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« on: Sep 15, 2008 07:00 AM »


The Road to Religion
Arsalan Mohammad


To the faithful, making their annual Haj pilgrimages in 1887 from all points across the world, the sight must have been perplexing, to say the least. To Al Sayyid Abd al Ghaffar, who had struggled across the desert with a convoy of camels bearing boxes of photography equipment to point his cumbersome, primitive camera across the plains of Mount Arafat at a sea of small tents, exhausted camels and thousands of travellers, it must have been stranger, more fantastical and rewarding than he could ever have imagined.


What Ghaffar saw that day in 1887 as he joined the caravans of pilgrims arriving by the thousand onto the plains below Mount Arafat was recorded for posterity in a series of photographic prints. Unable to contain the panoramic view within his lens, he moved the contraption about, loading up heavy glass plates into the camera as well as trying to process the freshly exposed negatives in a portable darkroom tent. Other images show pilgrims camping at the tomb of Sittana Maimunah and of the Kaaba itself, taken from aerial perspectives, showing the crowds moving around the courtyard.



Compared to familiar modern-day images showing millions under electric lights, these sepia pictures are truly breathtaking. When pieced together, this series of images gives a vision of humanity and of the pilgrims who spent months travelling through the desert to reach Mecca in time for the Haj. The results became the very first photographs taken in Mecca by an Arab photographer.


These are just a handful of the ground-breaking 170 images from across the Middle East during the late 1800s on show in Dubai as the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority unveils To the Holy Lands this week. The exhibition comprises not only the work of the pioneering photographers Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, Al Sayyid Abd al Ghaffar, Mohammed Sadiq Bey and Felix Bonfils but a number of anonymous contributions as well. It takes in not only these amazing shots of Mecca and Medina, but also a richly diverse selection of individuals and notable places across the Middle East.


As Europeans began exploring the “Orient” with curiosity and heightened expectation during the latter half of the 19th century, the hitherto-undiscovered world of Islam and Arabic culture became a magnet for artists, writers, scientists and the curious, eager to immerse themselves in this strangely exotic new world. For the subjects of their work, it was an equally educational experience – not least, experiencing the nascent photographic technology of the time.


Visiting the exhibition site at the Dubai International Financial Centre amid a the pre-opening hubbub, I talked to Michael Schindhelm, the director of culture at the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority. It was through his offices that the collaboration with the Mannheim museum came about. He explained why the DCAA had brought this collection to Dubai in time for Ramadan.


“Although we are a very cosmopolitan city in Dubai, if we are to talk about culture, we should start with local and regional content. What we have here is a show which demonstrates the oldest photographs ever taken from the sites of the holy lands, the Muslim world of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. They are all dating from the second half of the 19th century and what you can see is that it is not only a documentary on the Haj, but it is also portraits of society and individuals, the people of the Arab world at the time. This makes it for me even more evocative – you can see the different habits and cultures of that time.”


A guided tour of the exhibition space by the DCAA’s Labiba Laith proves this to be the case. As well as a number of key pieces documenting the flow of pilgrims into Mecca, the show expands its remit to look at all manner of holy sites and buildings, spanning Muslim, Christian and Jewish life in Jerusalem and across the Middle East.


Views of the ancient holy sites in Jerusalem, Damascus, Jordan and Bethlehem dominate the early sections of the exhibition, captured by the European pioneers Felix Bonfils and Jacob Lorent. In their flickery images of life in the main centres of religious activity, taken mainly during the mid-1870s, they opened up for the world first time contemporary accounts of places that had hitherto existed only in the imaginations of religious westerners: the temple of olives, the tomb of David, the Dome of the Rock, the Wailing Wall, the gardens of Gethsemane and the Dead Sea. In their documentary photographs, these views echo with an emptiness that would soon forever change with the advent of mass tourism.


Meanwhile, key images of the Kaaba and Mecca, which this exhibition features in a small, darkened room, were taken by the Egyptian Mohammed Sadiq Bey. With an extensive series of perspectives, mainly taken from the surrounding mountainsides and around the city in a number of images dated to 1880, he managed to convey the sheer scale of the place, with a dynamic account of the movement of pilgrims around the sacred site as the week of Haj progressed. The final shots of the multitudes of pilgrims, massed about the Kaaba, are fascinating to behold.


Another major strand of the show is the wealth of still-life portraits, the array of individuals and families encountered by the travelling photographers. To western eyes, the inhabitants of each successive city and country were no less exotic and marvellous than the buildings and monuments. Now, for the first time, accurate impressions could be captured on film. So, here, over a century later, gazing steadfastly at us over the passage of years, are the characters who would come to define Middle Eastern life for the curious West.


Then there are the still-life portraits, which form much of the show. We see portraits of prominent dignitaries and their families, posing stiffly for the camera in their finest clothes. A Saudi bride sits uncomfortably in what appears to be chain-mail armour – it is, in fact, a wedding outfit, studded with coins. (“The poor woman can hardly get about without being supported on both sides,” commented the photographer Snouck Hurgronje. “And the heat makes her situation truly distressing”.)


Doctors, merchants, politicians, royalty and noblemen, beggars, servants, dancers and eunuchs, Christians, Muslims and Jews – all staring into the alien lens, frozen in time forever. The “otherness” of the subjects led the photographers to contextualise them in classical attitudes, from Muslim men demonstrating their prayers to Damascene ladies of leisure, with the anthropological style of a scientist carefully recording rare specimen. In these images, the dignity and pride of the subjects of all backgrounds imbues their presence that still resonates in the photos today.


The exhibition has been loaned to Dubai from the Reiss Engelhorn Museums, based in Mannheim, Germany, marking the first time these images (the oldest surviving photographs of the Arabic world) have ever been exhibited in the Middle East. In the purpose-built exhibition space, just off Lobby V of the DIFC Building, the Dubai team, working to precise plans devised in Germany, have created a mini-gallery in a large cube. Here, the work has been thematically arranged through a series of small rooms and corridors. As well as the photographs themselves, there are copious notes and quotations. The information is, as one would expect from a major museum, well-researched and informative, adding greatly to the viewing experience.


“Most of the time, we are not showing these pieces in our museum,” says Dr Michael Tellenbach of the Reiss Engelhorn Museum. “Because prolonged exposure to the light would be bad for the prints. So this is another reason why this show is special.”


“We also inform you that in these days we were not able – and we do not know why – to make photographs in the darkroom during the extremely hot and sultry weather, as the watering of the glass negative did not work properly. The gelatin dissolved and became diffused.” This extract, from a letter written by Ghaffar on July 5 1887, demonstrates the problems faced by the photographer at the site. Using a portable darkroom in a tent, which accompanied the photographic team, meant that the images were immediately created. However, the process was fraught with difficulties and technological issues. The cameras themselves were heavy, delicate objects, which used plate glass slides, coated with a light-sensitive preparation of gelatin.


Due to the harsh bright light of the desert skies and the long exposure times, the photographic pioneers would often end up with blank-faced subjects and bleached-out clothing – especially useless when the whole point of the project was to document the intricate finery and foreign strangeness of the subjects. Hand-retouching the negative plates became common, giving a strange, impressionist effect to many of the prints, which in turn lent an added air of mystery and exoticism to the final works. No wonder, as international travel became simpler, more and more Europeans flocked to the region in search of the spiritual and romantic scenes.


The stories behind the photographers are equally as fascinating as their subjects. For instance, a major presence was the Dutch-born Hurgronje, a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic studies who spent years immersing himself in the region’s culture, travelling to Saudi Arabia and even converting to Islam in 1884. The following year, he travelled into Mecca and, disguising himself appropriately, adopted the name Abd al Ghaffar (no relation to Al Sayyid Abd al Ghaffar). He was able to penetrate the city walls without attracting too much undue attention, despite his weighty photographic baggage. His images here capture a quaint citadel, all boxy high rise buildings, interspersed with mosques, as well as some of the more colourful characters he encountered on his travels.


“What I find fascinating,” says Tellenbach, “is how these photographers chose not to document the technological advances of the age, but instead to photograph this mass pilgrimage, this movement of people from all places to Mecca and Medina. You can see the fascination with the movement of people and that is what makes it very special.”


As I wander around the space, I am reminded that there are only three similar collections of photography from this era of these holy lands in existence. One, according to Tellenbach, is owned by a “man in France” who guards his treasures jealously – not allowing any access. The other collection is owned by the Saudi royal family, who show it off to occasional lucky visitors. The third is owned by the Museum in Mannheim, where it was donated over 100 years ago by a local benefactor. The work is, as Tellenbach, concedes, hard to value – but as a guide, he points out that two Mohammed Sadiq Bey original prints went for $2.3 million (Dh8.4 million) at Sotheby’s a few years back. However, for 21st century eyes, these journeys in the past are compelling and vivid, as fresh and full of stories to us today as they were for their awed audiences back in Europe in the 19th century.


To the Holy Lands runs from today to Nov 4 at Lobby V, The West Wing, The Gate Building, DIFC. See www.cultureartsdubai.ae for further information.

http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080915/ART/707818811/1043/NEWS

Say: "O ye my servants who believe! Fear your Lord, good is (the reward) for those who do good in this world. Spacious is God's earth! those who patiently persevere will truly receive a reward without measure!" [39:10]
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« Reply #1 on: Sep 15, 2008 08:54 AM »

wsalam,

wowwwww that sounds so awesome ma'shallah!!! i almost wish i could visit dubai just for that! i wonder if any of the pictures are online. i think there was an article on saidq bey in aramco not too long ago..?. not sure maybe i'll check. if anyone goes please try to take some pictures with ur flash off and upload them here!!

there was a similar exhibition on the clothes and culture in olden Arabian times at the Great Library of Alexandria but we were so rushed I didn't get to linger and check out everything then either  :'(

Update: Found some related articles from Aramco World:

http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/198306/the.bonfils.story-a.special.section.htm
http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/199901/pioneer.photographer.of.the.holy.cities.htm
http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/197406/the.lure.of.mecca.htm
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« Reply #2 on: Sep 15, 2008 10:07 AM »

Asalaamu Alaikum  bro

I just went down there to take a look and it was still closed off because the Dubai Ruler will officialy open it tonight. [Btw thanks the the security guard who allowed me to sneak a look at a few the photographs]  bro

But from what I saw looked pretty amazing, especially this one picture of Mina back then.

Looks like the Road to Makkah has started early this year  bro


Say: "O ye my servants who believe! Fear your Lord, good is (the reward) for those who do good in this world. Spacious is God's earth! those who patiently persevere will truly receive a reward without measure!" [39:10]
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« Reply #3 on: Sep 15, 2008 06:03 PM »

 salaam

One of the biggest drawbacks of experiencing severe panic attack is the psychological complications that haunt you for years afterwards.  In my case, because my panic attacks quickly became severe anxiety disorder, I have problems with trusting situations.  I feel the need to always be in a position where I can control the outcome of the surroundings and situation.  Thus I develop severe claustrophobia.  This has hampered many activities but I feel the most serious of the effects would be my fear of flying.  I am not afraid of the heights nor am I afraid of the crashing but the claustrophobia would do me in.  I would panic thinking I dont know the pilot, I am trapped in my seat and there isn't any outlet for escape.  I am confined in the space I am in and thats it. Thus, I stopped travelling after my panic attacks.  I always told my husband that the only reason I would brave myself would be for hajj or umrah.

The point of my rambling is that I have a deep desire and longing to experience places and cultures that would give me a glimpse of our great Islamic history and culture. And yet they remain desires and longings.  I would love to be able to just go to Dubai or anywhere to have a look at the photos...but for the time being my experience of Islam and anything Islamic is via the books Sad

So...you are indeed lucky.

Wassalam
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« Reply #4 on: Sep 15, 2008 09:22 PM »

wsalaam ummwafi,

aren't there any nice culture type things in your own country of malaysia? there seem to be some beautiful mosques and buildings. you could  visit those and also nearby countries like indonesia and singapore and china (via boat if u have to --how about a cruise?) and so on. they all have interesting things. also there are some good strong medications available for those who have plane anxiety so ask ur doctor inshallah.

ws
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« Reply #5 on: Sep 15, 2008 09:26 PM »

brkhalid i just sent the notice to a brother from here who just moved back to abu dhabi. hopefully u'll see him there soon too!!!
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« Reply #6 on: Sep 16, 2008 06:58 AM »

Asalaamu Alaikum  bro

Quote
I would love to be able to just go to Dubai or anywhere to have a look at the photos

The exhibition is on until 4th November, so does that give you enough time in a slow boat from Malaysia Sr UmmWafi?  bro

Inshallah, I’ll try and get some pictures and post them up in this thread.

Sr Jannah – Yes, let me know, if he comes to Dubai I’d be more than happy to act as a tour guide!!

Say: "O ye my servants who believe! Fear your Lord, good is (the reward) for those who do good in this world. Spacious is God's earth! those who patiently persevere will truly receive a reward without measure!" [39:10]
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« Reply #7 on: Sep 16, 2008 02:42 PM »

Wslm Sis Jannah and Br Khalid

I am actually in Singapore Smiley Yes I have been to Malaysia and Alhamdulillah was fortunate enough to visit the Islamic Art Museum in Kuala Lumpur. Once when I was there they had the sword of the prophet exhibition.  Subhanallah it was beautiful.  Later there was an exhibition on the silk road where they even had an installation of the inside of a beduin tent.

I have been to an Indonesian island near to Singapore by ferry and there is a mosque made by egg white !  So yes, I have been lucky in that sense but to be able to go to Andalusia or Damascus....it is beyond compare.

I know of the meds but they dont work on me Sad My mind took the mind over matter stuff too seriously I guess :p
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« Reply #8 on: Sep 17, 2008 05:59 AM »

Asalaamu Alaikum

Quote
I am actually in Singapore

*slaps forehead*

Yes, I did actually know that.

I tell you what we’ll do, we’ll get all the Madina kids and send them over to you to look after. After a couple of days, you’ll be so tired that you’d sleep the entire 8 hour flight to Dubai  bro

Wasalaam
Br Iloveitwhenaplancomestogether Khalid  bro

Say: "O ye my servants who believe! Fear your Lord, good is (the reward) for those who do good in this world. Spacious is God's earth! those who patiently persevere will truly receive a reward without measure!" [39:10]
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« Reply #9 on: Sep 17, 2008 06:02 AM »

Wa'alaikumsalam

Au contraire, I love children and I am stimulated by them Smiley Something that would put me to sleep for 8 hours is housework ! I absolutely abhor it.

Sis ilovetobecontrary UmmWafi

PS So are you Caucasian ? The sisters are confused.

Wassalam
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