T he enduring excitement and anticipation of the annual hajj – the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca which every able-bodied Muslim must undertake once in their lifetime – is masterfully explored in two monumental paintings, completed roughly a hundred years apart from one another, in this year’s Orientalist Sale. One is historical and detailed, the other bold and impressionistic, but both celebrate the unity and purpose that underlies this holy event in the Muslim calendar.
GEORG EMANUEL OPIZ, THE ARRIVAL OF THE MAHMAL AT AN OASIS EN ROUTE TO MECCA, CIRCA 1805-25. ESTIMATE £800,000–1,200,000.
Georg Emmanuel Opiz’s rendition, painted in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, depicts one of the many rests along the route from Constantinople, then capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan himself was the protector of the shrines at Mecca and Medina. One marvels at the sheer size of the caravan of people undertaking this pilgrimage together, descending from the hills in endless lines. The pilgrims, from Ottoman dignitaries on the right to ordinary people resting on the left, come from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds. They are united by faith, gathered around the mahmal, a ceremonial litter sent by royalty as their representative, shown here in the centre of the composition, on top of a camel.
LUDWIG DEUTSCH, THE PROCESSION OF THE MAHMAL THROUGH THE STREETS OF CAIRO, 1909. ESTIMATE £250,000–350,000.
Another of the hajj’s routes, which converge in Mecca, starts in Cairo. Ludwig Deutsch’s painting of 1909 captures the excitement of the procession through the spice bazaar decked with colourful flags. Pilgrims gaze devoutly to the ground or heavenwards as the sun warms their faces, crowds of onlookers see them off making music and waving. Many of the pilgrims wear the Ihram, ritual white garments which must be worn following the Miqat Makani or ritual commencement of the hajj. White clouds of incense rise from their crowd surrounding the ceremonial camel-mounted mahmal.
Comparing and contrasting the two pictures provides a fascinating insight into the diversity of Muslim culture. Interestingly, neither image shows the arrival at Mecca; both focus on the actual journey of the hajj. In a sense, the journey is the destination, fostering camaraderie and brotherhood en route to the holy shrine.