Thursday, 11 September, marks the first day of the Egyptian New Year 6256, the Coptic New Year 1731
I always thought myself lucky because my drive home every day takes me through a desert road lined with palms. I love the slender majesty of the palms and the way the green fronds that crown their tops brighten the arid, yellow desert land. At this time of the year the palms bear dates, and the red or yellow fruit add an exciting, exhilarating streak to the serene beauty of the palm.
Like all Copts I grew up eating red dates on Nairuz Day, the Coptic New Year Day of 1 Tut, 11 September on the Gregorian calendar. My parents and Sunday School teachers taught me it was because the Coptic year celebrated the early Christian martyrs who preferred to die rather than give up their faith. The red colour of the date, I was taught, resembled the blood of the martyrs; the white core their pure hearts; and the tough stone their solid faith. This all made sense and I never questioned it. But it was only a few years ago when I moved to my new home that I fully appreciated the comparison. The dates on the palms during Nairuz season are incredibly blood-red.
The first year of the Coptic calendar of the martyrs (Anno Martyri) coincides with 284A.D, the year the Roman Emperor Diocletian ascended the throne. The reign of Diocletian saw the harshest persecution of Christians in Egypt; hundreds of thousands of them met their deaths for their faith, at the hands of the Roman authorities. The unprecedented persecution induced the Christians of Egypt to start their calendar with the date of Diocletian’s enthronement.
The Coptic calendar, however, has its origin in the much older Egyptian calendar which goes back to ancient Egypt. According to calculations by Egyptologists, based on ancient Egyptian papyri and temple inscriptions, the calendar began in 4242BC, meaning that the Nairuz of 2014 coincides with 1 Tut 6256 of the Egyptian Year. The calendar is a stellar one, beginning when the star Sirius appears at sunrise on the horizon. The year is divided into three seasons related to the Nile and agricultural cycle: the flood, cultivation, and harvest seasons. There are 12 months of 30 days each, and a ‘small month’ of five days—six days in a leap year—that is added at the end of the year.
Today the Coptic calendar is only observed by farmers and agriculturists, and by the Coptic Church. Coptic Holy Mass includes specific prayers for each of the three seasons, and special Bible readings that coincide with the agricultural year. The Coptic Church observes New Year Day with rejoicing and reverence, praying to the Lord to: “Crown the year with Your blessings”. And, of course, the congregation feasts on red dates.
10 September 2014