The maḥmal is a tent-like construction accompanying since the late 13th century the pilgrims on their pilgrimage to Mecca. Originally used in earlier times only as a so-called miḥaffa or hawdaj (litter) to transport noble women on the back of a camel across the desert, it gained a ceremonial role during the Mamluk era. It was made of embroidered fabrics and symbolized the authority of the sultan. The maḥmal was normally covered in a silk cloth, beautifully decorated with Quranic verses, arabesques and scrollwork designs.
Before departing on Ḥajj, it was paraded in the streets of Cairo, Damascus or other major cities where pilgrims usually departed on their journey with great pomp and ceremony and watched by thousands. After the pilgrimage, it did not remain in Mecca but was brought back to its original place by the returning caravan. 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 it was discontinued after the abolishment of the Ottoman caliphate.
Some examples featuring the maḥmal:
For more examples, please visit this thread on my Twitter.
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.