Arts & Culture

Egypt’s History of Burning Incense

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Egypt’s History of Burning Incense

green and white ice cream on black ceramic plate
Burning incense | c. Caroline Attwood

It’s Friday: an Egyptian home is with ripe sunlight, the morning catching on furniture and slanting across rooms. Beyond the scene, a call to prayer can be heard – an athan, ceremonial bells falling together, or the gentle worship of slow morning traffic.

In that home, an attar burner sits in the corner, a lit and fragrant testament to Egypt’s long history with the sacred liturgy of incense. While commercial sticks of incense can be abundantly found in shops, it is still easy to procure chunks of resin – typically sandalwood, agarwood, amber and musk – in Khan El Khalili and in attar shops.

First developed in ancient Egypt, the harmonious, thick scents were intrinsic to divinity, used in the worship of the Gods. Bountiful quantities of resins, and woods were seared daily at temples, each scent an independent vehicle of meaning, ceremony, and purpose.

THE ARTISTIC WITCH: Making Kyphi or Kapet, the Egyptian ...
“Making Kyphi or Kapet, the Egyptian traditional temple incense” | c. The Artistic Witch
Fragrances, attar, essential oils | c. Omkar Jadhav

Countless manuscripts have been found delineating the use of incense as the “embodiment of life and an aromatic manifestation of the gods.” It was almost exclusively considered the Fragrance of the Gods, used as offerings to statues and Pharaohs posthumously. Moreover, organic remains of the incense have been found, proving that ancient Egyptians were particularly keen on the scent of myrrh, and frankincense.

Centuries, if not millennia later, many religions have adopted the use of incense as a mechanism of spirituality. Egypt’s large populace of Muslims and Orthodox Christians continue to attach sanctity and worth to sweet-smelling, multi-tonal fragrances.

Sufi Whirling, Temple bells and Spiritual Psychology - The ...
Sufi Whirling | c. Diksha Solomon
Pin on (Egypt) A Cultural Adaptation of "East is East" by ...
A Cultural Adaptation of “East is East” | c. HuffPost

In Islam, it is encouraged by the Prophet Mohammed to burn oud sticks (also known as bakhour) within mosques in order to maintain its cleanliness and beauty. This was especially significant on Jumuah (Friday), reports religious scholar Abu Dawood.

Many Muslims have imported the tradition from their masjids into their homes, hoping to mirror the sacred, secure nature a mosque provides. Still, superstition has clustered around the use of incense over the years, and although there is no indication in Islam that “bakhour wards off evil,” many to this day believe it truly may.

Similarly, incense plays a vital role within Orthodox churches. It is hard to pinpoint the exact timeframe as to when incense was introduced to religious services in Christianity, but according to scholars – and per the New Testament (cf. Luke 1:10; Revelation 8:3-5) – there is certainly a link between Christian worship and incense.

Today, however, some Egyptians have taken to enjoying incense for what it is: a rich variety of scents and essential oils that sweeten the smell of the home, and provide comfort, relaxation, and clarity.

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With a heart for radio and an appetite for culture, Mona is a writer and illustrator based in Cairo. At the Erasmus University Rotterdam, she obtained a BSc and MA in Media, Culture, and Society, while actively writing for the faculty magazine. After graduating, Mona was an academic advisor at the American University in Cairo, as well as Managing Director of a small, campus-based advertising firm. Gears shifting, her knack for cultural research took over - enter: Egyptian Streets. Mona’s focus is tapered to issues of identity politics, culture, and social architecture.

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