The National Archives, UK.

For students of anti-colonialism the time between the first and second world wars, commonly referred to simply as the interwar period, evokes images of revolutionary nationalism, unprecedented internationalism, and clandestine exile in London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow. In the Middle East, alongside the proliferation of anti-colonial ideas and the organization of anti-colonial movements, a new form of colonial administration was introduced, the League of Nations’ Mandate system. In sixteen Mandates across the Middle East, Africa, and the South Pacific, the European victors of World War I maintained a racist system of colonial rule alongside a fictive rhetoric of native independence.¹ The formal abrogation of Ottoman authority in the Levantine Mandates, even as many forms of Ottoman law and rule remained in place, meant that those who resided or otherwise found themselves in the Mandates had to negotiate overlapping and contradictory imperial systems. And for the British and French colonial administrations, the previous “Turkish” regime was an easy scapegoat in sticky situations.

The end of one empire and the ascendance of others posed problems for their subjects generally. But for more precarious, mobile populations, whether refugees or pilgrims, who straddled several jurisdictions and pasts, problems were multiplied. 


In addition to laying bare the assumptions of the state and their methods of corruption, concealment, co-option, and fabrication, official archives, colonial and otherwise, contain rich accounts of subaltern pasts. Histories from below have demonstrated that unheeded petitions often reveal the aspirations of the governed and that court records can expose strategies of subversion. It is now commonly understood that histories, not just of labor, but of sexuality or ideas can be uncovered out the state’s records of surveillance, incarceration, and censorship.

The National Archives, UK.

The various state archives of Egypt and Syria used to be huge centers of historical research, but the present circumstances have made their collections increasingly inaccessible (a very minor tragedy in the face of overwhelming horror). The Israeli archives, huge stores of the Palestinian and Arab past, are open to very few (and certainly not very many Palestinians). The relative openness of the Ottoman archives in Istanbul has occasioned a major boom in Ottoman historiography. But the imperial archives of Nantes, London, and Washington D.C. remain major repositories of modern Middle Eastern history. That’s why I’ve found myself many times making the trek out to the London suburb of Kew in search of the Arab past. The town is home to two repositories of imperial wealth, the first, which is far better known to non-historians, are the Royal Botanic Gardens.¹ The second are The National Archives.   


The British National Archives are full of letters of people dwelling beyond the the King and Queen’s realm requesting the services—often the documents—of the British Empire. Countless letters requesting passports or other proof of their subjecthood for the purposes of protection or property. In the records of the Foreign Office is a file detailing a dispute over the a waqf (pious endowment) in Damascus, that of Sufi lodge, the Hindi Ziwaya (the Indian Ziwaya, ziwayat al-Hinud, or sometimes, the Sindi Ziwaya, ziwayat al-Sinud). Its story offers a glimpse into the transnational life of empire and the history of people out of place.

The Hindi Ziwaya of Damascus is not a unique institution, though it’s history, unlike the better known Hindi Ziwaya of Jerusalem for example, is largely unknown.³ The history of pilgrims, of Indians and other Muslims who traveled to shrines in the Middle East and to Mecca, is one of the long-term relationships which connects West Asia to South Asia and beyond. In his thorough study of two “Hindi” lodges in Istanbul during the long eighteenth century, Rishad Choudhury notes how the “Hindis” of those lodges weren’t always necessarily Indians, but could be Southeast or Central Asians.⁴ The history of pilgrims in Damascus is also long. It was a key stop on the caravan route to Mecca until the steamship began to threaten the landlocked city’s position.⁵ For many hundreds of years, Damascus was no stranger to visitors.

Thierry V. Zarcone, Sufi Pilgrims from India and Central Asia in Jerusalem 

In the Spring of 1934, Gilbert Mackereth—his Majesty’s Consul for the Sanjaks of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and of the Hauran, and the Governorate of the Djebel Druze, as he was known—began to receive letters from Damascus’ Indian denizens.⁶ The authors, some claiming to be the “notable” Indians of Damascus, all shared the same complaints to the British consul: the Hindi Ziwaya was in dire straits. The waqf was nearly out of funds. A salary was needed for a mutwalli, or trustee. The building was in disrepair. Days before Eid al-Adha, there were insufficient funds for the usual feast. We’ve asked the Ministry of Awqaf for assistance, the Indians wrote, but they have done nothing.
The National Archives, UK.
The letters came in the wake of a petition issued by Sheik Mahmoud Hamza al-Sindhi a few months earlier. Writing from Beirut, al-Sindhi accused the Director of Awqaf of selling half of the Hindi Ziwaya’s rooms off. As a consequence of their complaints to the authorities, the Indians of the Ziwaya were driven out of their homes and “instructed by the Director of Public Security to leave Damascus.”

Al-Sindhi's message was not well received. The British consul in Damascus wrote that the sheikh “is, in fact, a rascal who from time to time has given everyone a lot of bother by intimidating the present wakil and by removing old padlocks on doors of pilgrims rooms and replacing them by others to everyone’s inconvenience. He is more than a little ‘batty’ and discussion with him is painful.” “Like you,” the British Consul in Beirut responded, “we should be very glad to see him deported.” 

But once the letters came streaming in from Damascus itself, Mackereth began making inquiries to the Awqaf Department. Muhammad Adib, the director of the Department, responded: “according to the archives, the Indian Ziwaya consists of a mosque for the five prayers, and rooms for the lodging of the Indian pilgrims who pass through here on pilgrimage.” Adib apologised that they would be unable to nominate a mutawalli or sheik for the Ziwaya. Moreover, most of the records were lost.  
In Baghdad, the newspaper al-Istiqlal covered the Indians’ concerns. As did, reportedly, other Arab newspapers, leading the British to make further inquiries into the matter. The administration of Muslim institutions by colonial authorities was a major point of contention. The awqaf department in Damascus was in French hands. The Syrian ‘ulema, Philip Khoury has contended, feared “that forces of secularization and modernization were progressively undermining their position in Syrian society.”⁷ Eager to resolve the dispute, the British reached out to the rulers of Sindh to see if they would be able to raise the needed funds for rehabilitating the ziwaya. Seth Haji Abdullah Haroon wrote from Karachi saying he had heard about the problems at the waqf for years: “I received certain complaints from Sindhi residents of that place, alleging that wakf properties entrusted to them by Turkish Government was being sold by French Government, thereby causing their expulsion.” Nevertheless, he couldn’t offer any funds for the waqf.

A frustrated Mackereth, being asked by his hire-ups why this matter could not be easily sorted, wrote that during the war “our [Intelligence] branch was too busy chasing the ignis fatuus of Arab politics to bother about the lot of British subjects in distress after the hostilities…. Now; the Turks having taken off most of the records (the rest were burnt in a fire afterwards); it is impossible to saddle responsibilities on to anyone.” With no one willing to fund the Hindi Ziwaya, not the government of Sindh or the French Mandate authority or the British Empire whose subjects’ it houses, it’s not clear what happened to those souls who relied on the ziwaya. Were they deported as some claimed? Did they return to India or go on to other shrines and other lodges?

The British records offer no conclusions. Perhaps there are answers in the Arab press or deep within the Ministry of Awqaf in Damascus or at the archives nationales d'outre-mer or in some letters in someone's home in Sindh. Ziwayat al-Hinud still exists at Bab al-Jibayah in Damascus. It is still recorded on the website of the Syrian Government’s Ministry of Awqaf. In 2016, a Facebook page—another archive—documenting Damascus’ many mosques posted what is purportedly a picture of the Hindi Ziwaya’s mosque and saying it was renovated in 2012.

¹. On the imperial history of the Kew Gardens and botany generally see: Richard Drayton, Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000). 
². For a critical appraisal of the Mandate system and recent attempts to rehabilitate it in the historiography, see: Priya Satia, “Guarding The Guardians: Payoffs and Perils,” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 7:3 (Winter 2016) pp. 481-498.   
³. See, for example: Omar Khalidi, “Indian Muslims and Palestinian Awqaf,” Jerusalem Quarterly 40 (2009) pp. 52-58 and Thierry V. Zarcone, Sufi Pilgrims from India and Central Asia in Jerusalem (Kyoto: Center for Islamic Area Studies at Kyoto University, 2009).  
⁴. Rishad Choudhury, “The Hajj and the Hindi: The Ascent of the Indian Sufi Lodge in the Ottoman Empire,” Modern Asian Studies 50:6 (2016) 1899. 
⁵. Abdul-Karim Rafeq, “Damascus and the Pilgrim Caravan,” in Leila Fawaz and C.A. Bayly, eds., Modernity and Culture from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). 
⁶. On Mackereth see, though I don’t recommend it: Michael Fry and Itamar Rabinovich, Despatches from Damascus: Gilbert Mackereth & British Policy in the Levant, 1933-1939 (Tel Aviv: Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, 1985). 
⁷.Philip Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 84.

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