Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 March 2010
Issue No. 988
Heritage
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Revisiting the southern frontier

Coptic history never ceases to enthral. Jill Kamil attends this year's symposium near Aswan

Clockwise from top: the western corridor to the north of the apse of the Monastery of Deir Al-Hedra; map of Aswan and environs; view of the Nile at Aswan with a sheikh's tomb known as Qubbet Al-Hawa on the west bank of the Nile, and the Monastery of Qubbet Al-Hawa in front of noblemen's tombs to the left; a young student interviews Father Martyros Angelos in English

Early Christianity and Monasticism in Aswan and Nubia" was the fifth symposium on Coptic Studies to take place at a monastic centre. Organised by Coptologist Gawdat Gabra, Fawzi Estafanous of the St Mark Foundation for Coptic History Studies, Hani Takla, president of the St Shenouda Society, and under the auspices of Pope Shenouda III and Anba Hedra, archbishop of Aswan, it was held in the new Monastery of St Hatre (still under construction), within walking distance of the ruins of the famous Monastery of St Hatre in the Western Desert -- known for some unknown reason by early archaeologists and travellers as the Monastery of St Simeon.

Situated due south-west of the southern tip of Elephantine, the monastery is named after an anchorite who was consecrated by Patriarch Theophilus, bishop of Syene (Aswan), at the beginning of the fifth century.

Before the opening ceremony the participants walked down the rocky incline from the new monastery to the old, where a mass was held. As we made our way back to the conference centre we were left wondering why this large and impressive monastery was in such a sorry state of repair. It was apparently examined and published by Peter Grossman in 1985, and in 1998 the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) removed some debris from the church, but little else appears to have been achieved.

"Anba Hedra, who presented a paper on the modern history of Christianity in Aswan, talked about the importance of the location. Aswan [ Suan in Coptic and derived from the Greek Syene] was a flourishing borderline market for thousands of years. Rich in natural resources including granite, quartz and iron, it was strategically important because the southern tip of the island of Elephantine commanded the First Cataract that formed a natural boundary with Nubia. The noblemen of Elephantine were known as Keepers of the Southern Gate, which was the starting point for the caravan routes for the earliest commercial and military expeditions.

From a distance, the past seems orderly, with clear-cut periods demarcated by battles, wars, church councils and conflicts, but "real history is different and far more confusing", said Jacques van der Vliet, a scholar more fascinated with inscriptions than by architectural remains and oral tradition. In "Contested Frontiers -- southern Egypt and northern Nubia, AD 500-1500", he pointed out that although Aswan traditionally represented Egypt's southern frontier "if not in reality at least symbolically", the notion of "frontier" was complex since, while political frontiers draw seemingly clear-cut boundary lines, "cultural, linguistic and religious boundaries are by definition less easy to grasp, even when they coincide with political boundaries."

Van der Vliet presented a chronological discussion of selected inscriptions covering 1,000 years of Christianity in the broader Aswan region -- which is to say around the Aswan, Elephantine and Philae regions; the monasteries of Hatre and Qubbet Al-Hawa on the west bank of the Nile; north as far as Kom Ombo, Edfu, Esna (which were major Roman temple areas and later Christian sites); and south beyond Qasr Ibrim to the Nubian kingdoms of Nobatae, Makuria and Alwa.

The temple-church of Qasr Ibrim was the subject of a presentation by Joost Hagen. Ibrim is all that remains of an important frontier post in Roman times that commanded a view of the Nile valley and desert for miles around. Between 30 BC and 395 AD it was the official border between Egypt and Nubia, and its control by the Roman general Petronius is well documented. His task was to contain the Blemmys (Beja) and the Nobodai tributes of the Eastern and Western deserts. Later, when Christianity spread throughout Nubia at the beginning of the sixth century, a Pharaonic temple on the site (built by the 25th-dynasty Nubian ruler Pharaoh Taharqa) was converted into a church, and the great cathedral on the summit was built in the 12th century. Threatened as it was with total inundation by Lake Nasser, excavations started in the 1960s when an important discovery was made. A body clad in episcopal robes was unearthed, and within its folds were long scrolls written in Arabic and Coptic. This was only a beginning. This site has proved vital for historical research. Among the most important discoveries made so far is a horde of ancient documents written in a host of languages -- Old Nubian, Arabic, Coptic, and Greek. They are private and official letters, legal documents and petitions, literary and documentary texts, dating from the end of the eighth to the 15th centuries.

Father Wadei Abul-Lif outlined the work of one of the first great scholars to write about Nubia, whose "great achievements" have not been given due credit. Monneret de Villard (1881-1954) was, Father Wadei said, worth more than the few lines devoted to him in the Coptic Encyclopaedia. He first outlined de Villard's credentials, and then went on to describe how his works on Christian Egypt and Nubia could be divided into three groups which together covered a vast range of studies on Egypt's monasteries and churches. De Villard carried out studies on Aswan and the Monastery of Saint Simeon, as it was then known, as well as various studies in Nubia where he worked from 1929 to 1934. This prolific scholar, who was neither a philologist nor an epigraphist, admitted to relying on earlier information in cases where all traces of antiquity had disappeared, but he nevertheless provided original descriptions, especially in those cities where there was more than one church. On the island of Philae, site of the Graeco- Roman Temple of Isis, no fewer than six churches were described by de Villard, and he gave the names of nine bishops. He wrote about "many churches" in Faras, some of which he could not enter because they had been converted in mosques or were used as houses. The number of churches and monasteries he described was enormous, Father Wadei said.

Modern scholars all too frequently overlook studies made by individuals with scholarly limitations, yet we can learn a great deal from their work. From de Villard we know that, in the third century, there were Egyptian Christians in Nubia, even before the evangelisation of the sixth century when Egypt was under Byzantine rule, and the last pagan temple on Egyptian soil, the Temple of Isis in Philae, was officially closed by Justinian. Wadei pointed out that although de Villard's work was incomplete (he died in 1954 before the construction of the High Dam) his works should be resuscitated as they are "indispensable to the knowledge of Nubian history, of which," Father Wadei concluded, "there are few books, "and also because of still differing theories regarding the first missionaries to Nubia."

S.G. Richter's paper entitled "Beginnings of Christianity in Nubia" (read in his absence by Gawdat Gabra) outlined the discoveries made in Egypt and Nubia from Napoleon's expedition to Egypt towards the end of the 18th century through to the UNESCO- sponsored salvage operations carried out at the request of the Egyptian and Sudanese governments. "The results definitely changed our knowledge about the Christian heritage of Nubia," Richter wrote, "not only in the amount of ecclesiastical remains but also the quality of objects, like the famous wall-paintings of Faras which brought Nubia in line with countries with highly developed Christian cultures. Sources are limited, but the paper mentioned that "the Christian faith was known and accepted in Nubia in the fourth and fifth centuries" and Richter made reference to personalities like Moses the Black, a Nubian who lived in Wadi Al-Natrun who was witness to Christian influences in Nubia; also to Nubians mentioned as among the congregation in Sohag in one of St Shenoute's homilies. "It is possible that [Egyptian] monks and hermits of Upper Egypt taught Nubians about their faith at Egypt's southern border" Richter wrote. And, on sixth-century literary sources that describe an official mission that succeeded in converting the three kingdoms of Nubia to Christianity, he admitted to "gaps in our knowledge..." which left the door open "for misinterpretation and consequences which have lasted for decades."

Prior to a tour of the Monastery of Qubbet Al-Hawa, Renate Dekker gave a paper on this unique, octagon-domed structure, its location and documentation by early archaeologists. "The monastery seems to have been developed out of a hermitage in Late Antiquity," Dekker said (which, in more familiar local jargon, refers to the Byzantine era of Egypt's history from the fourth to the seventh centuries). She described that it was cut in the east side of the cliff, and that the tombs provided a solid and cool place, and a shelter from the sun and wind. She outlined the work by Peter Grossmann in 1985, in which he described its architectural features, and by the SCA in 1998. She described its various features, which enabled documentation of its progressive growth on two levels connected by means of rock- cut staircases, and added that there remained many imponderables. She admitted that the structure remained "an architectural puzzle".

It certainly is a challenge. On the trip to the monastery we had an opportunity to see beautiful wall paintings which, as in the Monastery of St Hedra, are in urgent need of conservation. On the west wall of the church is an apse adorned with a two-zoned composition, a popular style in monastic painting. The upper section of the composition depicts Christ in glory, his right hand raised in a posture of blessing, while in his left hand he holds a book; the mandorla is supported by six angels in full flight. Below this scene, on the lower part of the apse, the Holy Virgin stands among the 12 Apostles. To the north of the apse is a long, barrel vaulted room, where six figures are depicted on its west wall. Among the Coptic texts on the wall is one significant entry written on a layer of plaster which was applied over the paintings. It bears the date AM 896 (1180 AD), which clearly indicates that the wall paintings were executed prior to that date.

Recalling these paintings, and similar ones in the monastery of St Hedra, I am reminded of the paper given by Mary Kupelian, "A Comparative Study of the Ascension Scene in the Apse of the Monastery at Qubbat Al-Hawa", in which she demonstrates that New Testament themes, which are to be found in monasteries all over the country, provide an iconic view of sacred a person or persons, they relate to the liturgy, and they serve to describe the biblical narrative. Kupelian observes that the themes in the apse are symbolic; that the ascension is the only narrative theme in the apse; and that it is common to churches all over the country including the church of the Holy Virgin in the Deir Al-Surian in Wadi Natrun, the church chapel of the Virgin in the Monastery of Abu Seifein in Old Cairo, and the two ancient monasteries in Aswan.

Sabri Shaker gave an excellent paper about the architectural restoration of the monastery of St Hedra. Demolition of the roofing of the church increased the speed of deterioration of the works which, within the last 70 years, have been badly damaged; those on the lower level have been better protected. The first phase of the conservation plan entails new roofing and consolidation of architectural features. This will be followed by an analytical study of the condition of the wall paintings with view to conservation.

Shaker is collaborating with Howard Middleton Jones with a view to developing a standard methodology towards the reconstruction, preservation and conservation of Coptic monuments in Egypt. Jones's paper outlined a proposed method that has been tested in the archaeological world over the past decade, and which, he suggests, could be integrated with ongoing projects in Egypt. He opined that "organising a 'universal' method would assist not only in recording, analysing and preserving Coptic wall paintings and inscriptions, but also monastic sites as a whole, thus preserving the important and unique Coptic heritage"

Ancient history encapsulated

THE OPENING ceremony of the seminar was enhanced by a colourful panorama put on by the children of Aswan who enacted the various eras of Egypt's history. They ranged in age from first graders through to teenagers, and put on a wonderful show. Along the aisle of the great tent where the opening ceremony took place came tiny representatives of the earliest Pharaohs wearing the Red Crown of Upper Egypt, the White Crown of Lower Egypt, and the Double Crown representing the unification of the "Two Lands". The proud pyramid-builders carried pyramids, the mighty conquerors of peak periods in Egyptian history marched up the aisle. Ancient history, legendary history, through to the Ptolemaic were all present. Then came the arrival of St Mark the Evangelist in Alexandria, and the biblical story of the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. There were furry animals and an awe-inspiring lion. The children of Aswan are to be commended for their enthusiasm, talent, discipline, and (I must add) their fluency in English as their second language. Aswan Governor Mustafa El-Said could not fail to be proud.

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