Egyptian Hajj murals: a centuries old tradition

By Yayha Nurgat (@yahyanurgat)

Every year, Muslims from across the world travel to the city of Mecca in order to undertake the Hajj, the fifth and final pillar of Islam. In many rural areas of modern-day Egypt, pilgrims return from Mecca to find the exterior of their home adorned with illustrations of the holy sites of the Hajj, along with various other images and calligraphy (see figs. 1, 2 and 3).[1]

Figure 1. An Egyptian Hajj mural near Aswan. It is somewhat austere compared to most other examples. From Top L to R: The Kaaba in the foreground of the Sacred Mosque of Mecca, Verse 22:27 (see below). Bottom L to R: A steamship at sea, and an airplane taking off. Image: Yahya Nurgat.

The earliest description of Egyptian Hajj murals comes from the Ottoman bureaucrat and intellectual Mustafa Ali (1541-1600). In his description of Cairo from 1599, he mentions:

The nice custom is also highly praised by wise people that one of the relatives of the person that undertakes the pilgrimage, one who is known to be sincerely devoted to him, has the Quran verse on the pilgrimage [Āl ʿImrān, 3:97] inscribed with large letters on the wall of his door. Some even decorate it with various embellishments and colours. Those who pass through that street will know for sure that the owner of that house has gone on the pilgrimage that year.[2]

Ali’s description alludes to the fact that it was the pilgrims’ friends or family who commissioned the artwork, and not the pilgrim themselves. The same holds true today. In the first instance, the murals form part of the pilgrim’s homecoming celebrations. Newly returned pilgrims are greeted with a prayer: ‘[May your] Hajj be accepted, efforts be appreciated and sins forgiven’ (ḥajj mabrūr wa saʿy mashkūr wa dhanb maghfūr). The same words can often be found on the murals themselves, representing the prayers and good wishes of the community. In return, the pilgrimoffers their own prayers for their guests and shares gifts from the Holy Cities, among them holy water from Mecca and dates from Medina, the adoptive city of the Prophet Muhammad and the site of his tomb.[3] Once these initial celebrations are over, the murals remain as a lasting monument to a successful Hajj. This is no longer a normal house, but a ‘Hajj house’; like the pilgrim within, the home too has undergone a sacred transformation.

Figure 2. The pilgrim’s name flanked by depictions of the Kaaba and the Green (Prophet’s) Dome in Medina. Translation of central text: ‘al-Ḥājj ʿAbd Rabbih [the servant of his Lord].  Ḥāmid Maḥmūd Sakhiyy. He undertook the major and minor pilgrimage in 1435 AH/ 2014 AD.’ Image: Yahya Nurgat.

The murals tell a story, and the pilgrim is the protagonist. Their name features prominently above the front door, prefixed by the newly acquired honorific of al-ḥājj, as well as the year in which the Hajj was undertaken (see fig. 2). The murals commemorate not only the fulfilment of the Hajj obligation but also the Hajj’s arguably most challenging component: the journey from Cairo to Mecca. From at least the eighth century to the nineteenth, the Hajj journey was undertaken primarily by land, a route that was as lengthy as it was perilous. By the mid-nineteenth century, pilgrims began to travel via steamship from Suez to Jeddah, cutting the journey to only three days. Despite its swiftness, sea travel carried its own hazards, mainly related to a lack of safety and the spread of disease.[4] Sea travel was itself superseded by air travel beginning in the 1970s, though a small number of Egyptians continue to travel via the Red Sea to Jeddah. The murals convey this long history of Hajj travel, with steamships and camels depicted alongside buses, trains and aeroplanes.

Figure 3. Side wall, carrying verse 3:97 (see below). Image: Yahya Nurgat.

While illustrations vary from one mural to the next, representations of the Kaaba are ubiquitous (see figs. 1 and 2). Even though the rites of the Hajj occur both in and around Mecca, the Kaaba is the magnet which draws pilgrims to the city. The Quran states that ‘Pilgrimage to the House [the Kaaba] is a duty owed to God by people who are able to undertake it’ (3:97).[5] This verse frequently captions depictions of the Kaaba on the murals, just as observed by Mustafa Ali in the late sixteenth century (see fig. 3). Another commonly inscribed verse represents God’s instruction to Abraham: ‘Proclaim the Pilgrimage to all people. They will come to you on foot and on every kind of swift mount, emerging from every deep mountain pass’ (see fig. 1).[6] By undertaking the Hajj, pilgrims respond to this ancient call.

Figure 4. A Prophetic tradition (see below) beside the Green Dome of the Prophet in Medina. Image: Yahya Nurgat.

Another ubiquitous feature of the murals is the iconic green dome which sits atop the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb in Medina (fig. 4). Pilgrims visit both Muhammad’s mosque and the tomb located within it before or after travelling to Mecca. A famous tradition of the Prophet explains that the space between his grave and his pulpit is a garden of paradise.[7] This tradition is often found alongside images of the tomb (fig. 4). Another commonly used tradition promises Muhammad’s intercession for anyone who visits his tomb.[8] In combining both text and imagery, the artist testifies to the pilgrim’s journey through a sacred landscape, their fulfilment of an important obligation, and their gaining of blessings and intercession in the Prophet’s city.

The Hajj murals recall a time prior to the advent of photography in which illustrations of Mecca and Medina were few and far between. While such illustrations are now significantly more widespread, the murals endure as a living tradition through which Egyptian Muslims continue to commemorate, contemplate, and celebrate the Hajj.    

[1] Depictions of other historic means of transport, such as pilgrim caravans, other animals and talismanic symbols are also sometimes added to this combination. See Juan E. Campo, “Visualising the Hajj. Representations of a Changing Sacred Landscape Past and Present,” in The Hajj: Pilgrimage in Islam, ed. Eric Tagliacozzo and Shawkat M. Toorawa (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 269–87, at 283. For the richest collection of images of Hajj murals, see Ann Parker and Avon Neal, Hajj Paintings. Folk Art of the Great Pilgrimage (Cairo: AUC Press, 2009 [1995]).

[2] Mustafa bin Ahmet Ali, Halatü’l-Kahire Mine’l-Adati’z-Zahire, trans. Andreas Tietze, Mustafa Ali’s Description of Cairo of 1599: Text, Transliteration, Translation, Notes (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1975), 33. Cited in Remke Kruk & Oort Frans, “Hajj Murals in Dakhla Oasis (Egypt),” in Hajj: Global Interactions through Pilgrimage, ed. Luitgard Mols and Marjo Buitelaar (Sidestone Press), 163-184, at 164.

[3] The date palm is frequently mentioned in the Quran and was both favoured and praised by the Prophet Muhammad.

[4] This issue of safety continues into the recent past; many hundreds lost their life in a disaster on the Red Sea in 2006: “Hundreds feared drowned in Red Sea disaster.” The Irish Times [Accessed 19 July 2020].

[5] M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (trans.), The Qurʾan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), Q 3:97.

[6] Ibid. Q 22:27.

[7] ‘There is a garden from the gardens of Paradise between my house and my pulpit,’ as recorded partially or wholly in several Hadith collections.

[8] ‘Whoever visits my grave, my intercession is guaranteed for him,’ as recorded in Sunan al-Dāraquṭnī and Musnad al-Bazzār.

2 thoughts on “Egyptian Hajj murals: a centuries old tradition

  1. Very well researched. Enjoyed reading the article.

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