Thursday,18 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Thursday,18 April, 2019
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Promoting Coptic history and art

Dina Ezzat talks to Director of Egypt’s Coptic Museum Atef Naguib and icon painter Adel Nassif about preserving Coptic history and art 

A drawing from a Coptic church in Assiut depicting the journey of the Holy Family

Atef Naguib, director of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, is committed to the need for a wider awareness of the many forgotten, or even largely unknown, pages of Egypt’s Coptic history. 

It was in the mid-1960s that Naguib was set to join the Archaeology Department at Assiut University in Upper Egypt with the hope of studying Coptic history and archaeology. However, to his dismay, particularly for someone born and brought up in a Coptic environment in the Upper Egyptian city of Aswan, there was no department that specialised in Coptic archaeology and history at this or any other university in Egypt at the time.

“There were only two departments, one for Pharaonic and one for Islamic history, art and archaeology,” Naguib recalled.

Having graduated, Naguib did not relinquish his wish to specialise in Coptic history, even though it was something that was not given serious attention in society or schoolbooks at the time. His time spent at a Coptic school meant that Naguib was allowed an entry into an otherwise overlooked era of Egyptian history.

“It was there that I developed a serious interest in learning more about this era that did not receive serious attention at the time,” he said.

At the Institute for Coptic Studies affiliated to the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo Naguib found a place to pursue his interest and take a degree in Coptic archaeology. This was the beginning of a long path that led him to a PhD in the same discipline.

“It was a long and revealing learning process that allowed me to find out a great deal of information about Coptic history, not only in religious terms as many might think, but also in terms of learning more about the history of Egypt. The country was introduced to Christianity in the first century CE and evolved to be predominantly Christian, essentially Coptic Orthodox, until the day Amr Ibn Al-Aas conquered Egypt in the seventh century CE,” Naguib recalled.

During these years, Naguib developed an interest in the Christian era of Nubia in particular, “a truly overlooked phase in the history of this country”.

There is one narrative that is predominant in Egyptian culture about Ibn Al-Aas’s conquest of Egypt in 642 CE, which says that the country’s Copts were suffering from discrimination at the hands of the country’s Byzantine rulers and that the following years were marked by a general, even if interrupted, tolerance by Egypt’s new Muslim rulers for the Coptic population.

An icon by Nassif depicting the sacred journey; a drawing from the alter of a Coptic church in Upper Egypt (Jesus on the throne and Virgin Marry carrying baby Jesus with the disciples on both sides)

Naguib is not willing to contest this narrative. He merely says that it is “one among other” versions of what happened and that the latter should also be examined in order to understand the history of the country. “There was discrimination towards the Copts under Byzantine rule, but there were also Muslim rulers discriminating against the Copts as well,” Naguib said.

He added that “what should not be forgotten is that for the most part people do not learn much about the history of the Copts even before, and not just after, the Arab conquest, and this is a function of a lack of general awareness.”

Naguib is convinced that many Copts today might not be sufficiently informed about the history of Christianity in Egypt. “I know for a fact that not many are aware of the Christian period in Nubia that lasted from the sixth to the 14th century CE, for example,” he argued.

“We hardly even stop to think about the fact that many of today’s Muslim Nubians carry what would otherwise be typical Coptic names like Dawoud, Elias and Yacoub and of course Mariam which is more shared by Muslims,” Naguib said.

He noted that the archaeological excavations of the churches of Nubia, both Upper Nubia in today’s Sudan and Lower Nubia in today’s Egypt, are not given sufficient attention by the media. “Not even when the archaeological missions arrived upon the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the mid-1960s to save as many Nubian monuments as possible before the water covered what were once the lands of Nubia,” he recalled.

“It is not really there in the newspapers or on TV, and it is not there in the history curriculum, so where are people supposed to learn about the Coptic history of Egypt? Nowhere, unless you are a Copt who attends cultural activities at your church,” Naguib lamented.

a drawing of St Barbara, known in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the Great Martyr Barbara

This lack of communication with Coptic history is not made up for among history and archaeology students because it was only recently that universities started to give serious attention to Coptic studies. “The trouble is that we act as if Coptic history is a matter of religion that only interests followers of the Coptic faith. But this is untrue because it is part of our wider history and our culture,” he said.

According to Naguib, the fact that Coptic history is not mentioned in textbooks and that there is limited interest in encouraging students to visit the Coptic Museum, not to mention the many Coptic archaeological sites, is an unfortunate situation that creates a lack of awareness in the wider population about an integral part of the history of their country and the culture of their co-citizens who follow the Coptic faith.

Today, Naguib said, the many pages of Coptic history are essentially kept in strictly Coptic bodies. Apart from the Coptic Museum and sites such as the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, for example, Coptic history is kept by bodies such as the Coptic Cathedral, along with its associated Institute for Coptic Studies, the Association for Coptic Archaeology, the Coptic Culture Centre and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Centre for Coptic Studies.

“Today, there is a bit more awareness in the media about the celebration of Coptic feasts, especially Christmas, but beyond that there are only a few reminders of the Coptic contribution to the culture and history of the country,” Naguib said. “This is so even though the Copts are not living in ghettos and have never done so, even if historically there were areas of higher density.”

The way out of this alienation from Egypt’s Coptic history is to allow people to learn about it, he said. “I know that it is hard to change long-established norms, but we could start by some obvious and uncontroversial steps, such as including the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt in history textbooks as well as prominent Coptic figures over the centuries, including under Muslim rule,” Naguib said.

He added that there was no reason to believe that anyone would object to the inclusion of a few lines in the history books about the arrival of Christianity in Egypt or the establishment of the first monasteries or a biography of pope Kyrollos IV who started Coptic schools in Upper Egypt for girls.  

“It is unfair to deny people knowledge of the history of the Copts and then to blame these same people for their lack of affinity towards the Copts. I believe education is essential if we are really committed to understanding one another better, and this is why the Coptic Museum tries to make use of every opportunity to welcome more visitors of all age brackets and backgrounds,” Naguib said.



ET THE LIGHT COME: For his part, artist Adel Nassif has been retelling Christian history in beautiful icons. “The time has come to give more attention to the quality of icons over the mass-produced ones that have limited aesthetic qualities. I am committed to doing just that,” he said.

For over 30 years since his graduation from Alexandria University, Nassif has dedicated himself to the “rebirth of the beautiful art of icon painting”. Though icons are an essential element of Coptic art, they also have unmistakably influences from Pharaonic and Hellenistic art, he said.

“Nobody can say for sure when or for that matter where the first icons were made because in Egypt we have the [Greek period] Fayoum Portraits and in Russia and Greece there are also incredible collections of old icons that make it difficult to establish a single genealogy,” Nassif said.

“In general, I think it would be safe to say that the first icons in Egypt were painted in the first century CE and that by the fourth century there was a marked trend towards covering the walls of churches with icons,” he added.

The nativity drawing from Nubian Coptic heritage

By the late seventh century and with the Arab conquest of Egypt there was a decline in the attention that artists were giving to icons, and later some of Egypt’s Muslim rulers ordered an end to the paintings altogether.

“Archaeological excavations have revealed drawings and icons that were covered over on the walls of old churches and monasteries. Today, these are coming back to light, but of course many of the best icons are on display in museums all over the world,” Nassif said.

He is convinced that icons are not an art of the past, but are an integral part of churches that are still being built and will continue to be built. “However, this is precisely why I think that this art, delicate, taxing and expensive as it is, is being reduced to mere copying,” he argued.

Having spent years of his life painting icons and frescoes for churches in Egypt and abroad, Nassif is well aware of the kind of labour and the length of time required to produce a single quality icon. He is not willing to accept the need for “more icons” as an excuse for “less beautiful icons”.

“Icons have to be beautiful and artistic because they are portraits of holy figures, and if they are not beautiful they do not allow worshippers to see the light within the characters,” he said. Having worked for years on the spirituality of religion, Nassif says it would be impossible for an artist to paint icons if he was not sensitive to this mysticism himself. 

“An icon that is stripped of mysticism is irrelevant because it fails to serve the purpose of inspiration for the worshipper. It becomes just a piece of wood with some painting on it, and it has no soul to reach out to,” he insisted.

“This, rather than anything else that the Copts have had to put up with, would usher in the end of this fine and unique element in Coptic art,” Nassif said. “For decades, the Copts had to live under the rule of the most eccentric Arab rulers. But this art still lived. However, what could really bring an end to it is to have icons reduced to mass production,” he added.

The way off this unfortunate path, according to Naguib, would be for the Coptic Church to insist on quality when commissioning icons. “When you have a new church built, you need to make sure that the quality of the artwork is not compromised,” he said. There is a need to invest in training talented artists and providing them with the means to perfect their skills. 

“I have seen some very talented artists put off by the difficulty of finding a space to perfect their skills or simply by a lack of means,” he said.

Nassif added that there was a need to refuse the clumsy mass production of icons that is designed to produce as many as possible for gift shops next to old churches and monasteries. “These things get little attention from most visitors because they are not beautiful in the first place,” Nassif insisted.   

Tourists could be better served by pictures of the Coptic icons that have been painted throughout the centuries of Christianity in Egypt. “I think this would serve the purpose of keeping the Egyptian touch there, rather than having it replaced with either a Western touch or even by the Asian touch we have seen in mass-produced items copied from either Western or other originals,” he said

 “But to really preserve the art of icons we need to think in a more holistic way about preserving the other elements of Coptic art as well. This is a serious mission that requires national commitment and lots of work,” Nassif concluded.

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