Periodically as you walk the busy streets and markets in Egypt, you will see a man waving some coals inside a shop or restaurant, and then he will leave behind a strong perfumed smoke that lingers on.
WHO IS THIS?
He is known as the incense man! Usually each area has a “famous” man, and he will do the rounds of shops, markets and homes as requested, and will receive a small payment for his services. In the past, it was the Dervishes (a member of a Muslim, specifically Sufi, religious order who has taken vows of poverty and austerity) who used to perform this function, but now it seems to be an allocated person by the community, and sometimes is a job handed-down within a particular family. He will usually whisper some religious phrases and words of blessing as he walks around and disperses the fragrant smoke.
WHAT IS HE BURNING?
The coals are burning incense, or “Boukhoor” as it is called in Arabic. These can be fragrant sticks of incense bought from a spice seller in the market (el Ataar) or in powder form or even the more expensive little “rocks” of spices bought from Saudi Arabia, which are said to be the best. They come in a variety of fragrances: strawberry, jasmine, and even frankincense.
WHY DOES HE DO THIS?
It is believed that incense helps the evil spirits to be chased away (evil eye) and at the same time it brings blessings on the house or shop (good luck, wealth, love etc). It is like a kind of spiritual cleansing. In ancient Egypt the reasons were both medical and religious, and large quantities were burned every day throughout Egypt in the temples. In those times, a lot of the fragrances and ingredients for the incense were brought from far and wide, and an odor was selected that was thought to please the gods. The incense would have been made up from: flowers, herbs, roots, gums, resins and woods: anything with a strong aroma.
HOW OFTEN DOES THIS HAPPEN?
Apparently is it usual to do this on a Friday particularly. Many women will do this in their homes. In shops and markets it is even done daily. He will usually do this in the morning, as it will clear the evil for the day, and bring blessings on the shops and markets for that day. Apparently it is an old wives tale that angels gather where the smell is the sweetest!
IN THE COPTIC CHURCHES:
Incense is used liberally in orthodox church services. They believe it is a biblical fact, that incense represents the prayers and praises of the saints and angles, and it is burned in churches as an introduction to and preparation for the prayers and praises to follow during the service. 5 spoonfuls of incense are used in the censer, to represent the 5 righteous men who burned pleasing aromas to God.
….so, as you walk around, in churches, homes, markets, shops and restaurants you will breathe in the pleasing and heady aromas of freshly burnt incense… remember to speak out a blessing on the country and her people as you pass by.