Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

The Coptic Orthodox Church in action

The organisers of the Sixth International Symposium of Christianity and Monasticism thought twice about the advisability of convening at a distant monastery in the desert west of Assiut last month. They need not have worried, writes Jill Kamil

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the light of sectarian tension following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s most respected Coptologist, Gawdat Gabra, thought long and hard before confirming the location of the sixth Coptic symposium. Despite assurances from locals that it was perfectly safe for scholars from around the world to travel by bus from Cairo to Assiut, and then more than 30 kilometres further into the Western Desert, he was unsure.  Even as he boarded the bus at Sofitel Heliopolis along with the rest of the participants he voiced concern about their safety.
“He now lives in the USA,” explained Fahim Wassef of the St Mark Foundation. “He is currently Visiting Professor of Coptic Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and naturally he has been influenced by the negative American press on what is perceived to be serious discrimination against Egypt’s Christian minority. He was to learn soon enough,” Wassef went on, “that not only was it safe to travel by road to Upper Egypt, but that the journey provided a unique opportunity to see the Egypt’s national church in action.”
Wassef was referring to the fact that Pope Tawadros II, who was enthroned last November, is planning  to energise the spiritual solidarity of the Coptic community by himself attending the symposium. No Coptic pontiff had been to the fourth-century monastery of Deir Al-Muharraq in  three decades, and not only did several thousand residents of Assiut and neighbouring towns and villages wait for hours to catch a glimpse of His Grace as his motorcade traced the route to Upper Egypt, but scores of black-clad monks lined up to welcome him outside the monastery walls, singing hymns and burning incense. The active stance that Pope Tawadros has taken since his enthronement as the spiritual leader of the Copts, is much appreciated, and in fact he reached the monastery ahead of the symposium participants, who found access to the monastery almost totally blocked by chanting and welcoming crowds.
The participants took off from Cairo’s Sofitel in Heliopolis at 7.30 in the morning, and travelled along the desert road on the east bank of the Nile as far as Gabal Al-Tair, unquestionably one of the most picturesque sites associated with the sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt. There they took a break, visited the monastery, enjoyed lunch at Samalut with Paphnutius, the bishop of Samalut, who gave a presentation about the history of the area.
Gabal Al-Tair (“Mount of Birds”), popularly known as the Church of the Lady of the Palm, is situated on the eastern bank of the Nile overlooking the valley, built on the site of a cave where the Holy Family are believed to have taken refuge during their sojourn in Egypt. Before construction of the High Dam at Aswan, the annual Nile flood reached the foot of the steep mountain plateau and could be easily reached by boat.  According to tradition, Mary feared for the safety of Jesus when a large rock threatened to fall on their boat from the mountain above, but Jesus extended his hand and prevented its falling. His imprint remained on the rock, and the church was built in commemoration of the event. There are, in fact, no comparable stories anywhere in the world of miracles associated with the biblical event of the Flight into Egypt, nor as many relics, as in Egypt.
Historically speaking, the Monastery of the Holy Virgin at Deir Al-Muharraq belongs to a group of monasteries established by Saint Pachomius (Anba Bakhum) or his immediate successors. This was the site of the sixth Coptic symposium, and mediaeval and modern historians alike have been consistent in describing Deir Al-Muharraq, literally “the monastery scorched by fire” (in reference to the habitual burning of wild reeds to clear the ground for cultivation) in glowing terms and a place of healing. Located at Mount Qusqam in the Western Desert, little trace of the  original structure remains today. The present buildings are principally 19th century, and they were expanded in the late 20th century to cater for an ever-increasing number of visitors, pilgrims, and monks in retreat.
On the occasion of the Coptic Symposium, there was ample accommodation and suitable facilities at Deir Al-Muharraq to cater to the participants, who were given a welcome such as they could not have imagined. Coptic symposia take place at a different monastery every two years and the religious institutions have not only come welcome them but to try and outdo one another in providing ever more attractive conference surroundings and facilities, good food, entertainment and programmes to visit surrounding areas.
At the opening session, presided over by His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, and attended by the governor of Assiut Mohamed Kisch and several worthy bishops including Bishop Demetrius, Bishop Thomas, and Bishop Lucas, the governor talked about the historically important monasteries in Upper Egypt, among them that of St Bane (Abu Fana); the modern history of the diocese of Qusia; and the modern history of the Hanging Church of St Menas near Assiut.
Honours we paid to Peter Grossman in recognition of a lifetime’s work in the Coptic heritage, and this was followed by Adel Fakhri, who gave a presentation on Christianity in Assiut in modern times. He provided some interesting statistics, noting that it was the sixth largest city in Egypt in the mid-18th century, second only to Cairo, and that the vast majority of the population were Muslim. By 1843, according to British Egyptologist and traveller John Gardiner Wilkinson, the Coptic community numbered no more than 1,000, but five years later the Coptic bishop of Assiut put forward a claim of 6,000 Copts. Whatever the actual figure,” Fakhry continued, “Copts were then a distinct minority.” But a mere 30 years later it was possible to describe Assiut (as is common today) as the “Coptic capital of Egypt”, both in terms of the size of the Christian population and the influence and wealth of its members.
Fakhry made  special reference to “the rich Coptic ladies of Assiut, feminists who demonstrated against British occupation of Egypt back at the beginning of the 19thcentury, such as Ester Wissa and her aunt Regina Khayyat who, with others, were involved  in the Young Woman’s Christian Association, the Labour Association of Egypt and other charitable associations. They discarded the veil “and moved about as freely as if they were in England”. (His Holiness took the opportunity to visit the Metropolitan Michael of Assiut who was indisposed).
Jacques Van der Vleit’s presentation was on the topography and epigraphy of the region, and on the monastery known as Deir Al-Gabrawi “which  is surrounded by a crown of monasteries and sanctuaries connected with the cult of martyrs”. Today almost 50 per cent of the population of Assiut is believed to be Christian, and he described various Christian locations that were early documented and described, adding that today they “tell a sad story of destruction and neglect”. He described some — on what he called “meagre and extremely fragile evidence” — and stressed the need for further research, both fieldwork and in museum and library collections “aimed to help reconstruct a world that now seems largely lost”.
The history of the foundation of the Monastery known as Deir Al-Muharraq is closely interwoven with the Biblical story of the Flight into Egypt. Near Qusqam (now Al-Qusiya), Joseph built a small house of bricks and covered it with palm leaves. It is taken as the most southern place reached by the Holy Family, and the place where the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and urged him to take the young child and His mother and return to Palestine when “he who had sought to kill the child has died”. Coptic literature is explicit on the length of time they spent there: more than six months, 185 days to be precise. Today the monastery is one of the largest and wealthiest in Upper Egypt and is well known for its charitable work among villagers. During the long fast preceding Easter, crowds estimated at some 50,000 make pilgrimage there to receive a blessing, have their children baptised, or to pray for a cure. A slab of stone that forms the altar of the main church is believed to be the one on which Jesus sat as a child. It was later usurped and used as a funerary stele, but has now reverted to its original use as an altar and bears the date 11 December 747.
Deir Al-Muharraq established the St Mary Hospital at Assiut, a cancer treatment centre that is free of charge to the needy and a specialised clinic at the village near the monastery. Great attention has been given to educating the children of the village. A primary school built there in 1947 was registered by the Ministry of Education in 1952, when a preparatory school was added — from which many attained the highest scores in the country. Among Coptic publications that were issued in Assiut down the years were Al-Nuzhah, a bi-weekly  produced by George Khayyat from 1886 to Nasser’s Revolution, stopping publication in 1954; Assiut Weekly published by Amin Khayr Al-Assiuti which ran from 1930 to 1954; and Buq Al-Qadasah, a monthly that is still published.
Ashraf  Negeh and Mary Kupelian presented an overview of the most important rock-cut monasteries and churches around Assiut, including Deir Durunka (the most famous pilgrimage site after Deir Al-Muharraq), Deir Al-Ganadla, Deir Abu Muqrufah and the Hanging Monastery. Mark Sheridan chose John of Lycopolis, probably the best known saint of Christian Egypt, as the subject of his presentation. He described that the carpenter who withdrew to an isolated area in the mountains was a prophet, who predicted the Roman emperor’s victory over Maximus and Eugenius and who died in AD 394.
The participants were delighted with the field trip to the Cave of Saint John of Lycopolis, and the monastery known as Deir Durunka, a complex built on a slope which rises a hundred metres above the river. It comprises a number of churches and other buildings, some several storeys high, the oldest being the Church of  Saint Mary built on a ledge of the slope. The annual celebration (moulid) that takes place from 7-22 August in commemoration of the visit of the Holy Family to Assiut is attended by thousands of pilgrims who stay in large caves, which at one time were inhabited by hermits and later by Christians escaping persecution.
A talk by Father Yostos El-Orshalimi about Ethiopians at Deir Al-Muharraq was of particular interest. Rather than go on annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Ethiopians used to come on foot to Dair Al-Muharraq, held to be the first Christian church blessed by Jesus.
When the numbers increased, Ethiopian monks built their own church to perform their ritual prayers in their own language. Ethiopian clergymen still remember that most of their bishops, deputised by their mother Coptic Church in Ethiopia, were chosen from Qusqam’s monastery monks. Their number diminished following the Ethiopian/Italian war of 1936 to 1948 and the following turmoil in south Sudan.
As to be expected, a whole session was given to Preservation and Documentation. Bishop Martyrus and Father Epiphanius Al-Maqary outlined an ambitious project to document the objects and the decorated elements, as well as the inscriptions, of Coptic monasteries, Churches and other buildings. Father Bigoul Al-Suriani spoke about Anba Athanasius, Bishop of Abu Tig, and the preservation of manuscripts. Father Angelous Al-Naqlouni outlined a project to index the manuscripts of the Church of the Archangel Gabriel in Beni Magd (Manfalout).
On the return journey, to the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Cairo, the visitors passed the Monastery of St Apollo at Bawit, where a French mission is currently excavating; and the Monastery of Abu Fana (Apa Bane), the oldest saint in Egypt, whose remains have been identified and whose cult is still flourishes today. Karel Innemee described the former, the monastic site of Bawit, as still shrouded in mystery despite excavations since the beginning of the 20th century, and the fact that it has yielded a large number of worthy monuments, including the famous sixth to seventh-century niche from one of the chapels, now in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, which represents Christ enthroned and supported by the four creatures of the Apocalypse, and other elements in the Louvre in Paris. Innemee investigated the iconography of the paintings in order to see if they supported the theory that the themes and decorations from Bawit showed any similarity with sculptures and paintings in Roman catacombs, sarcophagi and other tomb-decoration. He concluded that the painters were indeed familiar with late Roman traditions and iconography.
At the Monastery of Abu Fana, Demetrius, Bishop of Mallawi talked to the visiting participants of the symposium about the fourth century, and Apa Bane, a gentle, wise and humble man who remained in a darkened cell for eighteen years, always on his feet even when sleeping, when he supported himself on a low wall. His remains could be identified because his spine showed signs of chronic illness, a form of arthritis of the spine that caused the stiffness of his body as described in his biographies.
It has been agreed that the next Coptic Symposium of Christianity and Monasticism, will take place in 2015, at Deir Mar (Saint) Mina at Maryut.

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