Once Upon a Time on the Road to Mecca


«By ship across the Red Sea or by camel caravan across the desert, incredible turn-of-the-century images of the world’s greatest pilgrimage.»

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

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

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

Below, a caravan with howdahs (canopy seats) on the camels’ backs heads toward Mecca, circa 1910.(via http://www.foreignpolicy.com)