A few years ago, while visiting Sudan, I travelled the short distance from my hotel in Khartoum, overlooking the Nile, to Omdurman. The heat was hard to bear, I am far more suited to cold climates and love nothing better than venturing out under cloudy skies, all wrapped up and grappling with a gloriously brisk wind. It was the middle of the day on a Friday and I was struggling to maintain composure. The men and women of Khartoum were always impeccably turned out in traditional dress of long flowing robes that contained not a single crease or smudge despite the dust and detritus that never failed to besmirch me mere moments after stepping out. In particular I was fascinated by the unspecked and immaculate whiteness of the men’s thobes (head-to-toe robes) as they went about their business. As someone who has the good fortune to lead a relatively ironing-free existence after wholeheartedly embracing the crumpled look, I spent much of my time in Sudan gazing in wonderment at the creaseless appearance of the citizens of Khartoum and despairing at the absolute mess of me.
Clambering out of the taxi as elegantly as I could, despite feeling the onset of sunstroke, I saw that I had arrived at the tomb of the ninteenth century Qadiriyyah leader Sheikh Hamad al-Nil. Located in a large mausoleum on the edge of a vast cemetery of simple headstones it was overlooked by a gleaming mosque with three green domes. The only other time I had visited a Sufi shrine was the Ajmer Sharif Dargah in India, resting place of the thirteenth century Sufi mystic and philosopher Moinuddin Chishti. Pilgrims of all faiths gathered to pay their respects, to pray that the soul of the saint would intercede on their behalf and provide balm for all that ailed their existence and that of those they loved. I had not experienced this before, the worship of a Muslim shrine by people of varying religions drawn to a sacred relic simply to revel in its sanctity. Just as Yovanka Paquete Perdigao describes in her essay on the festival of Touba in Senegal, a journey of pilgrimage can transcend faith and become a celebration of the diversity of what it is that offers meaning to people’s lives. She notes that despite the fact that the Grand Magal’s date is based on the Hijri calendar, it is ostensibly a Muslim festival, the two day celebration is embraced by all of Senegal’s people from myriad backgrounds. ‘It can best be described as an intricate ceremony featuring religious rituals and a festival with a dizzying array of entertainment. It is greatly anticipated by all religious as well as non-religious communities in Senegal and is a tremendous fixture in any Senegalese person’s calendar.’
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims of all faiths and none descend on the holy city of Touba, founded in the twentieth century by the anti-colonial icon Cheikh Ahmadou Bambou. Dakar becomes markedly deserted as the majority of the population relocates. The arduous journey to attend the Grand Magal is a crucial aspect of the experience, emulating the laborious journey Muslims would undertake, traversing the globe and withstanding all manner of obstacles and setbacks, focused on their desire to perform the Hajj in Mecca. That the Hajj was such a major physical, spiritual and emotional commitment rendered it a once-in-a-lifetime endeavour, the pinnacle of a person’s life, the ultimate goal to tick off on their bucket list. Of course, this was before fast travel and luxury package trips commodified a journey of piety, stripping it of much of its spiritual dimension.
Back in Omdurman, followers of the al-Qadiriya al-Arkiya order began to gather as a growing crowd of locals and curious tourists, myself included, looked on as the ceremony unfolded to a cacophony of sound and colour. Men in glistening white as well as green thobes swayed in unison. Dhakirs adorning beaded jewellery and elegant figures with dreadlocked hair joined the throng. Purposeful and yet utterly absorbed by their internal connection with their creator, they marched to the saint’s tomb, chanting rhythmically la illaha illallah ‘there is no God but Allah’. The voices became hypnotic and increasingly frenetic, bodies in rapture as the disciples honoured their spiritual guide. I found the scene desperately moving and also exalting. I forgot the unease I felt about the cemetery setting and instead allowed myself to embrace the mystical, introspective atmosphere.
That evocative scene dancing about in my mind, I wonder what it is about our attachments to relics, whether they be buildings, fragments of our past, or symbols of our religious identity, that provoke such strength of feeling. Relics become a medium through which we venerate the sacred and honour spiritual saviours; they become the focus of our attempts to seek salvation and relief. In the Narratives issue of Critical Muslim, Nicholas Masterton of Turner Prize-nominated and Emmy award-winning investigative agency Forensic Architecture, explores the way in which narratives are held within structures. Masterton asks us to look upon structures with a new perspective, ‘the idea that a building is a witness of an event.’ The job of the architecture or art appreciator also changes, for as a building lacks language, ‘it becomes necessary to interrogate the architecture to let it tell the story of what it has seen.’
The stories locked within relics are there for us to excavate, often bringing unknown implications for our contemporary existences. In the gripping Turkish fantasy drama Gift, we meet Atiye, an acclaimed painter living a seemingly perfect and indulgent life as part of Istanbul’s elite. Her art has centred on a symbol that she believed she had invented, plucking it from the recesses of her imagination. To her great shock, the exact symbol is found at Göbeklitepe, an archaeological site located in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey, bordering Syria. The ancient temple dates back 11,500 years and is thought to be the oldest religious monument in the world. A vast complex comprising T-shaped pillars displaying animal carvings, a maze of rectangular rooms as well as huge stone rings, it is believed to have been the stage for rituals and sacrifice. When the symbol is uncovered by the conveniently handsome archaeologist Erhan, links to Atiye’s ancestry and her family’s past cause her life to be thrown into disarray in a sequence of gripping events. The past seeps into the present and there is a sense that relics are more than inanimate objects from long ago. Rather, they have a timeless quality that engenders a unique significance to the context into which they find themselves in. In his fascinating essay on archaeology and jihad, Aaron Tugendhaft explores the way in which contemporary powers continue to use relics and archaeology for their own geopolitical ends. ISIS and the Taliban are the sensationalistic tabloid fodder of the jihad against relics, attempting to eradicate what they perceive to be incitements to idolatry. However, Tugendhaft considers the discovery in 1899 of the Tell Halaf archaeological site in Syria, on the other side of the border from Göbeklitepe, by the controversial German diplomat and member of the Oppenheim banking dynasty Max van Oppenheim. The neolithic artefacts excavated from the site, which dates back to 6000 BC, revealed an insight into prehistoric Halaf Culture for the very first time. Oppenheim believed they were better protected in Berlin, only for them to be destroyed by allied bombs in the Second World War.
It wasn’t until ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall that work began at the Pergamon Museum to restore the artefacts. A team of four archaeologists began painstakingly sifting through the 27,000 pieces of debris, using photographs and their own knowledge, to put together a mind-bogglingly complex series of jigsaw puzzles. Contemporary artist Rayyane Tabet was inspired by the momentous project to create an exhibition exploring issues arising from the looting of artefacts during colonial times, and the eventual fate of the Halaf antiquities. ‘When the conservators in Berlin began reassembling the Tell Halaf fragments, they laid out each piece on wooden pallets that filled a vast workspace. Tabet’s work Basalt Shards (2017) transforms that step in the reconstruction process into its own object of reflection.’ In the process of reconstructing the shattered pieces, they were almost lifted beyond their original station, granted a new fulfilment in the unfulfillable as a new relic in itself. A relic that derived its own meaning for the puzzle solvers and a new meaning for those who will be able to look upon the shards after their near fatal run in with British munitions. ‘Each fragment is granted an individual dignity that disrupts our desire to possess things whole. As works on paper, they make no claim to permanence. Rather, the rubbings reveal the ephemerality even of stone.’
The individual dignity of each fragment, rendering it impossible to entirely possess, is a breathtaking description that illuminates the manner in which relics absorb meaning according to the changing course of history. Just like buildings that speak, relics are witness to the passage of time, and harbour secrets that are continuously unlocking and revealing themselves. Perdigao celebrates the opening of the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar and reflects on Senegal’s call for the return of its cultural heritage looted during the colonial era and languishing in European Museums. It is not dissimilar to Oppenheim’s view that a Museum in Berlin would be a more natural home for the treasures he excavated, albeit from an entirely different country and culture: ‘Tabet’s work acknowledges the fraught history that surrounds the ancient objects that we admire in our museums. They neither seek to obscure that history in veneration nor escape it through iconoclasm. Rather, his drawings inhabit the uncomfortable space between destruction and preservation. They help us engage the past without an encumbering injunction to preserve it.’
Yet I had always bought into the narrative of relics as entities that must be conserved and fastidiously kept intact so as to not impinge upon their authenticity. How many times have we watched one of those daytime television programmes where excited members of the public bring along an heirloom, passed down over generations, perhaps locked away in the attic and long-forgotten, to find out how much it is worth. The joy and surprise on their faces as they are told the rather ugly ornament inherited from grandma is priceless. And then the chastisement of realising that the slightly ragged doll beloved of their now adult children could have been worth so much more if it had been kept in pristine condition and never played with. But at what cost? Is it more important for relics to be sanitised and untouched as an indicator of their value or for them to be cherished and put to use? As a child I remember visiting the home of family friends who proudly showed off their newly acquired dining table and chairs, complete with the plastic wrapping still on the seats so they are not adversely impacted by everyday use. In some similar way, how can relics take on meaning in our lives if they are closeted away and rendered remote.
I am reminded of months meandering through the narrow streets in the Old City in Cairo, when I felt as if I was wandering through a living, breathing, working museum. Isn’t this how relics can form a part of the evolving landscape? Hafeez Burhan Khan vividly illustrates, in his account of an emotional visit to Jerusalem, how relics can become part of the fabric of our lives. Not static, but in harmony with a changing society. When a vicious fire tore through medieval French Cathedral Notre Dame, there was widespread sorrow at the loss of an iconic structure and a proud history disintegrated to ashes. But let us stop to think for a moment. Notre Dame is no less likely to fall than the Ottoman Empire before it, or any other Empire you care to mention. What we experience at moments of loss such as the fall of this emblem of power is the next shedding of a city’s skin. After loss let there be growth. Notre Dame represented a moment in a culture and religion’s past and from the charred remains a new skin will develop. If we don’t allow this organic process to take place, all we are left with is stagnation. Notre Dame is a symbol of power that lies at the centre of France’s complicity in a savage colonial campaign that oversaw the devastation of entire African civilisations and theft of its ancient relics. Its destruction and planned restoration reflects the violence of this history and now that we have the potential for renewal, perhaps this is a metaphor for the opportunity France now has to make reparations by returning the artefacts it plundered to their places of origin.
By mourning and then letting go of our attachment to relics as being fixed exactly as we remember them, such as Notre Dame, we empower them to exist beyond us. This beckons Tugendhaft’s observation of the ‘individual dignity’ of each Tell Halaf fragment ‘that disrupts our desire to possess things whole’. Because that desire may encourage us to harbour unrealistic hopes for attachments to remain the same, prompting an unhealthy synergy that benefits no-one. Sahil Warsi recounts visiting his grandparents house one day to find that a shield and two curved swords that had been in his family for generations and had mesmerised him since he was a child, had been sent to Dewa near Lucknow, to be displayed at the entrance of the shrine of saint Waris Ali Shah. The impact of the loss surprised even him. His grandfather counselled that the swords had been given a new lease of life in their new home, appreciated by far more people than when they were rusting away in a seldom entered room in their home. Later when reflecting on the fate of a cherished box of tabarrukat (blessed items) including a mohr (tablet used in prayer) made from the soil of Karbala, Sahil realised his grandfather hoped that he would take custody of the sacred relics after his death. The unending complexity of family politics meant that Sahil knew he would never be able to fulfil this wish and that the heirloom would be passed on to his uncle. It weighed heavily on him that he was unable to make the promise to his grandfather, but found solace in his earlier words. ‘I thought about what Papa had said to me about the swords, how in letting go of an object, we may allow it to live on. What made the tabarrukat valuable to Papa is perhaps not exactly what makes them valuable to my uncle or relatives who visit him. Yet through their gaze and reverence, the objects live on.’
The idea that we may live on through material objects that mean something to us, is one way in which we grapple with the existential crisis of finding purpose in our existence. Creating a legacy to pass on, something to pass down so that it may become an esteemed relic for future generations, is a compulsive ideal. How many people are seeking to create a legacy so that they may not be forgotten in the annals of time. When it became apparent I was not destined to contribute to the creation of the next generation, I remember feeling overwhelming sadness that there would be no one who would be excited to read my old letters or delight in my childhood photographs in the same way my siblings and I marvel at my parents’ life’s paper trail. Who will care about my achievements, never mind the minutiae of my life, once I am no longer here to remind the universe of my presence? But I cannot wonder if this is simply a tainted image of where I and others of my generation find ourselves. Yet again in another of those transitional periods. The physical does not bear the same value it did to my parents and we would be naïve to believe it will not bear less and less value to subsequent generations. What will children of the future marvel over? Our social media feeds? Digitised images of structures and objects lain waste to the sands of callous time? In an applaudable act of irony, the selfies of today desecrate the sacred and dehumanise the self as we all rush to show the rest of the world that we had accomplished something and that our lives mattered. I take solace though in that as our lives become more digitised, we will see that ‘oh so familiar’ of value bequeathed inanimate things which we will come to know as digital relics. Let us just hope we don’t note these wonders in parody. There is a beauty in what digital humanities promise. The ability to see what would otherwise be lost through war or natural disaster (both unfortunately of our own doing). It offers a chance to connect to something beyond ourselves and our increasingly busy lives, beyond our income levels, and beyond the number of followers we have accumulated. Despite what our situation and circumstance bring the human race to next, we will continue to latch onto that which allows us to transcend.
Relics, whether they are intimate or monumental, signify the transience and also the regenerative quality of life. Warsi captures this view: ‘As containers of meaning and sentiments, relics reflect our relationships to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us. In this way they ask us to make a decision about what we hold on to through them and what we let fall away. In the case of objects, perhaps sometimes letting go is part of letting things live on in different ways or allow others to hold on to something they need.’ What is it that we need from relics? Is it the feeling of rootedness, being part of a moment in time? In The Gift, Atiye’s life was simultaneously turned upside down and given new meaning by the archaeological discovery at Göbeklitepe. Evidently, relics can enrich as well as provoke, but only if we give them the space to breathe and similarly create the space in our lives into which they can be curated.