Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 August 2004
Issue No. 704
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

What is Coptology?

Eight years after Coptic studies was made an independent discipline at the congress at Munster a proper definition of the field of study still eludes academics, writes Jill Kamil

Click to view caption
Coptic crosses -- Gnostic, from Kellia, Qubbet Al-Hawa and Bawit

The only absolute certainty is that 'Coptic' has to do with Egypt," observed Professor M Tito Orlandi of Rome's University of La Sapienza in his presidential address to the eighth International Association for Coptic Studies (IACS) congress in Paris last week.

The astounding fact is that, apart from linguistics (which alone can be clearly defined) there is neither an obvious character, nor can the limitations be set, on all other fields of Coptic studies, whether history, geography, literature or art. This vitally important subject concerning Orthodox Egyptian Christianity has been conscientiously considered, deliberated on and studied in depth at an international level for the last 30 years. But while there have been specialised studies by scholars around the world, seven international congresses and seminars in Egypt and abroad, its parameters are still being debated.

The IACS is an offshoot of the International Committee founded in 1976 for the publication of the Nag Hammadi codices, and its congresses take place every four years. This year Paris was the host city, following Rome, Warsaw, Louvain-la-Neuve, Washington, Munster and Leiden. There were some 280 participants, and the proceedings were conducted at two venues: L'Institut d'Art et d'Archaeologie de la Sorbonne, and L'Institut Catholique, both not far from the Luxembourg Gardens.

Ever since Coptic studies was declared a separate discipline at Munster in 1996 it has seemed unable, despite all efforts, to carve a niche for itself -- a claim to legitimacy. There remain so many imponderables on the "Copticity" of, say, a work of art, its manifestation in literature, or as evidence of architectural change or continuity, because it overlaps with other cultures, whether Roman, Byzantine or Islamic. As a result the conference, rather than ironing out the creases between the diverse cultures of the ancient Middle East and establishing a distinct niche for Coptic studies, succeeded in doing just the opposite, it fanned uncertainty and made the concept just as difficult to define as it always has been.

Professor Orlandi had this to say: "After long mediation I have come to believe that the following statements may be accepted, if considered without prejudice and with a fair mind. First, it is important that Coptology as an academic discipline be neither forgotten nor passed over in silence when it is opportune that it be discussed. Second, that while it would be idle, indeed irrelevant, to try and establish a precise definition which is valid for each specialisation, we should recognise the nucleus, the core, made by a few disciplines, as well as a group of others, equally important, whose legitimacy depends on the existence of core studies. This blend," he suggested, "would produce a flexible but sufficiently consistent definition of Coptology."

While admitting that Coptology could not, like Latin literature or Byzantine art, be identified as a distinct discipline, Orlandi said that it must be considered among a group of disciplines that share certain characteristics and images, whether in archaeology, Christian theology, political history, biblical philology or monasticism, "Coptic may be a part, but it lies within a structurally and methodically coherent whole," he said, stressing the desirability of establishing whether there existed "a Copticity", a kind of peculiar, spiritual attitude or character that, when studied by Coptologists in religion, literature, art, history, music etc, could be shown to create a common cultural ground.

"I mean," Orlandi amplified, "whether the word 'Coptic' may refer not only to a historical period or geographical location but to one more or less coherent, unifying spiritual factor. This I, for one, and possibly most of us, would like to see clearly established."

With the congress's 280 participants presenting 20-minute papers on a wide range of subjects, in five languages, in three lecture halls on alternate floors of the Institute d'Art, the grand marble stairway graced by classical works of art was packed with people hurrying up and down -- because the single lift was "un peu fragile" and it was recommended that only those not capable of tackling the stairs should use it. The Tower of Babel must have been a little like this -- scholarly patriarchs with bearded chins slightly raised in disdain when they discovered the microphone was not working, dignified monks in their habits mingling with the crowds, eager young students palpably trembling with excitement, Professor Godlewski with his body of devotees, and other participants united in a common bond of Egypt's contribution to Orthodox Christianity.

A certain panic ensued when lecture hall venues had to be changed at the last minute because the equipment proved inadequate: a microphone did not work, a power point linkup could not be made, or because of last minute cancellations.

But technical problems were quickly resolved and, unlike the babbling hordes in the Tower of Babel, there were common languages and a spirit of camaraderie.

Language did prove to be a problem, however. It was unfortunate that, unlike at the recent seminar on Coptic studies at Wadi Al-Natrun, translations were not handed out.

The presentations covered archaeology and art history, the Gnostics and Manacheism, documentary sources including the Nag Hammadi codices, papyrus collections, ostraca and specific inscriptions from various sources, discoveries of wall paintings in abandoned hermitages and in a cave church, and studies on Copts and Muslims in the Late Antique and early Islamic periods. Numerous studies have been made in recent years on textiles, monasticism, theology and magic.

Four important and useful papers were given on the progress made in the period 2000-2004: Research and Publications in Coptic Papyrology by Terry Wilfong of the University of Michigan, Research and Publication in Coptic Art by Karel Inemée, Actualitiés des Musées et Expositions by Dominique Benazeth, and Copto-Arabic Studies by Mark Swanson.

The core disciplines referred to by Orlandi in his presidential address included the study of the Coptic language in all its synchronic aspects, the study of Coptic literature written in Coptic (although from the intertextual and historical points of view it cannot be distinguished from respective contemporary Greek, Arabic, and Demotic literature); the study of the Egyptian church in all its aspects after the Council of Chalcedon in 451; the study of paleography; the study of ecclesiastical and monastic Egyptian art after Chalcedon; and the study of papyri and similar documents written in Coptic.

The sum total of knowledge in these areas is increasing, and thus Coptic studies are becoming more and more specialised. But unfortunately this is not leading to a clearer understanding of the subject. "The status of Coptic literature still needs to be correctly understood, because of the tendency to extract some of its branches to form independent fields," Orlandi lamented. Such fragmentation distracts from, rather than aids general historical assessment of works of literature. He mentioned that biblical translations, Gnostic texts and apocrypha were frequently considered separately from the development of Coptic literature proper, with the result that "all is left in a vague environment, where the sources of the texts are important, and not the form which they have assumed in Coptic". When it came to Coptic literature in the Arabic language, this, due to linguistic competence, is set apart.

Ironically, Coptic studies has no beginning in Egypt. Here we have a strange paradox. The Coptic church is one of the oldest in Christendom, brought to Egypt by St Mark, the reputed author of the oldest of the four canonical gospels.

Yet the sad fact remains that owing to the integration of contrasting configurations, whether Egyptian, classical, Greek-Egyptian, or Persian pagan motifs, not to mention Byzantine and Syrian Christian influences, it is difficult to identify. At the latter end of the scale it is now generally accepted that Islamic influence on the Copts was slow to develop, but, at the beginning, the slow and steady development of a distinctively Egyptian trait, a local identity, is lacking.

This problem, Orlandi observed, had not been "extensively and seriously debated". As a result, he said, general introductions to "the Copts" were unsatisfactory in many ways. He mentioned the works of Meinardus 1961-1977, Brunner- Traut 1982, De Bourguet 1988, Cannuyer 1990 and 2000, all of which he described as "very useful" but "often not in tune with the achievements of actual research". He did commend the works of R Bagnall 1993, Gerhards-Brakmann 1994, Capuani 1999, and the collective books edited by Krause and Camplani in German and Italian respectively, but pointed out that these covered only selective subjects.

Among the major achievements of the past decades is The Coptic Encyclopaedia, conceived and produced by Aziz and Lola Attiya. "But there is a need for a kind of handbook on Coptic studies like that provided by O Montevecchi for apyriology, the monumental Handbook on the Science of Antiquities of Munich, and the Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi codices, their publication, translation and commentary by J M Robinson and his group," he said.

Orlandi pointed out that there was no spirit of competition, let alone active collaboration, between learned associations comparable to the IACS, even with those, such as Egyptologists and papyrologists, that included Coptic studies in their scope. Indeed, in any publication of assorted studies on various topics in late antiquity or Byzantium most of the articles will be on Constantinople, Syria, Armenia, Gaul, North Africa and Palestine, with Egypt mentioned only in passing. "I would call it something like a tacit and benign mutual neglect," he said, adding that it was a field where more could certainly be done in the future.

There is considerable evidence of Coptic roots within the Pharaonic inheritance. For example, it is generally accepted that Christian icons owe a great deal to mummy portrait painting, and the discovery and study of the Nag Hammadi codices reveal that Egypt exerted an appreciable sway upon the entire Hellenistic world in which Christianity took root. In spite of such substantial evidence Coptic studies usually commences with the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and classical antiquity still provides most of the source material for European accounts of the Copts in Egypt. It is unfortunate, therefore, that from the abundance of literary evidence that has survived in dump heaps, Greek, Latin and Arabic texts have been translated at the expense of Demotic and Coptic. Countless publications from the past century -- studies, monographs and lecture series -- lay bare Egyptian society under Byzantine rule, but insufficient effort has been made in translating those texts which might locate the roots of Egyptian Christianity within the Pharaonic inheritance. They continue to lie in boxes in museum storerooms around the world, including the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

Among the congress presentations that remain in my mind are Father Daniel Al-Suriani's valuable study of the function of a group of bronze objects in the daily life of the monastery, Gawdat Gabra's description of the discovery of an interesting underground monastic complex at Mansuriya with surviving wall paintings, and Elizabeth Bolman's preliminary results of the remarkable wall painting conservation project in the Red Monastery near Sohag. Mention must also be made of Magdalena Laptas's description of the newly-discovered murals of the Polish expedition at Banganarti in Sudan, since excellent use was made here of a "power point" presentation with appropriate zooming in of the site plan with different locations of surviving wall paintings, along with details of each.

There are now institutions that give more or less regular courses of Coptology in 47 countries around the world, including Australia, Great Britain, Canada, Germany, Jerusalem, Spain, Switzerland and the United States, but there are none in Egypt. A rotating chair of Coptic studies was opened at the American University in Cairo in 2002 but its future is uncertain; apparently funding is not yet sufficient to establish an endowment capable of supporting a year-round, full-time position. No department of Coptic studies is yet to be found in any of Egypt's national universities; since 1976, when the IASC was established, it has been a tradition to send a telegramme to the minister of higher education and the president of Cairo University on the need to establish such a department in the land of the Coptic heritage, but so far nothing has been achieved.

And so, while confusion remains over the use of the very word "Coptic", with philologists referring to the last phase of the Egyptian language, theologians to the Egyptian faith, and art historians, until recently, describing as "Coptic" anything that did not fit into other well-defined parameters, the situation looks bleak. "I could not say whether the academic teaching of Coptology has improved in the last 30 years," Orlandi admitted, "or even by how much, because there is no assessment of previous activity".

Although Professor Orlandi ended his address on an optimistic note, recalling important achievements in the last three decades with particular mention of an encyclopaedia, grammatical, historical atlas, handbook of liturgy, and a minor but total edition of the Coptic Bible, a history of Copto-Arabic literature as well as ongoing excavation of archaeological sites and diverse studies, when we observe the overall picture it would appear that the congress, for all its scope, may not have been the success it should have been. Gaps between different disciplines seem to be widening rather than diminishing, and still open to question is a definition of Coptic and the broad parameters of Coptic studies.

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