No other artist managed to capture as many layers of Egyptian life in the years preceding the Revolution of 1952 as Mahmoud Said. As much attracted to glamour and modernity as to Egypt's low life and the unchanging aspects of her culture, Said revisited several of his favourite themes throughout his career. Many of these would have been familiar to Orientalist artists of an earlier generation- his views of the Nile Valley and other Egyptian scenes, his voluptuous girls both clothed and nude, the various kinds of dancers and musicians he often depicted, and finally his scenes of Islamic ritual. Opulence and sensuality of subject are dominant characteristics of his paintings, kept in check by careful use of colour, detail and composition. Passion balanced with restraint is at the very core of Mahmoud Said's work.
However, unlike the naturalistic Orientalists with their stress on exotic details, Said instead simplified, reducing every figure to an archetype. His genius lies in these simplified yet highly expressive figures and their distribution throughout his carefully controlled compositions.
In few of his paintings is this as clear as in this early masterpiece. His first major work to focus on Islamic ritual, the painting depicts six Mawlawi dervishes, each identically clad and with similar features but subtly different postures, they perform a Sema (dance) around the circular stage of an Ottoman-Era Semahane (ritual hall). Startling is the energy conveyed in this painting, in stark contrast to the contemplative treatment of the figures in many of his later paintings of religious scenes. Mahmoud Said's abstraction and simplification often afford glimpses of Expressionist or Cubist influences, and in this highly charged and highly stylized work they come to the fore, tempered as they are by unbroken lines and a structured placement of the figures which, conversely, give the his work an almost classical feel, with echoes of Italian Renaissance painting.
The Sufi mystic Mawlawi Order was founded in 1273 in Konya, central Anatolia, by followers of Jalal al-Din Mohammed Balkhi-Rumi, and arrived in Egypt in the wake of the 1517 Ottoman conquest of Cairo. Much of the Egyptian aristocracy had Turkish and Ottoman roots, Mahmoud Said's family was no exception. In the earlier part of the twentieth Century Ottoman traditions were still very much prevalent in Egypt, including the Mawlawi order performing in their Semahanes, these falling into decline with the advent of the Revolution.
In the best of Mahmoud Said's painting one can see his profound affection for the anachronisms and eccentricities of Egypt of his day. The Whirling Dervishes, emotionally charged and dynamic, powerfully encapsulates this lost facet of Egyptian society.