Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Hajj Exhibition at the British Museum

The Hajj Exhibition at the British Museum was of relevance to me because of my interest in Islam. As an aspect of Islam the hajj is of particular fascination because it's something I'm unlikely to ever experience. To be allowed to enter the area of Mecca I'd have to be a Muslim. As a female I'd have to be in the company of my husband or close male relative who would also need to be Muslim. Now that I'm over forty I could get around the unacompanied female clause by going as part of an all female group, but there's no way around the non-Muslim bit unless I was to convert. As I'm not religious and don't hold any particular belief in God that would be rather hypocritical of me.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. All able-bodied Muslims must make this pilgrimage once in their lifetime as long as they can afford it. And of course it is something they should try to afford. As pilgrimages go this must be one of the, if not the, most ritualistic. Over the course of five or six days the various steps are followed by several million pilgrims, aided by around 12,000 guides. Bear in mind the setting is the red-hot Saudi Arabian desert, and one of the steps involves standing out on the plain of Arafat for the whole day, and you can begin to see that this is no holiday but a real test of mind and body.

This site is the official Saudi Arabian site for the hajj and gives lots of details.

But, back to the exhibition. I'd bought my ticket well in advance and so could go straight in. One of the first things I saw was a piece of a kisweh. The kisweh is the gigantic cloth, usually black and decorated with a band of Arabic inscriptions embroidered in gold thread, that covers Islam's most holy place, the Ka'aba. It is to the Ka'aba that Muslims all over the world turn when they pray. A new cloth is produced each year. The piece in the exhibition was huge and it was wonderful to get so close to it. I can't imagine the majority of pilgrims themselves getting that close. Although all pilgrims must circumambulate the Ka'aba seven times, sheer numbers must surely mean the majority are circumambulating at some distance. 

Once inside the exhibition proper, the displays wound around the hall imitating the journey of the hajj itself. The first section showed what it's like to prepare for hajj and had stories told by people departing from different countries. The next sections followed the days of hajj culminating in the pilgrims' arrival back at home. Each section had a range of exhibits, which I found quite interesting to see, and various short films, audio speels and photographs to complement them. There was plenty of information provided in each section so a visitor not so familiar with the procedures and meanings of hajj should learn plenty and have no trouble understanding what they are looking at. I found this slightly less interesting as it was a little too basic for me. Any visitors who have studied Islam should go to the exhibition with the intention of seeing artefacts they would not normally get the chance to see, rather than to learn something new.

Would I recommend this exhibition? Yes. Is this one of the best exhibitions I've been to at the British Museum? No. 

Here are some statistics about last year's hajj that I've copied from the Telegraph website.

Key numbers for the hajj this year:
– An estimated 2.5 million pilgrims are gathering in Mecca this year – 1.8 million from abroad and 700,000-800,000 from inside Saudi Arabia.
– Every Muslim country has a hajj quota of 1,000 pilgrims per million inhabitants and the biggest contingent – 200,000 pilgrims – will come from Indonesia.
– Saudi Arabia is deploying some 63,000 security forces, including 3,500 anti-riot policemen backed by 450 armoured vehicles, while the civil defence is deploying 22,000 forces and 6,000 vehicles.
– Some 1,500 CCTV cameras have been installed in and around Mecca's Grand Mosque and 29 police stations will be open to serve the holy places.

– Some 20,000 health workers have been mobilised to cope with any emergency and five rescue helicopters also have been readied to serve the faithful.

– More than 12,000 male and female guides known as "mutawif" help organise the pilgrims' stay.

– The Grand Mosque at the centre of Mecca, where pilgrims gather to pray and circle the cubic Kaaba building, covers 368,000 square meters and can hold more than 1.5 million people.

– The Kaaba rests on a marble base and is built from granite, and has a door made from 280 kilos (616 pounds) of pure gold. The black silk kiswa covering, made anew every year, is embroidered with holy phrases using 150 kilos (330 pounds) of gold and silver thread. 

Whilst I was googling I came across this site - I've only had a quick look at it but it's definitely one I'll come back to. 

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