Connect to share and comment

Egypt's Christians uphold tattoo tradition

Never mind the children's screams: For Cairo's Copts, tattoos are a mark of pride — and of protection.

An Irishman, who asked to go only by Allen, arrived in Cairo four years ago to visit family here. He brought his tattoo equipment for fun but quickly found that there was a thirst among certain Egyptians to indulge in the art form that had been so absent from their culture.

Allen claims to be the only high quality tattoo artist in the country.

Customers come to him, he says, from all over the Muslim world, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

His customers, many of whom he says are Muslim, “know exactly what they want,” suggesting a certain sophistication about a forbidden practice and a willingness to bend the rules. 

That many upper-class Muslims do choose to take tattoos speaks to a class of people wrestling with the competing tugs of Egypt’s Islamic heritage and the allure of Western indulgences.

“The majority of scholars are only interested in the rise of Islamism in Egypt. They’re not interested in the other rise: the rise of Westernism,” said Diaa Rashwan a scholar at the Egyptian think tank Al-Ahram Center. “When they take tattoos, it’s not a sign to be against Islam. It’s to be different socially.”

For the most part, though, tattoos in modern day Egypt are largely in the Christian domain.

The Copts have long felt themselves a repressed minority — they are thought to make up about 10 percent of the country’s population, or 8 million people — and their tattoos can serve as a means of communal identity in a country that has a history of sectarian friction.

Copts are known to approach Western-looking foreigners and flash their tattoos, asking the startled out-of-towner if they’re Christian too.

To Girgis, though, tattoos are more than just the mark of Christianity. They possess tangible spiritual power.

“I once saw a man,” he said, “who had an untreatable condition in his arm, so he wanted to draw Saint Mary Girgis’ picture on it, as this great saint appeared in his dream and told him to get that tattoo. And he got healed after having it.”

Girgis’ son looks to be following in his father’s footsteps, though Girgis insists that he get a college education first. Only then, he argues, can the Girgis family carry on one of Egypt’s most ancient traditions.