By Ola Seif
Photography by Ola Seif

Before Coptic mass, wooden seals are used to stamp the holy communion bread. These seals are made in different sizes and display great variety in design, whilst still incorporating traditional symbols, layout and shape. Reflecting Coptic Christianity's long history, today they have also become collectors' items.

Ourbana being prepared

For almost two millennia, and still to this day, Coptic Orthodox Mass, whether in Egypt or abroad, cannot be celebrated without the ourbana (singular; plural ourban), a round, fluffy loaf of bread stamped with cross-patterns on its front. In the Coptic tradition, this bread carries different names: the hamal, sometimes lukmat el-baraka or just the ourbana.

The hidden world of ourbana creation is the responsibility of the arabny, a function occupied by either a church employee or a volunteer, depending on each community’s circumstances. More important than the oven itself, and even the dough, the arabny’s hand-sized wooden seal is used to stamp every single loaf before it is placed in the oven.

During every baking session, the arabny prepares an odd number of ourbana loaves larger in size than the rest. Typically, after they’re sealed and baked, the larger ourban are presented in a straw basket to the priest who will celebrate Mass. The most perfect loaf is then selected out of the lot and placed on the altar. Then, behind the burgundy curtains that separate the altar from the worshipers in Coptic Orthodox churches, the chosen loaf becomes the hamal (the lamb of God), and consecrated during Mass. During communion, believers partake of the consecrated hamal, now the body of Christ. Later, after Mass, the remaining large loaves are divided into pieces by the priest and handed out as a blessing (lukmet el-baraka) to the members of the congregation as they exit the church.

Though Mass has ended, the arabny still has another task, his most time consuming one; he must bake and stamp a few hundred ourbana loaves for the consumption of the believers. These are commonly available to churchgoers to take home or to eat after leaving church. Although the regular ourbana is smaller in size than the hamal, and requires a smaller seal to stamp it, the design on both loaves and seals is the same.

Loaves can be baked in different shapes for special occasions. During Easter week, for example, particularly on Good Friday to commemorate Christ’s crucifixion, the ourbana is cut into the shape of the Coptic cross with equal-sized arms; however, its central core is stamped with the same seal designs as during regular Mass. The feast days of saints also provide an opportunity to be playful with seal designs. Saint Michael, the Archangel, is one of the most popular saints in Egypt, yet, surprisingly, no ourbana is baked in his honour within the country’s churches. He is, however, found in household tradition, especially in the provinces and rural areas where ourbana-like loaves, commonly known as fittir el-malak (pie of the angel), are baked in the kitchens of Copts. On these loaves, the Archangel Michael’s seal is carved with a primitive winged angel-like figurine, but unlike the ourbana, they bear no Coptic inscriptions.

Apart from the spiritual and liturgical aspects of the ourbana, the wooden seals themselves are becoming collectors’ items. The Coptic Museum holds a few of them, most of which were found in the area of Akhmim in Upper Egypt. Surprisingly, old seals are rarely found on the market. Instead, what occasionally surfaces at the Khan al-Khalili market or in antique stores are fittir el-malak seals, as well as elaborate seals, that seem to have been used in Egypt’s Greek Orthodox churches. In Cairo, modern replicas of khitm el-ourban (wooden seals) can easily be purchased from church supply stores in Shoubra and around the Clot Bey area. 

Despite the variety of ourban seal designs, they are, nevertheless, conditioned by essential basic elements inspired by Coptic tradition and spirituality. The circular shape, for example, is inspired by the roundness of the sun, which is itself a representation of Jesus Christ – the sun of righteousness in the Bible. It is also a reference to Christ’s infinity, which is in accordance with Jesus’ own words, ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’. The playfulness in any seal’s design lies in the arrangement of the core motif: an Orthodox cross, featuring four equal arms, with surrounding elements composed of twelve smaller crosses, representing Christ’s twelve disciples and the pillars of the Church. Another common feature of ourbana seals is that they are all made of wood, though this material does not have any spiritual symbolism.

CONTEMPORARY EVERYDAY (approximately 10cm diameter)
This design is currently in use in most churches. The core cross is part of a larger cross that dominates the entire circle, which contains representations of the twelve apostles. The outer border is reserved for words of praise and holiness in Coptic lettering. Although unclear, two famous words, known by the entire Coptic community, can be read: ‘Aghios Otheos’ meaning ‘Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal’. This khitm is held at the back by a 15cm handle. As well as being used in daily Mass, it is also used for Good Friday service, although the finished ourban differs in appearance: after stamping the bread, the borders are cut out to create a cross-shaped ourban, rather than a circular one.

GREEK (recto verso) (approximately 12cm diameter). Greek seals are very different in design and symbolism from Coptic seals; here, the core cross is more dominant, for example. The Greek letters IC XC NIKA are an abbreviation of ‘Jesus Christ conquers’, while the arrow-like triangular block is for the Theotokos, a Greek word meaning ‘birth-giver’ – an abbreviation for ‘Mother of God’. On the other side, the block with nine small triangles represents local saints. The handle is smaller than those of the Coptic seals.

FITTIR EL MALAK (approximately 12cm diameter). This seal is used to stamp the ourban loaves baked during the celebrations of the Archangel Michael. Such seals rarely, if ever, display inscriptions in their outer circle. It is also more common to find this type of seal in households than in churches. Surprisingly, no known fittir el-malak seal has a handle.

HAMAL (approximately 13cm diameter)
Similar to the regular seal, but larger in diameter.

OLD (Discontinued -approximately 7cm diameter).
The core cross here is much simpler and more modest in design. The twelve disciples of Christ are represented by grooves in the contour of the seal rather than small crosses. The outer circular script consists of typical Coptic lettering.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 6, 2014