Procession of the Mahmal Through the Streets of Cairo
is a veritable tour de force by Deutsch, both in terms of the complexity of the subject and the sheer scale of the work. Stylistically, too, it marks a new departure in Deutsch’s oeuvre
, away from the highly poised and minutely observed portraits towards a freer, bolder, more impressionistic idiom befitting the dynamic scene portrayed. The painting is clearly grounded on Deutsch’s personal participation at a public event in Islamic Cairo, the procession of the Mahmal
– the camel-mounted litter containing the holy Qu'ran, and the centrepiece of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca – as it leaves the Egyptian capital. With the incense billowing, the banners floating, the flaring of fires in portable braziers, the musical instruments playing, the crowd peering and pointing, Deutsch gives life to celebration central to Muslim life.
The procession of the title is wonderfully arranged. Foremost is a dervish, someone who follows a Sufi Muslim tariqa
or path. These mendicant ascetics are known for their poverty and austerity. The man’s expressive features portray his participating emotion. He holds a censor whose smoke drifts up towards the amulet on his chest. Behind him follow other members of the religious community, identified by the colour of their turbans: dark green for the Rifa’iya order, red for the Ahmadiya order, and white for the followers of `Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani. With staves in their hands they fan in an arc towards the figure in green, probably a Sufi shaykh and presumably a Sharif, a descendant of the Prophet. This central figure is positioned directly below the Mahmal, the focus of the festive occasion, and a central part in the annual departure and return of the pilgrimage caravan.
Pilgrimage to Mecca is the ‘fifth pillar of Islam’, first ordained for the Prophet Abraham. It is a duty incumbent on every Muslim adult male who must perform it at least once in his lifetime if he has the means to do so. The pilgrimage takes place in the first two weeks of the Islamic lunar month of Dhu’l Hajj.
The Mahmal (literally, the place of that which is carried) is a palanquin of wood, its base broader than its length, surmounted by a four-faced pyramid whose corners and apex are capped by ball-shaped finials, the whole covered by richly embroidered brocade. The origins of the mahmal’s shape and its ceremonial purpose is disputed, but in Egypt its use as a political symbol goes back to the time of Baybars, the first effective Sultan of the new Mamluk dynasty. Following the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258, Baybars re-established the Abbassid caliphs in Egypt. In 1266 Baybars sent the Mahmal to Mecca, as a symbol of the new political authority residing in Cairo and of the sovereignty this new dynasty claimed over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
In the painting, the triangular shape of the Mahmal’s cover rises out of a mist of incense. The singular man in a reddish wrap riding the camel - whose head with its yellow upright tassel is just visible over the throng - seems to be the ‘Sheykh of the Camel’, depicted as described by Edward Lane, a British scholar of Islam who lived in Cairo during the 1830s and who witnessed many such processions: ‘a long haired brawny, swarthy fellow, almost entirely naked.’ (Edward W. Lane: Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians,
1836 (1963 edition), p. 446). To the left, the rider on the white horse is probably the Shaykh al-Bakri, official head of all the Sufi tariqas of Cairo. Again, Deutsch acclaims this central area through the outstretched arms, left and right, of the people in the crowd.
‘The streets of Cairo’, the third element in the title, is the most difficult to identify. The wide street space, the festive pennants and awnings fluttering from roof-top cords, the tall façade on the left with its elevated white marble entrance platform, and the indistinct roundel (between the first and second banners), all suggest that the procession is moving north in front of the double complex of the Sultan al-Ghuri madrasa-mosque, the last of the great Mamluk buildings erected in the early sixteenth century.
Ludwig Deutsch, as an Orientalist painter, is among the most coveted among collectors of the European artists who came to Cairo at the end of the nineteenth century. Although Deutsch was an Austrian by birth and training, he was a long time resident of Paris, and in his meticulous attention to authentic detail he was a disciple, if not a pupil, of the great French Orientalist artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. In the 1880s and 1890s Deutsch made several trips to Cairo, where he sketched what impressed him. While there he acquired also a large collection of props, artifacts and costumes which he used to create many of his tableaux in his Paris studio. In his resulting works, Deutsch is praised for his meticulous attention to detail, his ability to render textures and pattern, and his devotion to a few figures composed to illustrate aspects of Islamic culture. His most intriguing works are those in which he adds decorative details which are identifiable to specific buildings, and in which his intuitive perception of Islam can be felt.
We are grateful to Caroline Williams for this catalogue entry.