A Self-Proclaimed Modern Pilgrim in Makkah and Madinah

By Spahic Omer

(This article is an excerpt from a research study with the same title)

When Ludovico di Varthema (d. 1517) – an Italian traveller, adventurer and aristocrat, who was the first European non-Muslim to visit Makkah and Madinah and to record his journeys as well as impressions – secretly visited the Muslim holiest sites in 1503, little did he know that he initiated a culture. The culture was about non-Muslims in disguise visiting Makkah and Madinah – which is strictly off-limits to non-Muslims – while pretending to be Muslims. Some came as spies and even slaves accompanying their Muslim masters. The Muslim holy cities, on account of being consecrated, inaccessible, matchless and so, “more jealously guarded than the Holy Grail”, greatly appealed to the daring explorers, trailblazers and mere adventure-seekers of the West, especially during the exhilarating age of discovery, or exploration, and the age of the enlightenment, which were taking Europe by storm from the 15th century onwards. 

In 1909, Augustus Ralli published a book entitled “Christians at Mecca” in which he commemorated the legacies of first such European heroes. Their contributions to knowledge were invaluable concerning the ethnographic aspects of the population of Makkah, the condition of the city, the rites of the hajj pilgrimage, and the morphology of the city’s holy mosque (al-masjid al-haram). 

Augustus Ralli divided the European visitors (“pilgrims”) into three groups: those representing “a cloud of light skirmishers”, those dubbed “the votaries of (nascent) science”, and “those impelled by love of adventure or curiosity”. The last traveller Augustus Ralli talked about was Gervais-Courtellemont, a French adventurer and photographer, who was in Makkah in 1894. 

This particular time – that is, the end of the 19th century – could be seen, in general, as a conclusive transition from a traditional era to a modern one. It was an epoch that featured “the end of colonial invasion and global expansion” and was exemplified by the period subsequent to the onset of modern warfare, culminating in and simultaneously being typified by two world wars. What followed thereafter is normally understood as post-modernism. 

In particular, that was also a time denoting the end of the endeavours of traditional or old-fashioned Western visitors to Makkah and Madinah. Whoever came afterwards was to be styled a modern visitor or a pilgrim. Such was the end of a period and the commencement of a new one. Even Augustus Ralli himself hinted at this prospect. He concluded his book by briefly dwelling on the subject of the Hijaz railway. He said that in August 1908 – the time he was preparing the book for publication – the news arrived that the railway from its starting point in Damascus had reached Madinah and that after additional two years it will reach Makkah as well. It was thus only a question of time before the snort of the locomotive was heard “within the precincts of the Ka’bah,” concluded Augustus Ralli citing the highlighted phrase from The Times newspaper. Moreover, it was planned when the last section of the Baghdad railway, across the Taurus Mountains, was completed, it would be possible to take the train from Istanbul (Constantinople) directly to Makkah.

The coming of the Hijaz railway was at once symbolic and practical. It was able to augment the arrival of pilgrims throughout the year and to facilitate the whole procedure of the pilgrimage (hajj and ‘umrah), including the maintenance and protection of holy sites. This way, the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah were made more accessible and the hajj more viable. They likewise were rendered “closer” and more “beckoning”. A window of opportunities opened up for everybody. All of a sudden, the holy cities became not just nearer, but also more receptive to the world and to whatever valuable it had to offer, while much of the world, in turn and as a consequence, became a richer and more enthusiastic place.

This window of endless opportunities – involving such as pertained to the precarious political situation in the Ottoman Turkey, as the final torchbearer of the caliphate institution, and in the whole world of Islam – could not evade the attention of Augustus Ralli. He said that, inevitably, with the linking of Makkah and Madinah to the world’s foremost cultural and civilisational hubs, something of the former’s mystery “will be absorbed in the universal circulation. When the branch line is laid between Mecca and Jeddah, the entire journey will be practicable by steamer or train.” The caravans will disappear as a result and with them myriads of established traditions. Hence, the arrival of the railway represented a conduit for the arrival of modern modes of living, rising over the horizons of the civilisational pristineness and purity of the Hijaz.

As a Western Christian, Augustus Ralli had a word concerning the future of the culture of Westerners secretly visiting the Muslim holiest cities, knowing all too well that doing so openly will never be possible irrespective of how much the region may become “inviting”, “near” and accessible. He stated that should the Christian again intrude during the novel age, “he will not be called upon to repeat such an experience as Burton’s wild journey from Medina to Mecca.” By this Augustus Ralli suggested that in the modernised future Western secret expeditions would correspondingly be easier, “safer” and more accomplishing.

Generally, the Western nations hoped that the railway spelled the beginning of a new chapter in relations between Arabia and the rest of particularly the Western world. The railway was expected to “facilitate the settlement of Arabia, and perhaps lead to the opening up of that country to Europeans.” A Western author at the beginning of the 20th century wrote, implying the arrival of contemporary life standards: “Now that the electric light burns over the tomb of the Prophet, we may hope someday to see with our own eyes the sacred cities of the Moslems.” Augustus Ralli commented on the forecast: “Let us, however, pray to see his prophecy fulfilled.”

The case of Arthur John Byng Wavell

Wavell (1882-1916), a British military officer, Arabist and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, secretly visited Makkah and Madinah as a pilgrim in 1908-9. His undertaking was ground-breaking, in that he arrived in Madinah via the historic Hijaz railway that had just become operational. He was the first non-Muslim to do so. His visit illustrated, and his narrative vividly documented, the onset of modernity in the holy cities. Indeed, what Ludovico di Varthema was for the genesis of the general custom of Western Christians in disguise visiting the holy pilgrimage places, Wavell was for the initiation of the custom’s new phase. Wavell was fully aware of his feat. Hence, the book that resulted from his clandestine visit-cum-pilgrimage he titled “A Modern Pilgrim in Mecca and a Siege in Sanaa”. The author explicitly used the adjective “modern” 24 times in a variety of contexts. Some of the noticeable expressions are “modern times”, “modern civilisation”, “modern ideas”, “modern traveller” and “modern Turks”.

This study delved into the modernity disposition of Wavell’s travel to Makkah and Madinah, using his above-mentioned book as a primary reference. The discussion placed the author’s experiences, as well as interpretations, of the modernity phenomenon in Makkah and Madinah against the backdrop of modernity as a comprehensive concept and ubiquitous trend. The study focused on the following issues: modernity and modernism versus tradition; about Arthur John Byng Wavell and his pilgrimage trip; Arthur John Byng Wavell’s unprejudiced views on Islam; the Hijaz railway as a symbol of modernity; elements of modernity in Makkah and Madinah; Muslims and the challenge of modernity; Arthur John Byng Wavell’s personal experiences and observations.

Wavell’s clandestine hajj pilgrimage was by no means a case of just another Westerner secretly visiting the Muslim holiest places with the aim of fulfilling some curiosity, discovery and exploratory ends. Though his feat, predominantly, measured up to the standards set by the fellowship of “Western pilgrims”, Wavell’s example, in many ways was unique. The time of his visit to Makkah and Madinah loosely connoted a closing transition from a traditional to a modern epoch. Changes were in the air, virtually affecting all the domains of human social, economic, political and intellectual development. Changes furthermore were assuming a global and all-inclusive character. 

With the rapid decline of the Ottoman Empire as an abiding superpower of the world – which culminated in the Young Turk revolution (the Second Constitutional Era) in 1908, which in turn paved the way for the abolition of the institution of the caliphate in 1924 – and with the rise of Western hegemony and its aggressively evangelized civilisation – which was as rapid and as all-encompassing – there was definitely a changing of the guard in global geopolitics. In short, a new world order was on the horizon. A new phase in human cultural and civilisational evolution was unfolding. Some interpreted the developments as the beginning of the “end of history”, and others as the beginning of a global proliferation whose principal trademark will be the “clash of civilisations”.

Wavell was cognizant of the permutations of the era in which he lived, in general, and of the permutations of the period in which he visited Makkah and Madinah and through which the entire Muslim world was going, in particular. By calling his book “A Modern Pilgrim in Mecca and a Siege in Sanaa” Wavell wished to convey the message that he was an ambassador of modernity and westernisation. He was on a sort of investigative and, at the same time, goodwill mission to perhaps the last places the modern civilisation was expected to make inroads into. Wavell perceived himself as “modern” and as an “envoy” of modernity, appointed, as it were, by the “ontological mandate” of human civilisation to look at the existing state of affairs and also the future prospects of modernity in the holiest cities of Islam and Muslims.

Wavell was a witness of some of the biggest changes – fully fledged or in their infancy – that were sweeping across the world of Islam, including Makkah and Madinah. That’s why he felt that being unbiased, even-handed and accurate in his observations, reporting and judgments – as closely as possible – was the best option for the success of his enterprise. Just describing the circumstances as they were meant the world to the Western mind that was desirous but poorly informed, yet ignorant, about the heart of Islamdom.

Hence, Wavell could at first glance modestly, but in actual fact confidently, say that in the conventional sense, his book “breaks no new ground” and he “cannot claim any scientific value for this work, except in so far as spadework in exploration, as in politics, may have its uses.” Wavell knew – and whoever reads his book can discover so – that his book was a leap forward in a new (modernity) direction. He opened the window to the future, taking himself some first steps. The subsequent “modern” visits to Makkah and Madinah by other Westerners – such as Eldon Rutter (year of visit, 1925-26) and Harry St John Bridger Philby (1885-1960) – signified a continuation of a tradition.

Moreover, it is as though Wavell opened up some new vistas that contributed to transforming the ways many people especially in the West looked at the modernisation processes in Muslim lands. He sometimes posed questions or raised quandaries, without supplying adequate answers or explanations. He did so discerning that rightly asked questions and justly presented dilemmas were more important than average and unconvincing answers and insufficient explanations, and that as long as there were duly asked questions and duly presented dilemmas, right answers and solutions were forthcoming, sooner rather than later. Wavell encapsulated this philosophy of his when he said that “I am not without hopes that the narrative of my own journey may help other travellers to go farther and accomplish more.”

Wavell was driven neither by the impetus of consequentialism, whereby actions and their motivations were to be judged exclusively by their consequences (expedient outcomes), nor by egocentrism or ethnocentrism, whereby personal, ethnic or national interests only mattered to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of others. Rather, he seems to have been steered by the belief that his actions would be justifiable and will have moral worth only if he accomplished them for their own sake. He tried his best to remain on the side of the truth – as he conceived it – which was dictated by the supremacy of neutrality and fairness. 

As commendable as it is, this method was also determined upon the system of the ultimate-truth-seeking. Accordingly, Wavell criticised not only Westerners, but also Muslims themselves, for being responsible either for distorting the real-life truth(s) or for obscuring the existential absolute truth. The advent of modernity, it goes without saying, called for a great deal of soul-searching and examination of conscience. It called for realignments with the intention of winning modernity without compromising, let alone losing, tradition and heritage.***

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