Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Mariam F. Ayad, Coptic Culture: Past, Present and Future. Stevenage: Coptic Orthodox Church Centre, 2011. Pp. xiii, 238. ISBN 9781935488279. $45.00.

Reviewed by Heike Behlmer, Universität Göttingen​ (hbehlme@uni-goettingen.de)

Version at BMCR home site

The present volume comprises papers from a conference held in May 2008 at the Coptic Orthodox Centre in Stevenage, UK. The conference brought together specialists in the history and culture of Egypt and the Coptic Orthodox Church from late antiquity to the present day and Coptic clergy and laypersons interested in the cultural and literary heritage of their church. This approach has led to fruitful discussions among the participants, the results of which are documented in this well-produced and accessible volume.

"The Coptic Orthodox Church: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow", the introductory remarks by Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK (p. 1-10) focus on the traditional pillars of the Coptic Orthodox faith in the modern context of a diaspora community. This introduction is followed by 19 contributions touching on four main areas of research: (1) continuities and discontinuities between Pharaonic and Christian Egypt, (2) sources for our knowledge about late antique and early medieval Egypt, (3) questions of heritage preservation and (4) the artistic tradition of the modern Coptic church.

The first group of articles focuses on linguistic links between the Pharaonic and later periods and the survival of ritual practices. Mariam Ayad's contribution "The Death of Coptic: A Reprisal" (p. 11-41) takes issue with the notion of Coptic as a "dead" language and makes some very valid points: in the past scholars have often shown little interest in the entire use-life of the Coptic language, neglecting the study of later, especially liturgical Coptic. While her concerns are shared by the vast majority of modern scholars, I am uncertain about her choice of a case study, a retranslation of the Paschal hymn into Ancient Egyptian, using hieroglyphs to render the words of Egyptian origin, intended to visualise the link between the modern liturgy and the ancient language. This link is well known and a translation from the Coptic into an Ancient Egyptian that never existed in the form set forth in the article seems to confuse the issue unnecessarily.

"Some Neglected Aspects of Egypt's Conversion to Christianity" by John Gee (p. 43-55) raises questions about the translation techniques of the milieux in which the (Sahidic)Coptic Scriptures originated. Why would a translation into Coptic use certain Greek loan-words for Christian religious terminology, while retaining native Egyptian words for other, related concepts? Further investigations of this type will be welcome and both contribute to and profit from a new project aimed at collecting and analysing the entire inventory of words of Greek origin in Coptic (Database and Dictionary of Greek Loan Words in Coptic: DDGLC).

"The Pre-Figuration of Some Biblical Themes in Pharaonic Iconography and Theology: Is There a Link between Ancient Egyptian Water Lustrations and Christian Baptism" by Ashraf Alexander Sadek (p. 57-67) compares Pharaonic libation rites to the ritual use of water in the baptismal rite. "Did the Copts Practice Human Sacrifice" (p. 69-74) by Ahmes Labib Pahor discusses the legend of the so-called "Nile Bride", a story first appearing in Pseudo-Plutarch's De Fluviis (1st-2nd century) and then taken up again, in a vastly different form, by the ninth-century writer Ibn cAbd el-Hakam. According to his historical work Futuh Misr ([The History of the] Conquests of Egypt), the Muslim conquerors stopped a custom which consisted in sacrificing a virgin girl to the Nile in order to guarantee an adequate level of the yearly inundation on which the prosperity of the country depended. While I think that discussing the "Nile Bride" motif together with Early Dynastic retainer sacrifice1 and the rather superficial reception of the scholarly discussion does Pahor's argument a disservice, his final point is certainly relevant: in certain modern political discussions circulating on the web, where the accusation of human sacrifice against the Copts made by Ibn cAbd el-Hakam seems to have been revived, such unqualified accusations against a religious group of a practice universally regarded as abhorrent are potentially dangerous and need to be addressed.

The second and largest group of articles focusses on the Late Antique and Early Medieval periods and in particular on the contributions of various types of sources: archaeological sites and material culture, literary and non-literary texts. "Agriculture in Late Antique Egypt: Improving the Picture" by Mennat-Allah El Dorry (p. 75-81) emphasises the usefulness of archaeobotany in establishing the diets of ancient populations and the trading patterns and diffusion of food plants. "Sinai in the Coptic Period: An Archaeological Survey" by Monica Hanna (p. 83-93) summarises the archaeological and literary evidence for Christian settlement on the Sinai peninsula outside the famous St. Catherine's Monastery. "Settlements and Cemeteries of Late Antique Egypt: A Short History of the Archaeological Collections in the British Museum" by Elisabeth O'Connell (p. 95-107) describes how the notable but quite disparate collections of post-Pharaonic antiquities in the British Museum were formed. The convergence of materials from excavations, donations and purchases from antiquities dealers is not only fascinating to read but also presents a paradigmatic picture that reflects on the often laborious and haphazard acquisition of knowledge about Egypt after the Pharaohs among early Egyptologists. "Edification in the Early Egyptian Church: Evidence from a Bishop's Dossier" by Alanna Nobbs (p. 109-113) links a small dossier of documents to a late third/early fourth-century bishop from Middle Egypt. The dossier shows the everyday concerns of the church before the start of the early fourth-century persecutions.

In "Roman Citizens without Roman Privileges: The Church of Alexandria and Roman Law" Lois Farag (p. 115-129) reviews the imperial legislation concerning the Egyptian church, and, after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the non-Chalcedonian majority. She traces the development of the relationship between the Egyptian Christians and the central government, dwelling in particular on the absence of an imperial presence in Egypt in the years after the affirmation of Christianity, which manifests itself in the lack of a wide-reaching building programme. Farag draws a stark picture of imperial neglect and legal oppression and the lack of connection between the church and the imperial court visible even in the minutiae of liturgical practice and church governance. This may be a picture too stark in its dichotomy, which completely suppresses the life of the Chalcedonian church in Egypt, a church that, although a minority, continued to exist throughout the entire Islamic rule, even after the withdrawal of imperial support.

The following three contributions are concerned with Coptic texts, both documentary and literary. "The Family of Germanos: Another Family Archive from Jeme" by Jennifer Cromwell (p. 131-142) traces the fortunes of a family from Jeme, the town that flourished in the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods in the mortuary temple of Ramesses III on the Theban West Bank. The archive of the family of Germanos, documented through at least seven papyrus documents dated by Walter Till to roughly the first half of the 8th century, mostly deals with the transmission of property and paints the picture of a relatively prosperous family of which six generations are named in the papyri. "Editing a Coptic Martyrdom: St. Pteleme of Dendera, M581" by Carol Downer (p. 143-157) revisits her work on her 2004 Ph. D. thesis, focussing in particular on the scholarly process of editing a manuscript. A short note on "The Legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus in Coptic Literature" by Laila Farid (p. 159-161) points to the continuing popularity of the "Seven Sleepers" motif throughout various literary traditions.

Heritage preservation is the concern of the three following papers. Michael Jones' account ("Heritage Preservation and Modern Realities: The Case of the Red Monastery near Sohag", p. 163-178) of the history, successes and challenges of the Red Monastery church project in Upper Egypt, one of the most remarkable survivals of sixth-century architecture and wall paintings, focusses on the complex interplay between the various conflicting interests between stakeholders, both historical and modern, in the care of the church. Modern stakeholders are the church's congregation from the local villages, the monks of the monastery, which at the time of writing had recently returned to spiritual and economic prosperity, government agencies, i.e. both local administration and the antiquities authorities, and archaeologists and conservation experts. The successful conservation especially of the impressive apse paintings has in itself brought new challenges in the form of an increased visitor interest. Four years on, it remains to be seen what new challenges the current political circumstances will bring, but the fundamental question raised by Jones remains: how to balance conflicting interests in a monument which is no longer a half-abandoned ruin, but a spiritual centre and visitors' destination in a rapidly changing social and political environment.

One of the essential tools in the preservation and safeguarding of the Coptic architectural patrimony is documentation. Howard Middleton-Jones (p. 179-182) gives a progress report on "The Coptic Monasteries Multi-Media Database Project: A Project under Major Development throughout 2008-2010", a detailed illustrated database destined to contain a full description of individual monastic sites, taking advantage of the latest technologies such as satellite images and GPS location. Insufficient documentation of past and recent archaeological work is also part of the "Problems of Coptic Studies and the Preservation of Coptic Heritage in Egypt", as Gawdat Gabra reports (p. 183-189); other threats arise from agriculture and building activities which encroach on terrain of archaeological value.

The final group of four contributions concerns the artistic tradition and current artistic production of Egyptian Christianity. Lucy-Anne Hunt uses various examples from Coptic visual art to illustrate "The Image as Prayer in Medieval and Early Modern Coptic Art" (p. 191-200). The increase both in spiritual and scholarly interest in the Christian past of Egypt under the patriarchy of Cyril VI (1959-1971) is one of the main topics of Nelly van Doorn-Haarder's contribution "Coptic Art as Visual Art: Gendered Re-Creations of Traditional Themes" (p. 201-214), which discusses the (re-)discovery of Coptic artistic and literary traditions as a means of strengthening religious identity. In the modern Coptic church the process of cultural memory is visible on various levels: building of and addition to monasteries, churches and cultural centres; new editions and translations of ancient texts; and new ways of communication and visualisation, including new media. Van Doorn-Harder underlines the role, in this process, of Mother Irini (1936-2006), Mother Superior of the Convent of Abu Sefein in Cairo from 1962. Part of Mother Irini's intellectual and spiritual work was the recovery of the female contribution to the history of the Coptic church. In the Medieval and Early Modern periods, a closing of opportunities for Coptic women can be observed. Parallel to a reduced visibility of women in the public sphere we find that very few new female saints are created while even the contribution of the numerous female martyrs and ascetics of Late Antiquity become progressively less visible in the reshaping of the liturgical calendar. In an effort that parallels the recovery of forgotten women in other historical and literary contexts, Mother Irini and her nuns recovered the contributions of the ancient female saints for modern-day spiritual life, both through the visual and literary culture of their monastery, in the process even widening the scope to include non-Egyptian traditions about saintly women.

The two final articles bridge the gap between the Coptic artistic and literary tradition and modern expressions of art and poetry. "Sacred Art — What Is It to 21st Century Youth?" by Fadi Mikhail and Mariam Ayad (p. 215-219) engages with the question of how to make the distinctive Coptic iconography, which may seem two-dimensional and static, relevant in the 21st century. This question is significant in view of the fact that in modern Coptic churches the traditional style is often in competition with a Europeanising style. "New Doxologies in Coptic" by Emad Sidhom (p. 221-224) concludes the volume with a glimpse into his own poetical production.

In conclusion, the present volume can be seen as another building block in the dialogue between scholars and the Coptic community which has become increasingly active and productive in recent years. It has also brought together scholars working on various aspects of Post-Pharaonic Egyptian culture from the beginning of the first millennium to the modern period. The important questions raised merit wide public attention, and it is encouraging that further conferences are planned.


1.   Pahor offers alternative explanations for the evidence for possible Early Dynastic (ca. 3000 BCE) human sacrifice in Egypt, without, though, going into an in-depth discussion of the relevant literature (for a start, see, e.g.: Jacobus van Dijk, Retainer Sacrifice in Egypt and in Nubia, in: Jan N. Bremmer (ed.), The Strange World of Human Sacrifice. Studies in the History and Anthropology of Religion 1, Leuven 2007, 135-155). He then points out the unreliability of the Futuh Misr as a historical source, again without entering the scholarly debate (see, e.g., Maya Müller, Niltöchter, Nymphen und die Nilbraut. Weibliche Wassergenien in Ägypten 2000 v. Chr. bis 2000 n. Chr., Imago Aegypti 3 [2001], 91-151) who analyses the "Nile Bride" motif in a gender studies approach). ​

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