INTERVIEW: ‘Hail Mary – Our Lady of Help’

Dina Ezzat , Abdallah Ghomi , Saturday 22 Aug 2020

Anthropologist Nahla Emam says Egyptians’ celebration of the Assumption of Virgin Mary is part of a wider cross-religion love of El-Adra

Anthropologist Nahla Emam
Anthropologist Nahla Emam

“When we talk about the Virgin Mary in Egypt, we are talking about miracles, we are talking about faith, both of Copts as of Muslims. We are talking about prayers and appeals for blessings, and above all, we are talking about a true and enduring love that keeps manifesting itself in so many ways,” said anthropologist Nahla Emam.

Emam is a professor of habits, beliefs and traditional knowledge at the High Institute of Folklore, the Academy of Art. For over a year, Emam has been researching the topic of Coptic faith in miracles.

Egyptians, Emam said, across their faiths, have a strong belief in miracles by the power of saints and holy men. However, for this particular research that is set to evolve into a book sometime soon, Emam is exclusively focusing on the Coptic narrative of miracles.

“For the vast majority of Copts, there is a strong belief in the ability of saints and martyrs to bring about incredible miracles. These miracles vary a great deal from helping someone find a lost object to bringing the dead back to life in a matter of minutes,” Emam said.

“And for the majority of cases, it is the blessing of Virgin Mary that is capable of making these miracles happen,” she argued.

Indeed, for the vast majority of Christians, including the followers of the Coptic Orthodox Church who constitute the major segment of Egyptian Christians, Virgin Mary is not just the mother of Jesus but the holiest of all saints.

“So Copts do believe in the unequalled power of the Virgin Mary to make good things happen and to keep bad things away,” Emam said.

It is very common during the two weeks leading to the celebration of the Assumption of Virgin Mary to find thousands of people attending masses in churches that commemorate Moulid El-Adra ("the feast of Virgin Mary") to appeal for her blessed help.

“It is true that in the minds of many people, Virgin Mary is the epitomic symbol of motherhood that makes lots of women who wish to have children or who wish for their children to be healed to appeal for the help of Virgin Mary,” Emam said.

However, as Eman's research has revealed, men as equally as women seek the help of El-Adra for many reasons far beyond her being a symbol of motherhood.

“Men appeal to the blessed Virgin to spare them from agony, pain, and hardships. After all, one of the names of Virgin Mary is Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” Emam said.

She added, “there is a mass dedicated to Virgin Mary in the Coptic Church that is referred to as the mass of dissolving iron.

“This relates to the wide belief that Virgin Mary visited a prisoner in his dream and dissolved the iron shackles that constrained him to the extent that agriculture in that area was halted for a while because all the axes had been dissolved by the power of Virgin Mary,” Emam explained.

Virgin Mary

Essentially, Emam said, there is a strong belief among Egyptians, Muslims and Copts, in the apparitions of Virgin Mary. “Obviously, one of the most famous apparitions that people always speak about is that of 1968 when she appeared in the Church named after her in Zaytoun (east Cairo) to promise Egyptians victory after the defeat of 1967,” Emam said.

“The fact that this apparition was noted on the front page of Al-Ahram, the country’s most prominent daily at the time, without any attempt to suggest that this apparition was exclusive to the Coptic belief, is a clear indication of the cross-religious faith in Virgin Mary and her power,” she argued.

According to Emam, “one of the most common stories related to this particular apparition is that it was so much talked about to the extent that President Gamal Abdel-Nasser heard of it and decided he would like to inspect it himself so he was escorted by the head of the Coptic Church Pope Kyrollos to stay at the house of a simple man opposite the church in Zaytoun and it was there at dawn that Nasser saw El-Adra.”

Emam is well aware that this story might or might not be true. “But the point here is not about whether Nasser actually did go to inspect the apparition but rather about the extent of faith in Virgin Mary and the power of her apparition that made people feel it was possible for the president to wish to inspect it himself,” she argued.

In late 2010, Emam recalled, there was another apparition celebrated in a church in Omraniya. And it was this particular church that had seen an angry confrontation between Coptic demonstrators and anti-riot police over an executive order to suspend the construction of a part of the church.

“Again, the apparition was a message of solace and reassurance that injustice would be undone, and this is the most common association in the minds of Egyptians – again not just Copts but also Muslims – that Virgin Mary heals the wounds and reverses unfairness,” Emam argued.

The belief in the power of healing and bringing justice, Emam said, is attributed in the Egyptian culture to many saints and holy people – most of whom have their own moulids. So, she added, there is the Moulid of Sayeda Zeinab, the granddaughter of Prophet Mohamed, and Sayeda Nafisa, the great-granddaughter of Prophet Mohamed, that like the Moulid of Virgin Mary see a lot of appeal for help and demand for blessings.

“It is an integrated part of the popular culture, but of course Virgin Mary has a particular status, particularly because there is a lot of reference to her in Quran, where she is referred to as the most immaculate and purest of all women on earth,” Emam said. “In the Egyptian culture, a strong popular belief always tends to have a religious base somehow,” she added.

“In fact, the very concept of Assumption, which relates to the taking of the body of Virgin Mary to heaven, is shared at a wider scale in the popular culture that tends to believe that the bodies of holy and pious men and women do not decay like the bodies of ordinary people,” she said.

Many of these saints and holy people have more than one feast to celebrate in the year, and Virgin Mary is celebrated on many occasions other than her Assumption.

However, followers of the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrate the Assumption with a two-week vegetarian fast that starts on 7 August. “It is one of the most popular fasts of the year for all Coptic Orthodox people,” Emam said.

Another significant occasion celebrated by the majority of Egyptians is the trip of the holy family, when Virgin Mary fled to Egypt with her baby Jesus to escape persecution.

This year, Emam said, Egypt presented to UNESCO a file to record the trip of the holy family to Egypt as part of the country’s intangible cultural heritage.

Egypt is party to a 2003 UNESCO convention for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage. Files presented by countries are subject to consultation before receiving approval.

Emam, who has been representing Egypt to UNESCO on this particular convention, is confident that approval will be announced before the end of 2021. This, she said, is the usual length of time required for an approval to be passed.

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