The Pilgrimage to Zawyet Sidi al-Haj Belqacem
The regions of Tuat, Gurara, and Tidikelt in the South of Algeria celebrate tens of yearly religious celebrations known locally as Ziyarat. It is the plural of the Arabic word Ziyara, which means “a visit.” This paper sheds light on one of the most important of these Ziyarat, the pilgrimage to Zawyet Sidi al-Haj Belqacem. This sacred journey is also commonly known as Es’bua which was derived from the Arabic word us’bua that means “a week.” It traces the phases through which pilgrims begin a sacred journey from Tabelkoza to Zawyet Sidi al-Haj Belqacem and focuses on their religious and secular rituals. This celebration coincides with the seventh day after the birth of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), that is, the 19th Rabi-ul-awwal in the lunar calendar. Pilgrims walk about 50 miles from Tabelkoza to Zawyet Sid al-Haj Belqacem in the course of seven days, during which they rest at five sacred places: Sammuta, Kali, Ulad Said, Massine, and Zawyet Sid al-Haj Belqacem. The final location represents the culmination of the previous phases and the closing of a cycle that began a week before. Pilgrims and visitors from neighboring and remote areas meet in a huge hollow area locally called al-Hufra at the entrance of Zawyet Sidi al-Haj Belqacem to wait for the most exciting moment in this celebration when representatives of saints hoist their flags and try to get into al-Hufra. They then leave as quickly as possible without being knocked down by the crowd who is determined to get pieces of cloth from the flags that are believed to be al-Baraka (something that brings good luck and protects from evil). After that, all the people lie down on the ground for a few seconds as a sign of respect to the saints. Then, they begin throwing money which will be collected by the disciples of Sid al-Haj Belqacem after the people leave the premises. Es’bua ends with el Fat’ha where everyone expresses their wishes and leave al-Hufra wishing long lives and good things for each other until the next celebration.
Given its importance, the pilgrimage to Zawyet Sidi al-Haj Belqacem was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO in 2015. These Ziyarat to saints are of great spiritual importance to the local people; however, the Salafists strongly reject them and see them as innovations which go against the true faith of Islam.