THE MOULID OF SHEIKH ABU HARERA, 1908
“Bimbashi” (Major) Joseph Williams McPherson (1866-1946) was a British teacher and colonial official who went out to Egypt in 1901 and stayed there until his death, having mastered Arabic so well that he could easily pass for an Egyptian. His book about saints’ festivals in Egypt, The Moulids of Egypt (Egyptian Saints-Days), published by N. M. Press in Cairo in 1941, preserves memories of rich customs that would otherwise be lost. The preface by the eminent anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard acknowledged him as his teacher.
The following extract from pp. 148-152 concerning the festival at Giza of the greatly-venerated seventh-century Abu Harera is of interest because of the ceremony’s focus on the erotic appeal of the pubescent boy, its interest enhanced by the antiquity of the customs described, some of which McPherson associated with the ancient worship of Ra.
The Moulids of Egypt by J. P. McPherson
I have come across a letter written several years ago to one of our leading anthropologists, covering so much of the ordinary moulid ground, on the secular side, that I append it verbatim. As the letter is to illustrate a specific cult of very ancient origin, it naturally does not emphasise the religious side. This, however, is by no means neglected, witness the meetings of the turuq, the zikrs, readings in the mosques, pilgrimages to the tomb, &c., and the dervish element rather dissociates itself from the kaleidoscopic charivaria which included the “royal” car, and sundry others of lads dressed up as girls, in its elements. The elimination of the more carnal parts has not, however, heightened the spiritual side, if one might judge from the dingy, dismal condition into which I found the tomb to have fallen when visited subsequent to the date of the appended letter, and the diminished number of pilgrims.
THE MOULID OF SHEIKH ABU HARERA, (GIZA).
The Professor of Sociology,
When the other day we were discussing the lamentable lapse of old Egyptian festivals, and picturesque ceremonies, and even the threatened suppression of the Moulids, under present vandalistic and kill-joy influences, you were struck by my mention of certain phallic elements in the Giza Zeffa of a quarter of a century ago. I did not realise that these had an anthropological and scientific value, but as you assure me that such is the case, I will put on record from memory what I witnessed with another Englishman, (whom you know and who will confirm this), at the Moulid of Sheikh Abu Harera in or about the year 1908. ......
There was a great crowd about the tomb, with acrobats, conjurors, dancing girls and the rest; and the streets were so thronged that my progress was most difficult, and I had to take a short cut through the harlots’ quarter, almost deserted at that early hour, and out of the route of the zeffa. At the beginning of the Suq, the main street of the little town, further advance was impossible, and I was immobilised for quite an hour watching the pageant pass, and there I spotted W., another Englishman in the same condition. After the usual “Turuq” with their banners, music, sashes, and insignia, came endless carts hearing groups dressed up to represent some guild or some fancy, and others drawn by one horse or donkey and bearing thirty or more children and women in gala attire, then I noticed approaching a large cart with a raised platform at the front. At the centre of this was a throne, and before it was standing a very handsome lad of fourteen or fifteen, perfectly naked except for a little crown, and an open bolero of crimson stuff embroidered in gold, and bearing little epaulettes, through which almost invisible cords passed. Brightly coloured circles had been painted round his navel and nipples. A “Wazir” in gorgeous robes adopted from syces’ costumes stood on each side of the monarch, one holding a gilt chamber pot and the other a basin, which with low obeissance they presented to him at intervals. Musicians beat tars, toblas, and darabukas on a somewhat lower platform behind. But the amazing thing was that the little king’s virile organ was dancing to the music in seeming excitement, turning to the right and left, dipping down, and then flying up and down as though actuated by a spring. The royal car paused for a minute or more a few yards from where I was, and I could detect a fine cord attached to the anterior portion of this marionette of flesh and blood, passing under one of the epaulettes and descending from behind to the lower part of the cart, where obviously a string-puller was concealed.
I did not witness any of the subsequent proceedings, but as far as I am aware, they were such as are common to any moulid.
Though I witnessed the zeffa on two or three rather more recent occasions, but before the war, I saw nothing of the royal car. I do not know if it was officially suppressed.
The war 1914-18 nearly obliterated this moulid, though of recent years it has recovered some little of its ancient glory; as is also the case with the Giza weekly fair, Suq el-Talat. […]
J. W. McP.