A Visual History of the Hajj

1400 Years of Islamic Pilgrimage from The Khalili Collections

The Masjid al-Haram (1966)The Khalili Collections

Hajj is the annual pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mecca, the holiest city in Islam and the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. Every year Muslims from around the world arrive in Saudi Arabia and perform a series of elaborate rites which take place during five days of Dh'l-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, Hajj begins with a visit to the Ka'bah and culminates on the Pain of Arafat a short distance away. Pilgrimage to Mecca is one of five Pillars of Islam and Muslims wherever they are must perform it at least once in their lifetimes, if they are able. 

Painting Entitled 'al-Rihlah al-Hijaziyyah/ Sacred Pilgrimage Journey'The Khalili Collections

Since the advent of Islam, Hajj has been one of the most remarkable religious gatherings in the world; although until recent times, one that has been largely unknown to the Western world. Non-Muslims have always been strictly forbidden entry to Mecca, so there has historically been little understanding of the deeper meaning of Hajj, its rituals and their spiritual and visual significance. Through Khalili Hajj Collection - the world's most comprehensive collection of its kind -  this exhibit tells a compelling visual story of the Hajj using some of the greatest artwork produced in the history of Islam. 

Hajj & the Arts of Pilgrimage | The Khalili CollectionsThe Khalili Collections

‘Alexander the Great Visits the Ka‘bah’, Folio from a Copy of Firdawsi’s Shahnamah (mid-16th century)The Khalili Collections

"Alexander the Great visits the Ka'bah". A folio from a copy of Firdowsi's Shahnamah. Under the influence of translations into Arabic of the highly-fictionalised Greek Alexander romance, he was identified with the Qur’anic prophet Dhu’l-Qarnayn (‘he of the two horns’), with a universal mission to impose the monotheistic religion of Abraham. His journey to the Ka‘bah was the first of his world journeys, when he declared himself master of Arabia and destroyed those who had distorted its religious tradition.

Alexander is shown kneeling in prayer in front of the Ka‘bah, having removed his crown.

The Ka‘bah is draped in its black kiswah, with a gold-embroidered curtain and belt, its hem lifted to reveal the white lining – just as it is today during the Hajj.

Single Folio from a Qur'an Single Folio from a Qur'an (early 8th century AD)The Khalili Collections

What Abraham started, many centuries later Prophet Muhammad affirms and Muslims have been performing what we know as Hajj since 732 – the year of Prophet Muhammad’s death and his first and last officiating of Hajj rituals in what is called the Farewell Pilgrimage. This is a single Folio from a Qur’an, written probably in the Hijaz just decades after the death of the Prophet. The ink on vellum folio contains text from surah Hud (14-35), revealed in Mecca.

Statuette of a Camel (8th-9th century 隷)The Khalili Collections

The Journey

Before the 19th century and the modern age of travel, the pilgrims’ journey would have been long and perilous. Pilgrims from the Arab world would have joined great caravans, ‘cities on the move’ as Richard Burton described them, which set out from the main cities across the Islamic world and included pilgrims from much further afield. Three caravans are particularly well known: from Egypt, from Damascus and from Baghdad.

Hajj & the Arts of Pilgrimage | The Khalili CollectionsThe Khalili Collections

Statuette of a Camel and Rider, 8th-9th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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The caravan from Cairo which crossed the Sinai Peninsula ignited the imagination of so many European observers: “Seven thousand souls on foot, on horseback, in litters, or bestriding the splendid camels of Syria”, Burton observed.

Toy Theatre in Original Box, early 19th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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A toy theatre depicting a Hajj caravan during a halt.

An Imperial Pilgrim's Water Flask, 19th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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The flask (matara) was most probably used to collect water from Zamzam – the well inside the Meccan sanctuary – to take back to Sultan 'Abdulhamid II (reg. 1876–1909) in Istanbul.

Bell from the Pilgrim Ship Clytoneus II Bell from the Pilgrim Ship Clytoneus II, late 1940s, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Silver Pocket Watch with Chain and Key, early 20th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Safi ibn Vali's Anis al-Hujjaj ('Pilgrims' Companion')The Khalili Collections

Qiblah Compass, 18th - early 19th隷 century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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From early on Muslims were using sophisticated instruments to determine locations and directions for this journey. We know that pilgrim caravans travelling on foot would be accompanied by a Miqati who was responsible for announcing the hour when prayer was due en route. He had to indicate the correct orientation of Mecca also, so that the ritual prayer was conducted properly.

Prayer Carpet, dated 1332 AH (1913-14 AD), From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Photograph of the Procession of the Mahmal (1930s)The Khalili Collections

The Procession of the Mahmal

The Mahmal was the ceremonial palanquin carried on a camel who was the centrepiece of the pilgrim caravan. It was the symbol of authority of the sultan of the holy places. The first sultan to be associated with the sending of the Mahmal was Baybars (1260-77). Following the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517, the Ottomans too sent the Mahmal from Damascus and on occasion so did the Yemenis. 

A Complete Cover for a Damascus Mahmal, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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The origin is unclear: it may go back to the ancient Arab tradition of having a litter with a high-ranking lady accompanying military campaigns for encouragement. The Prophet's wife Aisha is said to have had such a role.

Hajj & the Arts of Pilgrimage | The Khalili CollectionsThe Khalili Collections

Mahmal, 1867-76, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Hajj: The MahmalThe Khalili Collections

Venetia Porter is Curator of Islamic Art at the British Museum. Here, she spotlights the Mahmal during the 2012 blockbuster exhibition "Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam".

The Return of the Mahmal from Mecca to Cairo (1893)The Khalili Collections

A landmark minaret from the Al Azhar Mosque can be seen in the background.

The Mahmal would leave the city with great pomp and celebration; well-wishers would touch it to obtain blessings, whilst others would revel in the sight itself.

Longing for Mecca at the Tropenmuseum in AmsterdamThe Khalili Collections

The Mahmal has been exhibited at landmark Hajj exhibitions worldwide, including at the British Museum, the Institut du Monde Arabe, and most recently the Tropenmuseum.

The Blessing of the Mahmal, 11 November 1882, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Tray, with the Procession of the Mahmal, late 19th - early 20th century 隷, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Photograph of the Procession of the Mahmal, early 20th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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The mahmal did not remain in Mecca but was brought back to Cairo by the returning caravan.

Mahmal, 1876-1909, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Photograph of the Mahmal, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Italian MahmalThe Khalili Collections

An impressionistic depiction of the procession of the Mahmal by Italian artist Gio Colucci (early 20th century).

Panoramic View of Mecca (circa 1845)The Khalili Collections

Mecca

Arriving in Mecca, the sanctuary that God had commanded it to be through Abraham, must have been a shocking sight for early pilgrims, many of whom would never have seen depictions of the Ka'bah before. From written records we know that virtually all travellers who visited Mecca were deeply inspired by this place, and the city itself was depicted by various artists in different mediums. 

Talismanic Shirt with Depictions of the Two Holy Sanctuaries Talismanic Shirt with Depictions of the Two Holy Sanctuaries (16th or early 17th century)The Khalili Collections

Single-Volume Qur'an with Depictions of the Two Holy Sanctuaries Single-Volume Qur'an with Depictions of the Two Holy Sanctuaries (dated Shawwal 1211 (April 1797))The Khalili Collections

A painted view of Mecca.

A painted view of Medina.

Qiblah Compass, with a View of the Holy Sanctuary at Mecca Qiblah Compass, with a View of the Holy Sanctuary at Mecca, possibly late 18th or 19th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Panoramic View of Mecca (circa 1845)The Khalili Collections

The view of Mecca is remarkable for its comprehensiveness and accuracy and, in the manner of contemporary topographers, brilliantly combines a plan of the city with a bird’s-eye view from about 60 degrees. It is the earliest known accurate eyewitness record of the city.

Structures that no longer exist in the vicinity of the Haram are depicted here in detail.

The mountains surrounding Mecca ('the barren valley') can be seen in the distance. Among them include Jabal-Nour, which houses the Cave of Hira, where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have received the first revelation.

Mecca is depicted as a relatively green city, with trees, shrubs and grass.

Muhammad ‘Abdallah, whose grandfather, Mazar ‘Ali Khan was court painter to the Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah II, was commissioned by the Sharif of Mecca to depict the sacred monuments of his realm in the second quarter of the 19th century.

A Panorama of the Meccan Sanctuary and its Environs (dated 1297 AH (1880 AD))The Khalili Collections

The advent of photography in the mid-19th century is of great importance to the history of the Hajj; for the first time the pilgrimage and the holy cities could be precisely and realistically documented.

Tile with a Diagrammatic View of the Holy Sanctuary at Mecca, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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A Unique Medallion with Views of Mecca and Medina A Unique Medallion with Views of Mecca and Medina, struck around 1845, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Photographic View of Mecca, 1885, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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A Painting of the Holy Sanctuary at Mecca, 19th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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The Masjid al-Haram, 1966, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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The Ka'bah (dated 1297 AH (1880 AD))The Khalili Collections

The Ka'bah

The structure of the Ka'bah is simple and at approximately eight meters square it is humble in size. is compares strangely to the architectural resplendence of other religious buildings; however, it is this very humility which calls into account the centuries of praise for its unparalleled dignity. For of course, the Ka'bah is not a temple like any other; it is the alignment of both the physicality and spirituality of Islam.

Earth from the Ka'bah (Ghubar-i Sherif) Earth from the Ka'bah (Ghubar-i Sherif), 19th century 隷, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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This relic contains dust swept from the floor of the Ka‘bah and compacted into two pear-shaped elements which are wrapped in coloured raffia. They would have been used as amulets in a religious building or home in the belief that they would convey blessings upon their owner and surroundings.

The Holy Sanctuary at Mecca, 19th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Magnetism I – IV, 2012, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Section from the Kiswah of the Ka'bah (late 19th or early 20th century)The Khalili Collections

It was a custom before the advent of Islam that the Ka'bah would be dressed with a covering. Almost every year since, the Ka'bah has been dressed in the Kiswah during the Hajj season.

Fragment from the Internal Kiswah of the Ka'bah, 1861-2, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Hajj & the Arts of Pilgrimage | The Khalili CollectionsThe Khalili Collections

Curtain for Door of the Ka'bah (dated 1015 AH (1606 AD))The Khalili Collections

By far the most elaborate part of the kiswah is the sitarah - the curtain covering the door of the Ka'bah. With Qur'anic verses playing the most prominent in its decoration, the sitarah was embroidered in gold and silver thread (occasionally wire) over padding, so they stood in relief.

The Arabic 'Allah' is embroidered in silver and silver-gilt wire over cotton thread padding

The Arabic 'Muhammad' is embroidered in silver and silver-gilt wire over cotton thread padding.

Since Mamluk times, sitarahs were made in Egypt, and left Cairo with the kiswah accompanied by the caravan of pilgrims amidst great pomp and circumstance.

The Sitara exhibited at "Longing for Mecca" at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam (2019-2020)

Scaled-down Model of a Sitarah for the Door of the Ka'bah, 1980s, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Section from the Hizam (or Belt) of the Ka'bah, late 19th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Section from the Kiswah of Maqam Ibrahim, late 19th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Maqam Complete, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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A complete kiswah for the Maqam Ibrahim, commissoned by Sultan Abdulmajid I and presented by Muhammad Sa‘id Pasha, the wali of Egypt. Cairo, dated ah 1272 (AD 1855–6)

Bag for the Key of the Ka'bah, dated 1327 AH (1909-10 AD), From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Panel from the Belt of the Ka'bah, late 19th - early 20th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Photograph of a Veteran Craftsman from Dar al-Kiswah (print possibly made in the 1940s from an older negative)The Khalili Collections

The majority of the Ka‘bah door curtains were made at Dar al-Kiswah in Cairo during the 19th century follow the same basic design in which calligraphic cartouches predominate and which is characterized by the series of stylized ‘palm trees’ either side of the door opening.

The Employees of Dar al-Kiswah, 1st half of the 20th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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The Sufi Saint Mian Mir Praying at Medina (18th century)The Khalili Collections

Medina

Medina was the destination of the Prophet Muhammad's Hijrah (migration) from Mecca, and subsequently became the capital of a rapidly increasing Muslim Empire. Pilgrims aim from the beginning to combine their Hajj with a visit to Medina and the Prophet's mosque and tomb, either before or after performing the Hajj rituals in and around Mecca. 

Certificate Commemorating a Visit the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, circa 1930s, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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The iconic Green Dome, initially built in 1279 over the Prophet's tomb, became an iconic landmark in artistic depictions of Medina over the years.

Photograph of the Prophet's mosque at Medina, dated 1298 AH (1881 AD), From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Miniature View of the Prophet's Mosque at Medina (mid-19th century)The Khalili Collections

Safi ibn Vali's Anis al-Hujjaj ('Pilgrims' Companion')The Khalili Collections

Curtain (Sitarah) from the Tomb of the Prophet in Medina (period of Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839))The Khalili Collections

A hadith is embroidered at the top of the sitarah: "[the Prophet] peace be upon him said, he who visits my tomb has, by duty, my intercession".

Sitarah for the Rawdah of the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, 1808-39, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Section from the Curtain of the Prophet's Tomb, late 17th or early 18th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Section from a Kiswah of the Prophet's tomb, 18th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Curtain (Sitarah) from the Prophet's Mosque at Medina, dated 1218 AH (1803-4 AD), From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Surrah Purse (Ferashet Bohaci) Surrah Purse (Ferashet Bohaci), dated 1324 AH (1906-07 AD), From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Falnamah ('Book of Divination') Falnamah ('Book of Divination'), circa 1610-30, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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The Sufi Saint Mian Mir Praying at Medina (18th century)The Khalili Collections

The Pilgrims

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.

Safi ibn Vali's Anis al-Hujjaj ('Pilgrims' Companion') Safi ibn Vali's Anis al-Hujjaj ('Pilgrims' Companion'), circa 1677-80, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Historically, knowledge of the Hajj rituals has been made accessible to pilgrims through special manuals or guide books, generally known as Manasik, that explained the complicated but necessary steps which had to be performed in a specific order and at specific dates for the Hajj to be completed correctly.

Safi ibn Vali's Anis al-Hujjaj ('Pilgrims' Companion')The Khalili Collections

Whether with a large caravan or as individuals, pilgrims have always arrived in Mecca from all corners of the Islamic world.

Safi ibn Vali's Anis al-Hujjaj ('Pilgrims' Companion')The Khalili Collections

Pilgrims completing the ritual of collecting pebbles at Muzdalifa.

Safi ibn Vali's Anis al-Hujjaj ('Pilgrims' Companion')The Khalili Collections

Pilgrims in the town of Mina, being shaven, making sacrifices and casting pebbles, as per the Hajj tradition.

‘Alexander the Great Visits the Ka‘bah’, Folio from a Copy of Firdawsi’s Shahnamah (mid-16th century)The Khalili Collections

The highlight of the Hajj has always been the worship of God at the Ka'bah. Before leaving Mecca, the pilgrims perform a final circumambulation of the Ka'bah called the 'farewell tawaf' seven times. After this tawaf, one's Hajj pilgrimage is considered complete.

Futuh al-Haramayn (a Handbook for Pilgrims to Mecca and Medina) of Muhyi Lari Futuh al-Haramayn (a Handbook for Pilgrims to Mecca and Medina) of Muhyi Lari, dated隷Jumada al-thani隷990 (June-July 1582), From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Coffee-bean Cooler, late 19th - early 20th centuryr, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Pilgrim Flask, 19th century or earlier, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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A saying of the Prophet Muhammad states that was from the well of Zamzam is “beneficial for whatever aim it has been drunk for”, and many use the water for spiritual healing as well as in burial rites. Zamzam has been the source of water for pilgrims visiting Mecca ever since.

Ihram Belt, 19th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Pilgrim Flask, 19th century, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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National Treasures Professor Nasser David Khalili UHDThe Khalili Collections

Professor Nasser D. Khalili, Founder of the Khalili Collections, discusses a mid 19th century Chinese Hajj scroll in the Sky Arts documentary National Treasures (2017).

Section from a Pilgrimage Scroll, 12th century AD, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Pilgrimage Certificate of Hajj 'Abbas Kararah, 1930 or earlier, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Painting Entitled 'al-Rihlah al-Hijaziyyah/ Sacred Pilgrimage Journey', From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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10 Rupee Hajj Banknote 10 Rupee Hajj Banknote, 1967-71, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Single-Volume Qur'an with Depictions of the Two Holy Sanctuaries Single-Volume Qur'an with Depictions of the Two Holy Sanctuaries (dated Shawwal 1211 (April 1797))The Khalili Collections

Hajj and The Arts of Pilgrimage 

The Khalili Hajj Collection, amassed over five decades, comprises over 4,000 unique objects relating to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest places in Islam. Together, they represent a comprehensive visual history of the Hajj spanning over 1400 years. The Collection has been fully conserved, researched and published, and the highlights have been exhibited at prestigious museums and institutions worldwide.  

Hajj & the Arts of Pilgrimage | The Khalili CollectionsThe Khalili Collections

Credits: Story

All artworks shown in this exhibit are from The Khalili Collections. They are highlights from a collection of over 4,000 objects amassed over five decades relating to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest places in Islam.

Video content: Mattmedia Productions (Hajj and the Arts of Pilgrimage)
Collection Curator: Nahla Nasser

Digital exhibit curated by Waqās Ahmed.

A comprehensive lecture by Professor Nasser D Khalili on "Hajj and the Arts of Pilgrimage" delivered at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies can be found here: https://www.nasserdkhalili.com/portfolio/lecture-at-oxford-centre-for-islamic-studies-26-february-2020/

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.