More than two million pilgrims gathered last month in Mecca for the Hajj – the annual pilgrimage. The advent of photography in the mid-19th century is of crucial importance to the history of the Hajj. Two photographers – Muhammad Sadiq Bey and Al Sayyid Abd al Ghaffar–were able to capture scenes of thousands of pilgrims and, for the first time, the pilgrimage and the holy cities could be accurately and realistically documented.
The recording of the Hajj through photographs began with Muhammad Sadiq Bey, an Egyptian army engineer and surveyor, who first travelled to Arabia in 1861. He took with him a device known as a wet-plate collodion camera, a technique invented in the 1850’s, which used glass-plate negatives. These were more robust than paper negatives and produced clear photographic images which could be reproduced in large numbers on albumen-coated paper.
Sadiq Bey was also able to take panoramic pictures of the holy mosque at Mecca from multiple angles. His pioneering achievement was noted with great interest in Arabic and European magazines and he won a gold medal at the Venice geographical exhibition in 1881. He published Mash‘al al-Mahmal (“The Torch of the Mahmal”) in 1881, which contains his collection of photographs, a history of the mahmal (an ornately decorated unoccupied palanquin, borne by a camel)and the kiswa (the cloth which covered the Ka‘ba), and his observations of Mecca and Medina. Further publications include Dalil al-Hajj (“The Guide to the Hajj”) in 1896, a distillation of his journeys. Later publications on the holy cities often used Sadiq Bey’s photographs, including Muhammad Batanuni’s “The Journey to Hijaz” and Subhi Saleh’s “Pèlerinage à la Mecque et à Medine”.
Another pioneering figure in the late 1880’s was Al Sayyid Abd al Ghaffar. Not much is known about his life. Although once described by his one-time associate, the Dutch orientalist, Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, as “neither scientific nor systematic”, Abd al Ghaffar is now, nevertheless, almost universally recognized as “the first Meccan photographer”. Most of what is known about him can be gleaned from what is recorded, sometimes in passing, in Hurgronje’s diaries and correspondence about his experience in Mecca. When Hurgronje arrived in Mecca in February 1885, he must have been surprised to encounter a fellow photographer with a functional studio located in the Jiyad quarter of Mecca. Perhaps all the more so because, in an amazing coincidence, that man shared the name Hurgronje himself had adopted upon converting to Islam just weeks before- – Abd al Ghaffar.
Hurgronje records that apart from his photographic work Abd al Ghaffar was a technically accomplished man who worked as a dentist, a watchmaker, a gunsmith and a smelter of gold and silver. Abd al Ghaffar was clearly enthusiastic about the new photographic techniques he could learn from Hurgronje such as the “dry-plate” method. After Hurgronje returned to Holland, Abd al Ghaffar made use of the albumen paper and one hundred and forty-four glass plates that Hurgronje had left behind.
During the period 1886-1889, Abd al Ghaffar took more than two hundred and fifty photographs of Islam’s holiest city and its residents as well as the first photographs of pilgrims participating in the Hajj. What remains of his work consists of the material he sent to Hurgronje in Holland, some of which was later published alongside Hurgronje’s own photography in the publications, Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka (1888) and Bilder aus Mekka (1889). Together these publications offer an insight as much into the prevailing ideologies of the time in western European scholarly circles, such as those Hurgronje aimed to reach, as into the private lives and practices of locals and pilgrims in 1880’s Hejaz.
What remains of Abd al Ghaffar’s unpublished photographic work, or at least that which can be definitively attributed to him, is held at the University of Leiden library as part of the Hurgronje archive. In the 1889 publication that featured the first major series of photographs of pilgrims undertaking the Hajj, he was mentioned by Hurgronje in the introduction to the first volume of Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka only as “the Meccan doctor, that…… I taught” and his name was erased from the photographs. It was only subsequently discovered that many of the photographs in Hurgronje’s publications were in fact taken by Abd al Ghaffar Today, his photographs speak for themselves and provide an alternative view to those more common orientalist scenes from the period.