Trials and Tribulations on the Early Modern Hajj

Trials and Tribulations on the Early Modern Hajj

11 July 2022
A pilgrim like Yusuf Rumi was faced with a climate and environment only heard about in stories

As the Hajj season of 2022 draws to a close and pilgrims from across the Muslim world descend on Mecca, I want to reflect on the experiences and difficulties that pilgrims faced traversing the road to the Holy Cities during the early modern period. In this short piece I will focus on five distinct Hajj journeys which illuminate just a small segment of the multitude of experiences which encompassed the hajj in the early modern Muslim world.

Advice for a Caravan Leader

On the 26th of February 1727 the Moroccan pilgrim Mohammad ibn al-Ṭayyib began his journey overland from his home city of Fez on his way to Mecca. In the beginning of his pilgrimage narrative, the al-Rihla al-Hijaziyya, he enumerates the qualities that a hajj caravan leader should uphold. These qualities reveal the common concerns and worries for pilgrims who travelled the many months long journey from their homes to holy cities. Some of the more mundane advice includes that the caravan leader should work on “organising people and giving each group an identifiable spot to gather so as not to get lost or have to fight for a place... [and that] the leader should follow the easiest path and avoid slippery ones.” However, other sections of this advice hint at the danger of bandits and thieves along the long paths through the wilderness that the caravan must travail through. Mohammad ibn al-Ṭayyib warns that the caravan leader “should guard pilgrims when they are taking a rest, so that no one attacks them or steals their belongings...[and] He should fight the robbers if he can or bribe them with money. However, he cannot force pilgrims to pay money.” This last piece of advice is something that the author had firsthand experience with when he had his belongings and his books robbed from him in Algeria on his return journey from Mecca.

A Safavid Woman Abroad

The late seventeenth-century pilgrimage account of the widow of Mirza Khalil, sometimes referred to as the Lady of Isfahan, is one of the few, that I am aware of, accounts of the hajj written by a woman during the early modern era. The unnamed author notes that she went on hajj after her husband passed away, a Safavid bureaucrat named Mirza Khalil. She first uses the hajj journey as an opportunity to visit her family in the Southern Caucuses and thus travels north from her home of Isfahan. From here, on the Ottoman-Safavid borderland, she would cross into the Ottoman Empire and Anatolia near the frontier fortress of Kars where she describes how her caravan was descended upon by Ottoman soldiers who “boiled over like ants… [and] fell upon the road like a sea of dust” seeming to her like a fir forest which “stretched from one end of the world to the other.”

However, while her encounters with the Ottomans in Anatolia were tense and adversarial, she finds herself in more comfortable confines in the urban spaces of Aleppo and Damascus. It is here that she joins the official Ottoman hajj caravan which she describes as the “army of the pasha” which resembled an “immense sea” whose coloured banners filled the barren plain as if “a wild garden of tulips.” In fact, critiques of the Ottoman management of the hajj are few besides one comment while she is in Mecca, in which she laments that the Safavids and the Ottomans are like rival lovers, and they should put aside their differences for the sake of this “paradise-like place.”

The Raid

In 1632 the Ottoman scholar ‘Abdurrahman Hibri left his hometown of Edirne and embarked on his journey to Mecca via Istanbul, Konya, Aleppo, and Damascus. His pilgrimage account recounts his own encounter with a Bedouin raid upon his caravan, a common occurrence usually stemming from unpaid Ottoman stipends to the tribes along the hajj route or pressing climatic conditions which pushed Bedouin tribes to attack the hajj caravans during their desert crossing from Damascus to Medina.  Hibri mentions an attack on his pilgrimage caravan by the Banu Shahr tribe just before nightfall from the hills surrounding the pilgrims’ camp near al-‘Ula. While they fended the attack off, it highlights the many dangers for early modern pilgrims. The most notorious of these events occurred in 1757 when the Banu Sakhr tribe attacked and looted the hajj caravan of all its supplies. Bereft of supplies and exacerbated by a drought this attack led to the death of 20,000 pilgrims, including an Ottoman princess, in the Jordanian desert near to the caravan waystation of Dhat al-Hajj.

An Assassination in Mecca

The seventeenth-century Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi travelled with the Ottoman pasha of Damascus during his hajj journey. Evliya tells us that the pasha was sent to Mecca with his entourage to respond to the assassination of the Ottoman pasha of Jeddah, Hasan Pasha, who was killed at the behest of the Sharif of Mecca, Sharif Sa'd bin Zeyd, the hajj season prior. A bullet struck Hasan Pasha in Mecca while he was investigating a commotion around the Kaaba. The pasha was hit in the thigh and fell off his horse. His soldiers fought to protect him, and they took him out of the city to their camp at Mina. He passed away months later in Gaza. The tension between the Ottoman pasha of Jeddah and the Sharif of Mecca was nothing new, as they were often in arguments over local authority and rights to the valuable customs revenues of the port of Jeddah. However, this assassination during the hajj season – the only time of the year in which Ottoman soldiers would be in the heart of the Sharif of Mecca’s territory – forced an Ottoman response to these disputes. Therefore, during Evliya’s time in Mecca he witnessed Sharif Sa'd bin Zeyd replaced and his rebellion ended. The Ottoman Pasha of Damascus placed a new sharif at the head of the Sharifate of Mecca, Sharif Barakāt, and Sa'd bin Zeyd spent the next two decades in exile outside of Edirne before he returned to Mecca.

The Climatic Encounter

The early eighteenth-century hajj itinerary of Yusuf Rumi provides us with insights into the struggles of the hajj journey with just as much as the many written accounts above in only a few notes on the margins of his itinerary. Yusuf Rumi’s itinerary marks his journey across the Ottoman world from his hometown of Sarajevo to Mecca via Plovdiv, Istanbul, and Damascus. His account includes the listing of menzils, or stages, along the hajj route and the hours of travel to be expected between locations which was a common feature of pilgrimage guides. While reading through his itinerary one notices marginal notes alongside the different waystations along the road giving small pieces of advice on where to stay or the quality of water in that place. As Yusuf Rumi travels further and further from the familiar green confines of the rolling hills of Bosnia and the Balkans one can see the increasing scarcity of water along the road to Mecca. When he reaches the Arabian desert there are several waystations listed after gruelling 15-plus hours of treks in the desert where Yusuf Rumi’s tired hand simply wrote “There is no water.” In those passing words one can imagine the difficulty of his journey, the anguish of that moment, and fear of this new and different environment from the one which he had known his whole life.

hajj notebook

Image: Page from Yusuf Rumi's hajj itinery

It was common for pilgrims to mention problems with the life-saving wells along the hajj road in the Arabian Desert with either caravans further ahead taking all the water stores for themselves or Bedouin tribes poisoning the wells with dead animals to extort passing caravans. A pilgrim like Yusuf Rumi was not only faced with a climate and environment only heard about in stories but also the real possibility that he may have to travel days without water through one of the most difficult climates he had ever experienced.

Title image: Photo of the hajj waystation of Fassu’ah Fort in southern Jordan


Pilgrimage Accounts Referenced

Evliya Çelebi. Seyahatname. Vol. 9. Transliterated by Robert Dankoff, Seyit Ali Kahraman, and Yücel Dağlı. Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2006. [Evliya Çelebi’s Account]

Ilgürel, Sevim, ed., “Abdurrahman Hibri'nin Menasik-i Mesaliki,” IUEF Tarih Enstitiisii Dergisi (Istanbul 1975), pp. 111- 118 & IUEF Tarih Dergisi (Istanbul 1976), pp. 55-72 & IUEF Tarih Dergisi, (Istanbul 1978), pp. 147-162. [‘Abdurrahman Hibri]

Lady of Isfahan [Banu-yi Isfahani]. Safarnamah-‘i Manzum-i Hajj – Hamrah Ba Naqshah’ha va Tasavir. Qum: Sazman-I Jughrafiya’yi Niruha-yi Musallah, 2008. [Widow of Mirza Khalil’s Account]

Lahlali, El Mustapha, and Salah al-Dihan, and Wafa Abu Hatab. The Travels of Ibn al-Ṭayyib: The Forgotten Journey of an Eighteenth Century Traveller to the Hijaz. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010. [Ibn al-Tayyib’s Account]

Yusuf b. Ya’qub al-Rumi al-Hanafi. Menasik Al-Hagg, Gazi Husrev Beg Library. Sarajevo, BiH. R. 7437. (copy 1773) [Yusuf Rumi’s Account]


Tyler Kynn, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University. He tweets @KynnTyler