Sharing a culture
In this fifth and final article of the series, Jill Kamil takes a look at national identity
The inspiration behind this series of articles (which appeared on the Opinion Page of Al-Ahram Weekly in the issues of 31 March, 21 April, 5 May and 9 June) was the remarkable and united effort shown by the protesters in Tahrir Square in the early days of the national uprising that started on 25 January 2011. Six months later there are incidents of sectarian strife, secularists running a "Constitution First" campaign, and Al-Azhar, the prominent seat of Sunni Islam, highlighting the need to respect freedom and human rights "as well as commitment to the principle of citizenship".
It is this last comment, made by Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb in the "Al-Azhar Document" on Egypt's future, that attracted my attention. Citizenship implies national identity, and national identity is not a question of nationality but of common points in people's lives -- whether national symbols, national colours, culture, cuisine, traditions or shared political objectives. Cleopatra, for example, was last in a line of ethnic Greek sovereigns and has been immortalised as a beautiful seductress, while in fact she was an intelligent and politically astute figure who fought Rome in the name of Egypt (and was, by all accounts, not especially beautiful). Another ruler, the Albanian-born soldier Mohamed Ali, created an independent Egyptian state, laid the foundations of a prosperous economy, and turned a neglected Turkish colony into an Egyptian kingdom whose power was recognised throughout the Mediterranean world. In other words, national identity is not an inborn trait. It is a sense of belonging to one country, or to one nation; a feeling that is shared with a group regardless of citizenship status.
Egypt has experienced political, economic and spiritual growth through millennia, but it has also known discrimination and corruption in one form or another. Time and again the country has been exposed to elements that have stimulated its development, changed its outlook, and even inspired styles of clothing. Yet, alongside the differences, a tradition can be traced. It is manifested in crafts such as weaving, masonry and book-binding, and there are, in addition, fundamental resemblances that stand out less vividly but which show a remarkable continuity in location, tradition and ritual.
There are places in Egypt that are traditionally regarded as holy, and which have a history of sanctity long predating monotheism. Many ancient monuments were transformed into Christian churches. In turn, mosques have been constructed on the site of former Christian chapels.
Muslims and Christians alike pay homage to the sacred sites of holy people with shared customs of preparation and ritual: tents are put around the church or tomb and the area is decorated with flags, banners and lights. The night before the moulid (annual religious festival) market stalls are set up for the sale of toys, sweets, trinkets, paper hats and books. There are swings and puppet shows for children. The highlight of the occasion is the great zaffa, a procession through the streets of a picture of the Muslim sheikh or Christian saint in whose honour the moulid is held. Some moulids, like that of St George at Mit Damsis near the Delta town of Mansoura, are shared by Muslims and Christians.
In the Delta village of Damirah is a mound called Qafr Damirah Al-Qadim ("the castle of Damirah the ancient"). It is the site where the Christian St Dimiana, along with 40 virgins, was martyred in the reign of Diocletian. Today the community is predominantly Muslim, but many of the mosques have columns and other architectural elements which attest to the earlier Christian era. The annual moulid that takes place there is no longer in honour of the 40 adolescent girls, but of 40 Muslim soldiers killed during the conquest of Egypt in 640 AD. Such overlapping traditions attest to a common legacy. Qafr Damirah Al-Qadim is associated with 40 individuals who died for a cause.
As in ancient times, both men and women pay regular visits to the tombs of their relatives, and during the Eid, the Feast at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, 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 graphic pictures of the holy pilgrimage to Mecca (by ship or air) painted on the outer walls of houses in villages and towns in Upper Egypt are not a reflection of scenes in ancient Egyptian tombs of the pilgrimage (by boat) to the holy city of Abydos?
Change and continuity are not as paradoxical as they sound. Although there are very real political, social and ideological differences between various eras of Egypt's enduring civilisation, there is also a static factor. Egyptian leadership, for example, has always been associated with that great source of life: the Nile. Through progressive civilisations efforts have been made to harness its waters. From the earliest Pharaohs who ceremoniously wielded pickaxes to open new canals, to the present day when an initiative is underway to achieve sustainable development through the equitable usage of Nile Basin water resources, faith in a leader who is a provider, protector and controller of water is a factor that has outlived change. Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Mamluks, kings and presidents have built canals, barrages, aqueducts and dams. Following the uprising this year, one of the first steps taken by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf was to head a high-level delegation to Khartoum to consolidate relations between the two "sister countries" who share the water of the Nile.
There is a character and identity to Egypt that cannot be rendered in historical sequence because it transcends history. It has been transmitted from ancient times to the present in a stream of living culture. In accordance with Islam, which forbids the portrayal of any living likeness, there was an increasing production of abstract ornamentation in local workshops. The pottery produced in Fustat between the 11th and 15th centuries, for example, characterised by bright, glazed surfaces with a metallic lustre, was made for both Muslim and Christian patrons. Examples are on display in the Coptic Museum and in the Islamic Museum of Art and Architecture. Architectural elements that survive in mediaeval mosques and mansions are no different from the fine wooden ceilings, mashrabiya (latticed woodwork) windows, arches and tiles in geometric and non-figurative designs that are incorporated into the structure of the Old Wing of the Coptic Museum -- elements that were salvaged from derelict Coptic houses. As for textiles, those on display in the new Textile Museum in Al-Muizz Street in Cairo range from tunics of un-dyed linen with medallions and decorative borders to a variant of woollen loop weaving in which the weft is not pulled tight. This, one of the oldest and most famous of Egyptian crafts, which is used in cloaks, shirts and shawls, wall hangings, blankets and curtains made for Muslim and Coptic patrons alike. Metal lamps, perfume vessels, even eye paint -- all point to a shared tradition.
When it comes to religion, among both Christians and Muslims there is a strong tradition that supports the New Testament story of the Flight into Egypt. Some 22 sites in Egypt are associated with the event, and although Copts and Muslims are not always in agreement on the route taken by the Holy Family or on the duration of their stay in Egypt (Copts believe that it was for a little over three and a half years, while Muslims hold that it was seven) there are many sites where the tradition is upheld by both. Both Muslims and Christians, for example, relate that the Holy Family was warmly received at the Delta city of Belbeis, and that the inhabitants kept company with the Virgin, played with the child, and talked to Joseph Al-Naggar (the carpenter). There was once a tree in the city which after the visit became known as the Virgin Mary's Tree. It was reputedly cut down by Napoleon's soldiers in search of firewood. However, near the spot where it is believed to have stood at the crossroads of Ansari and Boghdadi streets, the mosque of Osman Al-Haress Al-Ansari stands today, built in commemoration of the visit.
East of Bahnasa, at the site of the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus -- which was largely Christian in the fifth century but is today predominantly Muslim -- local sheikhs quote a passage from the Quran (XXIII: 50) which roughly translates: "... and we have made the son of Mary and his mother a portent, and we gave them refuge on a height, a place of flocks and water-springs." They claim that Jesus attended school at Bahnasa and refer to the Arab historian Mohamed Al-Bakir (676-731) as their source.
Shared traditions and a common language point to a common patrimony. There is a Coptic-Arabic culture in Egypt, and it is surely timely to rewrite school textbooks for the rising generation to include the overlapping, and sometimes complex, coexistence between Muslims and Christians for the last 14 centuries.
The author's book Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs was published by Routledge in the UK and USA in 2002.