Worshippers at Mawlid Sayeda Zeinab in downtown Cairo take part in a performance in which they whirl for long periods. May 20, 2014.
Worshippers at a celebration at the Sayeda Zeinab mosque take part in a performance called Hadra, in which they whirl for long periods. Downtown Cairo, Egypt. May 20, 2014.Mosa'ab Elshamy
Worshippers at Mawlid Sayeda Zeinab in downtown Cairo take part in a performance in which they whirl for long periods. May 20, 2014.
Sufi Muslims circle the shrine of El-Sayed El-Badawi in the delta town of Tanta, during the annual 'Mawlid' (festival) celebrating his birthday. El-Badawi festival is considered Egypt's most famous Mawlid, with millions of attendees from all over Egypt. Oct. 16, 2014.
Sufi Muslims surround the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, the grand daughter of Prophet Muhammed in Cairo, during the annual Mawlid celebrating her birthday. May 20, 2014.
Sufi Muslims surround the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, the grand daughter of Prophet Muhammed in Cairo, during the annual Mawlid celebrating her birthday. May 20, 2014.
Sufi Muslims hold on to the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, the grand-daughter of Prophet Muhammed, during the annual Mawlid celebrating her birthday. Holding the shrine becomes the main goal for the thousands of attendees who then recite prayers or seek blessing through it. May 20, 2014.
Attendees of Abu-Alhassan Al-Shazly festival climb the holy mountain of Humaythara as part of the ceremonies observed during the Mawlid. Sept. 30, 2014.
Sufi Muslims sing hymns and recite chants during the week-long celebrations of Abul-Hassan Al-Shazly festival in the Red Sea desert. Sept. 30, 2014.
A merchant holds incense on the mountain of Humaythara during the Shazly festival. The incense is regarded as a way of blessing others and protection. Sept. 30, 2014.
Sufi Muslims, mostly from upper Egypt, look onto the mosque of Abu-Alhassan Al-Shazly, one of the most influential Sufi scholar, during the annual celebration of his birth. El-Shazily's mosque is located in Humaythara, a remote valley and town in Egypt's Red Sea desert. Sept, 30, 2014.
Attendees of El-Sayed El-Badawi Mawlid are seen outside his mosque in the delta town of Tanta. (to give perspective of attendance outside the mosques), Oct. 16, 2014.
Sufi Muslims take a rest at Abul-Hassan Al-Shazly mosque during the early hours of the morning. Oct. 1, 2014.
A girl enjoys playing on a swing set up outside Sayeda Zeinab mosque in downtown Cairo. The Mawlid festivities usually extend beyond religious celebrations and recitation to playing games and shopping. May 20, 2014.
Attendees of Abul-Hassan Al-Shazly festival shop for cheap merchandise displayed outside the mosque during the week-long celebration of Shazly's annual festival. Sept. 30, 2014.
A merchant stands the mosque of Al-Hussein, the grand son of the prophet, in downtown Cairo. Feb. 25, 2014.
Attendees of Abul-Hassan Al-Shazly walk outside his mosque in Egypt's eastern desert. Oct. 1, 2014.
Sufi Muslims take a rest at Abul-Hassan Al-Shazly mosque during the early hours of the morning. Oct. 1, 2014.
Worshippers at a celebration at the Sayeda Zeinab mosque take part in a performance called Hadra, in which they whirl fo
... VIEW MORE

Mosa'ab Elshamy
1 of 16

Exploring the Mawlids of Egypt

Jan 21, 2015

It was late 2013 when Mosa'ab Elshamy wandered back into the Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo. As a young boy, the photographer, who recently joined the Associated Press, accompanied his grandmother as she and others worshipped. Some people were holding onto the shrine of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, while others were reciting passages from the Quran or weeping openly. "Inside, it doesn’t really feel like time has passed. The emotions that are there, the sounds that you hear—you can walk in and it’s going to feel exactly the same," he tells TIME. Outside, the differences are apparent: more cafés, more traffic, more security.

Elshamy was looking for something to photograph that was a bit less restrictive than Cairo's streets had become after Egypt's revolution in 2011. And he found it. For more than a year, he documented the celebrations, or Mawlids, of saints and other holy figures of the Sufis around the country, marking his longest personal project to date.

Some 15 million of Egypt's 90 million people are followers of the mystical Sufi philosophy of Islam. Worshippers at the Mawlids greet the shrines throughout the year to talk about their wrongdoings in the hopes that they can absolve them of their sins, Elshamy says. Many people will also go to ask for things, like women struggling to have children or men who cannot find jobs. Those who reject this religious philosophy say it's a form of shirk, or idolatry, that has no place in Islam. (Attacks against shrines aren't uncommon, especially in areas controlled by radical extremists.)

Part of what attracted Elshamy to the observances is the intimacy and spirituality of it all, displayed in ways that aren't usually seen elsewhere in Egypt. "You don’t [typically] get that image of men, but here you see people almost publicly being proud of this vulnerability," he says, "and I thought that was great." Another main reason are the celebrations that surround them. Prayers and emotions displayed inside the mosques are met with rowdy festivities outside, including playgrounds and vendors, musicians and dancers. "It's a lot bigger than just a religious celebration."

The last Mawlid he photographed this past October was at the shrine of Abul-Hassan Al-Shazly. He was buried where he died—in Humaithara, of the Red Sea Governorate—and the mosque was built around him, so his worshippers travel there every year to honor him. Part of the celebration, Elshamy says, involves climbing one of the mountains the religious figure apparently stepped on, each day near sunset, then praying and singing while overlooking the mosque before descending to spend the night around the complex.

The weeklong celebration can coincide with the 'Id al-Adha festival, so they'll mark that occasion at the same time.

Elshamy says the project is what restored his faith after "a very tough year" in photography. "It was the year [when] many colleagues left Egypt or stopped photographing or switched to a more comfortable genre. I think everybody had to adapt in a way, when it was obvious how much more difficult it is becoming to just be on a street with a camera, or just try to document a protest or a clash." This was his way of adapting, shooting something that was new and non-political and that he could continue to do freely.

"In a way this has been a bit of a silver lining, to discover things like this scene that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to," he says. It all goes back to why he takes photos in the first place: "Seeing for yourself and keeping a record of what you see."

Mosa'ab Elshamy is Cairo-based staff photographer with the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter @mosaaberizing. Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism. Andrew Katz is a homepage editor and reporter covering international affairs. Follow him on Twitter @katz.

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.