Mecca: A Dangerous Adventure

Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje | Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar: View on the big mosque during a samalat at the Ka'aba

Wishing you all a very happy Eid Al Adha. To coincide with this year's Hajj and Eid Al Adha, The Empty Quarter in Dubai is exhibiting a selection of early photographs of Mecca taken in the late 1800s. 

Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (8 February 1857 - 26 June 1936) was a Dutch scholar of Oriental cultures and languages and Advisor on Native Affairs to the colonial government of the Netherlands East Indies. He became a theology student at Leiden University in 1874. He received his doctorate at Leiden in 1880 with his dissertation ‘Het Mekkaansche Feest’ ("The Festivities of Mecca"). He became a professor at the Leiden School for Colonial Civil Servants in 1881 and visited Mecca in 1884-1885 as one of the first Western scholars of Oriental cultures.

Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje | Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar: View on the western part of the Mina valley during the Hajj

Snouck Hurgronje decided to travel to Mecca to study the lives of Muslims and the Hajj at first hand. As well as being a theological historian, he was also an ethnologist, who made use of the most modern resources, such as photography. His trip to Mecca, of which the book Mecca (with a collection of prints) is the lasting result, was a 'dangerous adventure', according to Dr. Witkam. For non-Muslims the holy city was strictly out of bounds. Snouck converted to Islam and lived, with his Islamic wife, as a Muslim among Muslims. In 1885 the adventure came to a sudden end, when the Turkish governor ordered his immediate departure from Mecca and Arabia. He left behind the wife with whom he had lived in Mecca.

Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje | Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar: Hajji camp east of Mount Arafat

In 1889, his Bilder aus Mekka was published, and consisted of 20 plates depicting the holy city of Meccaa, the Ka’aba and the pilgrims gathering on the surrounding planes. Although Snouck Hurgronje published this album under his own name, it is almost certain that the images in it were taken by a local eye doctor by the name of Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar. For years no one questioned the authorship of Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje as the maker of his famous Photographs from Mecca, an album he published under his own name. It wasn't until 1981 that Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar, a physician (and eye doctor) from Mecca, was re-identified as the original photographer. Painstaking scientific research has brought his achievements to the forefront again, recognizing him as most certainly the first Meccan and Arabian photographer.

Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje | Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar: Group portrait of Sharif Yahya with his riding camel, his slave and two sharifs of lower rank

Another fascinating angle to this exhibition is the Abu Dhabi-based historian and journalist Lizette van Hecke, who wrote her thesis on Snouck Hurgronje, his life and his work which can be downloaded here. Not only does it give us more insight into Snouck Hurgronje's life, but also his research on Islam.

Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje | Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar: The Ka'aba in Mekka

The exhibition is on till 6th December 2010 and I strongly suggest you go see these rare photos. Compare them to the recent photos of Hajj 2010 published by The Big Picture and you will see how much Mecca has changed over the past 100 years.