“Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj” by Michael Christopher Low


The Hijaz, that part of the Arabian Peninsula which contains the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, was long subject to imperialism, but not of Western variety: it was instead subject to the Ottomans. Although nominally under Ottoman suzerainty for centuries, it was ironically 19th-century British imperialism that forced Istanbul to attempt to consolidate its control over the region.

In Imperial Mecca, Michael Christopher Low sets the Hijaz as a place between two imperial worlds: an Ottoman island adrift on a colonial ocean, lost in the artificial academic division between the Middle East and South Asia. He argues that the connecting tissue was the advent of the steamship and the consequently increasingly interconnected nature of the Muslim world and the vehicle was the Hajj. The author demonstrates  how the rise of European colonial rule over Muslim lands altered the Ottoman states relations to these colonized Muslims. Did the diaspora of Indian Muslims sojourning or settled in the Hijaz represent the British Trojan Horse of extra-territorial influence? By acquisition of colonial nationality and the extra territorial legal claims this entailed, such foreign Muslims provided a pretext for European powers like Britain and Russia to interfere in the affairs of Muslim holy places.

Imperial Mecca examines how the introduction of this colonial element altered Ottoman governance in the Hijaz and the pressures to unravel the traditional power-sharing between the Caliphate in Istanbul and the Mecca Sharifate. The author makes use of an interesting metaphor to illustrate how European colonialism arrived in the Ottoman Hijaz as a steamship stowaway.


Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj, Michael Christopher Low (Columbia University Press, October 2020)
Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj, Michael Christopher Low (Columbia University Press, October 2020)

The tensions in the Hijaz were between a number of powers, in particular the British, the local Sharif of Mecca and the Ottoman Sultan. The Hijaz in particular was only nominally under Ottoman rule. Owing to his lineage from the Prophet, the Sharif of Mecca exercised all functions of Government, which would prove fatal to Ottoman interests during World War One with the Sharif of Mecca turning on the Ottoman Caliphate, paralleling  the Crimean war of 1855-56 which arose over disputes between Russia and the Ottomans over pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

British Indian subjects constituted both the single largest diasporic community in the Hijaz and the largest contingent of Hajj pilgrims each year. One Ottoman informant expressed concerns that these Indians would act as a British fifth column to enable British seizure of the region. The Sharif of Mecca organized guides for the pilgrims from Jeddah, including camel trains, designed to ensure the financial interests of the Sharif; pilgrims were regularly fleeced. The Caliph’s attempts to abolish such guides proved unsuccessful. Indeed, even the British-appointed protector of pilgrims in based in Bombay was complicit in funnelling pilgrims to the Sharif’s men. However, the Caliph knew his hands were tied:


any direct confrontation between the Ottoman state and the Sharifate would increase the likelihood that the Sharifate might forge an alliance with a foreign power or that open conflict between the central government and Mecca would provoke a violent crisis that might lead to foreign intervention.


Indeed, the Ottoman Ambassador to Paris Salih Munir Pasha reported in 1899:


even in the Hijaz the English have taken some villainous measures and conspired to foment a plot to sever the Ottoman Sultanate from the Holy Islamic Caliphate… The English are attempting to plant the seeds of all manner of disunion and strife within Islam… Piece by piece, I have submitted this information by telegraph… I have taken the necessary measures to uncover who is involved in this plot and get to the bottom of these diabolical enterprises.


The ambassador repeatedly warned that the British Empire was engaged in a sweeping strategy to transfer the Ottoman Caliphate to the sharif of Mecca and bring that most sacred Islamic office under the sway of Britain’s Indian Empire. By doing so he believed that the British planned to bring the Hijaz, Najd and Iraq under British protection and eventually turn them into colonies such as Aden.

Due to its sacred status, the Hijaz was never an ideal candidate for direct occupation by Britain. However, Britain’s erection of an empire-wide pilgrimage bureaucracy would pose an increasingly credible challenge to the Ottoman Caliph’s legitimacy as the sole custodian of the Muslim holy places and the Hajj. Indeed, the British empire played its “Muslim” card asserting itself to be, paradoxically for a non-Muslim island nation, the most populous and powerful “Muslim Empire” to some extent an interesting mirroring of Abdul Hamid II’s pan-Islamism.

The affairs of Muslim subjects making the pilgrimage to Mecca became an object of international non-Muslim regulation particularly as regards cholera epidemics and quarantine. In British eyes the Hijaz was seen as an abode of pan-Islamic anticolonial radicalisation. The steamship made the Hajj accessible to pilgrims of modest means. Indian ocean pilgrims accounted for nearly half of ocean-going arrivals in the 1890s. Indians were also the principal carriers of cholera. In 1865 cholera wiped out 15,000-30,000 pilgrims from a total of 150,000. India’s pilgrim masses were the source of the epidemic. The epidemic spread far and wide as pilgrims travelled back to their homes resulting in the loss of over 200,000 North American and European lives. British embarrassment that its subjects were responsible for such an epidemic would lead to the development of a British administered quarantine Island at the mouth of the Red Sea at Karaman Island for Muslims wishing to enter Arabia for the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. Such imperial meddling in Islamic pilgrimage affairs only came to an end in 1957 with World Health Organisation approved quarantine facilities in Jeddah. Today humanity faces another deadly disease courtesy of a populous Asian nation.


This important study highlights the much-maligned late Ottoman state, that famous “sick man of Europe”, was still more than capable of executing tremendously ambitious technological feats. But technical fixes such as the extension of telegraph and development of the Hijaz railway could not overcome the underlying weakness inherent in the Hijaz’s semiautonomous relationships with the Sharifate of Mecca and the region’s Bedouin inhabitants. As a result, the Ottoman state’s calculated reticence and military incapacity to dramatically alter the constitutional terms of these relationships would continue to undermine the modernising dreams of Istanbul’s experts and technocrats.

Meanwhile, Turkish and Western competition over Arabia lives on today in Libya, Palestine and Syria.

Farrukh Husain is a lawyer as well as author of Afghanistan in the Age of Empires (2018) covering the first Anglo-Afghan war; he has worked as a history researcher for academics and William Dalrymple.