In the year 1853, Captain Richard Francis Burton, having received an extended furlough from the armed forces of John Company, which found him increasingly inconvenient, embarked on a journey that was to make him famous. Disguising himself as a Persian, he left London for Southampton; debarking at Alexandria, he inhabited the outhouse of an English friend and there began to study the infinite ways of God. A cynic might question the devotion of these studies, since he undertook them only to counterfeit a dervish; but in truth, since he was to entrust his life to this forgery, there is no reason to suspect him of less than an unusual zeal.

From Alexandria, he went to Cairo; from Cairo, to Suez, and there his real journey began. For his true aim was to join the hajj, the Great Pilgrimage to the cities of Medina and especially Mecca, forbidden to infidels, death to the interloper. Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Mecca, occasionally known as the Secret Pilgrimage and often with the names of the cities reversed in order in the title, is just what it sounds like: his tale of this remarkable journey, of his travails, of the places of El-Hejaz, and what he saw there; of its peoples and customs. It was first published in 1855 and vaulted its writer to a justified fame; although much of the work is scientific (it abounds with statistics on elevation, climate, the quality of local wells), Burton and the prose of Burton are congenial companions, his voice and vigor impossible to mistake for a lesser man's.

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