Pilgrimage Paintings

Visitors to the many brilliantly decorated underground nobles’ tombs in the hillsides of Luxor’s West Bank are treated to another, more modern expression of mural art above ground. The plastered and painted façades of the nearby mudbrick houses and shops of the villagers are decorated with scenes of a journey, not to the afterworld of the pharaohs, but to Mecca. They are records of the owner’s pilgrimage, or Hajj. Instead of prayers in ancient hieroglyphs, the dates of the pilgrimage and the owner’s name and blessings from the Qur'an are in Arabic calligraphy around the doorway [12265].     12265
The pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the most important experiences in the life of a Muslim. The journey is an expensive one, usually undertaken later in life when children and family are no longer dependent. Often grown children will pool their resources to send an elderly parent. Every year, two months after the fasting month of Ramadan, many thousands of pious Muslims make this trip by ship, bus, car, or airplane and gather at the holiest of Muslim shrines.    
In America and many other countries, families decorate their homes with balloons, banners, and flowers to celebrate someone’s return from a long trip, the birth of a baby, a wedding, graduation, or other important event. In Upper Egypt, this decoration of joy remains on the walls as a proud statement of a change in a family member’s status [13175].     13175
These Hajj paintings have been documented by early travelers to Egypt for well over one hundred years and form a tradition that originated in the Luxor area. Hajj paintings are rarely seen in other parts of Egypt and when they are, the family’s roots are usually Upper Egyptian.    
During the weeks prior to the Hajji’s return, artists can be seen on ladders preparing the house’s walls, mixing paints, and conferring with the owner’s family as to which symbols of the Hajj or other decorations they might want depicted. The artist may be untrained, a family member or the local house painter, or be one of the several professionals who have earned a reputation locally.    
Probably the most important symbol of the Hajj is the black-draped, square Ka’aba inside the holy mosque at Mecca, which is the focus of the pilgrimage and toward which every devout Moslem prays five times a day. The mosque may be shown with a dome and one or two minarets. The pilgrim is usually shown wearing a traditional white costume, often carrying a sun umbrella [10008]; or he or she may be shown in an attitude of prayer, kneeling on a colorful carpet [10087].     10008 10087
The means of travel is usually shown. In the old days, it was by official camel caravan, and a string of camels may be seen in very old paintings. If a stop was made at a desert oasis, palm trees may be included. A single camel is often depicted carrying a gaily-decorated tented litter, the mahmal. This camel led the caravan and carried the black-embroidered Kisweh, a covering for the Ka’aba, and a Qur'an from Cairo to Mecca. This tradition ended in the 1920s, but as a famous symbol of the Hajj it is still seen today [10109].     10109
Ships carry many pilgrims from Egypt’s Red Sea ports to Jeddah, near Mecca. These are shown in a variety of styles with Egyptian flags flying and smoke billowing from funnels. Often the name of the ship is spelled out. Airplanes are also a popular means of travel for those who can afford it. They may be carefully detailed with the Horus-hawk logo and “EgyptAir” lettered in English and Arabic, carefully copied from magazine ads [10343]. But some are purely imaginary visions of an artist who may never have seen an airplane up close [19604].     10343 19604
There are other scenes of joy and celebration: flowers in vases, bowls of fruit, villagers dancing with sticks, musicians playing drums and flutes, men on dancing horses. All these picture the welcome home celebrations for the returning Hajj.    
There are more bucolic pictures of village life too: cows and buffalo grazing or being milked, women baking bread, washing clothes, and feeding chickens and ducks. Men are shown working in the fields with rows of cubist village houses behind [10657]. Similar activities were pictured on the walls of the ancient tombs of the dead close by. More exotic themes have recently become popular: charging lions, desert gazelles, and long-necked swans.     10657
Tourism plays a very important role on Luxor’s West Bank. Profits from sales at a coffee shop, or a papyrus or alabaster factory enable the owner to afford the trip to Mecca. Often the shop is also the family home. Thus it is decorated. The sellers of postcards, fake antiquities, reproductions of tomb reliefs, are familiar with pharaonic motifs. Thus, scarabs, scorpions, obelisks, gods and goddesses and hieroglyphic texts mix with Islamic Hajj themes. Winged sun disks appear over painted doorways [10102]. This unique blend of ancient and modern themes sets Luxor’s Hajj paintings apart from those in other Upper Egyptian villages.     10102
In recent years, friendly competition between local artists, such as Mohammed 'Abd al-Malek and Ahmed al-Tayyib, and a desire by shop owners to lure tourists with attention-getting paintings has meant that nearly every inch of a façade may be decorated. What results is an exuberant and unique folk art, very different from more traditional Hajj paintings in other Upper Egyptian villages.    
Unfortunately, few of the busloads of tourists on their busy schedules shuttling between tombs and temples have little more than a glance at these very colorful scenes in passing [10372]. But the paintings are every bit as fascinating as the decorated walls of ancient tombs.     10372
by Susan Weeks    

Published or last modified on: May 26, 2003
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