By David Tresilian
24 May, 2012
Last month a British Museum exhibition introduced Western audiences to the history and meaning of the Muslim hajj, writes David Tresilian
Opening in January and running until 15 April this year, the British Museum's Hajj exhibition, subtitled a "journey to the heart of Islam," presented materials relating to the Muslim hajj, or major pilgrimage, in the Museum's most important temporary exhibition spaces, formerly part of the famous British Library reading rooms. It was jointly organised with the King Abdulaziz Public Library in Riyadh, and it brought together hajj-related materials from public and private collections in Britain, Europe, the Gulf and elsewhere.
The exhibition's aim is to "explore the experience [of the hajj] and to understand what it means to Muslims now and what it has meant through the centuries," in the words of the director of the British Museum writing in the exhibition catalogue.
As a result, the exhibition attempts not only a history of the hajj, exploring its origins and its development over past millennia, but also its geographical ramifications, with pilgrims converging from all parts of the world, and in ever-increasing numbers, on the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia in order to carry out the pilgrimage. It also explains the meaning of the hajj as one of the five pillars of Islam and the meaning that individual pilgrims, some ancient, some modern, have found in it. Maps of the traditional pilgrimage routes from Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad and other places are featured in the exhibition, along with items that the pilgrims carried with them or that they might have come across on their journey.
The exhibition mixes contemporary materials with historical objects throughout, and at intervals there are works relating to the hajj by contemporary Saudi artists. In the first section, entitled preparing for the hajj, the religious meaning of the pilgrimage is explained, and this introduces the following five sections of the exhibition which focus on the journey to Mecca itself.
FROM BAGHDAD TO MECCA: section three of the exhibition presents the pilgrimage route that once extended overland from Baghdad along the famous Darb Zubayda to Mecca. This route, "the most important and impressive civil engineering project undertaken in the entire early Islamic world," according to the British historian Hugh Kennedy writing in the exhibition catalogue, was traditionally commissioned by Zubayda bint Ja'far, granddaughter of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansour and wife of Haroun al-Rashid (786-809 CE), the caliph most associated with the stories of mediaeval Baghdad later collected in The Arabian Nights.
Constructing the route meant not only building way-stations for pilgrims on their way to Mecca from the Abbasid capital in Baghdad, necessitating the building and manning of a series of forts, but also and above all the provision of water and other supplies for pilgrimage caravans making their way through an often inhospitable landscape by camel. There were only one or two natural oases on the route, and so a series of artificial reservoirs, or birak, were built along the route to collect rainwater and run-off from the shallow wadis that traversed the region. Much of the route ran across flat, stony plains without natural landmarks, and so milestones and way markers were placed along the route to guide travelers.
The exhibition includes various historical materials relating to the Darb Zubayda and the experience of pilgrims traveling along it on their way to Mecca, including materials from recent excavations lent by the National Museum of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. However, as Kennedy explains in his catalogue essay on the early history of the hajj, the route also played an important political role, since the protection of "the pilgrimage and its rituals formed a central part of Abbasid policy for the caliphate and the projection of its power in the wider Muslim community."
As a result, the Darb Zubayda largely eclipsed the earlier route from Damascus to Mecca that had been built under the patronage of the Ummayad caliphs, the predecessors of the Abassids in Baghdad and their earlier rivals. As Kennedy explains, it was during Ummayad rule that the hajj had taken on much of its political importance. Led by the Prophet Mohamed himself in 632 CE as part of his "farewell pilgrimage," from the beginning the leadership of the hajj "was considered the responsibility of the leader of the Muslim community, or his designated deputy." While the Ummayad caliphs seldom led the hajj in person, they saw "the organisation and protection of the pilgrims [as] an important function of rulership and expression of sovereignty," and this was inherited by successor dynasties up to and including the Ottomans.
The earlier Damascus route, running overland through the Levant and down through the Hijaz to Mecca, is presented in section five of the exhibition, and though it probably could never have competed with the Darb Zubayda in terms of organisation or logistics, Ummayad patronage of the pilgrimage did see the introduction of an important feature of the historical performance of the hajj, with the residents of Damascus turning out each year to see the caravans off amid festivities and processions. These would probably have been simpler affairs than the great parades organised by the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, but they showed how keen the Ummayad caliphs were to act as the protectors of the hajj, building aqueducts and water tanks for pilgrims along the route and making various improvements to the sanctuary in Mecca.
One of the highlights of this part of the exhibition is the section devoted to the pilgrimage route from Cairo to Mecca, in which the curators have brought together a range of historical materials. With the fall of the Abbasid caliphate and the rise of the Fatimids, Ayyubids and Mamlukes in Cairo, leadership of the hajj caravans and responsibility for the upkeep of the sanctuary passed to dynasties based in Cairo.
The British historian Robert Irwin, taking up the story in the catalogue, writes that because of political divisions in the Islamic world and the threats to it from invading Mongols and European crusaders, no hajj caravans from Egypt or Syria arrived in Mecca in the final years of Ayyubid rule. However, this situation changed when the Mamluke sultan Baybars made the pilgrimage in 1269, establishing Mamluke control over Mecca as he did so. At the same time, the tradition started of sending off the hajj caravans amid great pomp from Cairo, these bearing with them the annual gift of the kiswa, the embroidered cloth destined to cover the Ka'ba in Mecca, and the mahmal, an elaborate camel-mounted palanquin.
This tradition lasted until the early decades of the last century, and the exhibition includes archival film of the mahmal leaving Cairo for the hajj in 1918, 1938 and 1944 amid scenes of general celebration. There is also a photograph album containing pictures of the 1909 pilgrimage of prince Ahmed Fouad, later king Fouad 1, and sections of kiswa material, made in Cairo early in the last century, used to cover the Ka'ba.
THE EXPERIENCE OF THE HAJJ: in their contributions to the exhibition catalogue, both Kennedy and Irwin make detailed use of hajj-narratives, or rihla, which describe the experience of the hajj. Kennedy describes the Safarnameh, or Book of Travels, written by the 11th-century Persian pilgrim Nasir-i Khusraw, for example, the earliest surviving first-hand account, who made the hajj no fewer than four times, the last from Cairo. Then there is Ibn Jubayr, from Al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, who made the hajj in 1183 and wrote an account that is the most important surviving description before the 19th century. Later still, there is the account by the North African pilgrim and traveler Ibn Battuta, who witnessed the mahmal procession leaving Cairo in 1325.
At this time, it could easily take a Moroccan pilgrim 18 months away from home in order to perform the hajj, and those setting out to do so from West Africa could be away for up to eight years, if they ever returned at all. According to Irwin, the pilgrimage routes from Timbuktu in today's Mali or from locations in what is now northern Nigeria could be particularly perilous, with attacks by bandits being a constant possibility. Presumably similar threats and journey times would have weighed on pilgrims from the Indian subcontinent or from southeast Asia, who would have followed a maritime route to the Red Sea like the one taken by the Mughul caravan that left Fatehpur Sikri outside Delhi in October 1576 and arrived in Jeddah two years later.
What really changed the experience of the hajj and led to ever-greater numbers of pilgrims performing it was the advent of faster and more affordable means of travel. These included steamships from the 1830s onwards, leading to growing waves of pilgrims from India and southeast Asia from the second half of the century onwards, and the Hijaz railway in the early decades of the last century, which joined Medina to Istanbul and Baghdad via Damascus, greatly facilitating communication.
However, it was the expansion of international air travel from the 1950s onwards that really transformed the hajj, opening it up to greater numbers of pilgrims than ever before. As a result, the hajj today is one of the world's most challenging logistical operations, involving, according to British scholar Ziauddin Sardar writing in the exhibition catalogue, 6,000 flights to bring the pilgrims to Mecca, all of them arriving over a two-week period in Jeddah, 15,000 buses to take them on to Mecca itself and 27,000 men to control the crowds..
While there were around 200,000 pilgrims in the 1950s, the expansion of air travel over recent decades has meant that today there are over two million, most of them from outside the Arab world, with one in ten pilgrims coming from Indonesia and one in four from the Indian subcontinent. As a result, anyone performing the hajj today must be prepared to do so in the company of hundreds of thousands if not millions of others. Following a series of extensions and redevelopments, the sanctuary in Mecca can now hold a million worshippers during the hajj season, though this has presented some formidable circulation challenges. Think of a crowd of 60,000 leaving a stadium, Sardar says, and then "imagine 30 such stadiums, all located in one place."
Such growth in the numbers of pilgrims has altered many aspects of the experience of the hajj, with pilgrims now being taken by monorail to neighbouring Mina to perform the rituals and the jamarat area, where pilgrims carry out ritual stoning, having been developed into a permanent five-storey structure able to handle the passage of 300,000 pilgrims an hour. The sanctuary itself is now seeing its fourth major extension, to be concluded next year, during which its capacity will be increased to hold two million pilgrims, and the five-storey jamarat structure will be replaced by one 12 storeys high.
In its final sections, the exhibition gives details of the rituals performed by pilgrims in and around Mecca, as well as of the topography and redevelopment of the city. There is also a section on Medina. Exhibits here include items that pilgrims are likely to purchase to take back with them after the pilgrimage, including gifts for family and friends, the modern equivalents of the hajj certificates and Ottoman tiles depicting the sanctuary in Mecca that were produced in earlier centuries and are displayed earlier in the exhibition.
The religious significance of the hajj rituals is described in detail in the exhibition catalogue by M.A.S. Abdel-Haleem, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of London, who also traces the history of the written guides produced for pilgrims and remembers his boyhood experience of the hajj from growing up in a small town in the Sharqiyya governorate in the eastern part of the Egyptian delta. People would save for years in order to carry out the hajj, he says, proudly bearing the name of hajj or hajja to mark their completion of the pilgrimage on their return.