Vibrant, colorful, sometimes naïve, intriguing murals decorate the outside walls of houses in Farafra, an idyllic oasis in Egypt's Western Desert. The paintings are the work of Badr, a local artist, and they commemorate the hajj, the pilgrimage to Islam's holy shrines ' in Saudi Arabia.
Badr, who observes local custom by using only his first name, has been painting pilgrimage murals for Farafra's 200 families for the past 14 years. He is one of a new generation of regional Egyptian folk artists who are continuing the tradition of hajj painting in rural villages throughout Upper Egypt and in the far-flung oases of Egypt's Western Desert.
"The inspiration for my paintings comes from the Qur'an, from the desert, from my love for my village and the people here/' Badr says of his work, which combines his poetry and art with decorative script and Qur'anic verses.
His paintings are a lively combination of traditional Islamic themes and local Egyptian folk art, their bold patterns and bright colors based both on regional traditions that originated a few thousand years ago and on newer Islamic motifs in innumerable variations.
Integrating the mystical with the everyday, blending fine art and decorative crafts to express religious beliefs, the paintings are personal celebrations that reflect the local culture of each village and the tastes of each family, portraying the joyful journey of the fortunate houseowner to the holy city of Makkah, a journey all Muslims aspire to make at least once in a lifetime (See Aramco World, July-August 1992).
Invariably centered on a depiction of the Ka'bah in Makkah's Sacred Mosque, around which pilgrims make seven circuits as part of the pilgrimage ritual, the paintings often also show the Prophet's Mosque in the holy city of Madinah, its elaborate minarets and green dome flanked by spacious colonnades, or the Quba' mosque, the first of Islam. These structures are portrayed symbolically in the paintings, without reference to their actual geographical locations.
The individual pilgrim's means of transportation is always shown as an ancillary part of the painting. Every type and shape of large or small airplane is carefully illustrated. Smoke-puffing trains may be added; sometimes the trains are simple connected squares poised on a line which represents the rails. Camel caravans - or a pilgrim leading a single camel - cross the desert. Boats resembling floating, multi-tiered wedding cakes and bearing names such as Makkah or Salam ("Peace") are frequently included in the murals.
For the 13 centuries until 1950, the hajj journey from Upper Egypt to Makkah took more than a month; there was no way tor the pilgrim to stay in touch with his family during that time. It was a journey into the unknown, with an uncertain conclusion, and the return of the traveler amounted almost to a rebirth. Joyful family members greeted the pilgrim at the boat in Suez or another Egyptian port or at the hometown train station, or awaited the camel caravan's return to the oasis. Thus the hajj paintings expressed the family's happiness at the pilgrim's safe return, and at the same time provided religious inspiration to anyone viewing the murals.
Murals celebrating the hajj are especially noteworthy in the Luxor area of Upper Egypt, including the west bank village of Gurna; in the small villages between the oases of Kharga and Dakhla, some 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of Luxor; and in Farafra, the most distant of the oases in Egypt's Western Desert. Egyptians in these villages are proud of their murals. Eager to share the significance of the hajj in their lives, they are hospitable to visitors admiring the decorations, offering tea and happy to pose - at times insisting on posing - for a portrait in front of their painting.
While the murals share similar themes, technique varies tremendously. Strict adherence to artistic principles is often less important than enthusiasm in the amateur paintings done by friends or family, with charming primitives often created in which the familiar elements of each work are reduced to simple, straightforward geometric shapes. In Gurna, an elderly hagga, or woman pilgrim, Umm Hussein Ibrahim, has painted her own mural, with the declarations "God is most great" and the Qur'anic verse "Now shall We turn thee to a qiblah [the direction of Makkah, for prayer] that shall please thee," written over and around the Ka'bah and her self-portrait.
Upper Egypt's heritage of wall murals has an ancient lineage: Witness the pharaonic-era wall paintings still visible, their bright colors intact after more than three millennia, in the west-bank tombs and the temples of the Luxor area along the Nile, and on frescoes preserved in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, detailing the everyday life and culture of the time. The purpose of these pharaonic wall decorations was religious, showing the earthly accomplishments of those who commissioned the work, in hope that they would merit a happy existence after death.
Excavations at ancient Nishapur, in the mountains of northeastern Iran, have revealed a number of early Islamic ninth- and 10th-century frescoes and wall paintings. The detailing in the murals is one of the few surviving records of local life and customs in that era. Their aniconic motifs, ingenious geometric patterns and floral decoration form endlessly varied segments that are echoed two centuries later in Fatimid art, which often utilized brilliant, complicated murals on the walls of palaces throughout the Near East.
During the Middle Ages, the Muslim merchant class patronized artists who created frescoes inspired by classic Islamic artistic themes; despite the differences in medium, scale and period, Islamic craftsmanship over the centuries demonstrated a stylistic cohesion based on cultural and religious ideals that continues today wherever Muslims have settled (See Aramco World, November-December 1985). Towns as far away as North and West Africa possess wall paintings in this tradition, adapted to local artistic styles.
In the old Nubian villages now inundated by the Aswan High Dam, whitewashed, mud-plastered houses were built by village women, who then decorated the facades with paintings of traditional tribal designs, combining features and motifs of pharaonic inspiration with local traditional and Islamic patterns. Customarily, young girls created murals as part of their wedding preparations. The Nubian Kushafar people believed that the abstract, stylized trees and animal symbols painted in decorative arches above their windows and doors protected the house from evil spirits. The Kenuz of the north were particularly fond of rich, elaborate designs, based on floral abstracts, applied around windows and entrance doors, a tradition now being revived in some of the new Nubian villages near Aswan in Upper Egypt.
Hajj painting in Upper Egyptian villages was first recorded by anthropologists early in this century. Professor Winifred Blackman noted in 1920 in The Fellahin of Upper Egypt that some village houses were "decorated with coloured line-drawings of camels, boats, trains, trees.... Such artistic efforts denote that one or more members of the family inhabiting the house have performed the pilgrimage to Mecca."
Across the Nile from Luxor, the faded yellow walls of the west bank village of Old Gurna still show traces of early hajj murals - weathered, primitive abstracts in blacks and greens, usually painted by family members. Wherever Sa'idis, or Upper Egyptians, have settled in Egypt, they have carried the hajj-painting tradition with them. Among Badr's Berber, Bedouin and Egyptian ancestors was a grandfather from Asyut in Upper Egypt who emigrated to Farafra - Badr remembers seeing hajj paintings in the oasis dating from his grandfather's time.
Forty years ago, Dr. Jean Michot described pilgrimage murals he had seen in the older sections of Cairo, areas occupied at that time by Sa'idis. Simple home-painted murals honoring the hajj can still be found in Cairo-area villages, such as Abu Sir near Saqqara,but aside from these interesting examples, few of the paintings remain in Cairo today. In fact, hajj painting is seldom seen in the north of Egypt; the villagers of the el-Arish region of the north Sinai, for instance, shun such displays. In the north Sinai settlement of Salmana on the Mediterranean coast, school teacher Farid Mansour says the families in the area, most of them of Bedouin origin, have never had a tradition of wall decoration, preferring to honor a returned pilgrim quietly within the family circle.
But in the south of Egypt, hajj painting in all its exuberance continues to flourish; on Luxor's west bank, the work of one of Gurna's local artisans, Abdul Malek, spills over the entire facade of a house in an elaborate, near-baroque scene filled with flowers, people, buildings and animals in bright greens, blues, pinks and yellows surrounding the basic elements of the pilgrimage scenes. These seemingly unrelated elements, comprising a harmonious whole, are imbued with the same "whimsical creativity" praised by Islamic art historian Richard Ettinghausen in his survey of medieval Islamic art.
In Farafra, Badr has given his murals a look that reflects the environment of the oasis and the surrounding deserts. Farafra, 515 kilometers (320 miles) from Cairo, was for centuries a vital watering place for camel caravans crossing the desert from North Africa to the Nile, Now, the oasis is reached by a rough desert road which first traverses a flat, barren desert, followed by a black desert whose surface iron deposits were mined in pharaonic times, and finally a white desert of wind-shaped monoliths and chalk inselbergs.
Over a family dinner, shared while sitting on rugs spread on the floor of Badr's desert home, with his parents, siblings and children around him, the artist discusses some of the inspirations for this work: his religion; his love for, and familiarity with, the warm, friendly people of the oasis; and his respect for the unearthly beauty of the surrounding white desert.
"My art, my poetry, just pours out of me," he declares. "I work very fast while I am inspired by the scriptures; my brush flies across the surface. Sometimes I can finish an entire mural in one day."
Although he has no formal training, Badr has always been an artist. "I can't remember when I was not drawing. As a very small child, I went with my father when he worked in the fields and I would draw in the sand."
He wants to pass along the artistic traditions of the oasis, and is always alert for local youngsters with talent - the son of the 'umdah, or village mayor, is one of his pupils. Badr has built by hand a small museum to preserve the cultural heritage of the oasis, and atop the museum is his airy, frond-roofed studio overlooking the desert on one side and the oasis, clustered around an ancient qasr, or palace, on the other.
In his studio, Badr explains how he processes the red, yellow and brown oxides - colors of the surrounding earth, which he gathers from springs in the area - mixing them with water to achieve the right consistency. Artists in pharaonic times used the same red, yellow and brown oxides.
Badr has added his own technique of thinning the paint, then blowing it onto the wall through a narrow tube, to give a delicate, air-brushed effect which adds to the mystical aura surrounding the pilgrimage elements in his paintings. The same softly blown finish is also effective with the stencils he uses for borders - he creates an original stencil pattern each year. Since he must finish eight to 10 houses before the end of Dhu al-Hijjah, the month of the pilgrimage, this technique helps him to create the individual effect he wants for each painting, while still working rapidly. In Farafra, the pilgrim's family often redecorates the entire house while the pilgrim is en route, even adding or renovating rooms, as a surprise to honor the returning hagg. As a finishing touch, Badr is asked to paint scenes and Qur'anic quotations, both inside and out.
Like the other artists, Badr has a basic overall design for each of his murals: He includes a rectangle above the front door in which are placed the name of the pilgrim and the date that the hajj took place; adjoining this, he paints the Ka'bah and the Prophet's Mosque, with an airplane to one side, then appropriate Qur'anic verses to enhance the final effect.
"When I paint the hajj paintings, I match verses from the Qur'an to the scenes I paint," he says. When adjoining figural and epigraphic designs are repeated on a wall, as they are in these murals, the effect is reinforced, encouraging the viewer's imagination to continue beyond the edges of the picture into infinite space.
In Luxor, as elsewhere in the region, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim's pilgrimage paintings refer to a well-known story or setting based on Qur'anic tradition. Mohammed, an elementary-school teacher in el-Baghdadi, a village on the Nile's east bank, has been creating hajj paintings for his neighbors for 10 years. A self-taught painter and son of a local farmer, he painted the inspirational murals at Mubarak Elementary School, where he is a faculty member, using the same techniques that he applies to his hajj paintings.
Discussing his pilgrimage murals, which combine aspects of modern urban art with traditional techniques, this pleasant, modest young man explains how he plans and executes the paintings during the busy pilgrimage month. As clients make arrangements for paintings to be completed before the return from Makkah, Mohammed designs each mural, incorporating his interpretations of easily recognized religious themes. He then coordinates the overall finished mural with the wishes of his client, who may bring back snapshots of scenes and events from the journey to be included in the final version. Mohammed and other hajj painters instinctively structure their work using what Islamic art expert Lois Lamya' al Faruqi calls "multi-focal organization of modular segments, no module taking precedence over another," a method used "in all places and at all periods of Islamic history"
In each pilgrimage mural, these modules are distinctive: the Ka'bah in black, or covered with the elaborately decorated kiswah, along with the Prophet's Mosque with its surrounding arches, dome and minarets. Other segments vary in each painting: a crescent moon and three stars illuminating the holy places; worshipers dressed in the ihram, the pilgrim's traditional white clothing, gathered in the mataf, the area around the Ka'bah in the Sacred Mosque; a Muslim kneeling on an intricately designed prayer rug.
Some paintings contain camels carrying a mahmal, a curtained litter used in caravans traveling overland to the holy sites. In a few murals, al-Buraq, the miraculous winged creature that carried the Prophet Muhammad in his Night Journey to Jerusalem, flies overhead at the top of the painting.
Depending on local custom, there can be vases, garlands and bouquets of flowers flanking doors and windows; roof lines bordered with an ornamental painted frieze; local wildlife - in Farafra, deer and birds - or exotic wildlife, such as lions and gazelles in Luxor.
As with the murals of pharaonic times and of ninth-century Nishapur, 20th-century hajj paintings illustrate everyday life: In village scenes, a woman milks a water buffalo, while another with a water jug on her head, accompanied by a smiling young boy, strolls under the palm trees; men play the flute and dance in a homecoming celebration.
Today's artists feel strongly that they must preserve this heritage for future generations. In Farafra, Badr uses his art to record his impressions of life in the oasis for the children of the village. He knows that their traditional way of life is rapidly disappearing with the advent of modern desert development programs.
Early Islamic art, according to experts Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar, possessed "a vibrant quality which contributes to the dissolution of the two-dimensional composition by extending it subtly into depth; though the precise range of this spatial addition remains undefined, the artist has actually reached the third dimension."
Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in Balat, an Old Kingdom provincial capital, continuously inhabited for more than 2000 years, on the caravan route between the Kharga and Dakhla oases. The hamlet's smoothly rounded, whitewashed, mud-brick houses are adorned with hajj paintings so skillfully adapted to the shape of the walls, using shading and perspective, that the pilgrimage landmarks look three-dimensional and appear to float, weightless, in space.
Quotations from the Qur'an make especially effective wall decorations in Balat and Farafra. Often just one or two evocative words from a Qur'anic verse are enough to remind a Muslim, who learned to recite the Qur'an at an early age, of much longer passages. Modern decorative calligraphic friezes and stenciled designs, recalling the beautifully detailed early Egyptian pharaonic friezes seen in tombs and temples, are applied around doors, windows or an entire building, asking God's blessing on all within.
Enriched by ancient tradition, Egypt's heritage of pilgrimage paintings shows the unity of religion with everyday life, and contributes a vibrant, ever-changing aspect to Islamic art.
Ellen Burnett Moinard, architectural librarian, free-lance writer and photographer, divides her time between the Middle East and the Pacific Northwest.