The Dormition of Theotokos: The Feast of the Virgin Mary

Sherry El-Gergawi, Thursday 23 Aug 2012

Following a 15-day fast, Egypt's Coptic Christians celebrate the 'Dormition of Theotokos' on 22 August to commemorate the Virgin Mary's passing

Inside the Virgin Mary Church in Zeitun

The Dormition of Theotokos – or 'the sleep of the bearer of God,' a reference to the death of the Virgin Mary – is commemorated by Christians around the world on 22 August, or 16 Masarra in the Coptic calendar. In Egypt, the celebration follows a 15-day fast in honour of the Virgin Mary.

The Feast of the Dormition is one of the most popular events in the Coptic-Christian calendar, and is the one fast that the majority of Egypt's Copts observe. The tradition is said to have begun with the Virgin herself, who, according to the late Anba Grigorios, spent most of her time in worship, prayer, meditation and fasting.

It is said that Thomas, one of Christ's twelve apostles, was away at the time of the Virgin's death. When he returned to Jerusalem and heard of her passing, he insisted on seeing the body.

But when Thomas, along with a handful of other mourners, went to the tomb and opened it up, they did not find her body inside. Thomas then explained that he had seen her body being carried by angels up to heaven. One of the angels then instructed him to kiss the Virgin's body, which he did.

To commemorate the event, the apostles continued to fast for the first half of the Coptic month of Masarra. On the 16th day of the month, they, too, had visions of the Virgin in heaven. Ever since, this day has been celebrated as the 'Feast of the Dormition of the Thetokos,' or Eid Al-Adra – 'Feast of the Virgin' in Arabic.

The feast traditionally features both ecclesiastical rituals and popular festivals, with Coptic churches remaining open to congregants all day long, performing mass, choir performances and divine blessings.

In Egypt, Muslims as well as Christians often take part in the Mulid Al-Adra, or the 'Birthday of the Virgin,' a celebration that features singing, street performances, games and food, especially in areas close to churches and monasteries named after the Virgin. Tents are set up, peddlers hawk their wares and children line up for their turn on the swings; tattoo artists, meanwhile, decorate the bodies of the faithful with religious symbols.

Popular venues for the feast include the Virgin Mary Monastery in Daranka, Assiut, which receives some 2 million visitors per year; the Virgin Monastery in Bayad Al-Arab in Beni Suef, which lies on the presumed route of the Holy Family's journey to Egypt; the Virgin Mary Church in Cairo's Zeitoun district, in which the Virgin was reportedly sighted on 2 April 1968; and the Virgin Mary Monastery in the capital's Mostorud district, where thousands come to watch circus artists put on public performances and to buy salted fish – faseekh – from the many sellers that line the road. 

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