On our bookshelf: a selection on the Hajj


The Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, is one of the most extensive pilgrimages in the world, being one of the five pillars (= basic obligatiory acts) of Islam. The Qur’an has stipulated this voyage to be a sacred duty for Muslims all over the world. All Muslims who are physically and financially capable should complete the hajj once in their lifetime. The pilgrimage takes place during the last month of the Muslim calendar called Dhul Hijah. The Ka`aba (Cube) is a building located at the centre of the sacred complex in Mecca, and according to Muslim tradition it was built by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ismael. Mecca is where the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelations in the early seventh century CE. Ever since, the city of Mecca has been considered a spiritual centre and the heart of Islam. Regardless of class, origin, cultural affinity or ethnicity, Muslims are required, roughly sketched, to circumambulate the Ka`aba seven times, wearing two seamless pieces of white cloth, to walk seven times between the Safa and Marwah hills, drink from the Zamzam Well, and visit Mount Arafat. A further important step is throwing pebbles at the Jamarat (The Pillars), after which Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, is celebrated.


A Photographer on the Hajj: The Travels of Mohammad Ali Effendi Saudi (1904-1908)

Many books have been written about the Hajj. A special work is “A Photographer on the Hajj: The Travels of Mohammad Ali Effendi Saudi (1904-1908)”, by Farid Kioumgi and Robert Graham. Being an Egyptian photographer and civil servant with the Egyptian Ministry of Justice, Mohammad Ali Effendi Saudi undertook the Hajj twice, first in 1904 and a second time in 1907. At the time, Mecca and Medina were both under Ottoman rule, and the al-Saud clan was still battling with the al-Rashid clan for the power over the heart of the Arab Peninsula. Armed with his camera, Mohammad Ali Effendi Saudi kept a travel diary, following the great traveller Ibn Batouta’s example.

Farid Kioumgi and Robert Graham carefully selected excerpts from the diary, translated them, interspersed the text with the pictures he took, and put the whole in chronological order. The reader is presented with a detailed description of the various stages of the pilgrimage and the severe circumstances of the time, all with a touch of nostalgia. The focus is on the spiritual journey Mohammad Ali Effendi Saudi aspired for himself: he wanted to enter the Prophet’s Mosque and pray at his grave. He succeeded in surreptitiously taking pictures at a time when the tribes in the peninsula were questioning the intentions of foreign pilgrims in any case, and were prone to suspect anyone with a camera of spying for the British or the Ottoman overlords. Considering the mosque underwent immense change over time, this produced unique photos.

With its exceptional collection of pictures and testimonies, “A Photographer on the Hajj” uncovers the pilgrimage of centuries ago for the reader of today.

Kioumgi, F. & Graham, R., A, Photographer on the Hajj: The Travels of Mohammad Ali Effendi Saudi (1904-1908). The American University in Cairo Press. Cairo 2009. ISBN 9789774162909, 144 p., price € 29,99.

The Art of Hajj

Early 2012 the British Museum in London presented the exhibition “Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam”, which displayed a multitude of historical and contemporary objects to convey the deep spiritual meaning of the Hajj for Muslims. The exhibition was divided in three main themes, the first being the journey, with emphasis on the most important routes in different eras (from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East). The second part highlighted today’s Hajj, including the rituals and the experience of and their meaning for pilgrims. The last part concerned the final destination of the Hajj, Mecca, and deals with origins and importance.

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition, “The Art of Hajj”, was compiled by Venetia Porter, the assistant curator of the Islamic and contemporary Middle East Department. Each chapter starts with Quranic or medieval quote introducing the theme, which the author then goes on to illustrate with the most relevant objects from the exhibition such as maps, manuscripts and countless other objects. She leads the reader through the Hajj throughout the centuries with clear and concise texts, complemented with excellent photos. She also gives a voice to contemporary art, like “Magnetism” by Ahmed Mater, and photographic reports like Newska Tavakolian’s “Hajj” (2009). In this way Porter shows that Hajj is a living tradition, historical but not outdated.

More information: Hajj, journey to the heart of Islam.

Porter, V., The Art of Hajj. British Museum Press. Londen 2012. ISBN 9780714111797, 96 p., price € 17,99.

Text by Malikka Bouaissa and Tine Lavent

Article translated by Mark Eijkman


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