25 September 2011
“Rejoice, Earth, for the time of prosperity is here!”
So sang the ancient Egyptians once the annual Nile flood began, inundating the land with abundant water and the reddish volcanic mud it carried all the way from the Ethiopian highlands, and which endowed the earth with its legendary fertility.
The flood reached its zenith as the star Sirius rose in the heavens. The Egyptians of old detected the coincidence, and used it to mark the beginning of their calendar. They named the first month Tut, after the god of wisdom and knowledge Thot who they believed had taught their forefathers the hieroglyphs. The calendar included 12 months of 30-days each; each month was named after one of the gods. Five days were later added—six days in a leap year—in what was named “the little month”.
The year was divided into three seasons closely related to the agricultural cycle. There was the inundation season, the cultivation season once the waters receded and the land could be ploughed and cultivated, and the harvest.
Calendar of the martyrs
The number of the years always began with the first year of the reign of a king or pharaoh; that is, until the year 283AD. This was the year the Roman Emperor Diocletian ascended the throne and ordered the harshest persecution of Christians. Egypt, many of whose people had accepted Christianity at the hands of St Mark in the first century, had its share of persecution. Thousands upon thousands of Egyptian Christians were martyred at the hands of the Roman Emperor that the year 283AD was chosen to henceforth mark the beginning of their calendar: the calendar of the martyrs, Anno Martyrum.
To this day the Coptic Church celebrates the Coptic New Year on the first of Tut—11 September in a simple year, and 12 September if the year before happens to be a leap year. The Copts mark the day with prayers and praises, attending holy Mass and chanting: “Crown the year with the blessings of Your goodness”. They eat red dates which are in full season; the red symbolising the blood of the martyrs. Indeed the date palms which dot the entire land carry dense clusters of dates so red that, from a distance, they inevitably call to mind the colour of blood.
Farming according to the old calendar
In 1875, Egypt’s king the Khedive Ismail decreed that the official calendar used in Egypt would be the AD calendar, replacing thus the Egyptian calendar. The move was an effort on his part to modernise Egypt and keep it in line with European culture. Even though it worked officially, it never resonated with the biggest sector of Egyptians, the farmers and peasants whose life is intricately linked to the Nile and the land. Egyptian peasants to this day recognise only the Egyptian calendar.
Interestingly, most non-farmer Egyptians—especially in rural or underprivileged areas—who do not use the Egyptian calendar in daily life, do not find it easy to use such alien names as January or February to denote the months, and end up marking the months in numbers: one to denote January, two for February, six for June, and so on.
Massoud Henein, a 60-year-old farmer from Minya, Upper Egypt, explained to Watani that he is used to plant clover in Tut (September), beans in Baba and Hatour (October and November), and wheat in Kyahk (December). Bashans is harvest time, he said; the popular quote goes: “Bashans sweeps the field clean.”
Mr Henein reminded of the popular celebrations which used to be held every year to rejoice at the annual inundation, and which were discontinued once the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s and there was no more annual flooding.
Happy New Year
A seminar, under the title “The Egyptian New Year 6253”, was held by the Culture Ministry on Sunday 11 September at the Cairo Opera House to mark the Eve of the New Egyptian Year. It was explained that the first Egyptian year was when the Egyptians first spotted Sirius 6253 years ago.
The idea of marking the New Year was the brainchild of Culture Minister Emad Eddin Abu-Ghazi, and the seminar included talks by Egyptologist Wassim al-Sissi and Astronomy professor Mohamed Shamroukh on the Egyptian calendar and on ancient Egyptian astronomy. Attending were Egyptians who call for the revival of authentic Egyptian culture, not least among which is the Egyptian calendar. Yet the event was in the major part unnoticed by the media in Egypt; less than a handful of online papers or blogs reported on it, while Dr Sissi used his weekly column in the Cairo daily al-Masry al-Youm to write about the occasion.
One of the prominent figures who call for the revival of the Egyptian identity is activist Samy Harak, who told Watani’s Antoun Milad that it is some ten years now since the Egyptian New Year has been celebrated by lovers of Egyptian culture. But such celebrations, Mr Harak explained, were limited to private literary salons or gatherings; this is the first time such a public event is held. “It is a good time to remember such great men as the writers and intellectuals Mohsen Lutfi al-Sayed and Bayoui Qandil who fervently called for the revival of Egyptian culture, but are not with us today to share in this event. Mr Sayed and Mr Qandil both died in 2009.
The writer Talaat Radwan said that the occasion was a significant one and marked a return to Egyptian identity. Other peoples who have their own calendars honour them on all levels; the Egyptian calendar is only honoured and cherished by those deemed to have poor ‘education’, he said. It is time to change that, so that all Egyptians should realise the wealth of their culture.