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Awwal Bait ‘First House’

In its inaugural edition, the Islamic Arts Biennale celebrates the art of Islam—the art of being a Muslim.

This Biennale explores the timeless rituals that have defined Islam from its beginning through to the present day. These rituals are about movement, sound, and invisible lines of direction. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the custodian of the two holy mosques and the sacred landscapes around them, is the spiritual focus for Muslims across the world. Awwal Bait, literally meaning “First House,” refers to the Ka’bah in Makkah, the holiest site in Islam. This Islamic Arts Biennale is situated at the gateway to Makkah, in the historic Hajj Terminal in Jeddah. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1981 and recipient of the 1983 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, each year this prestigious building welcomes millions of pilgrims making their way to the Ka’bah. Over the centuries billions of people from around the world have passed through this region, the Hijaz—sharing their rituals, crafts, traditions, and knowledge—making it one of the greatest areas of cultural exchange on Earth.
However diverse Muslims across the globe may be, the Awwal Bait, the First House of Allah in Makkah, is in all their hearts, and always present in the daily rituals of worship. This shared source of faith, shared philosophies, and shared sense of belonging unite all Muslims.

The Islamic Arts Biennale juxtaposes contemporary art and historical artifacts as expressions of this sense of belonging—of being at “home,” both at a personal, human level, and on the scale of the infinite and eternal.

The Biennale is organized around two main themes: Qiblah and Hijrah.

Part 1: Qiblah / Sacred Direction

The Qiblah is the direction of the Ka’bah in Makkah, which every Muslim faces in their daily prayers. It unites Muslims at prayer in one collective, planet-wide gathering.

The first part of the Biennale traces a journey toward this shared spiritual focus through daily and yearly Islamic ritual. In a sequence of galleries, historical objects and contemporary artworks offer reflections on these acts of faith. They begin with the adhan (the call to prayer), traveling ceaselessly across the world with the movement of the sun. Ritual purification prepares Muslims for the practice of daily salat (prayer), whether performed as individuals or in a congregation. The exhibition looks at how the end of life is marked, before ending in a display of two priceless historical artifacts from the Ka’bah itself.

Part 2: Hijrah / Migration

The Hijrah was the journey of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuH) and his followers from Makkah to Madinah, fleeing persecution. This “migration” marked the beginning of the Islamic calendar.

Many migrations in our world are associated with loss and displacement. But they can also be communal celebrations that fortify a sense of universal belonging—bridges between here and elsewhere.

The second part of the Biennale, under the canopy of the Hajj Terminal, presents specially commissioned artworks that reflect on the theme of migration in multiple senses, from the way that culture travels and is exchanged, to how pilgrimage has coloured the cultural life of the Hijaz.

Within the landscape under the canopy, two pavilions showcase rarely seen historical artifacts from the cities of Makkah and Madinah and highlight the role of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as custodian of the holiest sites of Islam.