In a silent and yet unopened gallery, tucked away from public view in the huge warren of the British Museum, careful ladies with surgical gloves are assembling a piece of Islamic history.
Only a small piece of the long history of Islam, but one that has been beautifully preserved and was part of early Islamic rituals in the holy city of Makkah.
Experts in their craft and incredibly conscious of the importance of the piece, they carefully assemble a mahmal, a square cloth covered palanquin that carried a single copy of the Qur’an.
Described in the comprehensive catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, and quoting the 15th century scholar Al Qalqashandi, it is “a tent made of embroidered yellow silk and topped with a spherical finial” (yellow was the regnal colour of the Mamluks).” The example on display is from a later era.
In the 1260s, the Mamluk’s had brought stability to the regions of Syria and Egypt and caravans set out for Makkah from Egypt via Aqaba. This was a significant year as it was the first that saw the delivery of the kiswa (the black and gold covering for the Kaaba), which was accompanied by a heavy mahmal.
Although the exact origins of the tradition of sending the mahmal are not clear, it seems likely that it was rather more temporal than godly, as historians believe that it was a symbolic assertion of the Egyptian sultans’ dominance over the region. This is reinforced by the 1269 Haj of the Mumluk Sultan Babars in a combination of politicking and piety.
The Tangerine Ibn Battuta witnessed the arrival of a mahmal at Makkah in 1325 and rode from the city to greet it and the Amir of the Haj, thence proceeding to circumambulate the city with, as he records, “the camel drivers singing to their lead camels.”
The mahmal carefully being assembled and tended to and lent for the exhibition by the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, is one of the features of the forthcoming Journey To Makkah exhibition at the British Museum. The red silk and embroidered cover bears the calligraphic symbol (tughra) of the Ottoman Sultan Abd Al-Aziz who reigned between 1861-76. Woven around the hem at the bottom is the “throne verse” from the Qur’an.
Once the Holy Book had been delivered safely to Kakkah, the mahmal returned to Cairo. That done, the camel that had carried it was released from any labor for the rest of its life.
The “Journey to Makkah” exhibition opens at the British Museum in London on Jan. 26 and runs for three months. Arab News will have a special review of the exhibition on that day.