A few hours after I landed in Egypt to begin my fieldwork this summer, I learned from friends and relatives that the “mulids have been canceled.” This was not quite true. The mulids happened, but not as they had before.
This year, for the first time, visitors at the Virgin Mary mulid in Assiut had to pass through four electronic gates installed at the bottom of Durunka mountain. Where once there was unstructured and unsupervised activity, this year there were buses to take visitors to the top of the mountain to the “official” mulid.
During the first week of every August, this is the site of a major mulid — a popular celebration of a sacred figure — that of the Virgin Mary. It is the largest of many that take place across the country, devoted to Mary during the fasting period in August dedicated to her.
At the bottom of the mountain, there had been shooting games, swings, and tattoo drawing. There had been food carts selling sweet potato, candy and grilled corn. There had been tents where people slept, ate, and relaxed.
“In the past, cars were allowed to drive up the mountain and park close to the monastery,” a friend tells me. “Now people have to leave their vehicles nearly 2 kilometers away from the main gate, at bottom of the mountain.”
The government declared a state of emergency in April after attacks on churches on Palm Sunday, and when the following month a group affiliated with ISIS killed more than 28 Christians on their way to a monastery in Beni Suef, the Coptic Orthodox Church executed its own emergency measures.
On the heels of the May attack, the Coptic Church hierarchy also warned against any mass grouping of its congregants in front of or close to churches and Christian spaces in general. For the first time, the church issued an official statement canceling the summer activities for its young congregants, including trips to monasteries and to the coast.
Accordingly, the designated mulid area of Durunka was heavily secured. Leaving any legal violations for security forces to deal with, the electronic gates installed at the bottom of the mountain were managed by Christian volunteers who checked ID cards, noting visitors’ details in the church records and searching their bags.
Wearing labels indicating their names and volunteer status, people are split into two categories: khuddam (those who serve) and are responsible for khidma (service), and zowar (visitors) who are also called makhdumin (the recipients of khidma).
This division into khuddam and makhdumin is not new to Coptic spaces, but what is new is its strict introduction into the space of the mulid, as a result of the current state of emergency.
This differentiation arose during the long papacy of Pope Shenouda III (1971-2012) who worked on further attaching his congregants to their local churches by making a group (the khuddam) responsible for another (the makhdumin) through a web of services and activities (khidma).
Similarly, the khuddam ushered visitors to the officially sanctioned space of the mulid on top of the mountain.
There, visitors found the official church celebrations. It used to be that these lasted until around 7 pm, and afterwards people were free to do what they wanted. Some of them would spend time at the monastery itself, others would walk down the mountain for the swings, shooting games, tattoos, and food found in the unstructured space at the bottom of the mountain, extending until late in the evening.
This changed in 2014 when Bishop Youannes of Assiut assumed his position and proceeded to conduct what his supporters describe as a nahda or revival. In that time, the landscape of what was one of the biggest and most crowded Coptic mulids has been changed significantly.
In the main yard of the monastery at the top of the mountain, Bishop Youannes has set up a theater with seating for over 3,000 people. For the past three years, watching and singing with professional choirs that come from various churches in Assiut, listening to Bishop Youannes’ sermons about the virtues of Mary, and singing praises to Mary have gone on until midnight.
Besides the spiritual program, also urging visitors to spend more time at the top of the mountain, are guesthouses, restaurants, cafeterias, sweet shops, gift shops, and toys stores.
But this year, the tension between the top and the bottom was broken in the interest of one side. Following the passage of the four electronic gates located at the bottom of the mountain and the various checkpoints, you will not find anything or anyone — just the buses owned by the Bishopric of Assiut and their drivers, who will take you up the mountain and to Bishop Youannes’ nahda.
Many of those present praise the bishop for having orchestrated this nahda, wherein khidma features heavily. Those who sell food, clean the floors, praise Mary in the choirs conduct and are responsible for specific forms of khidma at the mulid. In fact, above the mountain, the word mulid is rarely used, as it is considered theologically inappropriate and unchristian.
The banners, the small venerating pictures of Mary, and even the chitchats I overheard and shared with the many people I encountered there reflected a more distinguished vocabulary of expressing their connection to this annual event, one that can be more easily called “Christian.”
But it was not only in this sense that the mulid was more Christian. Previously, the mulids had been mixed spaces, with Muslims also in attendance. But this year, in the hope of preventing further attacks — and in light of threats to bomb the monastery — only Christians were allowed to venerate Mary.
The unruliness of mulids as a threat
Turning the mulid into an exclusive gated community totally operated through Bishop Youannes’ nahda seems less a state of exception connected to this year’s security concerns. Rather, it is a consolidation of previously existing trends.
Writing about Muslim mulids, anthropologist Samuli Schielke has noted that the openness and ambivalence of mulids challenge official and mainstream understandings of religion and public space.
In this regard, Schielke has analyzed the efforts of religious and state authorities “to civilize mulids, that is, to subject them to a spatial, temporal, and moral discipline that makes them less transgressive and more controllable.”
And so, in 2009, the state instituted a temporary ban on mulids, using the threat caused by swine flu. Perceiving mulids and its interactions as “dirty” and “messy,” the ban came to “purify” and to put “order” to people’s behaviors and bodies.
Similarly, for the church hierarchy, mulids are in many ways threatening to its imagination of the Christian spaces. To them, the crucial problem with the mulids is that they disrupt the meaning of the neighborhood churches.
Local churches, where Copts go on an everyday basis, have for decades been political and theological “safe havens” where the Pope Shenouda III’s khidma project has flourished. Pope Shenouda’s expansion of control over the administrative and financial affairs of local churches was complemented by greater involvement in the lives of Copts by keeping a pastoral eye on even their leisure activities.
Inside them and between their walls, congregants are protected not only from violent attacks, but from the temptations of evil. The churches are meant to act as shields behind which Copts would be saved from the “storm” of the world, that is, the predominantly Islamized Egyptian state and society.
The attempt to transform the mulid through the framework of khidma has meant the belittling of what exists at the bottom of the mountain, that is, what cannot be remodeled as khidma. The cancelation of the mulid at the bottom of the mountain due to this year’s security concerns is not, then, entirely a surprise, but part of a longer-term set of processes.
Swings, games, carts, and tents were prevented this year, apparently because they present a security threat given that vendors, tattoo artists, and entertainers are known neither to the Church nor to the state authorities. Or, as a priest in Minya put in to me, “Kol il-kalam il-farigh hayetshal,” all frivolity will be removed.