Children carry baskets of brightly coloured eggs at Easter Day mass in Damascus © Khaled Al-Harari/Reuters/Corbis
Damascus at Easter, not so long ago, before the war. In the Christian quarter of Bab Touma, the Christian marching bands—teenagers in khaki military shirts with coloured scarves knotted over their shoulders—drummed and trumpeted the Easter parade through the ancient alleys. A pink and blue fluffy Easter bunny was carried on a litter so large that it got stuck at a narrow bend. Behind it, on another palanquin, was a giant egg, ruffled with ribbons, dressed up like a bride. The processions moved on in the early evening to a church courtyard where the banging and crashing of drummer boys and girls drowned out the muezzin calling prayer through a loudspeaker, as Jesus was shown making his tortured progression to Calvary in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, projected onto a wall.
There are two Easters; one that commemorates the crucifixion of the son of God and one that belongs to the egg. No circular conundrum here: the son of God is not a chicken; the egg came first. Wherever I have travelled I have found eggs in various guises of springtime festival: decorated, hunted, played with, eaten; the original germinant, hope of life, new life, reproduction, resurrection.
There were traditionally plenty of eggs to be used up before the Lent fast—hence Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and Shrove Tuesday, with its pancakes. Trace the oval curve through folklore: in Poland and Russia they paint patterns on eggs in wax, like batik; the imperial family commissioned Fabergé to cover them in diamonds and filigree gold. In Greece and the environs of Byzantium they dye them red for Christ’s blood and bake them into the crusts of Paschal bread, itself enriched with egg yolk and spices. Some say the egg represents the resurrection, a reference to the story in which Mary Magdalene took a basket of boiled eggs to feed the women who went to the tomb. When she saw that Christ had risen, the eggs turned red. In Lebanon, children hard-boil eggs and play tapping competitions to see whose will crack first.
In the 19th century, the Cadburys made eggs from chocolate as soon as they had invented the process for tempering cocoa butter to hold solid shapes. These days we hunt them as far as the White House lawn; in the American south they make devilled eggs for any celebration but especially for Easter, spicy with Tabasco and paprika, and display them on special plates made with individual egg-shaped indentations.
The symbolism of Christian egg stories carry a whiff of reverse engineering. Eggs are everyone’s. In Egypt, the Sham El Nessim festival, literally the “Smelling of the Zephyrs,” is as old as the Pharaohs and is celebrated by Copts and Muslims alike by picnicking in the open air and eating fermented Nile river fish and boiled eggs. When I was living in Tehran I remember Nowruz, the ancient Zoroastrian festival of spring equinox, falling that year at the same time as Moharram, the Shia month of mourning. The Ayatollahs had tried to stamp out Nowruz with its rites of fire jumping and painted eggs, but in the bazaar I remember brisk business for Nowruz presents.
I will celebrate this Easter in Jerusalem, the city of two Easters, Orthodox and Catholic. The Jewish Passover is traditionally around the same time. Families gather and recite the Exodus story around the seder plate; bitter herbs for enslavement in Egypt, charoset of dried fruit and honey to represent the mortar of the pyramids. Children play hunt the matzah. Eggs are dyed brown with onion skins or chopped up into a slurry-like salad or salted. In her book of Jewish food, Claudia Roden recounts a Sephardic recipe of eggs cooked slowly overnight so that their whites are mahogany and their yolks umber coloured and creamy. Symbolic meanings are variously ascribed: mourning, birth and death; the cycle of life; the continuity of Jewish life; the destruction of the temple. An Israeli friend of mine told me, only half jokingly, the other day: “My father always told me we dip the eggs in salt water because the Jewish nations’ balls [in Hebrew ‘eggs’ is slang for testicles] got wet and salty crossing the Red Sea. Who knows?” He smiled at me, and we swapped eggy tales and wondered at the universality of something that seems to hark back earlier than any religious explanation. “It’s all based on the same stuff,” he said.