The maḥmal is a tent-like construction accompanying the pilgrims on their annual pilgrimage to Mecca since the late 13th century. According to ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Samʿānī (1113-1166) in his Kitāb al-Ansāb, this palanquin was originally used as a so-called miḥaffa or hawdaj (litter) to transport noble women on the back of a camel across the desert.
Since the 13th century, however, the maḥmal gained a symbolical and ceremonial role during Mamluk rule over Egypt. The ceremonial maḥmal was empty and no longer used as a method of physical transport. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam VI (1991), this palanquin became a political symbol instead, sent by the ruling sovereign and Servant of the Holy Places with the Ḥajj caravans to Mecca as a representation of his political status, protection and authority. The litter was covered with a silk cloth, beautifully decorated with Quranic verses, arabesques and scrollwork designs. The idea behind this symbolism is that the ruler can’t possibly join the Ḥajj caravans each year, leaving his political responsibilities unattended. Instead, the empty tent acts as his substitute on the road to Mecca, its decorations and intricate patterns a sultan or caliph worthy.
Before departing on Ḥajj, the maḥmal was paraded with great pomp and ceremony in the streets of Cairo, Damascus or other major cities where pilgrims usually departed on their journey, an event usually attended by thousands of enthusiasts. The name and date of the donor who commissioned the palanquin’s magnificent cover were usually visibly embroidered in the front of it’s pyramidically shaped roof. When the pilgrimage was over, the maḥmal did not remain in Mecca but was brought back to its original place by the returning caravan, often officially received by the ruler himself.
After the collapse of the Mamluk Empire in 1517, the tradition of the maḥmal was continued by the Ottoman caliphs. The practice of sending the maḥmal to Mecca continued well into the early 20th century, but was discontinued after the abolishment of the Ottoman caliphate, since the latter’s authority was completely dismantled.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.