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5 of the Best Festivals to Experience in Egypt

The people of Egypt love to celebrate and as a result of the country’s diverse assortment of religions, their calendar year is brimming with holidays. Many of these spirited festivities call for days of song, dance, costumes and interminable feasting.

If you are thinking of timing your visit with a traditional festival, have a look at our Egypt tours – and get ready to revel.

Ramadan

In the Muslim religion, the ninth month of the lunar year is called Ramadan. Over the course of this period, Muslim people fast during the daylight hours – refraining from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset. The act of fasting is done in remembrance of the poor and to commemorate the revelation of the first verses of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad.

Throughout the fasting, daily meals are limited to two. The first meal is called the ‘iftar’ – the breaking of the fast that is done at sunset. The second meal – ‘sohour’ – can be eaten just before dawn. In the time between sunrise and sunset, people are free to eat and drink as much as they want to. When the fast is broken at sunset, businesses and shops open up their doors again and mosques are illuminated. On the streets, Ramadan themed tents are erected to host local shows and entertainment.

Travelling with one of our Egypt tours during the holy month is actually recommended. You can expect less crowds and easier access to the popular ancient sites. With the help of a local guide, the tours take into consideration the practices as well as the adjusted opening and closing times of certain places – ensuring that you do not miss out on anything. Visiting Egypt in the month of Ramadan also allows you to experience a unique festival and learn about the different traditions and customs.

To soak up the atmosphere as night falls, we recommend taking to the medieval streets of Cairo. The streets of Azhar, Mu’ezz Eddin and the Khan El Khalili areas are especially festive. The city of Alexandria with cafés overlooking the sea and the famous mosques in Morsi Abul Abba are also worth checking out. You can expect to see tables of food set up along the streets with food for the poor and less fortunate locals.

Fanoos Ramadan or Ramadan Lantern is a Ramadan custom specific to Egypt. This distinctive tradition involves the displaying of colourful lanterns in shops, houses and restaurants. These lanterns are often created from recycled materials and are designed to play music. On our Egypt tours, your guide will take you to see the main lantern exhibits usually by the city gates in Cairo or on Ahmad Maher Street – the street of lanterns.

Dating back to the Ottoman era, each morning of the Ramadan month, and an hour before dawn, drummers (mesharati) walk the streets. Pounding a repetitive beat, the drummers are used to wake up the people and to signify that it is time for a pre-dawn meal. As the sun sets, you will also hear the sound of a cannon if you are in Cairo. The cannon is fired from the top of the Citadel and signifies the breaking of the fast.

For a true taste of Ramadan – why not sample some of the traditional food? Many locals enjoy sweet flavours such as baklava made from phyllo dough and filled with cream or ricotta cheese and nuts. For main meals, the fast is often broken with a soup and followed by a ful mudammas – a bean dish with tomatoes, onions and olive oil. Prunes, apricots in syrup and raisins are also popular picks.

Leylet en Nuktah

The Egyptians have worshiped the longest river in Africa since ancient times – due to the population living and farming on the fertile banks. The Nile’s yearly flooding meant successful harvest crops and good fortune. If the waters did not seem to be rising, the locals would sacrifice a young and beautiful woman to appease the gods. The belief was that the river god had to be satisfied or no flood would occur and the harvest would fail.

In modern Egypt, the Nile continues to rise every year just after the 17th of June. Closer to the summer solstice is when the actual rising of the water levels can be observed. This is when the waters flood the Delta’s soil with silt – guaranteeing the growth of crops. Egyptians continue to celebrate and appreciate this vital waterway with a festival. Today, instead of harsh sacrifices, locals and their families enjoy picnics on the banks, camp by the river’s edge or party on the streets into the night.

This special festival, marking the rising of the water level in the Nile, is also celebrated in another way. At sunset, women put out balls of dough representing the members living in their house. In the morning, the dough balls are inspected for cracks – which are seen as indications of the person’s future, longevity and fortune.

If you are in the country for this event, our Egypt tours will make sure that you get to witness the celebrations, understand the history behind it and maybe even join the locals perched on the banks. Since the construction of the dam at Aswan, many parts of Egypt do not see the waters actually rise. On some of our Egypt tours you will visit the vast Aswan Dam by the city of Luxor.

Our Egypt tours also give you the opportunity to travel down the Nile on a felucca – a traditional wooden sailboat. With an eager crew to cook meals and provide entertainment, you can relax on board as the boat floats by Egyptian rural life. In the evening, the crew will set up mattresses, blankets and mosquitoes nets so that you can sleep on the deck.

Coptic Christmas

Christmas is celebrated by Orthodox Christians in Egypt on the 7th of January every year rather than the 25th of January. Coptic Christians believe that Christmas falls on this date as per the Julian calendar – that pre-dates the Gregorian calendar. In Egypt, many of the locals regardless of their religion partake in the merriment, especially in cities like Cairo.

Despite only about 15% of the population in Egypt being Christians, this secular holiday has become more commercial over the years and is now a holiday for all. Leading up to the day, houses, restaurants and businesses are adorned in decorations and lights. According to historical legend, the Holy Family moved to Egypt to mark the event and other traditions.

Kiahk is the name given to the Coptic month, 43 days before Christmas. Christians will only eat special vegan food over this course of time and avoid animal products. This special fast is called ‘The Holy Nativity Fast’ and lasts up until the day before Christmas.

After a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, everyone gathers to celebrate and indulge on a variety of traditional dishes. Food that is most commonly eaten includes dried fruit, nuts, lenten bread (a special fasting bread), baked cod, slow-cooked kidney beans and a meat and garlic soup called fata. On Christmas day, it is common for locals to give each other kahk (sweet and spiced biscuits) as a present.

If you are in Egypt with one of our Egypt tours during this festive period, you are welcome to join in the fun. You can greet the locals with the Arabic phrase ‘Eid Milad Majid’, meaning ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Glorious Birth Feast’. Santa in Egypt is called ‘Baba Noel’ and the local children hope he will drop off some presents from them on Christmas morning.

Moulid an-Nabi

This major Islamic festival commemorates the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. ‘Moulid’ means birthday in Arabic and the tradition of celebrating Mohammed is similar to that of celebrating Jesus Christ. This link could be as a result of a Christian impact from the years of Crusade waves – where Islamic and Christian cultures were exchanged. This happy occasion calls for the gathering of family and friends, exchanging of gifts and taking to the streets with parades, dancers, jugglers, music and fairs.

The events leading up to this festival follow tradition instead of religious obligations. In preparation for the day, people set up booths selling sweets and trinkets, lighting installments, loud speakers for music and tents called ‘sowan’ – to house the different Sufi brotherhoods.

The most important part of the Moulid is the ‘Leila el-Kebira’ or the ‘Big Night’ – the last day of celebration. On this day, the Sufis and the Sheiks dress in beautiful costumes and parade around the streets, showcasing the ‘Zikr’ – a ritual dance of swaying back and forth. Singers perform devotional chants and prayers and singing can be heard until the early hours of the morning.

Tents can be found further away from the centre – where locals relax, smoke shisha (a water pipe), play games and chant the virtues of saints. From roadside stands, traditional sweets like halawet el-moulid (a type of halvah or candy), hummus (a puree made from chickpeas) and aroussa al moulid (a doll made of candy) can be bought.

If you find yourself in the midst of this festival with an Egypt tour – your guide will be on hand to tell you about it and take you to a safe spot to watch some of the rituals and processions – the best views are from a rooftop. Many of the tours start and end in the city of Cairo where the celebrations are taken very seriously – and there is plenty of time to explore the area and surrounding backstreets.

Abu Simbel Sun Festival

With our Egypt tours you can experience this unique festival that happens twice a year. Located just outside of Luxor, the magnificent temple complex at Abu Simbel is a sight to behold. Built by King Ramses, a famous pharaoh who wanted a monument to display his power, the complex features two vast rock temples.

Part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Nubian Monuments, Abu Simbel was relocated in 1968 to avoid being submerged by the creation of Lake Nasser. The interior of the temple was designed so that twice a year the internal chamber and its statues are lit up. This occurs on the 22nd of February (the anniversary of Ramses’ accession to the throne) and the 22nd of October (his birthday).

The tour is carefully timed so that you can witness this phenomenon along with the crowds who assemble at the base by sunrise. The light first spreads across the façade of the temple and three of the four statues are illuminated (apart from the statue of Ptah, god of darkness).

After the sun has risen completely, celebrations continue outside with markets, music and dancing. You can watch a traditional Nubian dance, listen to the live music and walk around the food stalls. We recommend that you try Egypt’s national dish of koshari – a vegetarian combination of lentils, macaroni and rice mixed with spiced tomato sauce and topped with fried onions and chickpeas.