Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to el Medinah and Meccah


Richard Francis Burton (1821‒90) was a British orientalist, soldier, spy, diplomat, and explorer best known for his travels in Arabia, Africa, and India. He was born in Torquay, on the southern coast of England, and was raised in France and Italy. It was there that he began to show his exceptional talent with languages by learning Latin, Greek, Italian, and French before he was 20. After two years at Oxford, he was dismissed on disciplinary grounds. He went on to join the British Army in India, where he served as an intelligence officer. Disguised as a Pashtun Muslim and supported by the Royal Geographical Society, in 1853 Burton undertook a hajj journey to the two Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. His two-volume Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to el Medinah and Meccah recounts that journey. Burton spent years in preparation, mostly during his time in India. The journey first took him from England to Alexandria in Egypt, and further to Cairo, Suez, and Yanbu. From there he travelled to Medina and Mecca. Although Burton was not the first non-Muslim to perform the hajj, the accuracy of his well-documented account, including his measurements of the Kaaba in Mecca and his Victorian-era observations on Muslims (especially his copious notes on manners), brought him immediate fame. Burton begins the first volume of his work with a famed line of verse on cavalierism by the Arab poet al-Mutanabbi (915‒65 AD): “I am well known to the night, the steeds, and the desert / the sword and [the guest], the paper and the pen.” A controversial figure during his lifetime and a prolific writer and translator, Burton left behind 43 volumes of writing on his journeys and 30 volumes of translations, including of sensual books such the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, The Perfumed Garden of the Cheikh Nefzaoui, and the Arabian Nights. He died in Trieste, in what was then Austria-Hungary.

Last updated: February 18, 2016