Ajam Podcast #24: Imperial Mecca

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The Indian Ocean series explores topics related to the Islamo-Arabic and Persianate world from the perspective of the Indian Ocean littoral and the people who traversed its waters. These conversations aim to rethink narratives of history and culture, which have been traditionally boxed in by land-based territorial demarcations and regional studies frameworks. This series invites listeners to imagine the complex interconnectedness of life from East Africa to Southeast Asia and beyond.

In this episode, Lindsey is joined by Dr. Michael Christopher Low, Assistant Professor of History at Iowa State University, to talk about his new book, Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj (Columbia University Press, 2020).  

Dr. Low discusses the challenges the Ottomans faced in administering the province of Hijaz and the hajj in the rapidly transforming 19th century. He explains how steamships boosted the number of visitors to the Hijaz, carrying pilgrims, passports, contagious diseases, and even the specter of legal imperialism and colonial intervention. As those who traveled to the Hijaz by steamship were primarily from British India, administering the hajj opened up a new space of Ottoman and British Imperial competition in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Low casts Arabia as a semiautonomous frontier that the Ottomans struggled to modernize and defend against the encroachment of non-Muslim colonial powers. Conversely, from the 1850s through World War I, British India feared the hajj as a vector of anticolonial subversion. Together, these gave way to an increasingly sophisticated administrative, legal, and medical protectorate over the steamship hajj, threatening to eclipse the Ottoman state’s prized legitimizing claim as protector of Islam’s most holy places.


Michael Christopher Low

Michael Christopher Low is Assistant Professor of History at Iowa State University. His academic research focuses on Late Ottoman, Modern Middle Eastern, Indian Ocean, and Environmental History. His first book,  Imperial Mecca, was published by Columbia University Press in 2020. His articles have appeared (or are forthcoming) in multiple scholarly journals. He also serves as the Coordinator for Iowa State University’s Indian Ocean World partnership and doctoral fellowship as part of a major multi-university project, funded by the SSHRC, that examines the social, economic, and political impacts of natural disasters and environmental risk across the Indian Ocean.

M. Chris Low (@MChrisLow) on Twitter


Lindsey Stephenson

Lindsey Stephenson (PhD, Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University) is the creator and host of Ajam’s Indian Ocean Series. She is a social and legal historian of the Middle East and Indian Ocean. Her work focuses on sovereignty, mobility, and identity in the Persian Gulf.

Lindsey (@linds_e_yo) on Twitter
Lindsey Stephenson – Home


Episode No. 24
Release Date: 28 September 2020
Recording Location: New York, NY
Recording Date: January 5, 2020
Produced by Lindsey Stephenson, Ali Karjoo-Ravary, Rustin Zarkar
Audio editing: Lindsey Stephenson and Nicholas Gunty
Music: “Ya Hadi al-Rakab Sarr” by Shaykh ʿUmar al-ʿUyuni
Cover Image: Panoramic View of Mecca circa 1845 from the Khalili Collections

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