Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
10 - 16 August 2000
Issue No. 494
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Ancient lore

The Pharaoh's Shadow: Travels in Ancient and Modern Egypt, Anthony Sattin, London: Victor Gollancz, 2000. pp234

Egypt is in fashion once more. A new wave of professional writers, historians, social scientists and anthropologists has replaced the dare-devil travellers and self-styled archaeologists of 150 years ago, who produced the core of studies and travel accounts that, until recently, were considered the ultimate authoritative studies on the country. Now a post-imperialist, less arrogant generation of Westerners has taken over where its elders left off. In the past ten years, its members have written an unprecedented number of volumes in a variety of genres. They all share a common trait: that of giving the local inhabitants and their peculiarities pride of place, reversing the old trend which had consigned the indigenous human factor to an inglorious background.

Whether scientific, fictional or autobiographical, these works are essentially politically correct and are often copiously sprinkled with their authors' earnest and newly acquired knowledge of -- or belief in -- some historical, social, cultural, political and/or folkloric aspect of Egyptian lore upon which they then hasten to build theories presented as emerging out of "genuine grassroots information."

Anthony Sattin's most recent book differs from these others in that he makes no claims to any sort of expertise. He is a writer by profession, and his interest is purely selfish. He came to Egypt as a tourist and fell in love; his feelings for the woman of his life spilled over onto the country where he met her. Love often begets a pathological fear of loss, which one may attempt to allay by reaching out to a promise of eternity in one form or another. That much is clear in Sattin's desire to discover hidden links between the distant past and the present. He yearns to grasp at a string extending over thousands of years and to sense its continuity, to discover the overwhelming significance of eternity. And where better than in Egypt, the land where he found his beloved, can he begin his search for reassuring signs of permanence? Did Umm Seti not return to serve in the temple of Abydos after an absence of 3,000 years? And was King Seti I not waiting for her, as young and as handsome as ever?

Uncovering the right signs, however, remains a daunting task, even for the optimistic Sattin. Not fluent in Arabic, he must rely on the corpus of work produced by foreigners who have lived -- or, more likely, simply spent a few years -- in Egypt. But the accuracy or imprecision of secondary sources does not trouble him. They spin a yarn that attracts him, and he lets himself be guided. Herodotus, Winifred Blackman, Jonathan Cott, Lucy Duff Gordon, E M Forster and Richard Critchfield are a few of the pleasant and erudite Western companions who show him the way, and he is eager to follow them in his quest.

Travelling from Cairo to the villages of the Delta, from Luxor to Abydos, Sattin painstakingly pokes around for confirmation of his suspicion that many religious and cultural traditions, both Muslim and Christian, have been handed down to modern Egyptians by their predecessors the Pharaohs. Fertility rites are a case in point, and Sattin is anxious to visit the sites where they are still performed. A thorough reading of Blackman's work has sharpened his curiosity and equipped him with the basic data to put him on the right track. Seeing is believing, however, and he decides to visit Critchfield's "... sacred lake... near the stone wall which separated the temple compound from the village of Kom Lolah where Shahhat and his mother lived. We stood and listened to the sound of life, of someone praying, a rustling nearby... a man calling out... A few feet below us the black fetid water of the sacred lake bubbled like soup. My thoughts fractured and divided, went back thousands of years to midnight rituals performed for the gods, back a few decades to Shahhat's mother petitioning the gods here, in this place, to

give her a healthy son..." Having established that some women still perform fertility rituals, that resorting to magic on special occasions is by no means an uncommon practice and that funerary rites have not changed much over the millennia, Sattin also observes, rather to his chagrin, that the heirs to these time-honoured customs seem generally unaware of the Pharaonic connection. He turns once more to Blackman's scholarship to reassure himself that the similarity does in fact exist.

The mulid, that typically indigenous celebration, is the next marker in Sattin's pursuit of additional evidence that an unbroken thread stretches out in Egypt to the dawn of time. His wanderings lead him to Sheikh Mohamed, an Azharite, whom he quizzes insistently on "whether these moulids, these festivals in honour of the birth of holy men and women, [are] purely Muslim celebrations." Leaving the sheikh's office after having finally received what he disappointedly perceives as a negative answer, he challenges him one last time: "I turned dramatically. 'Sheikh Mohamed, if moulids and saints are not Islam, what are they?' [The Sheikh] shrugged. For him it was enough that they were not part of his religion. But I needed to know more."

Consulting Bimbashi McPherson's oeuvre on popular saints and festivals, Sattin decides to attend the Grand Night of Sheikh Abul-Haggag in Luxor. There, he buys an arusa, the doll that features in every mulid. Umm Seti is not far, supporting his expectant scrutiny of the artefact and the preliminary conclusions he arrives at: "No one seems to know the origins of these figures on sale at mulids and no other time," she wrote. "As the representation of human and animal figures is forbidden by the Qur'an, the custom of making them would appear to be pre-Islamic, while their form strongly suggest an ancient Egyptian origin. Rough-cast figures of the gods, particularly of Osiris, were sold in ancient religious festivals."

Similarly, the stick dance that he witnesses on his way to the saint's shrine is the occasion to recall that "Umm Seti mentioned inscriptions recording ritual fighting during the feast of Osiris at Abydos and Herodotus referred to a mock battle, fought with clubs, at the festival of Papremis." Painfully forging a passage through the throng, Sattin finally reaches Abul-Haggag's tomb: "As I sat watching the Sufis, the crowd walking up to pray for the sheikh and receive his blessing, I was certain that Sheikh Mohamed had been wrong: this was Islam, and Christianity, and Judaism, and all the pagan cults that came before them. This was some essential human response. And what it suggested was that throughout the millennia, whatever the creed, Egyptians had held on to the belief that they could call upon the spirits of dead holy men to improve their lives on earth."

In his book, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity (The American University in Cairo Press, 1999), Otto FA Meinardus adds fuel to Sattin's already burning fire: "It is very likely," he writes, "that the Egyptian Horus spearing the crocodile is not only the prototype of Saint George spearing the dragon, but also the inspiration for many of the warrior saints, such as Saint Mercurius, Saint Theodore, and Saint Menas, who are also popular among the Copts. Thus, the Pharaonic deity, retaining the characteristics of its original cultus, merely adopted a Hellenistic-Christian garb. The fact that this process of cult transference continued well into the Islamic era is illustrated in the transformation of certain Christian cults into Islamic ones, so that the Muslim Sheikh has now taken the place of the Christian saint or confessor."

Sattin himself has already arrived at the same conclusions: "By the time Sylvie and I left Egypt, I had found what I was looking for. In the fertility rites and funerary customs, the devotion to sheikhs and to magic, in the relationship of Egyptians with the Nile and the agriculture that it makes possible, in the rites of the Coptic Church and the forms of its places of worship -- in these and a thousand other ways I saw the shadows cast by the Pharaohs and their people."

Reviewed by Fayza Hassan

A matter of no interest

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