Since antiquity, Egypt has been a center for religious thought. Although it has long since passed into the annals of history, the religion of the Pharaohs was fiercely defended by its priests against outside invaders again and again. In the Christian era, the bishops of Alexandria were constantly on the guard against heresy, and the institution of monasticism owes much to Egyptian contributions. Since Islam arrived in the 7th century C.E., Egypt has been home to many reputed scholars, like the Imam Shaf'i, whose legal rulings are still used to this day. Egypt is also the home to Al Azhar University, one of the oldest and most respected institutions of Islamic education in the entire world.

It should come as no surprise that religion still plays a vital role in Egyptian society.


1) Muslims at the midday prayer on Friday. Attendence at mosques is often so heavy that latecomers, like these men, must pray outside.

Most people who live in Cairo are Muslim. There are also many Christians in Egypt, making up perhaps around 10 per cent of the population. The majority of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which was the dominant religion in Egypt before Islam. There are only a handful of Jews left in Cairo - about two hundred. Most of Egypt's Jewish population has emigrated in the last fifty years to Israel or the United States.


2) Pope Shenouda II, head of the Coptic Church, leading a mass service.

Because most of the people who live in Cairo are Muslim, there are mosques all over the city, ranging from very big ones like the Mosque of Ibn Tulun to small neighborhood mosques. Muslims are supposed to pray five times every day. They gather at the mosque for the noon prayer on Friday, which is the holy day in Islam. Accordingly, businesses, schools and offices close on Friday.

Each religion has its holidays, which are observed by the local population. The main Islamic holidays are Ramadan, Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, Islamic New Year, and the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Various Christian holidays are also observed by the Christian population.

Religious holidays are celebrated according to the Islamic calendar, a lunar calendar that is shorter than the solar calendar by eleven days, so the dates are not fixed. The Islamic calendar is also called the Hijra calendar, and is sometimes abbreviated A.H. There are twelve months in the Islamic calendar: Muharram, Safar, Rabi al-Awwal, Rabi al-Thani, Jumada al-Awwal, Jumada al-Thani, Rajab, Shaban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Dhul Qadah and Dhul Hijjah. The first of Muharram is Islamic New Year, and is greeted with celebrations.

Old Cairo

3) Ramadan is a time of celebration in Cairo, with streets lit up by lights and colorful banners for the evening iftar.

The ninth month of the year is Ramadan, which is a holy month for Muslims. During Ramadan, observant Muslims are not supposed to eat from sunrise to sunset. Muslims believe that it was during the month of Ramadan that God revealed the first verses of the Qur'an to the prophet Muhammad. The fast is supposed to remind people to be grateful for the blessings they have received during the year, and to remind them to feel compassionate for those who are less fortunate. Many schools run on a staggered schedule, meeting early in the morning and then in the afternoon before sunset to allow students to spend the mid-day at home resting. Families break the fast together at sunset, at a meal called the iftar, which literally means "breaking of the fast." They then go to the mosque for special prayers, called taraweeh, which are only said during Ramadan. The night is spent visiting family and friends and eating special foods associated with Ramadan. Cairo is lit up during Ramadan, with lights strung in the streets, and buildings illuminated while people walk outside to visit each other and break their fast. Although Ramadan sounds to most non-Muslims like a long and painful month, many Muslims look forward to Ramadan as a time of celebration.

The first day of the month of Shawwal is Eid al-Fitr, which means "Celebration of the Breaking of the Fast" because it comes at the end of Ramadan. The celebrations usually last for three or four days, during which people gather at the mosque, and visit each other for food and conversation. The Eid is also a traditional time to buy and wear new clothes, and children receive gifts of money or toys. It is also at the time of the Eid when many Muslims will fulfill their obligations to pay alms (the zakat al-fitr) at their mosque.

The tenth day of the month of Dhul Hijjah is Eid al-Adha, meaning "the Day of Sacrifice." This day commemorates the prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son at God's command. The month of Dhul Hijjah is the month when Muslims make the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca. This is the day during the pilgrimage that Abraham's sacrifice is commemorated, and Muslims around the world observe this day. On this day, Muslim families sacrifice (or arrange to have sacrificed) a lamb, goat, cow, or other such animal. The usual practice is to divide the meat into thirds: one third for themselves, one third goes to relatives, and one third is donated to the poor. Some wealthy families will buy sacrifice a second animal and donate it to the poor. People often give gifts to children during the Eid, usually consisting of money or toys.


4) Celebrations of the Mawlid al-Hussein, birthday of Hussein, at a mosque named after the Muslim saint in Cairo.


5) An imam delivering a sermon during Friday prayers. Special prayers and sermons are delivered on major holidays, and throughout Ramadan.

The celebrations of both Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr can last for several days. School children get the week off from school, and offices and business close to allow people to spend time with their families.

The birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (Mawlid al-Nabi) is not an official religious holiday, although many Egyptians celebrate it anyway. It falls on the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal. This is a joyous holiday, celebrated with music and dancing that often last late into the night. Other saints birthdays are also celebrated in Egypt at local mosques.

Another unofficial religious holiday is Laylat al-Miraj, which falls between the 23rd and 27th of Ramadan. This holiday commemorates the night journey of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and on to Paradise on the heavenly being called Buraq. Devout Muslims will spend much of the night in prayer.

Christian holidays are observed by the Coptic population in Egypt as well. The Coptic Church follows the Orthodox Christian calendar, which means that the dates of the major holidays are somewhat different from the Western Christian churches. The most important holiday on the Coptic calendar is Easter, or Eid al-Fiseh. Easter can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25. The period of forty days before Easter comprise the period called Lent. Like Muslims, Copts fast at several times during the year. Great Fast comes during the season of Lent, and it continues until Palm Sunday. During this time, no food or drink is taken between sunrise and sunset, and it is forbidden to eat meat, fish, eggs, wine, or coffee during this time. Copts fast during after the holiday of the Ascension, and around the time of the Assumption of the Virgin in August, as well as the period before Christmas.

The Monday after Easter is called Sham al-Nessim, and is a holiday celebrated by all Egyptians, who have picnics and celebrate springtime. The holiday is celebrated by eating foods that have a symbolic significance that can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt.

Christmas ('Eid Mawlid al-Meseeh) falls on January 7 of each year. Like Christmas in the west, it is a time of celebration, and Copts attend church on the night of the 6th (Christmas Eve), visit family and friends, exchange gifts, and host large meals for family and friends. The western tradition of the Christmas tree and bright lights have recently been adopted in Egypt, although these are not traditionally part of the Coptic Chrstmas. The Eid al-Adhra, or "Feast of the Virgin" is celebrated on August 15, and commemorates the day of Mary's ascent into heaven where she was reunited with her son, Jesus. Each church is usually dedicated to a particular saint, and the feast day of that particular saint will be a local holiday at the church.


6) A Coptic priest. Perhaps 10% of Egyptians are Christians, the majority belonging to the Coptic Church.

There are also secular Egyptian holidays. The Egyptian national holiday falls on July 26, in commemoration of the 1952 revolution that overthrew King Farouk. Egyptians also celebrate Armed Forces Day on the 6th of October, which commemorates Egyptian forces crossing the Suez Canal during the 1973 war with Israel.

Religion pervades many other aspects of life in Egypt, as we will see next in our look at life in modern Cairo.

All Photographs Copyright by Thomas Hartwell, except:
Photograph 3, Copyright by Diane Watts