Longing for Mecca in Leiden – The Pilgrim's Journey

In May 2013 it was 400 years ago that the first professor of Arabic at Leiden, Thomas Erpenius (1584–1624), gave his inaugural speech on the ‘Excellence and Dignity of the Arabic Language’. Arabic studies at Leiden are a deeply rooted tradition that enjoys worldwide fame with scholars such as Scaliger, Erpenius, Golius, De Goeje and Snouck Hurgronje. Behind the Leiden professors and the university there was a full fledged local infrastructure of Oriental printers such as Elzevier and Brill, booksellers and auctioneers. Many festivities are part of this 400 years of Arabic celebration. One of the interesting activities, already passed, was the city tourIn this tour people would walk the historical centre of Leiden and see the remains of this influence of Arab culture on Leiden and Leiden scholars; crescents on the facade of the Leiden city hall, a mosque in the Rembrandtstraat, the gilded Turk in the facade of V & D, the University with ancient manuscripts in Arabic, Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje’s house and much more.

This autumn, a unique exhibition about the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, opens at the National Museum of Ethnology. The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art (see also MIddle East Online) is  to be lending some 80 works to the first major exhibition in the Netherlands devoted to the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Also the British Libraryand the King Abdulaziz Library in Riyadh contribute. In this exhibition, Longing for Mecca – The Pilgrim’s Journey‘ Magnificent objects, personal stories and in-depth reports will present a comprehensive picture of this impressive pilgrimage, in which millions of people from all over the world take part each year. The exhibition is a collaboration with the British Museum in London (Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam). This will be the first ever exhibition of this magnitude about the Hajj to be held in the Netherlands. The exhibition will also appear at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and the Arab World Institute (AWI) in Paris.

For one-quarter of the world’s population, Mecca is the place that you must have visited once in your life. All over the world Muslims face the holy city at prayer. The pilgrimage is undertaken by millions of believers every year. The city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is only accessible to Muslims. Others know it only from photographs of crowds of pilgrims circling the sacred Ka’ba. Such is the importance of this pilgrimage that in many languages, the word ‘Mecca’ has become synonymous for paradise (in phrases such as ‘Amsterdam is a Mecca for devotees of architecture’). An article in Asharq Al-Awsat tells us the following

While the British Museum’s exhibition traced the ancient Hajj routes through Africa (and particularly Timbuktu, Mali), the exhibitions in Doha, Paris and Leiden will tackle different aspects of the Muslim holy journey of Hajj. Porter said the Hajj: The Journey through Art in Doha will focus on Qatari art collections; therefore, they will not need the items exhibited in the British Museum.

“As for the Leiden exhibition [Longing for Mecca: The pilgrim’s journey], it will be very interesting. The exhibition will differ in terms of the stories told by Muslims there. The museum in Leiden borrowed the same items we exhibited here; however, they developed their own storyline.”

The Paris exhibition will tackle a different aspect of Hajj. Due to France’s geographical proximity to North Africa and the proportion of North African immigrants in the country, the exhibition is set to trace the historical and cultural ties between the two cultures.

What distinguished the British Museum’s exhibition is its contemporary aspect by showcasing contemporary works of art about Hajj, an aspect which will be covered in the forthcoming exhibitions, Porter added.

Next year, the AWI will hold an exhibition on the past and future of Hajj. Items on display will be borrowed from several French museums and Saudi institutions.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Muna Khazindar, the AWI’s president said: “We are trying to persuade some owners in Saudi Arabia to lend us some of the rare items related to the journey of Hajj.”

Khazindar stressed that both the number and the identity of the items that will be exhibited are not yet known; however, the AWI will borrow items from “King Saud University, Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) and several other French museums.”

When we asked her whether the AWI is coordinating with the other two sides that will host the Hajj exhibition, Khazindar revealed that each side “works alone and prepares for the exhibition in their own way.”

Khazindar confirmed that there will be contemporary items in the AWI version of the exhibition.

“We have not determined what works to exhibit; however, the Saudi artists who dealt with Hajj are well-known, such as Ahmed Mater and Shadia Alem.”

On October 9, 2013 the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha will hold Hajj: The Journey through Art, tackling the artistic aspect of the Muslim holy journey of Hajj. Despite being based on the British Museum’s exhibition, 90 percent of the Doha items will come from Qatari art collections.

The exhibition will examine the holy journey from a unique perspective by focusing on three main issues: the routes taken by pilgrims, Hajj rituals from an artistic perspective, and the experience of pilgrims during the Hajj and on their way back from Mecca.

Dr. Munia Shikhab Abu Daya, the keeper of manuscripts at Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, will be in charge of the exhibition and have stressed that some of the items on display have never been exhibited before.

The National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, Netherlands, will hold Longing for Mecca: The pilgrim’s journey from September 10. It will present different pictures of the ancient Hajj routes through eastern Asia.

Laut Mollz, the coordinator of the exhibition, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the exhibition “aims at communicating with Muslims here.”

“In collaboration with the British Museum, we will be able to exhibit some of the items that were on display in London. However, we will concentrate on the items from the Netherlands. For example, the Amsterdam University Library owns a very valuable collection, as does the Troben Museum,” Mollz explained.

Among its items, Longing for Mecca: The pilgrim’s journey will include photos dating back to the 19th.

Besides this, the exhibition will allocate an entire section narrating anecdotes told by pilgrims of Moroccan, Turkish, Somali, Iranian and Iraqi origins. The exhibition will also highlight the Hajj routes from Indonesia, given its importance as a former Dutch settlement.

Mecca occupies a more prominent place in Dutch culture and history than many, perhaps, are aware. Hundreds of thousands of residents of this kingdom have made the pilgrimage in the past; from Indonesia, Suriname, and the Netherlands. Mecca, and the pilgrimage, are therefore bound up with Dutch history and culture. For hundreds of years, the Hajj has inspired artists and rulers to make, or commission, magnificent objects. Together with the British Museum, the National Museum of Ethnology has gathered over 250 unique items from some of the best Islamic collections in the world. They are enormously diverse, ranging in time from the tenth century to the present day, with origins from Indonesia to Morocco.

What is 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? On the basis of individual stories, this exhibition will provide a unique, personal insight into one of the greatest spiritual, cultural and religious phenomena in the world.

Go and visit!

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