Pilgrim's progress

The British Museum aims to distil the spiritual experience of the hajj into an art exhibition. Hajj pilgrim Arifa Akbar is impressed

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The Independent Online

It was not the objects that I saw in and around Mecca that made my pilgrimage such an extraordinary and exhilarating experience. I went on the hajj in 2006, and then, as now, its meaning did not lie in the physical structures in Mecca themselves – the cube-like Kaaba, or House of God, which is the centre-point of all Islamic worship; the black curtain woven with scripture that is draped across it;the towering pillars of the Grand Mosque that encompass it.

It lay in the experience of being among the throbbing ocean of worshippers treading around the Kaaba in circles, like a huge whirling dervish. It was a breathtaking procession in which to be, with its sense of order, meditation and prayer, along with its frenzy, vigour and edge of chaos. If you imagine a judgment day, it might look like this.

However exquisite the artefacts around the hajj may be, they are not what make the experience of walking among this swirl of people, who make the same journey made by pilgrims in the seventh century at the birth of Islam, dressed in the same unadorned white garments. That is why an exhibition dedicated to explaining and illustrating the fifth, and final, pillar of Islam – the hajj – is such a tall order. How to distil an experience that rests not just on inner reflection but on movement, from Mount Arafat to Mina to Mecca to Medina, and a crowd flow of three million a year, into the reading rooms of the British Museum?

The danger is that any such show will appear static, antiseptic, merely historic, rather than the lived tradition that it is. This is how the British Museum's Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, first seemed to me.

Yet it is unfair to measure the aesthetic, historic and cultural elements of hajj against actual experience. The two should be treated separately, and this exhibition reflects the museum's ambition and courage in putting together the world's first comprehensive show of the hajj. Britain has got there before Saudi Arabia, the geographic and historic heartland of the faith.

The hajj has largely been shrouded in mystery for the Western world. Non-Muslims are banned from entering Mecca and visiting the Kaaba. So the show is significant in opening up the rituals and meanings behind this most momentous of Islamic events.

It is a clearly constructed exhibition, divided into three parts, which separates faith from politics. Exhibition curator Venetia Porter stresses that the museum is not telling a political story of Islam in any sense, neither touching on the internal politics of Saudi Arabia (and the reported destruction of some ancient sites around Mecca) nor wider international relations. "This is about a deeply profound experience, and the material culture around it."

Curators seem aware of the challenge of converting the experience of hajj into museum-friendly material, and they make a spirited attempt to give us more than a conventional show. A recorded call for prayer is heard as you enter and the first sight is that of

a stunning "sitara", a covering for the door of the Kaaba, which is perhaps a symbolic re-enactment of the moment a pilgrim first glimpses the Kaaba. That these gambits might feel slightly forced, or tinny, is not necessarily a failing. It is a sign of curatorial originality, and a thoughtful attempt at evoking atmosphere.

There are some wonderful highlights: one of the world's oldest Korans features among the jewels of the exhibition. Rarely lent out by the British Library, it dates to the eighth century, and it is unadorned, unlike later, more opulent Korans. There are manuscripts depicting hajj that feature colourful pictures of pilgrims, a surprise, given Islam's aversion to figurative art, although there are no contentious representations of the Prophet Mohammed. There are the documents of the imposter, Sir Richard Francis Burton, the famous British explorer who disguised himself as a Muslim to smuggle his way into Mecca.

Among the less ostentatious, but no less fascinating material, are a group of grainy photographs of the Kaaba and Mina from the 1880s, and another rare photograph that captures the reconstruction of parts of Mecca that the Saudi state began in 1963 – a seminal moment in the modernisation of the ancient site. The pilgrimage is an arduous journey that involves ritualised and repeated journeys, including several symbolic walks to and from two mountains, as well as numerous circumambulations around the Kaaba.

While Mecca's reconstruction undoubtedly led to a safer and more comfortable experience, arguably even saving some lives, my experience of hajj, at least, felt at times as if the ancient had been hijacked by the ultra modern and the brand spanking new. The shiny polished surfaces and floors were reminiscent of a newly fitted kitchen rather than a site of worship that went back to the Abrahamic age, so it was fascinating to compare the post-1963 look to the older photographs.

The heart of the show is a room filled with a series of Kaaba coverings, dating from centuries ago to the present day. These textiles, will doubtless give the show its sense of spectacle, along with the textile from the prophet's tomb in Medina, which is a dazzling blend of greens, reds and golds.

Among the ancient artefacts and magnificent objects, there are modern-day depictions of hajj by contemporary artists. Alongside them is a painting of a motorway sign that appears at the approach of Mecca, and tells Muslims to go in one direction, and non-Muslims to go in another. This could be a metaphor for the show itself, which will give non-Muslims one experience, and Muslims another.


Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, British Museum, London WC1 (020 7323 8181) to 15 April