Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 October 2005
Issue No. 764
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Tradition breaks the time barrier

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims around the world unite in religious belief and tradition, while retaining their distinctive cultures. Jill Kamil looks at how this dynamic manifested itself in Egypt over the ages

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When Amr Ibn Al-Aas built the first mosque in Africa in the area of Fustat, it was a simple mud-brick structure, rectangular in shape, its roof supported by columns and covered with palm trunks and branches much like contemporary Egyptian buildings -- a far cry from these computer renditions of the dome and colonnades of today's restored building in marble, mosaics and gilded Quranic inscriptions

It should come as no surprise that Islam, as practised in Egypt after the arrival of Amr Ibn Al-Aas in the seventh century -- when it put an end to another brief period of Persian rule -- should take on a distinctive local flavour because such was the enduring nature of the ancient Egyptian civilisation that whoever acceded to power and ruled the country for a certain length of time became Egyptianised.

The Libyans and the Kushites -- Egypt's neighbours to the west and south -- early on adopted Egyptian traditions and beliefs, and ruled like Pharaohs. The Persians, who controlled the country from 525 to 332 BC, and whose own culture was vigorous and enduring, adopted Egyptian burial practices. This is evidenced by the numerous so-called shaft-tombs excavated at Saqqara and Abu Sir, where the dead were laid in grand limestone sarcophagi of Egyptian design and inscribed with local mortuary texts.

The Ptolemaic rulers who inherited Egypt after the untimely death of Alexander the Great governed successfully for three centuries mainly because they were politically and culturally accommodating: they ruled both as Greeks and Pharaohs, and respected local traditions. The Romans did likewise; and although the emperors left Egypt to be controlled by governors while they resided in far off Rome, they had themselves depicted as Pharaohs on temple walls and observed seasonal and national festive occasions, and Romans in Egypt were buried in the traditional manner. Even after the introduction of Christianity to Egypt in the fourth century, when the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire launched a war on paganism, many of Egypt's most enduring traditions survived.

Until the present day newborn babies in rural areas are placed in a sieve in a ceremony to cleanse them of evil spirits and call blessings on them, as in ancient Egyptian times. Among Muslims and Christians alike, a sense of the supernatural and faith in the power of patron saints remains strong.

Islam readily absorbed the Egyptian custom of commemorating the dead. Today almost every village has a memorial to its revered sheikh, who is buried under a white dome or tree. And when it comes to burial rituals, both Muslims and Christians have inherited traditions from the ancient past: Special services are conducted in the house of the deceased on the third day after death, with prayers being said. Mourning lasts for 40 days -- the period it once took for the body to be mummified before internment. Annual pilgrimage is made to the graves of the departed, with flowers being placed on the tomb -- even, in some rural areas, food and drink.

As in ancient times, both men and women pay regular visits to the tombs of their relatives; they often sleep in the vicinity of the tomb overnight, and sometimes sacrifice a sheep and give some of its flesh, along with bread, to the poor in the locality. Who would question that such a ceremony stems from ancient expiatory sacrifice, which is today regarded as alms- giving; or that decorative, graphic pictures of the holy pilgrimage to Mecca (by ship or air) painted on the outer walls of houses in villages and towns are not a reflection of scenes in ancient Egyptian tombs of the pilgrimage (by boat) to the holy city of Abydos?

Unlike Palestine and Syria, Egypt had no large Arab settlement before the advent of Islam, and because the new rulers had neither practical knowledge nor aptitude in governing a country the size of Egypt they came to depend on the local population for material and administrative expertise. The various provinces were kept much as they were, with Egyptian provincial governors and officials carrying out bureaucratic duties. Taxes were collected locally, either by large landowners or village notables under central supervision.

Islam sat easily on Egypt because the new faith came to a country traditionally tolerant of diverse beliefs and practices. At first the new settlers had privileged status -- they paid less tax -- and they probably kept themselves apart from the local population. Burial of the dead took place in the desert in accordance with their own tradition. Soon enough, however, the ancient Egyptian practice of tomb-building and grave-visiting was adopted by the conquerors.

The first religious Islamic figure of pilgrimage in Egypt was the jurist El-Shafi (767-820), who settled in Fustat and was buried at the foot of the Moqattam Hills. Today there are hundreds of mulids every year in honour of saintly people, and many have become national events. Some mulids last for a few days, others for a week.

Arab immigration was encouraged in the eighth and ninth centuries when large numbers of tribesmen from north-eastern Arabia settled in Egyptian towns and in the countryside. They intermarried with Egyptians, and were gradually absorbed into the age-old way of life in the Nile Valley. Distinctions between Egyptianised Arabs and Arabised Egyptians slowly ceased to be significant. Arabs bearing such names as Ali and Mohamed wrote in Coptic; as can be seen in the letters in Coptic from Muslim officials to Christian subjects.

Arabic, the language of the Holy Quran and of communication and culture of the new power, slowly came into general use all over the country. The earliest administrative papyri after the Arab conquest were all in Greek; Coptic is the Egyptian language written in Greek with the addition of seven letters for which there was no Greek equivalent. Half a century after the conquest, however, a decree was tabled to the effect that governmental affairs should forthwhile be compiled in Arabic, and Copts who wished to keep their posts in the administration learnt the Arabic script. Bilingual Greek-Arabic tax registers, receipts and the like began to appear. As for Coptic manuscripts, they too reflect the increasing Arabisation of the country -- which is to say that Egyptians were Arabised but not Islamised. When in 715 Caliph Walid I prohibited the use of Greek, Coptic-Arabic bilingual texts began to appear. In the 12th century liturgical books increasingly carried Arabic translations alongside the Coptic, but it was not until the 13th and 14th centuries -- six centuries after the Arab conquest -- that the bulk of the population was Arabic- speaking.

In the 10th century a powerful new caliphate appeared in Tunisia. The fourth of these Fatimid caliphs, Al-Muizz, sent a huge army into Egypt and captured Al-Fustat. The new leaders set to work and laid out a new royal quarter which they called Al-Qahira (from which "Cairo" is derived), and in 970 AD founded the university mosque of Al-Azhar which became the centre of Islamic learning. A prosperous middle class emerged, and the convivial relations between Muslims and Copts under the Fatimids was exemplified in 1086 AD by the words of Patriarch Kirollos who admonished lay Copts to lead virtuous lives and obey the laws and practices of the country. The spirit of the age was expressed, among other things, in the employment of Copts in the government and Muslim participation in Christian feasts.

One of the annual festivals was described by the historian Masoudi. He described the cutting of the canal dams on 14 September and their closure (in the Delta) in January -- a ritual celebration marking the arrival of the flood waters of the Nile, which, for Copts, was also a festival in commemoration of Jesus's baptism in the River Jordan:

"The Night of the Bath (laylat al-ghatas) [ is one of the great ceremonies, and the people all go to it on foot on the 10th January. I was present in 350 (942 AD) when Ikhshid Mohammed b. Turgh... ordered the bank of the island and the [opposite] bank of el-Fustat to be illuminated each with a thousand torches, besides private illuminations. Muslims and Christians, by hundreds of thousands, crowded the Nile on boats, or in kiosks overlooking the river, or [standing] on the banks, all eager for pleasure, and vying in equipage, dress, gold and silver cups, and jewelry. The sound of music was heard all about, with singing and dancing. It was a splendid night, the best in all Misr for beauty and gaiety; the doors of the separate quarters were left open, and most people bathed in the Nile, knowing well that [on that night] it is a sure preservative and cure for all disease. (Lane-Poole, 1901: 85-86)

The sympathetic attitude between Copts and Muslims was based on shared religious concepts -- the immortality of the soul, resurrection, future rewards in paradise or punishment in hell, good and evil spirits ( ginn ), fasting, pilgrimage, and sacrifice. Almsgiving, an age-old practice since Pharaonic times and a Christian virtue, is an absolute duty under Islam.

Weavers were in great demand by the Arab rulers and factories for linen, wool, and silk production flourished. Local craftsmen wove textiles for Coptic patriarch and Muslim patron alike, and as Arabic came into more general use, the Kufic script was introduced into their designs. Metalwork ranged from mediocre bronze objects produced in small towns to the finest work in gold, silver, bronze, copper and iron. Three metal lamps in the Coptic Museum are worthy of mention: two have cross-and-crescent as decorative motifs, and the third is adorned with a cross inside the loop of the Pharaonic ankh.

Whether in honour of their sheikhs or saints, Muslims and Christians make pilgrimages to holy sites today that resemble one another in preparation and ritual and have continued through the millennia. Tents are erected around the church or tomb and the area is decorated with flags, banners and lights. The night before the celebration, stalls sell toys, sweets and trinkets. The highlight of the occasion is the great zaffa, a procession through the streets carrying a picture of the Muslim sheikh or Christian saint. Votive offerings or pieces of cloth are torn from the clothing of the pilgrims and placed on the tomb near the relics, or on trees, and the celebration is accompanied by music and dancing.

The Muslim mulid celebrated in Luxor during the month of Shaaban closely resembles the ancient Egyptian Opet festival depicted in the colonnade of the Luxor temple, where sailing boats placed on carriages traverse the city bedecked with flags and filled with rejoicing people. Ancient Egyptian traditions have broken through the time barrier.

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