Some Haj traditions lost to modernity


As with any annual event that grows over time, Haj has become a complex, carefully choreographed ritual that leaves little wriggle room to include some of the simple traditions of the past.

In fact, it’s inevitable. Up until this year, about 3 million pilgrims converged in Makkah. This year it’s about 1.5 million. In 1941, it was just 24,000. In the 1960s, it might have been a couple of hundred thousand pilgrims.

But imagine a time when Makkah was virtually empty as pilgrims headed for the holy sites. And imagine the intimacy of staying in Makkah with a small group of friends, friendly strangers offering their homes for shelter and the celebrations. The modern world has been it difficult continue some of these cherished traditions.

Even receiving Zamzam water has evolved over the decades.

“There were special people for delivering Zamzam water to pilgrims’ places of residence for a fee,” recalled Fuad Nayta of Haj about 50 years ago. “Zamazmahs had a job to replace Zamzam flasks at the Holy Mosque. There was a person who prepared Zamzam in metal cans called Samkari. He’d fix metal into the shape of the cans, fill the can with Zamzam water and then seal it so pilgrims can take it back home as gifts for family and friends.”

An older Saudi, Abdullah, who performed Haj more than 50 years ago, recalled an even earlier practice. He said Zamazemahs brought Zamzam water from the well and placed it in a large pottery reservoir and then poured it into small pottery flasks to keep it cool. Delivery was made door to door and replaced daily with new cool pottery flasks. “The flasks were scented with misk incense,” he said.

Today, Haj companies perform a very structured, yet complete service for a fee that starts at about SR6,000. But Haj pilgrims once relied on Al Mutawifeen, whose job was to be responsible for one nationality of foreign pilgrims to provide housing, food and transportation.

The Mutawif personally took pilgrims to Al-Haram, Arafah, Muzdalifah and Mina before returning them to Makkah. Mutawifeen were a family business handed down from one generation to another. The same family took care of the same nationality year after year because they spoke the language and had become familiar with their clients’ culture.
“The Mutawif used to market his service by going to the pilgrims’ country to connect with his past clients,” one Mutawif told Arab News.

Mutawifeen would rent their entire houses to pilgrims and take rooms on another floor or move out entirely, taking their furniture with them and allowing their guests to move in rented furniture.

“The connections and relationships grew between the pilgrims and the people of Makkah,” said one elderly Makkah resident whose aunt opened her home each year to strangers.

“Pilgrims lived among us.

They mixed with the family hosting them and we exchanged cultural traditions, learned from each other and cooked together. That is why Makkah’s cuisine is so rich. They even intermarried. It was once said that a lucky girl gets married to the Mutawif’s son.”

One tradition now extinct was the celebration among women and children who stayed behind in Makkah while pilgrims trekked to the holy sites. Known then as Gais, it was celebrated by the women when men went off to perform Haj.

The shops closed and housewives baked just before Haj traditional pastries of ma’moul and ghuraibah. They would design the treats in different shapes and sizes. No house was empty.

With this newfound liberty, the women would wear costumes and some would don their husband’s thobes or even police uniforms.


Categories: Arab World, Asia, Saudi Arabia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.