A glimpse of historical Mecca

New exhibition shows the historical side of the holy site

Mecca today: Pilgrims walk around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque during the early morning on November 9, 2010
Mecca today: Pilgrims walk around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque during the early morning on November 9, 2010
Mecca then: View of the big mosque and Kaaba during a prayer in 1885
Mecca then: View of the big mosque and Kaaba during a prayer in 1885
Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje
Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje
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On August 28 1884, 27-year-old Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia from Holland as both a spy (the Dutch government was worried about so-called ‘fanatics’ in the area supporting liberation movements in the Dutch colonies) and as an academic interested in the Islamic culture of nearby Mecca. He found himself easily assimilating into the expat and wealthy local cultures of Jeddah, in part thanks to his fluency in Arabic, but mainly because of his photography gear (a print of oneself was a prized treasure at the time).

However, it wasn’t until Snouck converted to Islam that he was granted entry into Mecca (non-Muslims are still forbidden to enter the Holy City). He took on the name Abd al-Ghaffar and, on January 21 1885, he set foot in Mecca, documenting religious and day-to-day life in the city for the next seven months. Twenty of his photos have now been restored as platinum prints, thanks to Leiden University in the Netherlands and The Empty Quarter gallery, which is hosting an exhibition in Dubai to showcase the images.

Remember that photographing (and even travelling to) Mecca was a far harder task then than it is now. The bulky camera equipment of the time meant that capturing photos involved changing glass plates and developing negatives in a cumbersome portable darkroom. As such, Snouck had an assistant, a Meccan doctor named Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar (his name was the same as Snouck’s adopted Islamic moniker) who, only a few decades ago, was recognised and credited in part for these one-of-a-kind images.

Snouck was never able to participate in the full pilgrimage because he was forced to leave Saudi in August 1885 after being falsely accused of attempting to steal an ancient artefact. Yet he was smart enough to know how important his images were, so asked his friends to slowly ship them back to him in the Netherlands. Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar continued to take images with Snouck’s camera equipment, meaning it’s now impossible to tell who took which image. And even though he only spent seven months there, Snouck’s (at times ethnocentric) book, Mekka in the Latter Part of the 19th Century, made him a European authority on the city.

Mecca: A Dangerous Adventure continues at The Empty Quarter until December 6.

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