Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
8 - 14 July 1999
Issue No. 437
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

July was always a month rich in revolution. Two recent books shed new light on key actors in the making of modern Egypt

The missing bust
Awraq Youssef Seddiq (The Papers of Youssef Seddiq), ed. Abdel-Azim Ramadan, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 1999. pp308

The limits of allegiance
Shahadati lil-Ajyal (My Testimony to the Coming Generations), Helmi El-Said, Cairo: Dar Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi, 1999. pp271

Playing the British at their own game
Fayed -- The Unauthorised Biography, Tom Bower. Macmillan, 1998. pp496

Discrepancies of doctrine
Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, Otto F A Meinardus, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp344 + 24 b/w photographs

From Ottomans to Officers
The Cambridge History of Egypt (2 vols.), volume 2, Modern Egypt from 1517 to the End of the Twentieth Century, ed. M W Daly, Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp464

Functionalising religion
Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics and Religious Transformation in Egypt, Gregory Starrett, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1998. pp308

Recovered memories
Zaman al-nisaa wal zhakira al-badila (Women's Time and Alternative Memory), eds. Hoda El-Sadda, Somaya Ramadan and Omayma Abu Bakr, Cairo: Dar Al-Kutub, 1998. pp382

The illusion of the journey
Travellers in Egypt, eds. Paul Starkey and Janet Starkey, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1998. pp318

Soon to appear, Stokely Carmichael's memoirs are themselves a part of history. Al-Ahram Weekly previews the manuscript and talks to the co-author
Rendezvous with history
Michael Thelwell helped Stokely Carmichael write his death-bed memoirs. Visiting Cairo recently, Gamal Nkrumah sounded him out on the political legacy of the Black Power movement
At a glance:

* Tahawulat A'isha (A'isha's Transformations), Abdel-Wahab El-Bayyati, Beirut: Dar Al-Kunouz Al-Adabiya

* Qissas Bihagm Rahat Al-Yadd (Stories the Size of the Palm of the Hand), Yasunari Kawabata, tr. Kamel Youssef Hussein, Cairo: Dar Sharqiyat

* Al-Wusoul illa'l-Bidaya fi'l-Fann wa fi'l-Haya (Arriving at the Beginning in Art and Life), Adli Rizkallah, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation

* Al-Mantiq Al-Ishraqi 'ind Shihabeddin Al-Sahrawardi (The Illumination of Logic in Shihabeddin Al-Sahrawardi), Mahmoud Mohamed Ali, Cairo: Dar Misr Al-Arabiya

* Al-Kutub: Wugahit Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), a monthly review, Cairo: Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publications

Al-Hilal, a monthly magazine, Cairo: Dar Al-Hilal, July 1999

* Ibdaa' (Creativity), a monthly magazine, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, June 1999

* Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), a monthly magazine, Cairo: Progressive Nationalist Unionist Party Publication, June 1999




Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Discrepancies of doctrine

Reviewed by Jill Kamil

Copts Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, Otto F A Meinardus, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp344 + 24 b/w photographs

"The outstanding contribution of the Egyptian Church to world Christianity was the monastic movement, which received its impetus from men like Saints Antony, Paul of Thebes, Macarius and others," writes Otto Meinardus, a leading authority on the Coptic Church, in his new book, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity. He goes on to point out that the two classical forms of Christian asceticism were both born in Egypt: the anchorite or hermit, who withdrew into the inner desert, and the cenobites, who practiced their ascetic virtues within a community of like-minded men and followed certain rules and regulations.

This is the publication we have all been waiting for: a book on Coptic Christianity which combines, revises and updates Meinardus' earlier works, which were themselves very well-received. Christian Egypt, Ancient and Modern (1977) gave the most complete picture of Egyptian Christianity ever laid before the lay public and drew heavily on the author's original research. Christian Egypt, Faith and Life (1978), a companion volume, was intended to serve as an introduction to selected issues in Coptic theology and ethics, including discussions of such questions as the relationship of the Coptic Church to the family, the state, and its own historic mission. Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts (revised edition 1989) is a standard work tracing the historical development of all the (then) inhabited Coptic monasteries, along with a chapter on the motives which lead men to withdraw from the world. More recently (1989), he has published The Holy Family in Egypt , a booklet that expands one of the chapters of his Christian Egypt, Ancient and Modern.

The present work is a compact hardback publication which, according to the cover, is "a new, definite, one-volume history for the Millennium, surveying the twenty centuries of existence of one of the oldest churches in the world."

A brief introductory chapter which pays appropriate respect to "The Pontificate of Shenouda III" and "The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church", including a list of members of the Holy Synod of 1998, is followed by a very extensive second chapter which is divided into ten long sections.

The first starts with the birth of Christ and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt from Bethlehem. It draws on biblical, Coptic, classical and Qur'anic source material, and is particularly interesting in its discussion of sites associated with the biblical tradition which are honoured by Christians and Muslims alike. It also mentions a number of recent discoveries and provides the reader with contemporary equivalents for a number of unfamiliar biblical and classical names.

The next section traces the long-standing tradition of the arrival of Saint Mark the Evangelist in Alexandria, his preaching of the gospel, foundation of the See in AD68 and martyrdom. The history of the relics of the saint is described in depth. Those captivated by the macabre as well as the sacred will learn of the different locations at which can be found Saint Mark's head, body, and even a small particle of bone "which had been a gift from Cardinal Giovanni Urbani, the patriarch of Venice, to the pope of Rome." The book also contains an Appendix entitled The Relics of Coptic Saints, in which Meinardus informs us that he personally has "seen 18 bolsters containing relics of Saint George."

As a longtime resident of Egypt, former professor of philosophy at the American University in Cairo and former pastor of the Maadi Community Church, Otto Meinardus clearly did not waste his time, to judge by the number of relics to which he can bear witness. Moreover, in this latest work, he has compiled the definitive history of the Coptic church, one that will remain the standard work on the subject for many years to come. It is therefore extremely unfortunate to find the author presenting a highly biased account of certain key episodes in that history, however inevitable such bias may be in a man of the cloth, and one who had benefited from a classical education.

Thus, many Copts will undoubtedly take offence when they discover that in the section of Chapter 2 devoted to "The Theological Contributions of the See of Alexandria", the most heroic period of Coptic history is repeatedly referred to as a "tragic schism." The author uses the word twice, on pages 9 and 39, to describe the period when Egyptian Christians stood united against the imperial power of Byzantium, firm in their adherence to the creed formulated in the first and greatest of the church councils, and refused to endorse the revisionist doctrine promoted by the Council of Chalcedon. The Council's decision may have been a tragedy for the Byzantine Empire, but hardly for Egypt. Henceforth, the main centre of learning for Egyptian Christianity was the monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Al-Natrun. No longer politically or spiritually tied to Constantinople, its theologians began to write more in Coptic and less in Greek. Coptic art also enjoyed an original and autonomous development at this period. Of this Meinardus makes no mention.

In this latest book, Meinardus has adopted a new terminology, dropping the word "Monophysite" in favour of "Miaphysite". The former was used in Christian Egypt, Ancient and Modern to describe the doctrine put forward by Athanasius at the Council of Nicea when he declared "Christ to be consubstantial and co-eternal with God the Father" (that is, God is of One Nature in the person of Christ). Miaphysite, on the other hand, (a term which incidentally does not appear in the Index) is introduced here on pages 39/40, but we have to wait until page 123 of this tightly-printed tome to discover why. The word, recently adopted by the wider Christian community, is the result of twenty years of theological discussions between members of the Coptic Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, in an attempt to reconcile their differences. Meinardus explains, "Cyril taught the personal, or hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ, holding to the view that after the union, the Logos formed but one nature with the body."

The lay reader who stumbles on the book by accident may well find this brief aside somewhat confusing, but doubtless the wider audience Meinardus is addressing will just nod sagely and pass on. The Coptic Orthodox Church has millions of adherents both in Egypt and around the world, and this book is presumably intended to be read by them, as well as by Christians of other denominations who are interested in the church of Egypt. Yet if so, there are some grave discrepancies in the author's approach.

For example, Saint Pachomius, the founder of a form of monasticism that took his name, is only mentioned here in passing. Meinardus acknowledges him as one of the "illustrious leaders" in the Introduction, and refers to him as "the founder of the Christian communal life". But he fails to provide any details of the Saint's 'rule', his singular monastic reform made known to the West through the writings of Saint Jerome, or the fact that Pachomian monasticism influenced Saint Benedict who founded a number of monasteries in the sixth century on his model. In the section of Chapter 2 entitled "The Spread of Coptic Monasticism to the Orient and the Occident", allusions to Pachomius are limited to the part the saint played in Ethiopia.

As for Athanasius (295-373), one of the pillars of Coptic Christianity, Meinardus concedes that he had a profound influence on the development of Christian thought and piety. But again, the details of this impact are not supplied. Intestine quarrels and doctrinal dissidence, of which the dispute between Arias and Athanasius was a flagrant example, were a menace to the imperial authority of Byzantium. Heretical Christians were persecuted and excommunicated. Arias and Athanasius both suffered in turn at the hands of the authorities. Each in turn tried to bring the Emperor round to his side and obtain sanction for his doctrine. When the Arian creed eventually won imperial backing, Athanasius was simply dropped from ecclesiastical records in the West -- much as he has been largely dropped from Meinardus' book.

To the evidence of such omissions should be added phrases such as, "The Copts lacked the sound theological framework for icon veneration that the Byzantine church acquired in response to the eighth- and ninth-century iconoclastic controversies" (p.188) -- which reveals how ill-informed the author is about the recent discoveries, restoration and conservation of Egyptian icons and walls reliefs -- the use of the term "the anti-Chalcedonian party" to refer to the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the statement that "Copts venerate only very few saints" (p. 98). As the evidence accumulates, the author's bias becomes plain. In a book that claims to cover some 2000 years of Coptic Christianity in Egypt, prejudice on this scale can only be disturbing.

Fortunately, the reader who perseveres will be rewarded. Chapter 3, "The Coptic Church: Its Churches and Monasteries, Ancient and Modern", is extremely good. It provides a brief and updated survey of all of the monasteries in Egypt, including those of Alexandria and the northern coast, Wadi Al-Natrun, Greater Cairo, Fayoum, the monasteries of the Eastern and Western Deserts and the Nile Valley. The sites are identified, access described and details of churches given.

Also interesting is the section "Copts from the Seventh to the Twentieth Centuries, which covers the condition of Copts after the Arab conquest, during the Middle Ages, following the French invasion, and through the reign of Mohamed Ali and his successors. The author discusses the emergence of the laymen's movement, "expectations and frustrations under British occupation," "The Wafd and the movement towards independence" and "The Copts and the National struggle.

Meinardus' book also includes sections on some notable Coptic families of the 19th and 20th centuries, details of Coptic Sunday Schools (which the author calls the "Cradle of the Twentieth-Century Renaissance") and an interesting discussion of the Coptic Diaspora.

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