Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 February - 1 March 2006
Issue No. 783
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Desert fathers in the limelight

The Third Symposium on Coptic Studies that took place at the White Monastery of St Shenoude west of Sohag early this month cast light on the life and times of an extraordinary Upper Egyptian monk, says Jill Kamil

Click to view caption
Painting in the dome over the Altar : Crowning the Holy Virgin, Monastery of St. Thomas the hermit;
THE CONGRESS participants were conducted to several sites of historical interest, including the Monastery of St Thomas the hermit, which stands at the mouth of Wadi Sarga, north of Akhmim; this painting in the dome of the old church is a fine example of Coptic art in its most spontaneous form, showing the Holy Virgin and angels painted with delightful naiveté in a style that has been labelled Akhmimic. The group also visited the open-air museum in Akhmim to see the monolith of beautiful Merit-Amun, daughter of Ramses II, the Church of Abu Seifein, and the Monastery of Girgis Al-Hadidi.

Who would have thought that a symposium on Coptic studies would draw so much attention outside the narrow field of specialists in the discipline? The organisers of the international gathering on "Christianity and Monasticism in the Region of Sohag" certainly did not expect it, even though they did, in a sense, set the ball rolling.

Preparations for the convention had been ongoing for much longer than usual -- mainly because the area has seen so little tourist activity for many years now -- and more than the groundbreaking spadework was needed. Apart from accommodation, catering, transport and appropriate technology at the White Monastery, the chosen venue of the symposium, there was the question of security. Sohag's residents soon became aware that something unusual was going on and wanted to know what the activity was all about.

That was when Fawzi Estephanos, founder and president of the St Mark Foundation for Coptic Studies, and members of the organising committee decided that it would be appropriate to talk to the people of Sohag and let them know that their city was important enough to host an international gathering. So, following the reception and dinner at the Bishopric the evening before the opening ceremony in the White Monastery on 2 February, a series of lectures was presented in Arabic. An estimated 700 to 800 men, women, and a large number of students attended. Estephanos spoke about the establishment seven years ago of the St Mark Foundation and its progress to date in disseminating Coptic culture. Hani Takla spoke about the St Shenoude Foundation in New York, the Coptic language and the great library of the White Monastery, which towards the end of the 19th century was pillaged by Western scholars and antiquities dealers anxious to obtain texts for study and for sale. Father Athanasius gave a talk about Coptic faith, monastic life, and religious ritual in the area of Sohag, and outlined the difference between Coptic Orthodox Christians, Coptic Protestants and Coptic Catholics. Ashraf Sadeq explained that the name Shenoude was derived from the ancient Egyptian shery ni netjer (Coptic shery ne-noute, or "child of God") and gave other examples of the Coptic language as a direct link with the past. Gawdat Gabra compared life in Sohag and the neighbouring community at Akhmim as it was in 1968 when he was first appointed an inspector for the Antiquities Organisation, and as it is today.

Gabra also outlined the archaeological importance of the Sohag region in the history of monasticism, making special mention of the Red Monastery which is currently being conserved in a project initiated by Elizabeth Bolman following the International Congress of Coptic Studies in 2000. Bolman facilitated a gathering of art historians, archaeologists, epigraphers, members of Coptic Societies, and historians to form the Consortium for the Research and Conservation in the Monasteries of the Sohag region, known simply as "the Consortium".

"Work carried out so far on the Red Monastery is remarkable and the wall paintings are so well- preserved and unique that the monastery will soon be a major tourist attraction worldwide," Gabra said.

The opening ceremony on 2 February took place in the huge open courtyard of St Shenoude's Monastery, which lies some eight kilometres west of Sohag. Bishop Yuhannes, abbot of both the White and Red monasteries (so-called because the former is built of white limestone and the latter of red brick) welcomed the participants and organisers of the symposium at the entrance to the basilica, along with General Mohamed Sharawi, governor of Sohag, and his entourage, Bishop Bakhum of Sohag, Bishop Bashada of Akhmim, and an unexpectedly large representation of bishops from further afield along with their delegations. It soon became clear that not all the notables could be accommodated on the platform erected for them, and many had to take their seats with the participants. Present also was Abdullah Kamel, head of the Coptic and Islamic sector of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

In his opening speech, which was presented in English and Arabic, Bishop Yuhannes -- who is the pope's private secretary and companion on his missions abroad -- spoke of St Shenoude of Atripe, abbot of the two monasteries, who played an important part in the spiritual lives of men and women in the region. He outlined the growth and development of the monastic movement, Shenoude's regulated monastic rule, and the fact that, when he became abbot in the fifth century the population of monks increased from a mere 30, all living in the large, quadrangular, fortress-like monastery, to an estimated 4,000 in the monastery and surrounding areas. He described how St Shenoude's monastic institution survived in times of crisis, especially in the sixth and eighth centuries, and how he exercised personal authority and power with love and empathy, but was not beyond voicing harsh words of rebuke and condemnation where he saw fit. The governor of Sohag then gave a short presentation in Arabic, translated into English by Bishop Yuhannes, about the continuity of human thought and culture, and the unity "between the two components of the nation, Christianity and Islam".

After a short tea break the participants walked through the recently laid-out gardens to the elegant new building in the compound. When the symposium began it was clear that the programme was tight. A mere half hour was granted to each speaker to make his presentation and answer questions. Father Timothaws, senior priest at Sohag, took the floor first. He summarised the recent history of the Coptic Church, describing St Shenoude as a prophet who lived in an age when Romans ruled Egypt, and he mentioned that he called for the Romans' expulsion in phrases that were used by Gamal Abdel-Nasser when he was calling for the expulsion of the British from Egypt in 1952.

Stephen Emmel, whose monumental 1993 The Literary Corpus of Shenoude laid a solid foundation for the future study of the life and times of the saint, talked about "Shenoude's place in the history of monasticism". He said that the Consortium was committed to the steady continuation of work in this region, which was in accordance with a plan for scientific investigation and heritage management. "[This] respects its extraordinary value for the history of monasticism and for Coptic Christian spirituality from late antiquity up to the present," Emmel said. He mentioned the continued cooperation between the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the Coptic Church, and described the physical remains of Shenoude's monastery which, although partly exposed, is still mainly buried by centuries of drifting sand.

"It is our task -- no, rather our duty -- to reconstruct the manuscripts of Shenoude's works so that we may recover as much as possible of his words before any more is lost irretrievably," he said.

We know from Shenoude's own writings that he was in charge not of a single monastery, but of several. His federation included the main monastery, founded by Pjol, a "small monastery" founded by St Bishoi ( Bishay ) to the northeast, as well as a monastery or convent for women in a village further south, the area now known as Athribis. What of the role of women in monasteries, children in the White Monastery in particular, and the care of the sick? What part did Shenoude play in the doctrinal disputes that rocked the Christian world after it was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century? What was the relationship between Shenoude and his contemporary patriarchs of Alexandria, or between his rule and that of coenobitic and semi-coenobitic communities that came before him? Indeed, how does St Shenoude measure against other important figures in Egyptian monasticism, like St Pachomius, and to what extent did the White Monastery have its roots in Pachomian-style monastic rules? In short, how important is this extraordinary individual and the monastic institution he established, not only to Christianity and monasticism in Egypt, but in the world of Christendom, because, after all, all monasticism stems either directly or indirectly from the Egyptian example? These are some of the issues that have been addressed by scholars since the last symposium in Fayoum two years ago.

A recent development in the study of monasticism in the Sohag region concerns St Shenoude's literary legacy. Emmel mentioned progress in the recovery of as many of his writings as possible with the view to editing, translating, and interpreting them. "This is an extremely complex undertaking," he said. "His writings have survived almost solely in manuscripts that were once a substantial part of the library, or libraries of his own monastery. But those parchment books in which his words were copied by generations of Coptic scribes are now mostly lost. Only parts of about 100 such 'Shenoude codices' are known to survive, in some cases no more than a single leaf from one... more often something like only 10 to 15 per cent of its leaves."

The work on this project, which was organised six years ago, is now well advanced, and various papers on the subject were given by no fewer than six participants. Catherine Louis's work on cataloguing the White Monastery fragments in the collection of the French Institute in Cairo is a major endeavour which casts light on new facts in the dispersal of the remains of the monastery's library at the end of the 19th century. Papers such as hers reveal the extraordinary literary achievement of St Shenoude and underscore the importance of proceeding with the project without delay. As Emmel said: "I am confident that much remains still to be discovered... [Shenoude's] achievement is completely without parallel... not just within Coptic literature... but even with the monastic literature of late antiquity in general, be it Greek, Latin, Syriac, or whatever."

An important paper was given by James Goehring, who spoke about "Pachomius and the White Monastery". He traced the coenobitic family tree from its early orthodox Pachomian founders to and through Shenoude, who became tradition's most visible representative in Egypt. That is to say, he spoke of the relationship between Shenoude's White Monastery and the Pachomian federation founded earlier by Pachomius ( Anba Bakhum ), one of the solid pillars of the Coptic Church and a great spiritual leader. It was Pachomius who founded a way of life for communities of monks working together to accomplish good for themselves and for society by formulating a rule which became the basis for almost every monastic order that followed.

Pachomius's monastery was planned with communal facilities from the start. His aim was to establish a pious, enlightened, and self-sufficient community that would set an example to others. His ordered, disciplined, coenobitic community was so successful that he established a second, similar institution, and then another, until there were no fewer than 11 monasteries in the Pachomian federation, including two for women.

Goehring pointed out that while the founders of the White Monastery drew upon the Pachomian example and developed close relationships with that federation, they never became a part of it. "I would argue," he said, "that with the loss of the Pachomian federation to Coptic orthodoxy in the sixth century, Shenoude gained in stature... [His] position rose within the shared memory of the past. He took his place in a now common coenobitic history that traced its origins back to Pachomius."

Janet Timbie's presentation was entitled "Once more into the desert of Apa Shenoude", and Samuel Moawad discussed the relationship between the saint of Atripe and his contemporary patriarchs of Alexandria. At this point in the symposium a scheduled coffee break was called off, a bus journey through Sohag took the participants to an island in the Nile, and the symposium lost some of its momentum.

Perhaps it was the suggestion that the Red Monastery at Sohag might become a tourist attraction in the future, or perhaps the governor of Sohag was merely exercising traditional Egyptian hospitality when he extended an invitation to the participants and organising committee to an island retreat. More likely, he saw the advantage of a photo opportunity because, following refreshments with a mouth-watering display of Egyptian sweets, he gathered his visitors around him and gave an impromptu speech. This set the lectures off schedule by several hours, but thanks to the organising committee the timetable was adjusted, dinner was delayed (much to the frustration of the chief chef who provided a selection of different Egyptian delicacies twice a day, apart from breakfast), and the lectures continued.

The second day will be remembered for its focus on the Red Monastery. Elizabeth Bolman, director and art historian of the monastery's wall painting conservation project, described the work being carried out and accompanied the participants on a tour to see the magnificence of the original paintings. Now restored, these had previously been totally blackened by centuries of soot and darkened varnish. Almost every interior surface of the late Roman architecture of the sanctuary is painted in brightly coloured designs and images. The participants climbed, in groups, up the scaffolding to platforms at different levels to take a closer look at the elaborate tiers of niches framed with painted architectural sculpture. This is a major undertaking, and it has been made possible thanks to a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) implemented by the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) for restoration and conservation of the Coptic heritage, of which the Red Monastery is a prime example.

Darlene Brooks Hedstrom talked about the archaeological excavation of the White Monastery carried out by the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation (EAO) 25 years ago, which is now being continued by the newly founded Consortium. She then conducted participants and guests around the material remains of the site.

Chrysi Kotsifou spoke about the papyrus documentary evidence of Shenoude's monastery between the sixth and eighth centuries. Presentations on surviving dated manuscripts from the White Monastery library, which belong to the 10th to 12th centuries, were given by Takla and Father Bigoul El-Suriani. Some aspects of the life of St Shenoude himself, and his influence, were presented in papers by several participants, including Stephen Davis, Ugo Zanetti, and Youhanna Youssef.

St Shenoude's prominent position in the history of the Coptic Church is assured. His contemporaries regarded him as a prophet and we know that he was familiar with the Bible in both its Coptic and Greek versions. In fact, as some of his letters and sermons indicate, he wrote in a similar style to the Bible, frequently quoted from it, and repeated sentences and rephrased messages as he saw fit. He left a profound mark on Coptic theology and institutions.

The symposium at the White Monastery, which concentrated on a single Upper Egyptian monk who became abbot of two monasteries, played an important part in the history of Christendom, and reputedly lived to the ripe age 118 (an age that Emmel considers entirely possible), drew together scholars from as far afield as Australia and Canada. It caused a stir among the population of Sohag that will long be remembered. Already other bishoprics in Middle and Upper Egypt have expressed a desire to host the next symposium in two years' time, and it seems that Nagada, between Qena and Luxor, is high on the list of possibilities.

At the concluding session special thanks were given to Father Shenouda and Father Wissa for their organisation of the monastery itself during the symposium, and for their help in ensuring the comfort of the participants. The smartly- dressed and courteous young people who were always on hand to inform, guide and assist the participants were also given special mention. The hospitality of the worthy desert fathers and their pride in outlining the history of their churches was heart-warming, and their gifts unexpected and generous. Last, but by no means least, mention should be made of Sohag's security police who did a fine job ensuring the safety of the participants. True, they were not always on schedule. But neither was anything else. Adjustments had continually to be made. As one participant said, not without irony: "The only thing that was on time was the train!"

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 783 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Features | Heritage | Living | Sports | Chronicles | Cartoons | Encounter | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map