Egypt's Christians and their heritage
The Churches of Egypt -- From the Journey of the Holy Family to the Present Day, by Gawdat Gabra and Gertrud J.M. van Loon, edited by Carolyn Ludwig with photographs by Sherif Sonbol
The Churches of Egypt -- From the Journey of the Holy Family to the Present Day was launched at an American University in Cairo Press "Book and Author Reception" in mid- November. This was a bumper affair which took place in the small central garden of the Old Wing in the Coptic Museum. On display round one part of the enclosed area were a dozen and more mounted enlargements of some of the most beautiful photographs in the book. A buffet dinner was set out on the other side of the garden, and seating at small high tables with bar-height stools was provided. A wide range of AUC Publications on Coptic heritage was stacked for sale; they ranged from such large publications as Be Thou There, Monastic Visions, and Coptic Life in Egypt, to regular books on The Early Coptic Papacy, Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts, and my own Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs.
The Churches of Egypt is the brainchild of Carolyn Ludwig. Addressing the invited guests, Ludwig explained how the book came about. During her travels to Egypt over the last 25 years, she said, she had come to appreciate the rich Christian heritage that is woven through the country's history "along with the threads of its more famous Pharaonic past." She noted that the brief reference to the Flight of the Holy Family in the Gospel of Matthew "offers a glimpse into the three-and-a-half years they spent in Egypt", but that most of the stories about this important episode in Jesus's life "are recorded only in the various infancy narratives". When, in 2000, the Coptic Orthodox Church defined the route of the Holy Family's journey, she said she was determined to follow in their footsteps. She did so, sand was deeply moved by the humanity of the stories "that are told, until this day, about the few years in the life of Christ spent in Egypt," as well as by the humble simplicity of Egypt's early churches which stand "in stark contrast to the granite and marble, the gold inlays and bronze statues of churches in Rome..."
Ludwig travelled in the company of photographer Sherif Sonbol, whose photographs, she wrote in the introduction to her book, "reveal the beauty of Egypt's ancient and modern churches and monasteries, all of which testify to the determination of the Coptic Church for nearly two millennia to keep the Christian faith alive in Egypt -- often in the face of adversity."
I can only describe the book as a hefty publication. It weighs all of two kilogrammes, and I use that adjective advisedly because it is not only large in size, but substantial in content. It covers churches of all denominations -- from the Delta and Sinai to Cairo and its suburbs; it includes Fayoum and Upper Egypt, and even the most remote of monasteries, some of which I have never visited. As I flip through the pages of the publication to get a feel for its contents, my eye falls on page after page of impressive photographs: images of churches, ancient and modern, domed monasteries, altars, sanctuaries and icons.
More than 300 original photographs enhance the volume, and all are brilliant. Sonbol has captured religious buildings in their environmental setting, focussing on details in their interiors -- whether details of the decoration of a dome, a layer of a painting flaking off an ancient church wall to reveal earlier images beneath, or altar screens constructed of reused sculpture. This book thus presents an opportunity to appreciate details that can rarely be seen on site. One eye-catching image is followed by another to remind us of details that we may have missed, or that introduce us to images we have never seen, and, I may add, are unlikely to see because they are in churches located in little-known and difficult-to-reach areas of Egypt.
Sonbol says they had trouble in locating many of the distant monasteries. "Even when we got there, we faced some problems," he says. "In rock churches like the Monastery of Al-Ganadla south of Assiut, for example, extremely heavy benches had to be removed in order to photograph the interior of the church. I must add that the monks were courteous and only too willing to be of help. Unfortunately, I can't say the same of some of the better-known monasteries!"
The Churches of Egypt is a quality production, laid out with taste and beautifully bound. It might be heavy but is not too burdensome to handle, largely because the images are so captivating that they encourage the viewer to turn to the next page. One photograph in particular caught my fancy. It shows the tip of a dome with a cross silhouetted against a blue sky, rising above a desert strewn with rocks. It captures the essence of monasticism, and it took an artist to capture it.
The concept of the book was later expanded from churches associated with the Holy Family to include a historical overview of Christianity in Egypt from ancient to modern, including all denominations: Egypt's Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Armenian churches. Coptologist Gawdat Gabra wrote the historical introduction; Gertrud J.M. van Loon wrote about art; while Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom covered Christian architecture.
Reviewed by Jill Kamil