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In the Supreme Shrine

Royal Geographical Society, London
‘The Takhtrawan or Grandee’s Litter’; drawing by Richard Burton of a wealthy pilgrim being carried in a sedan chair to Mecca, 1853–1854

Not surprisingly, the Hajj had mixed associations. On the one hand, wrote Evliya Celebi, a Turkish pilgrim of the seventeenth century, “to put on the pilgrim’s robe is to separate oneself from all but God.” But he also described travel as “a fragment of hell.” Seaborne pilgrims might be harassed by corsairs or shipwrecked. Camel-riding induced feelings of nausea. Having reached the holy places, many pilgrims were unimpressed with the morals of their hosts. Ibn Jubayr, an Andalusian civil servant who performed the Hajj in 1183, was so disgusted by the fleecing that took place that he recommended that the region containing Mecca and Medina be “purified by the sword.”

The generally useful and informative catalog that accompanies the exhibition divides the history of the Hajj into three periods. The second of these, written by the historian Robert Irwin, brings it into the modern age—and it is a fascinating account. After a period of disruption caused by Crusader and Mongol incursions, stability returned to the main caravan routes with the establishment of the Mamluk sultanate in Cairo, in 1250. Soon afterward it became customary for the authorities in Cairo to send a kiswa, an embroidered black cloth for dressing the Ka’aba, with the caravan each year, as well as an elaborate palanquin known as the mahmal. Around this time parades of the mahmal began to be staged, with columns of dervishes and street entertainers and much impious mingling between the sexes. The drapes of the mahmal concealed nothing but a Koran; it was a symbol of the caliph’s authority over the holy places. The camel that bore the mahmal was rewarded for its labors with early retirement.

All this continued after Egypt was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1517, and the sultan in Istanbul became guardian of the holy places. Henceforth two enormous caravans, one from Damascus (incorporating a contingent from Istanbul) and the other from Cairo, converged on the holy land—“small towns on the move,” as Irwin notes, complete with bakeries, orchestras, and executioners. For traders along the routes, the pilgrimage was the year’s big money-spinner. At one of the customary stopping places, wrote Evliya Celebi, “everything was for sale, except the elixir of life, including silks and brocades and satins and other precious stuffs.”

One of the successes of the British Museum show is in drawing historical threads from the distant past almost to the present. The exhibition boasts a magnificent (if more recent) mahmal, made of red silk and gold and silver thread, and a poignant photograph from around the turn of the twentieth century of a bespectacled embroiderer at work in the kiswa factory in Cairo. There is a movie showing the departure of one of the final mahmals to be sent from Cairo, in 1948; the pride and excitement felt by the onlookers is almost palpable. The symbolic focus of the British Museum show is a series of ravishing embroidered adornments for the Ka’aba, which have been arranged around the structure redolent of the black cube. Most of these were loaned by the Iranian entrepreneur Nasser Khalili, whose London-based private collection is the world’s second-largest repository for objects related to the Hajj. The largest, Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, provided nothing for the exhibition because of a spat over ownership of a stele—an inscribed slab of stone.2

By the mid-nineteenth century, new modes of transport were transforming the Hajj, and colonialism was conditioning it. Travel by steamship became common in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the British, with their control over India’s vast Muslim population, had a virtual monopoly. Organizers faced new challenges. Death rates rose along with the number of pilgrims, and quarantine stations were set up in the 1880s. The Dutch worried that the experience of the Hajj was stimulating resistance to their rule in Sumatra, and closely monitored the pilgrims’ movements.

Westerners grew more familiar with the Hajj through the publication of accounts by European converts or imposters who had feasted on the forbidden sights. It is a pity that the exhibition neglects the most charming of these accounts, by John Keane. His Six Months in Meccah contains a description of his friendship with an Englishwoman who had fallen into rebel hands in the course of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and had been brought to Mecca—where she made a living by embroidering skullcaps. Keane also witnessed the sanctuary under water after a rare flood, when “the whole of the square…turned into a lake.”

By World War I, pilgrims from Damascus were able to travel as far as Medina using a new railway that the Ottomans had financed using pious subscriptions—and that was, in its way, as important a political statement as the Abbasids’ great pilgrimage road of the eighth century. But the war obliterated the Ottoman state and by the mid-1920s the whole of Arabia had been united under one prominent tribal family. In 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia came into being.

The Saudis are the latest in a series of dynasties to regard their guardianship of the holy places as integral to their prestige. Notwithstanding horrendous fires and stampedes, as well as a bloody battle with militants who took over the shrine in 1979, the Saudis have been efficient managers. They have introduced helpful regulations and vastly improved conditions for visitors. The country’s oil wealth has allowed them to undertake a large-scale expansion of facilities, from an airport capable of handling six thousand flights during the Hajj season to an enlarged sanctuary that will, when it is finished, accommodate two million worshipers. The boom has filled Mecca with skyscrapers and shopping malls (“Vegas without the taste,” in the words of one pilgrim). The contractors’ hands have not been tied by any strong conservation lobby, for the country’s religious authorities regard reverence for holy places, or historic buildings, as akin to polytheism. In this way, to the satisfaction of the magnates as well as the clerics, Mecca’s built heritage has all but disappeared.

The British Museum enjoyed the cooperation of the Saudi authorities in staging the exhibition, and is overtactful in its treatment of Mecca’s current guardians. The catalog contains a nineteenth-century photograph of some tombs belonging to relatives of the Prophet, for instance, without mentioning that this complex has long been razed—or that the house of the Prophet’s first wife has been bulldozed to make way for public lavatories. Nor is there word of the discrimination of which some Shia pilgrims complain when visiting Mecca, a bastion of Sunni orthodoxy, and which may take the form of harassment from petty officials if pilgrims attempt to perform prayers according to Shia rites. The sectarian rivalry, of course, has a political dimension, given Saudi Arabia’s increasingly poisonous regional rivalry with Shia Iran. Far more Shias visit the Shia shrines in Iraq than come to Mecca.

Blockbuster exhibitions often involve compromises; it may be up to visitors to apply their own reality checks. Leaving the domed space with the recorded words of ecstatic Hajjis and Hajjas in your ears, picturing with pleasure the very communicative modern art—for instance, the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater’s model, Magnetism, showing a tiny version of the Ka’aba encircled by iron filings—that the curators have dotted around the exhibition space, it is worth remembering that the Hajj represents an approach to life that is very different from that of the secular museum in which you find yourself. The pilgrimage is exclusive and founded on a rigid orthodoxy. The number of people performing it is expected to grow to 20 million by 2030. Why? Even this superb show cannot answer that.

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    According to British Museum staff, negotiations had been proceeding for the loan of some thirty-five objects from the Topkapi and other Istanbul institutions when the Turkish government prevented the loan from going ahead. The British Museum had refused Turkey’s demand for the restitution of a first-century- BC stele that had been acquired from Turkey in 1927. The dispute has widened, obliging the Victoria and Albert Museum, also in London, to defer indefinitely a planned show on Ottoman art, which would have relied on objects from Turkish collections. 

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