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Posts tagged ‘cultural history’

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.

Tour de Force: A Selected History of Guided Tours

By Clemency Hinton (@clemencyhinton)

Guided tours are part and parcel of today’s tourism industry. In fact, there are over 1,800 registered professional tour guides in the UK alone.[1] Tour guides (also known as rangers, couriers or interpreters) can be traced through history, leading one scholar to describe guiding as likely to be ‘among the world’s oldest professions.’[2] The World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations defines a ‘Tourist Guide’ as a qualified person who ‘guides visitors in the language of their choice and interprets the cultural and natural heritage of an area.’[3] However, guides have existed long before they became part of a recognised profession.

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The Cancellation of Christmas

Philippa Carter (@extispicium)

In The accomplisht cook (1660), the English chef Robert May recommended to his readers a feast ‘to be used at Festival Times, as Twelfth Day [of Christmas]’. All the budding cook had to do, May explained, was to construct – in pastry – a castle, a ship laced with gunpowder, a wine-filled stag impaled with an arrow, one pie containing live frogs, and another live birds. Once served, it was simply a matter of persuading ‘some of the Ladies’ Read more

Uncomfortable History: Modern Skull Collecting

By Jeremiah J. Garsha (@jjgarsha)

It is comforting to think of the collecting of human heads as existing in the distant past. When visitors to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford marvel at the shrunken heads display, they do so under a combination of alterity and distancing. The process of shrinking the heads renders them distinguishable from life-sized heads, as does their distant geographic origins as creations by Amazonian ‘tribes’ bought by Victorians as souvenirs. Visitors to art museums also encounter human heads. Dubbed memento mori, the appearance of skulls in early modern European works of art was a leitmotiv reflecting mortality. Viewers of these paintings can relegate even this artistic practice as existing in a removed history, like the objects themselves.

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‘[W]ho so wyl a gardener be’: arboriculture in late medieval and early modern commonplace books

By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)

Recently, while on the hunt for signs of the reception and expression of legal ideas and practice in late medieval and early modern writing, I had cause to dip into some of the commonplace books surviving from the period. A ‘commonplace book’ has been generally classed by historians as an idiosyncratic, miscellaneous compilation of transcribed and original materials, usually in manuscript form. Surviving examples of these books were produced by urban merchants, country gentlemen, monks and village priests, amongst other now-anonymous scribes. Though their contents vary from professionally-copied poetry and literary works to scribbled accounts, family histories, and household recipes, I was struck by a particularly niche common theme: arboriculture.

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A tale of two cultures: a historian’s guide to Bolzano

By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)

As part of my research fieldwork this year, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the city of Bolzano in Northern Italy. This South-Tyrolean city provides a perfect example of how small, provincial cities often have rich and diverse histories which make them prime points of study for enquiries into historical change throughout Europe.

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World at their Feet: The World Cup and History

By Tom Smith  (@TomEtesonSmith)

For any football fan, and even for many who don’t usually indulge in the ‘beautiful game’, the arrival of the World Cup every four years provides pure escapism. Even in England, the disappointment of a predictable penalty shoot-out defeat is assuaged by the tournament’s association with long hot summer days, the colours and sounds of packed stadia, and the creation of iconic images on the pitch below. Simply put, the World Cup seems to exist in a vacuum which transcends any given moment in world history. This year’s tournament perhaps exemplifies this fact – at a time when tensions between Russia and ‘the West’ are at their highest since the Cold War, representatives from all over the world can gather on Russian soil to play football. Murmurings about corruption, boycotts, and hooliganism bubble under the surface, but in the build-up to kick-off excitement about the sport itself takes over, along with a shared sense that the show must go on. Read more

Changing rooms in eighteenth-century London


By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys

On 8 February 1750, some time between the hours of 12 and 1 o’clock in the afternoon, Baptist Minister Benjamin Wallin was ‘musing’ at his desk in the upstairs study of his Southwark home when he suddenly

‘felt the Desk move the floor shake and the Front of the house seemed to incline forwards the strut and presently an sensation of some large body falling and sounding as the covered with a Blanket or as could arise from the fall of a Woolpack of a prodigious size’ [1]

The alarming sensation, also experienced by his daughter, wife, maid, and neighbours, turned out to have been an earthquake, the first of two to hit London within a month of each other. Wallin was among the many who interpreted this as a providential act; he preached on the matter three days later. Of more interest here, however, is that in the course of the detailed description he gave of the event in his diary, Wallin inadvertently left us a rich insight into the domestic space of a moderately wealthy eighteenth-century London household. Read more

Optimo dierum! – Ancient winter festivals

By Alex Wakelam | @A_Wakelam

It should come as no surprise to most that the festival of Christmas, as practised by Europeans, did not come into existence at this time of year by itself. Long before the supposed birth of the Nazarene, ancient cultures celebrated a number of winter festivals. Nor is this acknowledgment necessarily a new one; in 1560 the new Church of Scotland issued its First Book of Doctrine (whose authors included John Knox), which declared that ‘the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady’ were the inventions of papists as they had no basis ‘in God’s scriptures’. Christmas was clearly an invention of the Church, but it is also clear that this invention was not without its own sources even if they were more pagan than biblical. Read more

‘Where are the Dinosaurs?’: Reflections on Public History at the Museum of Jurassic Technology

by Tom Smith – @TomEtesonSmith

What connects the obscure lives of neurophysiologist Geoffrey Sonnabend and opera singer Madelena Delani? Are these people even real? Is there really an elaborate miniature engraving of the Crucifixion on that seemingly ordinary fruit stone? Are we supposed to take these heroic portraits of the dogs of the Soviet space programme seriously? Are bees really seen to be so integral to the life cycle within certain cultures that they must be told if a member of the family has married or died, and are invited (in writing) to funerals? And what on earth does that have to do with Alexander Fleming? Read more

‘Our story remains unwritten’: the ethics of writing histories across cultures

by Tom Smith

What does it mean to write a history of a culture other than our own, and how do we do this sensitively? This is an issue upon which historians rarely reflect explicitly. My dual passions for American history and Pacific Ocean history have been fuelled not by any particular personal investment or cultural immersion, but by pure fascination. While I’ve visited the United States a handful of times, dipping my toes in the waters of San Francisco Bay is the closest I’ve ever come (geographically speaking) to the Pacific cultures whose histories I claim to represent. Read more

History from below: fashion, freedom, and the female form

By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

Attempts to shape the female form are nothing new, as current exhibitions at the V&A and York Castle Museum show. Neither is the particular concern with the posterior, demonstrated today by an increased demand for buttock implants. Such permanent “improvements” are beyond the financial reach of most people. The less wealthy (or less confident that the fashion will be a lasting one) can employ rear-enhancing items of clothing such as the Booty Pop to supplement their behinds. Modern fashion and lifestyle magazines give ample guidance to those who want a large behind with a small price tag. But what did women in the past do, and what might paying attention to these fashions suggest about our modern obsessions? Read more

“In their reckless lust they forget their sex” – LGBT history in the Middle Ages

by Tim Wingard – @Physiololgus

Tim is a graduate of the University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies. His research interests include issues of historical sexuality, the latin bestiary, and medieval travel writing.

There is a tendency in popular histories and in the teaching of the subject at school to assume that the Middle Ages were an inherently heterosexual era. The stereotype of medieval life involves hyper-masculine knights fighting each other for the affection of damsels, according to a code of chivalry that set strict boundaries for relations between the sexes. LGBT identities are generally regarded as a ‘modern’ phenomenon, something that simply did not exist in this premodern world. In fact, some of the most exciting research in medieval scholarship since the 1980s has been done on unearthing the ‘secret history’ of diverse medieval sexualities.

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10 lesser-known medieval and early modern places in Greater London

By Spike Gibbs

Spike is a first year PhD student in working on office-holding in late medieval and early modern England.

London can appear to be an overwhelmingly modern city with its towering 20th century office blocks and grand Victorian architecture. Whilst there are some very famous medieval landmarks such as the Tower of London, and early modern ones such as St Paul’s Cathedral, these can appear to be oases in the capital. However, if you know where to look London has many surprises for the pre-1750 historian and here are ten of my favourites: Read more

Remembering slavery: a personal guide

By Louise Moschetta | @LouiseMoschetta

February 2015, Trinidad

Sharing a ride back from the archives to the B&B with Paula, the owner, I quizzed my driver on an article I had recently read concerning women and business ownership in the Caribbean. The writer of this article compared the percentage of female business owners on a global scale and positioned the Caribbean at the forefront with an impressive majority. Women constituted such a large proportion of business owners, as well as making up the majority of academic achievement, that there were now concerns that boys and young men were lagging and being left behind. I asked Paula for her thoughts. Read more

Historical Voices

By Kayt Button, @kayt_button

Today we collect a vast array of readily available information in the form of statistics, stories, reports, and videos available publicly on the internet or through more official channels. These are created by journalists, public servants, and the public at large who are able to self-publish. Before the advent of what has been named “Big Data”, events were written down, or photographed, by a few individuals and published. Before that, pictures and oral histories recorded important events. All these sources have their own difficulties – in the case of Big Data, as the name suggests, the volumes of available information can be overwhelming. Hard copy written sources were authored by someone and understanding the writer can be as important as what they reported, which is also true of oral history, drawings, and photographic evidence. Read more

How people saw: looking at photographs in history

By Jess Hope

“To the complaint, ‘There are no people in these photographs,’ I respond, ‘There are always two people: the photographer and the viewer.” – Ansel Adams

How do historians approach photographs as sources? Those of us who study the mid-19th century to the present can access a wealth of moments ‘captured’ on film, ranging from portraits and images of domestic life to war photography and documentary photojournalism. Historical photographs provide fascinating contextual information: who was present at a certain event, what they wore, the kinds of wallpaper designs that were fashionable at the time. But can we rely on what we see? And how should we interpret it? Read more

Beach reading for historians (or why simple writing makes your argument smarter)

by Marta Musso

Summer reading is always tricky for young academics. On the one hand, the summer holidays are the perfect and unique time of the year to relax and read all the pleasant, light novels that you never have time for. On the other hand, summer is also the time to catch up with all the serious reading that is not directly related to your research project but you know you should read sooner or later.

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Margaret F. Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones, The Clothing of the Renaissance World (2008)

by Katy Bond 

When Cesare Vecellio published his celebrated book of world dress in 1590, the Earth’s horizons must have seemed to the Venetian artist, to be ever-expanding. First published under the title, ‘Degli habiti antichi et oderni di diverse parti del mondo’ (‘Of the clothing, ancient and modern, of diverse parts of the world’), his work claimed to offer its readers an encyclopaedic reference for the appearances and cultural habits of people the world over. Having been republished as a facsimile edition – with English translations – by Thames & Hudson in 2008, Vecellio’s invaluable research is now easily accessible to the historian interested in early modern clothing.

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