Spiritual Subjects
Central Asian Pilgrims and the Ottoman Hajj at the End of Empire
Lâle Can




AFTER LIVING THE FIRST THREE DECADES of his life in the Soviet Union, China, and Saudi Arabia, the peripatetic Uzbek merchant Hajji Muhammed Jon became a Turkish citizen in 1956. He had first emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1932 and settled in Kashgar as a young child. In 1949, Muhammed fled China for an uncertain future in Saudi Arabia, this time on his own. Traveling via Lahore and Bombay, he took old roads that merchants and pilgrims had used for centuries, with only the last leg of his journey, from India to Arabia, replaced by air carrier rather than ship. After about five years of residence in Mecca, where there was a sizable Uzbek and Uyghur diaspora but little prospect of naturalization, he applied for Turkish citizenship. He hoped to continue studies in Turkey that had been upended in China. But rather than a student, he found himself a soldier. And in lieu of the Muslim army he imagined joining, the hajji was conscripted into a joint Turkish-Greek NATO force in Izmir (Smyrna), his name registered in the Turkified form of Mehmet Can. When he completed his service in late 1957, his plans to return to Mecca were interrupted by countrymen (hemşeri) from back home—“home” itself now an ever-changing geography—who introduced him to a seamstress named Saliha. The two were married shortly thereafter in an old Istanbul mosque where her father was the prayer reciter (müezzin). To make a living, the hajji opened a small restaurant in the Grand Bazaar, but he found that he did not have the temperament for this type of work. Within a few years he returned to Mecca, a wife and two young daughters in tow, and worked as a pilgrimage guide. Uzbek acquaintances with a home close to the Noble Sanctuary hosted them. Although the family did not remain long, the Holy Cities occupied a special place in their memory. The children would remember joining the crowds of pilgrims and melodically chanting labbayka allahumma labbayk as they arrived in Mecca and declared their intention to perform the hajj. Saliha, a child of the young Turkish Republic, would for decades describe arriving in Medina and finding a city illuminated by prophetic light.

The two hajjis were my parents, the two girls my sisters, and I grew up listening to their stories—tuning them out mostly. Or so I thought. It was very late in the writing of this book that I saw the parallels between their lives and those of people I studied at the end of empire, and I realized that I was, in part, writing a history of how the hajj shaped my father’s path to Mecca and then Istanbul. Perhaps willfully, perhaps by chance, this seemingly obvious fact had escaped me. In part, it was because I began this project with a different research question: how travel on the hajj had shaped the political imaginaries of participants in a failed anticolonial revolt in Russian Turkestan. This was the 1898 Andijan Uprising, a rebellion led by a Sufi shaykh in the Ferghana Valley who claimed to have Ottoman support in a holy war against the Russian tsar. Although the likelihood of Ottoman involvement was negligible, the question of why the leader invoked Sultan Abdülhamid II’s (r. 1876–1909) backing in his battle against Russian colonialism served as the point of departure for studying social and political connections between Central Asia and the Ottoman Empire. As the project evolved, small detours into the study of hajj networks took on a life of their own, and I began to focus on the links between sacred travel, migration, and imperial belonging. Rather than religio-political or ethnic ideology—the pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism of intellectuals and statesmen that constituted the topic of hundreds of books—all signs in the archive pointed to pilgrimage as the major force connecting people across a vast expanse of what would later be called the Turkic world.

To a large extent, these connections were obscured by the world that took shape after the First World War and the Turkish Republic’s rejection of much of its Ottoman legacy. But while the republic established by Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) in 1923 was avowedly secular (adapting the French model of laïcité), religion continued to inform the basis for determining who was or could become a “real” Turk. Whereas Armenians, Greeks, and Jews became what one historian has likened to the nation’s step-citizens,1 many Central Asians and other Turkic Sunni peoples were welcomed as blood relations. Turkish nationalist narratives of a glorious, shared past in lands stretching from Kashgar to Ankara had great force among disenfranchised Turkic migrants. For people like my father, it provided a focus for their nationalist yearnings and something to hold on to in a world where communism had forced them into exile, sometimes more than once.

But, like most nationalist myths, this narrative stood in for a much more complex history characterized by simultaneous processes of inclusion and exclusion that dated to the late Ottoman period. For Central Asians, the paths to becoming subjects of the sultan and, later, citizens of the Turkish Republic were built on old hajj routes and networks—not primarily ethnic brotherhood or kinship—and included major obstacles and moments of dissonance. Like the young man who left Mecca to study in Turkey and found himself in a NATO force rather than a Muslim army, Central Asians from all over Russian- and Chinese-ruled lands found an empire that both welcomed them as pilgrims and simultaneously began to define them as foreigners, restrict their rights in the Holy Cities, and view them as potential threats to Ottoman political sovereignty. With the expansion of Russian and British colonial rule and extraterritorial legal jurisdiction—a system in which European powers insisted on their right to adjudicate the legal affairs of their citizens, as well as their colonial subjects—the Ottoman central government became increasingly apprehensive about foreign nationals on its soil. This included Muslim colonial subjects, Turkic and otherwise.

Yet Central Asians’ routes through and roots in the empire allowed them to carve out spaces and new types of relationships that I reconstruct in the pages that follow. Like Hacı Muhammed Can’s journey to Istanbul (where he would become Mehmet) and my own road to writing this book, their paths were full of twists and turns that pivoted on the hajj. These paths opened up into multiple directions that guide us toward a new understanding of pilgrimage in Ottoman history and an alternative genealogy of imperial subjecthood and citizenship in global history.


1. Lerna Ekmekçioğlu analyzes the treatment of minorities in early Republican Turkey—particularly in the context of European imperial powers’ infringements on Ottoman sovereignty at the end of empire and during the interwar minority protections regime—and shows how fears of reproducing European interventions led Turkey’s new leaders to both forcibly include non-Muslim Turkish citizens and to exclude them from “Turkness.” See Ekmekçioğlu, “Republic of Paradox.”