25 Jan 2012

A pilgrimage to the British Museum

The British Museum director – Britain’s foremost cultural ambassador – has nimbly walked through another political minefield to bring Islam’s holiest site to this revered corner of Bloomsbury in London.

This morning I cycled to the British Museum to visit the great dome of what used to be the reading room. Karl Marx, George Orwell and George Bernard Shaw were all regular reading room visitors, and so I couldn’t help wondering what they would have made of those famous bookshelves being boarded up to make way for an exhibition devoted to the Hajj or annual pilgrimage to Mecca in the Saudi Arabian desert.

The Saudi Ambassador was there, as the representative of King Abdullah, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and the Saudis are the museum’s official partners for this unexpectedly visual feast.

Saudi Arabia is a country with no elected parliament or political parties, where women can’t drive let alone vote, a kingdom resistant to the charms of democracy or the Arab Spring.

So Neil MacGregor, the Museum’s Director, has pulled off a remarkable coup. He has struck deals with the Chinese and the Iranians, and now Britain’s foremost cultural ambassador has nimbly walked through another political minefield to bring Islam’s holiest site to this revered corner of Bloomsbury.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, a pilgrimage all Muslims must make if they can. Some three million completed the journey last year, making the Hajj what this exhibition calls the “greatest peaceful gathering on earth”. Remarkably, a sense of this peace pervades the British Museum’s cultural “homage”, and the organisers make no secret of their desire to challenge Islamophobic ignorance and prejudice.

I can’t visit Mecca. As a non-Muslim, I am not allowed to, though I suppose I could follow in the footsteps of the Victorian explorer Richard Burton, who went on the Hajj disguised as an Afghan doctor in 1853. Muslims believe the Ka’aba or cube-shaped building at Mecca’s centre was first built by Adam and then rediscovered by Abraham (“the Upright”, as the Koran calls him) , but sadly this  Judaeo-Christian connection was not enough to allow the exhibition’s curator, Dr Venetia Porter, to visit either.

Still, Dr Porter struck me as a woman who had undergone some spiritual revelation of her own, as she sought to bring together objects which tell the centuries-old story of Islam’s central act of purification. And if dealing with the Saudi authorities was a nightmare for the British Museum, well of course she wasn’t saying. Forty individual lenders have provided artefacts, from Mali to Malaysia.

Loans from Saudi Arabia include a”sitara”, an elaborate cloth which covers the Ka’aba door. There is also an extraordinary Koran from the 8th Century, on loan from the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris and produced only about a hundred years after the first Koran was written. The Prophet Muhammad led the Hajj himself in 632, the year of his death.

Like many good exhibitions, you leave it with all sorts of trivia; Harry St John Philby, the father of Kim Philby, the Soviet spy, converted to Islam in 1930. Why the family predisposal for junking established systems of belief?

The Hijaz railway, built in 1900, reduced the time it took to travel from Ottoman Istanbul to Mecca to five days, when it had previously been one month. Until, of course, Lawrence of Arabia blew the railway up.

And the man who organised the Hajj for Indian pilgrims in the1880s was a certain Thomas Cook.

Dr Porter told me the Arab Spring had had no visible effect on visitor numbers to Mecca last year; so please don’t use the winter weather, or the London transport system, as any excuse for not making your own pilgrimage to the British museum.