All things sweet
looks into the history of that quintessential accessory of Mulid Al-Nabi, the sugar doll
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Clockwise from top: sugar-candy horses adorned with the green flag of Egypt under the monarchy and the red flag of the Ottoman Sultanate stacked for customers; settling for the traditional doll; and candy horse; the modern doll; adding the final touches
Celebrations marking the birth of the Prophet Mohamed, which this year falls on 20 March, are multi-faceted -- there are religious sermons and songs, the screening of classic films based on the life of the prophet, a preponderance of brightly coloured awnings to decorate the entrance to sweetshops. But it is in the sweetshops themselves that Egypt's most idiosyncratic contribution to the feast is to be found for among the heaped confectioneries, the piles of nuts and other sugar-coated delicacies, there will be rows of mulid dolls.
The doll, fashioned from boiled sugar, first appeared during Tulinid times though its popularity only flourished during Fatimid rule, particularly during the reign of Al-Moez Ledin Allah Al-Fatemi. Typically, it is dressed in a Mameluke outfit, a waistcoat with fitted body and long, generous sleeves, the body covered in a full skirt that has the advantage of ensuring stability, posed often with hands on hip and with three paper fans attached to her back like wings.
Dolls, says Iman Mahran, a professor at the Institute of Folk Culture, have a long history in Egypt, dating back to ancient times. The three "wings", says Mahran, which are set in a pyramid shape, originally represented Isis, Osiris and Horus, symbolising the marriage of heaven and earth, then assumed more Christian connotations before being co-opted as an integral part of the Muslim festival. The colours are vivid, and the zigzagged ends of the paper fans echo the hieroglyph for water, a direct link to the River Nile.
"The Ancient Egyptians had lots of dolls adapted to a variety of purposes," says Mahran. They could bring good luck and protect their owners against the evil eye. The mermaid doll was thought particularly useful in bringing good fortune, another woven from the stalks of wheat, and the third it eventually became a kind of harvest offering.
Alongside mulid dolls, horses are also made, many with riders. The symbolism here, says Mahran, is even more direct: the horseman is a traditional hero, be he Mar Girgis or a figure without Christian overtones. Animals often symbolise particular qualities in folklore: the camel, for instance, represents patience, the hoopoe is the messenger of Suleiman, and the cockerel used to signify the Muslim call to prayer.
Mulid dolls and horses are made from molten sugar mixed with lemon which is then poured into wooden moulds. The figures are sealed when the moulds are immersed in brass basins of water, and then decorated, the dolls being given their characteristic wings and make up.
Unfortunately, in more recent times, the use of low quality materials and toxic colours in the decoration of the figures has impacted on their popularity, and now many parents refuse to buy them for their children. Thus it is that the plastic doll has taken over the market: it is durable, multi-functional, by default less costly and, predictably, made in China.