Abu el-Haggag Festival: The Modern-Day Opet

Occasionally amid the bustle of our modern lives, we are given rare glimpses into the past through cultural remnants that are manifested in new forms millennia later. In this guest blog, Stephen Ficalora speaks to the Nile Scribes about his time in Luxor a few years ago, where he was able to witness the well-known Abu el-Haggag Festival.

Guest Scribe: Stephen Ficalora

In June 2013, while I was working with the Epigraphic Study of the Hypostyle Hall in Karnak Temple in Luxor, I had the opportunity to witness the annual festival dedicated to Abu el-Haggag (or Abu Hajaj in the Upper Egyptian accent). Abu el-Haggag is a local “saint” in Luxor. According to legend, when officials attempted to move the mosque located in Luxor Temple dating the thirteenth century, Abu el-Haggag convinced them otherwise. Visitors to Luxor Temple today can see the mosque that is named after him, for his service to the local community and faith, built into the walls of the ancient temple. A moulid (birthday) celebration for Abu el-Haggag takes place two weeks before the start of Ramadan.

Abu al-Haggag Mosque and Luxor Temple (photo: Nile Scribes)
Abu el-Haggag Mosque and Luxor Temple (photo: Nile Scribes)

In preparation for the main festival day, the square in front of Luxor Temple becomes filled with small tents and markets of vendors selling all kinds of food, treats, clothes, jewelry, toys, and games. Anyone familiar with Mardi Gras can see this is a special celebration before the long month of fasting for Ramadan begins. The real fun occurs on the day of the festival, and, for those of us with a fascination for ancient Egyptian culture, it is like seeing history come to life.

Boat procession of Abu al-Haggag (photo: Stephen Ficalora)
Boat procession of Abu al-Haggag (photo: Stephen Ficalora)

The main feature of the Abu el-Haggag Festival is a procession of boasts and covered shrines through the streets of Luxor, heading towards the Abu el-Haggag Mosque. It was recommended that I watch the procession from inside the Luxor souk (market), as it would pass right through the cross-street. From this vantage point, I had a great view of the procession and excitement. That day, all of Luxor seemed to be crowded in the streets. It was impossible to move in the crowd, as people clamored over each other for the opportunity to catch a glimpse of this annual tradition. People stood on the top of steps and walls, the lucky ones had balconies to watch from; children sat on the shoulders of their fathers, all craning their necks for a look. You knew the procession was coming closer because you heard it before you saw it. Pick-up trucks weighed down with speakers and full DJ equipment blasting music, made their way slowly up the road, getting the crowd excited for what was to come. The crowds surged, knowing that the shrines representing the sons of Abu el-Haggag would soon be arriving.

Boat filled with children (photo: Stephen Ficalora)
Boat filled with children (photo: Stephen Ficalora)

Following the pick-up trucks of music, boats on wheels were pulled by dozens of men, came sailing down the street. The boats were filled with dancing and singing young boys, who were banging drums and tambourines, blowing horns, whirring bows, and sticks. The crowds cheered and tossed nuts at the boats – a blessing for them, I was told. Some boys wore regular street clothes, others paper party hats and costumes. The older, more daring boys wore their mothers’ dresses, their lips smeared with red lipstick. The party was in full swing, and the crowds seemed even thicker than they were before.

Sacred barque of Amun in the mortuary temple of Seti I in Luxor (photo: Nile Scribes)
Sacred barque of Amun in the mortuary temple of Seti I in Luxor (photo: Nile Scribes)

As the boats passed by you in the streets, you could not help but think of the Opet Festival that took place in this very city 3,000 years earlier. Beginning during Hatshepsut’s reign in the Eighteenth Dynasty (1,539-1,292 BC), the Opet Festival was held to honor the city gods of Thebes: Amun, his consort, Mut, and their son, Khonsu. A procession from Karnak Temple to Luxor Temple, and back, was conducted in which the statues of the gods were placed in shrines and carried in miniature, gilded barques along the processional way. Crowds gathered then, like now, to catch a glimpse of the shrines, hoping that a blessing or an oracle to be bestowed on them. Are modern Egyptians aware of the origins of this tradition? Or has its memory been lost through time, but the rituals are still being celebrated? Whatever the answer, the Abu el-Haggag Festival holds the same importance for Egyptians today as the Opet Festival must have for their ancestors.

Covered shrines carried in the procession (photo: Stephen Ficalora)
Covered shrines carried in the procession (photo: Stephen Ficalora)

As the parade of boats moved passed, imams and other holy men followed, leading the way for the shrines. Like the ancient priests did for the shrines of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, so too do these contemporary holy men sanctify the way for the shrines by burning incense. I saw a lone hand raised high amidst the sea of bodies, holding a golden censer billowing with the fragrant white smoke that carried blessings and prayers to the shrines following them. The music and shouting and singing seemed to be at its height, and more nuts flew through the air. Finally, the shrines representing the sons of Abu el-Haggag arrived. The shrines were made of brightly coloured fabrics decorated with gold and carried on the backs of camels. From below, I could see the feet of the children seated on the camels’ backs, holding up the shrines from within. The excitement of the crowd was contagious, anyone present couldn’t help but be jubilant at the shrines’ arrival.

Incense carried before the shrines (photo: Stephen Ficalora)
Incense carried before the shrines (photo: Stephen Ficalora)

The procession ended with another cavalcade of trucks carrying speakers and DJs, but also trucks laden with fruit. Men on these trucks were distributing the fruit to the crowds, tossing pieces of watermelon and mango to the children crowded close by. The crowds chased after these trucks, hoping to be tossed a bit of the cool, glistening fruit on this hot summer’s day. By now the procession was at its end and we were left to explore the festival square set up in front of Luxor Temple. We were still hyped up with the adrenalin of our encounter with these holy objects and thankful for having witnessed the past come to life.

Fruit-throwers at the end of the procession (photo: Stephen Ficalora)
Fruit-throwers at the end of the procession (photo: Stephen Ficalora)

Stephen Ficalora is an Egyptology Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto. He completed his Masters in History with a focus on Egyptology at the University of Memphis in 2013 and his Masters in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto in 2014. In the summer of 2013, he was able to participate in the Epigraphic Study of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak Temple and experienced the Abu el-Haggag festival in Luxor.