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Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam - British Museum

See Treasures from the Khalili Collection Gallery for details

Exhibition preview

THE EARLIEST known accurate panoramic view of Mecca is one of over forty-five important objects to be loaned by the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art to the British Museum for the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam.

The exhibition is on view in the Round Reading Room until April 15, 2012.

The Khalili Collection is the biggest single lender to this landmark exhibition, the first devoted to the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca which is central to the Muslim faith.

The view of Mecca dates from circa 1845 and is remarkable for itscomprehensiveness and accuracy. Executed in ink and opaque watercolour by Muhammad ‘Abdullah, the Delhi cartographer commissioned by the Sharif of Mecca to depict the sacred monuments of his realm, the work brilliantly combines a plan of the city with a bird’s eye view of about 60 degrees.

Other views appear on Hajj certificates issued to attest that pilgrims had completed the prescribed rites. Among those in the exhibition will be diagrammatic views of the holy sanctuaries at Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem executed in opaque watercolours, gold, silver and ink.

A view of the Prophet’s mosque at Medina showing both the tomb of the Prophet under the green dome, his cenotaph draped with the characteristic zigzag cover, and the tomb of his daughter Fatimah dates from the 17th or 18th century as does a view of the sanctuary at Mecca.

A view of the sanctuary at Jerusalem from the 18th or early 19th century is quite unusual on a Hajj certificate and one dating from the same period depicts the Masjid al-Aqsa, built on the site of the second oldest mosque in Islam, above a depiction of a domed building probably representing the Dome of the Rock which was built to commemorate the Prophet’s miraculous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and his ascension to heaven.

It was at Mecca that the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelations in the early 7th century AD and one of the Five Pillars of Islam requires every Muslim to make the pilgrimage there at least once in their lifetime.

At the heart of the sanctuary at Mecca lies the Ka‘bah, the holiest site in Islam which is a cube-shaped building that Muslims believe was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael and around which the pilgrim must walk seven times in a counter-clockwise direction.

An historic visitor was Alexander the Great, who is depicted at the Ka‘bah in a page from an Iranian copy of Firdawsi’s epic poem, the Shahnamah or Book of Kings, painted in Shiraz in the 16th century. Alexander’s journey to the Ka‘bah was the first of his world journeys when he declared himself master of Arabia and destroyed those who had distorted its religious tradition.

The custom of covering the Ka‘bah, with a kiswah (literally a garment) goes back to pre-Islamic times and continues to this day. At least once a year it is draped with a new kiswah, originally on top of the old one, but since the late 8th century when the Ka‘bah was in danger of collapsing under the weight, the old kiswah was removed, cut up into pieces and sold to pilgrims.

In Mamluk times, Cairo provided both the internal and external kiswahs for the Ka‘bah, a curtain for its door and another for the tomb of the prophet in Medina. Cairo continued to provide most of these textiles until the early 20th century.

The Khalili Collection is rich in textile art and has, after the Topkapı Sarayı in Istanbul, the largest group of textiles and objects relating to Mecca and Medina in the world. One of the few private collections to own a significant number of pilgrimage-related textiles, it has lent sixteen works to the British Museum exhibition.

Made of silk, or silk lampas, they are usually richly embroidered in silver and silver-gilt wire, often with verses from the Qur’an. They include a section from the hizam or belt of the Ka‘bah with the name of Sultan Selim II (r.1566-1574), two curtains for the internal door of the Ka‘bah, a curtain from the tomb of the Prophet in Medina and a lavishly decorated curtain for the external door of the Ka‘bah commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmejid I in 1846-7.

Particularly elaborate is a sitr (cover) for the mahmal, a litter that was at the head of the annual procession taking the new kiswah from Cairo to Mecca and which represented the authority of the Ottoman sultans over the holy places. One of very few surviving examples, it was ordered by Sultan Abdülaziz and presented by Isma‘il Pasha, the khedive of Egypt, and dates from 1867-76.

The splendour of this annual procession is also evoked by a remarkable piece of decorative armour for a parade horse or camel, made in Turkey or Egypt in the 18th century. The chamfron and cheek-pieces are made of forged iron or steel lined with leather with silver-gilt appliqués set with cornelian, agate, gold-inlaid jade and glass paste.

The Khalili Collection has recently acquired an important archive of documents and photographs relating to the Dar al-Kiswah, the Cairo-based workshop responsible for the production of the kiswah. Several items from this archive are on view, and these include photographs of twenty-seven of the artisans who worked there in the 1920s and 1930s.

Among the splendid manuscripts from the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art is an early work, an illustrated manuscript in Persian verse of the Futuh al-Haramayn, a handbook for pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, composed by Muhyi Lari and copied by Ghulam ‘Ali in Jumada II 990 equivalent to June-July 1582.

The Dala‘il al-Khayrat, or Guide to Good Deeds, written by the Moroccan Sufi al-Jazuli (d.1465 or later) is a prayer book that was popular in Ottoman Turkey and often carried by pilgrims on their journey. A 17th or 18th century copy, illustrated with a view of the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, is also on view in this exhibition.

The Khalili Collection has one of the greatest collections of calligraphy in private hands. A fine example in the exhibition is a presentation drawing in ink and gold of an inscription recording a restoration of the Mizab al-Rahmah (the rain spout of the Ka‘bah) in the name of the Ottoman sultan Abdülmejid I, circa 1856-7.

The Collection also has a significant number of single-volume copies of the Qur’an, sumptuously illuminated and bound, such as the superb work copied by al-sayyid Muhammad Shakir in Ottoman Turkey, possibly Istanbul, and dated AH 1224 (1809-10 AD).

The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art comprises some 20,000 works and is the largest and most comprehensive in the world, encompassing the entire history of Islamic art from its beginnings in the 7th century to the present day.

Professor Nasser D. Khalili, an eminent scholar, is passionate about art and collecting and one of his reasons for assembling the Khalili Collection, under the auspices of the Khalili Family Trust, is to promote a greater understanding between people of different cultures and faiths and to increase awareness of the rich contributions of Islamic cultures to world art.

Treasures from the Khalili Collection Gallery

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG