From Cairo to Mecca: a tale of hajj celebrations

National Folklore Archive, Tuesday 1 Nov 2011

In this series, Ahram Online looks at how the Islamic practice of pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, has been practised by Egyptians

photo by alia Mohammed, National Folklore Archive

The story of pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca, goes back to pre-Islamic times. Under Islam, the process of pilgrimage became more standardised, and as Muslims gained more power and wealth, the procession of the hajj became more sumptuous.

The first step to perform the pilgrimage is to change into ehram, the outfit prescribed for this particular rite. For men, ehram is two pieces of white fabric, neither sewn nor hemmed. The bottom piece, called ezar, is to cover the waist from the navel down to the knees. The top piece, called redaa, is to cover most of the chest and one shoulder. Most pilgrims (the singular is haj and the plural hojjaj or hajij) carry a leather or fabric pouch to hold their cash and essential items.

For women, ehram involves wearing a long robe with long sleeves plus a scarf. Tradition based on custom and sayings of Prophet Mohammad require them to cover all of their body and hair, with the exception of the hands and the face.

Pilgrimage is considered to be one of the five pillars of Islam (along with the testimony that God is one and Mohammad is his messenger, five prayers a day, fasting in Ramadan, and paying annual alms or zakah). According to the Quran, every Muslim who can, should try to perform the hajj at least once in a lifetime.

Performing the hajj is considered a tremendous personal achievement. And it is traditional in Egyptian cities and more so in the countryside for people who performed the hajj to decorate the entrance to their homes with images of the Kaaba (the most sacred shrine of Islam) and the route and method of pilgrimage.

Writing around 1833, Edward William Lane described some of these paintings:

“Egyptians would decorate the entrance to the home of a haj three days before his return. The door and the stones around it are painted in red and white. Camels are drawn in green, black, or red. The haj in question may write to his relatives in advance asking them to commission the paintings. On the night following the haj’s return, he usually throws a party for his friends, called the nazla. Guests would arrive to welcome him on his safe return and ask him to pray for them. After resting for a week, he would give another party, called the sobou, which involves a Quranic reading.”

Paintings of this genre usually depict the hajij circling the Kaaba in Mecca and praying at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Verses from the Koran and religious poetry are commonly added.

“He who visits my grave deserves my intercession," a saying attributed to Prophet Mohammad, is usually included. Welcoming phrases such as “You brought light to your home, o pilgrim,” are often integrated into the hajj scenes.

The Kaaba

The Kaaba, which is at the heart of the hajj ceremony, is a cube-like building which has been built and rebuilt repeatedly since pre-Islamic times. According to tradition, the first man who built this "house of God" is Sayyedna Ibrahim, or Our Master Abraham, the biblical patriarch.

Early Muslim historians claim that the Kaaba was rebuilt by a tribe called Amaliq and then by another tribe called Jarham. Qusay Ibn Kelab, a pre-Islamic chief of Qureish, the tribe of Prophet Mohammad, also rebuilt it.

Biographers of Prophet Mohammad point out that he took part in at least a partial renovation of the Kaaba during his youth. After Islam, the Kaaba was rebuilt by Abdallah Ibn al-Zobeir, and then by al-Hajjaj Ibn al-Thaqafi. The Ottoman Sultan Murad II also rebuilt it in 1630.

The earliest accounts of the Kaaba refer to a roofless structure filled with statues of various deities. According to one account, the Qureish had amassed nearly 360 statues, or idols, inside the Kaaba and around it. One of the first things that Prophet Mohammad did after conquering Mecca was to remove and destroy these idols.

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