Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 May 2005
Issue No. 742
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sameh Adli: Worldly ascetism

Sojourns with the ancients: of restoration and the monastic life
Profile by Aziza Sami

photo: Sherif Sonbol Click to view caption
The Monastery of the Cross is once again inviting, as its ancient portions are gradually reconstructed
photo: Sherif Sonbol

"Our architecture has a past, an identity we should know. The architecture of American-style skyscrapers is not at all humane, especially not in a country like ours."

Bearded, bespectacled, slender: Sameh Adli looks weary, as if he goes around bearing the weight of all that he has undergone since graduating from the Architecture Department of Helwan University's Institute of Fine Arts, in 1986. I met him during the Sham Al-Nessim break, spent in Cairo -- a brief respite from interminable voluntary work at the ancient Monastery of the Holy Cross, in Nagada on the west bank of Luxor, over 30km from the city proper. For three years he has been there in self-imposed isolation, spearheading reconstruction and conservation work at the site of the only monastery in Egypt to bear the name of Christianity's symbol, not one of its saints: like the monk and the guard -- his main companions -- Adli subsists on routine donations of fuul, lentils, tea and sugar.

One of seven monasteries in an area known as Bariyat Al-Assas, the building dates back to the reign of the Byzantine emperor Constantine in the fourth century; it has received little attention since the 1960s, prior to which it had last been restored in 1917. Concrete houses now surround the structure, which once occupied an area of 10 feddans (as opposed to the half feddan on which it stands today): in the 18th century Nagada was a prosperous community thriving not only on agriculture but on the export (notably to the Sudan) of special gowns called a firka, which bore religious status because they hailed from Nagada. In diametrical opposition, the area -- together with the neighbourhood of the monastery -- now exudes destituteness; according to Adli, this "accompanied the demise of that trading community when the Sudanese government prohibited the import of firkas ". Nagada was comparable to Rosetta at the time, full of grand houses built for traders: "The decline in trade was accompanied by a decline in intellectual, social and economic life." For Adli, knowledge is a multi-faceted experience: history, sociology and art may be beyond the boundaries of his area of expertise, yet they all feed back into it.

Since his graduation the 44-year-old architect has had experience with the Egyptian Sureme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the Aga Khan Foundation, contributing to the conservation and reconstruction of Islamic and Coptic monuments as well as the Fatimid Cairo neighbourhood of Gamaliya -- tasks interspersed with stints working for local and foreign contractors. Well-versed in the state of the art of architectural preservation, he is equally familiar with commercial architecture; and he pragmatically juxtaposes altruistic endeavours with private-sector projects whenever he must "go back to making money in order to live". Nor is he alone in his willingness to do full-time voluntary work. Other, highly specialised architects have been on unpaid leave of their regular jobs -- often at the SCA -- to work on monuments for which there is limited funding. But they tend to work on the better-known (hence internationally funded) monuments of the capital -- the famed Hanging Church, for example, on which Adli has worked in person -- or else such landmarks as the Wadi Al-Natrun and Red Sea monasteries. Throughout the Nile Valley and the surrounding desert, on the other hand, lesser-known if equally significant monasteries tend to be in greater need of restoration, and they will as often be neglected by funding agencies. Such is the story of the Monastery of the Cross.

Adli first found out about it from Bishop Bimen, within whose jurisdiction it currently lies, a full decade before work on it started: after a fire partially destroyed Deir Al-Muharraq, where the bishop was as yet Father Rwais, a young priest, Adli was involved in the SCA restoration work there; and this is how they met. Father Rwais would soon become bishop of Nagada, and in this capacity requested a feasibility study with a view to restoring the ancient Monastery of Mar Boktor, also located in the area: "There was no budget, however. We spoke to the head of the SCA, Abdel- Halim Nureddin, and he decided that the organisation would fund restoration work in one monastery, Mar Boktor, leaving the cost of restoring the Monastery of the Cross to the Church" And so it was: Adli began with the most dilapidated parts of the Monastery of the Cross. "So far," he says, "a total of LE400,000 has been spent." To economise, in many cases, primitive methods were employed. Adli recruited local masons, "choosing the most receptive, the most 'obedient', in the sense of readiness to learn and apply methods different from what they know". Indeed one of them proved so able he became Adli's "right hand" in reconstructing the domes using traditional mud-brick techniques first revived by the pioneer architect Hassan Fathi, "an approach more or less lost over the last century because of excessive recourse to concrete". The Earth Association, a local NGO working closely with international engineering companies -- one of which Adli is a member -- provided a machine capable of producing termite-resistant mud bricks for the purpose.

As the crumbling parts of the monastery were gradually resurrected, its foundations were simultaneously replaced, its walls cleared of reptiles and a new sewerage system installed in it. Kitchen, toilets and monk cells have all been completed, significantly increasing the functionality of the monastery: daily prayers, compared to once or twice a year; engagement parties; and a "spiritual day" -- Friday -- on which local children enjoy a special breakfast on monastery grounds. Work has entered its final phase, with Adli directing his attention to the oldest area, said to date back to the fourth century: "There was cement paint on the pillars, which, according to a book written by Summers-Clark in the 19th century, was originally transported from ancient Egyptian temples. Unfortunately, when we removed the cement we didn't find much, but there was a drawing of Ra, the sun god, on one pillar." Current efforts involve polishing the pillars and installing electricity throughout the monastery, followed, finally, by plastering and carpentry: "Theoretically speaking, this should take no more than a month, but realistically, in practice, that's another story."

Upcoming projects include "other monasteries in the area. One would be Deir Al-Maharib, near Al- Gurna in Luxor, which is in a dire state of destitution. Actually, there are hundreds such poor monasteries all over Egypt." Nor is it a question of Coptic monuments alone, he stresses: "Funding for the conservation of all monuments in Egypt, generally speaking, is limited, whether they are ancient Egyptian, Islamic or Coptic. We have a huge number of monuments with a limited budget. The Ministry of Culture is doing its best, and foreign expeditions cannot cover everything. Things got worse after the earthquake of 1992, too..." While the SCA paid more than LE15 million to restore the Anba Antonius Monastery, for instance, "it cannot possibly pay this amount every time". Yet it may be that Coptic monuments have the added problem of declining numbers of experts: while a particular restoration project may be approved by the ministry, there is not always the specialist to carry it out: "The number of people specialised in the conservation of Coptic monuments today is no greater than the number of fingers in a hand."

Nor can Coptic churches built outside Egypt for expatriate communities serve as an expert breeding ground: "They are tendered as international bids or contests. And Coptic communities outside Egypt are not like the domestic community -- they tend to have a more American-style mentality, concentrating on feasibility studies and prioritising architectural ostentation -- a tradition very different from what we do here." One possible if partial solution is for foreign funding agencies to take the more obscure monasteries "under their wing", under the SCA's supervision -- a prospect riddled by such agencies being more interested in art (mural paintings, for example) than architectural restoration, the latter being the state's principal concern. In Adli's view, besides, there is an added dimension to the issue: "The Coptic religion does not really have international backing; the radical split between the Coptic Church and the Vatican is all too well known. You find that the only Orthodox Christians who could be said to have some presence on the international arena are the Russians, but they do not have funds. For patronage of Coptic art, you often must rely on non- religious associations amd we have nothing comparable to the Aga Khan Foundation, for instance. It doesn't help that the Copts themselves are totally ignorant of their heritage. In their own homes, many Copts would rather put up a cheap reproduction of Leonardo Da Vinci, which they can easily go out and buy, than the artworks of their own tradition."

Yet there are claims that the neglect to which Coptic monuments are subject is but an aspect of the Copts' persecution as a minority. Adli responds, "We do encounter bureaucratic problems while we work, but bureaucracy is an aspect of life in Egypt, from the moment you obtain an ID, to when you get married, even when you die. Bureaucracy is everywhere, and Copts are naturally subject to it, but to say that there's a Coptic-specific bureaucracy is just not true." And Adli is in a position to speak: an active member of the community, when he is not on leave for work outside Cairo, he teaches at the Architectural Department of the High Institute for Coptic Studies. His six-year stint with the SCA has given him "great experience", he says, with commissions ranging from landscaping the War Museum to putting together the Gayer Andersen collection. Having spent another six years working gratis at the monasteries of Wadi Al-Natrun, Adli views his desert sojourns with much sympathy. When the going is good, he lives in a cell, as a monk. "By the way," he tells me, "the English word monk is actually derived from monachos, an Egyptianised word composed of mono, meaning one, and khos, meaning, in ancient Egyptian, a house -- the peasant's living quarters."

His current life in Nagada sounds monastic enough: he is up at eight to supervise the day's mortar mix and give the masons instructions. Before he had the luxury of a driver, he would head for the village of Al-Zawayda, 15km away, at 6.30am, in his truck -- to pick them up. The next task involves a journey to Luxor, whence to bring the antiquities inspector to the working site, only to take him back to Luxor in the afternoon. This he does every single day, for work at the monastery must tale place under the inspector's direct supervision. At the end of the day the masons are conveyed back to Al- Zawayda before he can have a very late lunch, usually not long before sunset -- "because fasting is the order of the day there", he explains -- and start drawing up the next day's shopping list. Depending on the weather, the television in his cell transmits Channel One, Two and Eight (the local channel) of national television. Yet he never suffers from boredom: "When you don't have time to get bored, you don't. It's a wonderful experience to see the building emerge. And I have no family, no wife or children, so it's not as if it's keeping me from anything." Instead Father Kirolos Al-Muharraqi, the monastery's sole monk and formerly, by coincidence, an architect more or less the same age as Adli, keeps him company. Bishop Bimen of Nagada, too, used to be a civil engineer. "We're like a construction company," he smiles. "That's why it's been such a successful consortium."

Surely it takes courage and determination, though, to be working so hard without pay. "I wouldn't," he says simply, "if there was someone else to do it." But the vision he harbours is enough to flout any such superficial detachment. He aspires, among other things, to "compiling a classification of Coptic architecture, just as there are classifications for the different phases of Pharaonic and Islamic architecture. There are no provisions for the proper teaching of Coptic architecture, you see: the institute is just not as interested in buildings as it is in hymns, icons and theology." An architect who, in his own words, "knows the history of architecture, because if I did not I would be a contractor", the increasing, un-aesthetic uniformity of Egypt's urban landscape suffocates him at times. It is something he feels strongly about: "Our architecture has a past, an identity that we should know. The architecture of American-style skyscrapers is not at all humane, especially not in a country like our own. When there is abundant land, why go up vertically and not horizontally, which is only logical? The evolution of Egyptian architecture moved from ancient Egyptian to Coptic, then to the Islamic -- there was a continuity, always changing. But at no point in history was there such distressing uniformity, such lack of personality."

After a brief stay with his mother in Geziret Badran, part of the densely populated neighbourhood of Shubra, Adli travels non- chalantly to the train station: it doesn't matter much which train he will catch; if he misses one he can always wait for the next. And likewise in Luxor: maybe the old truck will be waiting for him at the station, maybe not; the driver might well oversleep, or the car would have broken down again. He doesn't worry too much about it: if the truck is not there he will resort to public transportation, changing twice on the way to Nagada, where -- Adli goes on, smiling -- the masons may or may not be waiting for him, ready to resume work (they are often called on abruptly to do other work in Luxor). The treadmill is wearying, he says, but he never loses sight of the intrinsic worth of what he does, even as he worries about the future: "God knows what will happen to the conservation work being done now. After 20 years it may well be considered outdated, it may be pulled down again." After all, Adli just might give up his project of classifying Coptic architecture and instead immigrate to Australia, where his sister lives: "Nothing forces me to stay here, in the same way as nothing forces me to go. It all depends. I might go and like it there, in which case art and history would be all very well -- they don't give you enough to live on, though." What would decisively keep him, then? "A good working environment, a job in the market. Give that to anyone, and why would they leave? Some people are optimistic that things will get better". He, however, does not seem to share this outlook "You only need to look at the prices of construction materials. Three years ago, a tonne of cement was LE120, now it's LE320. Steel was LE1,200 a tonne, now it's LE3,600. Look at those figures and tell me: should I be pessimistic or optimistic?"

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