The British Museum will stage a pioneering exhibition on the history of the Hajj – the Muslim pilgrimage – bringing many never-before-seen treasures to the Western world from the holiest sites in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Malaysia and Timbuktu.
Organising the show, which is due to run from 26 January to 15 April 2012, has entailed a year of discussions between the museum's director, Neil MacGregor, and Saudi diplomats, to ensure it is conducted with due sensitivity.
Mr MacGregor and his team of Middle East curators met the Saudi Arabian ambassador in London to formulate a wish-list of treasures they hope to borrow. They also travelled to Saudi Arabia last month to discuss potential loans of artefacts.
The process of the Hajj is shrouded in mystery for the Western world as non-Muslims are strictly prohibited from entering the city of Mecca, which has at its centre the Kaaba, or House of God – the most sacred site in Islam.
The Kiswah – the cloth that covers the Kaaba – is likely to be brought over to be shown in the museum's Reading Rooms. The museum's circular main area, surrounding the Reading Rooms, was seen by curators as the perfect shape in which to recreate the geographical structure of Mecca, which has the Kaaba at its centre that pilgrims circumambulate.
The show, revealed by the Art Newspaper, and curated by the museum's Venetia Porter, is set to be divided into three main areas featuring material from the present day, from history and from Mecca itself.
The Independent has discovered that the museum also hopes to secure the travel accounts of Lady Evelyn Cobbold, a Scottish aristocrat who was the first British-born Muslim woman to make the pilgrimage in 1933, the 14th-century Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta, and the 19th-century English adventurer, Sir Richard Francis Burton, who journeyed to Mecca in disguise. Curators are planning to display ancient manuscripts, paintings and photography of pilgrims from the past and present.
Highlights of the exhibition are likely to be hangings related to the Kaaba – the earliest of these textiles were made in Yemen and Egypt in the 10th century – as well as gifts to the shrines given by Ottoman sultans, such as sanctuary doors. There could also be important objects from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and from collections in Cairo, Jerusalem, and the libraries of Timbuktu.
The historical aspects of the show will look at routes that pilgrims have taken: ancient ones across Arabia that were used for trade before the birth of Islam, and others across the Indian Ocean. Initial plans reveal that also on display will be souvenirs brought back by modern-day pilgrims – including holy water and alarm clocks that sound with the call for prayer – and the personal account of Hassan Arero, an anthropologist and British Museum curator, who went on Hajj last year. There will also be photographs evoking the journey.