Customs and Cuisines of Copts (Orthodox Christians) in Asyut, Upper Egypt – 1897

A young man in our village just recovered from a serious case of typhoid, having been in the hospital for a week.  Sanitary conditions, especially lack of adequate water, allow this and several other diseases to continue to wreak havoc in Burundi. 

 The drama reminded me of a story about typhoid in Egypt in 1897, which provides interesting insights into house customs and cuisine from a very British colonial perspective, and which I relate here.

My Christmas with the Copts

Asyut in the late 19th or early 20th Century

It was on Christmas Day last year that a telegram came to Cairo for a nurse to go as soon as possible, to take charge of a case of typhoid in a Coptic family at Assiout [Asyut].

…My patient was a little boy – an only son – between two and three years of age. He was a pretty little curly-headed fellow, with the native brown complexion, and big brown wistful-looking eyes. I found him lying on a bed inside mosquito-curtains, and his mother with him, while sitting on the floor were several other women, dressed in native black costume, with shawls over their heads. I discovered afterwards that these Coptic ladies – about seven in all – were relatives, and had come to take up their abode in the house for as long as the child was ill.

The first few nights seemed very strange and curious, for these ladies would lie down anywhere to sleep; simply wrapping themselves up in thick wadded quilts, without removing any of their clothing. They would lie down at my feet, or anywhere about the rooms or landing, and often I could scarcely avoid treading on one or two.

They would sleep and snore peacefully enough till perhaps the little patient cried, and then they would all come trooping in, talking very loudly, and, from what I could gather, would ask each other what the nurse could have given the child to make it cry so. The mother would yell at me, shaking her fist, and refuse to let me come near the bed, till, in despair, I had to go and call up the father to restore order and make way for me to carry out the doctor’s directions. Then when the child slept again, things would settle down as before.

It was curious to find how the mother dreaded having the little boy washed, and, in spite of all my efforts at coaxing, I could not succeed in persuading her to let me do it for two or three days. Nor would she have his clothes taken off; and he was always fully dressed in frock and petticoats night and day. At last I got the father to insist. After that I was able to get him washed and dressed every day, and he really looked a sweet little fellow with a clean face and his pretty brown culls combed out, but most wofully thin and wasted.

Knowing only a little Arabic, it was often difficult for me to make myself understood; but after a week or so we got more used to each other, and the ladies began to trust me, and proved quite friendly when they found I was as anxious for our little patient to get better as they were themselves.

…Leading out of the landing loom was a small kitchen with a charcoal stove, where the Arab servants made coffee for the ladies. This loom had two windows in it, and through these all rubbish of every description was thrown and allowed to accumulate in great heaps below. It was in this kitchen that the ladies took their meals, and it amused me to go in just when they were having “ashur,” or supper.

There they would be, sitting on the dusty floor in a little circle, with a tray in the centre containing dishes of various cooked foods, such as dressed tomatoes, greens of various kinds, stewed mutton with strongly flavoured gravy, and generally cheese made from goat’s milk; then each would have a flat native bread-cake and break off pieces to dip into either one of the dishes before eating it.

After supper one or two of the elder ladies would produce long pipes and sit placidly on the floor smoking them. … It was very difficult to get any of my clothing washed, and when I did venture to try and get a few aprons done, I found the kitchen boy with an enormous box-iron full of hot coals ironing my aprons, minus any starch, on the dining-table. It is needless to say that they were as limp as a rag …

It was a great joy and relief to us all when our little patient began steadily to improve from day to day. I like to remember the day when he was allowed a poached egg for the first time. No one was to poach it but myself, and the father stood watching me all the time. Then when we took it to the little fellow, in a saucer, it was really pathetic to see the women all round the bed, so eagerly watching every mouthful he took, and the doctor sitting close by, quite as interested as anyone else.

Christmas is kept by the Coptic Church on January 6th, and these good people entertained many friends in the rooms down-stairs on that day. In the evening I had brought to me a cup of “gerfah,” their Christmas drink. It was made of cinnamon boiled in water, sweetened with a good deal of sugar, and afterwards had dried nuts grated into it, forming rather a pleasant drink.

January 11th saw me on my way back to Cairo, feeling most thankful that my patient was doing well, and, on meeting his uncle a month or two later, I heard that he had made a good recovery and was quite himself again.

At the time of travel by the author, the railroad in the Nile Valley only went south as far as Asyut.

Source: Dora H. CunningtonThe Quiver Magazine, 1897. (In Traveller’s Tales of Egypt)

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About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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