This week marks the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated by the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church on 19 January some two weeks after Coptic Christmas on 7 January and at the end of 45 days of vegetarian fasting.
In the Egyptian culinary lexicon, the Epiphany means the root vegetable taro cooked in a sauce made of chard and served, now more often with chicken than with meat, with white rice followed by mandarins and oranges. The latter are not peeled, but are instead hollowed out in a way that keeps the skins intact to allow them to be turned into lanterns with engraved crosses on at least two sides.
According to Mustafa Gad, dean of the Higher Institute of Folk Arts in Cairo, this tradition is not only a Coptic ritual. With the exception of the engraved crosses, it is “an almost generic Egyptian” routine at this time of year, he says, with it being customary for most families to cook traditional taro recipes on the day of the Epiphany and in keeping with a custom that matches the season and what might be the unconscious pursuit of the sense of sharing that all Egyptians subscribe to.
“It is certainly one of the many imprints of Coptic, or rather Christian Orthodox, traditions on the overall Egyptian lifestyle and heritage,” Gad said.
The culinary impact is perhaps the most noticeable part of the wider Coptic imprint on Egyptian culture. There is a long list of recipes that have a deeply rooted place in Coptic Christian culture, with many relating to different vegetarian and vegan fasts.
Overall, Gad said, Egypt’s Coptic Christian feasts and fasts come with many culinary traditions that have been interwoven into the collective culture, even if this is not necessarily something that is recognised by everyone because “these habits have been so embedded in Egyptian culture that people don’t look for their origins today.”
Some Coptic recipes are well-established on Egyptian tables, including the taro of the Epiphany, the bissara (a type of fava bean purée) that is served on Good Friday, and the shalawolawo (a type of corchorus — or jute mallow — with lemon served cold) served with dried bread and onions during the days of Lent that originates in Upper Egypt.
There is also mafrouka (a type of vegan pasta served with milk and honey) on Easter Sunday. The Sham Al-Nessim springtime menu of boiled eggs and salted fish that all Egyptians share also has a biblical meaning behind it, Gad said.
“A major part originates in ancient Egyptian customs, but it also has a meaning in the context of the Christian presence and evolution in Egypt,” he added.
According to Gad, the imprint of Christianity on Egyptian culture started early with the voyage of the Holy Family in Egypt. “This had a strong imprint, and even today we see its influence in the designs of textiles and on mosaics, glass, and pottery,” he said.
He explained that while such drawings do not necessarily present images of the Virgin Mary riding a donkey with the baby Jesus, images of a mother and child dominate the vernacular arts across Egypt, particularly in the south.
It is hard for anyone to overlook the “major status of the Virgin Mary in Egyptian folk culture,” Gad said. She is the ultimate symbol of motherhood, and the blessings of the Virgin Mary are sought after by all young women seeking to have a child.
“Everywhere in Egypt, particularly on the path of the Holy Family and at every moulid [religious celebration] where the pictures of Virgin Mary are carried, there is a sizable Muslim presence, especially among women,” he said.
“In fact, a lot of the songs that people sing for women with high social status are inspired by songs that were originally written to celebrate the Virgin Mary.”
Gad said that songs chanted in rural Egypt, mostly in Upper Egypt where the majority of Egyptian Coptic Christians have always lived, to celebrate a pilgrimage to Jerusalem are often copied for folk songs chanted to mark a pilgrimage to Mecca.
“It is fascinating that some of the songs have exactly the same rhymes, ones that are associated with some hymns,” he said. It is also hard to overlook the impact of Christian hymns on folk songs chanted in praise of bravery, sacrifice, and love.
RITUALS: The scope of the impact of Coptic culture in Egypt also goes way beyond food and folk art. It is also there in rituals related to birth, marriage, and death. “Just to give one example, the baby shower has its origins in the epiphany,” Gad said.
He said the “clear continuity” of the cultural influences from ancient Egypt to Coptic Christianity had given a special profile to the rituals of Islam in Egypt, including to the moulids of Sufi saints, the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohamed, and the lanterns used in Ramadan.
There is also the shared ethnicity of all Egyptians and the fact that the country has developed in terms of faith from the religion of ancient Egypt, to Christianity, and then to Islam “while sticking to the same culture and absorbing cultural influences that came to Egypt during the Middle Ages and beyond.”
It is this “unique inheritance of Egyptian culture” that has always made Egyptians immune to intolerance.
“Folk games, for example, are something that reflects the pursuit of joy even through very simple means. This is a trait of Egyptian culture and of the Egyptian character,” Gad said. Overall, he added, in their traditions, heritage, proverbs and forms of folk arts and crafts, Egyptians have a culture that is rich in spirituality and beauty and one that is incompatible with any form of religious fanaticism.
This is why it is important for Egyptians to always remember and celebrate the country’s diverse heritage with its many influences, Gad commented.
“I think it is important to emphasise the fact that we have a very rich and diverse folk heritage, and while we might not be able to trace all the elements of this heritage, we need to always remember that it has been made up of all our faiths and all our history,” Gad said.
It is also important to give more space to this heritage and to try to keep it alive. “Think of reviving old and forgotten recipes and games, think of documenting folk songs and tales, think of putting documentaries on TV to present this rich folk heritage to those segments of the younger generation who are not exposed or aware of the layered culture they come from,” Gad said.
He said that it was the realisation of the significance of the folk heritage that had prompted former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser to support the launch of a folk arts research centre in the 1950s that became a higher institute after a decree by former president Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981.
“In 1982, we had our first class at the Institute, and since then it has been working to grant more space and more awareness of the folk arts with all their many elements out of the clear conviction that keeping the folk heritage alive is a mission in itself,” Gad said.
Graduates of the institute are engaged in contributing to an atlas that aims to compile and document the folk heritage of the country from south to north and east to west, he said.
“Apart from the documentation side of it, this work is very significant because it shows how much we share in cross-geographic, cross-faith, and cross-class ways,” Gad said, adding that while the institute is in charge of documenting the many aspects of Egypt’s folk heritage, the teaching of it should not be confined to its classes.
“We need to take this teaching out to schools and especially to vocational training centres as well,” he said. “We have a very rich history that inspires beautiful crafts and arts just as much as it inspires tolerance and celebrates diversity.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.