Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

How Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas in Egypt

  • Malak Aziz sits in the Cave Church of Saint Samaan, at the feet of the Mokattam mountain, Cairo (Photo: Javier Jennings Mozo)
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After a busy day of work, driving children from his neighbourhood in Menshyiat Nasser — also known as the Garbage City — to schools in downtown Cairo, Malak Aziz finds peace at the Cave Church of Saint Samaan.

Malak quickly warns us that these are the last weeks of silence and calm within this facility. When the month of December comes to its end, he says, the community around Menshyiat Nasser, as well as all Coptic Christians in Egypt, starts to get ready to celebrate one of the most important celebrations of the year: the birth of Jesus, or, Christmas.

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  • Malak Aziz in his mini-ban, with which he drives children to school as well as tourists and families during the Christmas holidays (Photo: Bianca Carrera)

But for Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christians, which make up around 90 percent of the total Christian population, Christmas day will come on 6 and 7 January instead of on 25 December.

It will be during the night mass of January 6 that Saint Samaan's Cave Church will be filled with hundreds of worshippers. On the following morning, thousands of Egyptians will wake up to presents and family visits.

Decorations, food and a lot of family visits

María, who is a student at Cairo University, says this is a special occasion to connect with her loved ones, as is the case for those celebrating in much of Europe, America, and beyond.

"We celebrate it by first preparing our home with decorations and the tree, playing music and hymns together, going with my friends to church…," she told EUobserver.

And just like everywhere else, food is an essential part of the festivity. "We make Egyptian regag bread, stuffed vegetables or 'mahshi', different traditional meat recipes, boiled fried eggs or 'beid mezaghlil', rice with nuts... Everyone in the family participates in the making so that no one gets tired of doing it all alone," she recalls.

From the first of the holy days, María will be visiting different family members, having to go from one house to another. As a driver, Malak will be assisting in the transportation efforts needed to get people like María to see their relatives living in and outside Cairo.

"I still do not know if I will be able to accompany my wife and children during the most important days on the 6 and 7, as there is usually a lot of work driving the community to their families' houses," she said.

The 39-year-old lives in one of Cairo's biggest Christian communities, which is also the place where most trash collectors reside and recycle up to 85 percent of the capital's waste.

But despite such inconvenience, Malak is happy with his job as a driver, in which he often gets the chance to drive tourists and worshippers from all corners of the world to visit the Christian sites that Egypt offers.

Egypt and Christianity, an uncontested relationship

"The Church where we are standing — Saint Samaan's Cave Church — hosts many visitors every year. The last time I saw a group of visitors coming it was one of 300 people," Malak told EUobserver.

For him, it seems inconceivable that some people in the West ignore the importance of Christianity in his country, often only identified for its Muslim nature. "Egypt is one of the countries with the most Christian sights, old and modern."

As Malak recounts, Egypt holds an important significance for Christians around the world. The sites that can be found are mostly related to the wanderings of the Holy Family through the country, where they are said to have taken refuge for over three years after fleeing King Herod's rule in Palestine.

Painting of the Mokattam miracle showing the Fatimid ruler in front of the Christian population, found in the walls of the Cave Church of Saint Samaan (Photo: Bianca Carrera)

Other sites are related to miracles, like the church that Malak showed us. Although it was inaugurated in 1993, Saint Samaan's Cave Church lies at the foot of a mountain whose prophecies go back centuries.

The Mokattam mountain, which means cut off or broken off, is said to have been placed where we see it today after the Fatimid ruler over Egypt asked Christians to prove that their faith was true by moving a mountain, as otherwise they would be expelled or killed.

"After fasting for three days and repeating prayers four hundred times, God moved this mountain up and down from its original location until it reached here," Malak said.

For that reason, he feels this church is one of the best places for his community to celebrate Christmas.

It is a space filled with old and modern stories. A space from where children are heard practising their chants are carols, soon to sweeten the atmosphere. A space reminding us that Christmas in the Middle East, where it originated, is as important as ever.

Author bio

Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst specialising in the Middle Eastern and North Africa, environmental matters, and migration at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for The New Arab, Al Jazeera, Oxfam Intermón, elDiario.es, and others.

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