Journeys in Mecca and Medina with Faruk Aksoy

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Omer Faruk Aksoy is a man who has had the privilege of performing the Hajj many times. He is a veteran photographer and documentary filmmaker originally from Istanbul and has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for the past 29 years.

On Sunday, his first ever exhibition of rare images from Mecca and Medina opened at the Photographic Gallery at the American University in Cairo’s New Cairo campus.

Large, striking images of mosques, sites and pilgrims are arranged to show both the human and the spiritual aspect of the Hajj, all of them imbued with a remarkable sense of stillness and tranquility.

Aksoy captured grandiose moments of worship from aerial perspectives at the Holy Mosque, Arafat, Mina and Medina. In these, vastness is conveyed as hundreds of thousands of tiny figures are dwarfed by the sprawling mosques, valleys and mountain tops. These images are full of dramatic contrast, of space filled and unfilled by people, of men in white and women in black.

But there are also poignant images of silence and solitude: a silhouette of a man reading in Mecca, the silver mold of the footsteps of Ibrahim, the Black Stone on the corner of the Kaaba from which the circumambulation begins, and an arresting photo of a man who came all the way from India on foot to make the pilgrimage.

Additionally, two 3-D images are featured. With the help of special glasses provided by the gallery, the green dome of the Medina mosque and the golden doors of the Kaaba expand from the wall in an overlap of colors and forms.

These holy sites are “the most difficult places to take pictures,” said Aksoy. Special permits have to be obtained by the organizations that hire Aksoy. Even once he is allowed on site with the camera his presence as a photographer is not always welcomed.

“I had several fights with religious extremists I must say. There’s no place for extremism in religion. These ignorant people tried to stop me when I was on duty taking pictures inside the Holy Mosque. I had a verbal fight which was going to turn into a fist fight. They were saying ‘haram.’ Luckily there were only two or three guys, with long beards and short galabeyas, and some other people heard this harsh conversation and came around me and took them away.”

Overwhelmingly, however, the reception of Aksoy’s work, both at the holy cites and at galleries, is positive. This is the photographer’s first exhibition in Egypt but these images have previously been on display in Turkey and London. To many, the photographs afford an unprecedented opportunity to glimpse a far-off place of which they have only heard stories. But “seeing is believing,” said Aksoy.

Members of the audience at the AUC gallery seemed to agree. “It reminds you of those sacred places, it gives you the sense that you’re there and helps you to connect to them [as you] try to understand why people go there,” said Reem Khedr, a senior journalism student.

Aksoy’s life and work in Saudi Arabia has taken him beyond the momentous experience of the Hajj, which he has had the privilege to capture on film and video for the BBC, Discovery and National Geographic. He has also had the rarest of experiences, one which virtually no Muslim is granted: entrance into the Kaaba.

Twice every year there is a ceremony known as the “Cleaning of the Kaaba” whereupon a small group of foreign dignitaries and top Saudi government officials enter to ritually sweep the inside with brooms and wash it with perfumes. Aksoy was permitted to enter as well but no photos were taken, of course.

He described those moments in a tone of pleasant nostalgia: “You are so overwhelmed, you are in the core…you don’t want to actually pay attention to anything else. You see but you don’t question…you realize you’re in the most holy place on earth if you are a Muslim. And then you are pleased with that kind of moment, and you just want to pray. That’s the unique place you can pray in any direction.”

Aksoy hopes that the photographs will work in the service of mutual understanding and respect in the crossroads of civilizations that is Cairo. “This is one of the most important cities in the world,” he said, “there are a lot of tourists and also citizens living here — a mixture of culture and religions.

“I think the [the photographs] will hopefully awaken the understanding of religion and hopefully it will help for understanding each other’s [religions] living on this fragile planet.”

The exhibition is open to the public on the plaza level of Abdul Latif Jameel Hall, Sunday-Thursday, 9:30 –5:30 until December 23.


Courtesy of Photographic Gallery, AUC


Courtesy of Photographic Gallery, AUC


Courtesy of Photographic Gallery, AUC



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