Recognition of the Coptic Palm Sunday practices is crucial for the politics of inclusive heritage globally as much as locally.
From the early centuries, for Coptic Christians in Egypt, Palm Sunday has been a day of widespread popular celebrations that far surpasses the religious ceremony associated with the occasion of commemorating the entry of Christ to Jerusalem and the start of Passion week. For Egyptian Christians—and indeed Muslims who have kept some of the Coptic heritage practices alive—this is the season of celebrations through palm fronds and branches. Palm trees have been part of the flora of the ancient Egyptian civilization, with evidence that they, too, used to weave the palm tree fronds for celebrations and decorative purposes. In fact, one theory has it that the idea of the Christmas tree as flora for cheery purposes goes back to the ancient Egyptian decoration of their homes with palm trees in winter. When the ancient Egyptians took up Christianity in the 4th century AD, it is highly likely that they adapted palm tree heritage for celebrating Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:11). Just like the palm tree conjured positive meanings for the ancient Egyptians which became manifest in their burial sites, so too for the Copts, the palm branches assumed a special meaning in their icons, textiles, and architecture (see image 14).
So, the Copts have continued the ancient Egyptian tradition of palm frond weaving but with a Coptic twist (literally and metaphorically). For centuries, they have been weaving, topping and tailing and crafting palm branches and fronds into simple and highly intricate designs. The celebrations start on Sunday eve when families, and in rural areas whole neighborhoods, gather in homes, streets, and church courtyards to weave palm fronds into different shapes: crosses, headbands and hearts, rings and bracelets, and of course donkeys (in remembrance of Christ entering Jerusalem riding a donkey). It is not the sophistication nor intricacy of the art of palm frond weaving that is most prized for the Copts, but its power to bring people across generations and households together. In some instances, Muslims would also partake of the palm frond designs (the non-religious ones), although in the last 50 years in particular, movements and parties endeavoring to omit traces of Coptic heritage have actively proclaimed that it is haram (unlawful) for Muslims to partake in celebrating Coptic festivals and feasts.
However, if those who support the Islamist political movements have played their role in de-facing Egyptian heritage by denying its Coptic attributes, they are not the only ones. International heritage experts, academics, and the media have rushed to ensure there is global recognition for the intangible heritage of craftmanship using palm trees in the Middle East—and rightly so. However, when such efforts completely omit to mention the centuries-old craftmanship of the Copts in using palm fronds as part of their religious heritage, are they not reproducing—whether advertently or inadvertently—the same politics of denial by omission? Take UNESCO as the world’s leading multilateral actor responsible for recognizing and celebrating heritage in its diversity. In 2019, UNESCO accepted an application made by a number of Middle Eastern countries (Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen) for recognition of date palms as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
What is particularly perplexing is that one of the beautiful images in the front display on this UNESCO website is of palm fronds used by the Copts for Palm Sunday, and yet the photo description is “Young people make different forms to sell on the market on the occasion of religious holidays.” The source quoted is the Egyptian Society for Folk Traditions. The Egyptian Society for Folk Traditions, an Egyptian non-governmental organization specializing in documenting intangible heritage, from which the picture was sourced, would know that this form of craftman/womanship is not generic to religious holidays but is specific to Coptic Christians’ celebration of Palm Sunday. Yet if this NGO omitted acknowledgement that it is a Coptic heritage, should not UNESCO verify the source rather than perpetuate a pattern of omission and denial?
It is disconcerting that the same bias is prevalent in some media reports. In 2019, one of Egypt’s English language newspapers reported on the UNESCO recognition of date palm as an intangible heritage. Interesting, they used the same image available on the UNESCO website, while failing to mention its Coptic origin. Interestingly, the article cited the significance of palm trees for Bedouins in the desert, but failed to acknowledge its ancient Egyptian-Coptic links. This kind of bias is also prevalent in academic articles on palm tree craftsman/womanship in Egypt, which meticulously documents a wide array of palm heritage practices but overlooks that of the Copts, as is evident here.
Intangible heritage has always been seen as a treasure trove of a melange of ways of seeing, living, tasting, and experiencing the world in culturally enriching ways. However, for heritage to be a source of celebration, it needs to be represented in ways that do not perpetuate patterns of exclusion and marginalization. As UNESCO is seen as having a particular responsibility to safeguard international heritage, it has a special responsibility. A counter argument is that UNESCO can only recognize what governments put forward; however, at the very least, an internal system of accountability to ensure accurate representation on its website is within its remit.
Some would see the lack of mention of the practice of palm frond weaving by the Copts for Palm Sunday as an act of simple, unintentional oversight. However, such oversight can have far-reaching consequences for communities for whom recognition of their distinct cultural identity and contribution to their broader community—including who are of a different faith—matters a great deal. It matters on at least three levels. In Egypt, Copts, in particular in the southern parts of the country, continue to battle sometimes daily against societal forces that seek to de-face public facets of their identity. It matters on another level too: with respect to recognition of religio-cultural heritage, Catholicism and Protestantism have been more prevalent in Western representations of Christian heritage, less so indigenous Orthodox expressions of Christianity as practiced by the majority of Copts that have ancient roots in the Middle East. Third, a uniform focus on discrimination faced by indigenous Christian communities in the Middle East without appropriate recognition of the power of their contribution to heritage and human civilization is a denial of their agency, even if inadvertently. A worldwide recognition of their heritage would go a long way in redressing inequalities of representation—and this time in a very positive way.
If we are serious about celebrating our religio-cultural diversity, then we must start with naming and framing and recognizing it in all its diversity—and holding to account those who fail to do so, globally as much as locally.
Mariz Tadros is a professor of politics and development and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Development Studies specializing in the politics and human development of the Middle East. Her areas of specialization include democratization, Islamist politics, gender, sectarianism, human security, and religion and development.
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