Pilgrimage to Mecca

by Lady Evelyn Cobbold

As the first British woman convert to Islam on record as having made the pilgrimage to Makkah and the visit to the Prophet’s Tomb at Madinah, Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867-1963) cuts a unique figure in the annals of the Muslim Hajj. Lady Evelyn was in her mid-sixties when she decided to go on the Hajj. Daughter of the distinguished Scottish explorer Lord Dunmore, granddaughter of the Earl of Leicester, and great-niece of the notorious romantic Lady Jane Digby el-Mezrab, the young Evelyn Murray had spent childhood winters in North Africa. There she had been imbued with the Muslim way of life, becoming, as she puts it, ‘a little Muslim at heart’. Before and after the First World War she travelled widely in Egypt, Syria and Transjordan. While strongly drawn to the Arab world, she maintained a conventional place in society at home, marrying the wealthy John Cobbold in 1891 and devoting herself to her Suffolk house and Scottish estate, her gardens, and especially deer-stalking in the Highlands, of which she was a renowned exponent. When her husband, by then High Sheriff of Suffolk, died in 1929, Lady Evelyn decided to perform the pilgrimage. Arriving at Jiddah by steamer from Suez in February 1933, she stayed with the Philbys and entered into the life of Jiddah’s foreign community while waiting to obtain permission to perform the Haj. In doing so, she had to overcome the considerable suspicion surrounding foreign ‘converts’ who, Muslims felt, made the pilgrimage and then wrote about it as a dangerous and sensational adventure. While in Jiddah she received visits from various officials of the royal court, notably the King’s son the Amir Faysal (later King Faysal). PILGRIMAGE TO MECCA is as much an account of an interior journey of faith as a conventional travelogue. It takes the form of a day-by-day journal, interspersed with digressions on the history and merits of Islam. While awaiting permission to go to Makkah, she was allowed to travel to Madinah, of which she gives an enchanting account. She is the first English writer to give a first-hand description of the life of the women’s quarters of the households in which she stayed in Madinah, Makkah and Muna — an account remarkable for its sympathy and vividness. Her book was published in 1934 to favourable reviews but has never until now been reprinted.