A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Has any non-Muslim ever made the pilgrimage to Mecca?

June 8, 2001

Dear Cecil:

The recent item on your Web site about gentiles who have visited the holy places of the Mormons got me thinking. Have any non-Muslims ever visited Mecca, the holiest city of Islam, which is forbidden to infidels?

Cecil replies:

Oh, sure, plenty, but one in particular stands out. If we unbelievers had to elect one guy to represent us in defiling Islam's most sacred sites … eh, not the most diplomatic way of putting it. If there were one outsider whom Allah would have allowed to see the Kaaba without having his gizzard handed to him, it's this man: Richard Francis Burton (1821-'90 — no relation to the actor), a legendary adventurer, scholar, and (I realize this is an abrupt segue) sexual explorer. Not only did he visit Mecca, he translated the Kama Sutra with the confidence of one who'd been there, done that.

Like T.E. Lawrence, Burton was one of those brilliant eccentrics without whom, one suspects, the British Empire would have collapsed in a week. An athletic, rowdy youth, he had an extraordinary facility with languages — he could master one in a few months. (Eventually he learned 25 — 40 including dialects.) Thrown out of Oxford after a year for disciplinary infractions, he joined the military and was posted to India, where he demonstrated a knack for the undercover operations Kipling later termed the Great Game. A strikingly handsome man of Gypsy-like appearance, he used his command of language and talent for disguise to blend effortlessly into the native population, passing himself off as a merchant or religious wanderer as the occasion dictated, sometimes on missions for his imperial employers and sometimes just for sport. He was fascinated with Eastern religions, ostensibly becoming at various times a Hindu Brahman, a Sikh, and a Sufi, among other things. A prolific writer, he produced 43 books, many of them acute observations of local cultures that were much admired by subsequent anthropologists and ethnographers. He also embraced Eastern sexual practices, taking concubines, frequenting brothels, and later in life translating the erotic classics.

But you asked about Mecca. Having left India under a cloud — supposedly a report he was ordered to write on the homosexual brothels of Karachi implicated high-ranking British officials — Burton repaired to Europe for a few years of R and R. There he cultivated the idea of visiting Mecca, which he proceeded to do in 1853, disguised as an Afghan Muslim. Strictly speaking, he may not have been a non-Muslim; although he adopted many Eastern religious trappings as a convenience and was habitually opaque regarding his true feelings, he wrote warmly about Islam and may have considered himself an adherent. (For what it's worth, Muslims don't seem to have held the trip against him.) Nor was he the first European to make the pilgrimage and live. Nonetheless, he took a considerable risk: although he had a servant and made friends along the way, he was essentially on his own. His six-month journey involved a lengthy passage through country overrun by bandits, and his party was attacked on several occasions.

But Burton pulled it off. He reached Medina and then Mecca, kissed the sacred black stone, inspected the Kaaba, paced off measurements, made drawings, did everything but carve his name on the Prophet's tomb, taking care at all times to adhere to the religious formalities and displaying a coolness and presence of mind at which this brief account can only hint. When news of his exploit emerged upon his return, he was lionized in the press, and he remained a celebrity the rest of his life.

There's a great deal more to his story, but it would take a fat book to tell it (and has, several times over). Burton became the first European to visit the forbidden eastern African city of Harar, sought the source of the White Nile, visited Salt Lake City to write about the Mormons, served in various posts for the British foreign office, wrote books on an astonishing variety of subjects (although the ones on sex naturally garnered the greatest interest), published an unexpurgated translation of The Arabian Nights that's still considered a classic, and generally scandalized his fellow Victorians. He also married a devout Roman Catholic and was knighted (go figure). I make no special claims for his character: he was a bigot, a snob, and a reactionary, and for all his fascination with sex, seems to have had only superficial relationships with women. Nonetheless, he lived a life that we whose idea of adventure is bungee jumping can only regard with awe.

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