Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 February 2005
Issue No. 730
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Coptic trove

Luxor's west bank was the site of a significant find, reports Nevine El-Aref

In Al-Gurna where several excavation missions are probing for more Ancient Egyptian treasures under the sand, a team from the Polish Centre for Mediterranean Archaeology has stumbled on a major Coptic trove buried under the remains of a sixth-century monastery located in front of a Middle Kingdom tomb.

Excavators unearthed two papyri books with Coptic text along with a set of parchments placed between two wooden labels as well as Coptic ostraca, pottery fragments and textiles.

The head of the team, Tomaz Gorecki, said the books were well preserved except for the papyri papers which were exceptionally dry.

The first book has a hard plain cover embellished with Roman text from the inside while the second includes no less than 50 papers coated with a partly deteriorated leather cover bearing geometrical drawings. In the middle, a squared cross 32cm long and 26cm wide is found.

As for the set of parchments, Gorecki said it included 60 papers with a damaged leather cover and an embellished wooden locker.

Immediately after the discovery, restoration was carried out in order to preserve the books which will be the subject of extensive restoration by two Polish experts.

"It is a very important discovery, equal to the Naga Hammadi scrolls" found in 1945 in an Ancient Egyptian cave inhabited by Copts during the Roman era, said Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Hawass said the scrolls were originally found in a large sealed stone jar by a murderer while hiding from the police. But when the renowned writer Taha Hussein was the minister of education, he bought the scrolls in a marketplace and offered them to the Coptic Museum.

Hawass added that the scrolls include 13 religious and philosophic codices translated into Coptic by fourth-century Gnostic Christians and translated into English by dozens of highly reputable experts.

The Naga Hammadi scrolls is a diverse collection of texts that the Gnostics considered to be related to their heretical philosophy. There are 45 separate titles, including a Coptic translation from the Greek of two well-known works: the Gospel of Thomas, attributed to Jesus's brother Judas, and Plato's Republic. The word "gnosis" is defined as "the immediate knowledge of spiritual truth".

Archaeologist Mustafa Waziri said the codices are believed to be a library hidden by monks from a monastery in the area where these writings were banned by the Orthodox Church. The contents of the codices were written in Coptic though the works were mostly translations from Greek. The most famous of these is probably the Gospel of Thomas, of which the Naga Hammadi codices contain the only complete copy. After the discovery it was recognised that fragments of these sayings of Jesus appeared in manuscripts that had been discovered in Oxyrhynchus in 1898, and quotations were recognised in other early Christian sources. The manuscripts themselves are from the third and fourth centuries.

Early examinations and studies carried out in situ revealed that the newly discovered books could include more information about how early Christians performed their rituals.

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