Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mecca as it appeared 125 years ago


In the spirit of Eid al Adha, the photography gallery The Empty Quarter in Dubai is exhibiting historical photographs of Mecca originally published by the Dutch scholar Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje in 1889.

Snouck Hurgonje (1857-1936) is the founder of contemporary Islamic studies in the Netherlands, and believed that racial and religious diversity can go hand in hand with peaceful coexistence. His life was filled with still-relevant ideological controversies and revolutionary statements.

He had an intrinsic curiosity, distinct knowledge of Islam and fluency in Arabic that allowed him, even as a foreigner, to enter the city forbidden to non-Muslims. After Snouck Hurgronje successfully defended his dissertation, Het Mekkaansche Feest (The Meccan Celebration), in 1880 at Leiden University, he wanted to study Islam in its very centre; he arrived on the Arabian Peninsula on August 28, 1884.

He spent his first months in Jeddah, learning the local dialect and preparing to seek approval to enter Mecca. He gathered a circle of influential friends around him, not in the least because of his photographic equipment. At the time, photography was mysterious and new and most likely helped him break down social barriers.

About this time he symbolically took a Muslim name, Abd al Gaffar. There are some who doubt whether he truly converted to Islam, but he does describe a circumcision in remarkable detail, and he received a visit from the qadi of Jeddah, and his travel companion addressed him as "a brother in God".

When Snouck Hurgronje finally set foot in Mecca on the eve of February 22, 1885, he circled the Kaaba, kissed the Black Stone and drank the holy water of Zam Zam.

"I made acquaintance with modern Meccan society at first hand, heard with my own ears what that international population learns and teaches … I have studied the ideal and the reality … in mosque, divan, coffeehouse and living room," Snouck Hurgronje wrote.

He described the "neighbours of Allah" as a heterogeneous society focused on trade. He spoke highly of the freedom enjoyed by women. The book that gained him international recognition, Mecca in the Latter Part of the 19th Century, is an important historical source and deals with social and family life, funeral customs and marriage.

During his intense five months in Mecca, he struck a friendship with a doctor who coincidentally shared the same Arabic name, Abd al Gaffar, and his fascination for photography. Together they struggled with the heavy camera and hand-retouched negatives in a portable darkroom. Until 30 years ago, it was assumed the photographs in the album Photographs of Mecca were the sole work of Snouck Hurgronje, but scientific research has recognised Dr al Gaffar as the first Meccan photographer.

Snouck Hurgronje's "medieval dream" ended abruptly in August that year, after French media falsely accused him of wanting to steal a historical artefact. He left the city under armed escort, leaving his pregnant Ethiopian slave wife and photo equipment behind. He never returned.

Mecca: A Dangerous Adventure – Snouck Hurgronje's early photographs 1885: The Platinum Series runs until December 6 in The Empty Quarter, Gate Village Building 2, Dubai. For more information, see www.theemptyquarter.com