London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Following years of hard work and preparation, the “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” exhibition was unveiled at the British Museum in London yesterday. This represents one of the largest exhibitions to focus on the Islamic pilgrimage.
Saudi Ambassador to the UK, Prince Mohammed Bin Nawaf Bin Abdulaziz, delivered a speech to journalists on the opening of the exhibition, saying “this exhibition grants the audience a glimpse of this journey undertaken by Muslims from across the world. In essence, Hajj is a spiritual journey, and it is the most important journey that a Muslim undertakes during his lifetime.”
The Saudi ambassador was accompanied by General Supervisor of the King Abdulaziz Public Library, Faisal Bin Abdulrahman Bin Muammar, British Museum Director Neil MacGregor and British Museum lead curator for the Islamic and Middle East department, Venetia Porter.
Commenting on the exhibition, Bin Muammar said “the British Museum has been able, as usual, to arrange the exhibition in an excellent manner that will allow the audience to get to know the sacred rites and feelings [of the hajj], and this is important for Muslims and non-Muslims.” He also revealed that “the participation of the King Abdulaziz Public Library here is very important” adding “we have fully cooperated with the British Museum to exhibit some pieces here, and also display the achievements and expansions that have been made in the Two Holy Mosques during the King Abdulaziz era.”
As for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s participation in the “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” exhibition, Bin Muammar said “the Kingdom has participated with 51 pieces, and it is important here that we point out that the King Abdulaziz Public Library’s participation was also very important, as it coordinated between the museums and the Saudi institutions that participated in the exhibition.”
British Museum curator Venetia Porter expressed her happiness at the unveiling of the exhibition which had taken around three years to organize. She said that whilst the Hajj is extremely important to Muslims, non-Muslims do not know much about it, adding that this exhibition will grant non-Muslims the opportunity to learn about this sacred Muslim ritual. Porter also said that one of the challenges that she faced in organizing this exhibition was in transforming the grand idea of an exhibition focusing on the hajj pilgrimage into an actual complete exhibition on the ground. She said that this exhibition includes a large number of artifacts and works of art on loan from private collections and Arab and international institutions, allowing the “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” exhibition to bring together different forms of art which reflects the diversity that characterizes hajj, with Muslims from across the world joining together to take part in this sacred journey.
This exhibition includes manuscripts dating back to the 8th century as well as an ancient Kaaba covering on loan from the Nasser David Khallili collection, to more modern pieces. On entering the British Museum’s Reading Room, where this exhibition is being held, exhibit-goers are immediately greeted with the sound of the adhan or call to prayer of the Mecca Grand Mosque which is playing quietly in the background, as well as the sight of a large portion of the kiswa [covering] of the Kaaba. To the left of this, pictures of pilgrims performing the hajj taken by Saudi artist Reem Al Faisal are on display. The entrance [of the exhibition] allows visitors to slowly absorb the exhibits on display, and prepare themselves for the sacred journey that lies ahead. This reflects the first phase of the pilgrimage, which is one of preparation, and indeed the ritual hajj clothing that are worn by male and female pilgrims are also on display in the exhibition, as well as ancient maps and compasses which pilgrims would have used to reach Mecca. In addition to this, a stunning painting by artist Ayman Yusri depicting a group of pilgrims undertaking the hajj can also be seen in this part of the exhibition.
The exhibition explores the ancient hajj routes taken by pilgrims, shedding light on long-forgotten civilizations and revealing stunning works of art and historical artifacts. We start with the “Darb Zubaida” route, the pilgrim road from Iraq to Mecca which was named after Zubaydah, the wife of Harun al-Rashid, who built inns, wells, and cisterns along this route. The exhibition includes a number of artifacts related to “Darb Zubaida” on loan from the Museum of King Abdul Aziz University, including a tomb-stone and a road-sign which guided pilgrims to Kufa.
Another hajj route was the African pilgrim route that passed through Timbuktu onto Cairo, and from Cairo to Mecca, which was used by pilgrims during the Mamluk period. There are a number of exhibits related to this period, such as an astrolabe from Morocco, and an ancient copy of famed Islamic traveler Ibn Jubayr’s book, “The Travels of Ibn Jubayr”, which includes one of the first descriptions of the Hajj journey. Ibn Jubayr chronicled his hajj pilgrimage, which took place in1183, beginning in Cairo and eventually reaching Mecca 6 months later. There is also a beautifully detailed map of the hajj journey undertaken by King Mansa Musa of Mali in 1324.
The “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” exhibition also includes a large number of rare artifacts and manuscripts relating to other hajj journeys, including the chronicle of Richard Francis Burton’s hajj. This journey, undertaken in 1853, saw Burton disguise himself as a Muslim and undertake the hajj. In addition to this, a flask used by Burton during this trip is included in the exhibition. There is also the manuscript written by St. John Philby entitled “Hajj in the Arabian Peninsula”, as well as a small piece of cloth that Philby used when he was invited to take part in the ceremonial cleaning of the Kaaba by King Abdulaziz Al Saud in 1933. In addition to this, the exhibition includes a copy of the manuscript written by Ludovico di Varthema entitled “Itinerario de Ludouico de Varthema Bolognese” who was the first non-Muslim to visit Mecca in 1502, as well as the diaries of the first British Muslim woman to perform the hajj, Lady Evelyn Cobbold, in 14 March 1933.
The exhibition also explores the other Hajj routes, including the Ottoman route which began in Istanbul, via Damascus, to Mecca, as well as the Hejaz Railway which ran from Damascus to Mecca between 1908 and 1920. On display are a number of photographs of pilgrims riding the Hejaz Railway, as well as images of the Hejaz train station in Istanbul. In addition to this, the exhibition looks at the Asian hajj route from Mumbai and Singapore to Jeddah.
The “Hajj” Journey to the Heart of Islam” exhibition is made up of 200 plus exhibits from 13 different countries, many of which have never been shown in the Western world before. Many come from Saudi Arabia and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina; however other exhibits reflect the diversity and range of Islam and the hajj, with sources as far-flung as Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia and Timbuktu.
The exhibition also served as an opportunity to exhibit some modern artworks by Saudi Arabian and Arab artists. This includes Saudi artists such as Ahmed Mater, Shadia Alem, Reem Al Faisal, Abdulnasser Gharem, and Maha Malluh.
Ahmed Mater’s famous “Magnetism” piece was given a prominent position in the exhibit, with exhibition curator Venetia Porter describing this art work as “summarizing the hajj”. She said “from the beginning we felt that we must display this artwork here, for it summarizes the idea that the Kaaba occupies a central part in every Muslim’s life.”
Mater said that he was keen for Magnetism to be part of this exhibition, particularly as it is a simple work of art that reflects the spirituality of the hajj experience. He said “in my childhood, I would often hear family members and friends describe the circumambulation [of the Kaaba] as being similar to magnetic attraction, and that is where I got the idea of using magnets and iron fillings in my work. For when you throw the iron fillings at a magnet, they become like the people circumambulating the Kaaba.”
As for Maha Mullah, who attended the “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” opening ceremony, she told Asharq Al-Awsat that her artwork “is a comparison between travel in the past and travel today, between travel on camels in a time where there was no borders between countries between travel today with all the border controls and visas. My painting was exhibited in the Edge of Arabia exhibit in Dubai, and when the [British] Museum curators saw it, they chose it to be part of this exhibition.”
Mullah said that this exhibition is important as it allows a western audience to see Arab culture and civilization. She said “this exhibition informs the public about our civilization and arts, the textiles and pottery tell the people about the hajj and its purpose, whilst at the same time displaying Islamic art.”
The “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” exhibition starts on 26 January and runs until 15 April at the British Museum in London.