Blog post

Hajj and the remarkable story of the Mahmal

Hajj is the annual pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mecca, the holiest city in Islam and the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. Discover the longstanding tradition of offering intricately produced textiles to the holy shrines.

Black and white print after an oil painting by Konstantin Makowsky,

Every year Muslims from around the world arrive in Saudi Arabia and perform a series of elaborate rites which take place during five days of Dh'l-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic calendar. Hajj begins with a visit to the Ka'bah - a the cuboid structure that is the most sacred sight in Islam - at the Masjid al-Haram mosque and culminates on the Plain of Arafat a short distance away.

Pilgrimage to Mecca is one of five Pillars of Islam and Muslims wherever they are must perform it at least once in their lifetimes, if they are able.

The ink and opaque watercolour on paper panoramic view of Mecca combines a plan of the city with a bird’s-eye view from about 60 degrees.

The most iconic of the artworks associated with the Hajj are the textiles offered to the Ka'abah. These comprised a number of different elements, including an overall covering (kiswah), a belt (hizam), the door curtain (sitarah) and the interior textiles. These were traditionally produced by master artisans at the Dar-al Kiswah, an artistic workshop in Egypt dedicated to producing textiles for Mecca until 1926, when a factory that continues the age-old tradition alongside modern technology was opened by King Abdul-Aziz in Mecca.

Black silk, with red, beige and green silk appliqués, embroidered in silver and silver-gilt wire over cotton thread padding

These textiles, presented to the Ka‘bah and to the Prophet’s Mosque by whoever had sovereignty over the Holy Places, were mostly made in Egypt. They were sent to Mecca on a yearly basis with the caravan of pilgrims.

These caravans, which were described as ‘cities on the move’, set out from Damascus and Baghdad as well as Cairo, and included pilgrims from much further afield.

'The Caravan to Mecca – the Halt in the Desert’ is a toy theatre consisting of 45 cut-outs and a desert backdrop. The set was made by Austria’s leading maker of toy theatres.
An illustration of the Egyptian Mahmal on its way to Mecca

However, it was the caravan from Cairo which ignited the imagination of so many European observers: ‘Seven thousand souls on foot, on horseback, in litters, or bestriding the splendid camels of Syria’, explorer and polymath Richard Burton observed.

The head of the caravan, the Amir al-Hajj was the official in charge of the pilgrims and their safety and along with him was a generous retinue, including judges, bakers and vets. On the way there were caravansaries and watering holes which would provide the travellers with much needed refreshment, rest, safety from attack and shelter from heat.

From the 13th century until the mid-20th century, the Egyptian caravan was demarcated with the Mahmal: a wooden palanquin covered with beautifully decorated textile which balanced upon an equally decorated (and pampered) camel. As well as being a beacon of colour and a symbol of anticipated blessings, the Mahmal was primarily a symbol of political sovereignty.

First the Mamluks and later the Ottoman Sultans sent a Mahmal to accompany the new kiswah and emphasise their role as sovereigns and protectors of the two Holy Sanctuaries.

The Mahmal was paraded through the streets of Cairo with the textiles that were being sent to Mecca, before leaving the city with great pomp and celebration; well-wishers would touch it to obtain blessings, whilst others would revel in the sight itself. The Mahmal then would formally accompany the pilgrims along the perilous journey which lay ahead.

A second Mahmal accompanied the pilgrim caravan travelling from Damascus. Unlike the kiswah, the Mahmal was not renewed every year, but it was repaired and reused over a number of years. Therefore, very few have survived and the Khalili Collections is fortunate enough to be the custodian of seven of them.

mahmal cover and finial banners of green silk, embroidered in silver and silver-gilt wire over cotton thread padding; finials of gilded copper alloy are of a later date
banners and finial banners of red silk, with green and gold-coloured silk appliqués, embroidered in silver and silver-gilt wire over cotton thread padding; finials of copper alloy; contemporary wooden frame

You can learn more about the story of the Mahmal and the cultural history of the Hajj through a new 360 digital experience, featured on BBC Click.