Theses Doctoral

The Mechanics of Mecca: The Technopolitics of the Late Ottoman Hijaz and the Colonial Hajj

Low, Michael Christopher

Drawing on Ottoman and British archival sources as well as published materials in Arabic and modern Turkish, this dissertation analyzes how the Hijaz and the hajj to Mecca simultaneously became objects of Ottoman modernization, global public health, international law, and inter-imperial competition during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I argue that from the early 1880s onward, Ottoman administrators embarked on an ambitious redefinition of the empire’s Arab tribal frontiers. Through modern engineering, technology, medicine, and ethnography, they set out to manage human life and the resources needed to sustain it, transform Bedouins into proper subjects, and gradually replace autonomous political life with more rigorous forms of territorial power.
At the same time, with the advent of the steamship colonial regimes identified Mecca as the source of a “twin infection” of sanitary and security threats. Repeated outbreaks of cholera marked steamship-going pilgrimage traffic as a dangerous form of travel and a vehicle for the globalization of epidemic diseases. European, especially British Indian, officials feared that lengthy sojourns in Arabia might expose their Muslim subjects to radicalizing influences from diasporic networks of anti-colonial dissidents and pan-Islamic activists. In contrast to scholarship framing biopolitical surveillance over the hajj as a colonial project, I emphasize the interplay between European and Ottoman visions of quarantines, medical inspections, steamship regulations, passports, and border controls. As with other more overtly strategic projects, such as rail and telegraph lines, I argue that the Ottoman state sought to harness the increasing medicalization of the hajj, Hijazi society, and the Arabian environment as part of a broader assemblage of efforts to consolidate its autonomous southern frontiers.
Although historians have frequently held up the Hijaz and the pilgrimage to Mecca as natural assets for the invention of Hamidian tradition and legitimacy, they have often failed to recognize or clearly articulate how the very globalizing technologies of steam, print, and telegraphy, which made the dissemination and management of the Sultan-Caliph’s carefully curated image possible, were only just beginning to make the erection of more meaningful structures of Ottoman governmentality, biopolitical security, and territorial sovereignty in the Hijaz possible. And while modern technologies clearly lay at the very heart of the Hamidian impulse to reform, develop, and modernize the empire, concomitantly these very same technologies were also extending British India’s extraterritorial reach into the Hijaz. Thus, as an alternative to the traditional “Pan-Islamic” framing of the late Ottoman Hijaz, this study seeks to identify the assemblages of legal, documentary, technological, scientific, and environmental questions, the “everyday details” and quotidian “mechanics,” which were actually escalating and intensifying Anglo-Ottoman and wider international clashes over the status of the Hijaz and the administration of the hajj.
In a sense, this dissertation is also a history of negation, absence, and contradiction. In order to better understand the possibilities and the limits of late Ottoman rule in the Hijaz, I spend much of this study detailing the enormous obstacles to territorial sovereignty and modern governmentality through an investigation of their Janus-faced inversions, autonomy and extraterritoriality. I argue that the autonomous legal status, exceptions, and special privileges enjoyed by both the Sharifate of Mecca and the Hijazi population (Bedouin and urban) laid bare the compromised nature and limits of Ottoman sovereignty and provided both the gateway and the rationale for the extension of the Capitulations and European extraterritorial protection into corners of the Ottoman world and Muslim spiritual affairs, which prior to the late-nineteenth century had been inconceivable.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Bulliet, Richard W.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 7, 2015