In normal circumstances the Hajj would be welcoming pilgrims from all over the world as the days of Hajj started this week. Unfortunately, Covid has forced a second cancellation for international pilgrims. This means another year of yearning for those who have made the intention to make the pilgrimage but are unable to do so. So let Alchemiya’s Hajj collection transport you to Mecca in film and across time…
Let’s begin in the 14th Century.
Born in Tangiers in 1304, Ibn Battuta was an Islamic legal scholar who travelled for three decades before returning to his hometown. Journey to Mecca: In the footsteps of Ibn Battuta tells the amazing story of his first Hajj at the age of 21, which was the beginning of an epic journey that would take him further than any other explorer in pre-modern history. Ibn Battuta chronicled his travels, so this film is based on his own recollections with excerpts of his thoughts narrated along the way. From Tangiers, as he bids his family farewell, we travel with him through the trials and transformations of his long and dangerous journey and share in his profound joy on finally reaching his destination. It is a lovely film that ends by cleverly interweaving Ibn Battuta’s historical presence in Mecca with scenes from the Hajj of the present.
Several films in Alchemiya’s Hajj collection contain amazing archive material, and one of these is The Pilgrimage to Mecca produced in 1970 by Swiss broadcaster, Radio Télévision Suisse. With minimal editorial comment, this documentary shows rather than tells. It follows pilgrims closely, recording only the sounds and sights that surround them giving a sense of immersion in the proceedings and really communicating the atmosphere.
You can travel back over nine decades with Het Groote Mekka-Feest, The Great Mecca Feast. This silent film premiered in Leiden, Holland, on November 8, 1928, and is almost certainly the first ever film of Mecca and the Hajj seen by European audiences. Text card commentary is provided by Georg Eduard Albert Krugers, who made the film as an account of his journey from Indonesia (Dutch East Indies) to Mecca with a group of pilgrims. It seems quite incredible that this film exists, and it is a compelling piece of both cultural and cinema history.
For art lovers there is the delightful The Art of the Hajj. Dr. Nasser D. Khalili has spent over five decades finding and collecting art and artefacts from across the Muslim world. In the process he has assembled one of the greatest collections of Islamic art in the world. This short documentary gives just a flavour of his collection, beautifully contextualised with Quranic and historical commentary from eminent scholars including Dr. Saleh al-Shaibi, the keeper of the Kaaba keys. Archive footage weaves in and out of paintings and objects, both past and present, seamlessly connecting time and place with divine purpose.
Journey to the Heart of Islam, is a short account of the first ever major exhibition devoted to the Hajj, which was shown at the British Museum in London in 2012. The curator of the exhibition talks about the research behind it, the artists who contributed and how a new archive was created by contemporary pilgrims whose diaries and notes also formed part of the exhibition. Two years later the idea had evolved into another exhibition held at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. An account of this can be seen in Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Mecca. Multiple facets of the pilgrimage are presented through medieval art objects, manuscripts, ceremonial fabrics and offerings with the contemporary dimension present through the eyes of Saudi artists on the Hajj.
Last but most certainly not least, A Road to Mecca, is a feature length documentary made in 2006. It tells the story of Leopold Weiss, a Viennese Jew, who converted to Islam in 1927 becoming Muhammad Asad. Traveller, writer, political theorist, diplomat and Islamic scholar, Asad was one of the most influential European Muslims of the 20th century and an important mediator between Islam and the West.
Thought provoking, educational and at times very moving, the film blends archive footage, photos and excerpts from Asad’s writings, with contemporary interviews including historians, scholars, friends and family. It retraces his pilgrimage to Mecca which began in Jerusalem in 1922, interacting with many different situations and people both on the way and in Mecca itself.
In 2006, this is a journey through a very different world and one which the film faces head on. This makes it not only a remarkable portrait of Mohammad Asad’s life and legacy but an examination of some of the ongoing challenges of the present.