Pilgrims on camels

Pilgrims on Hajj from the Abbas Hilmi Album, 1909. Durham University Library, 335/1-204.

The Qur’an states that Hajj should take place ‘in the specified months’, and these are the last three months of the Muslim calendar, known as Miqat Zamani (fixed times). Although the main acts of the Hajj take place in five days during the twelfth month, a pilgrim can start going into consecration (ihram) for Hajj earlier, from the beginning of the tenth month (Shawwal). The Muslim calendar is lunar, which means that the Hajj takes place progressively across all four seasons over time rather than in the full heat of summer every year. On foot, by camel, boat, train or airplane, going on Hajj is a spiritual endeavour that begins at home and culminates in Mecca; in going, arriving, and returning, the pilgrim is mindful of the magnitude of the journey and the reward in this world and the hereafter.

Railway truck with passengers on the Hijaz railway, 1907

Railway truck with passengers on the Hijaz Railway, 1907. Col. F. R. Maunsell/ Royal Geographical Society

Pilgrims waiting Sudan Sanders

Pilgrims waiting to board the ferries from Port Sudan in Sudan to Jedda, late 1990s. Peter Sanders

Pilgrims at Heathrow Airport 2010. Dudley Hubbard, British Museum.

Pilgrims at Heathrow Airport 2010. Dudley Hubbard, British Museum.

Toy theatre set (early 1800s – Vienna, Austria)

Toy theatre set

Private Collection

This theatre set, called ‘The Caravan to Mecca – the halt in the desert’, includes pieces shaped as camels, horses, tents, luggage, servants and pilgrims. The set was made by Matthias Trentensky, a Viennese printer who established a reputation as the Austrian Empire’s leading maker of toy theatres. It was sold in London by A&S Joseph Myers and Co. of 144 Leadenhall Street.

Pilgrims quarrelling from the Kulliyat of Sa‘di

Pilgrims quarrelling

British Library Add.24944, f. 24r (Detail)

Pilgrims quarrelling

British Library Add.24944, f. 24r

In this painting, dated 974/1566, a convoy of pilgrims head to Mecca on camel, horseback and foot. The wealthier pilgrims are carried in elaborate palanquins. They are watched by onlookers who peek out from behind the hills. The painting illustrates a poem by the celebrated sage and poet Sa‘di (d. 1292), who probably performed Hajj several times. The narrator of the poem overhears a man on a camel saying to his companion: "If a pawn travels the length of the chessboard it becomes a queen, and so becomes better; but these travellers to Hajj on foot have crossed the desert and have become worse." The narrator, himself a foot-traveller, admonishes the camel-rider with the words: "You are no pilgrim! Your camel is the real one: poor creature, he eats thorns and carries loads."

Qibla compass (c. 1800, Ottoman Empire)

Qibla compass (about 1800, Ottoman Empire)

Benaki Museum, Athens, 10184

This instrument enabled the user to find the qibla (the direction of Mecca) from wherever they were. The first step was to locate north–south by placing the instrument on a flat surface and allowing the needle to find magnetic north. The board was then rotated. The inscriptions on the wood form a rough map. Standing in Baghdad, for example, a line towards Mecca could be drawn and this was the direction in which to pray.

A treatise on the sacred direction by al-Dimyati (c. 1150, Egypt)

A treatise on the sacred direction by al-Dimyati (about 1150, Egypt)

Bodleian Library, Marsh 592 fol. 88v

This illustrated treatise on the qibla, the sacred direction, was written in the 12th century by al-Dimyati, an Egyptian legal scholar. He has placed the Ka‘ba at the top left of the page, the corners marked with the four points of the compass, south at the top. At this time the world was believed to be divided into our sections, each of which was connected to the perimeter wall of the Ka‘ba. From left to right the straight lines indicate the qibla from Aleppo, Damascus, Jerusalem and Cairo. Al-Dimyati has shown the qibla from Egypt reaching ‘the part between the western corner and the waterpipe’. The wavy line is the Hajj route from Cairo. It crosses the Sinai and is joined at Ayla by the route from Jerusalem before looping up towards Medina and on to Mecca.

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Arts and Humanities Research Council