29 October 2007

Richard Burton. Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah. 1855

"His dress and appearance were those suggesting a released convict...He wore, habitually, a rusty black coat with a crumpled black silk stock, his throat destitute of collar, a costume which his muscular frame and immense chest made singularly and incongruously hideous, above it a countenance the most sinister I have ever seen, dark, cruel, treacherous with eyes like a wild beast's. He reminded me by turns of a black leopard, caged but unforgiving  ... . In his talk he affected an extreme brutality, and if one could believe the whole of what he said, he had indulged in every vice and committed every crime. I soon found, however, that most of these recitals were indulged in pour epater le bourgeiose and that his inhumanity was more pretended than real. Even the ferocity of his countenance gave place at times to more agreeable expressions, and I can just understand the infatuated fancy of his wife that in spite of his ugliness he was the most beautiful man alive. "  -- Wilfrid Blunt, Diaries.

"The man riveted my attention. He was dark and forceful, and masterful, and ruthless. I have never seen so iron a countenance."
Bram Stoker 1879.

Richard Burton. PERSONAL NARRATIVE OF A PILGRIMAGE TO EL-MEDINAH AND MECCAH. 3 Vols. Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London 1855–1856.

Current Selling Prices
$6500-$20000 /£3200-£10000

I was thinking of this book recently while listening to an audio CD of John Dunning's 'The Bookman's Promise' travelling to an auction. The plot centers around a lost / stolen collection of Burton first editions in particular a signed presentation copy of an 1855 'Medinah'. The 3 volume work is described (improbably) as 'factory fresh' and our hero Janeway, cop turned bookdealer, pays $30,000 for it in 1997 - at the time this was equivalent to £20K. It seemed a bit strong but this was fiction. Auction records reveal this as the highest ever record:
Burton, Richard Francis, Sir, 1821-90 - [Alternate Names: Baker, Frank] - Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah.  L, 1855-56 - 1st Ed - 3 vols. 8vo, - contemp half calf - joints & edges rubbed - With 14 litho plates, all but 1 colored or tinted, folding map & 3 plans. - Lacking ad leaves at end of Vol I; some spotting - Inscr to Stick in the Mud & sgd with his Arabic signature - Christie's South Kensington, May 8, 2003, lot 261, £11,000 ($17,930) - BMNH
This is about £13k with commissions. A very decent unsigned copy with 'minor wear' - the Peter Hopkirk copy - achieved £12000 in 1998. Given these records, it is not unimaginable that a signed copy in supernatural condition could make £20K +.

Burton is seriously collected and appears to be rising in value. He was was an explorer, linguist, and cultural anthropologist of the highest calibre--also a soldier, diplomat, mystic,sexologist, orientalist, sportsman, drinker, superb fencer and a spy - handsome, manly, possibly bi-sexual, possibly a killer and 'the most beautiful man alive.' In his time he seems to have been regarded rather like Crowley in the 1920s - a scandalous, outrageous and dangerous figure. 'Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah' is one of the great travel classics along with Doughty's 'Arabia Deserta.' He was fluent in Arabic (and in more than 20 other languages!) and disguised himself as a Moslem in order to penetrate, at the risk of his life, the holiest of Islamic shrines, forbidden to non-Moslems. He acquired the art of disguise when roaming among the villages of Southern Scinde. Less than half a dozen Europeans were known to have made the hajj, or pilgrimage, to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina and lived, and of those only the Swiss explorer J. L. Burckhardt had left a detailed account. During the several days that Burton spent in Mecca, he performed the associated rites of the pilgrimage such as circumambulating the Kaaba, drinking the Zemzem water and stoning the devil at Mount Arafat. His resulting book surpassed all preceding Western accounts of the holy cities, even Burckhardt who, as it notes in the preface of this work
:...was prostrated by sickness throughout the period of his stay in the Northern Hejaz, he was not able to describe it as satisfactorily or minutely as he did the Southern country, — he could not send a plan of the Mosque, or correct the popular but erroneous ideas which prevail concerning it and the surrounding city."
Because Burton respected and admired Muslim customs and beliefs, the Muslims downplayed the intrusion with the comment that Burton was in reality an Arab.

VALUE? 'Medinah' appeared in grained ink blue cloth with 15 full page illustrations, 6 of which are in colour, plus 2 fold out maps and 1 fold out diagrams. A second edition, slightly revised, came out in 1857 and is worth about a tenth of the first's value. As recorded above a fab copy can be cashed in for ten grand English, rebound copies about a third to a half of this.

TRIVIA. He was accused of having murdered a man on this trip to Mecca. The story was that on the journey he had accidentally revealed himself as a European and killed the man (in some versions a boy) to keep his secret. While Burton often denied this, he was also given to winding up the gullible - a doctor once asked him, "How do you feel when you have killed a man?" Burton retorted, "Quite jolly, what about you?" When asked by a priest about the same incident Burton is said to have replied "Sir, I'm proud to say I have committed every sin in the Decalogue."

On reaching the Holy City he performed all the rituals of the Hajj and was so affected by it that on returning to London he formed a company to enable pilgrims to reach Mecca more easily: "The Hadjilik, or Pilgrimage to Mecca, Syndicate, Limited." In Burton's tremendous enthusiasm for this pilgrimage he may have minimized its dangers. An early example of a themed holiday-- how real this syndicate was, whether it was a full fledged travel bureau etc., remains a mystery.

His 'Kasidah' of 1870 - a "Lay of the Higher Law" was said to be by one Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî but this was simply a pseudonym which Burton used as the author of this poem; he originally credited himself only as the "translator". My favourite lines, oddly topical, are:
All Faith is false, all Faith is true: Truth is the shattered mirror strown
In myriad bits; while each believes his little bit the whole to own.


Anonymous said...

"most beautiful man alive' I think I can see it but Johnny Depp he ain't, keep on with this stuff I am learning bout books but not being lectured. jaz

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