CALENDAR AND AGRICULTURE
The Coptic calendar has survived not only in the liturgy of the Coptic church but also in the agricultural life of the Nile Valley, for it sets the schedule by which the farmers (fellahin) regulate their work in the fields. Many delightful maxims and aphorisms summarizing the essentials of what must be done each season to guarantee successful cultivation of crops, maintenance of good health, and protection against the weather are still heard today.
Usually in rhyme, they serve as excellent mnemonic devices to remind farmers of what must be done at specific times of the year. It is possible that they derive from ancient Egypt, and were translated into Arabic as the country became arabized.
The almanacs contain useful and precise directives for the months of the year—each of which has its own special traits—concerning the phases of the Nile, the winds, the crops, labors to be performed, health, and even the most intimate details of everyday life.
- The month beginning 11-12 September, when the flood reaches its maximum, and the most opportune time for irrigating the fields, as indicated by relevant sayings.
Tut: rayy walla fut
(“During Tut, irrigate, or forgo it.”)
(“In Tut pull the untut” or “Get ready to work.”)
(The untut is a wooden peg used to fasten the yoke to a rope that loops around the neck of the cow to keep the yoke in place.)
Tut: yiul lil bard fut
(“Tut says to the cold weather, “Enter.'”)
The advice inherent in these sayings was significant until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, before the building of the Aswan Dam changed the method of irrigation. Before then irrigation was accomplished by flooding individual basins protected by dikes. The water, filled with the fertilizing silt, would stand a few months and then return to the river.
The first of Tut marks the beginning of planting the winter crops—clover, dill, cabbage, and turnips. Colocasia, lettuce, and celery make their appearance, as well as corn and sugar cane in Upper Egypt. Onions begin to ripen, and dates grow in abundance, along with pomegranates, lemon, and quince. Cotton is harvested and broad beans are planted.
Advice is given in the almanac to avoid intercourse at the beginning of the month, to observe the clouds and the weather, drink no water at night, take no medicines, and dress warmly.
The fruit of the month is dates, rutab Tut.
- The month beginning 11-12 October when the flood waters begin to subside. Some sayings warn against humidity.
Babah: khushsh wi’fil id-darrabah
(“During Babah, go inside and pull the latch.”)
The entire harvest depends on Babah, for in this month tilling and planting begin throughout the country, as the proverbs tell:
In shahh zar‘ Babah, ghalab-il-um in-nahhabah. win khaff Zar‘ Babah ma yi’bash fih wala libabah
(“If the crops of Babah are scarce they will fail the marauders, and if these crops are scant, not even a crumb will remain.”)
In Babah, the following crops are planted: clover, wheat, barley, fenugreek, peas, anise, fennel, rice, garlic, and onions. Sesame, henna, and peanuts are harvested, as well as the second crop of cotton. Fruits grow in abundance—watermelons and melons known as Nili, so-named for the Nile flood. It is the season for the first oranges. Quail also thrive.
The almanac announces the stirring of emotions at the beginning of the month, and it advises against bleedings and exposure to the fresh morning air.
The fruit of the month is the pomegranate, rumman Babah.
- Hatur. The month beginning 10-11 November, named after Hatur, goddess of gold and of sowing grains, especially wheat, as shown in this saying:
(“Hatur, the month of scattered gold.”)
This saying is particularly interesting, for it depicts the practice of pharaohs who would occasionally strew grains of wheat mixed with gold pellets through the temple.
Other maxims indicate that the farmer should take advantage of Hatur as the most favorable time for planting.
In fatak zar‘ Hatur isbur lamma-s-sanah tidur
(“If you miss the planting season of Hatur, wait until the year rolls around.”)
At this time wheat, safflower, coriander, lentils, and market- gardening crops are sown. After the last cotton harvest, turnips, potatoes, and corn are planted. It is the end of the planting season for lupine, fenugreek, broad beans, and chick peas. It is also the season when rice ripens, and fields turn green. Radish seeds and olives are pressed for oil; housewives begin to make butter, and the first tangerines appear.
The almanac indicates that this is the month when the bile becomes turgid. It advises exercise, and cautions against drinking water at night.
The fruit of the month is the banana, moz Hatur.
- Kiyahk. The month of the winter solstice and shorter days, beginning 10-11 December, as reflected in these sayings:
Kiyahk: sabahak misak
(“In Kiyahk, your morning is your evening.”)
T’um min farshak t- haddar ‘ashak
(“In Kiyahk, you arise in the morning to prepare your supper.”)
illi ma t-rabba‘ barsim fi Kiyahk, id‘u ‘alayha bil halak
(“The beast that misses its share of clover during Kiyahk, is better to perish.”)
Here occurs the first agricultural forty-day period, extending from the first of Kiyahk to 11 Tubah. During this time, the coldest and rainiest part of the year, winter planting must come to an end, the fields have to be prepared for the summer crops, and canals and ditches drained and cleaned.
The calendar specifies certain days for planting lettuce, broad beans, and apricot and plum trees. It also tells when to graft or remove trees, when to prune palm trees and vines, and, for the south, when to plant market-gardening crops. The cutting of sugar cane begins in Upper Egypt, as does the harvesting of corn and green onions. With milk abundant and of excellent quality (thanks to the clover), housewives find this the best time to prepare their yearly supply of butter.
The almanac advises people to protect themselves against the cold, and avoid drinking exposed water at night.
Kiyahk is the month when rivers abound in fish, which is the food of the month, samak (fish of) Kiyak.
- Tubah. Beginning 9-10 January, the coldest month of winter, as indicated by these sayings:
Tubah: abul-bard wal‘uubah
(“Tubah, the month of cold and its consequences.”)
Tubah: tkhalli-s-sabiyyah jildah wil ajuzah irdah
(“Tubah reduces a young girl to skin and bones, and shrivels an old woman.”)
Abrad min mayyit Tubah
(“Colder than the water of Tubah.”)
The Epiphany, 11 Tubah, marks the beginning of the second forty-day agricultural period, which ends on 20 Amshir. During this time the preparation of the ground for the first summer crops comes to an end, and the winter crops of Upper Egypt, broad beans and fenugreek, ripen. Also during this month, some germinate lentil and/or wheat grains on dampened pads of cotton as an auspicious beginning. The greeting most often heard is, ij‘alha ‘alayna sanah khadrah, “Please make the year green, i.e., prosperous, for us.”
This is the time when the shrubs and young palm trees are transplanted; pomegranate and peach are planted, as well as tomatoes, eggplant, pepper, onions, carrots, anise, safflower, summer corn, and henna. Vines and palm trees are pruned; rice, rosemary, broad beans, and dill are harvested. Sugar cane, citrus fruits, squash, and colocasia grow in abundance.
During this month the weather is changeable. The almanac advises abstinence from broad beans and excessively salty food, and the use of pepper and spices. Tubah is characterized by the fresh taste of its water.
- Amshir. The month beginning 8-9 February, of strong winds and storms known as Zaffat Amshir or “Amshir’s parade.” Many proverbs allude to this intemperate
Amshir: abu-z-zawabi‘ il-kitir
(“Amshir, the month of many storms.”)
Amshir yakhud-el-Ajuzah we-yetir
(“Amshir grabs the old woman and flies away.”)
Toward the end of Amshir, the cold weather subsides, the earth warms up, and the crops make visible progress:
Amshir yi-ul lil-zar‘sir bila Tasir
(“Amshir says to the crops, “Grow with ease.'”)
En kan zar‘ak taht-il-Kom ma-t-buss ‘alayh-we-fadil f-Amshir Yum
(“If your crops are still underground, don’t uncover them so long as there yet remains one day in Amshir.”)
During the third agricultural forty-day period, which lasts from 21 Amshir to the end of Baramhat, winter crops are harvested, and summer crops begin. Farmers start growing cotton, first in Upper, then in Lower, Egypt. They also plant corn, sugar cane, and all kinds of fruit trees. They fertilize the palm trees, and harvest garlic, onions, and fenugreek. The first cucumbers make their appearance, the trees begin to bud, and leaves appear on the vines.
For this month the almanac advises avoiding the sun, and recommends drinking water first thing in the morning. It also warns that it is the time when emotions are aroused.
The food of the month is lamb, kharuf Amshir.
- Beginning 10-11 March, Baramhat is the month for abundant crops and harvesting.
Baramhaat: ruh il-ghayt we-hat kull-el-hajat
(“In Baramhat, go to the field and get everything.”)
This is also the month of Lent for the Copts, who must abstain from all animal products at this time. Hence the saying:
‘Ash-in-nusrani we-mat we-nifsu yakul ful hirat we-jibnah f- baramhat
(“In Baramhat a Copt lives and dies craving for green beans and cheese.”)
There are three inauspicious days in the calendar, known as husumat or ayyam al-husum, which occur at the beginning of this month. Farmers therefore refrain from cultivating their fields, and avoid all conception, both human and animal, for the life conceived risks being born abnormal. This idea probably survived from the legend of the combat of Seth, which is associated with images of storm and violence. The ancient myths maintain that Seth was the assassin of Osiris and the aggressive rival of young Horus. In the Calendar of Lucky and Unlucky Days, the three days singled out as unfortunate are 29 Amshir, “At sunset on this day, do not look at anything”; 4 Baramhat, “His voice in the heavens and on earth proclaims great disasters”; and 7 Baramhat, “Do not leave your house when the evening sun is on the horizon, for this was . . . when. . . Horus called upon his gods to follow him; and . . . toward evening, he quarreled with them.”
The cold, violent winds, loaded with dust, that blow during the first days of this month have a noxious effect on young cotton plants; so the farmers do not plant cotton at this time. However, after the spring equinox, the storms subside, and summer crops prosper in the north of the Delta. Farmers plant sugar cane, cotton, sesame, legumes, cumin, okra, and watermelons. They harvest peas, flax, onions, broad beans, and fenugreek. Also leeks begin to sprout, and the trees come into bloom.
With this being springtime, the almanac indicates that it is the best season for intercourse.
Thanks to the abundance of clover, the cow buffalos produce excellent milk, laban Baramhat.
- Baramudah. The month beginning 9 April when all grains are threshed, with each farmer awaiting his turn to start threshing:
Baramudah: du’ bil-‘amudah wala yib’a fil-ghayt wala ‘udah
(“In Baramudah, thresh with the stake, and not a single straw will remain in the field.”)
In many regions, especially in Upper Egypt, an old custom requires that the reapers be paid in kind. During the wheat harvest, the finest ears of corn are braided into dolls that are known by the villagers as “the bride of wheat,” and are hung above the doorways as a sign of good omen or placed upon piles of winnowed grain. These practices, which vary in different provinces, have doubtlessly survived from very ancient cult rituals.
During Baramudah, the following crops are harvested: broad beans, flax, fenugreek, onions, barley, lupine, potatoes, and wheat. It is also the time for gathering honey, and for planting corn, sugar cane, rice, peanuts, henna, and indigo. Watermelons and mulberries appear, while leeks and okra are found in abundance. It is also the season of roses, from which essence is extracted and preserved.
According to the almanac, the seventh day of the month marks the beginning of a season lasting some fifty days. Rheumatism becomes widespread. Salted foods such as fish should be avoided, woolen clothing set aside, and white linen garments should preferably be worn.
The rose is the flower of the month, ward Baramudah.
- Bashans. The month beginning 9 May when the crops have been harvested, and nothing remains in the fields:
Bashans yikniss il-ghayt kans
(“Bashans sweeps the fields clean.”)
During Bashans apples, plums, melons, and apricots appear. Wheat, onions, and the last crops of clover are harvested, as are roses and the flowers of safflower. Palm trees are fertilized, and corn, sesame, rice, colocasia, and indigo are planted. This month marks the beginning of the summer crops in Upper Egypt.
The almanac states that, at the beginning of Bashans, blood runs more slowly, but that the humors are likely to become active as the summer heat sets in. It advises the partaking of refreshing drinks and abstinence from salted foods.
The fruit of the month is the nab’ (from the jujube tree), nab’ Bashans.
- Ba‘unah. Beginning 8 June is the month of intensive heat, generally known as Ba‘unah-al-hajar, for the extremely hot and dry weather causes rocks to split:
Ba‘unah falla il-hajar
(“The heat of Ba‘unah splits rock apart.”)
Ba‘unah-al-hajar yinashshif il-Mayya fe-sh-shajar
(“Ba‘unah drains the tree dry.”)
During this month the following crops are sown: rice, mulukhiyyah (corchorus olitorius), cucumbers, and corn. In the Fayyum and Lower Egypt, clover is reaped, and honey is gathered. This is also the fruit season, with figs, plums, prickly pears, grapes, peaches, and apricots making their appearance, as do green beans and zucchini. Watermelons grow in abundance.
At this time the Nile is at its lowest level of the year, and its water becomes muddy and turbid. The almanac advises filtering water and recommends drinking acidulated liquids.
On 12 Ba‘unah, the traditional, miraculous drop of water falls into the Nile, causing the waters to rise, and flooding to begin.
- Abib. The month beginning July 8 when the figs and grapes ripen.
Abib: tabbakh il-‘inab wi-t-tin
(“Abib, the cook of grapes and figs.”)
Abib: el-mayya f’awwiluh t-khess, we-f’akhruh t-zid
(“At the beginning of Abib, the Nile waters diminish, but at the end of the month, they rise again.”)
This is the season for the flood crops known as Nili (of the Nile). Legumes, garden vegetables, and summer watermelon become plentiful. Rice and corn are sown, guava and mulberry trees are planted, and flax is put to soak.
Winds blow in from the North for fifteen days, alternating with the last hot winds of the desert. The flood waters sweep away the green, stagnating pools, and the earth is prepared for sowing the next crops.
The almanac advises a moderate intake of food. The food of the month is honey, ‘asal Abib.
- Misra. The month of the Nile flood beginning on 7 August, when water overflows the river banks, running into the canals:
Misra tijri fiha kull tir‘ah ’israh
(“During Misra, the water runs into every dry canal.”)
During Misra the following crops are planted: rice, radishes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, turnips, and beets. Cucumbers, watermelon, figs, melons, and grapes are found in abundance. Green olives and sesame are harvested, as is cotton in the South.
The heat is scorching. The almanac recommends drinking fresh water first thing on arising, and eating mild foods. One must beware of insects and mosquitoes.
The fruit of the month is grape, ‘inab Misra.
With the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the three growing seasons now partially overlap one another year in and year out. Consequently, the seasonal rhythm, inherited from antiquity, has disappeared. It survives only in the liturgy of the Coptic church.
CÉRÈS WISSA WASSEF