In 2012, the British Museum opened a major exhibition devoted to the Hajj, of decorative items related to the ritual journey – richly illustrated Hajj certificates and ornately embroidered kiswah, the textiles that cover the Kaaba – and photographs and videos that offered a glimpse into the arduous, lengthy voyage that Muslims make from all parts of the globe.
When it finished, the exhibition’s chief curator, Venetia Porter, says the museum decided that the exhibition wouldn’t travel. “But people kept coming to us,” she says. “Saying, we’d really like to do it ourselves. The subject just captures people’s imagination, and, if you’re a Muslim, you’ve either been on Hajj or you know someone who’s been on Hajj, or you’re intending to go on Hajj. It’s something that’s really important to you.”
So began the unplanned afterlife of the British Museum's Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam. The exhibition then went on to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the Museum der Volkenkunde in Leiden, and then to Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe.
"In every case that it travelled, it was a really joyous thing: every institution took it and made it their own," says Porter. In Leiden, for example, they focused on the history of Dutch Muslims travelling to Makkah, while in Paris, the exhibition looked at the experience of Muslims in North Africa, which is where many French Muslims are from.
In 2017, the UAE opened its version, Hajj: Memories of a Journey, in an exhibition space by the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Organised by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi in collaboration with the British Museum, and comprising loans from the collection of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, various private collections including the Khalili and Farjam collections, and UAE museums such as the Zayed National Museum and the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, the exhibition tells the story of the worldwide subject from the Emirati perspective.
The British Museum curator Fergus Reoch researched the traditional routes by which pilgrims from present-day UAE would have made their way across the peninsula to Makkah, in enormous caravans of camels, wagons, and people on foot. The routes are pictured here in photographs by Musallem Al Derei, from an expedition undertaken by archaeologists Mark Beech and Ahmed Abdulla El Faki for this exhibition. TV footage from 1979 shows Sheikh Zayed arriving by plane in Jeddah for Hajj, which he undertook a number of times.
A new addition to the exhibition’s story of the Hajj – on the DCT’s initiative – begins with artefacts unearthed in the UAE that show, as Porter puts it, Islam in the UAE in the context of other faiths. Fragments of an intricately carved frieze from a Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas are reminders that just as the UAE was the starting-point for Muslim pilgrimage to Hajj, it was also within a network of trade and migration routes that brought other faiths to the area.
Salama Al Shamsi, project manager for the Zayed National Museum, which until recently partnered with the British Museum, and her team worked with the British Museum to secure loans from institutions and private collectors. They also installed and commissioned contemporary artworks, including artists from the UAE, around the subject of Hajj, adding to the tradition of rich adornments – of textiles, certificates, mahmals (the sumptuous palanquins that began with Mamluk Egypt and which were the centrepiece of their Hajj caravans), and souvenirs – associated with the journey.
Mohammed Kazem travelled to Makkah and Madinah and took oblique images of the holy cities, with their building and sites occupying just a third of the frame – part of a series of works with this method – and the rest of the image the rich blue of the Arabian sky.
(They also reminded me, curiously, of another road-trip series, in a wholly different register: Ed Ruscha's deadpan Pop paintings of gas stations in the American heartland.) Abdulnasser Gharem shows his masterful Medina (2013), a time-lapse video of prayer during Ramadan that communicates the vastness and scale of pilgrimages to the holy cities, particularly aided now by the (relative) ease of the travel needed to undertake them.
The exhibition’s focus on the real-life details of this tenet of faith are the most striking: the pressure to keep to schedule, for instance (if you miss the Hajj window, it’s Umrah), or the fear of the spread of disease on board ships and train cabins (there was a major outbreak of cholera in 1865 along Mediterranean Sea routes). Part documentarian, part art-historical, this show embraces the Hajj as tenet of faith and artefact of changing history.
Hajj: Memories of a Journey is on show at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque closes Monday, March 19