Given that today someone can travel in a jetliner across the world in a matter of hours, it seems hard to believe that at one point, it took a pilgrim four months to reach Makkah from the UAE on a camel.
But that’s why Hajj is known as the greatest journey on Earth.
Now a major exhibition in Abu Dhabi, Hajj: Memories of a Journey, seeks to tell this epic story through photographs, multimedia and contemporary installations and artefacts – some of which have never been exhibited before.
Launched at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, the exhibition explores the history of Makkah, the rituals of Hajj and the experiences of Emirati pilgrims through the ages. More than 182 artefacts from 15 institutions are on display, including from collections held in Kuwait and Greece. Eighteen objects from the permanent collection of Zayed National Museum, which will be built on Saadiyat, are included.
“We are committed to maintaining valuable principles and acting as a beacon for Islamic civilisation. In doing so we sustain a platform for cultural dialogue among all peoples, regardless of their differences,” said Yousif Al Obaidli, director general of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center at the launch on Tuesday. It is being run in partnership between the centre and the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA).
Divided into six sections, it traces the history of Hajj from the arrival of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula right up to the souvenirs bought by Hajj pilgrims in the bazaars around Makkah and Madinah. Some of these are on display, including postcards, prayer beads and a retro 3D viewer where you can scan through images from Madinah.
Some of the pieces are being shown for the first time. These include friezes and panels excavated from a 7th Century Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island. They consist of grape clusters, floral motifs and crosses and are considered to be some of the finest examples of moulded plasterwork across the Arabian Gulf.
“This has never been exhibited anywhere since it left the excavation site,” says co-curator of the exhibition, Noora Al Mubarak.
The largest section of the exhibition is 'Journeys', which looks at the evolution of Hajj routes. Large maps of the ways that pilgrims made their way to Makkah hang from the wall, photographs show the arduous nature of the journey, while the advent of the Hejaz Railway in 1908 is also explored.
Central to this part of the exhibition is the Hajj made by the late President, Sheikh Zayed, in 1979. Colour television and mass media had reached the country by this stage and daily updates were carried on TV and radio back home. A 45-minute video documentary of Sheikh Zayed's trip plays on one screen; a November 4, 1979 report from Al Ittihad newspaper can be viewed; while on the wall are photographs of that historic trip.
The film also includes an interview with Sheikh Zayed where he talks about tolerance, the importance of Islam and how Muslims must work together to solve issues of the time.
"The film documents the minute he [Sheikh Zayed] left Abu Dhabi until he came back. Who he met, who was there," said Ms Al Mubarak. "The president of Sudan and the king of Jordan was also there."
Also part of the 'Journeys' section is a striking set of photographs from Dutch photographer Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje. He travelled to Jeddah and Mecca in 1884 and captured scenes of everyday life.
Another highlight is the “mahmal” room. Before people went on Hajj, a mahmal, or decorated unoccupied palanquin, would tour the country in a procession telling people that the Hajj journey was going to start. “That helps people really get motivated and excited about the journey,” says Ms Al Mubarak. Mahmals were sent from Cairo, Damascus and Yemen and the exhibition includes a documentary of a mahmal convoy in Cairo heading to Makkah in 1938.
Contemporary artworks close off the exhibition, including photographs from Emirati artist Mohammad Kazem showing the Kaaba and surrounding buildings.
“The exhibition provides tangible evidence of the diversity of the Islamic faith, while reinforcing solidarity and a wider cultural dialogue,” said director general of TCA Abu Dhabi, Saif Saeed Ghobash, at the launch.
The exhibition also includes talks, workshops and film screenings and coincides with the ten-year anniversary of the mosque’s opening. It has become not only a place of worship but a major tourist attraction, visited by five million people annually.
Hajj: Memories of a Journey runs at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque from September 20 to March 19 and is free of charge. For more information visit szgmc.ae.