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View on the big mosque during a samalat at the Ka'aba, ca. 1887
View on the big mosque during a samalat at the Ka'aba, ca. 1885


Snouck Hurgronje’s early photographs 1885 : The Platinum Series

Her Royal Highness Princess Reem al Faisal kindly requests your presence
for the opening reception held on Tuesday November 9, 2010 from 7-10 p.m.

R.S.V.P. : info @

Exhibiton dates: November 9 - December 6, 2010

The Hajji tent camp at the tomb of Sittana Maimuna, the wife of the prophet.The Hajji tent camp at the tomb of Sittana Maimuna, the wife of the prophet.

The Empty Quarter Gallery in Dubai has teamed up with the Leiden University Library and Hes & De Graaf publishers for a truly unique exhibition revisiting the historical photographs of Mecca, originally published by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje in 1889.

Hurgronje's "Bilder aus Mekka" constitutes one of the most important collections of early photographs of the holy city of the Islam. Thanks to the kind support of Mr. Abu Bakar Al Hamed, the original plates held by the Leiden University have been expertly rephotographed and reprinted as a limited edition portfolio of twenty valuable platinum prints.

We welcome you in our gallery to partake in this breathtakingly beautiful exhibition during the month of the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Abu Dhabi-based historian and journalist Lizette van Hecke, who wrote her thesis on Snouck, will be present at the opening to answer your queries regarding this world renowned scholar of Islamic Law and founder of contemporary Islamic studies.

Group portrait of Sharif Yahya with his riding camel, his slave and two sharifs of lower rank
Group portrait of Sharif Yahya with two sharifs of lower rank, his slave and his riding camel

At times, Van Hecke's thesis reads as a veritable adventure story, chronicling Snouck's time in Mecca, the ambiguity of his presence, and his forced exit before the actual Haj took place, which prompted him to say: “This is the irony of Allah’s predestined faith.”

»When Snouck Hurgronje arrived in Mecca in 1885, he was not the first non-Muslim who succeeded in penetrating this consecrated area. [...] What made Snouck rise above his predecessors, however, was his distinct scholarship, his scientific knowledge of the Law and other sacred issues of Islam, and particularly the fact that he was known to Muslims to be an ulema, a Biblical scholar commanding a great deal of respect for knowledge of religious issues.«

»Snouck’s ‘medieval dream’ only lasted a couple of months, because of an unfortunate media affair as a result of international jealousy over the possession of the famous Taima stone, right before the beginning of the pilgrimage. His forced return to the Netherlands left Snouck with the disappointment of his desire to actually participate in the pilgrimage he had written numerous pages about remaining unfulfilled. His residence in the cosmopolitan centre of Islamic religion did not remain infertile, though, since it provided him with the first-hand information he needed to write the book that would give him international recognition.« – L. van Hecke, thesis, p. 17-18

the Ka'aba in Mekka
The Ka'aba in Mecca

Portrait of Al-Sayyid   christiaan snouck in mekka
Portrait of Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar ibn Abd al-Rahmanal-Baghdadi,1885   Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje in Mekka,1885 or Jeddah,1884

Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar, the earliest Arabian photographer of Mecca.

For years no one questioned the authorship of Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje as the maker of his famous Photographs from Mecca, an album he published under his own name. It wasn't until 1981 that Al-Sayyid Abd al-Ghaffar, a physician (and eye doctor?) from Mecca, was re-identified as the original photographer. Painstaking scientific research has brought his achievements to the forefront again, recognizing him as most certainly the first Meccan photographer, thus allowing Arsalan Mohammad to write about al-Ghaffar in an article for The National:

»To the faithful, making their annual Haj pilgrimages in 1887 from all points across the world, the sight must have been perplexing, to say the least. To Al Sayyid Abd al Ghaffar, who had struggled across the desert with a convoy of camels bearing boxes of photography equipment to point his cumbersome, primitive camera across the plains of Mount Arafat at a sea of small tents, exhausted camels and thousands of travellers, it must have been stranger, more fantastical and rewarding than he could ever have imagined.«

tent camp
Hajji camp east of Mount Arafat

»What Ghaffar saw that day in 1887 as he joined the caravans of pilgrims arriving by the thousand onto the plains below Mount Arafat was recorded for posterity in a series of photographic prints. Unable to contain the panoramic view within his lens, he moved the contraption about, loading up heavy glass plates into the camera as well as trying to process the freshly exposed negatives in a portable darkroom tent. Other images show pilgrims camping at the tomb of Sittana Maimunah and of the Ka'aba itself, taken from aerial perspectives, showing the crowds moving around the courtyard.«

letter al-Sayyid   field darkroom

A letter from Al-Sayyid, describing the difficulties of photographing in Mekka, dated July 5, 1887

  Illustration of a period field dark room –
Images courtesy of Dr. Jan Just Witkam

»Compared to familiar modern-day images showing millions under electric lights, these sepia pictures are truly breathtaking. When pieced together, this series of images gives a vision of humanity and of the pilgrims who spent months travelling through the desert to reach Mecca in time for the Haj. The results became the very first photographs taken in Mecca by an Arab photographer.«

Click to view & download the entire press kit.



This project is made possible with the generous support of Mr. Abu Bakar Al Hamed.

The Empty Quarter is devoted to fine art photography, with an emphasis on works exploring the photographic dimensions of the Arab world. Within this framework, the gallery salutes the achievements of the world’s finest photographers, and aims to highlight the talent of photographers from the Middle East.


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tel: ++971 4 323 1210
fax: ++971 4 323 1524
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snouck groom

The Platinum Series is on view
during Paris Photo 2010.
Reserve a viewing at our booth.

The Snouck Collector's Edition:
a facsimile reproduction of the original album 'Bilder aus Mekka'


a co-publication by

Expected Publication date: 2011
Sign up now for pre-ordering.


original album

Original copies of the Snouck album are collectors' items changing hands for prices up to 45.000 USD

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