Michael Christopher Low, Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Michael Christopher Low (MCL): I first began thinking about some of the questions that animate Imperial Mecca as early as 2004 or 2005. At the time, I was a master’s student in World History at Georgia State University. During this period, I became fascinated by the multiple strands and flavors of international, global, trans-national, and trans-regional scholarship, all of which seemed to call into question the crumbling meta-geographies and blind spots of the Cold War area studies system. I found myself socialized into an almost instinctive suspicion of histories written within a single national, linguistic, or imperial archival framework.

While Indian Ocean and South Asian histories inspired and animated many of the questions in this book, I was also frustrated by the degree to which more globally oriented works tended to rely too heavily on European colonial archives. In effect, creative new framings offered by Indian Ocean histories sometimes amounted to little more than putting old wine in new bottles. I was also struck by the degree to which Indian Ocean history seemed to be something that was being practiced by South Asianists and done to the margins of the Middle East or East Africa. Thus, I wondered what it would look like to adopt some of the framings and questions of Indian Ocean history, but instead of answering those questions exclusively with colonial sources, to deploy Arabic, Turkish, and Ottoman Turkish archival and secondary materials. I wanted to write a book that combined the best practices of area studies paleography, linguistic depth, and archival rigor with the scope and breadth of vision offered in Indian Ocean, colonial, and more globally framed texts. This was the balancing act of the International and Global History PhD program at Columbia University: could I combine the best of global or macro-regional history with area studies expertise, and come out with a dissertation and eventually a book that offered a “thicker” trans-regional history?

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MCL: The book is divided into three parts. The first part addresses the fraught relationship between the lumpy, loose nature of Ottoman sovereignty and the empire’s traditional practices of semi-autonomous rule over the Sharifate of Mecca and the Hijaz, and the increasingly aggressive extraterritorial projection of the British Raj’s consular authority over its Muslim colonial subjects and by extension the hajj and the Hijaz more broadly. These chapters will be of special interest to scholars interested in imperial/colonial subjecthood/citizenship, sovereignty, extraterritoriality, diplomacy, and international law.

In part two, I turn to consider the hajj as an epidemiological bridge between British India and the Ottoman Empire. As repeated waves of cholera and plague convulsed India, the Ottoman Empire found itself dealing with the ecological fallout from the colonial mismanagement of British India’s public health and environment. Here, I explore how cholera, quarantine regulations, bacteriology, urban sanitation, and new water infrastructures simultaneously complicated and provided new avenues for Ottoman state building in the Hijaz.

And finally, part three addresses questions of steam age mobility. Here, I describe how the advent of mass steamship pilgrimage necessitated new forms of Ottoman and inter-imperial governance from border controls and passports to the management of pilgrimage transport services like steamships, railways, pilgrimage guides, and camel rentals.

Particularly for the Hamidian period, which constitutes the core of the book, I hope that my work will contribute to a broader re-evaluation of wider imperial storylines and mythologies, like the well-worn historiographies of Pan-Islam and Ottoman modernization. Rather than assuming that the Hijaz and the hajj functioned as grand strategic assets in the crafting of the sultan-caliph’s Pan-Islamic public image, I want to challenge readers to think more carefully about the ways in which new forms of inter-imperial connections, expertise, and the material mechanics of frontier governance presented unprecedented and ultimately insoluble challenges to Ottoman sovereignty over the Muslim holy places.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

MCL: I think that those who know my previous articles will recognize bits and pieces of that research throughout this book. I guess one thing that I hope is that different audiences who might have encountered one side of my work, ranging from the Ottoman Empire, British Empire, and Indian Ocean to histories of disease, environment, technical expertise, or international law, will get to see how all of my varied source work and thematic interests fit together in this book. As I have argued elsewhere, I firmly believe that histories of the Arabian Peninsula require both the toolkits of Ottoman and Middle Eastern history and a familiarity with the overlapping fields of the Indian Ocean, South Asia, and the British Empire to be fully legible. In that sense, I hope that my work offers a window through which students and scholars from these disparate fields can peer into areas that are normally outside their primary specialties, stretching a bit beyond their respective comfort zones.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MCL: I suspect that scholars interested in the Indian Ocean, the Islamic world (beyond the Middle East), the British Empire, and global history will constitute a large chunk of my audience. In the early months following the book’s publication, some of the most enthusiastic responses have come from students and readers working on topics well beyond the confines of Ottoman and Middle Eastern studies.

On the other hand, I obviously hope that Ottomanist scholars and graduate students will read and appreciate this book. The most important and original evidentiary material in this book comes from Ottoman archival materials, printed primary sources, and Turkish secondary literature. Thus, even when the book addresses other fields, its core audience remains scholars of the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman-Arab world.

I also hope that my work will show the viability and vibrant potential of placing the Ottoman Empire in conversation with other sub-fields and geographies, while still adhering to the evidentiary norms and demands of Ottoman studies. While the potential pitfalls of global and trans-regional histories are well known, Ottomanist historiography often suffers a different set of problems, a kind of purposeful, even willful narrowness. By bringing the Ottoman Empire into conversation with the Indian Ocean and a wider array of comparative and macro-regional questions, I hope my work demonstrates the possibility for Ottomanists to contribute to the “big” historical debates from which they are often absent, while remaining committed to the philological and archival demands of Ottoman studies. The richness of the field of Ottoman studies should, and can, be of tremendous relevance to a wide variety of adjacent fields, but more work needs to be done to build those bridges. 

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

MCL: I am currently a Senior Humanities Research Fellow for the Study of the Arab World at NYU Abu Dhabi. This fellowship has allowed me to make some halting steps (despite the pandemic) toward the research and writing of my second book project. In many respects, my new project grew out of my research for Chapter 4 of Imperial Mecca. When I arrived in the Ottoman archives nearly a decade ago, I knew that I was interested in exploring cholera outbreaks and quarantine measures related to the hajj. What I had not fully grasped until then was the degree to which I would become interested in water infrastructures. In hindsight, the connection between the two topics is obvious. While conducting my dissertation research I discovered the Ottoman and British empires’ early uses of distillation machines, forerunners of today’s more sophisticated large-scale desalination systems, in the Red Sea and the Hijaz from the late nineteenth century through World War I. This eventually led me to write several articles exploring the origins and diffusion of this critical technology to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Israel, and more globally. My hope is that the rise of desalination and the region’s dramatic turn to fossil-fueled water will provide a way to rethink the enviro-technical history of the Arabian Peninsula, from the age of steam through the rise of oil and into the uncertain future of climate change facing the region.

J: What are you currently reading?

MCL: I will fully admit that my research and travel interests feed on a certain restlessness. I get bored with hyper-specialization. Having just finished off Imperial Mecca and my co-editing efforts on The Subjects of Ottoman International Law, the time away from teaching and the fascinating change of scenery here at NYU Abu Dhabi has allowed me to read and think about new things. In order to think about how my new project connects with energy, climate adaptation, and logistics of fossil-fueled capitalism in the Gulf, I have especially benefited from reading and re-reading On Barak’s Powering Empire (2020); Gökçe Günel’s Spaceship in the Desert (2019); and Laleh Khalili’s Sinews of War and Trade (2020). On Ottoman environmental history, I am especially eager to get my copy of Faisal Husain’s forthcoming book, Rivers of the Sultan: The Tigris and Euphrates in the Ottoman Empire (2021).

I have also been feeding my obsession with climate fiction. I have been thinking a lot about how South Asia has figured into recent works on climate change like Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island (2019) and The Great Derangement (2016) or as the most likely victim of the coming era of deadly heatwaves in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020). Just as the Gulf is intimately connected to India through labor migration, I would also like to see more emphasis on the interconnection between their environmental histories and futures. And finally, just for fun (or to escape my own gloomy outlook on climate change) I have really been enjoying Marilyn Booth’s translation of Jokha Alharthi’s beautiful depiction of post-1960s Oman, Celestial Bodies (or Sayyidat al-Qamar).


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 14-17)

[C]onventionally, the steamship-era hajj has been treated, first and foremost, as a potential security threat to European colonial regimes, including British India, Dutch Indonesia, French Algeria, and Russian Central Asia. In this equation colonial states are presumed to have feared Mecca as a meeting place of anticolonial exiles and outlaws or as an outlet for pro-Ottoman Pan-Islamic propaganda. More recently, however, John Slight and Eileen Kane have complicated the British and Russian empires’ respective relationships to the hajj. As they both point out, while Britain and Russia certainly pursued programs of surveillance, over time they also developed more sophisticated strategies aimed at currying favor with their Muslim colonial subjects and normalizing rule by a non-Muslim power by presenting themselves as facilitators, patrons, and even protectors of the hajj. This critical revision reframes the hajj less as a threat and more as an opportunity for colonial empires.

The British Empire’s long engagement with the hajj shows that although a mixture of medical and political security risks might have provided some of the initial prompts for the Raj’s deepening involvement with the hajj, over time British officials, both non-Muslim and Muslim, gradually familiarized themselves with the medical, legal, and financial needs of Indian and other British Muslim subjects travelling to or living in the Hijaz. This sharpened ethnographic and practical interest in the quotidian details of pilgrimage gradually reshaped British policy. Islamophobic fantasies of anticolonial subversion were replaced, or at least tempered, by more realistic and pressing concerns over cholera prevention, steamship regulation, and consular representation. Thus instead of focusing solely on rooting out potential security threats, officials from Bombay to the British consulate in Jeddah began to refocus their attention on administering and regulating the steamship hajj. Through this multidecade process of immersion, Britain’s erection of an empire-wide pilgrimage bureaucracy would pose an increasingly credible challenge to the Ottoman sultan-caliph’s legitimacy as the sole custodian of the Muslim holy places and the hajj.

In the process, the Hijaz and the hajj became ensnared in an asymmetrical clash of competing claims pitting the Ottoman Caliphate’s sovereignty over the haremeyn (Mecca and Medina) and spiritual authority over non-Ottoman Muslims living under colonial rule against the technological, military, diplomatic, and legal might of the British Empire, a non-Muslim state, asserting its quizzical status as the world’s most populous and powerful “Muslim” empire. As Slight acknowledges, Britain was never the “benevolent” protector of the pilgrimage that it claimed to be. Its “concern to sustain imperial rule” and “desire to uphold prestige in the Muslim world” always guided its calculations. Despite the bald hypocrisy and ultimate futility of this effort, it did succeed on a certain level. It forced the Ottoman state to defend itself on previously unimaginable ideological, legal, and technological terrain and to fundamentally reconsider the Hijaz and the hajj as potentially vulnerable, even quasi-colonial spaces, instead of uncontested symbols of Islamic sovereignty and legitimacy.

Imperial Mecca takes this dramatic role reversal as its central problem. As a result, this book takes up a very different line of inquiry from those previously pursued by historians of the colonial-era hajj. Rather than focusing solely on the sanitary and security risks, both real and imagined, that the hajj presented to colonial empires, this book explores how the extraterritorial evolution of Britain’s Indian Ocean pilgrimage bureaucracy presented an even broader challenge to the Ottoman Empire’s traditional role as protector of the Hijaz and the hajj. It details how the advent of the steam-based colonial hajj radically altered the traditional duties and responsibilities of the Ottoman sultan-caliph in his capacity as the Servant of the Two Holy Places (Arabic: Khādim al-Ḥaramayn al-Sharīfayn; Ottoman Turkish: Hadimül-Haremeyn eşŞerifeyn).

With the notable exception of Lâle Can’s groundbreaking work on the fraught legal statuses of Central Asian pilgrims, the Ottoman Empire’s central role as the pilgrimage’s primary patron and administrator has been curiously absent from the now lively literature on the colonial-era hajj. As a result, the previous dominance of these colonial archival approaches to religious patronage and legitimacy has produced a kind of warped vision of the global hajj. To suggest that the experiences and expectations of European powers like Britain or Russia—strategically branding themselves as “protectors of the hajj” or “Muslim powers”—are somehow comparable or equivalent to the religious duties and political, fiscal, and administrative burdens expected of the Ottoman sultan-caliph flirts with a kind of unintended “conceptual flattening,” which threatens to drain away all meaningful distinctions between the constraints facing Muslim and non-Muslim states, somehow muting the stark differences between how Muslims themselves actually judged and responded to these claims.

Just as European powers had long claimed to protect the Ottoman Empire’s Christian subjects from despotism and violence, in the concluding decades of the nineteenth century Ottoman statesmen were confronted with the mind-boggling prospect of European powers claiming the right to protect their Muslim colonial subjects and even Islam’s most sacred rites from Ottoman corruption, ineptitude, and mismanagement. As issues like cholera, quarantine, steamship regulation, passport controls, and consular representation all emerged as matters of global significance and inter-imperial interest, as early as the 1880s, the Ottoman Empire found itself in an unprecedented bind. The sultan-caliph remained the legitimate sovereign responsible for the administration and protection of the land-based hajj. And yet, custodianship of the steamship hajj represented an almost entirely novel field of governance. Ottoman custodianship was no longer just a matter of providing subsidies to the Bedouin, patronage to the denizens of the holy cities, and seasonal security for the camel caravans from Egypt and Syria. The advent of the steamship and mass pilgrimage had altered the scope, scale, and global import of the hajj by several orders of magnitude. As a result, the sultan-caliph was forced to shoulder a double burden: the Ottoman state had to continue its traditional duties and early-modern practices of custodianship and to simultaneously coordinate its administration of the Hijaz and the steamship hajj with rival colonial empires often intent on undermining Ottoman legitimacy.