By foot or budget airline, Muslims flock to Mecca

AFP , Monday 28 Apr 2014

French President Francois Hollande, center, speaks with Saudi Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and IMA President Jack Lang, right, as they inaugurate an exhibition on the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) in Paris, France. (AP Photo)

Once pilgrims came on camels or on foot in their thousands, now millions of Muslims make the journey to the Mecca each year, travelling by boat, coach and budget airline, and their number is constantly rising.

In the past century new modes of transport and technological advances have transformed the hajj.

In 2012, there were over three million pilgrims, 1.6 million of whom came by air, while the call to prayer is signalled five times daily by the illumination of 21,000 green and white lights.

The meaning of the hajj, however, remains unchanged and is explored in a major new exhibition that has just opened in Paris through works of art and photography, rare manuscripts, objets d'art and textiles.

Every day items stress the human aspect with identity cards, water bottles, guide books and souvenirs.

"We go from the very contemporary to pieces that go back 1,500 years; the emotions are the same," curator Omar Saghi, told AFP, adding that the Hajj was "present in the heart of all Muslims".

The Prophet Mohammed received the first revelations in the early seventh century in Mecca and since then the Saudi city has taken on the role of spiritual centre and the heart of Islam.

The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam; The Koran lays down that it is a sacred duty for all Muslims to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, if they are able, at least once in their life.

Centuries-old miniatures and sections of elaborate pilgrimage certificates included in the exhibition illustrate how the hajj has always been a source of inspiration for artists.

More recent works include "Pilgrims Going to Mecca" by nineteenth century French artist Leon Belly, depicting a column of people on camel and foot, as well as contemporary art installations.

An eighteenth-century pen and ink "map" of the Ottoman empire with Mecca at its centre shows a sparsely populated city surrounding the Masjid al-Haram (the Sacred Mosque) that illustrates the changes in scale that have taken place.

Today, the mosque is the biggest in the world covering an area of 350,000 square metres (88 acres).

A large-scale photographic work by Ahmed Mater, a Saudi artist, shows the mosque as it is today with the foreground filled with cranes bowed over unfinished buildings.

In the background, the Abraj al-Bait Towers complex can be seen with the outline of the mountains in the distance.

The largest of its towers, known as the Makkah Royal Clock Tower, is at 601 metres (1,970 feet) six times as high as London's Big Ben.

With its 21,000 green and white lights, it can be seen from up to 30 kilometres (18 miles) away at night, 12 kilometres during daylight hours.

And while the modern world may have encroached, the exhibition also shows how the rituals undertaken by pilgrims have remained essentially unchanged.

"Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam", at Paris's Arab World Institute, in partnership with the King Abdulaziz Public Library in Riyadh, runs until August 10.

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