Letters to the dead

10-05-2019 11:55 PM

Nash’at Abul-Kheir


“Letters to the Dead in Ancient Egypt: A Comparative Study between the Past and Present”, was recently issued by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Writing and Scripts Center. Written by Dr Hesham Ellissy, Head of the Central Administration for Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo and Giza, the new book is among several publications issued by the Writing and Scripts Center, which all tackle the study of inscriptions and writings throughout history and the connection between the past and present. Studying religious phenomena/particularities through ancient texts and inscriptions comes on top of the Writing and Scripts Center priorities.

Ellissy’s book sheds light on the tradition of addressing the dead—possibly gods then Christian and Muslim saints—a phenomenon which prevailed in Egyptian society a long time ago. The author analyses messages that were sent in Egypt to the dead during ancient times, and compares them to letters that were sent in modern times, to the Imam Shafei (767 – 820) for instance. Imam Shafei was a Muslim theologian, writer, and scholar, who was the first contributor of the principals of Islamic jurisprudence; he was often referred to as Sheikh al-Islam. Through his comparisons between the letters addressed to the dead in ancient and modern times, the author proves that their content is quite similar.

The book traces the rise of this social phenomenon and its different religious dimensions throughout different ages, from ancient times and till the Coptic then Islamic eras. The tradition never ceased; Egyptians went on sending letters to the dead asking for their help and intervention, but substituted the Christians and Muslim saints for the pagan gods. The author thus proves that tradition spills over from one generation to the next, and that this is how folk heritage lives on.

The messages to the dead were not merely a means to remain in touch with loved or revered ones, the study emphasises. They expressed urgent calls for help with seemingly insurmountable problems.

Watani International

10 May 2019

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