Our beloved lady: Exploring Egypt's fascination with the Virgin Mary

Dina Ezzat , Friday 28 Aug 2015

The Virgin Mary continues to be a figure of faith and fascination for Egyptians of different religious traditions

Virgin Mary
The festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Assiut, August 2015 (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

The festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which took place on Saturday 15 August, received unprecedented recognition in the public sphere in Egypt.

The festival is celebrated by Coptic Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and many other denominations worldwide, who believe that Mary was bodily taken up into heaven at the end of her life.

Throughout Thursday, Friday and Saturday, a number of presenters on Egyptian radio talk-shows were making references to the “feast of the Virgin Mary” and sending their regards “not just to the Christians of Egypt but to all of us Egyptians who hold Sitana Mariam [Our Lady Mary] to be the holiest of the women of the world.”

It is true that the obvious Biblical reference of: “Blessed thou among women, and blessed the fruit of thy womb” was not in use. However, the Quranic equivalent of: “The angels said, 'Oh Mary! God has chosen you and purified you, chosen you above the women of all nations,” was heard.

And in a remarkable gesture, the weekly newspaper Al-Qahira (Cairo), a publication funded by the Ministry of Culture, dedicated a full article to the most famous portrait of Mary “in order to celebrate the Holy Assumption.”

However, the story was available online only and did not come out in the print edition of the paper.

“We were not sure about the pictures of Virgin Mary; because while we know that all Egyptians, both Muslims and Christians, have exceptional love and respect for the Virgin Mary, we were not sure that the Muslim majority would feel comfortable with the idea of the pictures especially, some which include pictures of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ,” said a member of the editorial board of the online edition.

Egyptian perceptions of Mary

The predominant Islamic school of thought does not permit the portrayal of the prophets and of holy figures mentioned in the Quran. Mary has an entire chapter dedicated to her story, in addition to other references made to her elsewhere in the holy book of Muslims.

“Let us be honest with ourselves; if we were to print a picture of Jesus, not to mention the crucifixion of Jesus, in a paper that is ultimately produced by the Ministry of Culture, we could have got into serious trouble,” said the Al-Qahira editor.

The editor, who asked not to be named, said that in terms of artistic merit, “we could not have ignored some of the portraits that have Mary carrying the body of Jesus.”

Whereas Mary is holy figure within both Christianity and Islam, the two religions differ on whether Jesus – or Isa in Arabic – is the son of God, or merely a human prophet.

This is precisely the reason that the Egyptian state, during the last decade of the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, chose to make Christmas a public holiday and not Easter – the latter being the more significant festival for Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church.

Whereas the story of the birth of Jesus is similar in both the Muslim and Christian creeds, the story of his death differs, with Muslims believing that Jesus was taken up to heaven by God, not crucified.

“But none of this comes to the mind of almost any Egyptian when the name 'the Virgin Mary' is mentioned; the only thing that people think of is this image of the soft-featured and exceptionally kind mother that suffered for the love of her son and for the love of God – a pure lady that was chosen by God for an exceptional role and an exceptional gift,” said Gamil Chafik, a prominent painter.

“The very fact that the portrayal of the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ is prohibited becomes irrelevant, in reality if not in principle, as the average Egyptian recalls the dominant portrayal of this graceful mother holding her holy newborn son,” Chafik said.

In reality the assumption of Mary is not formally recognised in Islam and the many Muslims who were exchanging greetings with Christians this year on the day marking the Assumption of the Virgin Mary were not aware of the significance of the celebration.

“My neighbour thought it was the birth of Virgin Mary. I did not wish to make an issue out of it when she said gracefully: 'Let me congratulate you on the birthday of the Virgin Mary, our beloved lady,' ” said Reda, a Coptic woman who lives in the Abassiya neighbourhood in Cairo, where the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral is located.

‘The Virgin of the Apparition’

Reda’s neighbour is unlike the many women in middle and upper Egypt who flock to the churches and monasteries on the path of the Moulid Al-Adrah (the festival of the Virgin) from Minya to Assiut, where the appearance of a vision of Mary is celebrated with a big march and cries of joy.

Those women know that it is about “the ascension of the holy body of the mother of God” but they go because despite the discrepancies in the religious narrative they have faith in the power of the Virgin to help them have a wish fulfilled – usually a wish for a longed-for child.

In the monastery of Al-Maharek in Assiut, it is very common to see young, veiled Muslim women appealing to Mary: “For the love of Prophet Mohamed! Please, pure virgin! As God gave you a child please give me a child!” – with many women reciting Al-Fatiha, the first verse of the Quran.

This image offers a considerable contrast to an otherwise predominant mood of segregation among the followers of the Muslim and Christian faiths in Egypt.

“For all Egyptians, faith aside, the Virgin Mary is what we could call the ultimate mother; she symbolises motherhood in its purest and most graceful sense, and it is because of this that women turn to her when they wish to be mothers,” said Naim Sabry, a novelist.

According to Sabry, “in the collective Egyptian consciousness, the Virgin Mary is the holy equivalent of Isis and baby Jesus that of Horus; this is why it is very easy for all Egyptians to relate with love as much as with faith to the Virgin Mary.”

Having lived in the religiously-mixed neighbourhood of Shubra for a long time, and even named one of his novels after the Cairo district, Sabry is aware of the “sentimental appreciation everyone has for the Virgin Mary.”

“Even for Christians, they love the three-week fast that leads to the day of the Assumption as if it is different from the many other fasts they have throughout the year,” Sabry said.

And, according to Fadiah, a Coptic woman who lives in Shubra, “it is especially this fast that many Muslims still share with us; there was a time when our neighbours would join us for other fasts before Christmas and before Easter, as we would share the Ramadan fast, but recently very few do so – but with the fast of the Virgin Mary many still do; and they still join us for a meal cooked in honour of Our Lady.”

Fadiah is convinced that “this year especially we are seeing a renewed closeness between Muslims and Christians after the rule of the Islamists that was very threatening to us; after 30 June [2013] things changed.”

The fact that this sentiment is particularly displayed during the “Feast of the Virgin” is certainly significant, according to Sabry. “The Virgin Mary does have this unifying force; she is a figure that brings around her all Egyptians.”

And according to anthropologist Reem Saad, the very concept of pursuing the help of holy figures is deeply rooted in popular Egyptian culture. “It is part of the folk spirituality in a sense and it is shared by Christians and Muslims and it takes precedence in times of distress both at the individual and the collective levels in a variety of ways,” said Saad.

“This is perhaps why we see the endless crowds attending all the moulids [religious festivals] of all the Sufi figures, for example by Muslims who do not subscribe to Sufism and also by Christians,” she added.

The concept of intercession in the Christian creed is shared particularly by Egyptian Muslims – unlike Muslims in the Gulf, for example, and despite the growing influence of Wahhabi Islam in Egypt – in relation to the grandchildren of Prophet Mohamed, who are said to be buried in Egypt, and other leading Muslim figures, said Soliman Shafik, researcher in the history of Christianity in Egypt.

“This could explain why that predominant portrait of the Virgin Mary in Egyptian culture – despite the many icons in the Coptic churches and the statues in the Catholic churches – is the one of Virgin Mary in her blue dress and white scarf with her arms wide open – this was the image of the Apparition after the 1967 defeat [by Israel]...in the Church of Virgin Mary in Al-Zaytoun [in eastern Cairo],” said Robert El-Faress, a researcher and novelist.

The many faces of 'Our Lady'

This is the image that is widely seen on statues of Mary in Egypt, part of a growing taste among Copts to buy statues, which is otherwise a strictly Catholic tradition.

These statues are mostly sold during the days of the Moulid Al-Adrah and for the three weeks that follow the festival's fasting period in early August. According to merchants at the Drunnka monastery, it is not unusual for Muslim women to buy these statues as well.

According to painter Shafik, Egyptian artists who paint Mary have all portrayed her with strictly Middle Eastern, “in fact, really Egyptian features.”

“Irrespective of the school of art or the style of the painter, almost all Egyptian artists have reflected what would be the features of a typical Egyptian woman from a village on the banks of the Nile River, which are certainly different from the blonde Mary who appears in Western paintings,” he said.

“She is always pious, pure and often suffering,” El-Faress noted. He added that the most predominant story is that the very first drawing of Mary carrying baby Jesus was done by Saint Luke. “The original copy is supposedly in a church in Russia and there is a very good replica in the monastery of Al-Maharrek in Assiut,” he said.

But why would this frail-looking mother who grieved the loss of “the holiest of God’s gifts” be perceived to have so much power in a firmly patriarchal society?

Psychiatrist Ehab El-Kharrat sees no hidden taste for Egyptian feminism behind this perception.

“There are other women who are also perceived to be with considerable powers like [the granddaughter of Prophet Mohamed] Sayyeda Zeinab [Lady Zeinab] who is said to be 'the mother of the unfortunate,’ and historically there is also the Ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet who was seen as the protector of the pharoahs and had the face of a lioness,” he argued.

“In the Egyptian mindset, the Virgin Mary is not ‘a woman’ but rather ‘the mother,’” El-Kharrat said.

He added that, as Egyptians perceive mothers to be of exceptional strength when it comes to their children, Virgin Mary “who is also holy and sacred according to the books of both Muslims and Christians, has exceptional powers.”

According to anthropologist Saad, it is “the feminine demeanour rather than the assumed feminist trait” of a woman who withstood defamation and suffering that is appreciated by the Egyptian public.

El-Faress argues that the many songs that are dedicated to Mary either in traditional or in modern folk Christian music are about piety, grace and holiness.

“Oh Virgin Mary; oh my mother; you are dear to me; I love you my mother – and with your grace I am strong,” goes one of the most popular songs, El-Faress noted.

“Those are the features of Virgin Mary and those are the source of her strength,” he argued.

Another point of the strength of Virgin Mary in the popular mindset, El-Faress said, is her “healing power.”

“Some people believe in it and others may not but for many Egyptians – across the borders of fortune and religion – the Virgin Mary is said to have healing powers and this is depicted in a novel by Islamic thinker and writer Mostafa Mahmoud in which a character that believes that the dust in the churches carrying the name of the Virgin Mary has a healing power,” El-Faress said. He noted the similarity between Mary and Zeinab in this aspect.

Mary's apparent healing powers were the subject of a recent debate when a medical doctor, newspaper commentator Khaled Montasser, criticised the common belief of many Christians – and for that matter Muslims – that “holy oil” is leaking from a large painting of Mary in a church carrying her name in Port Said. The criticism prompted many unkind remarks from readers.

“In the Egyptian popular perception, holy figures, especially the Virgin Mary, are said to have exceptional powers that go beyond the boundaries of scientific parameters,” researcher Shafik said.

El-Faress noted that in the Egyptian mindset it is hard to apply earthly rules to holy figures – especially for those who believe that the Virgin Mary is the most pious of all women, or that she is the mother of the son of God.

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