10 October 2010
The first Coptic studies conference at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Throughout three days last month, Coptic studies were the star performers at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA). The BA Calligraphy Centre organised, from 21 till 23 September, a conference on “Life in Egypt during the Coptic Period: Towns and Villages, Laymen and Clergy, Bishops and Dioceses”. The conference was held jointly with the Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA), and the Society for Coptic Archaeology.
This conference is the first of its kind to be held at the BA, and witnessed the participation of more than 120 researchers from 13 countries, the main theme dealing with life in Egypt during the Coptic period, the different aspects of Egyptian society and history then.
Abdel Halim Nureldine, former Chairman of the Supreme Council for Antiquities and president of the conference, said the papers presented in the conference would be revised by a scientific committee and published in a book by the BA in two months time.
Dr Khaled Azab, manager of the calligraphy centre, divulged that, on the sideline of the conference, a partnership was held between the centre and the association of Coptic archaeology in Cairo, by which the BA will digitalise all the association’s publications, and will be accordingly on the BA website.
The coordinator general of the conference Lua’i Mahmoud Said drew the participants’ attention to the fact that this was not the first instance of interest in Coptic Studies by the calligraphy centre. Last year it issued a book in English entitled Coptic texts relating to daily life. The centre also held its first course in Coptic language and is preparing for the second.
The opening lecture on “Coptology and its Importance to Egypt and the World” was delivered by Jacques van der Vliet, professor at the Egyptian archaeology department in Leiden, the oldest university in Netherlands. Dr van der Vliet explained that the Coptic era, which extended over some seven or eight centuries throughout the Roman and Byzantine rule of Egypt and well into the Arab rule, represented the middle phase in Egypt’s history. This phase, which saw a turning towards Europe, he said, was witnessed by the linkage between Biblical and Hellenistic studies. He shed light on Egypt’s ties with other Mediterranean civilisations, in which Alexandria was instrumental, and which shows clearly in Coptic art, especially in the monasteries of Sohag in Upper Egypt.
Coptic language, Dr van der Vliet pointed out, was also among the most significant elements of connecting Egypt with the countries across the Mediterranean. It was written in Greek script with some letters added from the original Coptic, and borrowed not a few Greek words. As such, it was a potent tool for Egyptian Mediterranean integration, he said.
Coptic Studies is a varied branch of knowledge, Dr van der Vliet remarked. It involves studies on history, literature, art and architecture, social history, linguistics, geology, and many others. It thus links various fields of knowledge, and warrants a special place in human history.
Dr Peter Grossmann, Professor of Coptic Studies and Chair of the German Institute for Antiquities gave a presentation on “New Discoveries in the Town of Antinopolis”, and focused on the role played by Alexandria in the Coptic era.
Dr Nureldin explored Coptic Language with a research paper entitled “Coptic as a Stage in the Development of Ancient Egyptian Language”, while Dr Said participated with a paper on “The Use of the Cross within Muslim Tribes in the Egyptian-Libyan Desert”. Ahmed Mansour, Head of the BA Ancient Egyptian Language Unit lectured about “Coptic Typography in Egypt: Origin and Development (1860–1883 CE)”.
The remains of the Coptic-era town of Marea, some 45km south west of Alexandria, was the focus of a paper by SCA researcher Fahima Ibrahim. Ibrahim aimed to draw attention to the importance of the town and Mariout, the area it lies in, and to sound an alarm that the town is today threatened.
Marea is one of the rare examples of a harbour town on the shores of Lake Mariout that is essentially untouched since antiquity, and accessible for archaeological studies. It was only in 1977 that the site known as Marea was first excavated. Until 1981, these digs were undertaken by a team from Alexandria University led by Fawzy al-Fakharani and they were concentrated in the port area.
The port is composed of a quay more than 2km long divided into basins by four jetties some 100m long that jut out into the lake. The old town holds the remains of the port, houses and inns, a large market, a winery, and public baths.
Ibrahim said the site was now being subject to encroachments that threatened what remained of the town. The increase in water level of Lake Mariout is already inundating a considerable part of the town and threatens to destroy it but, worse, investors hungry for land on which to build luxury tourist resorts are carving large slices of the land for that purpose.
About excavations of Bawiet in Assuit, Upper Egypt, Watani met the researcher Dominique Benazeth, head of Coptology at the Louvre, who talked about the history of excavations in Assuit launched earlier in the 20th century. But they were pended because of the World War I, and resumed in the mid 1970s. The latest finds in this area archaeologically, according to Benazeth, is the northern church of the Bawiet monastery.
On the social life level, Dr Pauline Allen, head of the Australian Catholic University ACU’s centre for Early Christian Studies, discussed it through the “Festal letters of the Patriarchs of Alexandria: Evidence for Social History in the fourth and fifth centuries CE”.
The researcher Youhanna Nessim, at the early centre for Christian studies in Australia, presented his paper on the features of the everyday life according to the old Coptic texts, such as asking for tips and marriage traditions. In one of these texts, for instance, it is mentioned about a work owner and how he cruelly treated a young apprentice, a situation we can encounter until today. This text, which is among the manuscript no. 129 in Paris, dates back to 7th century.
Coptic murals and the dire need to preserve them were the topic tackled by Father Maximous al-Antouni who told Watani that there are not enough samples of Coptic murals in Egypt in a condition good enough to be studied. A project for the restoration of the murals of St Antony’s Monastery, Red Sea, launched in 1996, he said, yielded rich information that was published in the two books Monastic Vision and The Cave Church of St Paul.
Other projects then were implemented to restore Coptic murals of several churches and monasteries, such as Abu-Serga Church in Old Cairo; the White Monastery in Sohag, and the Fakhoury Monastery in Esna, Qena, Upper Egypt. Implementing such projects revealed a clear idea about the art of Coptic icon, which has its roots in ancient Egyptian.
The closing lecture was delivered by professor of Coptology at the American University (AUC) in Cairo, Stephen Emmel on “The Future of Coptic Studies in Egypt”. Dr Emmel sent out a cry for the establishment of Coptic Studies in Egyptian universities and institutes. Universities around the world are under a lot of pressure financially, he said, and thus preferred to focus on studies that would be economically viable. Coptic Studies is thus threatened worldwide, he said, which makes it a matter of utmost importance that it should be offered here, in its homeland, at the hands of its children.
“I am sending a petition to the Egyptian government (state),” Dr Emmel said, “to assign a department of Coptic studies in the Egyptian universities. Coptic studies at the AUC were presented among the department of Egyptology, but this year the AUC assigned a department of Coptology. I am glad to be the first professor of Coptology at the AUC.”
Alexandria University, according to Dr Said, has approved offering a programme for post-graduate studies of Coptology at the Greco-Roman archaeology department.
Anba Martirus, bishop general of churches of Sharq al-Sikka al-Hadeed, told Watani that, as far as Coptic Studies is concerned, the Institute of Coptic Studies which was established by the Coptic Church back in 1954 has yet to gain official accreditation. A lot remains to be discovered and studied on the Coptic era, hence the dire need for graduates of Coptic Studies.