Last week, Egyptian Coptic youth from Minya welcomed a delegation from the UK Embassy, led by HM Ambassador Gareth Bayley, to a reconstituted “heritage village” providing a tangible experience of their intangible heritage. Heritage shared with the British Ambassador and delegates included songs, food, handicraft, cultural practices and festival rites.
The “heritage village” event reflected a small selection of some of the heritage gathered by 100 Coptic Egyptian youth from Upper Egypt, who had been trained as heritage gatherers by CREID.
The youth have been gathering and preserving their intangible heritage despite significant logistical setbacks, including the global Covid-19 pandemic. They use both participatory development methods and modern technology to undertake oral histories, interviews, digital stories, vlogs and photography with members of their communities, gathering thousands of expressions of heritage around their histories, practices, food, songs, festivals and much more.
Coptic intangible heritage under threat
Coptic intangible heritage has been under threat of disappearance in southern Egypt on account of public displays of “Coptness” being targeted by intolerant factions in society, external terrorist threats, migration and intergenerational disconnects. The task of identifying, gathering and preserving preserving Coptic Egyptians’ intangible heritage is most urgent, but for it to be truly people focused, it needed to be undertaken by members of the community, in the community, for the community. The focus needed to be on everyday people’s heritage, which has long been neglected.
Why are we training young people to be heritage gatherers?
The idea of building capacity of locally based youth to gather their own heritage began in 2018, with the view to enabling youth to see themselves as mediators of dynamic, living heritage, not only transmitters or preservers of an ancestral past. The first cohort of heritage gatherers (a term we coined for the youth in recognition of their special role in their collection and preservation of heritage in their communities) graduated in 2020 from an experimental project funded by the British Council.
Under CREID, the fundamental principles and approaches of this project became the basis for scaling up the work in Egypt and starting a new sister project in Iraq and, with support from the British Council, taking the project to Syria as well.
Representing Coptic intangible heritage
So far, Coptic youth in Egypt have been largely focusing on the communication of their heritage to keep the memories and practices alive within their communities and among Copts more broadly.
But what about knowledge sharing and dissemination to the rest of the world?
It is one thing for us to press for decolonising heritage within academic circles, it is another to successfully create platforms that enable alternative voices to be heard and taken seriously. The youth engagement with reconstituting a “Coptic heritage village” was one example of this practice of claiming representational power for one’s heritage.
There is a shift toward decolonising material heritage in particular in the forms of museums but what about intangible heritage? Sharing food may be fairly straightforward (even though it is material, it is considered intangible because it is not permanent, much like a skin engraving on a person) but what about oral histories and seasonal practices?
Creating the Coptic Heritage Village
It was Mina Magdy, a manager on the Coptic heritage initiative who had the inspiration of creating an experience where different components of Coptic intangible heritage could be felt, smelt, eaten and heard by setting up a “Coptic heritage village” in the courtyard of the retreat center (Susannah) in Minya city.
Mina said “it was a challenge because we had not done this ever before. We had a sense of vision but did not know how to make the design a reality”. He added “There was a tremendous spirit of cooperation among the heritage gatherers is what made this possible in a very short period of time. There were those who weaved the mat with “Coptic heritage village” until the late hours of the night, those who did the handiwork with the palm trees, those who baked and cooked and those who brought in the hay, the straw and other material to reconstitute the rural feel.”
Watch Mina share his reflections (in Arabic).
The sound, taste and feel of intangible heritage through the Coptic Heritage Village
Entering the retreat centre, you were met with crossed over palm trees and hanging oranges. The young people had bought 33 kilograms of oranges which they had hollowed out, carving crosses into their sides, a reminder of the historical use of “ballalees” as lanterns on the eve of Epiphany.
The first stop in the Coptic village is a reconstituted booth from a Coptic moulid (popular religious festival) in which Copts would have a tattoo of a small cross engraved on to their wrists.
The practice of engraving religious symbols on one’s body goes back to their ancient Egyptian ancestors. At this booth, Irene, a youth heritage gatherer, had an engraving inked on her wrist of a typical Coptic cross (though in line with our wellbeing awareness campaigns in Minya, sound hygienic standards were observed).
Next to follow was a reminder that Palm Sunday, a Christian festival commemorating the entry of Jesus Christ to Jerusalem which is widely celebrated amongst Copts, was just around the corner. This year, Coptic Christians will celebrate it on the 18th April.
There is a popular heritage practice of families gathering at home the night before Palm Sunday to weave palm branches into different shapes and forms. For this occasion, the youth created examples from 200 palm tree branches.
And when it comes to popular oral history, what better way to communicate this than through a book? Each photo printed and displayed in a giant book, had a story to tell about the heritage and the heritage gatherer who documented it.
No celebration of popular heritage is complete without folkloric songs. Three women had been invited from the nearby villages to sing songs that they had learnt from their mothers and grandmothers for special occasions. Women-led drumming is a practice that dates back to the ancient Egyptians.
Heritage gatherers had especially baked and cooked Coptic-themed food for the occasion and shared the stories behind the people and utensils that made it happen.
Ambassador Bayley congratulates heritage gatherers
Ambassador Bayley, alongside the Embassy Delegation, was shown around the village speaking to heritage gatherers in vernacular Arabic as he went. In a later speech, Ambassador Bailey said he was impressed with the high level of women’s participation as heritage gatherers and congratulated the group for their accomplishments.
Undoubtedly, the best way to preserve heritage is to share and practice it but, for the heritage gatherers, it was also about being able to tell the world about who they are and their role in the grand scheme of heritage mediation. When the Ambassador asked the youth what they are particularly proud of, there was a very impressive show of hands: heritage gatherers demonstrably make confident storytellers. However, the heritage gatherers are more than that, they embody a new representational power of who speaks on behalf of Copts and by listening to them, we are actively supporting new narratives of what constitutes Coptic heritage and whose voices are worthy of recognition.