A Photographer on the Hajj: The Travels of Muhammad ‘Ali Effendi Sa‘udi (1904/1908).
Reviewed by Priscilla Frost

A Photographer on the Hajj: The Travels of  Muhammad ‘Ali Effendi Sa‘udi (1904/1908), by Farid Kioumgi and Robert Graham.
American University in Cairo Press, 2009. ISBN 978-977-416-290-9. 124 pp.

Our perception of the pilgrimage differs considerably from that of pilgrims who travelled to Mecca and Medina in the early 20th century. What the Hajj was really like, with all the hazards that beset travellers, is clearly conveyed in this book.

Muhammad ‘Ali Effendi Sa‘udi went on the Hajj twice—in 1904 and then again in 1907–08. On both occasions he was part of the Egyptian official caravan under General Ibrahim Rif‘at Pasha, the Amir al-Hajj. This gave Sa‘udi a number of privileges that he would not otherwise have had, and these are fully explained.

One of Sa‘udi’s roles in 1904 was as an assistant to the treasurer of the mahmal , ‘a palanquin wrapped in black velvet and embroidered with gold that by ancient tradition, symbolized the authority of the Egyptian pilgrim caravan’. In this capacity he was also responsible for the safe-keeping of the treasury chest, with monies amounting to some 23,000 Egyptian pounds, which today would be equivalent to around US$ 5 million. The money was used to pay for the hire of camels, tents, guides—especially through the Bedouin lands, as hostile tribes used bribery (repeatedly) to secure travel through their part of the country. There was at this time much hostility to the opening of the Hijaz railway to Medina, because local tribes feared that the revenue they derived from guiding caravans through the mountains would cease.

Sa‘udi kept a diary on both occasions (sometimes writing whilst on the back of a camel), giving detailed accounts of his experiences and companions on the journey. This record of the pilgrimage was commissioned by Muhammad ‘Abduh, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, to describe not only the religious history of the monuments around the Haram, but also the atmosphere and activities in the sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina.

Sa‘udi writes of the ill treatment of poor pilgrims; the greed of those in authority; the countless times that bribery was the only way to procure camels, tents and safe passages through the mountain passes. His diaries also decry the lack of precautions to prevent the spread of cholera, especially in Mecca.

Sa‘udi’s second journey took place over the winter of 1907–08. Once again he was part of an official pilgrimage, and again he took his camera. On this trip he was given letters of introduction to enter the Holy Places in Medina, letters that he found extremely useful. Sa‘udi was a devout Muslim who undertook this second journey with all the faith and conviction of his first pilgrimage. On this occasion, however, he took his mother with him, making the journey even more arduous and precarious, as she was often not well.His second pilgrimage is described in more detail. For example, on 24 December 1907 the caravan left Cairo by train for the port of Suez, where they caught the boat—the al-Minya—to Jeddah in the late afternoon. There were the usual frustrations of overcrowding and the concern about cholera.  He gives interesting insights into the perils of the journey such as being robbed of silver and coins from his back pocket even before leaving Egypt. Arriving in Jeddah, the pilgrims travelled on to Mecca by camel and on foot.

Concerned about his camera equipment, Sa‘udi spread it among his belongings on several camels. The glass plates were fragile, and on more than one occasion they broke. But his photographs give an interesting glimpse of life on pilgrimage: for example, one photograph shows the train of  1,400 camels weaving its way through the valley towards Mount Arafat over very rocky terrain.

Sa‘udi’s time in Mecca is delightfully described, both verbally and photographically. He was a keen photographer but sometimes had to take his shots surreptitiously, as he was suspected of being a spy. It is difficult for us to imagine and understand the enormity of the challenge he faced, especially in this day of small portable cameras, which can just be slipped into a pocket. Yet he managed to take a wide range of photographs, and those of buildings and street scenes in Mecca are amazingly clear, in particular one of the courtyard of the Holy Mosque that is rich in detail, clearly showing the Ka‘ba with the Kiswa mantle raised to protect the cloth from the hoards of pilgrims. The photographs were mainly taken with a StereoPalmos Ica camera, a forerunner of the Leica.

A Photographer on the Hajj The book contains a number of maps, showing the routes that Sa‘udi took on both occasions, as well as plans of the two cities. The plan of Mecca, for example, gives the reader a good idea of the terrain around the city, as well as key buildings.This is a wonderful book and a splendid photographic record of two remarkable and difficult journeys. It is also a fine tribute to Muhammad ‘Ali Effendi Sa‘udi, a photographer par excellence.

Priscilla Frost