Egypt, Easter in

Egypt, Easter in

Although the vast majority of Egyptians are Muslims, the nation's tiny Christian community (about seven percent of the population) celebrates Easter with great enthusiasm. The celebrations of these Coptic Christians hark back to the first several centuries after Jesus' death when the new, Christian religion established a stronghold in Egypt. The religious practices of Coptic Christians are more similar to those of other Eastern Christians than they are to those of Western Christians, that is, Roman Catholics and Protestants.

Palm Sunday

In early Christian times the biggest Palm Sunday celebrations took place in the city of Alexandria. Christians decorated churches with palm and olive branches and marched in religious processions carrying palm fronds.

In the seventh century Egypt was invaded by Arab Muslims. Although the new rulers did not outlaw Christianity, the religion entered a long, slow decline as Islam became the dominant faith in the region. Christians continued to celebrate Palm Sunday with religious processions led by priests and other officials who carried incense burners, crosses, and the Bible. The processions stopped at the houses of judges and other politicians, whether Christians or not, where Bible verses were read aloud. In the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries a new Palm Sunday custom developed. People went to bathe and be blessed at a well in Matariya, north of Cairo. According to legend Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus had stopped there on their journey into Egypt (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin). Even Muslims participated in this custom.

Nowadays many Coptic Christians attend midnight services during which palm branches are blessed by priests. The priests carry crosses decorated with palm fronds and walk around the inside of the church seven times. The procession stops in front of all the church's relics, items once owned by a saint, and icons, religious images used in prayer and worship. Outside the church people buy special loaves of bread stamped with religious symbols. They bring the loaves home along with the blessed palm branches. Coptic Christians prepare for morning services on Palm Sunday by weaving palm fronds into beautiful shapes. Shields, stars, triangles, anchors and, of course, crosses are among the most popular designs. Many people embellish these palm weavings with fresh flowers. The resulting ornaments may be finished by attaching a tassel to the top of the design or by mounting them on a stem or branch. Great numbers of children attend Palm Sunday church services carrying their woven palm fronds. After the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is read aloud, the priests sprinkle holy water on the palm ornaments, sometimes tossing water out into the crowd to reach all the palms. Families then take the blessed ornaments home and hang them on their front doors that they might confer a blessing on the house.

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday celebrations begin late at night on Holy Saturday with the Easter Vigil service. This long church service honors the resurrection of Jesus Christ and lasts until the early hours of Sunday morning. Afterwards Coptic Christians return home for the Easter feast which marks the end of the long Lenten fast. Many Egyptian families prepare a stuffed turkey or a leg of lamb for their Easter meal. Stuffed grape leaves are another popular Easter dish. Parents often give their children new clothes and small gifts of money to mark this festive occasion.

Egypt's Coptic Christians enjoy a long tradition of including their Muslim neighbors in their Easter celebrations. In the Fatimid period (tenth through twelfth centuries), Muslims and Christians alike celebrated Easter by setting up tents along the banks of the Nile and throwing a great party at which everyone shared food, drink, and entertainment. Police, palace representatives, and sometimes even the king himself appeared at this festival. After this period, however, official Easter celebrations ceased. When the Ottoman sultans ruled Egypt (1517-1915) they reinstated the official celebration of Easter, though they themselves were Muslims. Indeed in 1528 one sultan is reported to have given away 20,000 Easter eggs. Today a big Easter celebration takes place at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo. The Coptic pope heads up the affair, which is attended by important officials representing the presidency and other branches of the Egyptian government.

Further Reading

Abbas, Jailan. Festivals of Egypt. Cairo, Egypt: Hoopoe Books, 1995. Millen, Nina. Children's Festivals from Many Lands. New York: Friendship Press, 1964.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002