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The Dutch spy who helped preserve Makkah’s history

MAKKAH – A Dutchman played a huge role in preserving Makkah’s history in the 1880s, according to a curator of oriental manuscripts and rare books at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

In his lecture organized by Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz’s Chair for Makkah History Studies at Umm Al-Qura University in collaboration with the King Abdul Aziz Foundation on Tuesday, Dr. Arnoud Vrolijk focused on the journey of a Dutchman named Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936) who traveled to Jeddah in 1884 to do some intelligence work for the Dutch government.  Hurgronje, commonly referred to as Snouck, was supposed to get as much information as he could about Achinese pilgrims and Achinese people living in Makkah.  The Achinese hail from the Aceh region located in the northern end of Sumatra, Indonesia.

At the time, Aceh was colonized by the Dutch and the Dutch government was worried that people from the region who go to perform Haj in Makkah would meet scholars who would encourage them to resist the colonizers.
Snouck’s mission was to keep a close eye on them and gather information about Achinese who might attempt to topple the Dutch regime in Aceh.

After staying in Jeddah for a while, he decided to enter Makkah but was told he could not do that because he was not a Muslim. He converted to Islam immediately.

Some historians claim that Snouck never really converted to Islam at heart, while others claim otherwise because Snouck never drank alcohol after his conversion and that he was buried as a Muslim in the Netherlands.
When he went to Makkah, the Dutch adventurer was carrying with him a large camera with which he took indoor photographs of different locations in Makkah. Afraid he would get caught, Snouck never took photographs outdoors.

However, he used the help of a Makkah man named Al-Sayyid Abd Al-Ghaffar Al-Baghdadi, who was an eye specialist according to some historians. Five months later, Snouck was expelled from Makkah by the Ottoman ruler of the time after being accused of attempting to steal a historical artifact. After he left, Al-Baghdadi continued to take pictures of Makkah and send them to the Dutch professor in the Netherlands. Snouck was an avid collector of objects. He also recorded different sounds.

A plethora of the objects he gathered and the sounds he recorded along with the pictures he took are kept at the Library of Leiden University in the Netherlands. The collections kept at Leiden University are very important not only to Makkah history but also to Jeddah and the Arabian Peninsula in general, according to Vrolijk. The university’s library is preserving these photographs and working on making digital archives.

Khalid Al-Nasser, who is in charge of international relations at King Abdul Aziz Foundation, told Saudi Gazette that the foundation and Leiden University are planning to hold an exhibition next year to showcase Snouck’s collections and objects.

Qais Bajaeifir Saudi Gazette