Burton Enters Mecca in Disguise Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The English explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton was one of the few non-Muslim Westerners to enter the holy city of Mecca and survive to write about his experience, in a classic three-volume work.

Summary of Event

On September 12, 1853, Richard Francis Burton entered the holy city of Mecca by caravan. He had endured great hardship to get there, but for him it was a journey worth taking. Because he was a Westerner, his life had been in constant danger. Using an elaborate disguise, Burton was able to gain entrance to Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, dressed as a Muslim. Burton, Sir Richard Francis [p]Burton, Sir Richard Francis[Burton, Richard Francis];explorations of Mecca;Western visitors Islam;Mecca Exploration;Arabia Islam;and Western travelers[Western travelers] Middle East;exploration of Arabia;exploration of [kw]Burton Enters Mecca in Disguise (Sept. 12, 1853) [kw]Enters Mecca in Disguise, Burton (Sept. 12, 1853) [kw]Mecca in Disguise, Burton Enters (Sept. 12, 1853) [kw]Disguise, Burton Enters Mecca in (Sept. 12, 1853) Burton, Sir Richard Francis [p]Burton, Sir Richard Francis[Burton, Richard Francis];explorations of Mecca;Western visitors Islam;Mecca Exploration;Arabia Islam;and Western travelers[Western travelers] Middle East;exploration of Arabia;exploration of [g]Saudi Arabia;Sept. 12, 1853: Burton Enters Mecca in Disguise[2930] [g]Middle East;Sept. 12, 1853: Burton Enters Mecca in Disguise[2930] [c]Exploration and discovery;Sept. 12, 1853: Burton Enters Mecca in Disguise[2930] [c]Religion and theology;Sept. 12, 1853: Burton Enters Mecca in Disguise[2930] [c]Literature;Sept. 12, 1853: Burton Enters Mecca in Disguise[2930] Larking, John Hājī Walī

Courtyard of the Great Mosque of Mecca around 1910. When Burton visited the mosque, he got close enough to the Kaaba to measure it surreptitiously by encircling it with his arms extended.

(Library of Congress)

Located in the region Al-Hijaz (now Hejaz) on the west coast of Arabia (now in Saudi Arabia), Mecca is surrounded by the Sirat Mountains. The city can be entered from four directions. During ancient times, Mecca was an oasis for those traveling by caravan. The Prophet Muḥammad Muḥammad, Prophet was born in Mecca in about 570. While he was forced to leave Mecca in 622, he returned in 630 and claimed the city for Islam. Islam;founding of Under Muḥammad’s control, the city became the destination for Muslim pilgrims. Known as hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca is required of all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable.

At an early age, Richard Francis Burton fell in love with travel. He had spent much of his childhood in France and Italy. Burton was adept at learning the languages and cultures of southern Europe. He also found himself picking up the vices of the region. Always one to rebel against authority, Burton was expelled from Trinity College, Oxford, in 1842. With the help of his father, Joseph Netterville Burton, he received an army commission and was sent to Bombay, India, where he worked for the British East India Company. While there, Burton studied many languages, including Arabic. He had begun his study of the language while at college, but now his studies became more intense. In addition to Arabic, he mastered Hindustani, Persian, Punjabi, Armenian, Turkish, and Sanskrit.

Burton would spend 1849 to 1852 back in England recuperating from a bout with cholera. While there, he wrote his first travel book, Goa, and the Blue Mountains: Or, Six Months of Sick Leave, published in 1851. As is clear in this first book, Burton made it a habit to be as authoritative as possible while not forgetting that his books should be entertaining as well. Also while in England, he had become involved with Isabel Arundell and made plans to visit the city of Mecca disguised as an Arab.

The year 1851 also saw the publication of two more books by Burton. The most important of these is Sindh, and the Races That Inhabit the Valley of the Indus, with Notices of the Topography and History of the Province, in which Burton dissects the Sindh region. To ready himself for writing this travel book, Burton had made use of a disguise in order to blend in with the local population. He employed an accent that was supposed to make people he met believe that he was half Iranian and half Arab. His approach to the study of culture in this publication would foreshadow his three-volume book Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah (1855-1856), which describes his pilgrimage to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

While still in Sindh, Burton longed to visit Mecca. On April 3, 1853, back in London, Burton traveled to Southampton and boarded a steamer that was headed for Alexandria, Egypt, a journey that would take two weeks. He had been commissioned by the Royal Geographic Society to explore Arabia. While in London, Burton had transformed himself into “Sheikh Abdullah.” He wore a false beard and a shaven head, and had the appropriate garments for a Persian scholar. Captain Henry Grindley served as an interpreter for Burton, who disguised himself also as someone who spoke very little English. At the age of thirty-two, Burton was more than ready to make his mark, to do something bold. This adventure would become a personal quest.

For this pilgrimage to succeed, though, Burton had to become a true Muslim. Upon reaching Alexandria, Burton stayed with John Larking Larking, John . Because it was imperative for Burton to judiciously study every aspect of the Muslim faith, he had to familiarize himself with cultural nuances. He purified himself, said his prayers, and read the Qur՚ān as every devout Muslim would. Burton even had himself circumcised, as is the custom for Muslim men. Although he had originally thought that he would disguise himself as a Persian, he concluded that he would have a better chance for success if he disguised himself as an Afghan doctor from India.

From Alexandria, Burton took a steamer to Cairo. Cairo While on the steamer, he became friends with a merchant from Alexandria known as Hājī Walī Hājī Walī . Burton’s association with Hājī Walī would last for thirty years. From Cairo he traveled to Port Suez and then to Yanbu, Arabia. He finally reached Medina on July 25, 1853. Along with two youths named Mohammed and Nūr, he would remain in Medina for approximately one month. On August 31, 1853, Burton and his small entourage joined the Damascus caravan in Medina and headed for the holy city of Mecca. The caravan would reach the valley of El-Zaribah on September 7. At this location, pilgrims usually stopped to prepare themselves to enter the holy city. On September 12, Burton entered the city with Mohammed and Nūr.

During his stay in Mecca, Burton made it a point to visit all the sacred sites. In order to rest and prepare for all the city had to offer, the three found lodging upon arrival. The next day, they joined the crowd that was heading for the Great Mosque. They would worship at the Kaaba and the sacred Black Stone, which stands in the courtyard near the mosque. As custom dictates, Burton kissed the stone and rubbed it with his hands and forehead. During the day, he also visited Al-Multazem, said prayers at Makam Ibrahim (also known as Praying Place of Abraham), and visited several other shrines. The day was very exhausting for Burton, as the intense heat took its toll on him and the others. Nevertheless, Burton was extremely satisfied with what he had accomplished.

Burton also visited the sacred Mount of Arafat and took part in the ceremony known as Stoning the Devil. In all, Burton saw more than fifty-five holy sites. Although he spent a full month in Medina, he spent only six days in Mecca. During those six intense days, he put his life in danger by taking notes and making sketches of the holy shrines. In most ways, though, he made sure to convince others that he was a devout Muslim, carefully adhering to the religious norms. In addition to his companions and the friends he made along the way, Burton had to rely on his own wits, his own knowledge, and his own courage to survive the challenge before him. The pilgrimage made him a celebrity for life back in England.


From his harrowing exploits, Richard Francis Burton wrote a three-volume book that was an instant success and made Burton famous. For the rest of his life, he would be remembered for being the first Englishman to enter the forbidden world of Islam and live to tell his tale of adventure. Although Burton was not the first non-Muslim to enter the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, he must be considered the first to best combine scholarship with popular adventure in his writings. His three-volume study has become a classic in its field.

Burton’s various lectures added a wealth of knowledge as well about life in the Middle East and in India. Out of ignorance and prejudice, the West had very little accurate information about Arabia. While Burton was not without his own shortcomings and prejudices, his trips helped educate generations of English citizens about this extraordinary part of the world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrett, Greg. “Relocating Burton: Public and Private Writings on Africa.” Journal of African Travel-Writing 2 (March, 1997): 70-79. Takes up the disagreement among scholars whether Burton was an imperialist or racist or both.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kernan, Michael. “Richard Burton, a Man for All Ages Except His Own; Soldier, Scholar, Explorer, He Shocked Victorian England with His Excursions into the Taboo.” Smithsonian 20 (February, 1990): 127-136. Discusses Burton as most definitely a man “ahead of his time.” While racism was the norm in Victorian England, Burton was fascinated by all cultures. He refused ignorance in any form, and he was willing to risk his life to help increase knowledge about the region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lovell, Mary S. A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. A massive and fascinating biography that devotes an entire chapter to Burton’s 1853 pilgrimage to Mecca.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lunde, Paul. “The Lure of Mecca.” Saudi Aramco World 25 (November/December, 1974): 14-21. Notes that about twenty-five non-Muslim Westerners visited Mecca between 1503 and 1931.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rice, Edward. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the “Kama Sutra,” and Brought the “Arabian Nights” to the West. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990. A thoroughly persuasive account of the bravery and brilliance of Richard Francis Burton. Although he was susceptible to bouts of depression, Burton managed to make himself one of the towering figures of the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfe, Michael, ed. One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Ten Centuries of Travelers Writing About Muslim Pilgrimage. New York: Grove Press, 1997. Wolfe has gathered some extraordinary examples of travel writing, including a portion of Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah. Wolfe also includes incisive introductions to this collection as well as to Burton’s famous book.

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