Historical Background of the Feast of Nayrouz/Coptic New Year

“You shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Egyptian National Feast of the river Nile

The Coptic calendar and year is the oldest known calendar in the world. It was established by the astronomer Toot, in the year 4241 BC. Toot set up his calendar based on the appearance of the star Sirius (the Dog Star).

Toot divided the year into twelve equal months with thirty days exactly for each month. He then added a thirteenth month made up of five days to complete the year, and called it the small month. The small month is usually five days in length and six days every leap year.

The structure of the old Coptic calendar established by Toot, was the first to divide time into spans of years, months, weeks and days. The ancient Egyptians named the months after the seasons of the year and times of seeding and cultivation. They also named the weekdays after the planets in relation to the earth, and ordered them according the different gods of the planets they worshipped on each day.

As the life of the Ancient Egyptians relied heavily on the flooding of the river Nile every year for the agricultural purposes, they adjusted the beginning of their calendar to coincide with this vital inundation period. The ancient Egyptians held great celebrations concerning the flooding of the river Nile, as it was the main source of their existence. They walked along the banks of the river Nile and offered sacrifices, caught traditional foods and held big feasts and rejoiced greatly.

These traditions were kept and handed down from generation to generation and when St Mark the apostle visited Egypt in the year 42 AD and preached Christianity, the first Egyptian Christians maintained the same celebrations of the pagan Egyptians new year as it was a national feast. The celebrations were later adapted by the Coptic Church in a spiritual form with prayers.

The origin of the name used for the Coptic New Year – El Nayrouz

The Egyptians called that day “El Nayrouz”. This came from the prayers used by the ancient Egyptians before the flooding of the river Nile. They prayed to their gods to bring the flood at the right time as the flood fertilised the land enabling the healthy crops to grow. While the original Coptic language decreased over the generations, the words “Niyaro ezmou” which means “the feast of the rivers”, were spoken by the original inhabitants of Egypt were understood by the new inhabitants as “Nayrouz.”

The order of the Coptic Year months is related to the Egyptians practical life, looking at the weather and periods for cultivation. Until modern times the farmers follow the Coptic calendar for sowing seedlings, watering and harvesting, as it is the most accurate for determining the exact time for all the different types of cultivation throughout the year.

Year of the Martyrs

The number of Christians who were martyred in Egypt by Roman Emperors is far greater than any country throughout the whole world.

The most severe persecution for Christians came during the reign of Emperor Diocletian who reigned from 284 AD to 305 AD. This is why from the beginning of the reign of this emperor, the Coptic Christians reset the Coptic calendar so that the first year of the Coptic Calendar was 284 A.D. and added another name to the feast of the Coptic New Year, (El Nayrouz) which is, “the feast of the martyrs”.

The Coptic Church uses the Coptic Calendar to establish events and celebrate all church feasts throughout the year. The Coptic calendar sets the time for feasts, important memorial occasions, fasts, other rituals and celebrations in the liturgical life of the church.

The Coptic Orthodox Church added to the liturgical service, some hymns, praises and other sections that are specific to the feast of the Coptic New Year. They carry meanings to recognise martyrdom as one of the foundations of the church. It also carries the meaning of the New Year in the life of the true Christian believer and the importance of having continuous spiritual fruits in their life.

The church uses joyful tunes in the liturgical services and prayers between the Coptic New Year and the feast of the Holy Cross (which falls 17 days after El-Nayrouz). The church also joined the feast of El Nayrouz and the feast of the Holy Cross with a period in which the same rituals and hymns are continuously used. According to the church beliefs, the feast of martyrs is a memorial of how the martyrs offered themselves as a true living sacrifice for Christ, simulating Christ, who offered himself as the real and eternal sacrifice on the cross for the sake of all.

During vespers for the feast of Martyrs – “El Nayrouz”, the Coptic Church conducts a great procession around the church and the altar with special rituals and praises while carrying the icons and relics of martyrs. This is carried out to highlight to the believers, that those martyrs, although were killed a long time ago, are continuously alive with Christ in paradise (which is the victorious church in heaven). Moreover, that they are sharing with us our life of worship while we are still in the “struggling church on earth”.