Coptic Studies in Toronto

15-12-2011 09:06 AM

Helene Moussa


The third annual Coptic Studies Symposium at the University of Toronto (U of T) marked several “firsts”. After the incorporation of the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies (CSCS) last May, the First Annual General Meeting of Members was held prior to the Symposium on 29 May 2010. The first board of directors of the Society was elected, and the first volume of the Journal of the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies (2010) was launched. Also for the first time, the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies sponsored a symposium jointly with the U of T’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilisations (NMC) and the St Mark’s Coptic Museum.


First board of directors
The CSCS was incorporated as not-for-profit organisation in May 2009. The twofold purpose of the CSCS is to bring together individuals interested in Coptic studies and promote the dissemination of scholarly information on Coptic studies through meetings and conferences and through the preparation of scholarly works for publication
An interim board of directors managed the affairs of the Society until the first annual general assembly last May. One of the major accomplishments of this period was the publication of the first journal of the Society. The issue included the papers of the first Symposium held back in 2008. The journal can be purchased online from the publisher, Gorgias Press, New Jersey, USA:
The members to the first board of directors were elected, and should be shouldering the responsibility of spearheading the CSCS’s goals. Dr Ramez Boutros, Lecturer at NMC, was elected as president; and Dr Anne Moore, Associate Professor at the University of Calgary’s Department of Religious Studies, as vice president. Independent Researcher Mr Ihab Khalil is the treasurer, and Volunteer Curator of St Mark’s Coptic Museum Dr Helene Moussa the board’s secretary. The Members-at-Large include Dr Jitse Dijkstra, Associate Professor and Head of Classics at Ottawa University; Dr Lyn Green, President of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities; and Dr Amir Harrak, Professor of Syriac Studies at NMC.


Third Coptic Studies Symposium
Over fifty people participated throughout the day in the deliberations. Eight scholars and students presented their papers on archaeological findings, theology, music, iconography, the Coptic calendar, and monastic initiation rituals.
Dr Stephen Davis, Yale University Department of Religious Studies was the keynote speaker. His paper was titled “From Death to Life: Archaeological Findings at Two Egyptian Monastic Sites.” Participants were awed by the spectacular, recent discoveries in the funerary chapel at the White Monastery in Sohag, Upper Egypt, while more mundane day-to-day life findings in the mud-brick monastic residence at the monastery of St John the Little in the Western Desert’s Wadi al-Natrun were equally interesting.
Dr Anne Moore’s paper “Shenute, Prophet of the People,” discussed how the concepts of Christian “Holy Man” shifted in Late Antiquity from that of a generic “Holy Man” to a “Holy Man” that was defined  according to a specific geographical area, particularly the Coptic versions that were produced in Egypt. Dr Moore’s analysis illustrated how Pachomious’s depiction of a “Holy Man” focused on his position within the monastic community. In contrast, Shenoute’s depiction emphasised how the “Holy Man”, from a sociological perspective, was a spiritual “broker” for the Egyptian populace.


Cosmic music
“The Cave Church of Gabal al-Tayr: A Pilgrimage Site from the Early Medieval Period to the Middle Ages,” was the topic of Dr Ramez Boutros’s paper. Dr Boutros noted that this was one of the most frequently visited Coptic pilgrimage sites of our days, which survived the widespread extinction of Christian institutions between 1250-1517. The forces that led to this survival were also discussed.
Dr Jitse Dijsktra followed with his paper “The Isis Temple Graffiti Project: Preliminary Results.” Dr Dijkstra convincingly illustrated that graffiti are not random “scratchings” on the walls of Graeco-Roman temples but a treasure trove that reveals the personal piety of the ordinary visitors to the temple. We look forward to Dr Dijsktra’ publication of interpretations of approximately 350 graffiti from the Temple of Isis at Aswan.
For his part, Emile Tadros, a scholar in Coptic music who also worked on his Ph.D. project under the supervision of the eminent Professor Ragheb Moftah, traced the history of cosmic music in the first centuries of the Alexandrian Church in his paper “Cosmic Music in Christian Literature in Egypt.” Based on the importance placed by the early church on the universal thanksgiving praise, Tadros discussed how the Coptic Church selected biblical and non-biblical passages and incorporated them in the liturgical repertoire (Daily Psalmody).


Future Coptologists
Sorting out the puzzle of dating an icon that is unsigned, undated and whose original location was not documented was the focus of Dr Helene Moussa’s paper “Icon of St Mina in St Mark’s Coptic Museum —Akhmim Style?” Dr Moussa based her interpretations on her comparison of the St Mina Icon to similar styles found in Coptic manuscripts and to Akhmim icons of the 18th century. By analysing images in other traditions, she was able to develop a compelling analysis of the particular depiction of St Mina that suggested when the icon was created.
The organisers of the Coptic symposia at the U of T have made it a point to encourage students, the future generation of Coptologist, to present papers at these gatherings. This year we had two excellent papers. The first was “The Coptic Calendar” presented by Bishoy Daoud, a Ph.D candidate at St Michael’s Theological College. Daoud discussed the origins and history of the Coptic calendar, and by applying a number of mathematical computations, he was able to show why the Coptic Calendar differs from the Gregorian calendar on the dates of Christmas and Easter. By using a method known as the Easter Computus, he explained and how both feast dates on both calendars could conform to each other. Joseph Youssef, an MA student at the U of T Department of Anthropology, gave an insightful paper titled “Ritualisation Processes in Coptic Monastic Rituals and Initiation Practices.” His work was based on ethnographic field research on initiation practices in the Monastery of the Virgin Mary, Deir al-Surian.


Dr. Helene Moussa, Volunteer Curator, St. Mark’s Coptic Museum



Watani International
4 July 2010










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