Review: The Hajj At The British Museum

Review: The Hajj At The British Museum

Where's Waldo?

In 1324, Mansa Musa, king of the Malian empire, left on his pilgrimage to Mecca.

He took with him a retinue of 60,000 followers, used Andalucian architects to build a palace in Timbuktu along the way and peaceably incorporated a quarter of Africa into his realm. When he was done, he had the second biggest empire on earth at the time (after the Mongol Empire).

Upon reaching Cairo the king gave away so much gold that he depressed the Egyptian economy for ten years.

That, kids, is what you call a motherfuckin’ road trip!

The Hajj marks a slight departure from the British Museum’s previous blockbuster exhibitions like Treasures of Heaven or Ancient Egyptian Book of The Dead. It necessarily lacks ‘high impact’ or ‘core’ artefacts like seventy-foot scrolls wrapped around the inside of the Reading Room or glittering, ghoulish remains of long dead saints. It’s not like they can actually install the Ka’ba (though they do have a replica and as a honky, gay Chaoate that’s all I’m ever likely to get). The closest thing to a ‘core’ artefact is a genuinely stunning sitara which covered the door of the original in Mecca itself.

In a lot of ways, The Hajj marks a return to the original, seventeenth century purpose of the British Museum. This is a teaching exhibition. There is a lot of actual content rather than simply exquisitely curated, perfectly lit relics from across the world. You come out of it smarter rather than just ‘blockbusted’. As The Guardian put it:

Neil MacGregor and his team at the British Museum, including Venetia Porter, curator of this exhibition, have, for a decade now, been on an impassioned quest themselves to shed light on some of the more misunderstood history and rituals of the contemporary world and to find the shared humanity in them. Once again, it is worth commending these boundless efforts at cultural diplomacy, and sheer determined curiosity, that allow us all to enjoy the detail and scope of a story that is to many a closed book.

We were there for opening day -something I endeavor to avoid in most cases as crowds get in the way of my nerdly engagement. Two things immediately leapt out at me.

First, that there were a high proportion of actual Muslims visiting the exhibit.

This pleased me as museums -by sheer design rather than intention- have an unavoidable cultural bias: you necessarily require a starting culture in which to branch out and explore others. Inevitably some viewpoints fall by the way side.

Second: it was much quieter than usual. There were no queues to get in (not that I ever queue at the BM) and I had plenty of space to explore each section without being crowded by jerks.

In fact, there were very few people over fifty (the BM’s core crowd, obviously). And it’s not because they weren’t around. We had just come from the British Library’s Illuminated Manuscrips exhibition which is less than a mile away and the whole place was like God’s waiting room.

In some vague sense it’s troubling in its implication but on the plus side there were a lot of young people of all colours and stripes. If you want to read into that I’d say it’s positive; it indicates a permanent generational drift toward cultural openness.

The actual production itself is a masterpiece of museum curation. Because the Reading Room is itself circular, Venetia Porter has laid out the space to imply an actual Hajj journey, beginning with a thousand-year-old Koran open to the relevant passage compelling Muslims to go on the Hajj, then through to medieval road markers and route maps in the first section and swinging the whole thing around the central replica Ka’ba as the exhibition moves through time to the present day. (Only once since the death of the Prophet has there ever not been a Hajj and that was because of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans during the First World War. Not even the Crusades interrupted it.)

Perhaps what appealed to me the most was the sheer logistics of the whole event. There is nothing quite like it in all mankind. Sure, Hindus have some extremely large scale pilgrimages that you can even see from space but the distances and complexity involved with the Hajj boggle the mind. (Apparently the London 2012 Olympics Organisers have consulted the Saudis responsible for Hajj operations.)

A curator holds one of the oldest known copies of the Korans at the British Museum in London, Britain

In fact, the Hajj has attracted operational concerns for centuries. There was a news clipping from The Times of London on display: One pilgrim ship leaving from Singapore sank in 1880, killing a thousand people.

During the days of empire, the British Raj became concerned that these mass migrations had become vectors for cholera which was spreading across the colonies and killing thousands.

So they appointed Thomas Cook himself -yes, that one- as the Official Travel Agent for The Hajj.

There’s also some details on other, slightly adorable, tales of Victorian derring-do. A one Richard Burton, who spoke Arabic decided to grow a beard, dress in pilgrim whites and undertake the journey himself. He was the first non-Muslim to do so (we’re not allowed otherwise). Or rather, he was the first non-Muslim to pretend to be a Muslim, sneak across North Africa and then come home to write a Boy’s Own Adventure style account of his escapades. (Told you it was slightly adorable.)

Of particular interest to the magically inclined were examples of the modern day pilgrims’ guidebooks, written in seven languages, looking for all the world like an art gallery programme you’d pick up at the entrance and then deposit in large plastic bins as you leave. They’re spiral bound with a lanyard to hang them around your neck and an easy index. So if you’re leaving your accommodation to go out into Mecca you turn to page whatever and recite the recommended prayer. Or flip to another page if you’re about to drink some water. I loved them. It’s like the gamification of the spiritual world. Somebody make one for magical folk.

The review is a couple of days late because I needed time to process what I considered some of the shortcomings of the exhibition. This is from the British Museum’s press kit:

The exhibition which has been organised in partnership with the King Abdulaziz Public Library Riyadh…  A wide variety of objects will be lent to the exhibition. Loans include significant material from Saudi Arabia including a sitara which covers the door of the Ka’ba as well as other historic and contemporary artefacts from key museums in the Kingdom. Other objects have come from major public and private collections in the UK and around the world, among them the British Library and the Khalili Family Trust.

The unavoidable reality of staging global exhibitions is the risk of competing interpretations and attitudes influencing the material. One frankly glaring omission was any discussion of the pre-Islamic use of the Ka’ba. You get the Koranic story of it being built by Abraham but what researchers such as my darling Karen Armstrong have shown is that it was likely dedicated to previous pagan gods. It’s not like it’s secret information or even all that difficult to obtain. This is a direct lift from Wikipedia:

In her book, Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong asserts that the Kaaba was dedicated to Hubal, a Nabatean deity, and contained 360 idols that either represented the days of the year, or were effigies of the Arabian pantheon. Once a year, tribes from all around the Arabian peninsula, whether Christian or pagan, would converge on Mecca to perform the Hajj.

Imoti contends that there were multiple such “Kaaba” sanctuaries in Arabia at one time, but this was the only one built of stone. The others also allegedly had counterparts of the Black Stone. There was a “red stone”, the deity of the south Arabian city of Ghaiman, and the “white stone” in the Kaaba of al-Abalat (near the city of Tabala, south of Mecca). Grunebaum in Classical Islam points out that the experience of divinity of that period was often associated with stone fetishes, mountains, special rock formations, or “trees of strange growth.” The Kaaba was thought to be at the center of the world with the Gate of Heaven directly above it. The Kaaba marked the location where the sacred world intersected with the profane, and the embedded Black Stone was a further symbol of this as a meteorite that had fallen from the sky and linked heaven and earth.

According to Sarwar, about 400 years before the birth of Muhammad, a man named “Amr bin Lahyo bin Harath bin Amr ul-Qais bin Thalaba bin Azd bin Khalan bin Babalyun bin Saba”, who was descended from Qahtan and king of Hijaz (the northwestern section of Saudi Arabia, which encompassed the cities of Mecca and Medina), had placed a Hubal idol onto the roof of the Kaaba, and this idol was one of the chief deities of the ruling Quraysh. The idol was made of red agate, and shaped like a human, but with the right hand broken off and replaced with a golden hand. When the idol was moved inside the Kaaba, it had seven arrows in front of it, which were used for divination.

King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz's 2014 plans

Not. One. Word.

The British Museum, in my opinion, is getting better at coordinating with differing viewpoints which was reflected in the truly excellent Babylon exhibition the other year (which required extensive cooperation from Iran and Iraq).

But what was going around in my head was whether they had ceded too much of the BM’s core mission in ignoring the backstory of the giant black cube they installed in the middle of their own reading room.

I’m still not sure I’ve landed on an answer I’m happy with but it did get me thinking about that speech of Paddy Ashdown’s about how we are moving into a multi-polar world and we’ll have to do business with -in the case of Saudi Arabia in this instance- people whose attitudes to women, gays, corporal punishment and human rights we find abhorrent. To my mind, this is what The Guardian means when it says “cultural diplomacy” in the quote at the top of the post.

Diplomacy is the art of the possible rather than the preferable and perhaps the opportunity to incorporate a much wider audience into the British Museum’s footprint and to shed much needed light on something the non-Muslim world has little understanding of is worth the mission cost? (Again, I come back around to the original mission of the British Museum when it pillaged the empire in an attempt to shed light where there was ignorance. Their role has always been complicated and always involves a cost.)

Perhaps it’s best to consider it a starting position, the beginnings of increasing engagement, rather than the definitive partnership? In twenty years time just think of what a Hajj exhibition could be like at the British Museum -or what it will probably be called by then if the Tories get their way- the Starbucks Museum of British and World History.

In one of the last chambers of the exhibition was a scale model of the planned extension to the Ka’ba complex in Mecca. I really wanted to take a sneaky photo of it but there was an angry looking volunteer staring at me.

It’s. Enormous.

By 2014 the Haram will cover a million square metres. You can’t see it in the image I found online but each of those gigantic covered pathways leading up to the stadium has helipads on them. You can barely make out the tiny black cube in the middle.

So yes. Perhaps it’s best we take an ideology hit in order to improve the cultural literacy of everyone involved? My own literacy has certainly improved thanks to the exhibition.

There is a customary to say when someone has undertaken The Hajj: “Hajj mabroor.” May the pilgrimage be accepted by God.

May it, indeed.

Hajj: Journey To The Heart of Islam is open every day until April 12. Adults £12. Members free.




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  1. 2
    Andrew B. Watt

    Hmmm. Prayer books. The gamification of sacred space, and the need for a pagan ‘common prayer’ book… Hmm. That thought resonates with me.

    Ok, to backtrack a bit. This was an excellent review, and makes me want to come visit Britain even more. It’s been years since I’ve visited the British Museum, and your running commentary on things there makes me, well, envious. Not to say that our own little museum in Hartford doesn’t have its delights, but this is altogether a different scale. A spectacular scale at that.

    ANY-way, the idea of the prayerbook… the last time I was in Britain I attempted to make pilgrimages to the cell of St. Julian of Norwich (closed for the day unexpectedly on the day I visited, and closed for the rest of the week). I also got to walk a good long stretch of St. Cuthbert’s Way to Lindisfarne, which was amazing.

    But a lot of the pagans I know such as these on the wrong side of the pond, view many of their sacred sites as being on your side… so designing such a “pilgrim pagan’s prayer book” falls to you. So many circuits around the British Museum, a walk (a LONG walk) out to Tintagel the birthplace of Arthur, a backtrack to Glastonbury/Avalon, a bicycle run out to Sutton Hoo… complex, and maybe more wear-and-tear on the landscape than we’d really want witches and druids to be responsible for making…

    St. Egeria wrote one of the first travel guides for pilgrims, for the Holy Land in something like the 6th century AD (and it hadn’t all gone to hell in a hand-basket yet).

    If you’ve leafed through the ‘poetry’ tags on my website, you may notice that a lot of my poetry takes the form of prayers, or at least ‘markers’ for lunar and solar cycles, and pagan feast days connected with the Greco-Roman pagan calendar I don’t know that there’s much call for that sort of thing, but it’s on my mind to publish them some day as a kind of guide to a pagan festival calendar that goes beyond the “Eight Great.”
    Andrew B. Watt´s last blog post ..For Saint Gildas (29 January)

  2. 3

    Wonderful how this lined up with the arrival of “Beginners guide to Berhatiya” a study of the most well used conjuration in Arabian Magic.

    It is my hope that the influx of wealth and development in the Arab world will lead to a new Golden Age of Islam. I am realistic enough to know that it is doubtful that I will live long enough to see it.
    Jow´s last blog post ..Year of the Hustle

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