New exhibition on the haj showcases Kampong Glam's past as centre for Muslim pilgrims

A kiswah textile from Mecca from the early 20th century, one of the artifacts on display at the new exhibition at Malay Heritage Centre.
A kiswah textile from Mecca from the early 20th century, one of the artifacts on display at the new exhibition at Malay Heritage Centre.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - For nearly a century, thousands of Muslim pilgrims from the region would flock to Kampong Glam before they boarded steamships to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia - more than 7,000km away.

To help travellers prepare for their haj and the 14- to 18-day steamship journey in the 1950s and 1960s, the district became a hive of activity, with services such as pilgrim brokers, boarding houses and shops selling sundry goods.

After the 1970s, cheaper air travel meant that pilgrims no longer needed to transit through Kampong Glam, but traces of this past can still be found in the area.

A new exhibition at the Malay Heritage Centre highlights Singapore's historical role as the first stop of the haj from the late 19th century to the 1970s.

Visitors to the gallery can learn more about the millennia-long tradition through personal accounts of pilgrims who have made this spiritual journey.

On Friday (Oct 12), President Halimah Yacob will launch the exhibition as well as the annual Malay CultureFest at the Malay Heritage Centre in Kampong Glam.

The exhibition is titled Undangan ke Baitullah: Pilgrims' Stories from the Malay World to Makkah.

It opens on Friday and will last till June 23 next year. Admission is free.

The haj is a religious obligation for Muslims who are physically and financially able to make the trip to Saudi Arabia.

Ms Suhaili Osman, the centre's curator, said the exhibition and festival provide a platform to share this part of the Malay-Muslim culture with people outside the Islamic faith.

"By sharing stories of the haj, our exhibition hopes to provide visitors with another layer of understanding of Singapore, and our links to neighbours in the region and the rest of the world over the larger course of history," she added.

The cultural festival will span three weekends starting from Friday.

It will feature workshops, dance and theatre performances, including a contemporary dance troupe from Padang, Indonesia.

The centre's programme manager Jamal Mohamad said: "Through various art forms such as dance and theatre, we hope that visitors can experience and enjoy the Malay community's cultural heritage across the festival."