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Pilgrims’ progress

The British Museum’s exhibition about the Hajj shows that modernity and secularism do not always go hand in hand

It is a journey that has changed the lives of many of the millions who have completed it. Yet the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, has been relatively little studied and understood in the west. It is not for lack of curiosity. In the early 16th century Italian aristocrat Ludovico Varthema became one of the first European non-Muslims to enter the holy site, “longing for novelty as a thirsty man longs for fresh water”. He found his novelty – he managed to observe unicorns strolling around the site – but also punctured a myth or two: the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed, he noted a little disappointingly, was not suspended in the air as dictated by medieval European legend (indeed, it was in another city entirely: Medina).

The British Museum’s new exhibition on the Hajj is the most complete such enterprise yet undertaken. In a story that stretches from ancient beginnings to modernity, many of the rituals are unchanging, even if the infrastructure surrounding the trip has transformed dramatically. What was once a perilous voyage with serious risk of illness or loss of life is today administered by specialist travel agents who offer packages with visas and vaccinations included. It is just as well: annual visitors are estimated to top the 3m mark in the next few years. It is a testament both to the enduring hold of the Islamic faith and to the ability of this remarkable event to adapt with the times.

The show has demanded new presentation skills of the museum. Whereas the objects from its collections normally tell the story with sufficient eloquence, there is more to say here. “We have tried to evoke the feeling of being there,” says Venetia Porter, the exhibition’s curator. As you enter the corridor to go into the show, you are “accompanied” by photographs of pilgrims and recordings of incantations. “They are saying, ‘I am here,’ ” says Porter. The aim is to create, or at least hint at, the ecstatic relief of a spiritual journey ended.

There are three strands to the display: one on the routes of the journeys themselves, another on the rituals of the Hajj today, and a survey of Mecca. There are also contemporary art pieces sprinkled around the show. Ahmed Mater, born and living in Saudi Arabia, uses magnets and iron filings to illustrate the allure of the Hajj in contemporary life. “This is not just something that happened back then, out there,” says Porter. “The past is intrinsically bound up with the now.”

The historical section of the show is a tale of progress forged by continuing devotion (and serves as a corrective to the western assumption that modernity and secularism go hand in hand). There are fabulous accounts of the journey that are, if nothing else, important documents of sociology. The pilgrims of the 19th century, for example, were the first to notice the disparity between their modest surrounds and the wealth, and growing imperial ambitions, of western powers.

January 28, 2012 | Financial Times     

In 1885, the Persian Shia pilgrim Mirza Mohammad Hosayn Farahani embarked on a Hajj that took in Tehran, the Caspian shore, Istanbul, Alexandria, Suez and Jedda. He had first-hand experience, and wrote vividly, of the haughtiness of the non-Muslim world. The middle and lower [classes] of Russia were “impolite, wicked, devious, coarse, rude, unjust”, while the British, although lacking in understanding of “friendship and camaraderie”, acted “justly and humanely, and have a mildness, dignity and orderliness”.

Mecca was a temptation to be dangled in front of European adventurers thirsty for action. If they commenced their journeys with scepticism, most were impressed by the extraordinary sights that awaited them. In 1853 the explorer Richard Francis Burton, disguised as an Afghan doctor, wrote a relatively workmanlike account of his Hajj until he witnessed its climax in Mecca. “It was as if the poetical legends of the Arab spoke the truth, and that the waving wings of angels, not the sweet breeze of morning, were agitating and swelling the black covering of the shrine,” he wrote.

It wasn’t long before the Europeans took control of what was becoming a dangerously over-wrought phenomenon.

If the actual journeys to Mecca have become modernised and more efficient, there is a timelessness to the arts and the rituals that characterise the Hajj. Tiles, textiles and scrolls of the highest quality continue to be created, particularly in the adornment of the Ka’ba, the cube-like edifice constructed, according to the Koran, by Abraham and his son Ishmael, and the most sacred site in Islam. One magnificently embroidered curtain from the mid-19th century comes from the collection of Nasser David Khalili, the London-based collector with the world’s largest private collection of Islamic art, who has loaned 45 works to the show. Khalili, an Iranian-born Jew, salutes the exhibition for its ground-breaking nature. “It will open the eyes of a lot of people,” he says. “For the first time in 1,400 years we have something that can give people a visual contact with this religious and spiritual journey. The people who produced these objects have not only left us this legacy but they have contributed to their own faith and their beliefs. That is something really powerful.”

He believes that the Hajj show will encourage a more sophisticated understanding of the Islamic faith and encourage religious tolerance. “This exhibition shows that if you are faithful to the religion you are born with, it allows you to explore other religions. If you respect your own faith, you respect other people’s faith.

“Religion and politics have their own languages. But art is universal. And that universality is something we can use today to help us through difficulties. The language of culture is neutral and that is what we need now.”

The Hajj exhibition also marks something of an end of a journey for the British Museum itself. It is the final part of a series examining religious faith, following shows on ancient Egypt’s “Book of the Dead”, and Treasures of Heaven, examining the role of saints and relics in medieval Europe. Those, in turn, followed the museum’s great four-part study of empires, featuring the lives and art of Hadrian, Shah Abbas I, Qin Shihuangdi and Moctezuma II.

The central questions behind those two series of exhibitions – how objects help sustain political power and religious belief respectively – have been foremost in the mind of the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, since he took over the job a decade ago. They have infused the museum with a sense of mission it had previously lacked. As the Hajj show reminds us, all of humanity’s most pressing questions, religious, intellectual or otherwise, involve a journey that can be painful and apparently never ending. And the journey’s end, as history teaches us, is a whole new starting-point in itself.

‘Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam’, British Museum, London, until April 15 www.britishmuseum.org

The growth of mass transport resulted in serious overcrowding and the spread of epidemic diseases. In 1865 15,000 out of 90,000 pilgrims died after an outbreak of cholera that went on to spread as far as New York. At the end of the 19th century Thomas Cook was appointed the official travel agent for the Hajj by the Indian government. The agent’s son, John Mason Cook, was mindful of the burden the company had taken on. “I know this business is surrounded with more difficulties and prejudices than anything I have hitherto undertaken,” he wrote.

Pilgrim numbers continued, and still continue, to rise. By the 1970s it was taking nine hours on the motorway to travel the 14km from Mecca to Arafat. Finally a quota system was introduced in 1988. The sense of bustle is evoked in the show with a contemporary piece, “Road to Makkah”, by another Saudi artist, Abdulnasser Gharem, which recreates a motorway sign on the way to Mecca that filters non-Muslims into a diversion off the main road.