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. Nonetheless, three of the eight pictured in have died since the photographs — the only ones ever permitted — were taken, and only three remain fit to carry out their full duties.
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: Ahmed Ali Yaseen by Adel Quraishi.
Ali Bodaya Ibrahim by Adel Quraishi. 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. The scale at which the Guardians are shown, the degrees of crop, and their poses all vary. So do their clothes: 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: Ahmed Masibo Saleh by Adel Quraishi.
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.