As Egyptians pilgrimage to Mecca for the holy Haji, Egypt’s streets and country lanes bear murals documenting their journeys. Ahmed Yas Ali, AKA the artist Eid Elsilwawi, says murals are popular in rural areas in the Egyptian governorates of Aswan, Luxor and Qeno, where he mainly works.
As Egyptians pilgrimage to Mecca for the holy Haji, Egypt’s streets and country lanes bear murals documenting their journeys. Ahmed Yas Ali, AKA the artist Eid Elsilwawi, says murals are popular in rural areas in the Egyptian governorates of Aswan, Luxor and Qeno, where he mainly works. “Hajj Murals are an integrated painting explaining the Hajj rituals in a simple manner,” Elsilwawi told Correspondents. “It is an art that raises awareness of these rituals.”
Planes, ships and camels
First white and blue layers are painted onto the wall, explains the artist, before traditional symbols depicting the pilgrimage, such as camels, are added. “Today, we replace the camels with modern transportation means such as planes, ships or buses,” says Elsilwawi. “Then we add the Kaaba drawing, followed by the remaining Hajj rites – including standing on Mount Arafat, Mina, the stoning ritual and slaughter sacrifices.” He says the final touches are a view of Medina and The Prophet’s Mosque, accompanies by verses from the Koran.
The murals reflect local customs and traditions, adds Elsilwawi. For example in the conservative Aswan Governorate, the street artist paints women on inner-facing murals, never on murals facing the public. A depiction of a woman on a mural often celebrates a female in the home who has recently returned from her pilgrimage.
Most of Elsilwawi’s materials and paints are sourced using traditional techniques. “My workshop is made of palm leafs. I cut off part of the palm leaf, smooth its tip with stone and soak it in water for a week until it is ready to be used for drawing,” he explained. “I also use natural ores for colors. For example, I use charcoal to draw black shapes while I use red and yellow dirt extracted from the mountains to add colors. However, I started recently to use some kinds of oxides for more varied colors.”
The artist has been painting for more than half a century. “The Green Dome, the Prophet’s Mosque and the camels were my first drawings as a child back in 1965. I learned this art from my uncle Sheikh Takadom who was a scholar of Al-Azhar and a calligrapher in Kom Ombo villages, north of Aswan city,” Elsilwawi told Correspondents.
Pilgrims & newlyweds
Elsilwawi says he usually paints around 15 or 20 houses during the Haji season, roughly a month. The rest of the time he lives off commissions from newlyweds. In the 1970s and 1980s he remembers a time when many extremists opposed Haji murals, preferring Quranic verses without images. Elsilwawi says he convinced most who put up resistance of the cultural relevance of the murals.
Artist Ali Marikhi believes the interest in Hajj murals is due to Egyptians’ credence and their cultural heritage. “The Pharaohs used to document their religious rituals on murals,” says Marikhi.
Despite the popularity of the murals, the number of practitioners who paint them is decreasing, say experts. “This art is threatened with extinction due to the expanded construction of concrete buildings,” says Artist Sayed Ragab, who chairs the Nubia Museum in Aswan, despite the tradition being popular in the “cultural heritage and folklore” of Upper Egypt.
The tradition may be threatened but it is unlikely walls will find them free of paint anytime soon. Passion and compassion alone still drive many artists. “I do not charge preset fees for Hajj Murals,” says Elsilwawi. “Sometimes I paint them for free for some widows who go for Hajj but lack the ability to pay for a mural. I was gifted with the talent of drawing to be able to please people, whether they are poor or rich.”