To celebrate the end of Medina’s year as Islamic Capital of Culture in 2013, the British Museum has helped organise an exhibition in the Saudi Arabian city that opened earlier this month. Since non-Muslims are not allowed to visit Medina, the show is held at the Meridian Hotel Complex, outside the forbidden zone.
“Words and Illuminations” (until 9 May), is divided broadly into two parts, one showing contemporary Arabic calligraphy and the other historic photography. The calligraphy display, much of it lent by the British Museum, includes works by calligraphers such as Hassan Masoudi from Iraq, Farhad Mushiri from Iran and Abd Al-Qadir Rayyis from Dubai. In the photography section, visitors can see the first photographs ever taken of Medina—captured by the Egyptian photographer Sadeq Bey in 1880—through to images of the city taken in 1920. The photography exhibition is accompanied by a book, Al Madinah Al Munawwarah, edited by the Brazilina photographer Humberto Da Silviera, who researched the works on view.
Each section also includes historic artefacts and works of art that have been sourced from private collections from the region and were chosen for their connection to the history of Medina. For example, one painting shows the city’s landscape as it appeared in 1825, including the dome beneath which the Prophet Mohammed is buried and five minarets.
A side gallery displays specially commissioned works by Saudi artists, focusing on Medina's landscape, people, archaeology, and el-Masjid el-Nabawi (the Prophet’s Mosque).
This latest exhibition opens during a boom in Saudi Arabia’s art scene. In 2013, Princess Jawaher bint Majed bin Abdulaziz founded the Saudi Art Council, which organised “21, 39” in Jeddah, a new four-month initiative that aims to promote contemporary art and culture in the kingdom though exhibitions, educational workshops and talks. Jeddah Art Week was also held for the second time this February, while a new open-air museum, housing bronze sculptures that once lined Jeddah’s corniche, also recently opened in the city.
Known as Yathrib before AD622, Medina is Islam’s second holiest city after Mecca, the second most important pilgrimage destination, and the burial site of the Prophet Mohammed. Each year, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization chooses an Islamic Capital of Culture, which during its tenure organizes events and exhibitions. Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates is the Islamic Capital of Culture for 2014.