A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, October 15, 2012

An Old Hajj Tradition: The Mahmal

The Kiswa in 1910, when still made in Egypt
As we approach this year's hajj, I thought it might be time for one of my historical asides, this time on a longstanding (just about 1,000 years) tradition, discontinued half a century or more ago. (Sources conflict on the dating.) For many centuries (some say starting from the Fatimids in the 960s, others the Ayyubids a little later, until the 20th century, Egypt each year provided a new kiswa, the large cloth covering that covers the Ka‘aba in Mecca,which was sent in a caravan to Mecca from Cairo. The cloth was mounted atop of a camel and a procession left Cairo with considerable pomp and circumstance annually, on its way to Mecca; the palanquin on the main camel was known as the mahmal; it symbolized the power of the Egyptian Sultans and later the Ottoman Sultan, and originally carried the kiswa.

In the 20th century, Saudi Arabia began manufacturing the Kiswa locally, and the mahmal caravan tradition ended. Here are a few pictures of the mahmal procession, and a British Museum video clip from their Hajj exhibition.


David Mack said...

Unless I am mistaken, Egypt continued to send the kiswa to Mecca as late as the early 1930s. The meeting room in the Chicago Islamic Center displays a large portion of the kiswa on its walls. When I spoke there some years ago, I was told that it had been given to the center by the well known Egyptian-American lawyer Chafiq Bassiouni. He had inherited it from his father, who had been a senior Egyptian religious leader (the mufti?)

Michael Collins Dunn said...


I deliberately fudged the dates as the online sources conflict and I didn't have time to dig deeper. An Aramco World article says the Saudis started making the Kiswa in 1927, while other sources say the mahmal continued to the 1950s, and I've seen suggestions a mahmal may have been sent without a kiswa just for tradition. I hope other commenters may clear up the dates.