Exalted Spirits: A tribute conference to Egypt’s intangible heritage

Amira Noshokaty , Monday 15 Nov 2021

The American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) held a most inspiring conference titled ‘Exalted Spirits, The Veneration of the Dead in Egypt throughout the Ages’ from 10 to 12 November.

Exalted Spirits
Photo by Amira Noshokaty

Tens of scientific research papers were presented on and offline from all over the world. The conference — which was hosted at Tahrir Cultural Centre, the old premises of the American University in Cairo — also held an exhibition in parallel in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities at the premises of the Egyptian Museum, where relics from Ancient, Coptic, and Islamic Egypt were exhibited side by side to reflect the cross-cutting theme of honouring the dead and connecting with them throughout the ages.

The brainchild of Yasmine El-Shazly, the deputy director of the ARCE, the idea of the conference was inspired by her dissertation on Royal Ancestral Worship in Deir Al-Madina, Luxor, focusing on Ancient Egypt during the New Kingdom.

“I have always been interested in the concept of venerating the dead throughout history because I feel that there is a connection between the different time periods and a continuity to the practices in Egypt, so I wanted to highlight this in a conference and to link the tangible and intangible in the idea of venerating the dead. For me, I am curious to know the practice continued, because I know how it started over time,” explained El-Shazly.

We have colleagues that specialise in various time periods. I thought it would be a good idea to have an exhibition that would illustrate some of the concepts and ideas that would be discussed in the conference.”

She teamed up with Mary Zerdelian-Kupelian — a faculty member of the Tourism and Hotel Management Guidance Department of Helwan University and was responsible for the Coptic section — and Noha Abu Abu Khatwa — an adjunct assistant professor of Islamic art and architecture at the American University in Cairo — and together they created the cross-cutting theme of the conference.

“A year and a half ago, El-Shazly called me saying she wanted to organise a conference that would link the three periods of Egypt using a theme that proved that Egypt’s long history and tradition continues till today,” said Abu Khatwa.

“It is an inter-disciplinary conference because it connects not just historians, art historians, philologists, and anthropologists and integrates the panels that would bring in the living traditions in the modern period as well, but it also brings together the tangible with the intangible to bring the full picture.

Maddad in its broader sense

Indeed, the conference put the people of Egypt’s connection and communication with their dead and how they perceive them in the limelight, which highlighted the idea of ‘maddad’ in its broader perspective, and in its root in Arabic language, which means reinforcement, assistance, support, and connection.

From the ancient Egyptians’ concept of eternity and the afterlife to the Coptic and Islamic saints and Wallis, Egyptians are ready to connect with their dead, whom they honour, and share their lives with despite their physical absence.

They seek maddad from the creator and those who crossed over to the other life as well, for they need to know they are connected and protected in the presence of their creator.

Letters to the dead

Over the course of two days, scientific papers have unanimously and unmistakably highlighted the fact that the very concept of intangible heritage is alive and practiced through many traditions and costumes of Egyptians, and honouring the dead is one of the most obvious themes.

The closing session of the conference was unique, for it reflected this connection live, so to speak.

The panel included renowned writer and journalist Ibrahim Eissa, whose latest film ‘Saheb Al-Maqam’ (‘The owner of the Maqam’) was inspired by the relationship between Egyptians and the Imam Al Shafei, along with Father Tadawos Afa Mina — the coordinator between the Egyptian Church and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities — highlighting the concept of intercession.

The session discussed a study by History Professor Hesham El-Lithy on how ancient Egyptians sent letters to the dead the same way modern Egyptians send letters to the Imam El-Shafei.

The panel also included architect historian, May El-Ibrashy, who restored the Mausoleum of Al-Shafei and shared the modern day letters they found during the restoration process.

Throughout the conference, tracing back ancient Egyptian rituals and how they reflect in the modern day was a main theme that put the intangible and tangible heritage in one proper sentence.

In another interesting session, the concept of communicating with the dead was also highlighted in the graffiti engraved inside mausoleums commemorating the visits of the living, an interesting angle by Dr. Fatma Keshk, who reflected how such visits are still meaningful to Egyptians.

Osiris lives?

Among the most interesting papers discussed during the conference was the paper titled ‘Osiris Lives: Exalting the Drowned One in Qubet Al-Hawa at the Modern Cemetery of Gabanat Aswan.’ The paper by Amr El-Hawary traced the importance of the cemetery and its unique and unusual geographical set up, where it is scattered on a mountain and its southern part is usually flooded by the Nile annually.

Tucked between the area of the Ancient Tombs of the Nobles, Elephantine Island, and facing the Royal Tombs is Qubet El-Hawa, a symbolic cemetery where according to an anthropological study showcased in one of the announcements of the German Archaeological institute is the grounds of a secret ritual to get pregnant, one that dates back to ancient Egyptians and is still practiced to this day.

The setting of this symbolic cemetery is unique, the natural landscape of the region of hard cataracts and streaming water is not common to burry loved ones in the moist side as to be seen in Gabanet Aswan. Only the old Muslim part of the cemetery is set on a higher elevation and is therefore dryer.

The paper says:

“We found that women come from all over Egypt and Sudan to visit Sheikh Youssef’s shrine, crying to him to become pregnant. Sheikh Youssef is not buried in or under these, he is not the saint of the dome. Sheikh Negm is buried in the mausoleum, which is the centre of the village’s religious activities.

Sheikh Youssef lies under the water, they told me, he comes up frequently and takes up the flowers or sweet offers by the women. The name Youssef in Egyptian folktales is connected with the biblical Joseph, who had a beautiful face and was betrayed, thrown away in a well when he was a child by his half- brothers.

This child emerged from the well and became the king of Egypt. This is a place, a play of absence and presence in this unique cultural and natural landscape, Sheikh Negm is buried under his mausoleum, Sheikh Youssef under water, and Sheikh El-Hawa cannot be seen under Qubet Al-Hawa(‘The Dome of Wind’), although he is obviously there.

Whether under the soil, under the water, or with the wind, they will return. It’s like the popular theme of an ancient tomb description of Qubet Al-Hawa: The return of the corpse of the dead father from his journey to the south came back to Aswan to an empty shrine, on the sand closer to the Nile.

All the fragments of the Osiris saga are present: A dead one coming back from faraway with the flood that reaches the cemetery to meet women that long to see him again, hoping to carry his child and receive his body appropriately at home.

This is expressed in their wailing and crying at the beginning of the cemetery; they are shouting, describing his beauty and character.

According to the myth, his body will come back up with the water so that the land becomes green. We know that the south part of the Aswan cemetery is flooded annually.

Women still come up at night throwing indigo blue along the shrine to cleanse it, spreading seeds and mud while waiting for the fertile water to fulfil the miracle of birthing a new life.

Exalting the dead Osiris in ancient times as well as venerating Sheikh Youssef in modern Egypt is a tradition in Egypt to call upon fertility and resurrection by people who try to achieve harmony with their natural landscape.”

Short link: