Not only does it keep track of dates, the Egyptian calendar comes with a full weather forecast, historical references, and cute rhyming proverbs.
My grandfather rarely referred to dates using the Gregorian calendar. Although he was Muslim, he didn’t use the Islamic one much either. The Egyptian calendar was his preferred choice. Whenever I would complain of the cold in winter he would tell me that ‘(the month of) Tooba turns a young lady into a “karkooba” (wrinkly old woman)’. Egyptian months made more sense to him, I guess. Every name had a story and related to the environment around us. The Egyptian calendar was not just part of his heritage; it came with a full weather forecast, historical references, and cute rhyming proverbs.
The first day of the Egyptian Calendar is marked by the Feast of Nayruz (Farsi for ‘new day’). Its celebration falls on the first day of the month named Thout, the first month of the Egyptian year, which usually coincides with the eleventh day of September. The ancient festivities, which sometimes got a little out of hand, were temporarily stopped by al-Zaher Beybars due to the people’s rowdiness (much like any New Year’s party) until they were later reinitiated by the Coptic church and took the name of Nayruz.
The Egyptian calendar is believed to have originated three millennia before Christ. The exact date of its origin is unknown, but it is believed that Imhotep, the supreme official of King Djoser (ca. 2670 BCE) had the most significant influence in forming it.
The Egyptian year was divided into the three seasons of akhet (inundation), peret (growth/winter) and shemu (harvest/summer). The ancient Egyptians essentially used two calendars, the civil (for administrative purposes, mostly relating to agriculture) and the stellar/Sothic calendar, marked by the heliacal rising of Sothis – the first day of the year, when Sothis (Sirius) would rise just before the dawning sun after being absent for seventy days.
The months of the civil calendar were divided into three weeks of ten days each. At the end of the year the Egyptians added five days, called the ‘Days that the Five Gods Were Born’, also called ‘The Little Month’ coming to a total of 365 days. The Sothic year, on the other hand, was 365 and a quarter days, because it was the length of the true solar year.
In the beginning, the difference between these two calendars was very small, perhaps only a few hours every year; but with the thousands of years measured in Egyptian history, they noticed that the civil year fell behind the Sothic cycle one day every four years, and that the first day of the civil year only agreed with the first day of the Sothic year once every 1,460 years. This would only have happened three times in ancient Egyptian history. Because of this, the civil calendar months, although named after the flood cycle of the Nile, rarely matched the actual events themselves, so that akhet (the inundation), for example, was not always the month when the inundation itself actually occurred.
Dates of major festivals were often calculated according to the lunar month (29.5 days) rather than the civil calendar. This is because festival days were meant to fall at certain phases of the agricultural or astronomical cycle. This calendar would be preserved for future generations in the Coptic calendar shown opposite.
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Yasmine El Dorghamy holds an MA in international education policy from Stockholm University and manages an educational foundation in addition to teaching visual culture at the American University in Cairo. She also publishes RAWI - Egypt’s Heritage Review, a bilingual (Eng/Ar) publication dedicated to Egyptian history and heritage.