|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 June - 4 July 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (396)The deadly 1926 attack on the Egyptian pilgrimage caravan, or mahmal, strained relations between Egypt and the Hijaz and Najd (present-day Saudi Arabia) and the two sides presented totally different versions of what actually transpired. Egypt called the attack, which left 25 Najd troops dead, premeditated and said that its troops fired in self-defence. On the other side, the Najd claimed Bedouins had been incensed by the playing of trumpets by the Egyptians as musical instruments were prohibited in the sacrosanct area of Mina where the incident occurred. Whoever was at fault, there is little doubt that the raid, as Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* writes, ushered in the end of the mahmal tradition
On 24 June 1926, Al-Ahram readers opened their morning papers to find some very disturbing news. "Fighting breaks out in the Hijaz between the retinue of the mahmal and people from the Najd. An Egyptian officer and three Egyptian soldiers wounded. Twenty-five dead among the Najd forces," read the headlines.
Guarded by Egyptian policemen, the traditional mahmal procession
The mahmal is a set of richly decorated curtains carried by a camel procession and intended to drape the Kaaba. It was sent by Islamic rulers to Mecca at the time of the hajj. Under Al-Ahram's alarming headlines was the text of the coded dispatch that Gen Mahmoud Azmi, the commander of the Egyptian retinue, had wired to the Ministry of Interior following the incident. It read: "On the evening of the day before yesterday (21 June 1926, the first day of Greater Bairam), in the vicinity of the valley of Mina, a horde of Bedouins attacked the retinue of the mahmal with stones and guns. I responded by ordering a volley of gun and artillery fire, which led to loss of life among the assailants. I took this action when it proved that the efforts of Bin Saud were futile. Only one officer, Ali Effendi Moussa, and three Egyptian soldiers suffered minor injuries from the stones and a few camels were killed by bullets. We then exchanged official correspondence with Bin Saud. Please convey the pertinent information to the Ministry of War."
Next came the text of "a communiqué from the Kingdom of the Hijaz and the Sultanate of Najd and its adjuncts," which related quite a different version of the events: "The Egyptian mahmal procession arrived from Jeddah and camped at its customary site on the outskirts of Mecca. From there it proceeded to Mina, where the entire train arrived in safety. However, once there, the guards of the Egyptian mahmal sounded their trumpets, angering the Arabs of the Najd and others who believe such instruments should be prohibited in this sacrosanct area, especially during major religious rites. Thus, a mob of unidentified troublemakers assembled and headed to the source of the sound. In the disturbance that followed some of the Najdi guards accompanying the mahmal attempted to repel the mob by beating and threats.
"When news of the disturbance reached the king, he immediately sent his son, Prince Faisal, who in the company of an armed force, rushed to the scene, asked the retinue of the mahmal to remain calm and began to fight off the mob. The prince then requested reinforcements from his father, to which the king responded immediately by sending a force under the command of his brother, Prince Saud. However, as the government forces battled the mob, soldiers with the Egyptian mahmal opened fire indiscriminately on the areas in which the pilgrims from the Najd were camping, killing 25 innocent men, women and children, in addition to 40 camels. As soon as the king heard of this tragedy, he assembled all his children and the members of his family and his court and went personally to the area. Although the people of the Najd were outraged, he told them: 'I remind you of the presence of God in this holy place and I remind you of your honour and the honour of your pilgrimage and, finally, I tell you that no one shall violate the sanctity of this mahmal as long as I and those with me are alive.'
Despite the calamity that befell them, when the people of the Najd heard these words they returned to their senses and, within minutes, they all returned to their campsites. With the disturbance quelled, the mahmal procession resumed, surrounded by a force of government soldiers. Not a single member of the retinue came to harm, tranquillity prevailed and no further trouble occurred."
We set aside for the moment the discrepancy between the two preceding accounts -- the Egyptian version of self-defence and the Hijaz authorities' accusation that the Egyptians had panicked and opened fire indiscriminately -- in order to offer a brief history of the mahmal followed by a discussion of the political circumstances surrounding the fracas outside Islam's holiest city.
On economic and financial relations between Egypt and the Hijaz, Fouad El-Mawi provides extensive detail concerning the financial commitments of the Egyptian government to the Hijaz during the Ottoman era. Sending the mahmal in the season of the hajj alone was a source of considerable expense, entailing the costs of protecting the caravan, which required a force ranging from 500 men during times of relative tranquillity to more than 2,000 in less settled years. In addition, there were the costs of maintaining and manning the fortresses along the pilgrimage route and the payments for Bedouins residing along that route. Egypt was also responsible for supplying the kiswa -- the black, richly decorated covering for the walls of the Kaaba, made annually in Egypt and transported with the pilgrimage caravan to Mecca.
Work on the kiswa, which was heavily brocaded in gold and silver and adorned with precious jewels, began six months before the pilgrimage season and was periodically inspected by the Ottoman governor of Egypt. Upon completion, it would generally contain 17 qintars (approximately 765 kilogrammes) of silk and three qintars (approximately 135 kilogrammes) of pure silver. Then there was the grain dole Egypt sent annually to feed the residents of Mecca and Medina. The grain was sent by sea from Suez to Jeddah, along with the cash gifts for the nobles of the holy places. The man in charge of protecting the pilgrimage caravan and the transportation of the kiswa was a senior military figure who was granted the title Amir Al-Hajj, one of the highest positions of the state. He was the central figure of the grand procession of the mahmal which was marked by massive popular celebrations.
In Egyptian Society During the Ottoman Era, Laila Abdel-Latif describes what must have been a grand spectacle. The procession took place in the middle of the Islamic month of shawal. "Crowds would throng to watch the richly adorned litter in which the precious kiswa would be borne and which was mounted upon a decorated camel as it passed through the streets amidst the ululations of women and the supplications of the populace. The caravan was led by two companies of Turkish cavalry, followed by musical bands. It would come to a halt at the Citadel, from which the pasha (the Ottoman governor of Egypt) descended in order to present the kiswa to the Amir Al-Hajj."
In the more than 25-year interval between the end of the Ottoman era and the incident of the mahmal, Egyptian politics and society had undergone profound changes. For one, the rituals and obligations surrounding the procession of the mahmal were no longer so grand. By the 1920s, the Amir Al-Hajj was appointed annually by royal decree. In 1926, the text of the decree read: "In view of the approaching season for the performance of the duty of the pilgrimage and in view of the rectitude of Gen Mahmoud Azmi Pasha, we have commanded that Azmi Pasha, formerly minister of war and the navy, be appointed Amir Al-Hajj for the pilgrimage for the Hejira year 1344."
That year's mahmal was also to be escorted by a more modest military contingent. According to Al-Ahram of 5 June 1926, 20 officers under the command of Lt Col Galal Munir Bek were placed in charge of a force consisting of 300 infantry soldiers, six cavalry men, 89 artillery men, a five-man medical unit, two veterinarians, 20 camel cavalry men and 10 royal attendants. The newspaper said celebrations for the departure of the mahmal began at Khurunfish, where the kiswa had been manufactured. "It was headed by two companies of the Ninth Infantry Regiment to the accompaniment of a military band. As it made its way to Mohamed Ali Square, the magnificent procession was followed by a throng of spectators. In the evening, the kiswa was put on display attracting hordes of spectators. When the princes and dignitaries arrived, refreshments and sweets were passed around and Sheikh Ahmed Nada and Sheikh Ali Mahmoud recited verses from the Holy Qur'an."
The following day was the day of the grand procession. On this occasion the central figure was the king himself, heading government ministers, senior palace officials, senior religious officials and prominent merchants and notables. All were in full regalia as the "Egyptian garrison forces marched before the king," reports Al-Ahram, adding: "A 21-gun salute was sounded as the king entered Mohamed Ali Square and a similar salute heralded his departure." It was also the king who had drawn up the schedule of the mahmal, as Al-Ahram described it. It was to depart on 7 June at 8.05am from the Cairo train station and arrive in Suez at 2.00pm. The following day it would leave for Jeddah, arriving there two days later. From Jeddah it would proceed to Mecca where it would remain until 25 June, when it would depart for Medina, reaching it on 7 July. On 14 July it would depart for Yanbu and after six days there it would leave for Al-Tor in Egypt.
Neither court nor government officials had taken into account the major political changes that had recently taken place in the land of Islam's two holiest cities. Six months earlier, on 8 January, following the defeat of King Hussein of the Hijaz at the hands of the forces of Abdel-Aziz Bin Saud, the notables of Jeddah and Mecca proclaimed the victor king of the Hijaz, with the result that the holy places came under the control of the Wahabis, the radically fundamentalist movement around which the Saud clan built its state. The new regime sought to allay the fears of Muslims around the world, evidence of which we find in the following communiqué published in Al-Ahram on 27 April 1926: "All the lands of the Hijaz have been restored to peace and tranquillity. All worshippers are free to perform their Islamic rites and to visit the Mosque of the Prophet of God and we guarantee, with the aid of God, the safety and well-being of the pilgrims during their stay and visits to the holy places in the Hijaz." The statement was signed "King of the Hijaz and Sultan of the Najd and its adjuncts" and bore the seal of Abdel-Aziz Bin Saud.
King Abdel-Aziz may well have been sincere in his intentions to maintain order and guarantee the safety of Muslim pilgrims; however, there is reason to believe he was not greatly pleased by the prospect of the arrival of the Egyptian mahmal. Firstly, the caravan with its sizable military guard could have been perceived as an encroachment on the sovereignty of the new ruler of the Hijaz. Secondly, Egyptian pilgrims would bring with them many customs that would conflict with Wahabi doctrine, one of which was the nargila, or water pipe. Finally, the Amir Al-Hajj was also bringing with him the cash gifts for the nobles of the holy places, Bin Saud's traditional enemies.
Perhaps, then, Egyptians should not have been so surprised by the events that followed. On 11 June 1926, the Egyptian consulate in Jeddah hosted a reception to celebrate the arrival of the mahmal. In attendance, Al-Ahram reports, were "the governor of the city, notables, international consuls and representatives and the Egyptian community. As soldiers saluted the Egyptian flag, all present hailed the king of Egypt." Soon afterwards, the newspaper continues, "the search began for the camels necessary for the journey to Medina via Yanbu after the pilgrimage because it was the most convenient and safest route."
It was not long afterwards that the incident outside Mecca occurred. In the repercussions that followed we find the closing chapter in the history of the Egyptian mahmal. As soon as it got wind of the incident, the Egyptian government lodged a formal protest with the diplomatic agency of the Najd and Hijaz in Cairo against the accusations levelled in the communiqué released by the "King of the Hijaz and Sultan of the Najd." The diplomatic crisis was quickly smoothed over when Abdel- Aziz's representative in Cairo tendered an official apology, stating that "he was always keen to promote friendly relations between his government and the government of Egypt" and that "he was confident that the Egyptian pilgrims would meet with all possible kindness and assistance on the part of King Bin Saud and his government."
But beyond diplomatic niceties there was another dimension to the crisis: Egyptian public opinion as reflected in the national press. Of particular importance, in addition to Al-Ahram, were the Wafd Party newspapers, Al-Balagh and Kawkab Al-Sharq, Al-Siyasa, the mouthpiece of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, and Al- Ittihad, the mouthpiece of the pro-palace party. "This regrettable incident does not sit well with any Egyptian," wrote Al- Balagh. It went on to scoff at claims that the mobs were incited by the trumpeting from the Egyptian camp. "If the guards had struck up popular tunes or other such music for entertainment, one might have had some sympathy for their excuse. But those sounds were such as might be heard in any army camp, including the army camps of Bin Saud, which is why it is difficult to understand any excuse for that madness."
Kawkab Al-Sharq was even more critical. "The Islamic holy places are the property of all who embrace that religion. Therefore, any incident that occurs in the region, however minor, is a source of deep distress to every Muslim. If the Wahabis want to starve the Hijaz to death, they have but to continue down that erroneous path of extraordinary intolerance and fanaticism." Al-Siyasa was more restrained in its commentary. It also revealed a significant fact -- that in a communication before the pilgrimage season, Bin Saud had advised the Egyptian government not to send the mahmal that year. Naturally, this revelation sparked suspicions that the attack on the Egyptian mahmal was not so spontaneous after all. Not surprisingly, Al-Ittihad took the palace line, stressing warm bilateral relations now that the incident was diplomatically smoothed over. "The people of the Najd are our brothers in religion and it pleases us greatly that there exists in those parts a party of Muslims committed to the tenets of our righteous forefathers and, moreover, that this party has authority over the Kaaba, the focus of the immaculate Shari'a," Al-Ittihad said.
Contrary to custom, Al-Ahram remained silent on this occasion, limiting itself to publishing the views of others. Undoubtedly, the newspaper's Lebanese Christian management was reluctant to broach such a sensitive religious subject, a sensibility shared by similarly-owned newspapers and periodicals, such as Al- Muqattam and the magazines published by Dar Al-Hilal.
Meanwhile, back in the Hijaz, the Amir Al-Hajj faced a predicament unlike any faced by his recent predecessors. As one Al-Ahram reader put it, "For the Bedouins, faith takes second place after revenge... blood vengeance is so deeply ingrained in their way of thinking." Unwilling to face the prospect of retaliation, Mahmoud Azmi changed plans. Instead of proceeding from Mecca to Medina overland, he decided to return to Jeddah where he and his retinue would take a ship to Yanbu, then travel by road to Medina.
The Egyptian authorities wired their approval for this change of course and the authorities in the Hijaz encouraged it, undoubtedly eager to rid themselves of the responsibility of protecting the caravan from the dangers that lurked along the over 10-day overland route from Mecca to Yanbu.
In so doing, the new power in the Hijaz perhaps also wanted to convey a specific message to the Egyptian government. We get a closer look at this message in the report Azmi filed following his return to Cairo. It had long been the case that the artillery men with the mahmal would fire a cannon at prayer times on the day of ritual ascension of Mount Arafat and every day of the feast thereafter. Yet after this rite was performed on the first day, "a messenger arrived to notify Azmi Pasha that Bin Saud objected to the cannon fire. But Azmi refused to comply unless he had instructions from the king in writing which, indeed, were forthcoming." Azmi's report also states that Prince Faisal asked the leader of the Egyptian caravan to refrain from sounding the trumpet because the people of the Najd find it offensive, so much so that they call it "the devil's pipe." The failure of the Egyptian troops to respond to this appeal is what incited the Bedouin attack on the caravan. Upon entering Mecca, Azmi received further notification that "motorised vehicles were prohibited because they frighten the camels," with the reassurance that "the king and his household will also abstain from using such vehicles." Azmi issued instructions to leave the two cars and the truck that were with the caravan behind. Yet he soon observed that the members of the royal family were driving around the city as usual, "so I put our vehicles back to use in order to transport the sick and other such purposes."
Finally, it had always been the custom to keep the mahmal in the sanctuary of the Kaaba after returning from Mina and until it was time to leave Mecca. On this occasion, however, Bin Saud objected to this practice and had his adviser, Sheikh Hafez Wahba, instruct the Amir Al-Hajj to remove his men from the sanctuary. Again, Azmi refused to comply. This time he was warned that "if he did not leave willingly he would be removed by force." Again, too, "the Amir Al-Hajj demanded to see the orders in writing, which the sheikh showed him." Further communications apparently took place, for Azmi concludes this portion of his report by noting that "the crisis passed when permission was granted for the mahmal to remain within the sanctuary until the day of departure when it left amidst the customary celebration." Over the next few days, authorities in Cairo debated whether the caravan should complete its journey to Medina, even if by ship from Jeddah, or simply return home directly. They opted for the latter.
On 17 July, the Egyptian mahmal returned to Cairo. Although this was more than 10 days ahead of schedule, the festivities for the occasion took place as usual, with the customary procession of soldiers and bands from the various army units, and the mahmal armed retinue headed, of course, by the Amir Al-Hajj. More important, however, is the information Azmi revealed in an interview with Al-Ahram the following month. In his opinion, he told the newspaper, the attack on the Egyptian caravan was planned. Some of his men had told him they had overheard some of Bin Saud's camel drivers whispering among themselves that "their brothers were due there that night." Moreover, some had actually taken part in the stone-throwing against the caravan.
In the interview, Azmi also said the Egyptian government had decided to stop payments to the Meccan nobles entrusted with the care and supervision of the holy places. Apparently, the Saudi monarch refused to allow the Amir Al-Hajj to distribute these payments personally, with the result that a huge amount of the donations ended up in the wrong pockets. In short, there is little doubt that the attack on the Egyptian pilgrimage caravan in 1926, with all its attendant repercussions, was a prelude to ending the mahmal tradition. Henceforth, there would be a "pilgrimage mission" headed by a senior official who would not bear the title Amir Al-Hajj.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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