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Opinion

The Grand Egyptian Festival: religion, heritage and social cohesion

Published on 22 January 2021

Image of Mariz Tadros
Mariz Tadros

Director (CREID)

On 19th January every year, at the stroke of midnight, thousands of Coptic Christians in Egypt jump into the river Nile or water canals nearby. Once in the water, they dunk themselves three times to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan. The celebrations are commonly known in Egypt as Eid el Ghettas (the feast of immersion, more commonly known in the West as Epiphany).

Cross made from sugar cane sticks part of Coptic Eid El Ghettas festivities
Cross made from sugar cane sticks with candles, fruit and vegetables, part of the Coptic Eid El Ghettas festivities. Credit: Peter Lofty

The practice of immersion in the water on Eid el Ghettas is a collective act, undertaken with others. While it has deeply religious significance for Coptic Christians, who constitute about 10-15% of the Egyptian majority Sunni population, it is not an act that constitutes the official worship of the Coptic churches in Egypt or a requirement of faith. Rather, it is a popular heritage practice passed on intergenerationally for literally thousands of years as part of the heritage of all Egyptians.

Heritage with a history

Like many popular heritage practices shared among the Egyptians today that have their historical roots in ancient times, Eid el Ghettas is no exception. The ancient Egyptians, during the Ptolemaic era, celebrated the birth of the god Aion who shared characteristics with the Pharaonic gods Osiris and Serapsis) and was also the patron protector of the city of Alexandria in January.

One belief was that whoever immersed themselves in the waters on the night of the birth of the god Aion would experience healing of any ailment they may have or be assured of good health in the year to come. With the onset of Christianity in Egypt in 48 AD, it is believed that rather than annulling previous pagan festivals, they gave them Coptic Christian meanings and associations. Hence, the Copts of Egypt were one of the first to celebrate Epiphany, not only as a religious occasion, but as a popular festival.

When the majority of the population converted to Islam from the 7th century onwards, both Christians and Muslims continued to celebrate the festival of Eid el Ghettas in January. Indeed, Muslim and Christians continued to immerse themselves in the waters on the night of the 18-19th of January throughout the centuries that followed.

For Coptic Christians, it was an re-enactment of the baptism of Christ whilst  Muslims took part as part of their ancestral heritage. But the Egyptians didn’t just enjoy a one-off dunking in the waters, it was part and parcel of a broader set of popular expressions of festivities.

‘the best night…in Egypt’

The great (Muslim) geographer, historian and literary figure Abu ‘Ubayd ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Bakri (c. 1040–1094) witnessed first-hand the festivities of Eid el Ghettas in Egypt during his travels:

the night of Epiphany in Egypt was of great stature, it is the best night that can be had and is of mighty happiness’

Al-Bakri described the candles lit on the river Nile, the large gatherings, the food, music, processions and immersions in which all Egyptians partook. These expressions of festivity have been documented across history up to the 20th century as ones where all Egyptians took part, except during those phases when Egypt’s rulers prohibited the celebrations as part of their persecution of the Copts.

Today, however, the act of immersing oneself with others in waters at midnight on the 19th of January is now only practiced by a handful of Copts across some rural communities, largely on account of the pollution of the Nile, canals and ducts. Amongst Muslims, the practice of immersion is now virtually non-existent.

What has survived is the practice of eating kolqas (more commonly known as taro) and sucking sugar cane. And, for some exceptional families, young children are still encouraged to make lanterns out of oranges, part of a heritage that has been passed on intergenerationally. These lanterns were used historically to light the streets prior to the onset of electricity and also as a way to celebrate (it was always accompanied by song). Once again, these practices were ones in which all Egyptians took part, but whatever remains of them is now almost exclusively undertaken by Copts.

Whatever became of the grand Egyptian festival?

The abandonment of this grand popular festival did not happen overnight. Gradually, year after year, people gave up on one aspect of the celebrations after another – the songs in the streets on the 18th of January are no longer heard, the sugar cane crosses with the candles are no longer seen in the alleys and streets.

How did this happen? It is true that the festival got smaller and smaller in part because young people found the practices to be outdated, and also money is tight and people can no longer afford the celebrations. However, much of the brunt falls with the rhetoric disseminated by the Salafis and other conservative Islamist movements who considered taking part in the festivities associated with the Copts haram (religiously prohibited).

Muslims who did take part in these celebrations were ostracised for engaging in un-Islamic practices. Over the last 50 years, public space in the villages of Upper Egypt has become increasingly hostile to visible displays of popular heritage where it is associated with the Copts.

While the religious rites and rituals of Epiphany continued to be celebrated within the walls of the church, new generations have grown up not knowing about the centuries’ old history of Christians and Muslims celebrating Eid el Ghettas together as a day of fun and festivities.

Reclaiming the story of a festival for all Egyptians – for social cohesion’s sake

Despite this decline, there are enough stories of what a grand festival celebrated together means, in the collective memories of past and present generations, to make it worthwhile reinstating the forgotten narratives of Eid el Ghettas as popular Egyptian heritage.

These memories matter because they give us a chance to experience in a tangible way what social cohesion tastes, smells, feels and looks like. From the heritage stories collected by the young people in Egypt as part of the IDS-led CREID programme, they conveyed to us that:

  • Social cohesion is promoted through collective immersion

Joining in the fun of collective immersion in the water is critical for social cohesion in that it forges experiences of sharing in common experiences that are associated with happiness.

The experience of jumping into the river Nile at midnight with people of all ages and backgrounds allowed Copts and Muslims a special night together. It is the experience of waiting for that special occasion on the 18th January when the immersion is like none other that adds to the sense of collective memory, year after year, of taking part in something extraordinary.

  • Children are at the centre of social cohesion

When thinking about social cohesion, the experiences of children rarely feature at the centre of any story or discussion. The participation of Christian and Muslim children in leading a public procession in the streets of the villages, holding onto oranges with candles and singing songs together, are experiences that allow for the intergenerational transfer of common heritage in a meaningful and experiential manner.

  • Reciprocity is core to social cohesion

If interdependence is critical for social cohesion, then reciprocity is certainly a core element of its manifestation. Reciprocating food associated with festivities is one of the most powerful ways of “tasting” social cohesion in a tangible, meaningful and joyful manner. Like many of the interviewees told our heritage gatherers, women and men would share sugar cane, feteer (a pastry very popular among all Egyptians) and kolqas with their Muslim neighbours on the day. Similarly, Muslim neighbours would also share the special foods associated with Ramadan. Sharing food wields welcome excuses for conversing and coming together.

  • Memory and positive associations of diversity and social cohesion

In pre-Coptic eras, the celebration of the rivers of the Nile in January was associated with the winter solstice. In time, it was Eid el Ghettas which marked the expectation of a change of season. One widely circulated proverb in the rural areas is “لو غطس النصراني ميرجعش البرد تاني” A very rough translation would be “upon the immersion of the Nazarene, the cold is no more.”

Social cohesion is forged not when people are blind to their differences but when these differences become the basis of genuine positive associations in individual memories of what constitutes the collective good. In this instance, the positive association in these people’s minds of the onset of Eid el Ghettas with the changing of the season, the sowing of new plants for a new harvest and the warmer weather is in stark contrast to the rumours and prejudices that are spread in processes of religious othering.

A revival?

Yet caution is needed not to romanticise the power of festivals to foster social cohesion. Joyful communal festivities are no substitute for equal citizenship rights and duties, enforcement of rule of law and speedy justice for victims of religious bigotry and prejudice. In fact, the ability to enjoy popular festivals as a common heritage is one manifestation of the extent of social cohesion in society. Where social relations are positive, people will celebrate together. Where rumours, hate speech and injustice are rife, they will steal people’s appetite for taking part in festivities.

How can you go out into the streets and celebrate when your family has been attacked and accused of blasphemy?

Festivals are popular expressions of joy which cannot be contrived or forced, and hence they are very fragile.  Festivals cannot be the antidote of unresolved grievances and disputes, but they can be the expressions of a collective will to obstruct the political projects of those who wish to divide, hierarchise and engage in religious othering.

On a practical level, festivals need pre-existing rights in order to thrive. There is no point in organising public processions for Eid el Ghettas with Muslims and Christians joining if there is a shared fear that people who harbour extremist ideology will come and assault the participants.

However, social cohesion is not some sort of magic conjured out of thin air. The revival of festivals like Eid el Ghettas can go a long way towards strengthening social cohesion from the ground up if it draws on collective memories and experiences and enables their circulation – and if this is enabled through government policies and practices, consistently and coherently applied.

The material presented here has been collected for CREID and the British Academy project on sustainable development heritage repertoires.

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