‘Pilgrimage to Mecca’: The first British Muslim woman on record to have visited the Holy Cities of Madinah and Makkah


During the 19th century, many women, particularly Englishwomen, were fascinated by the Arab world. Most of these female travelers, like Lucie Duff Gordon, Lady Ann Blunt, Gertrude Bell, Isabelle Eberhardt and Freya Stark, to name but a few, are known to us through their impassioned travelogues.

However, one name, Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867 – 1963) failed inexplicably to achieve a proper recognition. William Facey finally does justice to this remarkable woman, the first British Muslim woman on record to have visited the Holy Cities of Madinah and Makkah and to have written about her pilgrimage.

In the excellent introduction, co-written with Miranda Taylor, Facey highlights for the first time the family link between Lady Evelyn and her great-aunt, the formidable Jane Digby (1807-1881) who was successively Lady Ellenborough, Baroness Venningen, and Countess Theotoky before she married her fourth and last husband, a Syrian Bedouin, Sheikh Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab. With him, she lived happily for 30 years until she died at the age of 74.

Both women shared a love of the Arab world. Jane Digby swiftly adopted the Arab way of life, smoking the narghile, wearing traditional clothes and outlining her blue eyes with kohl. Unlike Lady Evelyn, the highly unconventional Jane Digby, who was equally at ease speaking nine languages and milking camels, never wrote a book and never intended to convert to Islam. Lesley Blanch, who wrote her biography in “The Wilder Shores of Love,” tells us that her husband’s “deep inbred piety awoke her own dormant religious principles” and “she came to redouble her now active participation in church affairs.”

For Lady Evelyn, things were completely different. In fact, she didn’t even remember the exact time when she decided to become a Muslim. “It seems that I have always been a Muslim. This is not so strange when one remembers that Islam is the natural religion that a child left to itself would develop,” she said.


Categories: Asia, Book Review, Saudi Arabia, UK

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