Festivals in Egypt

Image: Festivals in Egypt

Egypt is a wonderous country with many festivals and celebrations. Some festivals are historic, some are secular and some are religious.

Public Holidays and Moulids

There are many holidays and festivals in Egypt, both Muslim and Christian, national and local. It is important to be aware of some of these holidays, for example, Ramadan, when all Muslims, numbering 90 percent of the Egyptian population observe a total fast from sunrise to sunset for a month.

Ramadan and other Islamic Holidays

More than 90% of the Egyptian population is Muslim and Ramadan is a very important festival in the Islamic calendar. It is celebrated during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, to honour the time when the Qu’ran was revealed to the prophet Mohammed. Followers of the Islamic faith fast for the entire month, and there is no eating, drinking, or smoking from sunrise until sunset. Certain exceptions are made for small children (those under the age of 10), pregnant and nursing women, and the elderly. Those who do not fast, do so discreetly.

In Egypt, working hours are often reduced during Ramadan to allow for more prayer and reflection. The fast is broken each night with the meal referred to as “Iftar”. Iftar is often taken with friends and family and the mood is festive. Traditional music and entertainment is enjoyed throughout the night, and many stay awake until dawn. Mosques and streets are lit up with beautiful colours each evening and it is a joyous time throughout the nation.

At the end of Ramadan comes the feast of Eid al-Fitri. Equally important in the Muslim calendar is Eid al-Adha (aka Corban Bairam - the Great Feast), which celebrates the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to obey God and sacrifice his son. The Ed al-Adha is followed, about three weeks later, by Has el-Sana el-Hegira, the first day of the month of Moharrem, which marks the Muslim New Year.

Both eids are traditional family gatherings. At the Eld al-Adha every household that can afford it will slaughter a sheep. You see them tethered everywhere, even on rooftops, for weeks prior to the event. The slaughtering is often done on the streets. The fourth main religious holiday is the Moulid al-Nabi, the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. This is widely observed, with processions in many towns and cities.

Moulids, also important in Islam are the equivalent of medieval European saints’ fairs: popular events combining piety, fun and commerce. Their ostensible aim is to obtain blessing (baraka) from the saint, but the social and cultural dimensions are equally important. Moulids are an opportunity for people to escape the monotony of their hard-working lives in several days of festivities, and for friends and families from different villages to meet and celebrate.

Sham al-Naseem
Both Muslims and Christians in Egypt welcome the first day of Spring with a festive picnic called Sham al-Naseem, which means “the smell of spring”. On the twenty-first of March, the people gather for outdoor picnics. “Midamis” (kidney beans) and “fasiyah” (dried fish) are the traditional food of the day. Some people boat on the River Nile, and enjoy their picnics there. Everyone greets each other kindly, saying "al Salamu Alaycum", which means "Peace be with you."

Moulid an-Nabi
The Prophet Mohammed's birthday is celebrated at “Moulid an-Nabi”. This festival includes parades in the city streets and lights, feasts, drummers and special sweets. Traditional foods include “Halawet el-Moulid” (a sweet), “Hummus”, and “Aroussa al Moulid” (candy doll) for the children. It is held during the 3rd month of the Islamic calendar each year, and is a happy occasion shared with friends and family.

Egyptian Christmas
While most of the Egyptian population is Muslim, there is a small but significant community of Christians belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church. For the Coptic Christians of Egypt, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th each year.

The Christmas season marks a time of fasting and vegetarianism for the community, and no meat or milk is taken from November 25th to the night of January 6th. Churches and Christian homes are festooned with lights, Christmas trees and manger scenes in the week leading up to Christmas, and on Christmas Eve, the 6th of January, celebrations in churches are held and the bells of the churches ring out. The Pope of the Orthodox Church begins prayers at the big Cathedral in Cairo at 11 p.m., and this service is broadcasted on Egyptian television.

Christmas Day marks the end of fasting and picnics on the Nile are common places for celebrations. Children are given El 'aidia, the feast gift, to buy toys or sweets such as ice cream or sugar cane juice.

Coptic Festivals

Egypt’s Christian Coptic minority often attends Islamic moulids - and vice versa. Coptic moulids share some of the social and market functions of their Islamic counterparts, and, similarly, their core is the celebration of a saint’s name day. Major Christian events of the year are also celebrated. The dates of Christmas is January 6/7, Epiphany is January 19 and Annunciation March 21. Easter and its related feast days are reckoned according to the solar Coptic calendar, and therefore differ from both the Orthodox and Western dates by up to one month.

Major saints’ day events include the Moulid of St Damyanab May 15-20, the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul July 12, and various moulids of the Virgin and St George during August. Many of these are held at monasteries in Middle Egypt, the Delta and the Red Sea Hills. And of Coptic festival of pharaonic origin celebrated by all Egyptians is the Sham el Nessim, a coming of spring festival, which provides the excuse for mass picnics. Its name literally means, "Sniffing the Breeze".

Festivals in Fayoum

It's worth visiting the city purely for its festivals. Hotels overflow during Ah er-Rubi's moulid in Sha'ban, when the alleys around his mosque are crammed with stalls purveying sugar dolls and horsemen, and all kinds of amusements, while the devout perform zikrs in the courtyard. The other big occasion is the "viewing" (Er-Ruyeh) of the new moon that heralds Ramadan. This calls for a huge procession from the Gamal Abdel Nasser Mosque. Headed by the security forces, followed by imams and sheikhs, a parade of carnival floats "mimes" the work of different professions and bombards spectators with "lucky' prayer leaflets.

Siwan Festivals

Siwan festivals are the most public side of a largely private culture, so it's worth making an effort to attend one. The largest and most famous is the Siayha, or Tourism Festival, which, despite its name, is a genuine event with a long tradition. Some 10,000 Siwans assemble at Jebel Dakhrour for three days of feasting, dancing and relaxation - acting as tourists in their own oasis. A sheikh from Sidi Barrani comes in to bless the feast with an inaugural Bism'illah (in the name of God). Many non-Siwans and foreigners come too, and are made welcome. Siayha always occurs during the period of the full moon in October.

Last Updated on Sunday 16th January 2011