First Published: 2013-08-20


Netherlands hosts first major exhibition devoted to Mecca pilgrimage


Khalili Collection is rich in textile art and is one of few private collections to own significant number of pilgrimage-related textiles.


Middle East Online

LONDON - The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art is delighted to be lending some 80 works to the first major exhibition in the Netherlands devoted to the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca which is central to the Muslim faith. Longing for Mecca the pilgrims journey will be on view from 10 September 2013 to 9 March 2014 at the Museum Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology) in Leiden, in collaboration with the British Museum in London. For hundreds of years, the Hajj has inspired rulers and artists to commission or make magnificent objects and over 250 items, ranging in date from the 10th century to the present day with origins from Indonesia to Morocco, have been gathered together for this exhibition.

Mecca, in present-day Saudi Arabia, was the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and it was there, in the early 7th century AD, that he received the first revelations of the Quran. One of the Five Pillars of Islam requires every Muslim to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. At the heart of the sanctuary at Mecca lies the Kabah, 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. Mecca occupies a more prominent place in Dutch culture and history than in some Western countries as hundreds of thousands of residents of the Netherlands and citizens from the former Dutch colonies of Indonesia and Suriname have made the pilgrimage in the past.

The custom of covering the Kabah 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 Kabah 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 Kabah, 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 and the exhibition will include a group of interesting 19th- and 20th-century photographs related to the making and parading of the pilgrimage textiles in Cairo, some of which come from an important archive of documents and photographs relating to the Dar al-Kiswah, the Cairo-based workshop responsible for the production of the kiswah.

The Khalili Collection is rich in textile art and it is one of the few private collections to own a significant number of pilgrimage-related textiles. After the Topkapi Sarayi in Istanbul, it has the largest group of textiles and objects relating to Mecca and Medina in the world. Made of silk or silk lampas, such textiles are usually richly embroidered in silver and silver-gilt wire, often with verses from the Quran. One of the earliest examples to be exhibited is an embroidered black silk curtain (sitarah or burqu) for the external door of the Kabah, with the name of the Ottoman sultan Ahmad I; it was made in Cairo in AH 1015 (1606 AD).

Particularly elaborate is an embroidered red silk sitr (cover) for the mahmal, an empty palanquin 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 Abdlaziz and presented by Ismail Pasha, the khedive of Egypt, and dates from 1867-76. Also on show will be a bag for the key of the Kabah made from embroidered olive-green silk with red silk appliqus, dated AH 1327 (1909-10 AD), which was commissioned by Sultan Mehmed V and presented by Abbas Hilmi Pasha, the khedive of Egypt. A silk sitarah (curtain) for the minbar (pulpit) of the Meccan Sanctuary, commissioned by King Faruq of Egypt and made in Cairo in AH 1365 (1946 AD), is a rare survival of its type even though of relatively recent date. It too is of silk and is embroidered with silver and silver-gilt wire.

A particularly important item on loan from the Khalili Collection is the earliest known panoramic view of Mecca, dating from circa 1845, which is remarkable for its accuracy. Executed in watercolour by Muhammad Abdullah, the Delhi cartographer, who had been 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 birds eye view of about 60 degrees. An historic visitor was Alexander the Great who is depicted at the Kabah in a page from an Iranian copy of Firdawsis epic poem, the Shahnamah or Book of Kings, painted in Shiraz in the 16th century. Alexanders journey to the Kabah was the first of his world journeys when he declared himself master of Arabia and destroyed those who had distorted its religious tradition. Among other outstanding manuscripts from the Khalili Collection is an exceptional, extensively illuminated Moroccan copy of the Dalail al-khayrat of al-Jazuli, including several pages with the names of Allah and Muhammad written in a large, decorative script, two diagrammatic views of the Prophets mosque and tomb chamber, and a two-page illustration of the Prophets sandal, copied by Muhammad bin Abd al-Qadir al-Rabati in AH 1254 (1838 AD).

Two 19th-century ink and watercolour views of the Holy Sanctuary at Mecca come from India and China. The Indian example is signed Riza while the Chinese example, in scroll form, is inscribed painted by Ma Chao. Other views appear on Hajj certificates issued to attest that pilgrims had completed the prescribed rites. Among those in the exhibition will be an early 20th-century printed example from Turkey or Egypt with views of the Kabah and the Rawdah, the Prophets tomb at Medina. There is also a late 19th- or early 20th-century printing block with similar views of Mecca and Medina. It is perhaps less usual to find depictions of the holy sanctuaries at Mecca and Medina on a shirt as is the case with a cotton talismanic shirt inscribed with extracts from the Quran and prayers as well as schematic representations of the two Holy Sanctuaries, made in Mughal India or the Deccan in the 16th or early 17th century.

Other aspects of the pilgrimage can be found in a number of intriguing objects including one of the earliest pieces from the Khalili Collection to be exhibited: an extraordinary ivory statuette of a camel and rider carved in the 8th or 9th century in Mesopotamia or the Levant which has never been on public view before. Scientific instruments such as a 9th-century North African cast brass planispheric astrolabe were used to determine the times and direction of prayer (Qiblah) while others, like the 19th-century Qiblah compass with its leather carrying case from Iran, helped the pilgrims on their way.

Loans from the Khalili Collection also include an extremely rare silver dirham from Yemen, one of only two known examples. It was minted in Mina by al-Mansur Umar ibn Ali, the newly-independent Rasulid ruler of Yemen, possibly to be given to pilgrims in AH 636 (1238-9 AD) when he performed his hajj. A gold medallion with representations of the two Holy Sanctuaries, struck around 1845, is a unique piece whilst a group of rare coins struck in Mecca itself include two very early gold dinars in the names of the Abbasid caliphs, al-Mustain bil-llah, and al-Muktafi bi-llah, dated AH 248 (862 AD) and AH 292 (904-5 AD) respectively.

Such is the importance of the pilgrimage to Mecca, which is only accessible to Muslims, that every year it is visited by some 15 million believers from all over the world including several million during the Hajj itself. What is it that attracts the pilgrims? What desire or longing drives them to go? What rituals do they perform? What trials and tribulations do they encounter, what manner of purification do they undergo? What are their unforgettable impressions and experiences, on their journey, in Mecca itself and after their return? Through wonderful objects and individual stories, Longing for Mecca the pilgrims journey will present a comprehensive picture of this pilgrimage and offer exceptional insight into one of the greatest spiritual, cultural and religious phenomena in the world.

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. Longing for Mecca the pilgrims journey provides the ideal opportunity to further such understanding.


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