions which the imams, the interpreters, and the doctors, had made to it, and of reducing it to the primitive simplicity of the Koran; but man is always man, that is to say, imperfect and inconstant. Abdoulwehhab proved this, by falling, in his turn, into minutiae, which were not analogous either with the dogma or moral.”

Ali Bey also wrote: “Abdoulwehhab did not invest himself with any honour or public character: he was only the chief of the sect, and did not require any personal distinction.”

In short, Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab was an advocate of a true Islamic revivalism. He declared a war only against religious superstitions, deviations and innovations, which contradicted the pristine idea of Islamic monotheism (tawhid). Like so, he was a redeemer, as it were, and one of a very few bright lights in the fast-deteriorating world of Islam.  

In addition, Ali Bey portrayed the Wahhabis in general as formidable, awesome, obedient, pious, zealous, unrefined and even handsome. They were reasonable and restrained. He called the Wahhabi youth of Makkah “brilliant”. He yet went so far as to employ such expressions as “the moderation of the Wehhabites” and “I discovered much reason and moderation among the Wehhabites”. Once while directly witnessing a positive impact of the Wahhabi reform on the behaviour of people, Ali Bey “gave thanks to Abdoulwehhab for effecting this reform.” He was convinced that the Wahhabi religious superiority was merit-based and by excellence.

When a huge multitude of the Wahhabi pilgrims (five or six thousand men) entered Makkah, Ali Bey said that it was a sight to behold. He was in the principal street of the city when he noticed a crowd of men coming; “but what men!” He determined to keep his post, not being in the least alarmed. He then mounted upon a heap of rubbish to observe them better.

Having closely observed them and their demeanour from a distance, partly due to curiosity and partly because the occasion offered an excitement and treat, Ali Bey reckoned: “These Wehhabites, who are from Draaiya (the area near the city of Riyadh), the principal place of the reformers, are of a copper colour. They are in general well made, and very well proportioned, but of a short stature. I particularly remarked some of their heads, which were so handsome, that they might have been compared with those of Apollo, Antinous, or the Gladiator. They have very lively eyes, the nose and mouth well formed, fine teeth, and very expressive countenances.”

In contradistinction to the Wahhabis, the people of Makkah, and above all those that worked inside the holy mosque (al-masjid al-haram), were distinguished as “absolutely walking skeletons”, clothed with a parchment that covered their bones. Ali Bey was struck with astonishment when he saw them for the first time upon his arrival. He wondered how they were able to stand and work so long as they did, “when we reflect upon their large sunk eyes, slender noses; cheeks hollow to the bones; legs and arms absolutely shrivelled up; ribs, veins, and nerves, in no better state; and the whole of their frame so wasted, that they might be mistaken for true anatomical models.”

Ali Bey was eager to come as close as possible to, and take a long good look at, the leader of the Wahhabis – and the third leader of the First Saudi State – Saud b. Abdulaziz b. Muhammad (d. 1814), who was the head of the Wahhabi hajj mission in 1807. Ali Bey penetrated among the Wahhabis to their centre and was close, but several of them with whom he conversed assured him that such a thing was impossible, since the apprehension of a similar death to that which occurred to the unfortunate Abdulaziz b. Muhammad (d. 1803) – the second leader of the First Saudi State who had been assassinated – had occasioned the current leader, Saud b. Abdulaziz b. Muhammad, to multiply the number of his guard.

In the same context and with a degree of contentment, Ali Bey remarked that at least he was able to distinguish perfectly one of Saud’s sons, a boy about seven or eight years old with long and floating hair. He was brown like the rest, and was dressed in a large white shirt. He was mounted on a superb white horse.

Set against this positivity and optimism, Ali Bey felt compelled to disclose the truth to the effect that the Wahhabis were a misunderstood group both in the Muslim world and beyond.  He said that notwithstanding this obvious moderation and reasonableness of the Wahhabis, neither the natives of the country nor the pilgrims could hear their name pronounced without trembling, and never pronounced it themselves but in murmurs. Hence, people run away from them as much as possible, and shun conversation with them. Consequently, Ali Bey himself had to encounter and overcome the different misgivings of his companions who surrounded him whenever he wished to converse with any of the Wahhabis.

At any rate, the Wahhabis were becoming a force to be reckoned with, both locally and internationally, and their successes were real. More and more territories were falling under their control. They had an ambition and were determined to carry it through, come what may. An illustration of this prestige was the Anaze tribe, one of the most considerable tribes that inhabited the deserts in the neighbourhood of Damascus, extending itself westward to the neighbourhoods of Baghdad. Ali Bey happily commented that he was assured that all those Arabs – belonging to the Anaze tribe – “had adopted the reform of Abdoulwehhab”.

Also, about the city of Damascus, Ali Bey wrote that there was a numerous party which wished for the arrival of the Wahhabis, although people were aware that those puritans considered the use of silk, tobacco, etc., to be sinful, and that by their religious principles they would raise insurmountable obstacles to manufactures and commerce.

This is how Hogarth contextualised the impact the Wahhabis were making in the corridors of power not only in the Muslim world, but also in Christian Europe: “When the smoke of Kerbela went up (the Wahhabi attack in 1802), Constantinople and Teheran were troubled. But when Mecca was taken and held, not only did the Caliph bestir himself for the safety of his religious supremacy and the integrity of his precarious empire, but Christian Europe began to speculate on a new convulsion of the east, which might gravely affect itself.”

In passing – as a small digression – it seems as if extremely little, or nothing at all, of what Ali Bey was hoping for and was looking forward to, came to fruition. In 1818, the First Saudi-Wahhabi State was destroyed by the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali (d. 1849). That came to pass in the same year when Ali Bey also died, eleven years after the completion of his travels, and four years subsequent to the publication of his book. While during the Second Saudi State (1824-1891), and as early as in 1848, the productive relations between the Saudi State and Great Britain started to form and, in actual fact, never broke off. France opened its first consulate in Jeddah in 1839, when the city was under the Ottoman rule. Diplomatic relations between France and Saudi Arabia began in 1926.

The Wahhabis and civilisation 

However, there was a flip side of the coin. The Wahhabis, as a matter of fact, were neither liked, nor respected, nor deemed suitable. They were as inappropriate and menacing as the Ottomans. But they were seen as a potential tool, yet a pawn, in the game of power politics. The Ottoman hegemony needed to be counterbalanced, and their incipient decline expedited.

The Wahhabis were still dangerous, uncultured and unpredictable, as Ali Bey learned the hard way when he was briefly arrested by them and prevented from entering Madinah. As such, the Wahhabis could not be trusted, nor relied upon. They were yet to be ready to become an international ally and a partner. Their destructive tendencies needed to be converted into creativity and productiveness, their roughness into refinement and culture, and their unpredictability and freedom into the certainty and uniformity of a system.

In other words, the Wahhabis were obliged to come to be civilised, if they were to perform the envisaged tasks. They had to change and get advanced, as well as refined. However, civilisation at the time denoted subjugation, control, progress and compliance with the European standards of life. It furthermore denoted, and called for, extra moderation, extra open-mindedness, inclusiveness and liberty in line with the same European standards and values. The Wahhabis represented a raw material (a rough diamond) that had to be cautiously attended to and treated.

Thus, Ali Bey asserted about the Wahhabis that, even though uncivilised, they were men the most disposed to civilisation, if they were to receive proper instruction. He also said that the Wahhabis were generally misunderstood and treated unfairly. With them, neither superficiality nor bias paid off. What was needed was to go beyond the conventional and to penetrate deeper into the heart of the matter. Their lack of civilisation was one of those mishandled subjects.

As a result, if one represented to himself merely a Wahhabi crowd of naked armed and passionate men, without any idea of civilisation, and speaking a barbarous language, the picture would have terrified the imagination and would have appeared disgusting. But if one overcame this first impression, one would have found in them some commendable qualities. They never robbed either by force or stratagem, except when they knew the object belonged to an enemy or an infidel. They paid with their money all their purchases, and every service that was rendered them. Being blindly subservient to their chiefs, they supported in silence every fatigue, and would have allowed themselves to be led to the opposite side of the globe.

For Ali Bey, the civilisation option was the only way for the Wahhabis to move away from the states of barbarity and poverty. Once that was accomplished, civilisation again was the only guarantee of sustainability. The continuity and success of religious enthusiasm all the more depended on the extent of their espousal of civilisation. Ali Bey stated: “It is evident, then, that a people whose wants are so confined cannot supply a very great stimulus to commerce, so long as civilisation is not introduced among them, a thing very difficult to accomplish in a land of deserts, that in its nature seems condemned to superstition, ignorance, and misery. If it has ever been able to shake off this state of brutishness for a short time, it has owed the momentary impulse to the effervescence of religious zeal; but this degree of excitement could not last long, and when it cooled, the country was rapidly re-plunged into its former state of barbarity and poverty, which appears to be its inseparable lot.”

Ali Bey further believed that the Wahhabi movement had a future only if it adopted more liberal beliefs and practices, i.e., if it became more civilised. Only then could its country be privileged to rub shoulders with the rest of the civilised world, and to perhaps make some of them sympathise with and even adopt their principles. Without a doubt, it follows, civilisation was equal to prosperity, power and dominion. With civilisation on-board, not only lands, but also minds and hearts, could be conquered.

Ali Bey opined that the history of the Wahhabis could one day be of the greatest interest, on account of the influence it was possible for them to have in the balance of the states that surrounded them, if they relaxed from the austerity of their principles and adopted a more liberal system. But if they persisted in maintaining the rigour prescribed by their reformer, it was almost impossible for them to make the nations who enjoyed some principles of civilisation adopt their doctrine, and to extend their dominion beyond the limits of the desert that surrounded them. Their history would in that case be insignificant to the rest of the world.

In the same vein – and somewhat in a repeating fashion – Ali Bey stressed that he found in the extreme rigidity of the Wahhabi principles a great obstacle to the propagation of their reform out of the deserts of Arabia. Such rigidity was almost incompatible with the manners of nations that had some ideas of civilisation, and which were accustomed to the comforts that consequently followed. Therefore, if they did not relax from that severity, it would seem impossible that the Wahhabis should make proselytes in the countries surrounding the desert. Then that great population, which produced and consumed almost nothing, would remain always in its current state of nullity, in the middle of its deserts, without any further relations with other people than the plundering caravans or ships that fall into their hands, and the difficulties they may oppose to the pilgrimage to Makkah.

Finally, Ali Bey said that if the Arabs in general – including the Wahhabis – were to attain the degree of European civilisation, they would possess the character of the French. On the contrary, due to the different character of the Ottoman Turks, if they were to become civilised like Europeans, they would be like the English.

Ali Bey on the Ottoman Turks and their barbarism 

Diametrically opposite to the Wahhabis stood the Ottomans. As a nemesis both of France and the Wahhabis, Ali Bey portrayed them in the worst possible way. He was fixed upon painting them as the most responsible party for all the predicaments Muslims and Islamic culture were facing. Their name and legacy had to be tarnished, prompting people to start questioning their legitimacy and suitability to carry on as the standard-bearers of the Islamic cultural consciousness. A degree of scepticism and qualm had thereby to be created in the Muslim mind, which was to be followed by a sense of insecurity and disorientation, leading in turn to the construction of not just political and religious, but also completely existential, a vacuum. Not many would have been able to fill the vacuum. The Wahhabis were a leading contender – in the eyes of Ali Bey, and France, at least – because, as seen earlier, they showed a potential and were the people most susceptible to “civilisation”, on condition that they were pacified and were targeted with proper instruction (education). 

In the first place, while the Wahhabis were Muslims by excellence, understanding by the words “true Islam” and “true Muslims” only themselves and what they preached, which they looked upon as the only orthodoxy, the Ottomans, on the other hand, were hereditary Muslims. Ali Bey yet insinuated that they were prone to ethnocentrism and traditionalism as the main obstacles to genuine Islamisation and change. This character, in addition to the behavioural displays, of the Ottomans contributed significantly to the misunderstanding of the Wahhabis in Christian Europe.

Ali Bey wrote: “The Christians have in general a confused or false idea of the Wehhabites, and imagine that these sectaries are not Mussulmen – a denomination which they apply exclusively to the Turks – and confound frequently the names of Mussulman and Osmanli. As I write for every kind of reader, I ought to observe that Osmanli, which signifies the successor of Osman, is the epithet adopted by the Turks in memory of the Sultan of that name, who was the principal cause of their grandeur, and that this name has nothing in common with that of Mussulman, which means the ‘man of Islam’, that is, the ‘devout man of God’; so that the Turks might become Christians without ceasing to be Osmanlis. The Wehhabites call themselves Mussulmen by excellence.”

Moreover, to Ali Bey the Ottoman Empire was composed of a strange mixture of heterogeneous and irreconcilable parts. The Ottomans have always been – and will always be – strangers to the customs of Europe, implying that their conquests in Europe were neither heaven-sent nor welcome, and that their end might be nigh.

Ali Bey then declared that the Ottomans had nothing to do with civilisation and were still barbarians. He even asked pardon of those who, deceived, begged to differ. Exuding the mind of the European Enlightenment and the spirit of the French Revolution, Ali Bey listed the causes and symptoms of the Turkish prevalent barbarism. They centred on the Ottoman Empire being a nation that enjoyed not the slightest idea of public right, or of the rights of man; a nation in which there was hardly one individual in a thousand who knew how to read and write; a nation with whom there was no guarantee for private property, and where the blood of man was ever liable to be shed for the least cause, and upon the slightest pretext, without any form of trial. In short, the Ottoman Empire was a nation resolved to shut its eyes to the lights of reason, and to repel far from it the torch of civilisation which was presented to it in all its brilliancy.

Having outlined the causes and indicators of the Turkish backwardness and regression, Ali Bey reiterated that such a nation will always be to him a nation of barbarians. He was not impressed by the bogus and disingenuous appearances of those people. Neither did their national and religious customs and ceremonies strike him. For instance, their wearing of garments of silk or rich pelisses, their lavish ceremonies, their eating, drinking and smoking a hundred different mixtures daily, their washing and purifying of the self every hour – all of these meant nothing to Ali Bey. They were but fake spectacles behind which the people hid their actual state of non-civilisation and non-finesse. Ali Bey reasoned: “Still, I shall repeat, they are barbarians.”

Ali Bey explained the Ottomans’ deviation from the inherited richness of the Abbasids, which stood for considerable civilisational building blocks, to the realm of barbarism in the following style. Initially, the Abbasid caliphs were the promoters and protectors of the arts and sciences – which the irruption of the Germanic Vandals had caused to fly from Europe East-ward. When the Ottoman Turks fell heirs to the caliphate and leadership of Muslims, with religion they inherited elements of civilisation as well, of which at first they availed themselves in a slight degree. However, their progress was at the same time repressed by certain dogmas, which, in proscribing the fine arts, establishing the doctrine of fatality, proclaiming hatred and aversion to all individuals who were strangers to Islamism, deprived them of the first germ of good taste, made them look upon the resources and combinations of human wisdom as useless, and misled them from the advantages of an intimate communication with the Europeans, who alone were able to instruct them. “These causes united to the extreme difference between the two languages of the East and the West, the effeminacy that they (the Turks) adopted as soon as they were in possession of capitals sufficient to satisfy their sensuality; and lastly, the want of education in their princes, who always passed from the solitude of the Haram to the Ottoman throne, have paralysed their progress towards civilisation.”

Such was the case with the overwhelming majority of the Turks. Exceptions were few and far between. There were several persons at the royal court who, having learnt the languages of Europe, have secretly adopted its civilisation, at least in part. Their number, nonetheless, was infinitely small compared with the mass of the nation. Their impact, too, was correspondingly small and discouraging.

The barbarity of the Turks was coupled with arrogance and xenophobia. It likewise was sustained thereby. The Arabs were rulers of almost the half the world when the Turks as a potent force emerged on the scene and when they subjugated the former. Having done so, the Turks became masters of the Prophet’s standard and so, thought themselves invincible. Their victories in Europe confirmed them in this idea, which has been transmitted from generation to generation, notwithstanding the defeats they have experienced in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. This superiority, which they attributed to themselves over other nations, made them look with the greatest contempt upon every man who was not a Turk.

Ali Bey thenceforth warned especially foreign ambassadors: “Let not foreign ambassadors flatter themselves upon the outward marks of respect which they receive in Turkey. I know the people of my own religion better than anyone. And I may openly declare, that the Turk adds to the barbarity and pride of a Mussulman, the barbarity and pride which are peculiar to the nation.”

Ali Bey also acknowledged that the Ottoman society was a militaristic one. The preferred occupation of most Turks was one of a soldier. A Turk is a soldier by religion, and also by predilection because “to him it is the most useful employment, and that which clears the way to independence and despotism.”

The janissaries were the principal nerves of the Ottoman power. They were the Empire’s elite forces. At first, they were brilliant and fearsome. They managed to evolve a sense of mythology around themselves, building and enjoying a camaraderie and esprit de corps. But later, the same forces commenced to become disorderly and big-headed. Their training, devotion, loyalty and overall state of readiness declined. Consequently, their performances suffered and their allegiance as well as reliability started to be questioned. It was feared that they were slowly spiralling out of control.

Taking aim at the latter state of the janissaries, Ali Bey said: “This celebrated corps, then, is not comparable to the national guards of the states of Europe, nor to any corps whatever that has the slightest shadow of organisation or discipline. I can only compare it to the movement or to the levy en masse of a whole people.”

The Ottoman government eventually realised the nature and extent of the peril. As a result, it decided to carry out a series of reforms. The reforms were named Nizam-I Cedid (New Order). They aimed to propel the Empire to new heights where it will be able to catch up militarily and politically with European powers. In charge of the reforms was sultan Selim III (d. 1808), who was considered an enlightened ruler. His Nizam-I-Cedid was additionally seen as a program of Westernisation which, along with the whole reign of his, felt “the intellectual and political ferment created by the French Revolution.”

At the heart of the reforms resided military reforms. The government was desirous to remedy the existing military millstones by creating a new military body organised and trained after the European discipline. However, “as this innovation endangered the interests of the janissaries, who would have been reduced to dependence instead of being the true despots of the empire, they revolted.” Consequently, the janissaries dethroned and even took part in the assassination of sultan Selim III, so as to maintain their power. 

Unsurprisingly due to his westernisation proclivities, Ali Bey described Sultan Selim III as the most useful men in the state. The acts of deposing him and thwarting the modernisation (westernisation) reforms Ali Bey painted as “a deplorable triumph of military anarchy, which has thrown the civilisation of the Turks two centuries back.”

Ali Bey ultimately passed a damning judgment. He believed that the Turks were bound to remain barbarians. Not only will civilisation never be their forte, but also never will they be able to civilise themselves – neither in the Islamic nor in the European signification of the word. They were destined to remain civilisation’s antithesis, at once in the abstract realm of ideas and in the physical world of tangible outputs. Ali Bey rationalised: “The Sultan Moustapha (Mustafa IV whom the janissaries enthroned after Selim III) who succeeded Selim, is endowed with good qualities; but what can the best of Sultans do, surrounded with so turbulent a military as the janissaries? What minister will be courageous enough to speak out while his mind still dwells on the catastrophe which he has so recently witnessed? No, I think I may venture to conclude, that it is impossible for the Turks to civilise themselves.”

The Turks to Ali Bey were absolutely ignorant. The knowledge of languages of Europe evaded them, and their reciprocal correspondence with foreign nations was at a bare minimum. That made them uninformed of all that was transpiring in the great cultural and civilisational theatre of Europe. Their ignorance, conjoined with arrogance, induced them to look with indifference upon the political vicissitudes in the most important quarter of the globe, namely Europe. In short, the want of books, and masters to instruct them in the physical sciences and the innumerable discoveries of the last ages, kept from the Turks “those interesting acquirements which could not fail to give elevation to their minds.”

Finally, stating that there was no Muslim city where the arts and crafts were so little known as in Makkah; that the sciences and learning in the city were found in the same state of deficiency as the arts and crafts; that there were no regular schools, except those where children used to learn basic reading and writing skills; that there were only a few incompetent doctors; and that the people of Makkah were the most ignorant of mortals – Ali Bey wished to lay the blame for the misfortunes substantially at the Ottoman rulers’ door, and to bring the scale of the impending “modernisation” and “civilisation” tasks home to the Wahhabis. 

The message was in the sense that barbarism begets nothing but misery and hardship, that is, more barbarism; and that civilisation begets nothing but progress, contentment and ease, that is, more confidence and genuine hopes. Civilisation could only lead to the climax of self-actualisation, both individual and collective.

Ali Bey as a scientist

The clandestine visits of Christians to the holiest places of Islam went through two phases. The first phase featured slaves and adventurers, while the second phase involved scientists and spies. The compulsion and exploratory impulse associated with the first phase was replaced by a scientific disposition and a desire to study and document the places better. The fractional, subjective and prejudiced attitude, as well as methods, were substituted with the scientific, objective and comprehensive ones.

Ali Bey was the first representative of the second phase. He was also one of its most remarkable and accomplished protagonists. His being a spy notwithstanding, Ali Bey was an accomplished scientist. He received a liberal education and subsequently perfected his knowledge, and studied medicine, astronomy and mineralogy. He himself recapped his scientific background saying that before traveling to the Muslim world he had passed many years in Europe with the aim of studying there the sciences of nature and the arts most useful to man in society. 

Thus, Ali Bey’s travel to Makkah was likewise a scientific one. His belongings, therefore, were both exceedingly numerous and fascinating, needing at every disembarkation point a sufficient number of camels to convey them. A troop of servants was needed too. Ha also carried several indispensable scientific instruments, one of which however was later broken and the other stolen. The one that was broken was a hygrometer (an instrument used in meteorological science to measure the humidity or amount of water vapour in the air), which was broken by the captain of a ship before Ali Bey’s departure for Makkah.

Ali Bey lost the hair from the said instrument. He wanted to mend it, which was not so difficult, but – as bizarre as it may seemed – was prevented by the impossibility to find a hair, despite staying and intermingling with a numerous population. He was unable to obtain a single hair because the men had their heads completely shaved and the hair of their beards was not good. And the women, owing to a superstitious motive, would not give one of their hairs for all the world. They were persuaded that the hair might be used as witchcraft against them.

The instrument that was stolen was a chronometer (an extremely accurate clock used in scientific experiments, navigation and astronomical observations). It was stolen at Mina. Initially, Ali Bey’s writing-desk, books, papers, and some clothes, had been stolen. His writing-desk contained his chronometer, some jewels and other trifles, his great seal, and several astronomical observations and drawings. Later, he was able to recover the writing-desk, books and papers. However, the chronometer, jewels, and the tables of logarithms, which were bound and which the thieves mistook for a Qur’an in the dark, were missing. “These two accidents prevented Ali Bey from multiplying his observations of longitude on his return from Makkah.”

In view of that, Ali Bey was the first European to give the world systematised knowledge of Makkah, in contrast to the unmethodical and partial jottings of the earlier non-Muslim European travellers. He determined the city’s position by astronomical observations, and drew up a plan, with measurements, of the holy mosque (al-masjid al-haram), describing the exterior and interior of the Ka’bah in minute detail as well. He furthermore explained the demography, climate and topography, with the fauna and flora being in addition the subject of his investigation. However, he saw only one flower during the whole of his stay in Makkah, which was upon the way to Arafat. He ordered one of his servants to cut it and bring it to him; but the servant was prevented by the pilgrims who ran immediately to him, saying, it was a sin to pluck up or cut any plant during the pilgrimage.

Ali Bey’s book is replete with exquisite illustrations and sketches. He may be the first ever to produce systematic drawings and plans of Makkah, its holy mosque and its holy places. Indeed, the modern and rapidly-growing science of geography – which is the study of the diverse environments, places and spaces of Earth’s surface, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these – was significantly enriched by the scientific yield of Ali Bey. Illustrations and sketches were given because they could explain to the reader the general dispositions of buildings, objects and sites better than all the written descriptions, in conformity with the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Most of Ali Bey’s observations, descriptions and measurements concerning Makkah were authoritatively accurate and complete. He was regarded as a benchmark and a point of reference. Hence, both Burton and Burckhardt – arguably the two greatest authorities in the field – in their own books on travels quoted Ali Bey’s findings and drew on his accurate scientific results. Burton, in particular, did so extensively. 

In essence, Ali Bey was an influencer and standard-setter, preceding everybody else and forestalling or pre-empting, as it were, their involvements and effects. The contributions of most of those who came after Ali Bey were reduced to the roles of further explaining, supplementing and slightly modifying what the latter had done and had presented to the world. Burckhardt, for example, wrote: “The ground-plan of the Temple (the holy mosque or al-masjid al-haram) given by Aly Bey el Abbassi is perfectly correct. This cannot be said of his plan of Mekka, nor of his different views in the Hedjaz: a comparison of my description with his work will show in what points I differ from him, as well in regard to the temple, as to the town and its inhabitants.”

Similarly, Burton affirmed: “I offer no lengthened description of the town of Meccah: Ali Bey and Burckhardt have already said all that requires saying.” Also: “I have illustrated this chapter, which otherwise might be unintelligible to many, by a plan of the Ka’abah (taken from Ali Bey al-Abbasi), which Burckhardt pronounced to be ‘perfectly correct’.”

It appears as though this status of Ali Bey did not always go down well with Burckhardt, who might have perceived him as a serious rival and might yet have harboured a degree of jealousy towards him. Burckhardt was in Makkah on a scientific mission in 1814-15, seven or eight year after Ali Bey. He was aware of Ali Bey’s feats and his book, which he acknowledged by saying that Ali Bey’s work (the book) had just been received in Cairo and “his travels came to my hands after I had returned from Arabia (to Cairo)”.

There were several signs of this emotional state of Burckhardt. They were clearly manifested when he suggested that Ali Bey’s mistaken belief that the Wahhabis had occupied Makkah in 1807, rather than in 1803, was immature; that Ali Bey’s knowledge of Arabic was imperfect and so, he could not impose upon the natives; that his royalty-like mode of travelling was injudicious; and that his power of making interesting observations was limited by the pomp in which he had moved.

Makkah’s domestic architecture 

Of the things in which Ali Bey excelled was the description of Makkah’s houses. His accounts show that the recognisable identity of Makkah’s domestic architecture was ancient and that almost nothing changed until the arrival of modern times. The city’s architecture was beautiful, elegant, functional, serviceable and cosmopolitan. So gracious and charming was it that, in its totality, it stood for the site’s cumulative ornament. Compensating for the environmental desolation and bareness of the place, the architecture likewise exemplified a garland, so to speak, and was a man-generated built environment oasis where man was bent on positively affecting the environment and where at the same time he allowed the environment to greatly affect him, due to Makkah being a holy land and a sanctuary; where material, emotional and spiritual peace was paramount and was pursued by all, due to Makkah being a place of safety; and where people enjoyed a harmonious relationship with other people, the natural world and heaven, due to Makkah being the spiritual centre of Islam and Muslims. 

Makkah’s residential architecture was organic, functional, visually pleasing and, above all, human needs-centric. Though it by no means was invulnerable, it was still the last urban sector to be severely affected by the fallout of the protracted Ottoman-Wahhabi conflict. Such were its conceptual and operational resilience, purpose, utility, value and sustainability penchant that it was able to transcend the impairments posed by the vendetta.

This is what Ali Bey recorded about the form and function of Makkah houses, giving emphasis to their front elevations, environmental performance, screened windows, mashrabiyyahs (smaller oriel, bay, or any other projecting windows with latticework), rawashin (larger projecting latticed windows and balconies with intricate woodworks), and flat roofs with protective parapets as their signature components: “The principal streets are regular enough; they may even be called handsome, on account of the pretty fronts of the houses. They are sanded, level, and very convenient. I had been so long accustomed to live in the indifferent towns of Africa, that I was quite surprised at the fine appearance of the buildings of Mecca. I think they approach the Indian or Persian taste, which introduced itself during the time of the siege by the Caliph of Bagdad. They have two rows of windows, as at Cyprus, with balconies covered with blinds. There are even several large windows, quite open, as in Europe; but the greater number are covered by a species of curtain like a Venetian blind, made of palm tree. They are extremely light, and screen the apartments from the sun, without interrupting the passage of the air. They fold up at pleasure at the upper part, exactly like the former. The houses are solidly built with stone: they are three and four stories high, and even more sometimes. The fronts are ornamented with bases, mouldings, and paintings, which give them a very graceful appearance. It is very rare to find a door that has not a base with steps, and small seats on both sides. The blinds of the balconies are not very close; and holes are cut besides in different parts of them. The roofs form terraces, surrounded by a wall about seven feet high, open at certain spaces, which are occupied by a railing formed of red and white bricks, placed horizontally and symmetrically, leaving holes for the circulation of the air; and at the same time that they contribute to the ornaments of the front, they screen the women from being seen when they are upon the terraces. All the staircases that I saw were narrow, dark, and steep. The rooms are well proportioned, long, broad, and lofty, and have, besides the large windows and balconies, a second row of smaller windows. They have also a shelf all round, as at Alexandria, which serves to place various things upon. The beauty of the houses may be considered as the remains of the ancient splendour of Mecca. Every inhabitant has an interest in preserving his dwelling, to invite and excite the pilgrims to lodge with him; because it is one of his principal resources, on account of the terms demanded, and other additional benefits.”

Descriptions of the Ka’bah and the holy mosque

Scientifically and accurately describing the Ka’bah and the holy mosque of Makkah (al-masjid al-haram), coupled with a proper contextualisation as well as localisation, was a priority of Ali Bey. Thus, an entire chapter has been set aside for the purpose. The author was all too aware that such an undertaking was most needed, and was set to be most welcomed, by the European scholarship. That which was more intensely and more eagerly guarded than the Holy Grail – to quote Isabel Burton, the wife of Richard Francis Burton – was finally brought closer to the European imagination. 

Some of the earlier European visitors – especially Joseph Pitts (1663-1735) – did a decent job as regards the details of the hajj pilgrimage, but a comprehensive and exact description of the Ka’bah and of the holy mosque was still missing. The gap was dully filled by Ali Bey for which he received numerous accolades. The London publishers of his book stated in the “Advertisement” of the book that owing to the fact that Ali Bey travelled as a complete Muslim, that he generally was able to identify himself with the habits and feelings of the countries he visited, that as a Muslim prince he was admitted to sweep the interior of the Ka’bah, the most sacred office that a Muslim can perform, and that he was allowed to repeatedly visit and examine the sacred mosque and its Ka’bah – due to all these considerations, Ali Bey, from his personal inspections and experiences, was able to provide more minute and more exact accounts than other travellers.

At the time of Ali Bey’s visit, the holy mosque and its Ka’bah were in a good physical shape. The mosque was totally rebuilt by the Ottomans during the reigns of sultan Selim II (d. 1574) and his son sultan Murad III (d. 1595). The process was completed in 1586. With the use of dressed stone domes (previously the roof was flat and made of wood), columns of marble and of the local granite and al-shumaysi stone, rich decoration, and all the latest architectural sophistication and style – the Ottomans rebuilt the holy mosque in their own prominent architectural and artistic image. Egypt, in its capacity as a principal, affluent and neighbouring Ottoman province, was the main source of expertise, skilled manpower and unique building materials for the project. For instance, the governor of Egypt, Sinan Pasha, was directed to select the most suitable person in terms of piety, knowledge, experience and every other required qualification for the supervision of this vastly important and honourable task. It has yet been suggested that Koca Mimar Sinan (d. 1588), the chief architect of the Ottoman golden age, was commissioned by the sultan to be in charge of the project. 

Moreover, in 1629, during the reign of sultan Murad IV, the Ka’bah was almost completely rebuilt, necessitated by damages caused by recurring heavy rains and flash floods. The holy mosque, simultaneously, was likewise somewhat refurbished. Afterwards, with the exception of some minor and sporadic works, no serious rebuilding or extension undertaking in the mosque was needed until modern Saudi times.

It was this state of the Ka’bah and the holy mosque that Ali Bey witnessed and chronicled. Hence, his book was among the first and most reliable sources of the architectural descriptions of the two buildings. This applied not only to the case of the West, but also to that of the Muslim world. It was such an accomplishment in Europe to have the book published in French and English in 1814 and 1816 respectively, while in the Muslim world the feat was preceded perhaps only by Ali b. Tajuddin al-Sinjari (d. 1713) and his book on the history of Makkah, the Ka’bah, the holy mosque (al-masjid al-haram) and the rulers of the holy city (al-haram).

The following is Ali Bey’s description of the exterior and interior of the Ka’bah.

“It is a species of cube, of the form of a trapezium, built with square hewn, but unpolished stones of quartz, schorl, and mica, brought from the neighbouring mountains. The front, in which is the door, forms the side, in an angle of which stands the black stone, and laces the N. E. 101° E. It is thirty-seven feet two inches six lines (French measure) long. The front, which forms the other side of the angle, in which is the black stone, faces the S. E. 15° S., and is thirty-one feet seven inches long. The side opposite the door is to the S. W. 1H° W., and is thirty eight feet four inches six lines in length. The fourth side, or that of the Stones of Ismail, fronts the N. W. 171 N., and is twenty-nine feet long. The height is thirty-four feet four inches. The door has an elevation of six feet upon the outside plane. It is eight feet high, four feet ten inches broad, six feet distant from the angle of the black stone, and is composed of two folding doors, of bronze gilt, and silvered, which are fastened with an enormous padlock of silver.”

“The basement, which surrounds the building, is of marble, twenty inches high, projecting ten inches. There are large bronze rings fixed in it, at distances all round, to which is fastened the lower border of the black cloth that covers the walls. The black stone, Hhajera el Assouad, or Heavenly Stone, is  raised forty-two inches above the surface, and is bordered all round with a large plate of silver, about a foot broad. The part of the stone that is not covered by the silver at the angle is almost a semicircle, six inches in height, by eight inches six lines diameter at its base. We believe that this miraculous stone was a transparent hyacinth, brought from heaven to Abraham by the angel Gabriel, as a pledge of his divinity; and, being touched by an impure woman, became black and opaque. This stone is a fragment of volcanic basalts, which is sprinkled throughout its circumference with small pointed coloured crystals, and varied with red feldspath, upon a dark black ground like coal, except one of its protuberances, which is a little reddish. The continual kisses and touchings of the faithful have worn the surface uneven, so that it now has a muscular appearance. It has nearly fifteen muscles, and one deep hollow. Upon comparing the borders of the stone that are covered and secured by the silver with the uncovered part, I found the latter had lost nearly twelve lines of its thickness; from whence we may infer, that if the stone was smooth and even in the time of the Prophet, it has lost a line during each succeeding age.”

“The interior of the Kaaba consists only of a hall, which is raised above the outside plane, the same height as the door. Two columns, of less than two feet diameter, placed in the middle, support the roof of it, of which I cannot describe the form within, because it was covered with a magnificent cloth that hid it. This cloth also covered the walls and the columns, from the top to within five feet of the pavement of the hall. The cloth was of a rose-coloured silk, sprinkled with flowers embroidered in silver, and lined with white silk. Every Sultan of Constantinople is obliged to send a new one when he mounts the throne; and this is the only occasion on which it is ever changed. As the columns were beginning to decay at the bottom, which was not covered with the rich cloth, they have covered them with bands of wood, of one or two inches in breadth, which are placed perpendicularly by the side of each other, and fastened by bronze nails gilded. The lower part of the walls, which is left also uncovered, is inlaid with fine marbles, some plain, others with flowers, arebesque in relief, or inscriptions. The floor is paved also with the finest marble. There are bars that go from one column to the other, and from both columns to the wall, which are said to be of silver, and an infinite number of gold lamps, suspended one over another. At the northern angle of the hall is a staircase, by which persons ascend upon the roof: it is covered by a partition, the door of which is shut.”

“The roof is flat above, and has only one very large gutter upon the north-west side, by which the rain runs off into the stones of Ismail: it is said to be of gold; it appeared to me, however, to be only of gilt bronze. It has been already remarked, that the house of God is entirely covered on the outside with a large black cloth, called Tob el Kaaba, or the Shirt of the Kaaba, suspended from the terrace, and fastened below by means of strings, which answer to the bronze rings that are fixed in the base. There is a new one brought every year from Cairo, as also a curtain to cover the door, which is truly magnificent, being entirely embroidered with gold and silver. The Tob el Kaaba is embroidered at about two thirds of its height with a band of gold two feet broad, with inscriptions, which are repeated on all the four sides: it is called El Hazem, or the Belt.”

Next are excerpts from Ali Bey’s description of the holy mosque (al-masjid al-haram) and its main components.

“The temple of Mecca is known by Mussulmen under the name of El Haram, or the Temple of Excellence. It is composed of the House of God, Beit Allah, or, as it is called also, La Kaaba; of the Well of Zemzem, Bir Zemzem; of the Cobba, or Place of Abraham, Makham Ibrahim; of the places of the four orthodox rites, Makam Hhaneffi, Makam Schaffi, Makam Maleki, and Makam Hhanbeli; of two Cobbas, or Chapels, El Cobbatain; of an arch, called Bab-es-selem (in the same style as a triumphal arch), near the place of Abraham; of El Monbar, or the Tribune for the Priest, upon Fridays; of the wooden staircase, Daureh, which leads to the saloon of the house of God; of an immense court, surrounded by a triple row of arches; of two smaller courts, surrounded with elegant piazzas; of nineteen doors; and of seven towers, or minarets, five of which adhere to the edifice, and the other two are placed between the neighbouring houses, out of the enclosure.”

“The Kaaba is the only ancient edifice that exists in the temple of Mecca; all the others have been added at a later period. El Haram, or the Temple, is situated nearly in the middle of the city, which is built in a valley, that has a considerable slope from the north to the south. It is easy to perceive, that when they formed the great court, and the other parts of the temple, instead of digging upon one side, and removing the earth to the other to level the ground, they have hollowed it out on all sides; so that to go into the temple, on any side whatsoever, it is requisite to descend several steps, because its plane is several feet lower than the general level of the ground, or the streets that surround it; and the oval surface, paved with marble, that immediately encompasses the Kaaba, upon which the pilgrims make their turns round the house of God, is the lowest part of the temple.”

“El Makam Ibrahim, or the Place of Abraham, is a species of parallelogramic cradle, facing the centre of the wall, in which is the door of the Kaaba, and at thirty-four feet distance. It is twelve feet nine inches long, and seven feet eight inches wide, and is placed with its narrowest end towards the building. The roof is supported by six pilasters, a little higher than a man. The half of the parallelogram nearest to the house of God is surrounded by a fine railing of bronze, which embraces four pilasters, the door of which is always shut, and locked with a large silver padlock.”

“El Bir Zemzem, or the Well of Zemzem, is situated fifty-one feet distant to the E. 10° N. of the black stone. It is about seven feet eight inches in diameter, and fifty-six feet deep to the surface of the water. The brim is of fine white marble, five feet high. It is requisite to ascend to the brim to draw the water; at the inside of which there is a railing of iron, with a plate of brass at the foot, to prevent persons falling in. As there are no steps by which to ascend, they are obliged to climb upon the stone of an adjoining window, and afterwards leap upon the top. These difficulties exist only to prevent the pilgrims from getting the water themselves, and that they may not deprive the keepers from receiving the gratifications attached to their office. Three bronze pullies, with hempen cords, and a leather bucket to each end of the cords, serve to draw lip the water, which is rather brackish and heavy, but very limpid. Notwithstanding the depth of the well, and the heat of the climate, it is hotter when first drawn up than the air. It resembles warm water, which proves that there is at the bottom a particular cause of vehement heat. It is wholesome, nevertheless, and so abundant, that at the period of the pilgrimage, though there were thousands of pitchers full drawn, its level was not sensibly diminished.”

“There is a small house constructed round the well, consisting of the room in which is the well; another smaller, that serves as a storehouse for the pitchers; and a staircase to ascend to the roof or terrace, which is surrounded by a railing, and divided into two parts, one of which is dedicated to prayer for the followers of the rite Schaffi, and is crowned with a pretty cupola, supported by eight pilasters ; the other encloses two large horizontal marble sundials, to mark the hours of prayer.”

“El Beb-es-selem, or The Door of Health, is an insulated arch, resembling a triumphal arch, situated seventeen feet from the Makam Ibrahim, nearly opposite to that part of it which faces the Kaaba. It is constructed of hewn stone, and terminates in a point; is fifteen feet six inches high, and nineteen feet six inches broad, including the bases of the arch. It is, as I have already said, reckoned a good omen, and the sign of particular favour, to pass under it the first time they come to make the tour of the Kaaba.”

“El Monbar, or The Tribune of the Priest of Fridays, is on one side of the Makam Ibrahim, at fourteen feet distance, and in front of the northern angle of the Kaaba. It is a very fine white marble, and is the highest finished and the most precious monument of the temple. Its form is that of a staircase, the top of which is terminated by a hollow space, that is surmounted by a fine octangular pyramidical cupola, which appeared to me of gilt bronze, and is supported by four small columns united by arches, the former of which resemble the Corinthian order; but they do not properly belong to any of the five orders of architecture. The exterior sides, the railing, the door, and the base, are of beautiful workmanship. The entrance at the foot of the staircase is shut by a bronze gate.”

“The Kaaba, and the stones of Ismael, are situated nearly in the centre of the temple, and occupy the middle of an oval or irregular elliptical surface, which forms a zone of thirty-nine feet wide round the edifice, upon which the pilgrims make their tours round the Kaaba. It is paved with fine marble, and is situated upon the lowest plane of the temple. This plane is surrounded by an irregular elliptical one thirty-one feet wide, and one foot higher than the former. It is paved with common square hewn stones. Upon the step that forms the boundary between the two planes, there are placed a series of thirty-one columns, or thin pillars of bronze, with one of stone at each extremity. They are about seven feet six inches high, from the bottom to the top of the capitals, upon which are fastened the ends of iron bars, that go from one to the other, and from which is suspended a number of lamps. The capital of each pillar has a gilded ornament, about two feet high, terminated by a crescent. The pillars are cylindrical, and are about three inches in diameter: there is a sort of string at about half their height. They have a cylindrical stone base, about a foot high, and the same in diameter. The lamps are shaped almost like a globe, and are composed of very thick green glass, which is not very transparent. They are disposed without order or regularity between the pillars, and are lighted every evening.”

“The Kaaba, Beit Allah, or House of God, is not situated exactly in the centre of the court. The north-east front is distant two hundred and seventy-five feet six inches from the corresponding side of the court; the south-east one hundred and fifty-five feet six inches; that of the south-west two hundred and twenty-nine feet three inches; and the north-west one hundred and sixty-two feet.”

“The walls of the temple are connected on the outside by houses; so that it has not any external front; and there are some of the houses which have windows that overlook the interior of the building. The two sacred hills, Saffa and Meroua, may be considered as dependant on the temple, by the obligation imposed upon all the pilgrims to visit them as soon as they have been round the Kaaba. They were situated outside of the town in the time of the Prophet, but are now within the confines, in consequence of the increase of buildings: there are even whole streets of houses erected upon the mountains themselves.”


Ali Bey was a conundrum. Almost everything about him was accompanied by a question mark. The more one tried to study and understand him, the more evasive he became. In all probability, he was a Spanish Christian playacting the life of a Muslim prince who arrived in Makkah for the hajj pilgrimage. But then again so good and convincing was he at doing so that rarely anybody cast doubt on him and his claims. Just as there was nothing definite, there similarly was nothing indefinite, about any possibility. As far as his personal life and his private religious orientation were concerned, he could have been as much a Muslim as anything else. 

Furthermore, it is believed that Ali Bey was a spy of Napoleon. He was tasked to explore the prospect of advancing the French designs in the region, especially following the rise of the Wahhabis as a potential catalyst for, and an active protagonist in, the reshaping of the regional political landscape. 

And finally, Ali Bey was a remarkable scientist – something that nobody could undermine or question – by dint of which he was the first European to give to the world systematised (scientific) knowledge of the holy city of Makkah, its Ka’bah and its holy mosque (al-masjid al-haram). It was his being a scientist that carved out for him a name and place in history.***

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