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Journey to the heart of Islam under spotlight at Britain’s Haj exhibition

The British Museum/

By ROGER HARRISON / Arabnews / 13 Nov 2011

The British Museum in London is to mount the first major exhibition dedicated to the Haj.

“Haj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” will open Jan. 26 and run until April 15, 2012. Venetia Porter, curator of the museum’s Islamic and Contemporary Middle East Department, said the exhibition would examine the significance of Haj as one of the five pillars of Islam, exploring its importance for Muslims and looking at how this spiritual journey has evolved throughout history.

“The exhibition is about a journey and life-changing experience, a journey that has one purpose only — to reach the heart of Islam. We want people to understand what this experience has meant,” she said. “The exhibition will talk about why the Kaaba is important. I think it is important that non-Muslims realize that Abraham is the key to the three monotheistic religions.”

It will bring together a wealth of objects from a number of different collections including important historic pieces as well as new contemporary artworks that reveal the enduring impact of Haj around the globe and across the centuries.

Three key strands make up the exhibition, including the pilgrim’s journey with an emphasis on the major routes used through history — those from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East; the Haj today, its associated rituals and what the experience means to the pilgrim; and Makkah, the final destination of Haj, its origins and importance.

The journey element will start with the present day with a sense of pilgrims coming from everywhere and particularly from the UK and then go back in time and focus on four main journeys, each of which has a gathering point whence pilgrims set off and at an appointed time, including Kufah, Cairo, Damascus and Jeddah.

The essence of the routes to Makkah section is the incredible effort needed to make the Haj in early times. “In a sense the groups are chronological but are from several hubs. The first we show is across Arabia Darb Zubayda from Kufah to Makkah,” she explained. Named after Zubayda, the wife of the Abbasid Caliph Harun Rashid who endowed the route with 54 way stations, hostels, forts and watering places, the route led from Kufah in southern Iraq to Makkah.

The second route shown is from Cairo that acted as the gathering place for pilgrims from the Middle East and West. The third hub is Damascus — the longest route in the exhibition.

“The Ottomans took their responsibilities looking after the pilgrims incredibly seriously,” said Porter. They called it the sürra — the purse — not only because the caravan organizers had to pay off the Bedouin tribes but also because of the money they provided for the refurbishment of Makkah. “All the way through we were trying to communicate the arduousness of the trip,” she said. Pilgrims took months to accomplish this and to travel from Damascus to Makkah cost the Haji the price of an average house in the city. “We’ll show the landscape as well. One of the features of the exhibition is that we are not only going to show objects but a lot of contextual images to give a sense of place.”

The exhibition also examines the journey and arrival from India, Indonesia and as far East as China. Of particular interest is the story during the British Colonial era — Thomas Cook for example taking charge of pilgrim ships. In 1886 the Indian government appointed Thomas Cook and Son to be the sole agent for transport of pilgrims from India to the Hijaz. The British government affirmed that it had special obligations to protect the stream of “Muhammadan pilgrims going to the sacred places at Makkah.” On display is a ticket from one of the Haj ships, a Haj-proxy certificate issued to those who are unable to perform the pilgrimage and have asked friends or family to perform it on their behalf, and pilgrims’ diaries.

Porter said that she wanted to show the logistics of the task of catering for the huge numbers of pilgrims. “It is really incredible. We shall show how well it works and what it involves,” she said, adding that the journeys were but one part of the whole but they are to the heart of Islam. “Even though the journey nowadays is much easier, it is still arduous and life changing.”

Qaisra Khan, project curator in the department of the Middle East section at the museum, said that a section on Makkah talks about the sanctuary and its history going back to the time of Abraham and then goes into the finer points of the rituals themselves through film, manuscript and photographs where the rituals are explained in detail, for example the tawaf (circumambulation of the Kaaba) and the standing at Arafat and why this is such a pivotal moment.

A short film will detail all the ritual elements of Haj from the first to the last day. “It’s very important that people understand what these rituals mean to people, why they do them and what their origin was,” Porter explained.

Augmenting the film of the rituals is a section examining the rituals through objects, photographs, manuscripts, Zam Zam water bottles and the like. In this section is a display on the history, significance and crafting of the kiswa, the black cover of the Kaaba.

“We also want to convey what Haj feels like and has been viewed by artists,” said Khan, noting that there were works by contemporary and traditional artists on display. “There is also a wall of quotes about what the spiritual journey has meant to them. We hope that our visitors will leave the exhibition uplifted.”


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