The fifth pillar of Islam, Hajj is the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia all able-bodied Muslims must make at least once in their lifetime. In recent years, around 3 million people annually make the journey, culminating in a sequence of rites. These begin with the tawaf – walking seven times round the Ka’ba, a granite block in the centre of Mecca’s Sacred Mosque, in an anti-clockwise direction – and incorporating a vigil at the Plains of Arafat and the ritual of Stoning the Devil, and end, five days later, with another tawaf.
The British Museum’s exhibition, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, makes an impressive attempt at cataloguing this epic, ancient tradition, whose global nature proves for a richly varied display. The magnificent sitava, a huge curtain for the door of the Ka’ba, that greets you when you enter the exhibition and the mahmal, a ceremonial covered seat placed on a camel’s back, which transported a Qur’an from Egypt to Mecca in the early 20th-century, are just two of a number of striking, large-scale pieces the exhibition covers.
However, much of the joy of the exhibition lies in the detail. After the first room explains the tradition of Hajj, the exhibition turns to the various historical routes taken to Mecca. Of the historical artefacts, a portable Moroccan brass astrolabe from the 14th-century and an 1835 sea chart of the Red Sea are two beautiful examples of the craft and artistry the pilgrimage inspired. The modern day pilgrimage is depicted through photography: a picture of an elderly man moving across a Kabul airstrip to a Pakistan Airlines Airbus to fly to Jedda, the main transport hub for Mecca, is set beside one of a traditional ihram garment on an ironing board in a British living room, forming a juxtaposition that underlines the universality of the ritual.
The curators have made the most of the Round Reading Room housing the exhibition. The adhān call to prayer resounds around the cavernous dome, audible throughout, and compass diagrams dotted around the exhibition constantly orientate us in the direction of Mecca. By the time we reach the final rooms of the exhibition, displaying the rituals of Hajj, with a number of richly-decorated curtains and drapes decorating a central Ka’-ba dimensioned block, it becomes clear that we are completing a tawaf of sorts ourselves, moving, anti-clockwise, past the exhibits.
These final rooms contain multiple treasures. Abdulnasser Gharem’s ‘Road to Mecca’ (2011) recreates a Mecca road sign, signalling different roads for Muslims and non-Muslims, out of small interchangeable typewriter-like letters, with a vibrant, entrancing effect. Watch through the clip of the IMAX film Journey to Mecca for the final moments: a wonderful stop-motion sequence, speeding through the waves of pilgrims walking around the Ka’ba.
Two of the final exhibits, both contemporary, are perhaps some of the exhibition’s best. ‘Magnetism’ by Ahmed Mater al-Ziad (2012; see above) draws on the idea of the Ka’ba as a force, both centralising and levelling, with a small Ka’ba-shaped magnet attracting hundreds of tiny iron filaments around it, echoing the shape of a massed tawaf. The second piece, Idris Kahn’s ‘You and Only You’ (2012), forms the same impression, but this time with the printed reflections of pilgrims after making the journey suggesting the tawaf. One of these thoughts – ‘As you leave remember what you have achieved a oneness with this earth and another’ – particularly resonates: from afar, the phrases blur and unite, forming one image.
Hajj is sweeping in ambition, an exhibition that will reward the careful observer. Give yourself time, and look carefully at the numerous exhibits, and you’ll be justly rewarded.
Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam runs until 15 April 2012. Tickets are £10 for students and £12 for adults; students get 2 for 1 tickets between 5.30 pm and 7.30 pm on Fridays.
See www.britishmuseum.org for more details.