Traditions and customs of Egypt

What traditions and customs are there in Egypt?

Overview of the customs and traditions of Egypt.


Food in daily life

Eating is an important social activity, and it is essential to mark special events and ceremonial occasions.

The most important food in daily life is sliced ​​bread. In rural areas, women often bake bread in clay ovens in their homes. In the cities, bread is sold in bakeries. Standard bread is strictly regulated by the government in terms of weight and price, and is one of the few items that still receives a subsidy from the state.

Indigenous cuisine relies heavily on legumes. The main dish of the country is disgusting. It is a dish of broad beans cooked slowly over low heat and seasoned with salt, lemon, cumin and oil.

It is usually eaten for breakfast. Another common dish is tamiyya or falafel, which is made from mashed broad beans mixed with onions and leeks and fried in oil. Also popular is koshari, a mix of rice, black lentils and macaroni topped with tomato sauce and garnished with fried onions. These dishes are prepared at home, but are also sold at stalls throughout Cairo.

The level of animal protein consumption depends almost entirely on wealth (and is itself a sign of wealth). Affluent households eat animal protein (beef, lamb, poultry, or fish) every day. Muslims do not eat pork. Less well-off families eat animal protein once a week or even once a month.

Restaurants are widespread throughout the country. They range from traditional street food stalls to fine dining restaurants serving international food.

One of the main distinctions between the traditional eating habits, generally rural and urban, of the middle class, concerns the seating and the service of the food. In villages, people sit on a rug and food is placed on a very low round wooden table. Each person has a spoon, and everyone eats directly from the serving plate.

In cities, people sit on chairs around Western-style dining tables. Each person has their own plate, spoon, fork and knife. In rural areas, the main meal is in the evening; in urban areas, it is often in the late afternoon when office workers return home.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

Various Muslim holidays are marked by special foods. The “Id al-Adha”, which celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his child (who then miraculously turns into a ram), requires those who can afford it to sacrifice a ram. A part of the animal is distributed to the poor and another part is consumed by family members.

The “Id al-Fitr” after the Ramadan fast is celebrated by baking special cookies (“kahk”) which are then dusted with powdered sugar. These cookies are often offered to guests who bring party greetings.

The Prophet’s Birthday, which marks the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, is celebrated with the consumption of halawet al-mulid, which is a variety of sweets cooked with different types of nuts. Children are given dolls (girls) or horses (boys) made entirely of sugar and decorated with colored paper.

On the eve of Christmas Day and Easter Day, Orthodox Copts break their fast with a variety of dishes made from beef and poultry. One of the main foods that marks the festival are the cookies similar to those that are prepared for the «Id al-Fitr.

Sham al-Nassim (Easter Monday) is mainly characterized by a breakfast of salt fish, spring onions, lettuce and colored eggs, eaten outdoors in gardens and open areas. This festival is celebrated nationally in practically all regions and by all social classes. It is the ancient Egyptian festival of spring and harvest.

Fasting is seen as a spiritual exercise by both Muslims and Christians. Muslim fasting involves abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, especially during the lunar month of Ramadan (twenty-nine or thirty days). A

Some particularly devout Muslims also fast on other days in the Islamic calendar, such as the days that celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad or his miraculous “Night Journey,” the days that represent the middle of the lunar month (days thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen), or every monday and thursday.

The result is that almost half the days of the year can be considered fast days by some. Virtually all Egyptian Muslims fast during Ramadan, while voluntary fasts are followed by a smaller number.

The number of days Egyptian Christians can theoretically fast is even higher. The number is variable, but includes more than 200 days a year, especially in the periods before Christmas and Easter, plus the Wednesdays and Fridays of each week outside the fasting periods.

The Christian fast means avoiding meat, fish, eggs, milk, butter, and cheese. In the Christian tradition, a theme of fasting is the domination of the body and emotions by the mind to achieve greater purity.


One of the critical decisions a woman can make is the choice of spouse. The pattern here is one of negotiation between the members of her family whom she will marry. She is a participant, and in a sense she must agree, but many others are involved, including matchmakers. Similarly, a young man may find limitations in his choice of marriage partner.

The trend is for married couples to become more and more alike in age and level of education. The old hierarchical marriage is giving way to partner marriage, especially in the urban middle classes.

Cousin marriage remains prevalent, however, accounting for 39 percent of marriages in a 1995 sample. Since premarital sex is rare, the pressure to marry is high, and almost everyone does.

The actual marriage ceremony is distinct from the legal contract of marriage. It is a major event in the lives of everyone involved.

The young couple must prepare a place to live, while at the same time ensuring that the costs of the ceremony, which are often considerable, are covered. People spend as much as they can, if not more, on a marriage, and in the upper classes, the sky is the limit.

Polygamy (having more than one wife) among Muslims is rare, and on the decline. About 5 percent of Muslim men have more than one wife, and most of them have only two. A polygamous man usually maintains two households. Divorce is formally easy, although families try to reconcile their partners.

The divorce rate is decreasing, while the absolute number is increasing. When a divorced couple has children, the mother only retains custody while they are young. The father can then claim them. The Copts do not recognize either polygamy or divorce.

An important sign of family identity is the personal name. Egyptians do not typically have “family” names in the current Western sense of a surname shared by all members of an extended family.

Instead, each person has a name, followed by the names of their father, grandfather, etc. For legal purposes, a person’s name is usually “given name, father’s name, grandfather’s name”, resulting in three given names (for example, Hassan Ali Abdallah). Therefore, one carries one’s paternal lineage and one’s status in his name.

In certain parts of rural Egypt, where genealogy is important, people learn to recite a long list of paternal ancestors. Muslim men are likely to have religious names, but some have secular names.

Christians may be named after saints, or may be given names that are Arabic rather than religious. Women also have religious names, but sometimes they have more extravagant ones, including names of foreign origin. Women often do not change their names upon marriage.


Public modesty in dress and behavior is highly valued in Egypt. There is a form of dress code that affects women more than men, requiring clothing that covers the entire body except the hands and face.

For women, this means wearing a scarf that covers the hair and ears and sits below the chin, although there are many other styles that range from simply covering the hair to covering the entire face. This is the sense in which the veil exists in Egypt, but the situation is volatile, with a lot of variety. Many women do not wear veils.

What is appropriate, or required, or necessary, is hotly debated in contemporary Egypt. The reasons for wearing a veil are various, ranging from those who accept that this is a requirement of Islam to those who essentially cover themselves to satisfy their relatives, men and women.

Men are also required to dress modestly, but the changes are not as conspicuous, for example loose pants and long sleeves. For both men and women, the principle is that clothing should disguise the shape of the body.

Another rule of etiquette is that greetings must precede all forms of social interaction. A person who joins any kind of group, even strangers, is expected to greet those already present. In less anonymous situations, shake hands. Hugging is also common as a form of greeting, usually between members of the same sex.

People are usually addressed by name, often preceded by a title of some kind (‘am, or uncle, is the all-purpose title for men; others include hajj for a pilgrim returning from Mecca or simply for an older man, duktor for a person with a Ph.D., and muhandis for an engineer). Addressing someone only by name is rude.

An important rule of etiquette is to treat guests with cordiality and hospitality. An offering, usually tea or a soft drink, is the least a visitor expects. The first drink is sometimes called a “salute.” Cigarettes are also often offered as hospitality.

In rural areas, some people avoid visiting those they consider to be of lower status than themselves. In this view, visitors are always “up” and hospitality is always “down,” that is, the higher-status host provides hospitality to the lower-status guest.

In general, the young separate from the old and the women from the men. Members of the younger generation are expected to show signs of respect and not challenge their elders and should use the special terms of address for aunts, uncles, and grandparents, as well as non-relative elders.

Young people should not raise their voices to the elderly, nor should they remain seated while an older person is standing. With the increase in disparities between classes and the extension of patronage ties, there is an inflation in terms of deferential treatment. This includes the revival of the use of terms that were previously official titles but were abolished after 1952, such as Pasha and Bey.


Religious beliefs

Egypt is a country of “everyday piety.” The central belief in Islam is in the unity of God, whose truths were revealed through the prophet Muhammad. The affirmation of this basic profession of faith is one of the five pillars of religion. The other four are the fast of Ramadan, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the five daily prayers, and almsgiving.

For many Muslims, these five pillars summarize the belief system and indicate the practices. The Egyptians frequently invoke the notion of God and the power of him. Any statement about the future, for example, is likely to contain the command, “if God wills,” showing that the final determination of intention is up to God.

In Egypt, there are other possible elaborations. For some, focusing on God as an all-powerful religious practice, it involves seeking God’s help in overcoming problems and seeking favorable outcomes, for example, with regard to recovery from illness or misfortune.

Around this notion a number of practices have developed involving visits to shrines, often in which people believed to be loved by God are buried, to seek their intercession with God.

Among these shrines, those in Cairo associated with the family of the Prophet Muhammad stand out. But every village and every town has such shrines, the importance of which varies. This form of religion is often attacked by religious purists who argue that giving so much importance to these “saints” weakens the unity of God.

Associations of mystics (Sufi brotherhoods) are also very common in Egypt. These male-dominated groups are under the leadership of a shaykh, or hierarchy of shaykhs, dedicated to helping their members achieve a mystical experience of union with God.

This mystical experience is often achieved through collective rituals, specific to each order, called zikr. There are nearly a hundred officially recognized associations, plus numerous unrecognized ones, with some six million members (about a third of the adult male population).

The current dominant practice in Egypt is to focus on the core beliefs of Islam, and concern oneself with learning the “law” of Islam, the particular details of daily life that believing Muslims must follow in order to be in accordance with God’s will according to the law. specialist interpretation.

The authority here is the word of God as found in the Qur’an. The prayer leader (imam) can be anyone in good religious standing, although established mosques often have a regular imam.

The Friday sermon is delivered by a khatib, many of whom are trained in religious institutes. There have been debates about whether women can play these roles, especially as religion teachers for women and girls.

The two main religious leaders in Egyptian Islam are the Shaykh al-Azhar, who heads the religious bureaucracy, and the Grand Mufti, who offers authoritative interpretations of the Koran. People in these positions are known to take different positions on some issues.

The two main Muslim religious festivals are the festival following Ramadan, the fasting month, and ‘Id al-Adha, which corresponds to the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca (Saudi Arabia). Ramadan holidays are celebrated after a month of fasting and family visits, and people usually rest.

The ‘Id al-Adha celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, who then miraculously turned into a ram, so most families try to sacrifice a ram on this day.

Other religious festivals include Moulid an-Nabi, which commemorates the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, which is especially important to Sufis, and the Islamic New Year, the first day of the month of Moharram.

In Islam, Friday is the day of the congregation’s main prayer, marking a break in the work week without being a “day of rest” in the formal sense. In contemporary Egypt, the two-day weekend is Friday and Saturday.

The regular work and school week is therefore from Sunday to Thursday, although some also work on Saturdays. Christians who work this schedule attend church in the evenings, using Friday for important meetings.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is descended from the churches associated with the early Christian Patriarchate of Alexandria. It is the main Christian church in Egypt. His theology is monophysical, holding that in Jesus Christ there is only one nature, human and divine. The Coptic Church is led by a patriarch and supported by bishops and parish priests.

Monasticism is also central to the Coptic church, with the patriarch coming from the ranks of the monks and not from the priesthood. When a patriarch dies, his successor is chosen by lot (ie by God) from a small number of candidates who have survived a vetting process.

The monasteries also serve as pilgrimage and retreat centers for Copts. Today the Virgin Mary is venerated, and many churches are dedicated to her.

The two main Christian holidays are Christmas and Easter. Minor festivals include some that are extensions of these seasons such as ‘Id al-Ghattas (Epiphany), the baptism of Christ, Palm Sunday, and some associated with the Virgin Mary (the Ascension, in mid-August, is one of the main).

In most aspects of life, aside from religion, Egyptian Muslims and Christians are indistinguishable. Daily devotion is common between both, and many religious values ​​are shared at a general level.

The attentive observer can sometimes notice marks of distinction: “Islamic” dress marks Muslim women; both men and women among Christians can have a cross tattooed on the inside of the right wrist; the names are often but not always indicative.

For most people, almost always, the distinction is not relevant. But from time to time there are individuals on one side or the other who highlight the difference and claim or practice some form of discrimination or injustice. This way of speaking rarely leads to more violent actions.

However, the limit remains and both groups discourage or prohibit intermarriage and conversion. Muslims and Christians are not residentially segregated; instead, there are scattered groups of Christians among a Muslim majority.

In modern times, the presence of Muslims and Christians has prevented Egypt from being defined as a Muslim country and thus, at least indirectly, has favored secularism.

Rituals and sacred places

Rituals marking the different stages of life are also an important area of ​​religious practice, largely shared by Muslims and Christians.

Egyptians hold a christening ceremony usually a week after the birth of a baby; it is a mixture of Islamic (or Coptic) and “traditional” elements, and is basically a family celebration to incorporate the newborn into the family.

All children are circumcised, usually as boys, and girls are also often “circumcised” before they reach puberty. (Although the form of female genital mutilation varies, surveys suggest that about 97 percent of Egyptian women, both Christian and Muslim, are affected.)

Marriage is one of the main focuses of Egyptian culture. For Muslims it is considered a contract whose signing is later followed by a family celebration; for Christians, the sacrament takes place in a church, usually followed on the same day by a family celebration.

Death and the afterlife

After a death, both Muslims and Christians try to bury the body on the same day. Condolences are paid immediately, and again after forty days and after a year. Islamic condolence sessions are usually marked by the reading of the Koran.

Both Muslims and Christians believe in the soul, distinguishing it from other non-corporeal aspects of the person such as the double, the brother/sister, and the ghost. The “soul” exists before birth and after death, while some of the other aspects disappear at death or appear only at death.

Secular celebrations

The main holidays are: April 25, Sinai Liberation Day, which marks the recovery of the Sinai Peninsula in 1982; May 1, International Labor Day; July 23, which commemorates the 1952 revolution; and October 6, Armed Forces Day, which marks the day the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal in 1973, surprising the Israeli army and scoring a minor military victory that, through subsequent diplomacy, would lead to the return from Sinai to Egypt.

Labor Day in Egypt, like everywhere else, is used to greet the working class. The others mark important events in the country’s recent political history. All are official business, with little popular celebration.

The arts and humanities


The Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) is the best known of the many novelists, poets, and short-story writers whose works have been widely read and translated. Folk tales and folk epics survive, but they are not robust.

Graphic arts

Painters are largely self-sufficient through the sale of their paintings. There are many art galleries concentrated mostly in Cairo, and the acquisition of paintings has always been a sign of good taste and distinction among members of affluent social groups. Folk house wall painting is well known in rural Egypt.

Performing arts

The Egyptian film industry is one of the oldest in the world. Film production is at once an art, an industry, and a craft. Egyptian movies and TV dramas are avidly consumed not only in Egypt, but throughout the Arab world.

They range from vulgar melodramas to internationally acclaimed and award-winning films of high artistic value. Currently, film production is carried out almost exclusively in the private sector.

The most famous Egyptian singer was Umm Kulthum (1898-1975), whose songs are still broadcast throughout the Arab world. Some more recent singers have also enjoyed considerable popularity within and outside the country. There is also a Cairo Symphony Orchestra, a Cairo Opera Ballet, and other companies that produce classical music and dance.

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