Religious life in Egypt – 1903

Crowning of Ptolemy

Since ancient times Egypt has had a rich and diverse religious history, in fact some historians consider Egypt to be the birth of monotheism. In the 14th century B.C. a pharaoh Akhenaten [1] diverged from the traditional polytheism and created a sect focused on the god Aten. While sects devoted to only one god were somewhat common in ancient times, Akhenaten took things a step further and denied the existence of all other gods. After his death his religious policies were quickly reversed, however some historians hypothesize that Atenism had a great influence on the development of Judaism. In fact some—non biblical—scholars suggest that Moses was an Atenist priest who was forced to leave Egypt after Akhenaten’s death and the resulting repression of monotheism.

Marjorie describes this rogue pharaoh as “an old world Reformer – or degenerate some say.” Marjorie takes a keen interest in ancient Egyptian paganism and seems to be enchanted by her romanticized ideas of their ancient religion. “As we passed into the semi darkness of the grand hall of columns the centuries seemed to roll away & we were again back in the days of the Ptolemies.” [2] She regrets the fact that “there were no processions of priests, no crowds of awe inspired spectators, only a handful of peering tourists.” In many instances in her letters Marjorie shows that she would have very well preferred to visit the Egypt of the past as opposed to its modern state.

With the coming of Christianity Egypt became one of the first regions to convert. Alexandria came to be a very important religious center in early Christendom. Before the Catholic Church was directly governed by Rome it was controlled by the Pentarchy, a group of five patriarchs, based in Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. This was short lived; in 451 A.D., key leaders in the Church met in Chalcedon (in modern day Turkey) for the aptly named Council of Chalcedon. [3] There, theologians agreed that Christ had two natures, one divine, and one temporal. The Church of Alexandria rejected the Council’s decision and broke away to form the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Coptic Christians in Egypt today consider their faith to be descended from this schism. In Cairo, Marjorie got the chance to visit a Coptic church.

Church in Aswan

These Copts are Christians you know, though of rather a debased kind, and they are said to be the direct descendants of the Ancient Egyptians.  Their church was tiny and dark with a nave and aisles, and hung with all the pictures of the Virgin & Saints that we thought we had left behind us in Italy. [4] And there were the candles too and just such pulpits as we had been seeing all winter – how natural it seemed. But there the likeness ended for all the rest was quite Eastern – the inlaid woodwork of ebony, the carved ivory and the beautiful mosaics.

Here Marjorie seems to have a great appreciation for the Coptic Church. However later in her trip she visits a Coptic monetary and is a bit put off by the impoverishment of the monks. This should not be taken out of context, while in Bristol the Van Wickle family would attend service at St. Michael’s Church on Hope Street. As a young upper class lady, used to the niceties of Blithewold and St. Michael’s, its understandable that she might be dismayed by the modest lifestyle of Egyptian monks.

The great majority of Egyptians during Marjorie’s trip (and of course today) practiced Islam. Egypt was invaded by Muslim Arabs in 639 A.D. and fully conquered by 641. Unlike Christendom, where there is often separation between church and state, (that is to say there was a king and a pope) empires through most of Muslim history were ruled by Caliphs who were both religious and political leaders. Therefore religion penetrated deep into Egyptian life causing many to convert as Islamic culture came to dominate. Conversions were not forced however; many Copts chose to retain their beliefs and were able to do so using the Millet system. Minority communities could pay a special tax in order to protect their religious freedom and to have limited self government. Egypt and the new city of Cairo—nicknamed “the City of a Thousand Minarets—became a major center of the Muslim world. Islam’s presence is apparent almost everywhere on Marjorie’s trip; she describes their religion to her mother.

The Mohomedans [5] themselves always take off their shoes on entering. In the court, there was a great fountain of carved stone with a dome and all around it little square stone blocks where the ‘faithful” sit while making their ablutions.  Over at one side was the arched niche made in the wall, which looks toward Mecca and to which all their prayers are said.  Beside it was a high pulpit or Mambar for the explaining of the Koran on Fridays (their Sundays).

Lucky for her, Marjorie was present in Cairo for the Festival of the Holy Carpet. The “carpet” is actually the Kiswah, a giant cloth—usually made of silk—which is draped over the Kaaba in Mecca annually. From the early 13th century to 1927 the Kiswah was made in Egypt and paid for by the Sultan, later the Khedive. The procession Marjorie saw marks the beginning of its trip to Mecca. She describes in detail the beautiful clothing worn and the overall majesty of the parade. Though she greatly enjoyed herself she seems to have misunderstood the meaning of the celebration.

The Holy Carpet, woven each year as a covering for the tomb of Mahomet the Prophet, started on its long Pilgrimage to Mecca.  It is the greatest Mohammedan festival of the whole year in Cairo!

Festival of the Holy Carpet

While she was right about the Kiswah going to Mecca, it is not meant for Muhammad’s tomb which is in Medina. Instead it is meant for the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, an ancient building believe to have been built by Abraham. It is what Muslims face during their prayer. This would have been an easy mistake to make, for a westerner unfamiliar with Islam. Her statement that it’s the greatest festival of the year also shows her disconnect with Egyptian culture. While it may have been the most extravagant festival of the year it is not the holiest. This mistake would probably be the equivalent of someone thinking Christmas is the holiest day for Christians based on the extravagance of its celebration.

Marjorie takes a particular interest in another Muslim ritual, the Dance of the Dervishes. A Dervish is sort of a Muslim monk. They are part of the mystic order known as Sufism and they submit to a life of poverty and asceticism. Marjorie describes their dance, “For fully five minutes they kept it up and never once bumped one into the other, and then when they paused it was only for a brief rest.  It was fascinating to watch.” She was much less impressed by another ritual.

The Howling Dervishes perform quite in a different building, and are altogether horribly different from the graceful dancing ones.  Their aim in life seems to be to make themselves as noisy and disagreeable as possible, and the better they succeed, the more perfect their worship is! They throw themselves backward and forward, and from side to side in time to the harsh nasal singing of one of their number – and all the time they pant in great gasps, and work themselves into a regular frenzy, until they bark like dogs and howl at intervals. Oh it’s horrible!  We were glad enough to get out.

It’s more and more obvious that Marjorie came to Egypt as a tourist, hoping to see great spectacles, not to partake in and understand Egyptian culture. It makes sense that she would be put off by more mundane rituals and common religious life. Yet it goes to show the great divide in culture. She is attracted to the familiar Christian churches but annoyed by the more intense Muslim practices that she does not quite understand.

[1] The father of the ubiquitous but historically unimportant Tutankhamen, or King Tut. As his tomb was discovered in 1922, Marjorie would not have seen it.

[2] The Ptolemies were the decedents of a Macedonian general, Ptolemy, who ruled Egypt from its conquest by Alexander the Great to the death of Cleopatra VII, 305-30 B.C. They had a great affinity for Egyptian culture and adopted many of its customs, even modeling themselves as Pharaohs.

[3] In early Christianity there were a great variety of religious interpretations. Church leaders would routinely meet in ecumenical councils to address discrepancies and form an orthodox consensus. The first and most famous of these was the Council of Nicaea in 325, there the idea of the Trinity was incorporated into Christian doctrine.

[4] Marjorie had spent about four months touring Italy before coming to Egypt. She enjoyed it so much, in fact, that she canceled her plans to see Greece in order to return for an additional month after her tour of Egypt. She was especially looking forward to spending Easter in Rome.

[5] Mohomedan is an archaic western term for Muslim.