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Volume 59, Number 5September/October 2008

In This Issue

I watch the train to Cairo disappear and I feel I have indeed cut myself off from my friends and everyone I know. I love Egypt, but now it is Arabia that calls me. —Port Said, February 22, 1933
Mayfair to Makkah - Written by William Facey, Photographs courtesy of Angus Sladen
This portrait of Lady Evelyn was made a few years before her visit to Saudi Arabia.

Lady Evelyn Cobboldachieved celebrity at age 65, in 1933, when she became the first British-born Muslim woman to perform the pilgrimage to Makkah. She was a Scottish aristocrat, a grandmother and a Mayfair socialite, and an accomplished deerstalker, angler and gardener, and, uniquely, she was both a Muslim and an Arabic-speaker. Yet the story of her colorful career has been overlooked, as has her contribution to the literature of the Hajj. Nor has she been studied for what her life has to say about being a Muslim in a western society.

On her 1933 pilgrimage, she became the first international traveler to record the buses that had recently begun service in Makkah.
On her 1933 pilgrimage, she became the first international traveler to record the buses that had recently begun service in Makkah.

She was not born into a Muslim family, yet Lady Evelyn claimed to have been a Muslim from as early as she could remember. She disclaimed any moment of conversion, and there is no record of her having formally converted before an imam. She wrote:

“As a child, I spent the winter months in a Moorish villa on a hill outside Algiers…. There I learned to speak Arabic and my delight was to escape my governess and visit the Mosques with my Algerian friends, and unconsciously I was a little Moslem at heart…. Some years went by and I happened to be in Rome staying with some Italian friends when my host asked if I would like to visit the Pope. Of course I was thrilled…. When His Holiness suddenly addressed me, asking if I was a Catholic, I was taken aback for a moment and then replied that I was a Moslem. What possessed me I don’t pretend to know, as I had not given a thought to Islam for many years. A match was lit and I then and there determined to read up and study the Faith.”

Evelyn was born in Edinburgh in 1867, the eldest child of Charles Adolphus Murray, Seventh Earl of Dunmore, and Lady Gertrude Coke, daughter of the Second Earl of Leicester. Permanently short of money, and with an incurable wanderlust, Lord Dunmore found it both cheap and congenial to take his family to North Africa every winter. Evelyn and her siblings, as they arrived, thus grew up in the company of Algerian and Egyptian nurses and household staff. The impact on young Evelyn was profound. Steeped in the culture and language of everyday life in the Arab Muslim world, she came to feel completely at ease and at home there.

For a relatively poor aristocrat, Evelyn married rather late, at age 24, to John Dupuis Cobbold, scion of a wealthy brewing family in eastern England. They met in Cairo and were married there in April 1891. At her new home in East Anglia, she faced a future of domesticity, relieved by the frequent travels at home and abroad typical of her wealthy contemporaries. Three children arrived between 1893 and 1900, but it is fairly clear that Lady Evelyn found it hard to settle. And the clues to her restlessness have to do with Islam and the Arab world.

Lady Evelyn in Jiddah.
Lady Evelyn in Jiddah.
Lady Evelyn’s permission to make her pilgrimage was arranged by Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in London, Shaykh Hafiz Wahba, shown here during one of the visits to England (probably 1935) by HRH Prince Sa’ud ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. Wahba stands on the left and slightly behind the prince; Wahba wrote the original introduction to Lady Evelyn’s Pilgrimage to Mecca.
Lady Evelyn’s permission to make her pilgrimage was arranged by Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in London, Shaykh Hafiz Wahba, shown here during one of the visits to England (probably 1935) by HRH Prince Sa’ud ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. Wahba stands on the left and slightly behind the prince; Wahba wrote the original introduction to Lady Evelyn’s Pilgrimage to Mecca.

An untitled poem she wrote in Cairo in 1889 already evinces a spiritual longing for meaning in life and an affinity with Islam. In it, she wrote:

… The vague longings that filled my soul, Took the form of a prayer I upward sped, To Him, the One, The Essence of All….

And the weird cadence of the Mueddin’s cry Bid the faithful prepare for the day that was nigh….

By 1900, Lady Evelyn was journeying without her husband. She was back in North Africa in 1911, at the age of 43, traveling in Egypt with a female companion. Her book about the trip—Wayfarers in the Libyan Desert, published in 1912 —is a revealing diary, forthright in its admiration for Islam.

From this point on, it becomes increasingly plain that she regarded herself as a Muslim. She was making regular winter visits to Egypt, and a series of letters in Arabic survives from 1914 and 1915, from Arab friends there and in Syria. Some address her as “Our sister in Islam, Lady Zainab,” using her adopted Muslim name. Her friendship from 1915 with the British Muslim Marmaduke Pickthall, who produced one of the most respected renderings of the Qur’an into English, provides further testimony.

By the 1920’s, anecdotal information suggests that Lady Evelyn’s attachment to Islam had become a cause of estrangement from the Cobbold family, and in 1922, she and her husband formally separated. She received a generous financial settlement, including the deer forest of Glencarron in the Highlands, making her a very wealthy woman in her own right. For much of the 1920’s, she was occupied by a cavalcade of grandchildren and by the field sports at which she excelled. But in 1929 her husband died, and it seems that she now began seriously to contemplate performing the pilgrimage to Makkah.

Lady Evelyn announced her intention to perform the Hajj to Saudi Arabia’s minister in London, Hafiz Wahba, who wrote to King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz in Riyadh requesting formal permission. But, typically for her, she did not wait for a reply, relying instead on a social contact in London to send a letter of introduction to Harry St. John (‘Abd Allah) Philby in Jiddah. Philby had became a Muslim in 1930, and he and his wife, Dora, duly received their unsolicited guest. They introduced her to Jiddah’s small expatriate social circle and even invited the prince (and future king) Faisal to tea to meet the prospective pilgrim. While awaiting permission from the king for Lady Evelyn to go Makkah, Philby arranged for her to travel by car to Madinah, organizing accommodation with a family there.

February 28, 1933 The King is away at Riyad, his capital in Nejd, sixteen days’ camel ride from here, so I fear he will not get the letter his Minister in London wrote him for some time…. Till that letter reaches the King, I must possess my soul in patience, and my time is pleasantly spent bathing in the warm sea within the coral reefs, for fear of sharks, or in motor drives in the desert….

March 2 How I envy the pilgrims we meet on their way to Mecca, while we return to the social life of Jeddah, which would be very pleasant if one were not aware of the mysterious City of Islam hidden in the hills only a few miles from us. Why do we always long for the unattainable, for the Blue Bird which hovers just beyond our reach?

March 9 The Emir Faisal arrived punctually at five o’clock…. It was impressive to see his tall figure enter the doorway clad in a brown and gold Abba over a flowing white robe and the picturesque headdress of Nejd, the Koffeya of diaphanous white bound round his head by black and gold chords—called the Aghal…. The Emir is slender and exceedingly graceful in his movements and, like most Nejd Arabs, has an air of distinction and good breeding….

At her Glencarron estate in northwest Scotland, Lady Evelyn was known as a superior deerstalker and hunter.
At her Glencarron estate in northwest Scotland, Lady Evelyn was known as a superior deerstalker and hunter.

March 15 Two hundred and fifty miles [400 km] from Jeddah to Medina took us fifteen hours to accomplish and I take off my hat to the little Ford that gallantly carried us through those sandy wastes…. Besides the pilgrims on camels, we met many on foot, toiling slowly through the scorching desert with water jugs in their hands clad in their Ihram (or two towels), and, as they were bare headed, many carried umbrellas. Ten days is the usual time it takes a camel to accomplish the journey between Medina and Jeddah and three weeks for the pilgrim on foot….

As a visiting notable, Lady Evelyn found conditions were not nearly as hard as they were for ordinary pilgrims. The Saudis treated her with extreme courtesy, as befitted her status. And once permission arrived, she would be allowed to go to Makkah—some 70 kilometers (45 mi) away—by car, Philby once again providing her with a vehicle, guide and driver.

March 12 Today the news has come through that I am permitted to do the pilgrimage to Mecca and visit Medina. I had for so long lived in alternate fits of hope and despair, that I can scarcely credit that my great wish is at last to be fulfilled. Preparations for my journey are in the hands of my host…; while I prepare…my pilgrim dress which consists of a black crepe skirt, very full, and a cape and hood in one, to be worn over ordinary dress when I visit Medina, also a black crepe veil entirely obscuring my features; but for Mecca I shall be entirely in white, no colour is allowed in any garment….

Lady Evelyn arrived in the Hijaz at a historic juncture in Saudi Arabian history. Only just before her arrival, in September 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had been proclaimed. Oil had not yet been discovered, and the world economy was mired in the Great Depression. The country had no source of income apart from pilgrimage receipts, and in 1933 pilgrims from abroad would slump to an all-time low of just 20,000—down from around 100,000 in the late 1920’s. But economic salvation was in the offing. Lady Evelyn’s visit to Jiddah coincided with the presence of American and British oil company negotiators, and in May 1933 King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz would sign the key concession agreement with the Americans that heralded the end of hard times for the Saudi economy.

This photo of the corner of the Great Mosque in Makkah was first published in 1925 in Cairo by Ibrahim Rif’at, and Lady Evelyn reprinted it in Pilgrimage to Mecca.
This photo of the corner of the Great Mosque in Makkah was first published in 1925 in Cairo by Ibrahim Rif’at, and Lady Evelyn reprinted it in Pilgrimage to Mecca.

March 2 We return to Jeddah and dine at the New Hotel, which was where the American engineers, who have come to try to obtain the oil concessions from the King, are now staying. Their wives, Mrs. [Lloyd] Hamilton and Mrs. [Karl] Twitchell, welcome us and give us an excellent dinner, and the party includes Mr. [Stephen] Longrigg, the English representative of the Iraq Oil Company, who is also here trying to get the concession. Rivalry does not appear to spoil the friendly relations existing between all parties….

The fact that her son-in-law was a director of the Bank of England may also have played a role in winning permission for Lady Evelyn to make her pioneering Hajj, according to Sir Andrew Ryan, then Britain’s minister to Saudi Arabia, who cast a somewhat jaundiced eye on her visit. “Lady Evelyn Cobbold…has been even more successful than anticipated,” he reported. “…If [King] Ibn Saud receives her, her cup of blessing will be overflowing.” In the event, Lady Evelyn did not meet the king, although she saw him when he arrived by car on the day of the Standing at ‘Arafat, a key ritual of the Hajj.

March 26 I am in the Mosque of Mecca, and for a few seconds I am lost to my surroundings because of the wonder of it. We are walking on white marble through a great vault whose ceiling is a full fifty feet above us, and enter pillared cloisters holding the arched roof and surrounding an immense quadrangle…. I had never imagined anything so stupendous…. We walk on to the Holy of Holies, the house of Allah [the Ka’bah] rising in simple majesty. It would require a master pen to describe the scene, poignant in its intensity of the great concourse of humanity of which I was one small unit, completely lost to their surroundings in a fervour of religious enthusiasm…. I felt caught up in a strong wave of spiritual exaltation….

Pilgrimage to Mecca, published in 1934, is Lady Evelyn’s fascinating account of her journey to the holy cities. As much a record of an interior experience of faith as a conventional travelogue, the book is remarkable for its sympathy and vividness. It takes the form of a diary, punctuated with lengthy digressions intended to help her readers understand Islam. They address topics such as the Qur’an, the life of the Prophet, Islamic history and science, the position of women, King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s achievements and Islamic principles relating to warfare and tolerance.

March 21 Having discoursed on the subject of tolerance, we pass on to discuss the crisis the world is now facing, and the emancipation of women. The sheikhs show some amusement, tempered with admiration at the methods adopted by the Western woman to win herself a place in the sun; their sympathy is all on the side of the ladies. Though I occasionally caught a twinkle in the eye of Sid Ahmed, and both the sheikhs often smiled, I never heard them give way to loud laughter….

Most remarkable about her book, however, is that as a lone female Muslim, she was able to witness something veiled from every western traveler before her: the female side of domestic life in the two holy cities. This, and her religious commitment, set the account apart from all other English-language descriptions of the Hijaz that had gone before.

March 27 My hostess had already initiated me into the secrets of the harem or women’s quarters; the bakehouse where the bread is baked to supply the needs of the large company at present inhabiting the house; the great kitchen where she, the ladies and slaves all help in cooking and preparing the food; the laundry where more slaves are busy washing; while the three pretty nieces are ironing and folding away the household linen; the work-room where they sit sewing and gossiping….

April 1 As I have been granted the great privilege of being received as a guest in this Mecca household I feel it is up to me to refute the false impressions that still exist in the West about the harem. Not only in this house, but in every harem I have visited in Arabia I have found my host with only one wife. Far from being a sensuous life of ease these ladies are busy with their household duties; at the same time living a happy, even a gay life, entertaining their friends and having their own amusements and festive occasions.

A family makes its way to Makkah. The third camel in line bears a covered shelter called shibriyyah, which Lady Evelyn noted carried three members of the family.
A family makes its way to Makkah. The third camel in line bears a covered shelter called shibriyyah, which Lady Evelyn noted carried three members of the family.

Uplifted but thoroughly exhausted by the rituals of the Hajj, Lady Evelyn received special dispensation from the king to end her pilgrimage before the usual culmination at the three-day Feast of Sacrifice, ‘Id al-Adha. Though she extols the egalitarianism of Islam and the way in which the Hajj symbolically makes all people equals before God, she was not averse to taking advantage of her social status. Her host at Makkah generously made available to her the entire roof of his rented house at Mina, where otherwise all his womenfolk would have slept for the sake of the cool night air. At the Standing at ‘Arafat, the same host invited her to share his tent, with its view of Jabal al-Rahmah, with his male guests. She readily accepted, not least because it was cooler, the women being consigned to a hot bell-shaped tent behind, where they could neither see nor be seen. When challenged by a pious passerby suspicious of her reading matter in the car on the way to ‘Arafat (it was Charles Doughty’s Arabia Deserta), her response was to declare robustly: “This is an English book, and I am an English Moslem and I am here on pilgrimage by permission of the King!” A lesser mortal might not have got away with it so easily. During her return voyage by sea, officials spared her the rigors of the full quarantine, giving her special quarters at Port Sudan and allowing her to leave after three days instead of the regulation five.

However, she revealed her fundamental sincerity while waiting to depart from Makkah on April 7 when, on her final return through the city, she found that she could not after all stomach Doughty because of his inability to fathom Islam. Instead, she took up the only other book she had brought with her, an Arabic Qur’an, and was “soon immersed in the beautiful sura ‘Light,’” she noted. She had found that, after all, the suspicious passerby might have had a point.

Even before she returned to London, the newspapers made her an instant celebrity. The popular press viewed her pilgrimage as something out of the Arabian Nights while, in 1934, the more serious papers gave Pilgrimage to Mecca a favorable reception.

But what sort of Muslim was Lady Evelyn, and how should we regard her today? Though clearly firm in her faith, there is no record, during her life at home, of strict performance of the five daily prayers, or of charity to the poor and needy. No doubt she had uttered the shahadah, or declaration of faith, on various occasions, and there is some anecdotal evidence of fasting during Ramadan. But, of the Five Pillars of Islam, going on the Hajj seems to have been the one to which that she paid the most attention.

There is a long history of British converts to Islam before her time, going back at least to the Crusades. But Lady Evelyn belongs in a later category: that of educated converts in Britain itself in the late 19th century. She was contemporary with various other eminent Muslims of this type—Abdullah Quilliam, Lord Headley, Lord Hothfield and Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, to name but a few.

Although Lady Evelyn lectured extensively in Britain about her book, there is no sign that she saw her faith as having special public and social implications. She apparently regarded Islam as a matter of private conviction and subscribed to it on her own terms. But there is no doubting that her faith was deeply held during her very long life. She lived for 30 years after her pilgrimage, dying in January 1963, one of the coldest months of the century in Britain. She was buried in arctic conditions but according to the precepts of Islam and, as she had stipulated, on a remote hillside on her Glencarron estate.

Her interment symbolized her two worlds: A piper, so frozen that he was hardly able to walk, let alone perform, played “MacCrimmon’s Lament,” and the equally refrigerated imam of the Woking Mosque in London declaimed in Arabic the surah “Light,” which she had found so moving in Makkah. A verse from the same surah adorns the flat slab on her grave, over which the deer undoubtedly wander, just as she had wished.

William Facey William Facey ([email protected]) has spent his career as a museum consultant, writer and publisher on the Arabian Peninsula. He worked and traveled widely there during the 1970’s and 1980’s, and since then his books have established him as a well-known author on the region. He is currently director of Arabian Publishing Ltd., London.


This article appeared on pages 18-23 of the September/October 2008 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 2008 images.