Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 October 2003
Issue No. 660
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Coptic studies on the bookshelf

By Jill Kamil


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Clockwise from top: cross on the gate of the Coptic Museum; neo-Coptic icon; statue of Morcos Samaika, founder of the Coptic Museum
Christian Cannoyer's Coptic Egypt: The Christians of the Nile is a small, informative, well- researched and beautiful publication that conveys the richness and diversity of the Coptic heritage, and which has the added advantage of being small in size. Originally published in French, this English translation is of exceptional quality, with fine illustrations and a helpful map. It covers the visit of the Holy Family to Egypt, support for the Markan foundations of Alexandrian Christianity, the controversy and divisions following the Council of Chalcedon ("admitting the Coptic Church's fidelity to the teachings of St Cyril"), Coptic history and culture under Islamic rule, and Copts in modern times from Mohamed Ali to the present. This is an admirable introduction to Coptic Orthodoxy (Thames & Hudson, London).

Jill Kamil's Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs: The Coptic Orthodox Church is reviewed by Geoffrey Rowell, Bishop of Gibraltar, in the Church Times of 6 June 2003 as follows: " ...Jill Kamil has produced a stimulating account of Coptic history which should inform and interest Christians from the West who are visiting Egypt. It will remind them of Egypt's long Christian history, of the outstanding witness of Coptic Christians, and of the contribution Egypt made in the shaping of Christian life and faith ... One of the main themes of Kamil's historical argument is the evidence of considerable continuity, as she believes, between Pharaonic culture and religion and many of the practices of Coptic Christianity. Although this can be over-stressed, there is surely what Newman would have called an 'antecedent probability' of such continuity... "

Fully illustrated with more than 120 photographs, drawings and maps, Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs offers an insight into a side of Egypt that will be new to many readers (Routledge UK/American University in Cairo [AUC] Press).

Otto Meinardus's Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity combines his earlier publications into a new, definitive one- volume history published for the Millennium. It surveys 20 centuries of existence of one of the oldest churches in the world. Meinardus, a leading authority on the history of the Coptic Church, has produced this introductory volume to the history and theology of the church and the topography of its principle churches, monasteries and monuments. For those interested in knowing the whereabouts of the relics of St Mark, details about the canons of the Coptic Church, the folk religion of the Copts, the history of Coptic theology from the fifth to the 20th centuries and more, this compact hardback edition is the one to possess. The List of Patriarchs of the Coptic Church and the Rulers of Egypt appears in Appendix B (AUC Press).

Coptic Art and Architecture

Monastic Visions: Wall Paintings in the Monastery of St Antony at the Red Sea, edited by Elizabeth Bolman with photographs by Patrick Godeau, is a beautiful book that tells the story behind the cleaned 13th-century wall paintings in the Monastery of St Antony. According to tradition, this ancient monastery was founded soon after the saint's death, but the mediaeval decoration of its oldest church was completely blackened by smoke when the site was deserted and used as a kitchen by Bedouin in the 15th century. Now, following restoration and cleaning, the mediaeval works of art -- which were earlier only vaguely discernible through the grime -- have been revealed in all their glory.

The restoration was carried out between 1995 and 1999 in an Egyptian/Italian/US partnership, and the series of essays by art historians, conservators, historians, an archaeologist and an anthropologist that accompany the compelling images, describe and analyse Coptic (Egyptian Christian), Byzantine and Arab styles and motifs and, moreover, discuss their significance in the context of the eastern Mediterranean region. (Yale University/AUC Press publication).

Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments through Two Millennia an expensive coffee- table edition, but Massimo Capuani's section alone makes purchasing this volume well worthwhile. It provides the most comprehensive examination of the archaeology and historical background of Coptic Christian churches and monasteries ever written. An engineer and researcher, Capuani is an expert in the history of the Eastern Christian Churches and has a thorough knowledge of the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean worlds. He has collected rich documentation about their cultural and artistic development in 12 separate locations, and is a major contributor to this publication. Each section is introduced with an accurate map, the text is supported by relevant photographs, and the plans of the monasteries and churches are the most comprehensive and accurate to be found in any publication (AUC Press).

Coptic Culture

The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St Basil, compiled by the late Ragheb Moftah, director of the department of music and hymns at the Coptic Institute in Cairo, is a unique and impressive publication with complete musical transcription that is the culmination of 70 years of devoted work and will be of great value to Copts and musicologists around the world. Thanks to Moftah's tireless endeavours, Coptic liturgical music has been set down for the first time, along with verbal transcription and translations in English and Arabic. This book was published in 1998; its sales built up with the approach of the millennium and continue today (AUC Press).

Be Thou There is the unusual title of this impressive book, the most comprehensive guide to the traditions associated with the Holy Family in Egypt, which would be ideal for scholars, general readers and tourists alike were it not for its size. Scholars seldom delve through coffee-table editions for information, while general readers like to read a book they can handle; this is not a reader-friendly edition. However, since the Gospels give scant information on the Family's time in Egypt, the experts here assembled (Gawdat Gabra, William Lyster, Cornelis Hulsman, Stephen Davis and Norbert Schiller) had to resort to some detective work. They have examined the Coptic sources and the rich culture of the Copts, combed through ancient references and testimonials in libraries around the world, walked the length and breadth of Egypt way beyond the limits of the Nile valley, and supported their findings with vivid colour photographs. Here is a highly recommended book that casts light on today's celebrants, congregations, monks and pilgrims. It shows to what extent Jesus is alive in the land where he took his first earthly steps (AUC Press).

The title is an extract of the Biblical Reference: "Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring the word." (Matt. 2:13).

Coptic Life in Egypt by Claudia Yvonne Wiens is a picture book, a window on a pious and colourful world. The beautiful photographs, accompanied by appropriate introductions to the various sections, reveal the religious tradition and social life of Copts ranging from mulids and pilgrimages to such joyous occasions as the baptism of a baby or a family outing. This book is a first of its kind. It is beautifully produced and casts light on the vibrant life of Egypt's Copts (AUC Press, 2003).

Monks and Monasteries

Gawdat Gabra's Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture is a compact and accessible but not comprehensive introduction to some of ancient religious centres. Monasticism represents the most important contribution of the Copts to world civilisation, and Gabra outlines the origins of the movement, describing the most well-known monasteries in the Nile valley in the Eastern and Western deserts. The introductory essay by Tim Vivian, "The Coptic Orthodox Church", is well-researched, informative, sweeping yet concise, and forms a valuable part of the publication (AUC Press).

Ascetics, Society, and the Desert by James Goehring, chair of the department of classics, philosophy and religion at Mary Washington College in Virginia, USA, was published in 1999. It was only widely distributed in the year 2000, which justifies its inclusion in this survey. Through rigorous examination of original papyrus texts, archaeology, and traditional secondary source material, Goehring provides a new understanding on the evolution of the monastic movement which is brilliantly argued and thoroughly fascinating. Ascetics, Society, and the Desert is a must for historians of monasticism, religious studies teachers, Egyptologists and members of the public interested in following the author's scholarly yet clearly defined arguments. He infuses the subject with verve (Trinity Press International, PA17105 USA).

Otto Meinardus's Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts has been published in a revised edition by AUC Press, and promises to be as popular as the original published in 1961 and subsequently revised in 1989. This is a standard work that traces the historical development of most of the currently inhabited Coptic monasteries, drawing on a wide variety of sources and including accounts by early western travellers. This edition has been further revised to take account of the continued renaissance and growth of Coptic monasticism, and also discusses the motives which lead men to withdraw from the world and assume a monastic life (AUC Press).

Coptic Saints and Pilgrimages is another hardbound, compact and easy-to-handle book by Otto Meinardus, who here writes an account of a subject near to his heart. This book, like his others, shows the author's familiarity with Egypt and an understanding of the rituals associated with the Coptic Church.

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