British Museum blog

Reflections on my time on the Hajj exhibition


Nina Swaep, volunteer, British Museum

When I started working as a volunteer at the British Museum last September, the preparations for Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam were already in full swing. Luckily, that didn’t prevent ‘team Hajj’ from including me as one of their own. Today’s my last day and I’ve been looking back on my time at the Museum with much fondness!

Being a Dutch MA student in Museum Studies specialising in Islamic Art at the University of Amsterdam, I was absolutely convinced that participating in this project would be the ultimate work experience for me. In Amsterdam, I had already done research on museum objects that related to the pilgrimage to Mecca – one of which is now featured in the exhibition – and I was willing to learn everything there was to learn. I wouldn’t really mind if my job would consist of pouring coffee and copying files, as long as I could get a closer look at the process of exhibition-making…

So you can imagine I was more than happy to find out that my tasks were a lot more challenging and demanded academic and social skills. The curators took me up and patiently showed me how exhibition making works. I could join meetings with them and found out that it’s not just a few people working on projects like these, but an immense organisation that takes years to prepare the exhibition.

Come winter, my work was focussed on the Indonesian section if the exhibition which features objects from Dutch museum collections and, more specifically, the collection of the Dutch arabist Snouck Hurgronje. I had worked before on the Aceh Map (which is on display in the exhibition) when I was in Holland but I had the opportunity to do some more research while here at the British Museum. I found out that, compared to all the other images featured throughout the exhibition, it shows a rather different representation of the Ka’ba. For one it isn’t shown as a cube but as a rectangle, which seems strange because the cubical shape is one of the main characteristics of the Ka’ba. Also, one can see through it, so it is shown without a kiswa, the cloth that covers the Ka’ba. These finding confirmed the idea that the maker of the Aceh Map had never actually been to Mecca – he could never have seen the Ka’ba without its kiswa, since, as one can learn in the exhibition, it is never unveiled.

The most enriching experience I have had whilst working on the project was contrary to all my expectations. It didn’t have anything to do with the glamour of the opening night, nor with the rewarding feeling when the exhibition finally opened to the public. It was a lovely autumn day when I found myself sitting at my desk, being deeply emotionally moved by the short clips of Muslims talking about their own pilgrimage, which I had to edit. I think the feeling of being an individual person amidst the millions of fellow pilgrims, brothers and sisters, must be completely overwhelming and to me the exhibition succeeded in communicating this to its visitors. The exhibition is particularly successful because of the wonderful balance that has been achieved between showing intimacy and the bigger picture of the Hajj being a phenomenon influencing millions of people around the world. It works on multiple levels and is therefore very satisfying.

As my time at the British Museum comes to an end, I can say that this has indeed been the ultimate experience for me; meeting many wonderful people, learning so much. I think the meaning of the exhibition became very apparent to me. Although I cannot go on Hajj myself, like many Hajjis, the Hajj exhibition has certainly changed my life for the better…

Leave a comment or tweet using #hajjexhibition to let us know what you think about the exhibition

This post was updated on 9 March 2012 to clarify Nina Swaep’s role on the exhibition as a volunteer, not an intern as previously stated.

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012.
Find out more

In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

A journey to the heart of Bloomsbury


Harvinder Bahra, Community Programmes Coordinator, British Museum

The Museum recently held a private viewing of the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam specifically for members of the local community. It was a very special opportunity for all of the community groups, neighbourhood centres and local charities we work with in London to see the exhibition. And despite the wintery weather, our community partners arrived early and in droves, eager to be the first ones to see this exhibition and gain a glimpse into this hidden world!

Deep in conversation at the Hajj exhibition community private view

The event turned out to be the community team’s most popular exhibition private view to date. With over 800 members of the local community coming to the Museum to explore, discover and learn about this yearly phenomenon. Neighbourhood centres invited their local Muslim friends and colleagues to visit the exhibition together, using it as an opportunity to share experiences and get to know one another more closely. As one of our community contact explained:

‘When we’re volunteering we tend to focus on the work at hand, so these moments of being together without over-riding purposeful activity are a great pleasure and wonderful way for us to all learn more about one another and hence strengthen overall ties and relationships.’

The exhibition was extremely well received and seemed to provoke a mixture of personal reflection and contemplation among our guests – a sharing of personal experiences and new insights as well as discussions into the history of the pilgrimage for all faiths.

A curatorial introduction given by Project Curator Qaisra Khan for our community guests finished of the day that highlighted some of the key objects and themes of the exhibition, and gave invited guests the opportunity to delve even deeper into the exhibition and this incredible journey.

Have you seen the exhibition yet? What did you think?

Leave a comment or tweet using #hajjexhibition to let us know what you think about the exhibition

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012.
Find out more

In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

The journey begins


Qaisra Khan, exhibition project curator

The exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is now installed inside the Reading Room of the Great Court. It’s the result of many, many months of work by not only the curators of the exhibition but also the project managers, conservators, museum assistants, the display, mounting, lighting designers, digital media design teams, graphic designers, construction teams, and art transportation companies! With everybody making sure all objects arrive safely and unpacking and putting them safely into their respective cases, this was truly a team effort. To get all of the objects displayed inside the exhibition space took over a month…and it’s finally ready!

British Museum object handlers mount a tile from Isnik in Turkey. The tile is on loan from the V&A Museum's collection.

Although as curators we had carefully selected each of the objects that feature in the exhibition, some of the objects travelled from far flung places and we had never seen them in the flesh before. Being close to these objects while they were being installed was a wonderful experience – they all surpassed our expectations! The scope of the exhibition, with 40 lenders from 13 different locations from around the world, is vast – and it has been an amazing achievement to get such wonderful objects together to represent the story of Hajj.

The magnificent Hajj banner from the Harvard Art Museum.

I was completely amazed, for example, by the wonderful Hajj banner from the Harvard Art Museum made out of beautiful scarlet red silk, which measures 369.5cm x 190.5cm. Dated 1683, it tells the story of the movement of Hajj caravans. This banner was carried from North Africa, which was part of the Ottoman Empire, by members of the Qadiriyya Sufi order on Hajj. It is a striking object which would have been seen by pilgrims from a great distance, decorated with floral patterns typical of the Ottoman era. The inscriptions in the North African style of script, known as Maghribi, clearly confirm its use on Hajj. In the 17th century this must have been a splendid beacon to guide pilgrims who were traversing great distances to reach the place of their dreams.

The exhibition opens to the public next Thursday 26 January and runs until 15 April 2012. I hope you can come along.

Leave a comment or tweet using #hajjexhibition to let us know what you think about the exhibition

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012.
Find out more

In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Reflections on Hajj


In November 2011, Altaf and Rashida went on Hajj.
Here, Altaf reflects on the experience.

The end of Hajj
After our third night at Mina, we travelled by coach back to Mecca where the adventure continued. The coach driver took a wrong turning and headed in the wrong direction for 20 minutes. He then did a three point turn on the motorway and then a few miles later ran out of diesel! So a short journey of 40 minutes turned into a three hour saga! Even though everyone was extremely tired, the group stayed in good spirits as this was the first and only real hiccup in the whole trip.

Once we finally arrived in Mecca we checked into a 5 star hotel for a well-deserved rest. The hotel felt so luxurious and clean after having roughed it for a week. The hotel was less than a five minute walk to the Ka’ba so we made frequent trips for prayer and tawaf. Tawaf was very difficult as the Ka’ba was packed full of worshipers. We did the circumambulation on the top floor which increased the distance of each circuit to almost double.

One evening I went to do a tawaaf and half way through I felt peckish so I went and got a cheese burger from Burger King, sat over looking the holy mosque containing the Ka’ba. It was 2am, the temperature was 27 degrees centigrade…it was surreal experience, two different worlds with me in the middle.

After Hajj

After Hajj was over, we went to Jeddah to spend some time with my older brother who lives there with his wife and son. We were eager to see them as it had been a long while and we had never met the baby.

What a contrast! One day being in the holiest Islamic site in the world, the next in an ultra-modern busy city with the latest technology and all the designer shops you can imagine. However the remembrance of Allah is never far away – life revolves around the prayer times. When we were in one of the traditional open souks we heard the call to prayer – the shops shut their doors and the market stalls just covered their goods with a sheet and went off for prayer. Ten minutes later it’s all back to normal.

Back in London

Having completed one of the pillars of Islam, I feel the need to protect the remaining four even more than I had before I went on Hajj. The experience has changed lots of things. I feel a lot more connected to the creator and have a stronger visual connection between the text of the Quran and the knowledge that I have completed an ancient rite.

I was really missing Saudi so I logged on to the Ka’ba web site and the area around the Ka’ba was virtually empty, just a few hundred people doing tawaf. It looked very different to what I had experienced with millions of people.

Doing the Hajj has reinforced my strength in my faith and helps me remember Allah more regularly.

Altaf and Rashida Abbas went on Hajj this year and blogged about the experience for the British Museum. Find out more about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Arafat, Muzdalifah and Mina


Earlier this month, Altaf and Rashida went on Hajj.
Here, they recount some of the stages of Hajj.

Arafat
Altaf Abbas

Arafat is a flat valley surrounded by mountains of rocky terrain – a dry and barren the place where Muslim’s believe mankind will be gathered on the day of judgement. After our first failed attempt to see the Mount of Mercy where the Prophet Mohammed had given his last sermon, I left my wife in the tent and went out again. I walked for about a mile, climbed through a hole in a chain link fence, crossed a wide empty motorway and then climbed up a short steep hill not knowing where I was going…and there in front of me was the most beautiful site. I was looking down on the Mount of Mercy where millions of pilgrims were standing and praying. It was awe-inspiring.

Everybody was facing towards the ka’ba and standing with raised hands praying and crying, it was deeply moving. Even though three million people were with us, it felt like I was alone in worship. I felt good after shedding a few tears.

Rashida Abbas
We arrived at Arafat on the morning of 5 November, it was very hot and no air conditioned tents this time. We had to pour chilled water on ourselves to keep cool. The whole afternoon was spent doing supplication and prayers. We went out to search for the Mount of Mercy but due to the heat had to turn back and take refuge in ‘The Tea Garden’ which was a large airy tent. Everyone was totally engrossed in prayer and oblivious to others around them. The focus was on prayer, a very spiritual afternoon which I enjoyed and felt benefited my soul with spiritual healing.

Muzdalifah
Altaf Abbas
After Magrib prayers (sunset) we boarded the coaches once to go to Muzdalifah to spend the night out in the open. Twenty of us decided to walk the seven kilometres to Muzdalifah and meet up with our group in the open air camp, which turned out to be an adventure. The walk started of very pleasant along with hundreds of thousands of other people along pedestrian walkway No.15, which is as wide as the M25 motorway. After four hours of walking, just before we entered Muzdalifa, people started setting up camp on the walkway which caused a bottle neck and our group of 20 got dispersed into the crowd of millions. I tried in vain to look for the group and our organised camp but to no avail, so I spent the night with thousands of total strangers on the pavement. I found a small spot next to some railings, put my prayer mat down and went to sleep using my slippers as a pillow. Although there were millions of people, coaches and buses going past, I slept for a couple of hours. It was the sweetest sleep I have ever had, there was a tranquillity that blanketed all the chaos around me. It is hard to explain in words but it felt like I was by myself – lost but had inner peace and was at ease.

Rashida Abbas
Muzdalifah was not what I expected. We slept on open ground in between the motorway and mountains. Coaches were arriving well into the night constantly bringing pilgrims. As the coaches arrived they would beep their horns to announce their arrival – thousands of coaches! It was a strange experience trying to sleep out in the open under these conditions. There were strangers sleeping next to us from all over the world. I managed to snatch a few hours of broken sleep whenever I could. Before long, the call to prayer was announced.Everybody woke up did ablution and stood for prayer in neat orderly rows facing the ka’ba. Which is amazing to see, the rows formed so swiftly and then total silence as the prayers started in Arabic. I don’t think you will see this anywhere else in the world. The supplication continued until sunrise about an hour later, Muslims deep in worship of one God. I walked back to Mina, our permanent camp, in the early morning sun which took about two hours. It was a calm atmosphere with pleasant weather and a gentle breeze, I really enjoyed it.

Mina
Altaf Abbas

The next three nights were spent in Mina, a temporary tented city. On the first day when the rest of the Muslim world was celebrating Eid (I did think about our children spending Eid with their Grandma and Aunt in London), we had four religious rituals to carry out:

1. Stoning of Jamaraat (symbolic devil)
2. Shaving the head
3. Sacrifice of animal, usually a goat or a lamb
4. Tawaf – to circumambulate the ka’ba

In the afternoon, we left on foot to go to the Jamaraat with our group. Even though I had heard about this ritual many times, it was different to what I expected. I had heard that this place gets really busy, however I was amazed to see a modern building resembling a multi-storey car park with wide ramped access, traffic lights, one way systems and electronic signage which made it very easy for us to perform the stoning. The ancient symbolic stoning of the devil represents the moment when the Prophet Abraham was being distracted by the devil when commanded by Allah to sacrifice his most beloved possession; his only child. We threw seven small pebbles the size of chick peas – which are collected from Mina – at three walls, each one 30 metres long and 6 metres high.

After the stoning we walked back to Mina. I had to shave my hair, have a shower and change out of my ihram and into clean normal clothes. I felt pure and cleansed.

The sacrifice of a goat was carried out remotely in a modern abattoir which has the meat cut, packed and shipped to third world countries to help feed the poor.

I’ll talk about the tawaf in my next post…

Altaf and Rashida Abbas went on Hajj this year and have been blogging about the experience for the British Museum. Find out more about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Altaf’s Hajj: the tented city


Altaf Abbas

Friday 4 November
It has been a relaxing day today after the hardship of Mecca yesterday. We are staying in a tented city in Mina – there are thousands and thousands of air conditioned tents (Middle Eastern version of glamping) and we are preparing for tomorrow which will be very hard over three million people will be heading to Arafat to beg for forgiveness. I will be inshallah one of those and cannot wait to pour my heart out. I think it is going to be very emotional. I can feel the tears in my eyes already filling up.

The Saudis do an excellent job of servicing the hajjies. I am impressed at their efficiency, like the way they bring chilled water with ice to all tents and how they provide food, tea and coffee in abundance. They even have helicopters patrolling the hajj to make sure it goes smoothly and safely.

The call to prayer has just gone and it sends shivers down my spine as the sound reverbarates around the valley – it’s truly amazing.

Altaf and Rashida Abbas are going on Hajj this year. They will be blogging about their experience over the next two weeks. Find out more about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Rashida’s Hajj: circling the Ka’ba


Rashida Abbas

Thursday 3 November
After our long journey we finally arrived at 3am in the grand mosque that surrounds the Ka’ba. The sheer number of people was overwhelmimg. There is nowhere to stand even though the mosque is enormous and goes on for miles. I struggled through the Tawaf (circling the Ka’ba) although I was a bit fazed due to lack of sleep and the crowds but I managed to complete it before collapsing in a heap to get some rest before the next part.

I leaned against one of the many marble clad minarets and gazed up at the sky above the Kabba where there was the most beautiful glow and tranquility which I had never felt anywhere else. It rejuvenated me to continue. As I looked down my husband was laying next to me snoring. I was feeling thirsty and hungry so I drank the water from the well of Zam Zam and was instantly refreshed. I can’t believe this well has been running since the time of Abraham, for me that is a miracle…

Altaf and Rashida Abbas are going on Hajj this year. They will be blogging about their experience over the next two weeks. Find out more about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Altaf’s Hajj: departing and arriving


Altaf Abbas

Sunday 30 October
Up very early this morning at 4am to start the journey of a lifetime. I have got butterflies in my stomach, the whole family are at the front door to see us off – it was an emotional send off. The excitement is rising while we wait at the departure gate at Heathrow with 220 other potential hajjies who are sharing a common goal of doing Hajj. We landed in Medina on Sunday evening and as the plane touched down it felt real that we had landed in the holy city of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The whole disembarkment went very smoothly and swiftly and within a few hours we were in our hotel room.

Wednesday 2 November

We have spent the last few days in Medina which is a lovely calm place and the locals are very welcoming. This morning I made ablution and put on the ihram and boarded the bus on the long but emotional journey to Mecca where my eyes are longing to see the Kabba (the direction I pray in five times a day in London) and to see it real life is going to be overwhelming. My heart is thumping and my hands are shaking I can’t wait but have to ‘shabara’ (the Arabic word for patience) which the locals use continuously, as well as with ‘inshallah’.

Altaf and Rashida Abbas are going on Hajj this year. They will be blogging about their experience over the next two weeks. Find out more about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Filed under: Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Altaf’s Hajj: Preparation

Altaf Abbas and his wife Rashida are going on Hajj this year. They will be blogging about their experience over the next two weeks. For information about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam


Altaf Abbas
We are a married couple, Altaf and Rashida Abbas with three children. We live in Leyton, East London very near the Olympics. We were both born in East London and have been married for 22 years. Both our parents are from Pakistan and came to the UK in search of work in the late 1950s. I work as a Construction Project Manager on the new extension of the British Museum which is currently underway and my wife Rashida works in the local Muslim school. We are going to Hajj on 30 Oct 2011 inshallah (God willing).

We have been planning to go for a number of years but became serious and made the commitment last year after speaking to some friends who had made the journey and described how it was such an amazing feeling. It is also one of the five pillars of Islam, the other four are believing in one god, fasting in Ramadan, paying charity and establishing regular prayer (five times a day). We are travelling on a package deal which includes flights, transfers, hotel and a trained guide.

I thought it was going to be a complicated process, however it was very easy. We just paid our deposit, got our vaccinations and posted our passports to the travel agent to get the visa. Three weeks later we paid the balance and collected our documents, at which point it became a reality that we were on our way.

Altaf buying fabric

Altaf buying fabric

The preparation that I have done is mainly background reading and lots of discussion with family and friends about their personal Hajj experiences to gain any tips about what to expect and things that I will need. The only real item that I needed to buy was the ihram which is the two unstitched white sheets that the men have to wear which signifies the shroud that Muslims are buried in, thus during the 10 days of Hajj everyone is equal.


Rashida Abbas
I have been told that I will need a huge dose of patience! I have watched lots of Hajj videos on YouTube and I am still not sure what to expect, but I think I will be in awe when I see the Ka’ba (black cloth covered building). My preparation has been to train my mind to be strong and be prepared for any hardship or difficult situation due to the huge crowds. Physically I have been walking two miles each day for the last four weeks as we will be walking a lot and I want to be fit and ready for it.

I have so many mixed emotions running through my mind. I’m excited, happy, scared and anxious as I am not sure what to expect on the day. But I do know it will be a spiritually uplifting experience.

Filed under: Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, ,

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam


Venetia Porter, exhibition curator

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam will tell the story of a remarkable religious phenomenon – the annual pilgrimage to the sacred city of Makkah (Mecca), the birthplace of Islam. This is the British Museum’s third exhibition in a series exploring the idea of spiritual journeys – following the ancient Egyptians’ journey through the afterlife and the Christian pilgrimages undertaken throughout medieval Europe.

The Ka'ba. AP/PA

The Ka'ba. AP/PA

The exhibition will focus on three main stories: the journey, the Hajj itself, and what it means to have performed Hajj. There will be fascinating and beautiful objects – ranging from archaeological finds to modern art – from many different public and private collections.

All Muslims, wherever they live, are obliged to complete this pilgrimage (known as Hajj) if they are able, at least once in their lives. Hajj takes place every year, starting on the eighth day of the month of Dhu’l-Hijjah (the last month in the Muslim calendar) and involves a sequence of rituals that must be followed over a period of five days.

When we consider the journey of Hajj it is important to imagine a time before modern travel – and it immediately becomes clear why the Arabic word Hajj conveys a sense of striving toward a goal.

The exhibition will explore four key historical routes that lead to Mecca – from Baghdad, from across the Sahara and via Cairo, from Istanbul through Damascus, and from across the Indian Ocean arriving at Jedda, the port for Mecca and where pilgrims arrive today – many by plane.

For some, this journey could take months. For those coming from across the Indian Ocean and further east, it could take a year as ships before the age of steam could only travel when the monsoon winds blew in the right direction. Such journeys could be rough and terrifying. The Malaysian Munshi Abdallah wrote in 1854 ‘A rough wind blew as we tried to cross Cape Cormorin. Oh God, oh God, oh God! I can’t begin to describe how horrendous it was and how tremendous the waves were….all the goods, chests, sleeping mats and pillows were flung about…everyone was lost in their own thoughts, thinking nothing else but that death was close at hand.’

Many of the objects will be coming from similarly far-flung locations, but their journeys will be much less perilous. Major loans will be coming from collections across the Middle East, from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as from Mali, Indonesia and Europe. A significant number of objects are being lent by the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art (Khalili Family Trust).

Certain objects, however, will merely be making the short trip from neighbouring galleries in the Museum, or from the Museum’s store rooms. With a global collection, the British Museum is well-placed to cover a subject that links so many different areas of the world.

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012.
Find out more

In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, , ,

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#mummy #curse Our free exhibition #WitchesAndWickedBodies is a #Halloween delight, examining the portrayal of #witches and #witchcraft from the Renaissance to the 19th century. Explore the exhibition in Room 90, until 11 Jan 2015. Happy #Halloween! Today we're sharing all things spooky and scary! Check out some Halloween #Pinspiration at 
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