This is the first of three reviews of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s masterful travelogue of his journey in 1853 to Mecca and Medina, disguised as a faithful pilgrim.
Read one of Burton’s masterful sentences in Misfit II
Burton brings the pilrgrimage to life in Misfit III
So said Tim Mackintosh-Smith, British traveler and one of today’s leading authors and students of travel writing, of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s A Secret Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. Burton was an outstanding linguist, but not at home in the Academy. He was a brilliant translator. He brought 1001 Arabian Nights to English in uncensored form, indelibly influencing modern literature, but was not at home with the literati. Fearless, he was an Army officer, but never one to fully embrace military discipline. He was a master of disguise. As a Hindu? Yes. A Turk? Yes. A Persian? Yes. An Arab? Yes. And yes to being an Afghani or ethnic Pathan, Burton’s cover as the wayfarer in A Pilgrimage. Immensely popular upon its first printing in 1856, the book made Burton’s famous, certifying his place in the pantheon of travel writers.
The pilgrim’s tale is the oldest form of travel literature, in both Western and Eastern traditions. Burton adds to the genre with lucid and vivid descriptions of the difficulty of getting to Mecca, the constant movement, the heat, thirst, dangers of the desert, robbery, tribal rivalries and feuding, sometimes deadly, between the two main branches of Islam:
The desert [was] peopled only with echoes – a place of death for what little there is to die – a wilderness where, to use my companion’s phrase, there it’s nothing but Allah. Nature, scalped, flayed, discovered all her skeleton to the gazer’s eye…
Faithful camel men [guards] are required upon a road where robberies are frequent and stabbings occasional, and where there is no law to prevent desertion or to limit new and exorbitant demands…
…the sun’s rays… become, a fiery ordeal. They oppress you with a feeling of sickness; their steady glow… blinds your eyes, blisters your skin, and parches your mouth…:
Disguised as an imposter, the threat of death is Burton’s silent companion, never leaving his side. “The first question at the shop, on the camel, and in the mosque, is ‘What is thy name?’ The second, ‘Winced commest thou?’ ” Burton nonchalantly glosses that “ …discovery would entail serious consequences… it would be easy to dispose of the [imposter] by giving a dollar to a Bedouin.”
There is more to this engaging, but at times difficult read tale. The first few chapters are weary descriptions of preparing for the trip. Burton takes us with him mile by mile, interesting for the Victorian reader, perhaps, but out of sync with today’s faster pace narratives. Worth the effort? Yes. One-third in (around 170 pages) and you’re rolling.
Return to part II, “Burton’s word-paintings”
Return to part III, “Peace of Mind and Getting There”
Both photos courtesy of Bing Images