Ali Bey in Mecca, 1807
Anthony Bonner traces the route taken by a Spaniard, from Barcelona, who set out on his long journey throughorth Africa to Mecca with the backing of Manuel Godoy.
If asked who was the first Westerner to enter Mecca, many of us might name Richard Burton. He wrote a book about his pilgrimage that became a classic of travel literature, and was as expert in self-publicity as T.E. Lawrence. Yet he never claimed to be first.
He was preceded by the Swiss, Johann L. Burckhardt, an extraordinary man who became so versed not only in Arabic language and culture, but also in the Koran and its commentaries, that a Moslem jury decided he could be nothing but what he claimed to be - a learned doctor of the Law.
Almost forty years before Burton, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca and Al Medinah, only to die miserably in Cairo a few years later, at the age of thirty-three. Then comes an odd character called Ali Bey, who really was the first Westerner to enter the forbidden city of Mecca. Yet why is he so little known?
The reason is that he projected the wrong image and thoroughly queered his own posterity. His main mistake was calling the account of his trip Voyages d’Ali Bey en Asie et en Afrique, thereby becoming known under a name better suited to a Douglas Fairbanks silent film. He even tried to pretend that this account was a translation from his own original Arabic, and to hammer home the point, it bore an introduction in Arabic.
As a result, his readers either took him for a charlatan or wondered what was so extraordinary about an Arab making the pilgrimage to Mecca. The fact that he was a Spaniard from Barcelona, and that his real name was Domingo Badia y Leblich, were details ignored.