This is one of the most popular feasts celebrated by the Copts (on 11 Tubah), for whom it must have been a Christianized form of the ancient Egyptian festivities associated with the Nile as one of their principal dynastic gods. The Coptic Synaxarion states that the Messiah appeared on that day as the Son of God and the Sacred Lamb to obliterate the sins of the world, hence the paramount importance of that feast in the Coptic calendar. On that day, the faithful are purified from sins by the holy water in a way equivalent to baptism.
This feast is preceded by a vigil and a nocturnal mass, one of the three-night celebrations, the other two being the Nativity and the Ascension. The chief purpose of this function is the sanctification of the water, which in bygone days was brought to the middle of the nave in a large receptacle with two candles on the sides. Prior to the celebration of mass, special prayers are offered for the sanctification of that water with incense, hymns, and reading from the Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospels. After the completion of the Liturgy, the receptacle is moved to the narthex where the continuation of the offices ends with the faithful plunging into the holy waters. This practice was suppressed in modern times to avoid the confusion ensuing therefrom and did not exist in the primitive church; when its original performance on the banks of the Nile was forbidden by the caliphs after the advent of the Arabs, it was transferred to the churches.
Under early Muslim rule, however, this feast was celebrated with great pomp, and the Muslim historian al-Mas‘udi gives a lively description of the occasion under Ikhshid Muhummad ibn Tughj in the year 941. The bank of the Nile was illuminated by endless torches, and the Egyptians—both Copts and Muslims—emerged in their best apparel. Many plunged into the Nile in the belief that its sanctified water would heal them from all ailments. This is reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian legend when people reenacted the search of Isis in the waters of the Nile at the place where Seth had killed her husband Osiris and scattered his limbs. In those days, Egyptians also illuminated the Nile bank and plunged into its waters.
Copts used to visit their deceased relatives in the cemeteries on the following day. This tradition has been established among Copts and Muslims alike. The food on that day consists of a special vegetable known in Latin under the name Colcasia antiquorum, in Arabic as qulqas. It grows in the soil like potatoes. The fruit of the season also is used and distributed to the poor at cemeteries. This includes oranges and mandarins.
- Blackman, S. Les Fellahs de la Haute-Egypte, trans. J. Marty. Paris, 1984.
- Butler, A. J. The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, 2 vols. Oxford, 1884.
- Coquin, R.-G. “Les Origines de l’Epiphanie en Egypte.” In Noël, Epiphanie, retour du Christ, ed. A. Kniaziff and B. Botte. Paris, 1967.
- Fenoyl, M. de. Le Sanctoral copte. Beirut, 1960.