The Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde exhibits the hajj

Weg naar Mekka © Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde Leiden

‘Road to Mecca’ Abd al-Nasser Gharem © Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde Leiden

Mecca has a profound meaning for Muslims. A paramount feature of the Muslim world is its religious interconnection, which links both people and places to the past and present. The Dutch city of Leiden deserves special attention in this regard the upcoming months: various activities and two major exhibitions celebrate the local university’s historical interest in Islam and Arabic studies. zooms in on the grand exhibition ‘Longing for Mecca’ at the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde.

Leiden University is renowned for its historical scholarly tradition in the field of Islam and Arabic studies, which spans over 400 years. Dutch diplomacy required sufficient knowledge of its Dutch Muslim subjects: once, the kingdom of the Netherlands comprised of present-day Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world.

Mecca in Leiden

The exhibition ´Longing for Mecca – The pilgrim’s journey´ at the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, also known as the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, is the first acclaimed Dutch exhibition looking into the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage. When one enters the exhibition, his attention is immediately drawn to a cube-like construction of white curtains with relevant Arabic Quranic verses beautifully projected in blue, shrouding a precious and finely crafted ‘magic’ tunic. The curtain construction is flanked on the outside by a gigantic picture displaying the frantic building activity at Mecca, captured by the Saudi ‘Magnetism’ artist Ahmed Mater.

Like the halls to come, this first hall offers various storyboards with all kinds of information related to Mecca and the hajj. But here, various screens present the personal stories of Dutch Muslim pilgrims in sound and vision, since collected requisites and pilgrimage souvenirs related to the latter’s stories play a prominent role in the exhibition. The adjacent circular hall creatively highlights interesting facts and figures pertaining to the 2012 hajj, of which some are quite informative. I learned for instance that Dutch Muslim pilgrims spent between 3500 and 4800 euros on a hajj package deal.

The exhibition is not merely a Dutch affair though. Its make-up is largely based on the popular London exhibition ‘Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam’ of 2012, about which wrote in a previous article. Various stunning historical artefacts and priceless pieces on loan from private contemporary art collections featured during that exhibition also appear in the temporary exhibition at the Rijksmuseum. An example is the late 19th century mahmal, a symbolic central feature of the annual hajj caravans from the 13th century onward.

Hajj in Mecca © Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde Leiden

Hajj in Mecca © Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde Leiden

Hajj: unity in diversity

If one thing becomes clear at the Leiden exhibition, it is ‘unity in diversity’. Regardless of the myriad socio-cultural differences among the pilgrims visiting Mecca, Muslims worldwide share this final requirement of the five pillars of Islam. Adult Muslims are expected to perform the hajj at least once in their lifetime, provided that they have the means and health to do so without burdening their families staying behind. The inner motivations underlying one’s pilgrimage may differ: ranging from the transition from one religious and spiritual state to another, to obtain social status, to cast off one’s sins, to ward off evil, or even to alleviate the future afterlife of another Muslim who cannot perform the hajj due to illness or lack of means – a noble effort.

Pilgrims returning from the hajj are held in high esteem by the people back home: having fulfilled their religious duty, they are expected to have grown wiser and more responsible. Moreover, they are believed to be carriers of the baraka (divine blessing) of the sacred places they visited. This baraka is also thought to be imbued in the variety of souvenirs and other products pilgrims bring back home from Mecca, such as bottles of water from the Zem Zem well, prayer beads, dates, or shawls. Visitors of ‘Longing for Mecca’ will be pleasantly surprised to find a variety of related products on offer in the museum shop during the exhibition.

Old earthenware jar for water from the Zem Zem well © Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde Leiden

Join the caravan!

Like today, the hajj facilitated Muslims to meet foreign fellow Muslims on their journey in the past, too. In the pre-modern era, pilgrims and other travellers usually joined various pilgrimage caravans by foot, donkey, horse or camel. These caravans brought together pilgrims primarily for the hajj, but also for the umra (the non-obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca outside the prescribed period), or for ziyarat (the visiting of shrines of famous Sufi saints and Muslim scholars in various places). This gathering and mingling of Muslims from various origins and with various purposes allowed the individual Muslim to develop a sense of self-awareness about one’s own specific background and culture. But it also enabled one to relate to and integrate in the wider umma, and to establish cross-cultural networks at a time when internet-based social media were not even dreamed of. But how did they manage their travel? Well, they wrote about it. And read the accounts of others.

From camel husbandry to travel account

Since most journeys were usually lengthy, risky adventures, many travellers started to write down their experiences during or after their travels to preserve their experiences and insights. They listed interesting landmarks, resting places, wells and suppliers of food they encountered on the way for the benefit of travellers to come. Some authors included fascinating insights in the financial aspects of the journey: to be able to afford the trip, some aspiring pilgrims sold their slaves, merchandise, or other possessions to obtain the means necessary for food supplies, animals for transportation and accommodation along the way. Others shared the secrets of their best business deals, or alluded to possibilities for successful trade along the way. Even in Mecca itself, pilgrims and traders alike engaged in commercial activities.

Qiblah compass, 1582 © Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde Leiden

Qiblah compass, 1582 © Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde Leiden

Accounts and guides like these were named after their scope, being written during or after one’s rihla (travel). The word rihla is derived from rahala, which has its origin in camel husbandry. A rahhal was one who could saddle a camel well, or take it along as a means for travel. Being called a rahhala indicated that a person travelled around quite a lot. Thus, the rihla hijaziyya relates to a specific genre of hajj accounts; the rihla sifariyya to more general travel accounts. Due to my interest in both of these kinds of accounts and miniature painting, I was thrilled to see a selection of the marvelously delicate miniature paintings of the 17th century Indian manuscript Anis al-Hujjaj (‘The pilgrim’s companion’).

@21st century #hajjis

It is fascinating to witness the international reach and lasting appeal of historical practices related to the Muslim pilgrimage, carried out by all kinds of people worldwide from present date back to thirteen centuries ago. The hajj, to take place in the second week of the Muslim month Dhu al-hijja, has been undertaken continuously from approximately the year 632 up to the present day. This continuity is also marked by the uniformity of the various rituals Muslim pilgrims performed throughout the ages; rituals that have hardly changed as a consequence of the strict instruction in the medieval genre of the rihla hijaziyya, contemporary hajj manuals, local guides and modern apps. This accounts for the uniform conduct of Muslim pilgrims who still meticulously follow the religious actions performed by the Prophet himself on his so-called ‘farewell pilgrimage’ in 632. An inspiring thought.

Are you considering undertaking the hajj yourself? Start in Leiden! ‘Longing for Mecca – The pilgrim’s journey’ – from 10 September 2013 till 9 March 2014, Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Steenstraat 1, 2312 BS Leiden, the Netherlands. The museum is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm, except for Mondays (closed).


This post is also available in: Dutch