Friday, May 17, 2013

Passing on

The funeral rituals of ancient Egypt and the belief in celestial resurrection have bequeathed an unusual legacy and an essential artistic record for their descendants and for scholars.
Jenny Jobbins shows that although times changed, many of the old funeral customs lingered on

The painting in the Theban Valley of the Nobles, on the south wall of the tomb of Ramose, a governor of Thebes and vizier during the reigns of Amenophis III and Amenophis IV in the 18th Dynasty, shows a group of female mourners wailing in lamentation. Other images of funeral processions show mourners waving palm branches. Palms — a symbol of longevity, rebirth and the afterlife — have long been associated with death. They were cast before Christ as he entered Jerusalem to be tried and crucified, and they are still placed on graves in Egypt, where they are said to bring a blessing on the grave.

Many years ago I discussed this rich heritage with the Egyptologist Kamal Al-Mallakh, who referred to the Mosque of Abu Haggag within the walls of Luxor Temple and the similarity of the events at his moulid (saint’s day), when a model of his boat is ceremoniously carried through the streets of Luxor, to the ancient Feast of Opet when Amun’s sacred boat was carried from Karnak to Luxor Temple. He told me: “There has to be some significance. Isn’t [Abu Haggag’s] mosque right there in the temple? And some of the rights at his moulid are purely pharaonic.”
As soon as a death occurs in the household of an Upper Egyptian family, the women relatives gather, joined by professional mourners, to utter piercing wails of lamentation. Sometimes they beat their faces, tear their clothes, and rub themselves with dust. If the death takes place in the morning the funeral will be held that same afternoon, otherwise it will be held the following day. The body is washed and wrapped in a shroud, often with favourite possession, and carried to the graveyard in a lidless coffin with the men walking alongside and the women following behind. A good man is said to be light to carry to the grave; a wicked man weighs heavy; and the pace of the procession may be governed by the body: a person at peace is in a hurry and quickens the pace, while one who does not approve of the burial place might make the going very slow, or even stop altogether. If the coffin draws the procession to a stop in one place and refuses to go on, then the burial takes place at that spot. A Muslim is buried in a simple grave; a Christian is not buried underground in earth or sand, but is laid in a vault.

Male relatives abstain from shaving for between a week and 40 days after a death. Women relatives change into a black dress; that is, one even blacker and plainer than their usual gown. A new widow removes her gold jewellery, which she may replace later on when the mourning period is over or at a future time when she wishes to remarry. On the seventh and 40th days after the death, and on the first anniversary, prayers are offered for the well-being of the soul, which should not linger near its former abode for more than 40 days (the traditional length for the first stage of the embalming process in ancient Egypt; see Genesis 50; 2-3). On these anniversaries, and on every Thursday for a period following the death, friends and relatives go to the house to offer condolences and prayers.

If a deceased man was a member of a Sufi tariqah (sect), the other members will hold a zikr (a ritual chant accompanied by a rhythmic swaying movement). Bread is taken to the cemetery and distributed to the poor, and close relatives pay visits to the grave. Just as the ba bird (soul) in ancient Egypt was believed to fly down to converse with the widow and children sitting at the graveside, so the present-day Egyptian expects the soul of the deceased to visit on the anniversary of the death.

A whole village — or several villages — will gather to take part in the celebration of a moulid, an annual festival held to commemorate a sheikh or saint’s day. The moulid may be held for the same saint for centuries — for Sayeda Zeinab in Cairo, or Abu Haggag in Luxor — or it may be held for a few generations only, until the memory of the sheikh has faded or the festival transferred to someone else. If the sheikh or saint works miracles, this will help ensure the continuation of the cult. The moulid usually lasts for several days and is an occasion for a public holiday. Roadside stalls are set up to sell sweets and fruit. Bands gather under canvas or under the stars, and Sufi groups meet to sway in a zikr while the crowds throng from tent to tent, joining in the rhythm of the zikr until they are often overcome with emotion. Those who have pledged a sheep or a calf distribute the food to the poor. If someone has donated a new cover for the sheikh’s tomb it is carried in a procession, led by a camel with the cover displayed proudly on its back.

Moulidsare purely Egyptian, and are at odds with orthodox Sunni Islam. There is evidence that they were also looked upon with disfavour in ancient Egypt. The 19th-Dynasty chronicler Any wrote: “That which is detestable in the sanctuary of God is noisy feasts.” The holiday atmosphere of a moulid, however, provides a happy break in the humdrum routine of daily life.

It is often reported that after the death of holy men and women their bodies do not decay, but remain fresh and sweet smelling. Local residents in Suez told me that when the grave of Sheikh Al-Gharib was opened on 1965, some 1,000 years after his death, the saint’s body was scented and the flesh as firm as on the day he died, and that his legs, severed, so the legend goes, in his final battle, lay beside him in the tomb. Similarly, the body of St Catherine was perfectly preserved when it was found in the sixth century, 300 years after her death, at the summit of the mountain named after her in Sinai. One can come across legends of events similar to this all over Egypt.

The story of Sheikh Al-Gharib was an example of how saints could be summoned to give aid in battle. His mosque in Suez was built to commemorate his intervention in a battle on behalf of the Fatimid rulers of Egypt against an invading army of Qarmatians. In my travels I was told of a situation that arose during the Aden Emergency in the early 1960s, at a time when Egyptian forces were embroiled in the struggle between North Yemen’s National Liberation Front and Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen. On this occasion, I was told, soldiers from Upper Egypt invoked the spirit of one of their local sheikhs, who miraculously appeared to help them fight and defeat the enemy.

In The Fellaheen of Upper Egypt, her account of her practice as a medical doctor in the 1930s, Winifred Blackman described the Coptic belief that the soul remained behind until it was told where to go, and that it needed to be driven away after a death. She also recorded that in order for a child to be reincarnated into the family, family members would step seven times over the body.

It has often been remarked that the ancient Egyptians, while appearing to display a morbid fascination with death, were actually showing that they were passionate about life when they made elaborate provisions to sustain their relatives and forebears in the afterlife. By embalming their bodies so that they would remain intact for all eternity, by safeguarding their mummies with protective amulets, by providing them with all that was necessary in the way of food, furniture and even small ushabti figures to represent servants, and by painting the walls of their tombs with scenes of farming, fishing and sacrificing to the gods, they ensured that their loved ones continued to enjoy in the afterlife all the pastimes and pleasures they had enjoyed in life. The abundance of nature and the Nile were a source of life for all Egyptians, and for them an existence after death — and they did not doubt such an existence — without these blessings was unthinkable.

The ancient Egyptians made elaborate preparations for death, but if a death occurred unexpectedly the person might be buried in a tomb intended for another family member, or the decorations of the tomb might be completed by the children of the deceased. It might take time to build a tomb, but the length of the mummification process would allow time to make a sarcophagus and/or cartonnage coffin dedicated to the deceased. These cartonnage coffins, which were used in the later dynastic and Graeco-Roman periods, detailed the person’s name and titles together with verses from the Coffin Texts that would ensure his or her safe passage through the obstacles that lay in wait before a place was secured in the afterlife. The coffin might be decorated with the wings of a protective vulture, with floral necklaces to symbolise regeneration, or with images of the four gods entrusted with the protection of the internal organs that were removed during the mummification process — Quebehsenuef, the hawk-headed god who guarded the intestines; the jackal-headed Duamutef, who guarded the stomach; the human-formed Imseti, who guarded the liver; and the ape-headed god Hapy, who guarded the lungs. There might also be a representation of the falcon god Horus, the reborn sun, which signified rebirth.

The Egyptians believed that every living person had a ba (soul) and a ka (an invisible twin or double). After death these spirits were released from the body, with the ba visiting family and friends and the ka travelling back and forth from the body to the underworld. In order for a person to live on forever, the ba and the ka had to be able to recognise the body when they returned to it. Embalming and mummification, initially reserved only for pharaohs, eventually spread to all social groups, thus enabling the ba and the ka to find the correct body.

The process of mummification was complex, however, and depended greatly on the social status of the deceased person. Clearly the higher the social rank, the better the mummification. First the body was washed with palm wine and water from the Nile, following which came the removal of the internal organs through a slit in the abdomen, while the brains were removed through the nose and discarded. The heart was left in the body. The mummified organs were placed separately in four canopic jars. (In later periods the dehydrated internal organs were wrapped and replaced in the body before burial, and the canopic jars remained empty). The body was then packed and covered in natron (hydrated sodium carbonate) and left for 40 days to dry out. After this period the mummy was washed again, smothered in oils and wrapped in linen strips. The fingers, toes and limbs were wrapped separately and amulets were placed among the wrappings. A copy of verses from the Book of the Dead was placed between the hands, and more linen strips were wrapped around the whole body. At every layer, liquid resin was applied to stick the bandages together. Finally the body was wrapped in a large shroud secured with linen straps, and it was then placed in the wooden or cartonnage coffin or stone sarcophagus in which it was buried.

Priests conducted religious ceremonies and rituals during mummification and burial process to prepare the deceased for the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians believed that the deceased had to pass certain tests which set by the gods and the Book of the Dead he held would help this transit, the most important of which was the weighing of the ib (heart) — which was left in the body — against the feather of Maat (truth). If the heart did not weigh more than the feather the deceased was allowed to enter the underground realm of Osiris, but if it was heavier that the feather he or she was immediately eaten by the monster Ammit.

When someone dies in modern Egypt, the mughassil is called in to lay out the body. While the body is ceremoniously washed and prepared for burial, verses from the Quran or hadith (sayings of the prophet), or the Holy Bible in the case of Christians, are recited. Writing in about 1840 in Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Edward Lane recounts that the body is washed with “leef (or fibres of the palm tree), or, more properly, with water in which the leaves of the lote tree (nabk or sidri)have been boiled.” He goes on, “the corpse is sprinkled with a mixture of water, pounded camphor and dried and pounded leaves of the nabk, and with rose-water... The ankles are bound together, and the hands placed upon the breast.”

Two millennia separate the ancient Egyptians and the nation’s present-day Muslims and Coptic Christians, but the manners and customs surrounding their burials, and their attitudes to death and mourning, may not after all be so far apart from the past, or from one religion to another.


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