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…