Blessed Souvenirs

Qaisra Khan, 2010

Qaisra Khan, 2010

For centuries Mecca was an important commercial as well as a religious centre. Pilgrims would bring goods for sale to help finance their Hajj. Many of these objects then found their way around the world. Today, many shops surround the sanctuaries at Mecca and Medina and the rituals of Hajj are combined with the purchase of souvenirs to take home to recall this momentous experience.

We went deeper into the markets… everywhere were carpets, caps, sheets, turbans, belts, watches, compasses, radios, tea sets…After the initial surprise, it was clear that for centuries pilgrims had divided their time between mosque and commerce.
Abdella Hammoudi, performed Hajj in 1999

Hajj souvenirs stalls in Saudi Arabia and Mali

Stalls of goods from Mount Uhud

Qaisra Khan, 2010

Tim Insoll 2010

Tim Insoll, 2010

Pilgrims are requested by their families and friends to bring back something as a blessing, such as sealed containers of Zamzam water. They will also bring back head caps, prayer beads, scarves and representations of the holy places and the famous sweet dates of Medina. Many pilgrims will keep their ihram robes, sprinkled with Zamzam water, to use as shrouds when they die.

The top photograph shows stalls of goods on the site of Mount Uhud in Medina with a colourful and vast array of souvenirs. The bottom photograph shows Hajj souvenirs stalls in Mali. Some souvenirs can be bought from stalls adjacent to the Grand Mosque in Bamako and from ones in Timbuktu which were originally bought in Mecca. They include kohl, incense, perfumes, prayer rugs, Zamzam water and prayer beads. Collections for the British Museum of souvenir objects were made in Mecca and Medina by Qaisra Khan in 2010 and in the same year by Tim Insoll in Mali.

Souvenirs bought during Hajj in 2010

Souvenirs bought during Hajj in 2010

British Museum

Mecca has been an important commercial centre for centuries. Even today, pilgrimage is combined with shopping for mementos and souvenirs. As part of the Hajj experience, most pilgrims buy gifts for friends and family from the many bazaars and shops of Mecca and Medina. These objects often take pride of place in the recipients’ homes. Souvenirs from Mecca are among the most precious objects that a Muslim owns.

This group includes Zamzam bottles, prayer beads, a white head cap, prayer matt, miswak a teeth cleaning twig made from the Salvadora persica tree.

A souvenir from Mecca, 2011

A souvenir from Mecca textile

British Museum

Textiles embroidered with verses from the Qur’an are often brought back by pilgrims as gifts. This example has the words ‘Allah, may His glory be magnified’ (right) and ‘Muhammad, Messenger of God’ (left) in the green roundels. Around the sides is the "Throne verse" (ayat al-kursi ) Qur’an 2 - al-Baqara:255-6.

Malay waistcoat (c. 19th-20th century)

Malay waistcoat (About 1800 –1900)

Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 1998.1.4156

This waistcoat was fashioned from a piece of the internal kiswa of the Ka‘ba. It was probably acquired by a Malay pilgrim while on Hajj and then made into a garment once he had returned home. As the textiles of Mecca and Medina had been in contact with Islam’s holiest buildings, they were believed to be infused with baraka (divine blessings). Waistcoats like this were worn on important occasions to ward off misfortune.

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council