The British Museum's impressive new show, Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, is said to be the first major western exhibition dedicated to the fifth pillar of Islam.
Haj exhibition opens at British Museum
The matter-of-fact male with a northern English accent says he will never forget the moment when he stood vigil on the plain of Arafat, just one of hundreds of thousands of other Muslims from as far afield as rural China, sub-Saharan Africa and Indonesia.
It was 45°C and he stood "with my hands raised and floods of tears pouring down my face, and thinking 'this is the greatest day of my life'. Even to this day, every time I think about it, it brings me to tears."
The memory of that spiritual highlight, drawn from his pilgrimage to Mecca, comes from just one of the anonymous contributors to a set of audio recordings that plays in a loop, bringing alive the British Museum's exhibition, Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam. Opening today and running until April 15, it lays claim to being the first major exhibition dedicated to the fifth pillar of Islam.
Organised in partnership with the King Abdulaziz Public Library Riyadh, the show is certainly impressive in scale, with 200 priceless treasures on loan from far-flung countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar. Among them are an eighth-century Quran written in sloping ma'il script, gorgeous kiswa (coverings for the Kaaba, Mecca's holiest shrine) and other textiles woven with gold and silver thread, a 14th-century brass astrolabe from Morocco and many ancient maps and travel journals that are dazzlingly illustrated and filled with flowing calligraphy. Spanning Islam from its earliest years to the present day (a case full of modern souvenirs from Mecca includes make-up, a digital Quran and something called a "Super Viewer 3-D"), the exhibition is not only a comprehensive survey of the pilgrimage's political and religious history, it is also full of startling beauty.
The craftsmanship evident in items such as a highly decorated, gold-leaf-adorned pilgrimage certificate from 1433 and an ivory 16th-century "Qibla indicator", which combines a sundial with a magnetic compass and points the way to Mecca, are not the only exhibits that offer aesthetic pleasure.
There are also a number of contemporary art works by artists from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere that draw inspiration from the Kaaba.
Standing out among these is Ahmed Mater's installation Magnetism, a box-shaped magnet surrounded by swirling iron filings, which delivers the same primal kick as photographs of many thousands of pilgrims in prayer.
Venetia Porter, the exhibition's chief curator, says that enabling non-Muslims to comprehend the religion on a deeper level than that offered by newspaper headlines is part of the aim ("we all need to understand each other") but she also gleefully describes the pilgrimage's bawdier side. This involves people getting regularly "ripped off" by opportunists over the centuries, Victorian celebrity explorers donning disguises to penetrate Islam's inner sanctum, and a 16th-century text describing pilgrims breaking the Haj's "no arguing" rule.
"Tell the backbiting pilgrim on my behalf," it reads, "you're no pilgrim! Your camel's the real one: poor creature ..."
Although traditional images of pilgrims traversing stark desert landscapes on camelback, aided (or sometimes attacked) by Bedouin tribesmen, have now been supplanted by photographs of the gridlocked road between Mecca and Arafat (about 14.5 kilometres, but the trip can take up to nine hours), the exhibition emphasises how the Haj was for centuries a long, arduous and life-threatening journey. Until the Hijaz railway was built in the early 1900s, many pilgrims did not expect to return home, selling off possessions and even divorcing wives before they left. It wasn't unusual for journeys from Timbuktu (a popular early route) to take years.
Now 6,000 flights arrive and take off at the dedicated Hajj Terminal of Jedda's airport during peak time of the yearly pilgrimage, and the number of the faithful making the trip each year has hit the three million mark. Countries are given quotas of how many citizens can attend the Haj in a given year, and places are awarded by lot. Although timings vary, this year's pilgrimage is set for late October.
Last year, 6,228 pilgrims were allowed to travel from the UAE. It is still something of an ordeal - the crowds alone are challenging and many of the rituals are physically demanding - but it's no longer a journey of many months.
The details of the rituals involved in the Haj, the historic routes, and the accounts of which rulers were in charge when, may be enough to get some visitors' heads spinning, but it is easy to skip to more digestible pleasures.
A video midway shows what several thousand people "Stoning the Devil" and circling the Kaaba at once looks like (mind-blowing) and wall texts quote from famous pilgrims, some of them names familiar in the West, such as the boxer Muhammad Ali ("I felt exalted by the indescribable spiritual atmosphere") and the late US activist Malcolm X ("They asked me what about the Haj has impressed me most ... I said, the brotherhood").
Nothing captures the pure emotion at the heart of the experience like the audio clips, though. By sitting on a dark bench in a corner near the end of the exhibition, visitors can hear contemporary pilgrims quietly recounting their experiences of a life-changing event. "That's when my heart melted," one pilgrim says of seeing the Kaaba for the first time. "It was the first time I really had a sense of belonging," says another. "The journey never ends," a third says. "You take the Haj with you for the rest of your life."
For non-Muslims as much as for Muslims, hearing these tales of personal revelation and hope cannot help but inspire.
Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, British Museum, today until April 15.
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