Colonialism, cholera and competition across the Indian Ocean on the late Ottoman Hajj
Michael Christopher Low. Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.
This week marks the 2022 Hajj, the first large-scale pilgrimage since COVID disrupted the world and the Middle East. A million Muslims will embark on the pilgrimage to Mecca even as the latest new variant of the COVID virus tears through a world which has increasingly given up on mitigation measures.
In normal years, the Hajj is one of the largest mass gatherings on the planet, with up to 2.5 million Muslims converging on Saudi Arabia to undertake one of the five pillars of Islam. In 2020, Saudi Arabia limited the number of pilgrims to only 1000 from within the Kingdom, in an attempt to mitigate the transmission of COVID. It put in place a wide range of safety measures, including multiple PCR tests, mandatory face coverings, and no touching of the Kabaa. In 2021, Saudi Arabia increased the number of pilgrims to 60,000 - still a far cry from the 2.5 million of years past - with mandatory vaccinations. This year, it will allow one million vaccinated and PCR tested pilgrims, including from outside the Kingdom for the first time since the pandemic erupted. The Saudis have put into play every available mitigation measure to make a return to the Hajj possible.
This isn’t the first time the Hajj has had to confront dangerous communicable diseases. Cholera plays a starring role in Christopher Low’s recent book Imperial Mecca, a riveting account of the contested management of the pilgrimage during the latter days of the Ottoman Empire. Steamships carrying pilgrims from India with poor sanitation and severe overcrowding produced a public health nightmare: the cholera epidemic of 1865 wiped out 10-20% of the pilgrims and then spread with the survivors, eventually killing 60,000 Egyptians and over 200,000 Europeans and North Americans. The 1869 opening of the Suez Canal dramatically increased the role of steamships - and offered many new opportunities for the deadly spread of cholera. Mediterranean cities lived in terror of cholera outbreaks — and the mass movement of peoples during the Hajj played a central role in its spread.
Imperial Mecca places the Hajj at the nexus of imperial competition, nascent globalization, uneven state building, and the physicality of a contagious disease. It’s a story of biopolitics and of infrastructure as much as it is a diplomatic history or an investigation of local politics on the frontiers of empire.
While Mecca was (loosely) under Ottoman control throughout the years covered by the book, the Hajj was a global event and repeated cholera epidemics made it a high-level international concern. This had implications for the reach of the Ottoman state. From 1866 onward, because of the cholera epidemic, “questions surrounding the hajj’s… proper administration were no longer completely in Ottoman hands.” Administering this massive global pilgrimage each year required “coordination and cooperation among the Ottoman Empire, British India, the Dutch East Indies, French Algeria, Russian Central Asia, and the rest of the European colonial world.” That meant dealing with things like passports, quarantines, shipping arrangments, and extraterritorial legal responsibility for colonial citizens. And it meant anticipating and dealing with the inexorable spread of a devastating disease each time.
Low focuses on the Indian Ocean context, in line with a rapidly growing literature in Indian Ocean studies which explores these transregional connections (there’s so much I could point to here, but this special section Low edited for a 2014 edition of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East is a good place to start). The participation of vast numbers of Muslims from India and Southeast Asia in the Hajj inevitably put the Ottomans into competitive contact with the British Empire. Focusing on the iterated global flows of Muslims during the Hajj recenters Mecca and the Hijaz as not simply an Ottoman internal concern but as a focal point for imperial competition and transnational mobility. British colonial administrators in India could not be passive spectators when tens of thousands of its Muslim subjects undertook the pilgrimage each year. As Low puts it, “Britain’s creeping involvement with the day-to-day affairs of the Hajj and its diasporic colonial subjects forced Ottoman officials to acknowledge the Hijaz’s vulnerable position as a contested frontier and interimperial borderland nestled in the extraterritorial shadows of the Raj’s Indian Ocean empire.”
Imperial Mecca tells a number of different, interrelated stories. It traces the evolution of the fascinating, complex relationship between the Hijaz and the Ottoman center, and the perennial limits to Istanbul’s ability to impose its writ. It shows the fascinating political dynamics as the fraught management of the Hajj could undermine the religious legitimacy of the Ottoman Sultan’s Caliphate, especially when mismanagement created horrifying experiences for pilgrims for which the Caliph could be blamed. The diplomatic maneuverings between the British and Ottoman Empires over the Hajj within the context of shifting global politics surrounding pan-Islamism make for great reading.
But here, I want to focus on Low’s account of cholera itself, the global efforts to discover its causes and how to mitigate its risks, and the major infrastructural and developmental changes which the disease forced. The terrors of cholera in this era were viscerally real. An estimated 15 million Indians died of cholera between 1817 and 1865, and another 23 million from 1865 until 1947. The more that railroads and steamships globalized the movement of peoples, the faster the disease spread. The arrival of an infected passenger in a port could rapidly infect and kill tens of thousands of people in crowded cities. Low reports that “between 1831 and 1914, cholera spread from India to the Hijaz on at least forty occasions”; between 1881 and 1895, a more or less continuous cholera pandemic ravaged everything between India and the Mediterranean. Network centrality, being a nexus point for global transportation, can be a good thing — but in the age of cholera it was a deadly thing.
The efforts to manage cholera were therefore not just a scientific challenge but a high-level political issue on the international stage. Scientific efforts to identify the causes were impeded by a combination of Imperial politics and racism. It was all too easy to blame impoverished Indian Muslims for the epidemics. British Imperial officials were determined to block the idea that India was the sole source of cholera, which could have commercial implications for the Empire, and so preferred to view the “backward” Ottoman lands as to blame for epidemics linked to the Hajj. When a German scientist identified the bacteria which caused cholera and identified the paths of contagion, the British pushed back repeatedly, at great cost. The tenacious British “continuing denial of the overwhelming evidence in favor of cholera’s communicability” perhaps won’t shock readers who have lived through COVID denialism. But it seriously hindered international cooperation towards managing the epidemic.
Low dives deeply, very deeply, into the political implications of the major mitigation measures which were ultimately taken. One was the imposition of mandatory quarantines before arrival into the Hijaz, which could keep out the infected but which required the creation of an infrastructure for keeping pilgrims alive, fed and healthy during the mandatory waiting period. Low argues that the Ottomans adopted such quarantines not only because of the “horrendous 1893 outbreak in Mecca” but also because of the 1892-1895 outbreak in Istanbul itself. The methods developed to protect Istanbul, he argued, could then be exported to the Hijaz frontier. The quarantines, and more broadly the expanding systems of regularizing, monitoring and controlling all aspects of the movement of pilgrims into the Hijaz area, inexorably expanded what James Scott calls legibility and Michael Mann might term the infrastructural power of the Ottoman frontier state.
Creating an infrastructure for clean, sanitary water required and facilitated a similar expansion of state capacity. A major portion of Imperial Mecca focuses on the long, difficult efforts to rebuild the water systems of the Hijaz. That was not simply a technical task, but a political one which required navigating complex local systems of water monopolies and delivery, as well as long-entrenched routines of pilgrims washing in and drinking from water streams polluted by human waste. Low recounts stories unfolding over years of the efforts to build water pipes and keep water sources clean, often met with sabotage of the pipes, resistance by local officials to the new water projects, and the entrenched habits and lack of other options for often desperately poor pilgrims. He shows how the Ottoman officials tasked with these water projects had to build better communications and transportation systems, with inevitable implications for the expansion of state capacity.
Clean water and quarantines, along with a range of other sanitary interventions, allowed for major progress in containing and controlling the cholera epidemics which had wreaked havoc for so many decades. But, in fine James Scott fashion, these expansions of state capacity often created perverse consequences. Low shows how local actors gamed the new systems, from Muslim shipping agents in India outfoxing efforts by British companies Thomas Cook to monopolize the Hajj to locals in the Hijaz establishing lucrative monopolies of their own at every turn. The expansion of Ottoman state capacity in the Hijaz didn’t prove enough when war came, as when the extremely expensive Hijaz Railroad famously became the target for sabotage attacks during the so-called Great Arab Revolt.
Low’s Imperial Mecca is an eye-opening, deeply satisfying read. Parts of the story may be familiar to Ottoman historians (something which I am not), but even those take on a new salience with the story recentered around the Indian Ocean pilgrimage routes and imperial competition. Beyond its contributions to Ottoman studies, Imperial Mecca fits well within other recent historical work on biopolitics and infrastructure, as well as within the Indian Ocean turn towards transregional studies. It made me see some old things in new ways — and to see today’s global struggles with the COVID pandemic in a new historical lens.
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