One of the few things Egyptians living abroad often miss from back home is a fragrant, and viscous bowl of molokkheya. Along with ful and koshary, the hearty dish is often considered a national dish – to be scooped with baladi bread or with a side of rice, salad and a kind of meat protein. Usually, many Alexandrians prefer to have molokkheya with shrimp, while those in the Delta and Upper Egypt find poultry (duck, chicken) and rabbit to be a more worthy side to the beloved dish.
Contrary to wide popular belief, jew’s mallow (officially: corchorus olitorius) is commonly eaten in different countries in Africa all the way to Asia, as the leaves are considered particularly good sources of vitamin C, A, potassium and iron. As for molokkheya, variations of the dish are known to be eaten in Jordan, Tunisia, Palestine and Turkey.
A not-so popular local variation of it is ‘molokkheya nashfa’ which is prepared using dried molokkheya leaves rather than green ones. It is often topped with chickpeas. More bitter than normal molokkheya, it is also perceived by many as an acquired taste or for older generations.
So quintessential is it as a staple in Egyptian cuisine that ‘green/fresh’ molokkheya is sold as a packaged and frozen, thus cutting down the preparation and cooking level by half the time. It is thus hard to imagine, that at some period in Egyptian history, its inhabitants were once forbidden from consuming it.
Baffling reign of Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah: a series of unfortunate decrees
During the Ismaili shi’ite Fatimid period, namely the ninth century, Caliph Al Hakim Bi Amr Allah was the ruling force over Egypt from 996 to 1021 CE. His own father was the fifth caliph, Al Aziz Bilah.
There are numerous conflicting reports on the life and rule of Al Hakim, but it is clear from primary sources, such as medieval Egyptian historian Al Maqrizi’s accounts of the Fatimid dynasty, that Al Hakim left a permanent mark in medieval Islamic history due to his perplexing legislative agenda.
A harsh leader who did not shy from admonishing corporal punishments, executions and the persecution of Jews and Christians, his most surprising decrees comprised of destroying churches, forbidding beer and wine, and killing dogs until none were left in alleyways
He also forbade the sale of lupine beans (termis), watercress (jirjir) and fish without scales (dalinis). Raisins – perhaps out of religious fear of the production of wine- were also not to be sold more than five pounds which had led to vast quantities of the dried fruit purposefully burnt.
Al Hakim’s decrees were also severe on women who were no longer allowed to access public spaces, show their faces publicly, or even attends cemeteries. In order to ensure the execution of this decree, shoemakers no longer became allowed to make shoes for women.
A specifically intriguing ban
The decree concerning the ban of molokkheya came to be in 1004.
In the book “Caliph of Cairo: Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah”, historian Paul Walker recounts the ban according to Al Maqrizi as such “The series of edicts enacted in 1004 established a prohibition also on several kinds of foods, which like those against alcoholic beverages, appear to have arisen initially from a religious motive. Al Maqrizi’s record of the original decrees says as much. It forbade molokkheya, Jew’s mallow (Corchorus olitorious) a green herb used in soup and stews and a great favorite of Egyptians and others in that region, because ‘it was much loved by Mu’awiya B Abi Sifyan, the first of the Ummayad caliphs and the arch enemy of ‘Ali and the Shi’a. Jirjir, a variety of watercress, known elsewhere as rocket or arugula, was outlawed due to its association with the Prophet’s wife Aisha who had been another opponent of ‘Ali.”
Thus, while many extrapolated that the ban of molokkheya was related to a perception that the vegetable was an aphrodisiac or due to the fact that the ruler loved it too much to allow its sale to a mass public, it seems there were stronger political and religious reasons behind that specific ban.
It is important to remember that Muawiya Ibn Abu Sufyan –the founder of the Umayyad caliphate which was one of the major caliphates established after the death of the Prophet- would have been a definite rival.
Although Al Hakim’s rule came much later, Fatimid rulers belonged to one of the two branches of Islam, Shiite. The latter is at odds with the Sunni branch which had been followed by the Ummayad and the Abbasids.
In accordance to this theory, it would make sense that Al Hakim would also ban watercress, if it was widely loved by the Prophet’s wife Aisha. Shiite perception of Aisha was largely negative as she was believed to be an opponent to Ali Ibn Ali Talib whom the Shiites beloved as the rightful successor of the Prophet, his cousin.
Still, Al Hakim’s implementation of his decrees shocked his contemporaries and modern-day historians. In 1009 and 1014, a group of individuals were beaten and paraded for selling molokkheya.
Moreover, according to Walker, one of Al Hakim’s stablemen, a master of the grooms by the name of Molokkheya was ordered as per royal instructions. Whether this was due to his name, a crime or an inflicted personal offence remains unclear.
It is not certain when exactly but eventually his decrees were lifted, with Egyptians becoming free once more to drink, for women to show their faces in public, and for all to consume molokkheya.
The mad caliph who would come to be immortalized in Egyptian history for his series of unthinkable decisions met an ending as surprising as his reign. He mysteriously disappeared following a walk in 1021, never to be seen or heard of again.
As for Al Hakim, he remains a revered figure to many today, namely the Nizari Shiaa Muslims and the Druze.