The new exhibition at the British Museum in London, “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam,” focuses on one of the greatest religious events on earth.
More than 2.5 million people now make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. This is an extraordinary and fascinating phenomenon. It’s also a difficult one to examine in a display such as this. The result is heavy on information, and visually austere.
There are some wonders for the eye. At the beginning, you encounter a sumptuous late 19th century “Mahmal,” or ceremonial palanquin, which was carried on a camel in the pilgrim caravan. This is like a little square tent, with a pyramidal roof, made of scarlet silk with a Koranic verse embroidered around it in gold.
Atmospheric archive film shows it -- or one like it -- being borne in procession from Cairo in the early 20th century. Some of the most evocative exhibits are old photographs of pilgrims, their journeys and the sacred structure at Mecca.
Some of these document the Hijaz Railway, built in the last days of the Ottoman empire, and sabotaged by Lawrence of Arabia during World War I. It led originally from Damascus, where an amazing station survives, to Medina, though the final 400-mile section to Mecca was never completed.
At the center of the exhibition, there are more spectacular textiles. Among these is a section of the “kiswa,” or outer covering of the Ka’ba, the ancient, black cuboid structure around which every pilgrim must walk anti-clockwise seven times as an essential element of the Hajj.
This section of the “kiswa” is itself a lustrous black-on-black silk, which has -- to those who cannot read the pious texts it bears in Arabic -- an abstract beauty. The same applies to some of the titles and paintings of the sanctuary at Mecca and the Holy Places, more exercises in sacred geography than representations of real topography.
I can’t help thinking that these things are accompaniments to the pilgrimage rather than the thing itself, which is a spiritual undertaking not easily conveyed by objects and images. Perhaps a closer approach is made by minimalist contemporary works such as “Magnetism” by the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater. This consists of a black Ka’ba-shaped magnet, surrounded by swirling iron filings, a metaphor for the crowds of pilgrims.
The fact is that this is an experience closed, quite literally, to non-believers. Another contemporary exhibit, “The Road to Makkah” (2011) by Abdulnasser Gharem, consists of a painting of a road sign indicating straight-ahead for Muslims, and an alternative route for others, who have not been allowed into Medina or Mecca since the earliest years of Islam.
I salute the BM curators for trying to mount something such as this, yet I think they are reaching the limits of what an exhibition can do. Museums are essentially repositories of objects. Admittedly, much of the collection of the BM was originally part of the structure or decoration of churches, mosques and temples. In a museum, however, their primary meaning changes from religious to artistic and historical.
In a way, it isn’t any of the exhibits that best communicate what the Hajj is about, but the recorded voices of pilgrims describing their experience that you hear at the end.
“Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” is at the British Museum, London, through April 15. Information: http://www.britishmuseum.org.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)