Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013

Ahram Weekly

Myth, magic and the feast of Opet

Jenny Jobbins continues her journey through Egypt’s past and present mysteries, and sees how a festivity that brings joy can carry on for millennia — and all because Egyptians love a good party

Al-Ahram Weekly

Soon after I came to live in Egypt in the mid-1970s, I was asked by Reader’s Digest to write an article on modern Egyptian folk magic, if it existed. It wasn’t an easy assignment, but by the time I had researched and written the article I was hooked on the idea of myth and magic.
From then on I read everything I could about this lesser known side of Egypt, and especially about the encounters and experiences of foreign expatriates who had been there before me. Gustave Flaubert, Edward Lane, Bimbashi McPherson, Major C S Jarvis, Lord Edward Cecil, Lucie Duff Gordon, Amelia Edwards and Winifred Blackman were just some of the accidental authors who had written affectionately about the land and its people.
I found the sections on the country’s folklore in Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians and Winifred Blackman’s The Fellaheen of Upper Egypt particularly interesting. Lane, who published in 1835, infiltrated Cairo society under his alter ego of Mansur Effendi and observed the lives of the merchant class in the city as well as major festivals, whereas Blackman, writing almost a century later, had come to rural Upper Egypt to practise medicine and became intimately acquainted with the folklore of her patients and their families. Through them she acquired a thorough knowledge of the alternative types of medicine available in rural communities.
Lane and Blackman recorded what they saw in entertaining detail, but, although Blackman traced several analogies back to ancient Egypt, neither she nor Lane discussed the influences to which the cosmopolitan but superstitious Egyptians had been subjected through the intervening centuries, or why so much had survived in spite of the introduction of two dominant religions, Christianity and Islam.
I was enthralled by what I read, but I wanted more. I asked an elderly professor at the Folklore Centre in Cairo if there were any recent books, in either English or Arabic, that addressed the subject as expansively as Lane and could show if any of these practices still existed. “Alas, there’s hardly anything,” he told me with a rueful smile. “Please, why don’t you write one?”
As it happened he did have certain studies by sociologists and anthropologists, all written in Arabic. I borrowed them and a friend kindly read them through for me, translating the relevant bits and writing copious notes. But these were studies, far too impersonal and without presenting any mental images of the individuals involved, and so I decided that the only thing I could do was to set out myself to talk to people and learn for myself as much as they were willing to tell me. The more I talked to them, the more convinced I became that some of the beliefs and practices had origins very far back in time.
As I began to piece my notes together, I realised that in order to learn about modern Egypt I also needed to study its past — and not only the history of the pharaohs, their gods and their temples, but also the story of ordinary people.
In ancient Egypt only high priests and anointed pharaohs were allowed into the temple precincts. The common folk followed their own religious practices, based on what they heard went on behind the temple, inside the temple walls, together with the knowledge that they were allowed or expected to acquire. (Scholars of the occult would later claim that the secret withheld by the priests was that there was only one God). The people, meanwhile, had a pantheon of gods, and among them animal-headed gods and goddesses evolved, each concerned with a particular aspect of life or death, and each imbued with legends. The official magic of the high priests dealt with the mysteries of the universe; the unofficial magic of the people was concerned with charms for good luck and good health, precautions against the evil eye, and simple cures for sickness.
Over the next 15 years or so I visited dozens of villages in Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta, and spoke to men and women who practised folk magic; holy and spiritual men (walis); sociologists, historians and professors; ordinary villagers, village headmen, pregnant and childless women; faith healers, sheikhs, monks and snake charmers. I attended zars and zikrs, moulids and weddings (a zar is a Sudanese ceremony, a zikr is a Sufi group chant, and a moulid is the feast day of a local sheikh or saint). Garbed in a fellaha (peasant) costume of black dress and veil, I met some of Upper Egypt’s holiest anchorites. That I only spoke rudimentary Arabic was an advantage rather than a hindrance, because people spoke more freely in my presence when they thought I did not understand. Nor did I take notes. In fact, though, I understood quite well, but I relied on the excellent memories (and expert interrogation) of Adel, the translator, and Ahmed, the driver, who between them improved on my questions and memorised the answers, which we reassembled later over dinner at their homes or back at my hotel. They both became so interested in the subject that I relied on them to root out the people I should meet and interview, and I would never have succeeded without their contacts. I was happy when people I met became their friends: Adel and Ahmed, who were Muslims and had never before set foot inside a church, soon overcame their nerves and went on to become firm friends with the monks at at least one monastery, often visiting them even when I wasn’t there. It was through their friendship with the monks that I learnt about some of the walis who lived in the desert and who visited the monasteries from time to time.
If I stretched the limits of what is expected of a participant observer I apologise, but I did not hide my identity, and wore the black dress out of respect (after all, I could not hide my blue eyes). I remember those encounters and the generosity of people in sharing their lives with me with warmth and affection. The memories may still be vivid, but time has placed a distance between events of then and today. It is more than 20 years since my last meetings in mud-brick houses with earthen floors, and Egypt has changed a great deal in the intervening years.
Above all I felt privileged to glimpse a side of life not encountered by most foreigners, and indeed not by most young people in Egypt today. I was struck by how willing, and even anxious, most of the people I met were to tell me their stories. Along the way I learnt how a person without access to modern medicine coped with sickness and injury; how they ensured success in love and childbearing; how they protected their babies; and how they avoided neighbours who cast the Evil Eye.
I was told that official magic was to be written and read, but not spoken of. The power is in the word (cf. John 1:1), but it is debased if misused or wrongly transliterated. I was told that sacred texts had been watered down over the years, eventually mingling with the influences of Persian, Greek, Kabbalistic, Arab, African and even Indian folklore.  And before you say that people were only telling me what I wanted to hear, let me say that I saw magic books in which were drawn and written symbols I recognised from Iranian and other sources: crude drawings of Mithra-type figures and the sun; of a manticore with drawn sword; of dwarfish “helpers”; as well as magic squares and charms in different scripts. I saw magic bowls with a healing charm inscribed on the inner surface so that water held in the bowl would absorb the charm. (I even have one, given to me in Yemen.) All the time I kept Lane’s caution in mind: “In treating of superstitions, we have more to do with opinions than facts.”
Be that as it may, there is probably no better way to illustrate the intricate puzzle of the Egyptians’ hold on their past than the Mosque of Abul-Haggag in Luxor. It is surely no coincidence that the mosque is perched on the top of Luxor Temple, once a major centre of worship of the great Theban god Amun. The mosque was built in the mid-13th century on the level of the sand that had swallowed the underlying temple and the church built into it during the Christian period. It probably stands on the site of an earlier mosque, and has been rebuilt several times.
Every year, at the celebration of Sheikh Abul-Haggag’s moulid, an elaborate ritual was enacted. The two-day moulid is held in the month of Shaaban, two weeks before the start of Ramadan, and thus moves from year to year. Every year, for close to 1,000 years Abul-Haggag’s replica boat has been paraded through he streets of Luxor accompanied by much joy and festivity. Yet the event itself is at least 2,500 years older than that. Probably beginning in the 18th Dynasty at least as early as the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, a similar parade took place on a fixed date in the season of Akhet at the beginning of the Nile inundation, when the people would not be at work in the fields. This was “the Beautiful Feast of Opet” during which the members of the Theban Triad, Amun-Ra, Mut and Khonsu, were carried with great pomp on their sacred barques from their temples at Karnak three kilometres south to the Temple of Amun (Luxor Temple). There Amun-Ra was reunited with his other personification, Amun. Re-energised, Amun consorted with Mut, and their son Khonsu was reborn.
And so the crowds continue to dance, play music, eat special treats and wave their flags, much as they have done for 3,500 years. The reasoning surrounding the ceremony may have changed, but the annual party at Luxor Temple still goes on.

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