On the way to Mecca through pre-revolutionary Odessa

11 March

Odessa was famous as one of the most important nodes in the traditional pilgrimage route of Russian Muslims. In the former city called Hadzhibey, Muslims lived during the Ottoman Empire. Previously, these lands were occupied by the Yedisan Horde for many centuries. After the Russian-Turkish War at the end of the 18th century, the territory was ceded to Russia under a peace treaty. Soon the city received a new name - Odessa. According to the archives, in 1827 almost one and a half thousand Muslims lived here. They were immigrants from Turkey who didn’t accept Russian citizenship. Over time, the number of Muslims decreased, but since the end of the 19th century their number began to grow.

In Odessa, before the revolution in the Russian Empire, was located the central office for transporting pilgrims to Jeddah through Istanbul. In the Presidential Library named after B.N. Yeltsin contains plans for the construction of the “House of Pilgrims” (“Hadji Hane”) hotel in the city, dated 1830-1840. Kazan author Gali Riza notes in the guidebook (the title of which can be loosely translated “How Pilgrims Are Deceived”) that it is better for Russian coreligionists to travel through Odessa: this is five or six large and reliable ships every week. The surge in Eurasian hajj traffic through Odessa even attracted the attention of the Sharif of Mecca in distant Arabia.

In addition to the mosque, the Moscow Hotel, owned by the Kasimov Tatars, was available to pilgrims. But the existing conditions didn’t satisfy the growing number of pilgrims. Two or three weeks in a crowded carriage to Odessa ended with the inability to rest upon arrival. These circumstances led to an attempt to open "Hadji Hane" in 1907-1908. The idea was first proposed by a local “hajj operator”, retired naval officer Pyotr Gurzhi. Many years of experience in transporting pilgrims allowed Mr. Gurzhi to draw up a comprehensive plan for the 1907 Hajj season. The plan covered ticket sales and accommodation for pilgrims.

With the permission of the mayor of Odessa, Ivan Tolmachev, the company “Central Odessa Administration for the Transportation of Muslim Pilgrims to Jeddah by Steamship” was founded. Pyotr Gurzhi also recruited the Odessa mullah Sabirdzhan Safarov, the “Voluntary Fleet” shipping society and the Russian Society of Shipping and Trade, and guides to accompany the pilgrims. For officials involved in organizing the Hajj were compiled lists of rules and instructions. In the fall of 1907, Mr. Gurzhi managed to arrange accommodation and provide transportation for more than 10,000 pilgrims who arrived to transit through Odessa.

A hereditary honorary citizen, “Sart by birth” Said- Gani Saidazimbaev, also volunteered to ease the difficult conditions of the pilgrimage, according to the newspaper “Voice of Truth” dated January 24, 1908: “a well-known Muslim among the local population, popular during the conquest of the Turkestan region for his actions (ransoming prisoners, freeing slaves, etc.)”. In March 1908, Mr. Saidazimbaev was appointed head of the pilgrimage movement. Many liked his idea of building special stations equipped with accommodation areas in large Hajj traffic centers.

Inspired by success in Tashkent, Said- Gani Saidazimbaev is planning the construction of Muslim stations in Odessa and Feodosia. However, there are no free territories there, and bad news comes from the station in Tashkent. When the Muslims began to stay there, five people died from suffocation in one night. The commission found the new station unfit for use. After this, Saidazimbaev goes to St. Petersburg, where he is provided with significant assistance by deputy Galiaskar Syrtlanov. The deputy manages to obtain an audience with the Minister of Internal Affairs Pyotr Stolypin and convince him of the promise of Saidazimbaev’s undertaking.

As a result, the entrepreneur launched an advertising campaign about the “Hadji Hane” functioning for pilgrims in Odessa. The popular local newspaper “Odessa Listok” published a photo report by the famous photographer Yakov Belotserkovsky with an advertising text containing a description of the high level of comfort and all the services necessary for pilgrims. The issue of rivalry was resolved by Said-Gani Saidazimbaev as follows: Pyotr Gurzhi received “three rubles from the pilgrim’s head” if he abandoned his own enterprise. But the problem was that Saidazimbaev didn’t control the situation, relying only on his administrative resources.

In reality, the “Hadji Hane” in Odessa was different from what was shown in the advertisement. Staying in the complex was actually forced. Between 300 and 800 people waited for weeks at the Hadji Hane for the ship, paying for expensive services in less than ideal living conditions. The gendarmes didn’t allow pilgrims to buy relatively cheap tickets on ships of other companies, except for the ships of the “Volunteer Fleet”, with which Saidazimbaev had an agreement. Odessa mullah Sabirdzhan Safarov was also accused of lobbying the interests of Russian shipping companies in one newspaper report from 1909.

Much of what Saidazimbaev said to Stolypin and other government officials didn’t correspond to the current state of affairs. The entrepreneur had no previous experience in organizing Hajj. It turned out that Muslims in Turkestan, where the main flow of pilgrims were sent from, didn’t really like him. A scandal erupted in the Russian press around the figure of Saidazimbaev. The wave raised in the press reached Samarkand, where the local military governor intervened in the matter. The main headquarters of the Asian Department sent a request to the Police Department, to which they received an answer: the appointment of Saidazimbaev as the head of the pilgrimage was included in the circulars by mistake.

Because of displeasure from the Muslim community, began an investigation into the activities of Said-Gani Saidazimbaev in St. Petersburg in 1909. But other events (such as Bedouin attacks on pilgrims in the Hejaz) diverted public attention, and passions died down. Saidazimbaev’s personality is difficult to assess unambiguously. On the one hand, he really wanted to improve the conditions for the movement of pilgrims along Russian railways and by sea to Jeddah . Another thing is how and by what means he achieved this, and how the Muslim society itself reacted. Saidazimbaev's state awards also speak of the extraordinary nature of the figure.

The Russian government preserved the Odessa “Hadji Hane” complex, but abolished the obligation for pilgrims to stay there. Private companies were allowed to return. Pyotr Gurzhi regained control of his office, renaming it the “Society for the Transportation of Muslim Pilgrims” in 1909. The high-profile “case” surrounding Saidazimbaev ’s enterprise only confirmed the importance of Odessa as a transit hub in the pilgrimage movement of Russian Muslims. It’s interesting, that the infrastructure for the Hadjis that developed in the pre-revolutionary period was also used in Soviet times - but that’s another story.



GSV "Russia - Islamic World"

Photo: Konevi/Pixabay