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The British Museum's Hajj Exhibition Takes Visitors on a Journey

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The British Museum's spherical-shaped reading room hosts 'Hajj: The Journey to Heart of Islam,' a new exhibition which sold out to audiences the first weekend that it opened. During the exhibition, visitors are met with the recitation of prayers and images of pilgrims, making them feel as if they are walking alongside the pilgrims. Although most people may not see Mecca in their lifetime, the city in Saudia Arabia which hosts the world's largest annual pilgrimage, the Hajj now comes to them. This new exhibition breaks down cultural barriers by giving visitors a glimpse of the journey every Muslim must make at least once in their lifetime as a testament of their faith.

Despite the exhibition's central focus on the Hajj, it is about much more than a pilgrimage. The third and final exhibition in a series focusing on spiritual journeys, items on display unravel the relationship between East and West. Among these items is Sir Richard Francis Burton's book about Mecca and Medina's important religious sites, written by one of the few pilgrims who never formally converted to Islam. Photographs and a letter by Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman to perform Hajj at the age of 65, are also on display and recount her journey to Jeddah via Cairo as a convert to Islam.

These artefacts demonstrate that the three million Muslims from around the world that converge at the Hajj are not homogenous in their ethnicity nor their culture. Even Sir Thomas Cooke has an unexpected appearance in the display, tying British history to Muslim heritage, with his role as the first official international Hajj travel agent in 1886. When asked about her experience of the exhibition, Patricia, a teacher from London, said, "What I've discovered is how many people I've heard of before, have been involved [with the Hajj]. Famous people, from British history, have been involved as well."

In partnership with Saudi Arabia's King Abdul Aziz Public Library and sponsored by HSBC's culture exchange program, artefacts from forty collections illustrate three basic elements of the Hajj. The journey to Hajj, the rituals of the pilgrimage, and experience are the three main elements of the Hajj exhibition. Stories of how pilgrims crossed ancient travel routes to attend the pilgrimage, take visitors through regions such as Arabia, the Indian Ocean, and Western Africa. The latter would take pilgrims over a year to cross. From the regal to the commonplace, the display also has everything from plastic razors that some pilgrims use to shave their heads after completing Hajj, to a gold, red, and black carriage known as the Mahmal that was last used in the early 20th century and paraded in the streets of Cairo, watched by thousands to symbolise the authority of a sultan before he embarked on his pilgrimage.

Decorated with a gold, black, and white theme, the walls of this exhibition hold a key to greater understanding. At a time when there are many misconceptions about Islam and people are quick to get their information about Muslims from TV, the British Museum's Hajj exhibition is a good place to learn what Islam is really about. As she walked around the end of the exhibition, Patricia added, "It's amazing. I don't want to leave. I keep going around because there's so much to learn."

The exhibition is open to the public until April 15, 2012. Opening hours 10.00-17.30 Saturday to Thursday, 10.00-20.30 Fridays.

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