Journey to Mecca

Journey to Mecca (2009)

Journey to Mecca first published by Sight & Sound, July 2010

ReviewIbn Battuta was a fourteenth-century Berber Muslim whose 29 years of travelling, recorded subsequently in the celebrated Rihla, took him some 75,000 miles through the Eastern Hemisphere – three times further than his near contemporary Marco Polo. Bruce Neibaur’s dramatised docu-odyssey Journey to Mecca, however, focuses on the first leg of the wanderer’s travels – a formative pilgrimage from Tangier to Mecca in which the young man’s pride is tempered as he learns the value of fellowship. This 45-minute medieval road movie shows Ibn Battuta (played by Chems Eddine Zinoune, who died shortly after production ended) undergoing more than just a physical journey: for if he originally sets off in pursuit of a dream in which he flies over the Ka’bah in Mecca and beyond, then by the time his actual Hajj is complete he is at last ready, intellectually, psychologically and spiritually, to extend his quest for knowledge to the ends of the known world. 

That dream is also realised in a different way by the film itself. For if Mecca is first shown as a heady vision of radiant CGI, and later in a physical reconstruction of its appearance around 1326 C.E., by the end we see swirling aerials of the actual location during the 2007 Hajj – by which time it has become a reality for many international visitors to arrive there “on the wings of a giant bird.” 

All of Journey to Mecca was shot in IMAX®, lending Ibn Battuta’s 5000-mile desert trek the epic grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia, while allowing viewers to share in the protagonist’s increasing sense of humility – but it is in the last sequences, where Ibn Battuta’s own Hajj is intercut with spectacular footage of its modern equivalent, that the film presents viewers with something that has literally never been seen before on such a breathtaking scale. It took 2½ years of negotiations with 16 different Saudi ministries to get permission to bring the 85-pound cameras into the heart of Mecca during its holiest week. The results are suitably awe-inspiring. 

Coming at a time when Islam tends to be associated in our media with barbarity, terrorism and war, Journey to Mecca offers a stunning corrective that will in every way broaden the viewer’s perspective, as it charts the continuous journey of a peace-loving, pluralist, cosmopolitan culture from the foundational times of Abraham and the Prophet Mohammed, through Ibn Battuta’s Golden Age, to the present day.

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Synopsis: 1325, Tangier. After dreaming of flying to Mecca, 21-year-old law student Ibn Battuta determines to perform the Hajj, on foot and alone. He survives a bandit assault thanks to the intervention of a Highwayman who then offers, in exchange for payment, to guide him across the Sahara to Cairo. Once there, Ibn Battuta’s host Ibn Muzaffar reminds him of the Prophet Mohammed’s injunction to go in search of knowledge even if it leads to China. 

Against the Highwayman’s advice, Ibn Battuta insists on entering Mecca via the Red Sea. Finding the port of Aydhab war-locked, he prays for his pride to be forgiven. The Highwayman suddenly appears, and agrees to guide him back to Damascus – gratis. From there Ibn Battuta travels with a caravan to Medina, and on to Mecca, where – 16 months and 5000 miles after originally setting out – he completes his Hajj, and decides to continue his travels.      

 strap: Bruce Neibaur’s IMAX extravaganza merges recreations of Ibn Battuta’s first 14th-century Hajj with spectacular contemporary footage

Anton Bitel