In my personal view, travel literature represents the highest level of enjoyment, excitement and knowledge, as all the knowledge that we have acquired about the world has come from previous travellers who viewed the world through their own eyes.
The regular Hajj pilgrimage over the ages has provided us with the biggest record of the history of the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina. Travellers included Muslims who went to perform the Hajj pilgrimage as well as spies who were sent by major imperialist countries to determine the source of inspiration for Muslims and the impact of the Hajj pilgrimage on the residents of the areas under the influence [of imperialists]. Those travellers – some of whom were Westerners driven by their sense of adventure to explore areas unknown in their Western culture – claimed to have embraced Islam and gave themselves Arabic names.
Ludovico Di Varthema from Bologna, who called himself Yunus al Masri, was the first European Christian to enter Mecca and Medina. In 1503, he began his famous journey from Venice to Cairo, then to Beirut, Tripoli, Aleppo, and Damascus where he learnt Arabic, then on to Medina, Mecca, Jeddah, Jizan and Aden where he was arrested on the charge of being a Christian spy for the Portuguese. On the same day, he was taken to the Sultan’s palace to be executed but the sentence was postponed as the sultan was absent. He was kept in jail for a long time before he was released and continued his journey to numerous Yemeni cities and then India and from there he left for Europe.
The Spanish traveller Domingo Badia Y Leblich passed himself off as Ali Bey al Abbassi, a prince from the Abbasid Caliphate. Many believed he was a spy for Napoleon. He arrived in Mecca in 1806 as part of an Egyptian convoy of pilgrims and suffered the horrors of the sea during his journey such as looting and illness.
Other travellers included the Dutch traveller Van Den Broecke, the Englishman Joseph Pitts, Carsten Niebuhr from Germany and many others, each with a story that deserves to be told.
Among the most important books to have been published recently in this particular field is ‘Jamhara al Rihlaat’ [A Collection of Journeys] by renowned Saudi researcher and media figure Ahmed Muhammad Mahmoud who is dedicating years to completing this great encyclopaedia, which will contain over ten volumes when it is finished. The book might be the most important encyclopaedia of Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina over different ages and is unparalleled in terms of its comprehensiveness and accuracy. The researcher followed the trails of many travellers with a deep analysis of several journeys. With this work, the writer presents a book that combines various old and new travel books, which, in its entirety, can be considered a record of numerous scenes from these two holy cities and the paths to these cities. We need to read such a comprehensive record not only to get to know how others viewed us but more importantly to strengthen our understanding of our history.