As his contribution to the Nour Festival, Saudi Arabian portrait photographer Adel Quraishi has focused on what must be one of the most affecting groups available: the handful of surviving Guardians of the Prophet’s burial chamber at Medina. Prophet Mohammed lived, died and is buried there, and every Muslim aims to visit the site at least once. Since the Ottoman Empire, the keys to this holy site have been kept by eunuchs – originally from Abyssinia, later wider in origin. They are eunuchs who entered the role long ago, and are now at least 80 years old – one is said to be 110, which would fit with research suggesting that reduced testosterone gives eunuchs increased life expectancy. Nonetheless, three of the eight pictured in 2014 have died since the photographs – the only ones ever permitted – were taken, and only three remain fit to carry out their full duties. The Guardians are eunuchs, not because they have access to women’s accommodation, but for the spiritual aspect of a faith that is undistracted by sexual desire and uninfected by ritual impurity. They are revered as mediators who cross boundaries, and there’s also a sense in which time is suspended for them, as they have never gone through the changes of adolescence. That state matches the suspension of time said to occur in the well-preserved state of the Prophet’s body.
No new Guardians are being taken on, so where once there were hundreds responsible for all aspects of running the mosque complex, the remaining few spend their days in a small room connected to the burial chamber itself. They pray, clean the floor with rosewater and look after the set of keys which must be used in a closely-guarded sequence to access the chamber. Even Quraishi was not allowed to photograph the keys, but he was able to take an image of the chamber through which a constant stream of pilgrims pass: we see the architectural and decorative detail, but a long exposure time converts the worshippers to abstract marks passing through. Quraishi’s project, then, makes the most of the photograph as record: to look at the eight faces ranged – life sized or somewhat larger – around the ideally suited dimensions of Leighton House’s contemporary exhibition gallery is to look at the only pictures ever taken of an 800 year tradition which is set to disappear.
So how do the eight portraits operate as images? The late Sheikh (or Chief) among them, Saad Adam Omar, and his successor, Nouri Mohammed Ahmed Ali, look to have a more assertive presence than the other six, among whom there is less sense of personality. These are pious and self-effacing men, who have spent at least the past 60 years in ritualised routine. Quraishi describes them as humble and balanced men who put him at ease. They come across as dignified, but subordinate to their roles. Quraishi could have emphasised this by employing a serial, standardised set-up in the manner of the Bechers. However, though the octet are all shown against a plain white background (as photographed in their small and little-used office) and though all prints are an imposing 191 x 135cm (commensurate with important subjects), there is considerable variation. The scale at which the Guardians are shown, the degrees of crop, and their poses all vary. So do their clothes: they wear state dress, but have no uniform as such, nor is there any indication of rank: they are given a new robe each year, and choose which one to wear and with what. All wear a green belt, visible in several photographs and characteristic of Medina (whereas their equivalents in Mecca wear red belts). Otherwise, the colours are restrained: browns, golds, whites.
The portraits, then, are more varied than might be expected, but only to set you wondering: is that an indicator of the men’s underlying variation, or the extent of it? The effect might be contrasted with Thomas Ruff’s passport-style photographs, which pretend to impose uniformity on a patently disparate group; or with August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, which revolves around the range of jobs performed. Overall, The Guardians is a compelling representation of the totality of a rare group, and Leighton House Museum, with its Arab Hall lined with an extensive collection of Islamic tiles, is an appropriate and atmospheric location for it. That the portraits were taken at all made that impact likely; and though Quraishi could undoubtedly have carried the project out differently, the way he has done so enhances the effect.