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Pioneering Photographer of Mecca

(MECCA.) Abd al-Ghaffar.. Photograph of the Kaaba and Mecca.

Mecca, c. 1885-1888

Albumen print, (71⁄2 x 91⁄2 in.) unmounted. Signed at the bottom by the photographer in the negative: “Futugrafiyyat al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar, tabib Makka’ (Photography by the Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar, physician of Mecca) and titled at the top in Arabic in the negative (Prayer Around the Kaaba). Pencil caption at lower left. A little faded and with light wear, short closed marginal tears. Very good condition.

“The hearts of each and every one are fixed on the Kaaba. … Each heart has an overriding attachment–a passionate love for the Kaaba–and in that there is no room for contradiction.” — Rumi

This important photograph of Mecca and Islam’s holiest site represents a milestone in the photographic history of the Middle East.

The Meccan physician Abd al-Ghaffar is the earliest known photographer from Mecca and the first resident to photograph the holy city. In 1885, Abd al-Ghaffar began working with Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, the first European photographer of Mecca and a convert to Islam. Snouck Hurgronje, falsely accused in a diplomatic controversy, was expelled and returned to Holland before completing his photographic work. He left his equipment with his Arab partner Abd al-Ghaffar, who made dozens of images of Mecca and the rituals of the Hajj over the next several years.

This image was selected as the most important of the series and was published as plate 1 as a collotype (without Arabic inscriptions) in Snouck Hurgronje’s Bilder aus Mekka (Leiden, 1889. When Snouck Hurgronje published the photographs in Mekka and the accompanying Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka (1888-1889), the calligraphic signatures in Abd al-Ghaffar’s negatives were removed. As a result, Abd al-Ghaffar’s photographs were published without attribution.

Abd al-Ghaffar was largely unknown as a photographer for nearly a century. “In 1981 F. S. Allen and C. Gavin first identified the earliest [Meccan] photographer by deciphering the elaborately calligraphed signatures … ‘Futugrafiyyat al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar, tabib Makka’ (Photographed by the Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar, physician of Mecca)” (Peters, The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Place, p. xiv).

“If one applies the criterion of nationality very strictly, al-Ghaffar can actually be regarded as the first known Arabian photographer who took the first pictures of Mecca and of the great pilgrimage. After all, Mohammed Sadiq Bey was Egyptian, while Snouck Hurgronje was, of course, Dutch. All three of them were important photographic pioneers in the lands of the hadj, the so-called Hidjas” (To the Holy Lands: Pilgrimage Centres from Mecca and Medina to Jerusalem).

The earliest photographs of Mecca are rare in the market.