An Ancient Quest for Fertility in Egypt

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Seven times the women walk around the colossal, virile-looking statue of Ramses II, the ruler of Egypt 3,000 years ago. These childless peasant women hope the ritual will help make them mothers.

Desperate to become pregnant, poor women make pilgrimages to the 40-foot-long Ramses they believe--maybe with history in mind--is a source of fertility. The great pharaoh is said to have had 20 wives who bore him as many as 120 sons and 80 daughters.

Such belief in the power of magic and ancient Egyptian customs still flourishes today, even after centuries of life under Islam, which strongly rejects pagan practices.


These beliefs are more common in the countryside, where Egyptians practice a more permissive form of Islam--what Nabil Abdel-Fattah, an expert on Islam, calls a “populist religion.”

Nawal el-Saadawi, a well-known novelist and feminist, says the Egyptian masses, although very religious, are also polytheistic and pagan at heart--and this is especially true of women.

“In order to be pregnant, they become very pragmatic,” el-Saadawi said. “They can violate any religion.”

Egypt’s tradition of Sufism-- Islamic mysticism--contributes to the belief in magic. Islamic practices can also turn women to the ancient rituals: Muslim law permits a man to abandon a childless wife, and a woman thus divorced has little chance of remarrying.

While in ancient times women made offerings of bread and water to divine statues, today they walk around them seven times, hoping the statues’ magical powers will rub off.

Guards at the Ramses statue in Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital just south of Cairo, tell of women performing the ritual--and even advise that the walk is best done at night, after the tourists go home.


Some women are said to go as far as climbing atop Ramses’ muscular figure--which lies gracefully on its back, the pharaoh’s finely carved face looking skyward--and making motions that resemble lovemaking.

They also believe, for reasons unknown, that it will better their cause to urinate on the gray limestone statue.

A toothless old woman named Fat’hiya charges a small fee to guide women through the fertility rite. She explained her elaborate ceremony.

Dressed all in black, Fat’hiya leads a woman on a ritual perambulation of a cemetery in a village near Memphis, to an ancient nearby temple, to the Ramses statue.

The 65-year-old woman, almost resembling a cartoon witch, throws her arms around wildly to drive out “jinns”--spirits that make women infertile. The women must wash in dirty, stagnant water in the “jinn haunted” temple--a ritual that dates to the ancient belief in the Nile’s life-giving waters.

Screaming hysterically, Fat’hiya startles the woman by throwing a rock from behind, over the woman’s head into the temple. If she manages to frighten the woman, she says, it means the demon has left her body.


Fat’hiya boasts that in the last four years, she has been able to cure 20 childless women this way. She said it doesn’t pay to try to learn how it all works.

“Just take what there is and don’t ask,” she said.

Three years into her marriage, Zeinab Hassan, 25, had lost hope of becoming pregnant. So she undertook her own cure by visiting an underground tomb in the ancient ruins of Saqqara not far from Memphis. She spent 15 minutes there all by herself.

“It was frightening. I was shivering. My heart was beating hard. I couldn’t move,” Hassan said.

Seeing a doctor would have been too expensive, she reasoned, and besides, the ruins were closer to her home.

“I heard these things would help. It’s passed down to us from our ancestors,” she said.

A couple of months after visiting the tomb, Hassan became pregnant. She now has two daughters and, as she spoke, was rocking 6-month-old Dua on her lap.

Resorting to divine powers is not restricted to fertility cures. Help is sought from ancient temples, tombs and statues to cure a variety of ailments or gain magical powers.


Geraldine Pinch, a professor of Egyptology at Cambridge University and author of “Magic in Ancient Egypt,” says that statues of gods and rulers occasionally found mutilated in fields are evidence of old beliefs that persist. She suspects villagers damaged the stone images, fearing they had evil powers.

A statue of Sekhmet, the goddess with a lioness’ head and the body of a woman, is said to have been locked in a small dark room in Karnak in southern Egypt after villagers complained they had seen the statue move at night.

“These beliefs are handed down by women, who have their own secret oral traditions,” Pinch said.

She said rural women, unlike men, are cut off from religious life: Traditionally, they don’t go to mosques or religious gatherings. For many men, however, pagan practices conflict with what they are taught to believe.

Bojana Mojsov, an Egyptologist at the American Research Center in Cairo, believes the old rites survive because the Egyptian psyche--which reveres the authority represented by colossal statues--remains much as it was in the time of Ramses.

“People have a natural admiration and are awe-inspired by the colossal statues. You feel humility in front of a stone that has been around for thousands of years,” she said. “That’s why people worshiped them. It is still alive among the people.”