Coptic studies hold key to legacy
A presentation outlining the neglect of the
country's fragile Coptic heritage led to an outburst of concern for
all Egyptian monuments. Jill Kamil witnessed the arguments for
A lecture presented partly to raise funds for the newly-established
Chair of Coptic Studies at the American University in Cairo (AUC)
proved an open forum for voicing concerns about the preservation of
Egypt's monuments, particularly its Coptic heritage.
Click to view caption
|The fourth-century Monastery of St Apollo at
Bawit is today largely covered with desert sand
"In the last 30 years, inspectors of antiquities have carried
out so-called excavations at several Coptic sites and in many cases
did not even publish a preliminary report on their work," said
Gawdat Gabra, who took his degree on Coptic studies in Germany and is
widely published in the field of his specialisation. His presentation,
entitled "New Discoveries of Coptic Monuments: Problems of their
Preservation and Publication", was at the American University in
Cairo (AUC) on 7 May, marking completion of his tenure this semester
as first holder of the newly-established Chair of Coptic Studies.
Before a large audience comprised of donors -- of various
nationalities and religions -- to the newly-created chair, members of
the faculty of AUC, scholars, and a large number of professional
persons from the Coptic community in Egypt, Gabra drew attention,
through a series of slides, to the pitiful state of neglect of some
Coptic churches, monasteries, and burial grounds.
He disclosed that a number of beautiful wall paintings were
discovered in the Monastery of St Apollo at Bawit in Middle Egypt, and
that "although two lunettes and an upper part of a niche from the
site were transported to the Coptic Museum, no report appeared about
the circumstances of their discovery." He mentioned that in 1985
the excavations were continued in Bawit for one season "of which
no report is available".
Gawdat Gabra's next slides showed a priceless manuscript, the
earliest complete Coptic Psalter, found beneath a young girl's head in
the large Coptic cemetery of Al-Mudil in Middle Egypt in 1984.
"No photograph was taken to document this great discovery,"
he said, "and the excavators did not publish any report, no bone
sample of the deceased was sent to the laboratory for dating, nor was
any report published concerning the results of their work."
Before his fascinated and hushed audience, Gabra next screened
slides from a large Coptic site at Manqabad, near Assiut, discovered
by chance in 1965 during the erection of some pylons for high voltage
electricity. "In 1976, 1984, and between 1985 and 1991, a number
of excavations took place here, but none of the antiquities inspectors
who carried out the work published any of the monuments they
encountered," said Gabra, who pointed out that "it was left
to the German scholar Peter Grossmann to reveal the importance of the
site, with chapels and churches that date from the seventh and eighth
centuries, at the 11th International Congress of Christian Archaeology
in 1989, and in the Coptic Encyclopedia".
"We are lacking qualified inspectors at the sites," said
Gabra. "There is no control of excavations. There is no
documentation. And without adequate documentation, we are losing our
heritage. In November 1996, the Society of Coptic Archaeology
organised an international symposium for Coptic excavations in
cooperation with the Supreme Council of Antiquities. It was the first
of its kind, and was designed to encourage scholars in general and
inspectors of antiquities in particular to report and publish their
discoveries. The symposium was successful and the contributions of the
participants appeared in a beautiful volume, but unfortunately none of
the inspectors of antiquities attended the symposium!"
"At that very symposium", Gabra went on, "Fathy
Khorshid talked about the excellent wall paintings, some of
considerable size, representing examples of the style of the early
Byzantine period in Egypt found at Manqabad, and about the fact that
some monuments with Greek, Coptic and Arabic inscriptions were
discovered. He mentioned that these inscriptions and wall paintings
were suffering from the effect of bright sunlight and high
temperatures. He also noted that "some of the stonework --
columns, capitals, friezes and niches -- which was transferred to the
store-room was stolen on 10 April, 1992, when it was broken
into." Gabra decried the state of affairs and said Khorshid
"was not exaggerating when he said that an opportunity was lost
because there were no cameras or precise archaeological
Even sites at which internationally-sponsored excavations take
place (see box), there is similar neglect. Gabra mentioned the
monastic Church of St Bane (Abu Fana) that lies at the edge of the
Libyan desert 30kms south of Mina. An international team of seven
European universities and institutions headed by Helmut Buschlausen of
the University of Vienna carried out excavations there between 1988
and 1993. In an area of three hectares, a large monastic complex was
discovered, including the church of the monastery from the fifth and
sixth centuries, workshops, refectory and other buildings, as well as
a long hall with a well in the middle furnished with an apse, which
was used to celebrate the cult of the saint. "A number of
preliminary reports and full documentation of the excavations on the
monastery appeared. The paintings were restored, protected by
broadcloth, and sheltered by mats," said Gabra, "but after
the expedition left the site, it was neglected, and the paintings are
now suffering from sun, heat and wind-blown sand."
"The same can be said of the Monastery of Anba Hatre near
Qubbet Al-Hawa, at Aswan. Known (incorrectly) as the Monastery of St
Simeon, it was examined by Grossmann and published in 1985,"
Gabra went on. "Then in 1998 inspectors of antiquities removed
the debris from the church, revealing some beautiful wall paintings
with Coptic and Arabic texts, vital to enable dating of occupation,
but no report of their findings was made, and when I visited the
church I found rags -- all that remained of white cloth -- protecting
paintings of the Virgin between the apostles, and five standing
figures with unusual square haloes. These paintings should be studied.
They should be treated by a skilled conservator. The texts should be
Gabra conceded that many factors were responsible for the situation
and stressed "the urgent need for a department of Coptology at
any university in Egypt" aimed at producing inspectors of
antiquities "who can at least read Greek and Coptic as well as
study Coptic archaeology. Linguistic skills are necessary in view of
the fact that Coptic monuments are frequently found in Pharaonic or
Graeco- Roman as well as Islamic contexts", he added.
The budget of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation (EAO), now the
Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), has been considerably enlarged
in the last 20 years, Gabra pointed out, and large-scale restorations
of Coptic monuments are being carried out (vide the Church of
Al-Mo'allaqa and others in Old Cairo). "Inspectors, sometimes
with a substantial budget, have been able to expand their excavations
at several sites," he said, "but the young inspectors are
inadequately trained to satisfactorily document the work on Coptic
monuments found during these excavations. Moreover, because Coptic art
never enjoyed the patronage of the court -- most of the buildings were
made of mud-brick, and the murals were applied to the plastered wall
-- they are extremely fragile, and conservation requires training of
the very highest level. Conservators of Coptic wall paintings are rare
in Egypt. Consequently, our heritage is being lost through lack of
adequate documentation, inadequate protection, and want of
. . . .
After concluding his talk, there was an open discussion and hands
shot up in every direction. Gabra had inadvertently opened Pandora's
Box. The AUC student handing the portable microphone to members of the
audience anxious to have a say, had a hard time running round the
Oriental Hall passing it around.
Fayza Haikal, respected AUC Egyptologist and former professor of
Gawdat Gabra, pointed out that the problem was "not religious or
cultural" but that there was neglect of the Egyptian heritage at
every level -- Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic monuments. "It is
the study of Egypt's past, all of it, that is at stake," she
An extremely sensitive issue thus came into the open at last.
Egyptologist Cynthia Sheikholeslami picked up the cudgel. She agreed
that sites all over the country, not only Coptic, are suffering from
neglect and lack of protection and study. She blamed it on "the
inadequately paid inspectors of SCA who are not properly trained in
archaeology nor in how to publish the results of their work.
Inspectors have insufficient budget for expenses", she said,
"even such lowly things as a snapshot camera, black and white
film, a metre, and paper and pencils".
George Scanlon, distinguished Islamic scholar and member of the AUC
faculty (who had no need of the mike to make himself heard) also
stressed that it was the Egyptian, not the Coptic or Pharaonic or
Islamic heritages that were suffering from neglect, and that they
should be considered as a unit. "There is a continuum in Egypt;
our understanding of the Pharaonic heritage is the key to our
understanding of the Islamic through the Coptic. Who would question
that?" he asked rhetorically.
For the first time ever, scholars dedicated to the cause of Egypt's
heritage were provided with an opportunity to voice their concerns.
What started off as a loosely-disguised plea by Tim Sullivan, provost
of AUC, and Nicholas Hopkins, the dean of the School of Humanities and
Social Sciences, for more donations to enable the university to
continue its programme in Coptic Studies, had set forth an avalanche
of concern for the state of antiquities in Egypt in general. If
pessimism was not voiced, profound sorrow was.
Gabra enthusiastically responded. He said that, indeed, the
different periods of Egyptian history should not be designated
according to religion, because pagan and Christian ran parallel for
many years. "We do not designate or describe Egypt under British
occupation as a Christian period because the ruler and part of the
population were Christian," he said.
"But there is no doubt that Coptic monuments are suffering
more than Pharaonic and Islamic. There are a number of Egyptian
scholars of Egyptology, of the Graeco-Roman period, and of Islamic art
and architecture, both in Egyptian universities and in the SCA, who
could cooperate with inspectors to publish the materials discovered
related to these cultures, but when it comes to Coptic monuments, the
necessary expertise being lacking, these are often neglected."
Gabra added that the discipline of Coptic Studies (Coptology)
investigates the language and culture of Egypt and Nubia in the widest
sense, extending from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages and including
history, archaeology, art, language, literature and religion.
When taking the chair of Coptic Studies at AUC, Gabra provided a
general survey of Coptic monasticism. He introduced his students
(originally three and subsequently increased to 16 when students from
the national universities attended his classes) to Egypt's strong
monastic traditions, provided them with research tools and referred
them to specific textual sources. He outlined art and architecture
from the fourth through to the 13th centuries, and he took his
students on field trips to the Coptic Museum and several monastic
sites. Through his three-month course, in the Spring of 2003, he
emphasised that the study of language was the key to understanding
But Gawdat Gabra will have no opportunity, not at AUC anyway, to
help the students fulfil this basic requirement because the chair is a
revolving one. In September this year Gabra will be in the United
states (as visiting professor of Coptic Studies at the University of
Portland, Oregon) while the chair of Coptic Studies at AUC will be
held first by Karel Innemee of Leiden University, well known for his
work on the restoration of Coptic wall paintings (in Autumn 2003),
followed, in Autumn 2004, by Roger Bagnall of Columbia University, a
papyrologist and professor of classics and history. These
distinguished visiting scholars will teach their fields of
specialisation for one course, and the remainder of their time will be
given over to research -- and presumably advising individual students.
There will be no Coptic Studies professor in Spring 2004 nor in 2005,
and this practice will continue in the years to come. The gifts to
fund the chair are not yet sufficient to establish an endowment
capable of supporting a year-round, full-time position.
Nevertheless the creation of the Chair of Coptic Studies in Egypt
at AUC is seen as a particularly happy event by Sheikholeslami, who
said that the liberal arts tradition of the American educational
system encourages inter- disciplinary approaches and that this was
badly needed. She criticised the educational system that gave rise to
the current situation, and agreed with Gabra that there should be
serious training in Coptic studies for Egyptians here in Egypt, but
she saw that the proper protection and preservation of a site,
"any site of any period, requires a multidisciplinary effort --
artists, architects, chemists and engineers as well as archaeologists,
who should also learn how to write up and publish their
research", and she expressed hope that the presence of the chair
on campus would attract students from other disciplines to get
interested in Coptic studies and the preservation of Coptic sites.
She also pointed out that AUC was "a pioneer in distance
education here in Egypt, and could perhaps lend some of its expertise
to developing distance education in Coptic Studies so that the
programmes at AUC could be available to interested persons living
elsewhere in Egypt and abroad".
That may be so, but without establishing a department of "Coptology"
in Egypt, Coptic monuments will not be properly studied, protected nor
published. "We have to specialise," said Gabra. "It is
indeed surprising that while we have many departments of Egyptology in
our universities, and of Graeco-Roman and Islamic archaeology, not to
mention the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University, we are lacking
any department of Coptic studies in any of our national
Gabra went on: "In association with Arab studies and the study
of Islamic civilisation, Coptology investigates many subjects --
suffice it to mention the relations between Coptic and Islamic art,
the influence of Coptic literature on that of Ethiopia, and the Coptic
Church today in Africa. Moreover," he added, "Coptology
intersects with many other studies such as papyrology, codicology,
linguistics and the history of law and medicine. Its importance cannot
Asked by the Weekly what active steps had been taken to
promote the need for a department of Coptic Studies in Egypt, Gawdat
responded: "Ever since 1976, the International Association for
Coptic Studies has organised an international congress at four- year
intervals, and it became a tradition that one of the resolutions was
to send a telegram to the minister of high education and the president
of Cairo University -- sometimes even to the president of Egypt -- of
the need to establish such a department in the land of the Coptic
heritage, but so far nothing has been done. It's a paper dream!"
Traditionally, histories of Egyptian archaeology describe only
celebrated western scholars; Donald Reid writes Egyptians into the
history of their country in Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums,
and Egyptian Identity (2002 AUC Press, Cairo. University of
California Press, USA).
For a survey of the history of Egypt that traces continuity from
ancient (Pharaonic), through Roman, Byzantine and Arab rule, to modern
times, see Jill Kamil's Christianity in the Land of the
Pharaohs (2002 AUC Press, Cairo. Routledge USA, UK and Canada)
Gawdat Gabra's Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art
and Architecture is a survey of well, and lesser-known,
monasteries (2002 AUC Press, Cairo)