The calendar of the Coptic Orthodox church begins with the beginning of the terrible reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian in 284 A.D. During his time, Christians in Egypt were tortured, massacred, and martyred in countless numbers. For early Coptic Christians, this was the “Era of the Martyrs.” As a result, the Copts based their calendar on this event, which is why the Coptic years end with “A.M.,” which is short for “Anno Martyrii” or “Year of the Martyrs.” Just as we write, for example, “2009 A.D.,” with “A.D.” representing “Anno Domini” or “Year of the Lord,” we denote the Coptic year with “A.M.”
In addition, the Coptic Church commemorates three aspects of the seasons in her prayers and liturgies throughout the year:
- The waters of the rivers (`Cmou niamaiou nem niarwou)
- The winds of the heaven (`Cmou niayr `nte `tve)
- The fruits of the earth, the plants, the herbs, and the fruit-bearing trees (`Cmou nici] nem nicim)
The first season, that of the waters of the rivers, starts with Thout 1, which is also the first day of the new year in the Coptic. This was considered a “feast of the rivers,” because it is the day on which Egyptians would pray for the rising of the waters of the rivers in their year. These prayers and supplications were especially important for Egyptians, because the Nile River was the very life of Egypt’s agricultural production. The Copts thus called this feast “ni-aro-ou” after the Coptic word for “river.”
According to Deacon Albair Mikhail’s Service Book for Deacons, there are three possible origins for the word “nayrouz” in the Coptic rite:
Some believe the word Nayrouz is of Persian origin, from the same word meaning “the beginning of the Year,” and that it was used in Egypt following the invasion of the Arabs. Others believe that it has its origin from the English language, from the words “New Rose”; that view, however, seems unlikely. A third view suggests the word originated from the Coptic word niiarwou , meaning rivers, and related to the word `cmou , meaning bless. The Ancient Egyptians repeatedly used these words in their temples for their gods to bless the Nile River and the crops. This latter view is considered the most correct.
However, Copts do not celebrate only the new year during this feast. Copts commemorate the following during this blessed period:
- They commemorate and meditate on the lives of the countless martyrs who died for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
- They joyfully celebrate the start of a new year and ask for the Lord’s blessing.
- They set their minds upon the Parousia, the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, following the Coptic Church’s lectionary which focuses its readings on this event so that believers may meditate not only on the past and their present lives on earth, but also on the next life in Christ’s kingdom. In doing so, they are like the early Christians who joyfully exclaimed, “Maranatha” or “Come, Lord, come.”