A Modern Pilgrim in Mecca


Major Arthur John Byng Wavell (1882‒1916) was a British military officer, Arabist, and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Born in London, he was educated at Winchester College and Sandhurst. In 1900 he joined the Welsh Regiment of the British Army and sailed to British South Africa, where he fought in the Boer War. This was followed by a War Office assignment to map and report on less known British possessions in the region, during which he journeyed across the Kalahari Desert to Victoria Falls. He left the military service in 1906. He then went to British East Africa, where he bought land in Nyali, now a suburb of Mombasa, Kenya. It was here that he began a sisal plantation, learned Arabic, and “conceived of the idea of visiting the forbidden Mohammedan City of Mecca in disguise.” A Modern Pilgrim in Mecca recounts Wavell’s pilgrimage to Muslim holy sites in present-day Saudi Arabia in 1908‒9. Travelling on a Turkish passport and disguised as a Zanzibari by the name of Ali bin Mohammed, Wavell first left London for Marseille, where he met with his two Muslim companions, a Mombasa-based Zanzibari and a Berlin-based Syrian. From Genoa they boarded a ship to Alexandria and later to Beirut, and from there they took the train to Damascus, where they stayed for a month before taking the Hejaz Railway to Medina. A caravan from Medina took them to the port town of Yanbu on the Red Sea, and then by ship to Jeddah and overland to Mecca. The book begins with a prelude on Wavell’s background, written by Major Leonard Darwin, who was president of the Royal Geographical Society. This is followed by a preface and a lengthy introduction, both by Wavell, on the history and geography of Arabia and Islam. The rest of the book is divided into sections discussing each leg of the journey, including descriptions of the cities he visited and the people he encountered. The book concludes with a description of the hajj (pilgrimage) rituals and the city of Mecca. Following the hajj, Wavell traveled extensively in the Middle East. In 1914 he raised in Mombasa a force of about 150 Arab street water carriers, the so-called Arab Rifles or “Wavell’s Arabs,” to defend the city against the Germans. Although he was credited with saving the city from falling into enemy hands, he was severely wounded in the fight. Two years later he was ambushed and killed near the post of Mwele in a skirmish with the Germans as he and his men were guarding the Uganda Railway. Shown here is the second edition of Wavell’s book, published posthumously in 1918.

Last updated: February 18, 2016