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Volume 50, Number 1January/February 1999

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Pioneer Photographer of the Holy Cities

Written by John De St. Jorre
Photographs courtesy of Farid Kioumgi / Egyptophilia

In late January 1861, as Americans were preparing for civil war, an Egyptian colonel in Cairo was boarding an east-bound train for Suez on a mission of a more peaceful kind. Muhammad Sadiq, an officer of the general staff and an engineer, had packed a large assortment of surveying instruments in his luggage, including a "hectometre," a wheel-like device for measuring distance. He had also carefully stowed away another relatively new invention: a large, unwieldy wet-plate camera.

Sadiq's destination was Arabia. His military mission was to explore the area between the Red Sea port of Wajh and the holy city of Madinah and report on the topography, climate, routes, and human settlements of the region. Photography, it seems, was not an official part of the plan, merely a hobby that the colonel had taken up and hoped to pursue on his travels. After a short stay in Suez, Sadiq took ship and reached Wajh two days later. Wajh was then a busy, medium-sized port on the Egyptian pilgrim route that ran southward from Aqaba along the Red Sea coast.

In an account of his travels published later in Cairo, Sadiq's observant, meticulous reporting style was immediately apparent. Nine kilometers (5½ mi) inland from Wajh, he reported, there was "a fort ... built amidst the mountains, which are composed of red sandstone. It is well-armed with guns, and is a proper store for the supplies of the pilgrims. ... The place is strewn with pebbles and stones, and is the point where three routes meet, the first leading to Suez and known as the al-'Ula Route, the second is called El-Sitar, and the third leads to the Holy City of Madinah." Sadiq went on to record the nature of the terrain around the fort, the district's water supply, the relations between the Ottoman governor and the Arabs, and the differences between the local camels and those of Egypt and Syria.

Sadiq and his small group then headed south, and they took 12 days—a leisurely pace for the time—to cover the 418 kilometers (259 mi) to Madinah, following the Wadi al-Hamd for much of the way. As they moved, Sadiq measured, mapped and recorded the barren, mountainous route, noting fortifications and areas where fresh water and provisions could be obtained. It was hard going. Temperatures exceeded 38 degrees Centigrade (100° F) during the day and plummeted to near freezing at night. But finally, the great walled city of Madinah, with its slender minarets rising against the surrounding hills, came into view. The party halted and the colonel, for the first time since he left Cairo, unpacked his precious camera.

The Hijaz, a scarred landscape of eroded hills, dry wadis and drifting sands comprising the coastal plain and mountains of northwest Arabia, had long been familiar to pilgrims from all over the Islamic world as the cradle of the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. The Hijaz coast, particularly the ports of Jiddah and Yanbu', received visits from Western explorers, merchants and other travelers, but penetration of the hinterland was much rarer, especially for travelers with scientific or military purposes in mind.

Before the 19th century, the accounts of Westerners who had been to the holy cities could be counted on the fingers of one hand. (See Aramco World, November/ December 1974.) A Bolognese traveler, Ludovico di Varthema, accompanied Syrian pilgrims to Makkah and Madinah in 1503 and wrote informatively about his travels. During the 17th century, Johann Wild, an Austrian soldier taken prisoner by local tribes, and Joseph Pitts, a British sailor who was captured by Barbary pirates, spent some time in the two cities with their respective captors. Both eventually escaped and wrote books about their experiences. In the middle of the 18th century, Carsten Niebuhr, a Dane who, like Sadiq, was a military engineer, wrote about the discoveries his expedition made in Arabia, notably Yemen. The sole survivor of the group, he did not visit the holy cities but wrote about them and the Hajj from material he gathered during a visit to Jiddah.

In the early 1800's a Spaniard, Domingo Badia y Leblich, who called himself Aly Bey and who later turned out to be a spy working for the French, made the pilgrimage to Makkah and wrote extensively about his time in Arabia. He was followed a few years later by Giovanni Finati, an Italian soldier of fortune, who produced a sketchy account of his travels. Then came Ulrich Jaspar Seetzen, a German botanist and Arabist in the service of the czar of Russia; he was later murdered in Yemen.

The next Western visitor was the Swiss orientalist, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who had already made his name as the discoverer of Petra. Burckhardt's conversion to Islam was as genuine as his predecessors' were suspect, and he spent three months in each of the holy cities. With the passion of the dedicated scholar, he described Makkah and, to a lesser extent, Madinah in encylopedic detail and documented the rites of the Hajj with unprecedented thoroughness and authority.

It was around this time that Egyptian interest in the region grew, provoked by the seizure of Makkah, Madinah and Jiddah by purist reformers from central Arabia. Muhammad Ali's first military intervention in the Hijaz in 1811 opened the door for Egyptian and Western explorers who were keen to record their experiences. The most famous of these was Richard Burton, who, disguised as an Afghan holy man, visited Makkah and Madinah for the first time in 1853. Building on Burckhardt's scholarly work, he later published his findings in a seminal three-volume travel book, A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Makkah.

Burton returned to the Hijaz in 1877, 16 years after Muhammad Sadiq's first journey. He followed the northern section of the Egyptian officer's route along the Wadi al-Hamd toward Madinah, but not the southern part. Burton seemed totally unaware of Sadiq's achievements which, coincidentally, were published in Cairo a few months before he set out. Equally oblivious to Sadiq's pioneering exploration and photography was D.G. Hogarth when, almost 30 years later, the British scholar produced his monumental study, The Penetration of Arabia, without a single mention of the Egyptian officer.

In the late afternoon of February 12, 1861, as Muhammad Sadiq stood gazing at Madinah with his camera at his side, he seemed aware of the historic nature of the moment. He set to work immediately, measuring, drawing, interviewing and photographing. He took photographs of the Prophet's Mosque and its dome, and then went outside the city to capture a marvelous panoramic view of Madinah that also managed to include a section of neighboring Manakhah. This was achieved by taking two separate photographs and joining them in such a fashion that it looked as though the image had come from one plate. "No one before me," Sadiq noted factually in his diary, "has ever taken such photographs."

Sadiq then proceeded to measure and draw a detailed plan of the site, another "first" for the Egyptian colonel. Richard Burton had produced sketches in 1853 but they were very different from Sadiq's careful architectural-style drawings. Sadiq also described Madinah and its inhabitants. The Prophet's Mosque, he reported, was "overwhelming, ... decorated and lit with radiant lights." The people of Madinah were "a dark, almost black complexion," although some were "light-skinned, almost white." Being an Arab and a Muslim obviously helped Sadiq, and no one seems to have taken exception to his busy camera on this occasion, or indeed on any of his trips to the holy cities. The citizens, he noted, were "nice and civilized, and welcoming to traveling strangers."

After leaving Madinah, Sadiq and his party traveled westward to the Red Sea port of Yanbu', where they arrived a week later. Back in Cairo, Sadiq presented a report to his military superiors, but he did not publish anything until 1877, when his account appeared initially in The Egyptian Military Gazette and shortly afterward in a book called Summary of the Exploration of the Wajh-Madinah Hijaz Route and its Military Cadastral Map. The book contained the details of the journey, a long description of Madinah and the pilgrimage, four photographs, a map of the route, the plan of the Prophet's Mosque, and an illustration of the hectometre that he had used to measure distances on his travels.

Little is known of Muhammad Sadiq's background except that he was born in Cairo in 1832, educated there and at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, trained as an engineer and joined the Egyptian army. His interest in photography and the art's evolving techniques (see next page) may have begun during his time in France, or possibly later through the influence of Armenian photographers who established themselves in Cairo in the latter part of the 19th century. What is less speculative is his undoubted skill in framing, taking and developing photographic images, as his later career reveals.

Sadiq's reward for his Madinah journey was an assignment in 1880 to the convoy that took the Egyptian pilgrims to Makkah every year by the land route across Sinai and down the Red Sea coast. Sadiq's job was treasurer of the expedition, but once again he took his camera and photographic equipment along. On his arrival in Makkah, he photographed the Sacred Mosque, the Ka'ba as a multitude of pilgrims circled it, the al-Safa Gate, the tomb of the Prophet's parents in Ma'ala, and pilgrims camped at Mina and on the Plain of Arafat.

Sadiq also photographed Shaykh 'Umar al-Shaibi, the guardian of the key of the Ka'ba, and sent him the pictures. With the photographs he enclosed a poem which seemed to reflect the ambivalence that photographers sometimes feel about their art, and perhaps also to foreshadow the fate that many people would wish upon modern-day paparazzi.

My heart has captured your presence

In Ka'ba's grace and radiance,

Your parting burns my heart,

Yet aren't photographers destined to burn in fire?

Thee have I drawn on paper

In friendship and recollection.

Sadiq visited Madinah again and this time photographed Sharif Shawkat Pasha, the guardian of the Prophet's Mosque, surrounded by his eunuch assistants. He also took some more panoramic photographs of the city. On his return to Cairo he wrote up his material and published the photographs and his impressions in a second book.

Sadiq's reputation as a photographer, geographer and explorer was growing. Four years prior to this expedition, his earlier photographs of Madinah had been displayed in the Egyptian pavilion at the Philadelphia Exhibition of 1876. He had also been elected to the Khedival Geographic Society in Cairo, and had acquired the honorific "bey." And then, in 1881, came international recognition in the form of an invitation to show his work at the Third International Congress of Geographers in Venice. Sadiq prepared a portfolio of his pictures of the holy cities with a written commentary and was rewarded by winning a gold medal at the exhibition. His own photographic portrait may have been taken around this time. The picture that has survived shows a strong face adorned with a full and fashionably waxed mustache.

Three years later, Sadiq set out on another pilgrimage, again as the treasurer of the convoy escorting Egypt's pilgrims. This journey, Sadiq's last to the Hijaz, was marked by personal tragedy when his wife, who had come with him from Cairo, died in Makkah, on the women's side of the Sacred Mosque. Sadiq had a coffin made and arranged for the body to be buried in Madinah. The loss was exceedingly painful, for the couple had been married 34 years, and Sadiq was devoted to his wife. Finally back in Cairo, Sadiq began work on another illustrated book of his travels. When it was published, the passage describing the death of his beloved wife was bordered in heavy black ink.

Sadiq ended his military career as liwa (lieutenant general) and became president of the Khedival Geographic Society. He published a fourth book on the Hajj in 1896, The Guide to the Hajj for Its Universal Arriving Visitors, which summarized the findings of his three journeys and offered practical advice to pilgrims. By this time his honorific had expanded and he was known as Muhammad Sadiq Pasha—a contemporary photographic portrait shows him wearing the gold-embroidered frock coat reserved for men of that rank—and he was a respected figure in Cairo's intellectual circles. In 1902 he was appointed governor of El Arish in the Sinai but is believed to have spent only two months there before succumbing to sunstroke. He returned to Cairo and died later the same year at the age of 70.

Muhammad Sadiq is one of the forgotten pioneers, both of photography and of exploration in Arabia. His photographs of Makkah and Madinah were not only the first recorded of the holy cities themselves, but also the first pictures ever taken inside what is now Saudi Arabia. Sadiq combined his professional technical skills with a fine visual sense. He was also a serious and curious-minded scholar. It is interesting that a devout Muslim should have been the first person to produce photographic images of Islam's holy places. But at least there could be no doubt of Sadiq's motives, which were scholarly, religious and altruistic rather than mercenary or sensational.

There is perhaps no better epitaph for Sadiq than the phrase that D. G. Hogarth used about his illustrious predecessor, the Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Praising Burck-hardt's descriptions of Jiddah and Makkah, Hogarth wrote that they were "the patient harvest of an observant, leisurely eye, for which nothing lacked interest."

Sadiq, of course, was able to go one better and produce photographic images of his own rich harvest, images that still convey something of the original clarity, technical skill, and sense of wonder that animated their author every time he released the shutter in the holy cities of Arabia well more than a century ago.

Rhode Island-based John de St. Jorre was the London Observer's Middle East correspondent in the early 1970's. He is the author of seven books, most recently Venus Bound (Random House, 1996).

The Colonel’s Camera and Photography in His Time
Written by John De St. Jorre

When Colonel Muhammad Sadiq decided to take a camera with him on his first trip to Madinah in 1861, he had no alternative but to pack a large, cumbersome device known as a wet-plate collodion camera. Photography was barely 20 years old and the collodion method, which used a glass plate rather than paper as a support for the light-sensitive salts, had only been invented a decade earlier by Frederick Scott-Archer. Collodion was a light-sensitive emulsion composed of nitrocellulose and ether which, together with silver salts, was coated on a sheet of glass.

Glass negatives were more durable than the earlier paper negatives, produced clearer photographic images, and could be used to make a large number of prints using albumen-coated paper, on which Sadiq's photographs accompanying this article are printed. The disadvantage, apart from the camera's size, was that the collodion negative had to be sensitized immediately before use and exposed in the camera while still wet, otherwise it lost its sensitivity. The traveling photographer thus had to carry with him a portable darkroom, and this is what Sadiq was obliged to do on his first expedition in 1861.

The technology had improved by the time he returned to the Hijaz in 1880. Collodion plates could then be used dry, without any loss of sensitivity, although their over-sensitivity to blue light meant that the sea and the sky lost definition. In the late 1870's, a new method using a gelatin plate was invented. This meant that cameras became smaller and lighter and the photographer had less paraphernalia to carry with him. But it is not known whether Sadiq was able to take advantage of those advances.

Sadiq was meticulous in documenting his photographs. Descriptive titles were written in Arabic and he signed each plate "Sadie Bey," using the French spelling of his name, and also in Arabic. After his photographic exhibitions in Philadelphia in 1876 and Venice in 1881, he had a circular stamp made which read: "Sadic Bey, Colonel d'Etat-Major Egyptien. Photographe Diplomé a L'Exp. de Philie 1876 Medaille d'Or a L'Exp. de Venise 1881."

Sadiq's photographic achievements in the 19th century picked up a thread of Middle Eastern history spun some 900 years earlier when an Arab physicist, Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, wrote a treatise describing how an inverted image could be made on the wall of a darkened chamber—camera obscura in Latin—by using a small aperture whose size also governed the clarity of the image. Italian Renaissance architects used a device based on Ibn al-Haytham's idea to help them with their drawings. By the 19th century, the camera obscura was well established, and it was upon its principles that Jacques Daguerre and W. H. Fox-Talbot began experimenting with focus, control of the light entering the apparatus and, ultimately, the fixing of the images on paper.

This article appeared on pages 36-47 of the January/February 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1999 images.