To the Holy Lands
Pilgrimage Centers from Mecca and Medina to there
Published in 2A Magazine Issue #13 – Spring 2010
Thanks to their remarkable development with regard to museums and exhibitions concerned with culture, history and the arts, the United Arabian Emirates are increasingly creating awareness of their cultural traditions as well as contributing to global knowledge of the important contribution of Islamic civilisation to world history and culture. In so doing the UAE open important perspectives for the study and comprehension of the encounter of civilisations.
We had these ideas in mind when we were asked to present an exhibition in the Region. All the exhibition themes we considered dealt with the encounter of Orient and Occident:
after all, since medieval times, when Muslims scholars taught philosophy and medicine, mathematics and science, astronomy and engineering at the important European Universities of Paris, Bologna, Coimbra and Palermo, there has been a constant dialogue between East and West and a mutual inspiration.
We offered to organise an exhibition devoted to highlighting one of the encounters between Orient and Occident, concentrating on a less known yet fascinating topic. In the 19th century, scientists, architects and engineers from the Orient studied at European universities, getting acquainted with the most recent technical developments and subsequently adapting the recently emerging technical worlds to the specific conditions of the Middle East. At the same time, artists and scientists from Europe travelled to the East, fascinated by an Oriental world so different from the West. The topic for our exhibition was the technique of photography which had just been discovered. Photography was the most recent and most innovative technology at the time, comparable maybe to what nowadays is electronics. For the first time, real life could be fixed or frozen on glass negatives or paper and this created a 2-dimensional, new and unknown world. Some sets of those photographs are unique in the world. Nevertheless, for more than a hundred years, the Reiss- Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim has owned unique creations of early photography of the Orient, among them the first photographs of the Holy Pilgrimage Centres in Mekka, Medina and Jerusalem.
Three aspects are to be emphasised:
– Some of the photographers from the West reached the height of their professional achievement due to their time and practice in the Orient and subsequently became famous worldwide. The biologist Jacob August Lorent is a good example of this phenomenon. Thanks to his photographs of
the Orient he received awards at international level.
– Already in the 19th century, Arabian photographers were among the internationally leading photographers. A good example for this is the engineer Mohammad Sadiq Bey, an Egyptian, whose photographs also received international prizes in Venice and Philadelphia.
– Artist friendships between photographers from Europe and Arabia were established at that time, the most eminent between the physicist al-Sayyid Abd Al-Ghaffar from Mekka and the Dutch Arabist Christian Snouck-Hurgronje.
The origins of Oriental photography remain to be fully elucidated. Very few copies of the valuable Mekka portfolios by Sadiq Bey are known to have survived; indeed, only those images in the safekeeping of the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museums have ever been shown to the general public. The photographs of Jerusalem taken by Lorent and presented in our exhibition in 2008 are the only ones of their kind anywhere in the world.
The one thing that all of the pioneers of photography in the Orient had in common was their choice of subject matter. Why did they focus on pilgrims and holy places so often? Engineer Sadiq Bey and Doctor Abd al-Ghaffar were believing and devoted Muslims, while as scientists, they set out to depict ‘reality’ – an aspiration for whose attainment the newly discovered technique of photography seemed the ideal medium.
Snouck Hurgronje, who took photographs in Mekka, converted to Islam and underwent circumcision. For Jakob August Lorent, who – like Sadiq Bey – was accorded international acclaim for his prize-winning photographs, the Orient inspired deep affection just as much as it was a source of grief to him: it was here that he discovered and was unable to realise his calling as an artist.
All of these photographers wanted to capture the region’s fascinating sites, events and people in lasting images, to present such things as they really were. Some of them were well aware of their importance in the history of the art of ‘writing with light.’
The beginnings of photography coincided with the identity crisis of the Occident in the 19th century: Secularisation and the loss of religious beliefs gave rise to a prevailing sense of spiritual emptiness and boredom throughout Europe. Strict social conventions were felt to be irksomely restrictive. People were repelled by the cold splendour of Western metropolises and their longing for passion and faith became directed toward the East. Artists from all over Europe in particular searched for regeneration and inspiration in the Orient, which for them was the place of origin of the occidental world. Here they wanted to stay, hoping that those regions might be a source of the desired inner renewal. Famous European photographers like Jakob August Lorent (1813-1884) reached their full artistic development only during their stay in the Orient. Lorent explains his fascination insisting that in the Orient – in contrast to Africa, Australia and America – cultural history has left its mark right up to the present day, a mark different from that of Europe. With his camera and a supply of very large glass negatives, he travelled through the Mediterranean region, particularly to areas once belonging to the Muslim world in Southern Spain, North Africa, the Middle East and Greece.
In Jerusalem he photographed not only typical subjects and the Wailing Wall, but also seemingly unspectacular archaeological objects like the fragment of a stairway probably dating from the time of Solomon. The Orient exerted a fascination for him and photography was his means of appropriating it scientifically. Lorent’s commitment to his subject is reflected by the pictures taken for his portfolio “Bilder aus Jerusalem” (“Images of Jerusalem”) from 1864. In the context of our 2008-exhibition in the Region, selected photographs from this portfolio have been shown for the first time outside this German Museum.
Surprisingly the first important Arabic photographers like Mohammed Sadiq Bey (1832-1902) did not choose the modern metropolises of the Arabic world such as Cairo, Damascus or Bagdad, as a subject for their photos, but instead the Holy Lands, Mekka, Medina and Jerusalem.
Sadiq Bey was an engineer, who had finished his career in Cairo and Paris. Back in Egypt he was commissioned by the Egyptian army to draw maps of the hidjia region around Mekka. Having come into contact with photography while in Europe, he took a plate camera with him on his expeditions. Excited by the documentary possibilities opened up by this medium, he took photographs in Mekka and Medina.
He was well aware of the pioneering nature of his activities. Both in Europe and in the World Exhibitions in Philadelphia, USA, his images – characterised by a somewhat distanced technical, ‘professional approach’ – attracted widespread interest. They did show holy places, accessible only for Muslims.
Sadiq Bey devoted four books to various aspects of the Great Pilgrimage, including one dealing with the Mahmal, the ‘ornamental camel-litter’ in which the Kiswa was taken to Mekka and which he – now with the title of pasha – was given the honour of accompanying on the commission of the Egyptian government.
The photographer’s consciousness of the fact that taking a picture involves penetrating into the most intimate sphere of its subject is surely attributable to his religious sensitivity. The few surviving portfolios of images by Sadiq Bey are among the most valuable photographs in the world today. Only three copies have been preserved. Two of them are in the possession of private collectors: one of them is owed by a private individual who does not give access to anyone, the other is in possession of the Royal Saudi Family; both of them are inaccessible to the public. The third set of those photographs is the portfolio preserved at the Reiss – Engelhorn – Museums in Mannheim, Germany, and it is this one which the Museum put on display in the UAE.
Sadiq Bey’s somewhat distanced approach is in contrast to that of other artists. Snouck Hurgronje (1857–1936), Arabist and expert on Islam, had ample opportunity to take photographs of pilgrims during a prolonged stay in Jeddah. He employed photography as a means of scientific investigation, and the resulting portraits are marked by a systematic mode of approach. All social classes are represented, ranging from
members of the aristocracy and the holders of important offices and honours to members of the most diverse professions and even slaves.
He was so enthusiastic about his experiences that he himself converted to Islam and underwent circumcision. Thereafter, he wore the same clothing as the local inhabitants. In Mekka, he was able – thanks to the help of an artist friend, Al- Ghaffar – to continue his studies for several months more. During this time, he photographed many people belonging to the society of Mekka.
The Arabist from the Netherlands, Snouck Hurgronje, was the first person to use photography in Arabia with the aim of making a comprehensive social survey. The portraits that he made in Mekka have been preserved on hundreds of glass plates kept in the Snouck Hurgronje Archive in Leiden. A small proportion of these were published in photographic portfolios. These accompanied the volumes in which Snouck Hurgronje presented a panorama of the holy city that embraced its inhabitants and their living conditions, as well as their customs and manners. Today, these works are numbered among the standard works dealing with Mekka.
Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar, a doctor from Mekka, was Snouck Hurgronje’s host in this pilgrim centre. The medical practitioner and the Arabist shared a lively curiosity about scientific matters, and it was Hurgronje who taught, the doctor from Mekka how to take photographs. When his visitor had departed for home, al-Ghaffar took pictures of cities and landscapes on his behalf. Transporting a camera and darkroom tent with him, he travelled to the pilgrim camp by Mount Arafat and in the Mina Valley, where he was able to make several remarkable images that virtually amount to a photographic documentation. He directed his lens into the crowd, not hesitating to move close in. In his images, the scorching desert sun is still blazing over the pilgrims’ tents. Abd al-Ghaffar sent his negatives to Leiden, where Snouck Hurgronje further processed them and published prints of them in the 1889 portfolio, Pictures of Mekka.
Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje travelled to Mekka in 1885 in order to continue his studies and, by means of photography, to accumulate a great many pictures in a short time. In Abd al-Ghaffar, he found a friend and fellow-artist. In all probability, it was the doctor’s active assistance that enabled Snouck Hurgronje to make portraits in the holy city. It may well be that many of the inhabitants of Mekka were beguiled by the prospect of seeing themselves in photographs.
While Snouck Hurgronje took his photographs with the aim of compiling a comprehensive visual account of the city, Abd al-Ghaffar’s interest was somehow different. Consequently, the Arabist from the Netherlands was not always satisfied by al-Ghaffar’s images, complaining that the photographs supplied by his friend lacked “systematic principles” and were irrelevant to his own field of inquiry. In spite of his reservations, Snouck Hurgronje did publish the photographs of the doctor from Mekka. Some of the glass negatives display the signature of al-Ghaffar, proving that he was the first photographer in Mekka.
The approach to the new medium as adopted by the doctor was indeed less inhibited by preconceived ideas than that of his teacher. He experimented with both the photographic chemicals and equipment. He placed his camera so close to his subjects that some images seem to transport the viewer into the midst of the events depicted. Abd al-Ghaffar was in fact one of the first reportage photographers.
The heat and dust made it difficult to prepare and fix the plates, which were often overexposed, and this accounts for the later drawing in of outlines on the glass plates. Letters written by al-Ghaffar describe his problems with the chemicals and the “extremely sultry and hot weather.”
Nowadays, taking a photograph is simply a matter of pressing a button on a digital camera. The data are then stored on a chip-card or may be erased immediately if the image is unsatisfactory.
During the 19th century on the other hand, each photograph required a considerable amount of time and effort: a photographer like Abd al-Ghaffar needed to take about 50 kg of equipment on a journey: a bulky camera, flasks containing various chemicals, glass plates and a tent that could serve as a darkroom.
Before taking a picture, he first had to coat a glass plate with viscous collodion containing light-sensitive silver salts, and this plate was then inserted into the camera (this all had to be done in the darkness of the tent). He was now ready to set up his camera in front of his subject and release the lensshutter. Those parts of the plate exposed to light turned dark, whereas the other parts remained light. Back in the tent, this image had to be quickly fixed, using a solvent to wash off the chemicals that had not yet reacted with light. Only now did the photographer have his precious glass negative, from which he could produce as many prints as he liked.
Working in the tent, he was plagued by chemical vapors and oppressive heat, while the chilly desert nights were no less trying.
It was not without risk that a Western photographer undertook a journey in the Orient. His equipment attracted attention and was a source of puzzlement and suspicion. As a foreigner, his clothes and behavior might easily betray him as an infidel, and his discovery in one of the forbidden holy sites would have meant certain death.
As a result of all these obstacles and difficulties, photographic subjects were chosen with great care. These served the viewer as ‘anchors’ of memory. Visitors travelling abroad purchased such images and took them home, where the views conjured up the cedars of Lebanon in their mind’s eye or perhaps recalled to mind the time spent by a well in Damascus.
The French entrepreneur, Félix Bonfils, opened photographic studios in cities that attracted many visitors, such as Cairo, Jerusalem, Baalbek and Beirut, where travellers and pilgrims eagerly purchased his views of the main sights. Some photographers were motivated by a desire to document with scientific precision the Orient’s mosques, churches, ruins and landscapes.
It is rather intriguing to try and understand the way in which in the 19th century both the Muslim World and Europe combined high tech – developments with the fascination of ancient religious places even though the photographers were mostly scientists and engineers. In the early photography of the Orient, Jerusalem is a main subject. It is the starting-point of the history of salvation for Jews, Christians and Muslims, as it was here on Mount Moriah that Abraham raised an altar where he was prepared to sacrifice his son – his future – at God’s request.
Today, this site lies within the Dome of the Rock, which was built by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. In Islamic thought,this was the point of departure for the prophet Mohammed’s visionary ascent to heaven, during which he also met Abraham.
Furthermore, the rock was once the focal point of the enclosure of Solomon’s Temple. Although almost entirely destroyed (like its successor), this Temple’s only surviving retaining wall, the Wailing Wall, has been a place of pilgrimage for Jews for almost two thousand years.
By visiting Christ’s place of birth and the main sites relating to his life and martyrdom, Christian pilgrims meanwhile visit Jerusalem to draw closer to their Saviour. For both Jews and Christians, the ‘Heavenly Jerusalem’ is a synonym for paradise.
Jerusalem is a centre of pilgrimage. In the main religions of humanity, a special significance is accorded to journeys made to specific sacred sites. In the 19th century in fact, photographers focused their attention and interest on the Holy Lands and on the pilgrimage centres of the Orient. It is not only the places but above all the believers and pilgrims who attract the attention of the photographers.
For well over a thousand years, pilgrim routes have traversed the Muslim world between Timbuktu and Palembang, Tiranë and Mombasa, Baku and Beijing. The most important are those pilgrimage routes laid down by the Umayyad dynasty of caliphs way back in the late 7th century: Pilgrims coming
from three directions converged on Cairo, Damascus or the port of Jeddah and then joined caravans travelling to Mekka and Medina.
These long journeys – both by ship on the world’s oceans and in caravans crossing mountain ranges and deserts – were terribly strenuous and fraught with danger to life and limb. People undertaking a pilgrimage in the holy month of pilgrimage have a sacred obligation to live in peace among themselves. Pilgrimage integrates different peoples and parts of the world into a single community, one of the best examples for this phenomenon is the Islamic Hajj which unites Muslims from all over the globe.
The exhibition „To the Holy Lands” was mounted in a self supporting wooden construction with shiny black out walls (a total of 15 running meters), a kind of “black box”, which was fitted into the lobby of a large building. Inside this cube in a kind of gallery the work was arranged thematically through a series of rooms and corridors as well as the photographs hemselves, pilgrims from all the world, Mekka and the multitudes of pilgrims, the pilgrim- camps in Abu Mina and at Mount Arafat, sacred places in Jerusalem, dedication of early photographers, oriental portraits of the pilgrims and inhabitants of Mekka. Copious notes and quotations aim at communicating the message of the exhibition. The visitor was walking on sand, to get a sense of the physical experience of the pioneers of photography in the orient.
The exhibition design was done by B. Hähnel – Bökens. The exhibition was realised thanks to the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority and the then culture manager M. Schindhelm and with the help of project assistant Tobias Wüstenbecker M.A., the exhibition has been realised. A companion publication to the exhibition has been published in German, English and Arabic language*. The whole project.owes a lot to the good services of the former Consul General of Germany in the UAE, Dr. J. A. Cohausz.
The exhibition was celebrated in 2008 at DIFC, Dubai, UAE and produced by the REISS-ENGELHORN-MUSEEN for the Dubai Culture and Art Authority.
* Alfried Wieczorek, Michael Tellenbach, Claude W. Sui To the Holy Lands. 19th Century Photographs: Places of Pilgrimage from Mecca and Medina to Jerusalem, München 2008, Verlag Prestel.
THIS PAGE: Jerusalem, The Mosque of Omar, the Dome of the Rock from the North-East; Left, the “Dome of the Chain”
Anonymous, c. 1875
OPPOSITE PAGE: Mecca, View into the Temple Courtyard with the Mosque and the Kaaba
Mohammed Sadiq Bey, 1880