As the Coptic Church heralds in with joy the New Year 1732, all of Egypt should be marking the Egyptian New Year 6257
Yesterday, 12 September on the Gregorian calendar and 1 Tut on the Coptic (Egyptian) calendar, marked the first day of the Egyptian New Year 6257. The first of Tut coincides with 11 September in a simple year but, this one being a leap year, it comes on 12 September. Sadly, the Egyptian calendar, among the oldest in the world, is no longer officially used in Egypt. Termed the Coptic—an ancient Greek term which denotes ‘Egyptian’—calendar, it today features only in the Coptic Orthodox Church which continues to mark all its events and dates according to it, and with farmers and peasants since it is closely linked to the Nile’s annual inundation and to the agricultural and climatic cycle of the land. Officially, however, the Egyptian calendar was replaced with the Gregorian calendar in the 19th century.
So what is the story behind that ancient calendar and how did it fall into disuse by so many in Egypt? Or did it? A movement is now gaining ground among intellectuals in Egypt to revive that old tradition and breathe new life into the thoroughly Egyptian heritage over which the dust of foreign cultures has for centuries been heaped.
Cycle of life
Watani talked to Samy Harak, Egyptologist and founder of the movement Huraass al-Hawiya al-Misriya (Guards of the Egyptian Identity, GEI). Mr Harak says the ancients predictably monitored the day and night through sunrise and sundown, and the months through the moon cycle. The months were named after the ancient Egyptian gods; the first month Tut after Thot, the god of wisdom. In ancient Egypt, the years were later recognised through the cycles of the Nile’s annual inundation and the seasons.
Every season began when a specific star Sothis (Sirius) appeared in different places in the sky; the first time at night in the centre of the sky, marking the beginning of the flood when the First Drop Day was celebrated on 12 Pa’ouna (19 June), and the second time at sunrise to mark the New Year.
Mr Harak reminds of the historian James Henry Breasted (1865 – 1935) who admired the ancient Egyptians’ ability to put together the calendar, and explained in his book A History of Ancient Egypt that the calendar used by the Egyptians so long ago is exactly the same used today. It was carried by Julius Caesar to Rome and was used as the most precise calendar.
In 1582, Pope Gregory VIII decided to add few changes and the calendar was named after him. The Gregorian Calendar is the one in use today. This means the Egyptian calendar has been in use for over 6,000 successive years.
Numerous ancient inscriptions and texts, Mr Harak says, refer to the ancient Egyptian calendar. Among them are the texts in Unas Pyramid in Saqqara, which describe in a legendary form the creation of the year. Inscriptions in Saqqara Pyramid explain the addition of five days to the 12 months each year.
Counting the years
The Coptic calendar is then as old as its Pharaonic creators, who were the first to establish a solar then a stellar calendar. Principally an agricultural calendar, the year is divided into three seasons of four 30-day months each, according to the Nile and its flood. Five days were added at year-end, six in case of a leap year, to complete the year, in a so-called “small month” named Nassie’. Each month carries the name of an ancient Egyptian god. The sixth day of the leap year was only added during the reign of Ptolomy III Eurogetes (246 – 221BC).
The inundation season akhet runs from 12 Pa’ouna (June) to 9 Baba (October), and is followed by peret, the sowing and planting season from 10 Baba to 10 Touba (January). Shemu, the harvest season, extends from 11 Touba to 11 Pa’ouna.
The years were counted according to the dates of a Pharaoh’s or King’s ascension to the throne. When St Mark preached Christianity in Egypt during the first AD century, Egyptians devoutly embraced the new religion. Roman persecution mounted against Christians, and Egyptian martyrs fell by the thousands rather than renounce their Christian faith. That persecution climaxed during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, which began in 284. The Coptic Church, which holds death a rebirth to eternal life, saw fit to mark the beginning of Diocletian’s rule as the beginning of its calendar: the calendar of the martyrs, Anno Martyrum AM, and so it has remained till today; the current calendar year is 1732AM.
Water from the new flood
Egyptologist Christiane Desroches Noblecourt (1913 – 2011) wrote about the celebration of the Egyptian New Year in the southern town of Dandara. It was solemn and reverent, she wrote, and began on the eve of the first day in the first month, Tut. The statue of the goddess Hathor, normally kept in the holy of holies of the temple, was placed in a small glass naos and carried in a grand procession led by eight priests around the temple. Several stops were made in the temple to place crowns on Hathor’s head, symbols of her various powers. The priest leading the procession poured water from the new flood in front of him; he was followed by the king’s representative burning incense, and another procession of persons holding statues and banners. As soon as the procession came to the roof of the temple it headed for a kiosk where the naos was placed until sunrise. When the sunrays fell on the naos, Hathor was revived and music was played accompanied by the chanting of the priests. This celebration was unique, one of the world’s best-kept secrets. It can all be seen on the walls of Dandara Temple.
Popular celebrations preceded the festivities, during the five or six days of the last ‘short’ month in the calendar. These featured outdoor festivities of games, song and dance, feasting, and of course the time-honoured Egyptian tradition of carrying loaves of freshly baked bread and pies and visiting the tombs of loved ones who—in a sense—would share in the celebration. It was also a tradition to bury the hatchet, to reconcile differences and begin the new year with pure hearts that carried no grudges. Weddings were also held at that time, marking a new beginning with the New Year.
This was how the New Year was celebrated in ancient Egypt, but today the descendants of the ancient Egyptians no longer mark the event. Only the Coptic Church honours the date: the New Year of the Martyrs.
The New Year feast is called the Nayrouz. Mr Harak explains that there is a common error that the word comes from Persian origin. “Not so,” he says. “Nayrouz is taken from the ancient Egyptian ‘Ni Yaro’ (feast of the rivers) and denotes the ancient celebration of the Nile flood. When the Greeks came to Egypt in 330BC they pronounced it ‘Nayrouz’, and the word later moved to the Persians who used it to indicate ‘the morning light’ of their new year.”
So when exactly was the use of the Coptic calendar, the Tut chronicle, stopped? Watani asked. “This was during the time of Khedive Ismail who ruled Egypt from 1863 to 1879,” Mr Harak says. “The Khedive led a powerful movement of western modernisation. Even though Egyptians used their own Tut chronicle, the West and the whole world knew nothing of it, and Ismail Pasha decided to replace it with the ‘western’ AD chronicle. This was unknown to Egyptians, so he sent a list of the months’ names to every district in Egypt, with directives that they should be made familiar to the Egyptian people and especially government officials and employees. He then decreed the use of the Gregorian calendar instead of the Coptic.” Interestingly, however, many in Egypt till today feel alien to the Gregorian calendar and are not well familiar with the names of the months, so it is very common to hear these months defined by their ‘number’ on the calendar. January is Month One, April is Month 4, October is Month 10, and so on.
Official calendar of Egypt
For the GEI, the Egyptian New Year is a very significant event that calls for fitting celebration. Mr Harak says they started such celebrations back in 1997 by printing the Egyptian calendar and distributing it around; they have continued to do so every year. They also organise regular seminars in Cairo and in their branches in Alexandria, Suez, Kafr al-Sheikh and Minya to familiarise people with their magnificent Egyptian heritage.
In 2007, GEI held a mega event to mark the Egyptian Year 6249 at the Pharaonic Village in Giza among a number of public figures of intellectuals and media.
GEI celebrated the New Egyptian Year 6257 last evening on a Nile cruise in Cairo that featured a show of simsimeya folk music and songs.
Unfortunately, the Culture Ministry has been absent from the scene this year, even though it last year held stunning celebrations in several places in Egypt. Among them was a felucca procession in the Nile at Minya; the lotus flower and the number 6256—the Egyptian New Year—adorned the felucca sails. There were also horse dance shows and flower parades.
Nothing to do with religion
“It is a fact,” the Egyptian writer, researcher, and GEI member Talaat Radwan told Watani, “that the number of participants in the GEI annual event is increasing, and many intellectuals share our goal of making the Egyptian calendar the official calendar of Egypt in addition to the Gregorian and Hijri calendars.” And it is no secret that Islamists disagree with that, basing on their call for the precedence of the Islamic identity over any other, even the national Egyptian.
“Reviving the ancient cultural heritage,” Mr Harak says, “does not mean glorifying old religious rituals; rather, we are keen to avoid any kind of clash with religious and current social customs and traditions.
“Egyptian feasts are annual celebrations in which everyone may take part regardless what faith he or she embraces because these feasts celebrate nature, not a religion or dogma. They create unity and nurture the spirit of Egyptianness, which is why it is important to celebrate the Egyptian New Year; the Tree Day, originally the Day of the Tree of Osiris; Sham al-Nessim, the Spring/Summer feast; and Wafaa’ al-Nil, the annual Nile Flood Day.”
Crown this year with Your blessings
For the Coptic Church, the New Year figures highly on the annual celebrations. “Crown this year O Lord with the blessings of Your goodness, and may the fields yield abundant riches,” the Coptic congregation sings every New Coptic Year.
To this day, the Holy Mass of the Coptic Church includes special requests or awashi to the Good Lord to bless the land, which rotate with the seasons of the Coptic calendar. During the inundation season, the Church prays: “Bless the waters of the River, raise them as is proper, according to Your goodness”; too high or too low a flood were both detrimental to life in Egypt. In the sowing season, prayers are said for the plants and trees, in order that they “grow and be fruitful”, and in the harvest season, for “the winds of the skies and the fruits of the earth”. Interestingly, the prayers for the winds, which during that season include the hot, hated khamaseen sandstorms, are worded as: “Bestow a good mood upon the winds”.
Along the same line, the Bible reading during Holy Mass in the first two Sundays of the month of Hatour (December) are those of the “sower [who] went forth to sow.” This time coincides with the sowing season following the recession of the flood waters.
And during the last two Sundays of every Coptic year, the Bible readings in Holy Mass are those of the end of the world—a reminder, as the year ends, that our own lives or for that matter the whole world will ultimately come to an end. But then again, the New Year hails, heralding in a new dawn and new beginnings.
13 September 2015