Author: Venetia Porter
Publisher: Interlink Books
Reviewed by Mohammed Ayub Khan
To perform the Hajj is a dream of every Muslim man and woman. An obligatory act it symbolizes the submission of man to God. For many performing this pilgrimage is the goal of a lifetime. Throughout the ages Muslims have expressed their interest and devotion in Hajj through various artistic means. In The Art of Hajj Venetia Porter, curator of the Islamic and Modern Middle Eastern Art at the British Museum, has collected an array of visual representations related to Hajj from early to modern times.
An absolute visual delight the book contains fifty six images of various artistic items related to the hajj. They include images of medieval era Arabic maps, sundials, Qibla indicators, compasses, etc. which indicate an early scientific sophistication. The book also contains rich reproductions from classical texts like the Kulliyat of Saadi and the Maqamat of Hariri.
The chapter on textiles of Mecca and Medina is a virtual treat for the eyes as it documents the various forms of kiswa (covering of the Kaba) as they have evolved over the years. While all are aware of the outer black covering cloth the book also presents pictures of the internal kiswa which at one point was red in color.
The book sheds abundant light on the now abandoned custom of mahmal, a ceremonial palanquin carried on a camel, as the centerpiece of the pilgrim caravan. It symbolized the authority of the sultan and was first sent by Baybar, the mamluk sultan of Egypt. The custom continued well into the early part of the twentieth century.
The book also documents modern forms of hajj including wall art in Egypt, post cards, and photography. One of the most evocative contemporary work is that of the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater called â€œMagnetism.â€ It shows an image of Kaba with installation of magnets and iron fillings. It symbolizes how a powerful center attracts while also maintaining a distance due to the natural laws of attraction. Overall this little book is a delight to look at and propels the reader to make the journey even if he/she had done so many times before.