Journal: Friday 26 March 1999 (PM)
It was the eve of the Feast of Sacrifice, Eid el-Adha, which lasts for three days and is the conclusion of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Eid el-Adha is known as the ‘Great Feast’ and is the most important date in the Muslim calendar, as opposed to the ‘Small Feast’, Eid el-Fitr which is the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. The Feast of Sacrifice commemorates the prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (called Ismail in Egypt) to god when a voice from heaven intervened and allowed Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. Each year the prophet Mohammed sacrificed a sheep in memory of the occasion and established the tradition of the Muslim festival. Each family who can afford it will kill a sheep, eating about a third of the animal and distributing the rest of the meat to the poor.
When Robin and I arrived back at our hotel in Abydos after our trip to Sohag, we were met by the hotel owner Abdel Alim, who invited us to his house for dinner this evening. We were the only guests staying at the hotel and there was nobody to cook a meal for us because of the holiday, so to Abdel Alim this seemed the obvious solution and also meant he was doing his religious duty by sharing his food with us. His little son and three daughters, dressed for the occasion in pretty dresses with flowers decorating their hair, sat and chatted with us in the garden before excitedly running off on other business. At sunset came the Azaan, the Islamic call to prayer, the muezzin’s voice beginning the low, slow chant of Allah u Akbar, repeated over and over again until I was totally mesmerized. The chant built and gained volume, joined by other chanting from what seemed like numerous mosques in the village, prayers offered, spiralling out and floating from the tops of minarets on their journey to god. This wonderful sound lasted for over an hour, eventually rising to a crescendo before it became a sudden silence which filled me with a tremendous sense of awe. This incredible moment was the closest I have ever come to a religious experience and one I will never forget.
A little later Abdel Alim arrived to conduct us to his home in el-Madfuna, where his lovely wife, dressed in her best clothes waited to welcome us. Robin and I ate with the women and children, as tradition dictates, though Mrs Alim’s teenage son Hisam stayed to translate for us as she spoke no English. The meal was a veritable feast of Egyptian cuisine and we all had a really good time.