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A Saudi bride poses in a heavily embellished wedding outfit, complete with coins.
A Saudi bride poses in a heavily embellished wedding outfit, complete with coins.

The road to religion

A revelatory new show in Dubai has collected century-old photographs of religious pilgrims in the Middle East.

To the faithful, making their annual Haj pilgrimages in 1887 from all points across the world, the sight must have been perplexing, to say the least. To Al Sayyid Abd al Ghaffar, who had struggled across the desert with a convoy of camels bearing boxes of photography equipment to point his cumbersome, primitive camera across the plains of Mount Arafat at a sea of small tents, exhausted camels and thousands of travellers, it must have been stranger, more fantastical and rewarding than he could ever have imagined.

What Ghaffar saw that day in 1887 as he joined the caravans of pilgrims arriving by the thousand onto the plains below Mount Arafat was recorded for posterity in a series of photographic prints. Unable to contain the panoramic view within his lens, he moved the contraption about, loading up heavy glass plates into the camera as well as trying to process the freshly exposed negatives in a portable darkroom tent. Other images show pilgrims camping at the tomb of Sittana Maimunah and of the Kaaba itself, taken from aerial perspectives, showing the crowds moving around the courtyard.

Compared to familiar modern-day images showing millions under electric lights, these sepia pictures are truly breathtaking. When pieced together, this series of images gives a vision of humanity and of the pilgrims who spent months travelling through the desert to reach Mecca in time for the Haj. The results became the very first photographs taken in Mecca by an Arab photographer. These are just a handful of the ground-breaking 170 images from across the Middle East during the late 1800s on show in Dubai as the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority unveils To the Holy Lands this week. The exhibition comprises not only the work of the pioneering photographers Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, Al Sayyid Abd al Ghaffar, Mohammed Sadiq Bey and Felix Bonfils but a number of anonymous contributions as well. It takes in not only these amazing shots of Mecca and Medina, but also a richly diverse selection of individuals and notable places across the Middle East.

As Europeans began exploring the "Orient" with curiosity and heightened expectation during the latter half of the 19th century, the hitherto-undiscovered world of Islam and Arabic culture became a magnet for artists, writers, scientists and the curious, eager to immerse themselves in this strangely exotic new world. For the subjects of their work, it was an equally educational experience - not least, experiencing the nascent photographic technology of the time.

Visiting the exhibition site at the Dubai International Financial Centre amid a the pre-opening hubbub, I talked to Michael Schindhelm, the director of culture at the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority. It was through his offices that the collaboration with the Mannheim museum came about. He explained why the DCAA had brought this collection to Dubai in time for Ramadan. "Although we are a very cosmopolitan city in Dubai, if we are to talk about culture, we should start with local and regional content. What we have here is a show which demonstrates the oldest photographs ever taken from the sites of the holy lands, the Muslim world of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. They are all dating from the second half of the 19th century and what you can see is that it is not only a documentary on the Haj, but it is also portraits of society and individuals, the people of the Arab world at the time. This makes it for me even more evocative - you can see the different habits and cultures of that time."

A guided tour of the exhibition space by the DCAA's Labiba Laith proves this to be the case. As well as a number of key pieces documenting the flow of pilgrims into Mecca, the show expands its remit to look at all manner of holy sites and buildings, spanning Muslim, Christian and Jewish life in Jerusalem and across the Middle East. Views of the ancient holy sites in Jerusalem, Damascus, Jordan and Bethlehem dominate the early sections of the exhibition, captured by the European pioneers Felix Bonfils and Jacob Lorent. In their flickery images of life in the main centres of religious activity, taken mainly during the mid-1870s, they opened up for the world first time contemporary accounts of places that had hitherto existed only in the imaginations of religious westerners: the temple of olives, the tomb of David, the Dome of the Rock, the Wailing Wall, the gardens of Gethsemane and the Dead Sea. In their documentary photographs, these views echo with an emptiness that would soon forever change with the advent of mass tourism.

Meanwhile, key images of the Kaaba and Mecca, which this exhibition features in a small, darkened room, were taken by the Egyptian Mohammed Sadiq Bey. With an extensive series of perspectives, mainly taken from the surrounding mountainsides and around the city in a number of images dated to 1880, he managed to convey the sheer scale of the place, with a dynamic account of the movement of pilgrims around the sacred site as the week of Haj progressed. The final shots of the multitudes of pilgrims, massed about the Kaaba, are fascinating to behold.

Another major strand of the show is the wealth of still-life portraits, the array of individuals and families encountered by the travelling photographers. To western eyes, the inhabitants of each successive city and country were no less exotic and marvellous than the buildings and monuments. Now, for the first time, accurate impressions could be captured on film. So, here, over a century later, gazing steadfastly at us over the passage of years, are the characters who would come to define Middle Eastern life for the curious West.

Then there are the still-life portraits, which form much of the show. We see portraits of prominent dignitaries and their families, posing stiffly for the camera in their finest clothes. A Saudi bride sits uncomfortably in what appears to be chain-mail armour - it is, in fact, a wedding outfit, studded with coins. ("The poor woman can hardly get about without being supported on both sides," commented the photographer Snouck Hurgronje. "And the heat makes her situation truly distressing".)

Doctors, merchants, politicians, royalty and noblemen, beggars, servants, dancers and eunuchs, Christians, Muslims and Jews - all staring into the alien lens, frozen in time forever. The "otherness" of the subjects led the photographers to contextualise them in classical attitudes, from Muslim men demonstrating their prayers to Damascene ladies of leisure, with the anthropological style of a scientist carefully recording rare specimen. In these images, the dignity and pride of the subjects of all backgrounds imbues their presence that still resonates in the photos today.

The exhibition has been loaned to Dubai from the Reiss Engelhorn Museums, based in Mannheim, Germany, marking the first time these images (the oldest surviving photographs of the Arabic world) have ever been exhibited in the Middle East. In the purpose-built exhibition space, just off Lobby V of the DIFC Building, the Dubai team, working to precise plans devised in Germany, have created a mini-gallery in a large cube. Here, the work has been thematically arranged through a series of small rooms and corridors. As well as the photographs themselves, there are copious notes and quotations. The information is, as one would expect from a major museum, well-researched and informative, adding greatly to the viewing experience.

"Most of the time, we are not showing these pieces in our museum," says Dr Michael Tellenbach of the Reiss Engelhorn Museum. "Because prolonged exposure to the light would be bad for the prints. So this is another reason why this show is special." "We also inform you that in these days we were not able - and we do not know why - to make photographs in the darkroom during the extremely hot and sultry weather, as the watering of the glass negative did not work properly. The gelatin dissolved and became diffused." This extract, from a letter written by Ghaffar on July 5 1887, demonstrates the problems faced by the photographer at the site. Using a portable darkroom in a tent, which accompanied the photographic team, meant that the images were immediately created. However, the process was fraught with difficulties and technological issues. The cameras themselves were heavy, delicate objects, which used plate glass slides, coated with a light-sensitive preparation of gelatin.

Due to the harsh bright light of the desert skies and the long exposure times, the photographic pioneers would often end up with blank-faced subjects and bleached-out clothing - especially useless when the whole point of the project was to document the intricate finery and foreign strangeness of the subjects. Hand-retouching the negative plates became common, giving a strange, impressionist effect to many of the prints, which in turn lent an added air of mystery and exoticism to the final works. No wonder, as international travel became simpler, more and more Europeans flocked to the region in search of the spiritual and romantic scenes.

The stories behind the photographers are equally as fascinating as their subjects. For instance, a major presence was the Dutch-born Hurgronje, a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic studies who spent years immersing himself in the region's culture, travelling to Saudi Arabia and even converting to Islam in 1884. The following year, he travelled into Mecca and, disguising himself appropriately, adopted the name Abd al Ghaffar (no relation to Al Sayyid Abd al Ghaffar). He was able to penetrate the city walls without attracting too much undue attention, despite his weighty photographic baggage. His images here capture a quaint citadel, all boxy high rise buildings, interspersed with mosques, as well as some of the more colourful characters he encountered on his travels.

"What I find fascinating," says Tellenbach, "is how these photographers chose not to document the technological advances of the age, but instead to photograph this mass pilgrimage, this movement of people from all places to Mecca and Medina. You can see the fascination with the movement of people and that is what makes it very special." As I wander around the space, I am reminded that there are only three similar collections of photography from this era of these holy lands in existence. One, according to Tellenbach, is owned by a "man in France" who guards his treasures jealously - not allowing any access. The other collection is owned by the Saudi royal family, who show it off to occasional lucky visitors. The third is owned by the Museum in Mannheim, where it was donated over 100 years ago by a local benefactor. The work is, as Tellenbach, concedes, hard to value - but as a guide, he points out that two Mohammed Sadiq Bey original prints went for $2.3 million (Dh8.4 million) at Sotheby's a few years back. However, for 21st century eyes, these journeys in the past are compelling and vivid, as fresh and full of stories to us today as they were for their awed audiences back in Europe in the 19th century. To the Holy Lands runs from today to Nov 4 at Lobby V, The West Wing, The Gate Building, DIFC. See @email:www.cultureartsdubai.ae for further information.

amohammad@thenational.ae

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