Books & Manuscripts

Photographing Mecca, A 19th Century Account of Islam's Holy City

By Roxane Zand
Sotheby's Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History sale on 14 May features the personal albums of Mecca by Dutch Orientalist Christiaan Snouck-Hurgonje . These photographs are today considered among the most important Western records of Islam's holy city.

T here is no more important location in the world than Mecca for the Muslim soul. For some, the significance of Mecca transcends beyond a pilgrimage site into metaphysical dimensions, creating a mythology all its own.

Holding much fascination for the Christian world at a time when access for foreigners was limited and photography still quite rare, records of Mecca in the nineteenth century were of special value. Today they form an incomparable historical source for the specialist, student and collector.

Christiaan Snouck Hurgonje’s Mekka and Bilder aus Mekka (1888–1889) are two of the most important western accounts of Islam’s holy city, of equal importance to Richard Burton’s Narrative of a Pilgrimage of 1855, but with the added interest of photographic images by Snouck Hurgronje himself and his student Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar, a Meccan doctor, and the first Arab photographer of Mecca.

Snouck Hurgronje was a respected Dutch orientalist who converted to Islam and spent the years 1884 to 1885 living in Mecca, during which time he made an extensive photographic record with Abd al-Ghaffar. The resulting works, published upon Snouck Hurgronje’s return to the Netherlands, provide a rare visual insight into the people, life and faith of Mecca, at a period when the city and the Arabian peninsula at large stood on the brink of modernisation.

Sotheby’s is privileged to offer in May this set of books and photographs which come directly from Snouck-Hurgronje’s family and which are particularly distinguished because they are from the author’s own collection, were specially bound for him and have authorial manuscript notes. It is therefore hard to imagine more perfect examples of these wonderful works. For those who wish to have an understanding of Mecca that transcends beyond its figuration today, this archive is an extraordinary source.

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