The pilgrimage to Mecca, which forms the fifth pillar of Islam, is a ritual that, whilst representing a spiritual journey all Muslims should make once in their life if possible, can seem unfathomable and even irrational to many Westerners.
Indeed, non-Muslims aren’t allowed into the city itself, let alone participate. In light of this, and the fear of fundamentalism in the post 9/11 world, an exhibition examining the rituals themselves and the journeys undertaken to get there through history is an almost unmissable opportunity for enlightenment.
The British Museum’s “Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam,” curated by non-Muslim Venetia Porter in partnership with the King Abdulaziz Public Library in Riyadh, is the first major exhibition ever to focus on the Hajj. Aiming to draw crowds both Muslim and non-Muslim, the exhibition features objects from a number of different countries, continents and collections, as well as newly commissioned contemporary art works, to highlight the importance and relevance of the ancient tradition throughout history.
The exhibition is presented in the museum’s reading room, an impressively ornate circular hall in the center of the tourist attraction drawing millions each year, mirroring the central focus of the Ka’ba for pilgrims.
We began our journey along a narrow passageway to the sounds of chants and calls to prayer. While this effect had the power to transport us to our own personal Mecca and set the mood perfectly for the coming artifacts, I found the incessant radio chatter of the gallery assistants brought me straight back to the London spring with a jolt.
In spite of this, the first half of the exhibition is very interesting, weaving tales of medieval journeys and their 8-year processions with modern pre-booked package pilgrimages. This juxtaposition really highlights the steady continuity at the heart of Islam – and the commitment required to complete a trip that many prepare never to return from, just in case.
For me, the most fascinating of the routes to Mecca explored was the lengthy maritime voyage from Southeast Asia in photographs from the 1880s, as well as video footage from the 1950s. Despite Indonesia being home to the world’s largest Muslim population, it can sometimes be overlooked in Western analyses in favor of Middle Eastern and South Asian nations, so it was pleasing to see it feature so prominently.
Although I felt there was a little too much reliance on printed matter and displays of 20th century books open at the title pages, on the whole the objects selected covered a broad spectrum of items – from gravestones to accessories – with something to interest almost everybody. The cases, all sympathetically lit, were also positioned in such a way to encourage us to move in one direction along one route through the exhibition, continuing the idea of completing a ritualistic “journey.”
The second half of the exhibition after the short film in the center that outlined the rituals involved and showed souvenirs, however, had a very different atmosphere. While in the first few sections I had had to wait in anticipation to look at the displays, after the film the gallery seemed almost empty, with visitors moving rapidly through the sections only glancing at the cases. Perhaps this was because of the degree of repetition in describing the rituals, or the anti-climax in having completed the “journey” only to be denied the opportunity to remove the mystery of the interior of the Ka’ba as there were no photographs or objects from inside.
The inclusion of some newly commissioned artworks on the other hand was largely successful. Although all very similar in composition – all featuring a black cube in one medium or another – Ahmed Mater’s etchings of iron filings arranged by magnets really conveyed the enormity of the pilgrim crowds. From a distance, they really do look like all of the other photographs of the swirling masses of people and it’s only on closer inspection that the clever nature of his work is revealed.
Although feeling a little let down by the second half of the exhibition, I didn’t leave downcast. The very last section to my mind brought the whole story round full circle and linked back to the very successful first few displays by focusing on the “journeys” and experiences of today’s British Muslims, even inviting visitors to leave their own stories to help broaden the understanding of the Hajj in Britain and around the world.
“Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam” has its flaws, but on the whole it serves to demystify the pilgrimage for non-Muslims to a certain degree, and seems to act as a point of departure for discussion and family education for Muslim visitors. As the first exhibition of its kind it has certainly done an admirable job of setting a precedent for future explorations of the subject.
"Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam," runs until April 15 at the British Museum, London.