Remembering Burton’s journey to Mecca
Of the many giants of the 19th century, few were as accomplished as Sir Richard Francis Burton.
Relatively unknown today, Burton was a fascinating character who could speak more than two dozen languages, was the first European to see Lake Tanganyika and served as a British diplomat in several countries.
But the above hardly does justice to Burton’s accomplishments. Born in 1821, he was a British geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, poet and fencer, in addition to being a linguist, explorer and diplomat.
Burton was a prolific and erudite author, and wrote numerous books and scholarly articles about copious subjects, including human behavior, travel, falconry, fencing, sexual practices and ethnography.
He was known for his travels and explorations within Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures.
Burton’s best-known achievements include traveling in disguise to Mecca, a feat he accomplished in the early 1850s.
He was not the first non-Muslim European to make the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city, but his journey is considered the most famous and best documented of the period.
The end result of his trek, A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, was published in 1855, and became an instant sensation.
Burton was noted for being decidedly un-Victorian in his mores, and his work, sprinkled with dry wit and cogent observations, is a masterpiece of travel writing.
A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah stands the test of time, even though much of the mystery surrounding Islam and the holy city of Mecca has been unraveled over the past 160 years.
Among the more entertaining bits in Burton’s work is his impression of the effect of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on believers, which he witnessed while in Cairo.
During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from consuming food, drinking liquids and sexual relations from dawn until sunset.
During Burton’s time in the Middle East, the Ramadan holy month fell in June, which meant adherents went without for 16 hours a day. That left folks a little on the crabby side, according to Burton:
Like the Latin, Anglo-Catholic and Greek fasts, the chief effect of the “blessed month” upon True Believers is to darken their tempers into positive gloom. Their voices, never of the softest, acquire, especially after noon, a terribly harsh and creaking tone. The men curse one another and beat the women. The women slap and abuse the children, and these in their turn cruelly entreat, and use bad language to, the dogs and cats. You can scarcely spend ten minutes in any populous part of the city without hearing some violent dispute. The “Karakun,” or station-houses, are filled with lords who have administered an undue dose of chastisement to their ladies, and with ladies who have scratched, bitten, and otherwise injured the persons of their lords.
The Mosques are crowded with a sulky, grumbling population, making themselves offensive to one another on earth, whilst working their way to heaven; and in the shade, under the outer walls, the little boys who have been expelled (from) the church attempt to forget their miseries in spiritless play. In the bazaars and streets, pale long-drawn faces, looking for the most part intolerably cross, catch your eye, and at this season a stranger will sometimes meet with positive incivility. A shopkeeper, for instance, usually says when he rejects an insufficient offer, Yaftah Allah, “Allah opens” viz., the door of daily bread, a polite way of informing a man that you and he are not likely to do business; in other words, that you are not in want of his money. In the Ramadan, he will grumble … and gruffly tell you not to stand there wasting his time. But as a rule the shops are either shut or destitute of shopmen, merchants will not purchase, and students will not study. In fine, the Ramadan, for many classes, is one twelfth of the year wantonly thrown away.
As someone who can get rather ornery by simply giving up donuts for Lent, I can understand how doing without food, drink and whatnot during daylight hours for an entire month might have a detrimental effect on one’s personality.
Though one pities the poor dogs and cats that, for no discernible reason that they could determine, were suddenly mistreated by their benefactors for a month out of each year.