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Makkah: Some of the age-old traditions and services related to the Haram Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah have remained unchanged despite the passage of time while some others have disappeared or started disappearing with advancement in science and technology.
The 'Aghas of Haram', for example, have been extending consummate services to pilgrims and visitors to the two holy mosques and enjoyed a prominent position in society, Al-Hayat Arabic daily reported.
Agha is a non-Arabic word derived from Turkish. The Turkish word comes from the Old Turkic aqa, meaning “elder brother”. The Kurds used the word to denote respect for elders and tribal leaders while the Turks used it to address descendants of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
During the Ottoman period, it was used as an honorific title for civilian or military officers. Some court functionaries were also entitled to the Agha title. In Makkah and Madinah, the word was used to respectfully address people who were selected to serve in the holy mosques.
In the past the Aghas were involved in 42 activities. They washed the mataf (the circumambulation area around the Kaaba), cleaned the Haram and burned the lanterns. Today their service is limited to receiving the king and serving state guests visiting the holy cities.
They served the guests Zamzam, holy water from the Zamzam well located within the Grand Mosque just 20 meters away from the Holy Kaaba. They also helped segregate men and women worshippers during circumambulation.
At the Prophet’s Mosque, they cleaned the Prophet’s chamber and opened it to state guests when required. They also received the guests and accompanied them to the Prophet’s chamber.
Saeed, an Ethiopian, was an Agha in Madinah who went on to become their leader. He traveled from Ethiopia to Yemen in a boat and obtained a passport to enter Saudi Arabia. He arrived in the Kingdom in 1380 AH (AD 1960) during the time of King Saud. After performing Haj, he stayed in Makkah for five months before moving to Madinah. He was one of the 14 Aghas who served the Prophet’s Mosque at the time.
He was in his 20s when joined the elite group, whose members included those aged above 100. Saeed expressed his desire to serve the Haram Mosque in Madinah to the then leader of the Aghas. The elderly agha checked the young man’s physique to make sure he was capable of performing the tasks of an agha and tested him for purity and strength of faith before taking him in. After two weeks, Saeed received Saudi citizenship.
With hard work and dedication, he went on to become the leader of the Aghas. The system of appointing Aghas was stopped in the late 1970s following a fatwa or religious edict by Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz.
The Aghas dedicated their lives to the service of the two holy mosques. Throughout history, they put on special gowns and sashes while serving in the mosques. The system dates back to the era of Caliph Muawiya Bin Abu Sufyan. He was the first Muslim ruler to appoint servants in the Holy Kaaba from among slaves while his son Caliph Yazid appointed eunuchs to serve the sacred precincts.
Author Rafaat Basha believes that Caliph Abu Jaafar Al-Mansour was the first to organize Aghas in the Grand Mosque in Makkah. According to him, the history of Aghas in the Prophet’s Mosque dates back to the time of Salahuddin Al-Ayyubi.
Medieval Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta mentioned Aghas in his travelogue. He wrote that the Aghas wore traditional gowns and their leader was known as a senior servant of the mosque. They were held in high esteem by the people of Egypt and Syria.
The Aghas had to stay at the Haram for seven years continuously, do their duties perfectly and should have good health. During the Saudi era, citizens suggested anyone who is qualified to become an Agha to the minister of Haj, who appointed them and recommended them for Saudi citizenship. The last of Aghas were appointed in 1399 AH (1978).
Currently there are 14 Aghas in Makkah and 12 in Madinah. King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, gave instructions that no one should interfere in the affairs of Aghas. King Fahd used to send gifts in cash and kind to the Aghas every year. Apart from monthly allowances they used to collect revenues of endowment properties.