Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 May 2003
Issue No. 639
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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 better preservation

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The fourth-century Monastery of St Apollo at Bawit is today largely covered with desert sand
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.

"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 recordings".

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 recorded."

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 professional conservators."

. . . .

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 said.

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 ancient culture.

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 universities."

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 be over-emphasised."

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!"

Further reading:

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)


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