Hajj. Pilgrimage. Sacred journeys undertaken to specific places to celebrate, emphasise, renew faith. A complex, crowded concept.
The British Museum Hajj exhibition is a complex concept too (though mercifully not too crowded on a Wednesday morning). The content of the exhibition tends towards the practical, despite quoted exhortations not to see pilgrimage in the arrangements, but in the devotion. Maybe that’s a cynicism born of my sore feet and full bladder, but it’s also an outcome of the shape of the exhibition. The first sections are about the different routes to Mecca, from Europe, the Arab world, the Ottoman route and the long sea journey from the East. Inevitably, you become drawn into the questions of the journey, the management of camels and palanquins and currency.
The exhibition is also sometimes repetitive, circling around the tawaf, in which believers walk around the Ka’bah anti-clockwise seven times, the draught from the well of Zamzam and the rest, within the greater ritual demand to undertake the Hajj itself. Perhaps the repetition itself has some ritualistic power. The notion of the rite, the sacred act, is central here. These actions are undertaken by millions, not alone or in silence, but in contemplation amid noise and vast crowds all doing the same as you.
The faces and words of pilgrims, from all the centuries represented here, demonstrate joy, ecstasy at the completion of their task, their closeness to the centre of their faith. (Centrality is itself fundamental to the way this exhibition is conceived, well suited to the round spiral it inscribes inside the great chamber in the Museum’s hall.) But you emerge knowing how hard it still is, and how very, very hard it must have been when getting to Mecca meant a long sea voyage in a small dhow or weeks crossing the desert. It’s no wonder that pilgrims gathered in great groups at designated jumping-off points. It’s not only that Hajj must be performed at a set time, but the safety and convenience of joining the tributaries that become the streams that feed the river flooding Mecca.
Of course, there are many beautiful objects here, particularly textiles. Islamic art is non-figurative, and is often script based. Ornate calligraphy celebrates particular verses or names of god. Not reading Arabic, these inscriptions can seem cold and angular for all their sumptuous elegance. So it was particularly interesting to see many pieces of work by modern Muslim artists, including a spectacular word-wheel by Idris Khan. He describes the making of it, repeatedly hand-stamping wooden blocks inscribed with a small selection of sentences, as itself a meditation on the effect of pilgrimage, urging us to leave the exhibition filled with questions about our next direction.
Some of those pieces, especially several photographic works, are by women. I welcomed that, as without them, women would be hard to spot in this exhibition. Not inaudible, as effort has been made to include women’s voices in the audio guide, but otherwise they are often muted. We discover (in passing and only through the guide) that women are not required to wear ihram, the simple white cloths that all men must don on entering Mecca, as an equaliser. So the constant emphasis on that robed equality excludes as much as it includes. There are women caught in some of the pictures of the crowds, a ten-year old’s diary shares her excitement on seeing the Ka’bah, the donations of Begums and princesses are mentioned. Some of the work by women are photos of the faithful. Others are more textured, such as this photogram (no I’m not sure what that means either). Called The Road to Mecca, it’s by Saudi artist Maha Malluh; she says that it’s inspired by the contrasts of old and new in her country, and you can see that clash in the camel and satellite dish.
Go if you can. Of course there’s plenty to learn about Islam, but I came away feeling I had learnt more about pilgrimage and faith untethered from the specifics.