Friday, 14 December 2007

Book Review: The Churches of Egypt

Al Ahram Weekly

The Churches of Egypt -- From the Journey of the Holy Family to the Present Day, by Gawdat Gabra and Gertrud J.M. van Loon, edited by Carolyn Ludwig with photographs by Sherif Sonbol. Review by Jill Kamil (herself the author of Christianity in the Land ofthe Pharaohs):

The Churches of Egypt is the brainchild of Carolyn Ludwig. Addressing the invited guests, Ludwig explained how the book came about. During her travels to Egypt over the last 25 years, she said, she had come to appreciate the rich Christian heritage that is woven through the country's history "along with the threads of its more famous Pharaonic past." She noted that the brief reference to the Flight of the Holy
family in the Gospel of Matthew "offers a glimpse into the three-and-a-half years they spent in Egypt", but that most of the stories about this important episode in Jesus's life "are recorded only in the various infancy narratives".

When, in 2000, the Coptic Orthodox Church defined the route of the Holy Family's journey, she said she was determined to follow in their footsteps. She did so, sand was deeply moved by the humanity of the stories "that are told, until this day, about the few years in the life of Christ spent in Egypt," as well as by the humble simplicity of Egypt's early churches which stand "in stark contrast to the granite and marble, the gold inlays and bronze statues of churches in Rome..."

Ludwig travelled in the company of photographer Sherif Sonbol, whose photographs, she wrote in the introduction to her book, "reveal the beauty of Egypt's ancient and modern churches and monasteries, all of which testify to the determination of the Coptic Church for nearly two millennia to keep the Christian faith alive in Egypt -- often in the face of adversity."

I can only describe the book as a hefty publication. It weighs all of two kilogrammes, and I use that adjective advisedly because it is not only large in size, but substantial in content. It covers churches of all denominations -- from the Delta and Sinai to Cairo and its suburbs; it includes Fayoum and Upper Egypt, and even the most remote of monasteries, some of which I have never visited.

See the above page for the full story.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Book Review: Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe

Bryn Mawr Classical Review (Review by Kevin Teo)

Caroline T. Schroeder, Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Caroline Schroeder's book is arguably more illuminating as a means of discovering how late antique monastic texts affirm the matrix of ideas contained in modern critical theorists such as Foucault than as a window into late antique Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. via Shenoute of Atripe's writings. Interesting as the book is, its Achilles heel exists where it opens itself up to the potential charge of anachronism. Yet Schroeder's book is immensely promising for scholars in the areas of late antiquity, gender studies and early Christian studies. Another merit of the book lies in the copious translations of passages from the original Coptic manuscripts containing Shenoute of Atripe's sermons and treatises, which have not hitherto been translated into English.

See the above page for the complete review, which looks at each chapter in turn.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Coptic burials found in Western Desert

State Information Service

This bulletin on the State Information Service website is entitled "Prehistoric skeletons found in Egyptian Desert", but don't get too excited if you lean towards the earlier periods of Egypt - the content of the post makes it clear that they are Coptic, possibly as old as the Graeco-Roman period but no older.

A tomb dating back to the Coptic era has been discovered Al-Wadi Gadid governorate. Khaled Saad, of the Pre-historic Antiquities Administration, said expeditions of the black and white deserts in El-Farafra and El-Bahariya Oases have led them to the burial chamber, in which three skeletons lay. "We came upon two female skulls full of hair that also covered their ears," Saad said in press statements Thursday 13/9/2007. A third empty-but-intact skull was also found, he added, noting that the remaining parts of the skeleton were so fragile. Concrete adobe columns measuring three metres long were lined up in a rectangular frame, Khaled went on to say. He has reason to believe the tomb existed towards the end of the Graeco-Roman era and the beginning of the Coptic age.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Interview with Dr. Gawdat Gabra

Howard Middleton-Jones has published his interview with the Coptologist Dr. Gawdat Gabra in Munster Germany on his Coptic Research site, at the above page. Please click on the photograph on the above page to watch the streamed video - this will open a new window. If you are using Firefox and it fails to load, try it in Explorer instead.

Dr. Gawdat Gabra is an independent scholar specializing in Coptic studies, and former director of the Coptic Museum in Cairo (1985). He is also a member of the board of the Society of Coptic Archaeology and chief editor for the St. Mark Foundation for Coptic History Studies.
More details about Dr Gabra can be found on the above site at

The Coptic Research site is an ongoing research project which aims to provide useful links and articles on Coptic archaeology, art and history.

Friday, 29 June 2007

The Coptic museum: A silent jewel

Al Ahram Weekly by Nadja Tomoum

The Coptic Museum,situated in the heart of Old Cairo,was built in 1910 by Marcus Simaika Pasha who devoted his life to the preservation and promotion of the Coptic heritage. With the support of the Coptic church, Simaika Pasha established the Coptic Museum at a historically significant location, among some of Cairo's oldest and most important churches. According to a Biblical narration, the holy family rested in this area on their flight from the Jewish King Herod. The journey of Joseph, Mary and the infant Christ to Egypt has greatly influenced the early spread of Christianity throughout the country.

The Coptic heritage is a rather silent treasure in comparison with the splendid artefacts from the time of the great Pharaohs, and yet it is not less important and interesting. Masses of tourists are guided daily through the Egyptian museum -- Egypt's first National Museum --, whereas the Coptic museum attracts the attention of the individual tourist who enjoys the medieval flair of Old Cairo and the unique charm of the Coptic museum.

See the above page for more.If anyone is interested, I plonked a few photographs of the very beautiful Coptic monasteries of St Anthony and St Paul (Eastern Desert of Egypt) at

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Coptic Language's last survivors

Daily Star
Considered an extinct language, the Coptic language is believed to exist only in the liturgical language of the Coptic Church in Egypt. The ancient language that lost in prominence thanks largely to the Arab incursion into Egypt over 1300 years ago remains the spoken language of the church and only two families in Egypt.Coptic is a combination of the ancient Egyptian languages Demotic, Hieroglyphic and Hieratic, and was the language used by the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt following the spread of Greek culture throughout much of the Near East. In essence, it is the language of the ancient Egyptians themselves. . . .Coptic is the language of the first Christian church in history, and when the members of the two families that speak the colloquial form of Coptic die, it will be the first language of the early Christian churches to become extinct.

Monday, 9 April 2007

Coptic Easter in Cairo, past and present

"Easter is the time to commemorate the rich history of Christianity in Egypt. 'This area is called Tagamua’ Al Adyan,' a shop owner proudly boasts, using the Arabic term for 'The Gathering of Religions' to describe Old Cairo (Masr Al Qadima). Within the area of one square mile as many as twenty churches were built — though only five remain today.A few steps away one of the earliest mosques ever built in Cairo, Amr Ibn El As, stands tall. And, following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the influx of Jews into the area is marked by the country’s oldest synagogue — Ben Ezra.

This small area is a fascinating reminder of Cairo’s history. If you want a real Easter treat this weekend, explore the evolution of Christianity in Egypt by visiting this small corner of the city.

The narrow road is dotted with signposts pointing to a number of landmarks. Walk through the walls of the Roman-Byzantine fortress and visit the vault where Jesus and the Virgin Mary hid from Roman soldiers.Wander through the Coptic churches and soak up their rich history and traditions. Tourists overrun the area in the mornings; and on weekends and national holidays, Egyptians join the crowds. This only creates a sense of camaraderie as cultural and religious differences are set aside to share in a common appreciation for Old Cairo’s treasures."

See the above page for the full story.

Friday, 2 March 2007

St Antony's Monastery

"In the barren expanse of the Eastern Desert, under the clarity of a seamless blue sky, lies a historic and often overlooked monastery.

Although the monastery ranks amongst travel book highlights, its distance from better-recognized monuments has protected it. A gentle pulse in a desolate landscape, St. Anthony’s is the picture of serenity. Secluded, majestic — although it’s a mere two-hour drive from Cairo’s city center — this subtle gem is a day trip away for culture lovers.St. Anthony moved to the Red Sea Mountains in the 3rd century from the age of 18 until his death at 105. His legacy of rejecting the material and solitary reflection, has is the foundation of the oldest operational monastery to date.

The monastery is the only structure in sight for kilometers. Under gleaming rays of unobstructed desert sun, its thick, whitewashed walls radiate light. Seen from the one-way highway leading to it, it almost shines in the distance. The compound is cradled by the base of Mount Qalah’s sandstone crests and surrounded by the harshest of desert plains. Its environment is beautiful, yet bleak, and its vastness is at once liberating and threatening."