Hajj and The Arts of Pilgrimage (700-2000)

“Hajj is a great gathering of human beings. Dressed in their white ritual garments, the pilgrims stand shoulder to shoulder, toe to toe, equal before God, regardless of sect, race, gender, wealth or rank: this is Islam at its most harmonious and pure.”

Professor Sir Nasser D. Khalili

Two traditions determine the make-up of most private collections today. One is that of the connoisseur, who gathers together a few select items on the basis of their aesthetic merit. The other is the comprehensive approach, where the emphasis of the collector is on assembling complete series of objects. The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Hajj and The Arts of pilgrimage is remarkable in that it combines both these traditions within an overall scheme.

This collection contains approximately 5000 objects including more then 300 textiles and many other related objects associated with Mecca and Medina. Combined, the collection is the largest of its type outside the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. The various textiles woven and embroidered for the Meccan sanctuary are all represented: the external and internal kiswahs of the Ka‘bah, its belt and the curtains for its external and internal doors; the bag for its key; the curtain for the minbar of the Masjid al-Haram; and the kiswah of the Maqam Ibrahim, of which there are three complete examples. The most elaborate of these textiles are the curtains for the external door of the Ka‘bah (the burqu‘), and there are no less than 25 of these, ranging in date from the early 17th to the early 20th century. The latest of the Meccan textiles in the Collection is a curtain for the minbar of the mosque, made in Cairo in AH 1365 (AD 1946) in the name of King Faruq of Egypt; it is a particularly fine example of a type known only from a few surviving specimens. Curtains were also made for the Prophet’s tomb and for the minbar and the various doors and mihrabs in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, and these too are extremely well represented, alongside several belt sections and one complete belt from the Prophet’s tomb. There are also seven kiswahs or covers of the Egyptian and Syrian mahmal, the empty palanquin representing the Ottoman sultan, which was carried on a camel and accompanied the pilgrim caravans on their route from Cairo and Damascus.

The role of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina as seminal centres of learning is illustrated by leaves from the very earliest copies of the Holy Qur’an and by manuscripts from later periods. There are also numerous representations of the Masjid al-Haram and the Prophet’s mosque by Muslim artists as well as by Europeans. Many of these were made for rulers and wealthy patrons, and pride of place among these goes to the magnificent and exquisitely detailed panoramic view of Mecca, painted around 1845 by Muhammad ‘Abdallah, ‘the Delhi cartographer’. However, printed versions of such views – on pilgrimage certificates (ijazat al-hajj), posters and postcards – became increasingly popular from the late 19th century onwards. The Collection includes an impressive number of these, printed in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, India, Pakistan and the Hijaz, as well as a remarkable group of reverse-paintings on glass with views of the two holy sanctuaries, the stations of pilgrimage and other sites of religious significance, such as Jerusalem, which many pilgrims visited on their journey.

Another part of the Collection revolves around the rites and rituals of pilgrimage, its administration, the upkeep of the two holy sanctuaries, the organisation of the pilgrim caravans and the procession of the mahmal. It includes illustrations of various aspects of the hajj in Islamic manuscripts – such as the Anis al-Hujjaj of Safi bin Vali – and European books and journals, as well as examples of the work of some of the earliest photographers of the hajj. Very few coins were struck in Mecca and the Hijaz, and the Collection includes a fine example of a very rare dinar struck in ‘the mine of the Commander of the Faithful in the Hijaz’ in 105 AH (723–4 AD) alongside other coins ranging in date from the Abbasid period to modern times.

Archival material forms yet another significant part of the Collection. A number of daily ledgers from Dar al-Kiswah, the workshop in Cairo where the majority of the textiles presented to Mecca and Medina were woven and embroidered, and photographs of the workers and their work provide valuable information on the production of these textiles. There is also archival material and photographs relating the construction of the Hijaz railway as well as to Ibrahim Rif‘at Pasha and Muhammad ‘Ali Sa‘udi, respectively the amir al-hajj and amin al-surrah of the Egyptian pilgrim caravan on more than one occasion in the early 20th century, both of whom were keen photographers. The whole is supplemented by an ever-growing library, with a number of important travellers’ accounts and other rare printed books and journals and major reference works on the subject.

The objects have been fully conserved, and the thorough conservation work carried out on the textiles in particular has provided some important information on the methods of their manufacture. The Collection is currently being researched in preparation for publication in several volumes. Although most of the objects have not been published, a select few have been shown in exhibitions at The Nieuwe Kirk, Amsterdam; The State Hermitage, St Petersburg; The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; The Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi; L’Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and various other museums across the USA. Most recently, in 2011–12, some 55 items were included in the exhibition Hajj. Journey to the Heart of Islam at the British Museum, London (26 Jan-15 Apr 2012). In 2013–14, more than 80 were included in the exhibition Longing for Mecca. The Journey of the Pilgrim at the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Leiden (10 Sept 2013-9 Mar 2014); and some 40 in Hajj, le pèlerinage à La Mecque at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris (23 Apl-10 Aug 2014).

Curatorial Staff

Nahla Nassar

Qaisra Khan


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After decades of collecting, conserving and researching the entire collection is to be published in eleven volumes in early 2023.

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