- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 14, 2010

I’d never heard of Ibn Battuta, the famed 14th-century Moroccan lawyer who at the age of 21 wanted to perform the hajj. Instead of a ride in an air-conditioned jet to Saudi Arabia, the trip in 1325 was a hazardous overland trek of 3,000 miles from Tangier to Mecca. Ibn Battuta had to detour via Damascus, where he joined a lengthy camel procession for the final 40-day trip to Mecca.

These were sophisticated caravans — like traveling towns — with judges who oversaw disputes and contingents of soldiers and food merchants, not to mention several thousand camels. People embarked on these trips because every capable Muslim is required to perform the hajj at least once in his or her life.

A group of filmmakers — none of them Muslim — were so entranced with this epic trip that they made “Journey to Mecca,” which premieres Thursday in Washington at the Imax theater of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. It runs through March 4.

“The pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the greatest cultural events on Earth, but we know less about it than traveling in space,” said Taran Davies, one of the filmmakers. “This is the side of Islam you never see on TV.”

The film, whose $13 million budget was contributed mainly by investors from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, France, the United States and Kuwait, was shot in 2007 and 2008 in English and Arabic versions. Mr. Davies’ partner, Dominic Cunningham-Reid, took two years to secure a set of unique permits allowing them to shoot a modern-day hajj on the ground in Mecca and from the air. The helicopter shots taken of millions of pilgrims with an Imax camera “has never been done before and probably won’t be done again,” Mr. Davies said.

Because non-Muslims are not allowed in Mecca, filmmakers had to train three Muslim cinematographers in Los Angeles how to shoot Imax, with the help of an 85-person support team from 30 countries. The unusual width of Imax film — 70 mm instead of the usual 35 mm — demands specialized training on how to get an ultraprecise focus for a movie that will be shown on a seven-story-high screen. A bevy of Saudi security personnel accompanied them.

“We wanted to take an audience — that’d never go to Mecca — to see this place,” Mr. Davies told me. “Only three million Muslims are allowed there per year, so the vast majority of the world’s Muslims will never get there.”

He guesses the effort was the largest documentary production ever assembled in the Arabian Gulf region. The caravan scenes alone — shot in Morocco — included 500 extras dressed in 14th-century garb, 320 camels, and 500 goats and chickens.

“What has been fascinating to us is there are Muslims alive today who can recall stories of their grandparents’ journeys to Mecca by pilgrimage caravan,” Mr. Davies said. “People would come up to us during the screenings saying it was the first time they got a sense of what it was like. It is a true picture of Islamic heritage.”

The film also includes a replica of the kaaba — the 43-foot-high cube-shaped building that is Islam’s most sacred site — as it would have looked 700 years ago. In contrast to the huge, multistoried mosque in which it sits now, back then it sat in a courtyard surrounded by desert.

Ibn Battuta ended up being an Islamic Marco Polo, traveling three times farther than the famed Italian. Instead of returning to Tangier, he spent the next 24 years wandering the planet, visiting 40 countries, including Russia, India and China, and famous Islamic capitals such as Cairo; Samarkhand, Uzbekistan; and Baghdad.

As for the hajj, he completed it seven times.

Julia Duin can be contacted at jduin@washingontimes.com.

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