As Egypt’s team played in the World Cup 2018 games in Russia, an art project that involved portraits of the players aroused the anger and cynicism of Copts.
The project, named “Egyptian Hymn”, was launched by the 30-year-old artist Ahmad al-Sabrouty, who depicted the players in portraits painted in the style of the famous Coptic-era Fayoum Portraits. This might have gone reasonably well with the Coptic public, but what really infuriated Copts and gave the project a bad name was Sabrouty’s depiction of the coach, the Argentine Héctor Cúper, along the same lines of the figure of the Pantocrator, Jesus Christ with a halo around His head, His right hand lifted and His left holding a book that carries the inscription of the Greek letters alpha and omega. The only difference is that Cúper’s portrait depicted the book he holds as carrying a green football field.
Mohamed Salah, who plays for Liverpool but played with Egypt’s national team in the World Cup 2018 games, is portrayed by Sabrouty as a Coptic saint with a golden olive-branch crown on his head; his portrait carries the Coptic word Ep’oro, literal for ‘the King’, an adjective commonly used in Coptic to describe Christ.
Goalkeeper Essam al-Hadary’s portrait carried the word Bishawmoit, the Leader. Footballer al-Nenny was depicted with Pharaonic features and his portrait carried the Horus eye.
The portraits of the footballers were strongly reminiscent of the 2nd – 3rd century Coptic-style art of the Fayoum portraits, portraits of deceased persons painted on cartonnage and placed on their coffins.
Copts used social media to express their ire. Many described Sabrouty’s portraits, especially that of Cúper, as disdainful of Christianity. It did not help that, as a Muslim, Sabrouty is not allowed to portray any Islamic holy figure, so he was seen to have overstepped a cultural line by borrowing Coptic-style saint-painting and lingo to depict his players. That much was expressed by a number of bloggers who said that he lacked the courage to cross Islamic red lines, so had no qualms with disrespecting Christian symbols.
One blogger wrote: “Sabrouty did not only depict Cúper as Jesus Christ, but he also made fun of the Holy Virgin by writing the words “Bi Barakatek ya Adra”, literally “With Your blessings, Holy Virgin”.
Other comments showed more understanding and considered the portraits no disdain of Christianity, but simply using an artistic style that has long gone in disuse.
One posted his opinion: “I like Sabrouty’s depictions inspired by the Fayoum portraits, and I disagree with any criticism of his using this style of painting. The ire reflects a climate of lying in wait for anything that may be branded as incorrect. That’s the last thing we need in Egypt now, please have mercy!”
Sabrouty was asked for his comment. He said he had not expected his portraits to gain such notoriety.
“We all are Copts,” he said. “The term ‘Copt’ is literal for Egyptian; in this sense we may be Christian or Muslim Copts. I desired to go back to a rich component in our Egyptian heritage, the Coptic, which is very rarely used outside the Church. I aimed at reviving an authentic Egyptian heritage to prove we all have the same roots. “Coptic art,” he said, “is the godfather of iconography.”
Given that Coptic art has developed over the ages and is the forerunner of subsequent forms of Egyptian art, not least the Islamic, Sabrouty said today, “it ought not be relegated to churches or monasteries.”
1 July 2018