Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 March 2008
Issue No. 888
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The spirit of monasticism in Upper Egypt

The recent Coptic convention at Naqada drew scholars from all over the world. The symposium, organised by the Saint Mark Foundation for Coptic Studies, took place in the church of the Archangel Michael from 6 to 11 February. Its aim was to draw attention to the rich heritage of one of the lesser-known monastic sites in Upper Egypt; to present an overview of the current state of research, conservation and restoration in the Naqada and Qus (Coptos) region; to increase general knowledge of the area; and to activate concern for conserving and preserving its Christian heritage. Bishop Beiman gave the opening address in the grand new hall of the monastery. Attending were Magdi Ayoub, the governor of Qena, who said a word about the specialised gathering being a part of a wider culture and identity which spanned the ages, along with VIPs, participants, guests, the press, and a large number of residents of Naqada and Qena anxious to witness such an important event taking place at a site which is not on the regular tourist map and, until relatively recently, not easily accessible by road. Jill Kamil was there

Click to view caption
From top: covers of the codices; map of the Nile north of the Theban necropolis; Monastery of the Archangel Michael in 1980; a page from Codex II of the Nag Hammadi library

Entitled "Christianity and Monasticism in Upper Egypt", this was the fourth in the series of Coptic symposia organised by Fawzi Estafanous to take place in a monastic setting. Although the smallest of the four such gatherings to date, it was lacking neither in spirit nor in the quality and diversity of the papers presented. As for the location, it was with surprise and pleasure that participants and guests found what could best be described as 'five-star facilities'. A great deal of effort had clearly gone into preparing the monastery for its distinguished guests, and as a possible venue for future conferences.

The symposium brought together a group of highly professional and gifted individuals who presented lectures on subjects of their expertise concerning the Christian heritage of the large area that lies to the south of the River Nile, where it describes a great semi-circular loop towards the west at Qena before resuming it's flow northward at Nag Hammadi. To the north of this diversion (that is to say on the east bank of the Nile), is Faw Qibli (Pbow), where St Pachomius, the founder of cenobitic monasticism, began his life as a Christian. Beyond rises Gabal Al-Tarif, the lofty mountain range studded with caves and rock-tombs that were occupied by early hermits, and where the Gnostic codices were found. Naqada itself is directly opposite Qus (Coptos).

Stephen Emmel presented the first paper on the Gnostic library of Nag Hammadi and the Faw Qibli (Pbow) excavations--the site where Pachomius took to an abandoned brick kiln (he later travelled towards the village of Tabennese, near Akhmim), where a vast basilica was later built in his honour. All that remained of the structure until well into the 1970s were relics of columns, but recent excavations have shown how it was progressively enlarged from a simple assembly-like structure (without an apse--which did not necessarily indicate that it was not a church), into a five-aisled church with an apse which became an important pilgrimage centre, and finally into the basilica restructured by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.

The reason a concerted effort was made by Justinian to honour one of Egypt's most popular saints was undoubtedly political--to encourage the bishop Abraham, along with his vast following, to back the imperial cause. Father Abraham, however, was not easily wooed. He turned his back on Pbow, took temporary refuge in the (White) Monastery of St Shenuda near Sohag, and then founded a modest monastery in his own native town at Farshut. On his departure from Pbow a Byzantine bishop was appointed in his place, but resident monks loyal to Abraham left the area and the grand basilica fell to ruin.

The life and miracles of "Abraham of Farshout", whose renown was greater than many other archimandrites of the fifth and sixth centuries, was the subject of the lecture given by James Goehring. References to this holy man appear in various sources, some fragmentary, and not always agreeing on detail. They nevertheless cast light on the conflict with Justinian over the emperor's attempt to force the Pachomian federation into line with his religious policies. Goehring made no attempt to unravel history and legend. "Rather", he said, "I want to draw attention to the centrality of the story of Abraham's conflict with Justinian in all of the surviving sources, and ask what that might tell us of the making of a saint."

Goehring suggested that Abraham's removal from office, which signalled the loss of the Pachomian federation to the Byzantine camp, "so impacted the broader monastic community that it called forth stories designed to perpetuate the event in the collective memory". Myths and legends which are meaningful to a community continue to grow with the passage of time. Thus, the stories of the conflict between the emperor and Abraham, which led to his removal from office, slowly expanded. The respective roles of the two protagonists "were intensified in order to underscore the Abraham's stature as the innocent defender of Coptic orthodoxy over the actions of the wicked emperor." In Goehring's opinion, it was this conflict that initiated a process of story-telling that, over time, embroidered the memory of the conflict into the life and miracles of the saint. And gradually, in this oral expanded tradition, came the account of Abraham's origins, his ascetic call, his miracles, and his death--details of which endure.

Switching from oral to written tradition, Jacques Van der Vliet introduced a paper entitled "The Epigraphic Sources" by noting that epigraphy is usually thought to be a dull subject, but that it is in fact not so. "[Making] transliterations of inscriptions", he said, "far from being a tedious task, was immensely rewarding". He said that he had for many years been trying to revise the prejudices against this specialization, "because inscriptions were not only interesting at first view, as part of a greater documentation, but were valuable source material. Because they are carved on stones or on walls, they 'travel' much less (than manuscripts for example) from one area to another, and can consequently be considered at a higher level--as part of the social and ideological landscape in which they are found. There is no doubt," Van der Vliet said, "about the importance of epigraphy for the study of Coptic history."

Van der Vliet then proceeded to make reference to two areas rich in epigraphical material: the Theban necropolis and Esna. The former, the so- called "city of the dead" in pharaonic times, is where pagan temples were converted into Christian monastic centres at the end of the fourth century, and subsequently turned into an area of the living with large and small communities established there. Medinet Habu, Deir Al-Medina and Deir Al-Bahri, for example, became the focal points of Coptic communities, and in some cases healing shrines. A wealth of seventh- and eighth- century documents survive, as well as an equally large number from Karnak.

Decoding the texts on Christian buildings at such sites tells what actually happened there. "We do not know the time discrepancy between the official closing of temples and the reuse by Christians," Van der Vliet said, mentioning that valuable evidence was unfortunately lost when early Egyptologists removed later evidence to reveal what was, to them, the more important pharaonic reliefs beneath.

The presentation entitled "Excavating Christian Western Thebes" by Elizabeth O'Connell revealed just how densely populated by Christian communities was the Theban necropolis once paganism was outlawed. The conversion of temples for Christian use was not easily accomplished, O'Connell said, because temple architecture was not suited to Christian ritual and liturgy. Nevertheless, excavations carried out there from 1858 (when Gaston Mariette founded the Antiquities Service); between 1922 and 1952, as well as the activities of various missions today, is bringing new evidence to light.

"A wealth of surviving is scriptions--especially graffiti--casts considerable light on the Coptic communities that existed well into the seventh and eighth centuries," O'Connell said--which is to say well past the Arab conquest of Egypt.

An overview of the literary production of the whole area under review, from its early stages through the Arab conquest and beyond, was the subject of a paper presented by Father Bigoul Al-Suriani. It included biblical texts, theological, spiritual and liturgical topics, as well as hagiographical texts and homilies. In the light of the vast quantity of surviving material, it was comforting to learn that Father Angelos Al-Naqluny was painstakingly indexing that of the Naqada and Qus regions.

On the question of comprehensive documentation, and in view of the revival of interest in Coptic churches and monasteries since the 1970s, it was heartening to learn of the multi- media database being developed by Howard Middleton-Jones. This is designed to produce an interactive catalogue of all sites, all over Egypt--whether restored, undergoing excavation, or in various stages of restoration, as well as those that have never been documented at all. A large number of monasteries, especially in desert areas such as Naqada, are little known, and some are in ruinous condition. Clearly there is a need to develop a system of Coptic sites, whereby information can easily be accessed, alongside interactive visual multi-media documentation, in an effort to improve and enhance Coptic research.

This is a major ongoing project, and full text and bibliographical references will be progressively added along with a complete photographic survey of each site. "It will include film footage, aerial and satellite imagery, excavation reports and audio interviews where available," said Middleton-Jones. "The end result will be an important tool for retrieval of archaeological records, for Coptic research in general, and it will help encourage the survival and spirit of the Coptic culture--and hopefully enliven new ideas and interest in the future of Coptology."

Adel Fakhry's paper on the monasteries of the Naqada region revealed the density of monastic communities that lie within a fairly confined area, and in close proximity to one another. They include the monastery of the Archangel Michael (built in the 14th century, and recently rebuilt and expanded); the monastery of St George (which once had the largest of the basilican-style churches of the region, where a nearby well was believed to give miraculous cures); that of St Victor (Mari Buqtur, a popular equestrian saint whose mud- brick church may date as far back as the fourth century; a monastery built on the site of the burial place of St Pisentius; and the monastery of St Andrew (Abu Lif), the old church of which has not survived; its16-domed, three-aisled church dating from the 17--19th centuries.

These monasteries were visited by symposium participants and visitors who noted that some had been restored and reactivated, others were used only for liturgical celebrations on special occasions, and others again needed urgent attention before environmental pollution and wind- bearing sand particles further claimed the few surviving remains.

Samuel Moad talked about "Christianity at Dendara and Medamoud," the former being the site of the temple of Hathor and the location of a reputed 400 martyrs in the fourth century. His presentation revealed the importance of Dendera in the Christian movement, and an excursion to the area was arranged for symposium participants that enabled them enjoy the site of the most beautiful surviving temple of Egypt. Beside its so-called Birth House is one of the earliest basilicas, now fully restored, which may be the famous Christian centre mentioned by St Jerome as being "somewhere in the neighbourhood of Dendera", where 50,000 monks assembled to celebrate the Easter festival.

No seminar on Coptic studies should fail to refer to martyrs, and His Grace Bishop Martyros of Naqada delivered a paper entitled "The Martyrs of Esna". This is the site of the Monastery of the Three-Thousand-Six-Hundred-Martyrs who died for their faith in the time of Emperor Diocletian. His brutal attack on Christians, His Grace pointed out, was the tenth in a long chain of persecutions under his predecessors. In order to establish control of the country, Diocletian divided Egypt into three regions: Alexandria and the western Delta; the eastern Delta; and the Thebaid. Irianus governed the latter area from his headquarters at what is now known as Sheikh Abadah village, and from there he extended his control in Upper Egypt as far south as the border with Nubia. Diocletian was so ferocious, said His Grace, that any region he invaded was abandoned by its inhabitants, either because they received the crown of martyrdom, or because they fled to the mountains. A few years ago, while digging in the monastery at Esna, bodies of martyrs were discovered piled one upon the other, but a study of the relics has yet to be carried out.

My choice of presentations to include in this summary of the Naqada symposium must necessarily be selective. Two more, however, deserve special mention: one by Tonio Richter entitled "Legal texts from the Region", and Renate Dekker's "Formal praise on St Pisenthios of Coptos".

An Egyptian wanting to write a letter to a fellow Egyptian in the first century of the Christian era did so in Greek, Richter pointed out, but Coptic legal documents scattered throughout Egypt show the extent of communications from the Theban area, especially from the sixth and seventh centuries. He described those that have survived on many writing surfaces, including papyrus, ostraca, parchment, and even, for late Coptic documents, on paper. Sales, deliveries, leases, contracts, receipts, settlement of disputes ... the list is endless, and Richter's meticulous study cast considerable light on the life and times of the Christian community.

Last, but by no means least, Renate Dekker deserves mention. Not only did she present her paper with great lucidity and with self- assurance--revealing how her study and analysis of a recently-discovered Sahidic version of a text on the Theban necropolis revealed more about the sainted man of Tsenti (i.e. Naqada) than was hitherto known--but also because she was the youngest participant at the symposium and her enthusiasm affected us all. St Pisenthios of Coptos was a hermit who hated vainglory and was sad when his meditations became known; he was in contact with saints like the prophet Elijah, caught fish for a sick monk, caused water to rise in a well, and "his fingers burned like lamps during prayer".

We missed you at the symposium Gawdat Gabra, and look forward to seeing you at the International Conference on Coptic Studies slated to take place in Cairo next September. It is expected to be a bumper event, coinciding with the foundation of the Coptic Museum by Morcos Samaika in 1908.

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