Shadia Alem

In God’s Eye, by the Saudi Arabian artist Shadia Alem, showing Muslim pilgrims around the Ka’aba, the black cube believed to have been built by the Prophet Abraham that stands at the center of the Meccan sanctuary, 2010

The pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, is the supreme expression of global Islam. This year more than 2.5 million Muslims will undertake the journey from towns and villages around the world; during their absence, they will be in the thoughts and prayers of a much larger circle of family and friends. Setting out in their own national dress, speaking different languages, and espousing widely varying versions of Islam, by the time they arrive at Mecca these Indonesians, Afghans, and Nigerians will, in important ways, have become one. While in the sanctified area of Mecca and its neighborhood, wearing identical garb (the men at any rate, in lengths of seamless white fabric), they will speak the same Arabic prayers, perform the same rituals, and abstain from the same chores and pleasures. For many, including large numbers of women, these five days of spiritual and social togetherness will be the most important time of their lives.

Pilgrimage is not, of course, unique to Islam. Other faiths have found a place for it—as a means of connecting with some historical or mythical event, or of symbolically “ascending” (by climbing a ziggurat, for example) toward God. What sets Islam apart from other religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity, is that its founder elevated a pilgrimage into a binding obligation for all able-bodied believers who can afford it. As a test of religious mettle, the Hajj is clearly more arduous than the other obligations laid down by the Prophet Muhammad—the declaration of faith, the ritual prayer, alms-giving, and the Ramadan fast.

The Hajj is composed not of one ritual but several, some of which predate the holy word that is believed to have been revealed to Muhammad and that we know as the Koran. By incorporating these earlier rituals, and “purifying” them of any pagan accretions, Muhammad demonstrated Islam’s authority over all religious experience that preceded it. The Hajj is typically conducted at a high spiritual pitch, with pilgrims describing a transcendent calm while performing rites alongside countless thousands of others. Many concentrate on the Ka’aba, the black-draped cube, made of stone, at the center of the Meccan sanctuary, which is believed to have been built by the Prophet Abraham, and which is the symbolic and physical focus of Islam. In the words of Ali Shariati, a prominent Iranian preacher of the 1970s, to circumambulate the Ka’aba is to “forget yourself…you have been transformed into a particle that is gradually melting and disappearing. This is absolute love at its peak.”

But the Hajj does much more than answer a need for spiritual obliteration. It has a declamatory function, and that is to state the political and historical truth of Muhammad’s mission. The Hajj is a summons to orthodoxy and a reminder of Islam’s ownership of its origins. With the passage of centuries, its unchanging aspects have become an implicit rejection of certain values that we consider “modern.” The prohibition of non-Muslims from the holy precincts, for instance—any who are identified are summarily ejected by authorities—is an uncompromising assertion of superiority. The guardians of the holy city, i.e. the administrators appointed by the House of Saud, do not permit scientific analysis that might show the natural origins of the numinous black stone that is embedded in the Ka’aba, and that is said to have come down from heaven.

The diversity of the participants, the combination of personal fulfilment and theological and historical meaning—all this has given the Hajj a unique importance. Whoever controls Mecca and its fellow holy city, Medina—where Muhammad set up the first Islamic government, and where he was buried—has a claim to some kind of authority over all Muslims.

An exhibition at the British Museum, “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam,” sets a new precedent in the depiction of Islam in the West. Over many decades, innumerable exhibitions and gallery spaces have attracted an educated Western public by concentrating on Islam’s artistic legacy. (The Metropolitan Museum’s refurbished Islamic rooms are a recent example.1) By showing Islamic art and architecture and their often fruitful interactions with our own, these institutions have conditioned the generally sympathetic attitudes that many non-Muslims have toward Islam as a force of considerable creative power. These attitudes have even survived more recent attempts, particularly after September 11, to denounce Islam as a violent ideology.

This view of Islam as a frame for creativity may be attractive and well-intentioned, but it is incomplete. To devout Muslims, Islam is primarily a faith and only after that a civilization. In fact, the cultural artifacts can often obscure the faith they are meant to adorn. An appreciation of this distinction runs through the British Museum show, which was put together by Venetia Porter, the museum’s curator of Islamic and modern Middle Eastern art. Beautiful objects abound, but they seem to have been selected less for their aesthetic value than because they help explain the rituals, which an outsider may find arcane or impenetrable, that make up the Hajj. Equally, quite banal or tacky objects drawn from the modern pilgrimage—blue plastic flip-flops worn by pilgrims; a ring-bound guide for English-speaking pilgrims, entitled Hajj and Umrah Made Easy—are displayed prominently and without irony. This approach alerts the visitor to the idea of Islam not as an art repository but as a vast, living religion. This, of course, is exactly what a lot of non-Muslims don’t like about it.


The Prophet Muhammad performed the Hajj just once, at the end of his life, in 632. (Two years earlier, after an eight-year absence from the city of his birth, he had persuaded the Meccans to submit to him.) The first Hajj is the template for the pilgrimage that takes place today, during which Muslims affirm their faith, receive forgiveness for their sins, and relive the efforts of their distant forebears to please a severe and demanding God.

It begins on the eighth day of the lunar month Dhu’l Hijja (which this year falls on October 24). Pilgrims begin by going seven times around the Ka’aba. They approach as close as they can to the black stone within it. They hurry to and fro along a corridor that follows the route taken by Abraham’s exiled concubine Hagar, whose terrible thirst reduced her to rushing about in search of water. They drink from the miraculous well, Zamzam, just to the east of the Ka’aba, which saved her and her son Ismail from certain death.

Later in the Hajj, the pilgrims pray in a vast multitude on the plain of Arafat, eleven kilometers from Mecca. Here, according to Muslim tradition, Adam was reunited with Eve after their expulsion from Paradise, and Muhammad preached his final sermon. They hurl pebbles at three stone pillars representing Satan, who tempted Abraham to defy God’s order that he sacrifice Ismail (according to the Bible, the putative victim was Ismail’s half-brother Isaac). They pass hours in prayer and contemplation, often in the open air, and sacrifice an animal—usually a goat—again, emulating Abraham. Accommodation in Mecca ranges from the most luxurious hotels to doss houses—although the night preceding the ceremonies at Arafat is spent under canvas in the desert.

The exhibition has been staged in what was the reading room of the British Library, with a black cube reminiscent of the Ka’aba as its focal point. This round, domed room works surprisingly well; the visitor almost circumambulates around the exhibition space.

The initial displays establish the importance of the parched desert town and its black cube to the Muslim worldview. The Ka’aba occupies the center of paintings that adorn a seventeenth-century version of Hajj Made Easy, and of an Ottoman map showing the discovery of the Americas. It seems appropriate that the names of great cities like Baghdad and Constantinople should lie at the edges of an ivory compass showing the direction to Mecca from every Muslim region of the world.

The show emphasizes the international nature of the Hajj—all roads lead to Mecca, as it were. There is a seventeenth-century South Indian painting of the mosque at Medina (which many pilgrims also visit while they are in Arabia) and a nineteenth-century travelogue, complete with a sketch of the Meccan sanctuary, by an eminent Chinese scholar of Islam. To the holy cities, pilgrims brought their own eye—and, for many, a disregard for the orthodox injunction against reproducing the human form in art. Pilgrims from Mughal India have left us evocative miniatures of pilgrims sacrificing a camel and collecting pebbles to hurl at the Satanic pillars. A nineteenth-Indian watercolorist has included human figures in his detailed Meccan cityscapes.

Many pilgrims have died en route and some divorced their wives even before setting out. The effect of exposure to Mecca was often to reinforce orthodoxy in far-flung places, as well as the universality of Arabic as the language favored by God. It is striking to find fragments of Arabic in Hajj literature from as far apart as Mali and Sumatra. Souvenirs might take the form of a receptacle of some kind containing Zamzam water, and the show includes a porcelain flask of Chinese manufacture side by side with a bottle brought home by a Dutch Orientalist—both from the nineteenth century. The most poignant object in this section is a helmet that was owned by the Indian prince Tipu Sultan, which, since it had been dipped in Zamzam water, was believed to be impenetrable. He must not have been wearing it when he was killed by the British in 1799.


The exhibition takes us along several of the land and sea routes that were followed by pilgrims during the early centuries of Islam, when Mecca was controlled by caliphs in Damascus, Baghdad, or Cairo. Perhaps the most impressive contribution to the safety and comfort of pilgrims was made by the Abbasids of Baghdad, whose road linking the capital to Mecca, built in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, in part by the wife of Harun al-Rashid, was one of the great political statements of the age. This partially paved roadway ran through desert and lava fields, but the dauntless Abbasids built reservoirs for collecting rainwater and run-off, besides fire signals for night travel (more comfortable than sweltering under the sun) and milestones. An eighth-century milestone showing the distance to Kufa, in southern Iraq, is one of the most evocative pieces in the show.

Maintaining security was another challenge. As long as the caliphate was rich and strong, the Bedouin tribesmen along the route could be paid the tribute they demanded, or else smacked down with military force. During periods of political instability, however, the Hajj could be lethal. In 1757, the tribesmen reacted savagely after being denied their usual tribute; some twenty thousand pilgrims died of a combination of Bedouin assaults and the heat. Later, as pilgrim numbers increased, the Hajj acted as a vehicle for contagion. This is what happened in 1865, when cholera originating in the Far East and carried to Mecca spread worldwide after the pilgrims’ return home.


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.