To Mecca via Paris

Iskander completing the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ferdowsi, Shahnameh, Persian manuscript copied in 1440, BnF

– And why don’t you travel to Mecca?
Standing in front of the large model of the Great Mosque of Mecca, I lift my eyes. The couple standing before me in the semi-darkness of the exhibition “Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca” of the Institut du monde arabe of Paris, looks at me smiling.


– It is an extraordinary experience, we have already done it three times… all these people from around the world, all this brotherhood, all this peace is something you won’t find anywhere else. Really, you should go, everyone can go there, you know…
I recall an image, this highway, where the roads part: straight Mecca for Muslims, and for non-Muslims, next exit right…
– I do not think I can…
They hesitate. And with a sigh:
– Ah, true, you must be Muslim…
The woman smiles at me as at an ignorant child, while the husband continues in a soft voice:
– But you know, it’s very simple. A simple formula to utter, nothing more, no preliminary studies, no ceremony… For ou, a historian, to say that Muhammad is a prophet… this is a historical truth, right? It would not be difficult for you…
A simple formula. A formality, so to say.
I think of Richard Burton visiting Mecca in 1853, disguised as an Afghan doctor. Surely, no period is simple, but 2014 does not seem to me the easiest year to take the route of pilgrimage.

Map, Turkey, 1650, Leiden, University Library.

No, this journey has never been easy, but during the centuries there were several European travelers to visit, describe, survey, map, draw and photograph the holy places of Islam.

Alain Manesson Mallet, Description de l’univers contenant les différents systèmes du Monde, les cartes générales et particulières de la géographie ancienne et moderne, les plans et profils des principales villes et des autres lieux plus considérables de la terre, avec les portraits des souverains qui y commandent, leurs blasons, titres et livrées, et les mœurs, religions, gouvernements et divers habillements de chaque nation…, 1683, BnF. On this view of Jerusalem, the pilgrims in the foreground are represented in an attitude of adoration.

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To reach Mecca, these travelers had to outwit and outsmart the traps, pretend to convert, sometimes disguise themselves, like Ali Bey el Abassi, who gave a lecture on his travels at the Institut de physique in Paris in 1807.

Rapport fait à la classe des sciences physiques et mathématiques de l’Institut par le chevalier Badía, contenant un précis de ses voyages Afrque et en Asie

Domingo Badía y Leblich was born in Barcelona in 1767. He traveled to Africa and the Middle East between 1803 and 1807, and then in 1817-1818. Disguised as a Muslim under the name of Ali Bey el Abassi, he first visited Morocco in 1803 with the support of the Spanish Secretary of State Manuel Godoy, with the aim of conquering the kingdom for Spain. He managed to fool both Sultan Moulay Sliman, and the heads of the religious orders. When he already felt that his popularity in Morocco was such that he would be able to overthrow the sultan and seize the power, he lost the backing of the Spanish authorities. He then decideto undertake on his own account the pilgrimage to Mecca.
In the holy city he was welcomed with honor, due to the noble pedigree he has invented for himself, connecting him directly to the prestigious Abbasid dynasty.

Ali Bey El Abassi (Domingo Badía y Leblich) (1766-1818), Voyages d’Ali Bey El Abbassi en Afrique et en Asie pendant les années 1803, 1804, 1805, 1806 et 1807, illustrated byAchille-Etna Michallon, (1796-1822), Didot (Paris), 1814. This and some of the following images are from this work.

Upon his return to Europe, while Spain was occupied by France, and Napoleon placed on its throne his brother Joseph Bonaparte, Ali Bey el Abassi, redressed as Domingo Badía, stood in French service. In 1808, after the withdrawal of Napoleon’s army, Badía, considered a traitor in Spain, was forced into exile in Paris. There he published in 1814 under his Muslim name the account of his journey to Marocco and  to the Middle East. Written in French and lavishly illustrated, the book was quickly translated into English, German and Italian – but never into Spanish.

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But the Europeans also played a special role in the history of the hajj, not as adventurous participants, but as representatives of local authority in front of the Muslim population, especially the French in North Africa. Since the Napoleonic era, the French administrators in Egypt attempted to facilitate and at the same time to control the pilgrimage, thus ensuring the cooperation of local notables.

Letter by General Menou from the headquarters of Cairo to the French Consul in Morocco, to reassure the sultan about the safety of travel to Jeddah via Alexandria, 1800.

During the nineteenth century, the rise of imperialism in the Muslim areas profoundly transformed the context of pilgrimages, and elevated the holy places of Islam into the forefront of international concern. After the conquest of Algeria in 1830, France had “Muslim subjects”, whose religious life will form part of public policy. After 1871, the French colonial administration will feel a strong temptation to simply ban the pilgrimage. In the prevailing anti-clericalism, brought by the return of the Republic in France, the Muslim practices appear backward and superstitious. Failing to completely ban the hajj, the administration makes efforts to regulate the pilgrimage by the introduction of travel authorizations, by controlling travel on land and sea, and by strengthening the health surveillance measures affecting the pilgrims. Thus the excuse of epidemics in Hejaz or in India (cholera in 1865 and between 1883 and 1896, and the plague in 1899) will help to prohibit the pilgrimage for several years, and to introduce a “pilgrim’s certificate”, which are a kind of a sanitary passport.

Notice of prohibition of the pilgrimage for the year 1899. Gouvernement général de l’Algérie.

A letter concerning the quarantine for the pilgrims returning from Mecca via the Suez Canal, written by the Medical Officer of Health Adrien Proust, father of the writer

Since the Quran traditionally bases the departure to the pilgrimage on a triple freedom – freedom of self, freedom of movement, and financial independence, that is, the possession of the material resources required to the journey –, the colonial authorities bound the issue of the passport of pilgrimage to these requirements. This served to prevent the pilgrimage of the poor, who would go begging along the road of hajj, and who were often lumped together with the “illegals”, or “sans-papiers”, as we would say today in France.
The following permit to travel, issued to a woman wearing “a tattoo on her face” as a distinctive sign, makes reference to the creditworthiness of the household head, and his commitment to reimbuse the eventual costs of repatriation to the colonial government.


Demand of Abdel Kader to the President of the French Republic Jules Grévy for the permission to launch a subscription in Algeria for the construction of a fountain in Mecca, 1881

The improvement of the means of transport accompanying the colonial conquest greatly promoted the travel to Mecca. The railway, established in Egypt in the 1850s, allowed an easy access to the Red Sea, where the pilgrims boarded on steamboats, also supported by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. At the turn of the century, as a response to the growing Western economic influence, the Ottoman authorities decided to build a railway line from Damascus to Mecca. Financed exclusively by Muslim capital, and realized by German engineers, the line was completed in 1908, at the time of the Young Turk revolution, and soon found success.

Deutsche Baghdad-Bahn, ca. 1908.

Map of the railway line Damascus–Mecca, Egypt, 1905.

A station along the Hijaz railway line

On the sea, British and French companies provided the shipping lines from all ports of North Africa, Asia Minor and the Syrian coast to Alexandria or Port Said, from where the pilgrims arrived through the Canal or by railway to Suez city, the main port of embarkation for Jeddah.

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The paradox of this boom of transport, however well-controlled, was that it promoted the flow of pilgrims to a territory forbidden to non-Muslims. The colonial powers watched with anxiety the masses of pilgrims marching into the closed holy places, where they undoubtedly encountered ideas hostile to the colonial powers, which they brought with themselves and disseminated on their return.

Or perhaps they only brought back souvenirs, these first products of a nascent tourism industry?

Twelve views of mosques along the pilgrimage route, including Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. India, 19th century