Most Islamic holidays and festivals follow the lunar Islamic calendar, with twelve months of 29 or 30 days each. The Islamic year is ten or eleven days shorter than a solar year, so dates move back each year in relation to the Western calendar. You can convert dates at websites such as w oriold.uzh.ch/static/hegira.html. A day in the Islamic calendar begins at sundown, so Islamic festivals start on the evening before you’d expect.
During the month of Ramadan, most Muslims (ninety percent of Egyptians) fast, with no food, drink, smoking or sex from dawn to sunset. This can pose problems for travellers, but the celebratory evenings are good times to hear music and share hospitality.
The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan parallels the Christian Lent, commemorating the first revelation of the Koran to Mohammed. Opening times and transport schedules are affected (almost everything pauses at sunset so people can break the fast), and most local cafés and restaurants close during the day or stop selling food. Ramadan is in many respects a bad time to travel. It is certainly no time to try camel trekking in the Sinai – no guide would undertake the work – and it is probably safer to travel by bus during the mornings only, as drivers will be fasting, too (although airline pilots are forbidden from observing the fast).
But there is a compensation in witnessing and becoming absorbed in the pattern of the fast. At sunset, signalled by the sounding of a siren and the lighting of lamps on the minarets, an amazing calm and sense of well-being fall on the streets, as everyone eats fuul and taamiya and, in the cities at least, gets down to a night of celebration and entertainment. Throughout the evening, urban cafés – and main squares – provide venues for live music and singing, while in small towns and poorer quarters of big cities, you will often come across ritualized zikrs – trance-like chanting and swaying.
Non-Muslims are not expected to observe Ramadan, but should be sensitive about not breaking the fast (particularly smoking) in public. The best way to experience Ramadan, however, is to enter into it. You may not be able to last without an occasional glass of water, and you’ll probably breakfast later than sunrise, but it is worth an attempt – and you’ll win local people’s respect.
At the end of Ramadan, the feast of Eid al-Fitr marks the climax of the month’s festivities in Cairo, though observed more privately in the villages. Equally important is Eid al-Adha (aka Eid al-Kabir or Korban Bairam – the Great Feast), celebrating Abraham’s willingness to obey God by sacrificing his son. God didn’t make him go through with it, and he ended up sacrificing a sheep instead. In commemoration of this, every household that can afford to slaughters a sheep, often on the street. For weeks beforehand, you will see sheep tethered everywhere, even on rooftops.
Eid al-Adha is followed, about three weeks later, by Ras al-Sana al-Hegira, the Muslim new year, on the first day of the month of Muharram. The fourth main religious holiday is the Moulid al-Nabi, the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. This is widely observed, with processions in many towns and cities. For the approximate dates of these four festivals according to the Western calendar, see the box on Islamic holidays.
Moulids are the equivalent of medieval European saints’ fairs, popular events combining piety, fun and commerce. Their ostensible aim is to obtain blessing (baraka) from a local saint, but they are also an opportunity for people to escape the monotony of working life in several days of festivities, and for friends and families from different villages to meet. Farming problems are discussed, as well as family matters – and marriage – as people sing, dance, eat and pray together. Upper-class Egyptians and religious conservatives, however, look down on moulids as vulgar and unorthodox; in 2009 they used the threat of swine flu as an excuse to ban them, and though the ban has now been lifted, Sufi religious gatherings at moulids are much reduced, with Salafists, in particular, claiming that they are un-Islamic.
Apart from Moulid al-Nabi, most moulids are local affairs, centred around the tomb (qubba) of a holy man or woman. Most follow the Islamic calendar, but some start (or finish) on a particular day (eg a Tues in a given month), rather than on a specific date, and a few occur at the same time every year, generally following the local harvest. It’s wise to verify the (approximate) dates given in this guide by asking locally or at a tourist office.
If you are lucky enough to attend a big one, you’ll see Egyptian popular culture at its richest. Some moulids draw crowds of over a million, with companies of mawladiya (literally, “moulid people”) running stalls and rides, and music blaring into the small hours. Smaller, rural moulids tend to be heavier on the practical devotion, with people bringing their children or livestock for blessing, or the sick to be cured.
The largest moulids are in Cairo, Tanta and Luxor. Cairo hosts three lengthy festivals in honour of Al-Hussein, Saiyida Zeinab and the Imam al-Shafi’i (held during the months of Rabi al-Tani, Ragab and Sha’ban, respectively), plus numerous smaller festivals. Following the cotton harvest in October, the Moulid of al-Bedawi in Tanta starts a cycle of lesser Nile Delta festivals that runs well into November. Equally spectacular is the Moulid of Abu al-Haggag in Luxor, held during the month of Sha’ban, and featuring a parade of boats (see Festivals in Luxor). Elsewhere, the procession may be led by camels or floats. Accompanying all this are traditional entertainments: mock stick fights, conjurers, acrobats and snake charmers; horses trained to dance to music; and, sometimes, belly dancers. All the longer moulids climax in a leyla kebira (literally “big night”) on the last evening or the eve of the last day – the most spectacular and crowded phase; some moulids also have a corresponding “big day”.
Music and singing are a feature of every moulid and people even make cassettes to play back for the rest of the year. At the heart of every moulid is at least one zikr – a gathering of worshippers who chant and sway for hours to attain a trance-like state of oneness with God. Zikr participants often belong to a Sufi brotherhood, identified by coloured banners, sashes or turbans, and named after their founding sheikh. The current incumbent of this office may lead them in a zaffa (parade) through town, and in olden times would ride a horse over his followers – a custom known as “the Treading”.
Egypt’s Christian Copts often attend Islamic moulids – and vice versa. Coptic moulids share many of the functions of their Islamic counterparts and usually celebrate a saint’s name-day. Major Christian festivals, as in Eastern Orthodox churches, follow the old Julian calendar, so Christmas is on January 7, Epiphany (Twelfth Night) on January 19, and the Annunciation on March 21, although Easter and related feast days are reckoned according to the solar Coptic calendar, so they differ from Orthodox and Western dates by up to a month (w copticchurch.net/easter.html, has the dates, which include May 5, 2013, April 20, 2014, April 12, 2015, May 1, 2016, April 16, 2017 and April 8, 2018).
Major Coptic saints’ days include the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul (July 12), and various moulids of the Virgin and St George during August. Many of these are celebrated at monasteries in Middle Egypt and the Red Sea Hills.
Lastly, a Coptic festival (of pharaonic origin) celebrated by all Egyptians on Coptic Easter Monday is Sham al-Nessim, a coming-of-spring festival whose name literally means “Sniffing the Breeze”. It provides the excuse for mass picnics in parks and on riverbanks throughout the country.