Over the centuries, Egyptians have preserved a number of outstanding customs and traditions in celebrating the birth of Prophet Muhammad every year.
Before Al-Mawlid, Egyptian parents accompany their children to nearby sweet shops and bakeries to buy Arouset Al-Mawlid, colourful sugar-syrup dolls [brides] for girls; and for the boys the traditional Housan Al-Mawlid, horses made of sugar syrup. With their remarkable attires and pleasant paper garments, Al-Mawlid’s sugar toys have served as a symbol of happiness and a source of joy to anyone roaming the Egyptian streets.
With their different social and economic backgrounds, Egyptians used to buy different types of Halawet Al-Mawlid, traditional sweets made of peanuts, sesame seeds, coconut, and chickpeas. The sweets are usually classified into different categories in terms of the price and quality, making them affordable to people from different social classes.
But where did these traditions originally come from? Not many people are aware of the answer.
According to historical resources, celebrations for the birth of Prophet Muhammad gained these particular traditions in the Fatimid era. Despite the fact that it was celebrated over many previous epochs, these dolls, horses, and sweets were only chronicled during the Fatimid era.
The story of how Arouset Al-Mawlid found its way into the history books differs from one source to another. The most popular theory states that Fatimid ruler Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah went with one of his wives to celebrate Al-Mawlid Al-Nabawi with the public. His wife looked so beautiful wearing a white gown that a confectionarist modelled a doll out of honey to emulate her look. As for Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, he was portrayed as a knight on his horse, which became known as Housan Al-Mawlid afterwards.
The couple was commemorated long after their death through the doll and the horse, which became the traditional gifts and toys of Al-Mawlid Al-Nabawi.
When it comes to Halawet Al-Mawlid, it is said that the Fatimid rulers used to influence and abate the masses by distributing sweets made of a mixture of nuts and honey. The sweets were mostly distributed for Al-Mawlid Al-Nabawi and soon it became an inseparable part of the annual celebration.
Over the years, these three sweets have created a unique atmosphere for celebrating the event—something that can only be found in Egypt.
This year, however, Al-Mawlid celebrations were completely different. With the spiralling price hikes, boxes of Halawet Al-Mawlid now cost EGP 1,000 and sometimes more. Some decided to let go of this tradition and stopped buying the usual sweets, while others bought only small portions unlike their usual traditions.
Abdel Azim Mohammed decided to reduce his consumption of the sweets this year. “The prices are completely different from last year’s. I only bought a few items and I don’t think I would buy any of them if I didn’t have kids,’’ he said.
The way the event is celebrated differs one year after another. As most of the people fight to keep their traditions alive so their children can inherit this legacy, others have abandoned it due to the rising prices and rough economic situation.
Thousands of Egyptians decided to boycott Al-Mawlid sweets following the increased prices of sugar, nuts, paper, and colours as a result of the foreign currency shortage in Egypt. Many Facebook activists asked people to stop buying Al-Mawlid sweets, and some spread rumours about expired sweets being “recycled” which raised health concerns.
“We found out about the rising prices of Al-Mawlid sweets from the television and social media, which encouraged people to boycott the manufacturers this year,’’ said Wafaa Hamza, a housewife. “Like thousands of families, we didn’t buy Al-Mawlid candy this year but I don’t believe this will affect our celebration of this sacred religious ceremony.”
Photos by Asmaa Gamal