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Hajj journey to the heart of Islam, British Museum, 26 January – 15 April 2012
Published in Country Life, January 25, 2012

Richard Burton and Jacob Burkhardt did it. They circled the Kaaba, they drank from the holy spring, they ran between the two hills, they stoned the pillars representing Satan, they stood at Arafat and made the sacrifice. I too would love to witness the sacred rituals that have been dutifully performed for thousands of years at Mecca, but this exhibition, mounted plumb in the centre of the British Museum (like an inversion of Mecca, a domed cylinder within an enclosed square) is the closest I, or any other Christian traveller will ever get to the Haj ritual. Perhaps it is just as well. The days of the caravans crossing the Arabian desert from the four corners of the earth (from North Africa, from Egypt, from Syria, from India) to converge on the holy city, presided over by its native-born Husseinite Sherifs, have long gone.

For the logistics of catering to the annual flow of three million pilgrims coming in by aeroplane have long ago obliterated the dusty glamour of the past and replaced it with the opulent concrete architecture of the shopping mall and international airport. Only the Kaaba itself, and the unadorned hill of Arafat (where pilgrims stand for a day of prayerful contemplation) have been spared the marble and motorway treatment, and retain their mystical power. Whilst the ancient tombs clustered around Medina, which used to make a visit to this holy city like a walk through Islamic history, have all been flattened alongside the surviving ancient and medieval buildings of “the city of the Prophet’. Destroyed by a lethal combination of pious Saudi opulence combined with Wahhabi Puritanism. As a famous British Muslim wickedly confided to me, “really you have missed nothing. Modern Mecca is like Las Vegas – but without the taste.”

Which makes the British Museum Haj exhibition, an even more precious window into the past, both for believers and the curious. They have assembled a wonderful medley of relics from the past: be it a souvenir flask with which a pilgrim would carry the holy water of the Zemzem spring back home or a gloriously ornate medieval Haj certificate (all counter-signed, witnessed and sealed to prove that the pilgrim had indeed performed the correct rituals). Here one can admire the vivid photographs taken by a Dutch intelligence officer, Hurgronje Snouk (shadowing pilgrims from Dutch ruled Java in the early 20th century) as well as a gorgeous Catalan/Majorcan style chart mapping the pilgrim routes across the Sahara in the 16th-century. There is also room for such a humdrum detail as a Thomas Cook ticket (for the Indian Ocean route to Mecca via the Red Sea) – which fleetingly brings to mind the crime of Conrad’s Lord Jim.

A fitting companion of this same route is a 17th century guide-book written for Gujerati pilgrims from India learning to cope with the dangers and complexities of their journey. The pair of illuminated pages from the Maqamat of al-Hariri are amongst the aesthetic highlights of the show.

For these 13th century illustrations are not only the oldest surviving representation of the pilgrimage, but are master-pieces of Islamic art (familiar from a thousand text books) so that one has to pinch oneself to remind oneself that this at last is the real thing. While the book they illustrated was a hugely popular secular romp, a string of fifty stories (a Muslim Canterbury Tale as it were) which has a wickedly clever but duplicitous story-teller as its central anti-hero, milking the pious, the pompous and the nieve pilgrims with his honeyed, poetry-laden tales.

The other great enduring image is the mahmal, which is both the name of the annual caravan sent out from Egypt to the Holy City and a gorgeously ornate camel-borne canopy. This mahmal held the richly embroidered kiswa cloth which Egypt offered up each year as a covering for the Kaaba. Fragments of old coverings were the most precious gift that could be bestowed upon a pilgrim. Many were framed, or kept in chests like holy relics, or like the example on loan from Malaysia, made into a beautiful silk vest, a vestment of holiness.

One piece was even awarded to a British official who had earned the gratitude of the holy city, and remains in the possession of his family, on loan from Lady Bullard. And this is the last thing to take away from the exhibition, the extraordinary internationalism of the loaned objects. Disparate fragments of the sacred city, taken back as souvenirs of a spiritual journey, and now scattered to the ends of the earth. Reunited briefly at the British Museum where they can be freely admired by all the world.

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