Celebrating Coptology

15-12-2011 09:05 AM

Mary Mansour

For the 16th consecutive year, the annual Coptology Week was recently held at St Mary’s Church in Rod al-Farag, Cairo. As has become customary, the church invited a number of researchers and experts on the subject to take part.
Ishaq Ibrahim, secretary-general of the Coptic Studies Institute, talked about translating Greek works of culture into Arabic during the Abbasid era. For this mission, Greek-speaking scientists from Alexandria travelled to Baghdad in the eighth century. Several Greek and Coptic manuscripts were translated into Arabic at this time. One of the most famous translators was Henein Ibn Ishaq, who translated the books of Hippocrates and Galen. Christians were also interested in translating chemistry texts from the Greek, as was mentioned by Ibn al-Nadim in his book al-Fehres (The Index).

Yuta art
The art of yuta, once popular in Coptic monasteries, was outlined by Sami Sabri, professor of architecture at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo. Dr Sabri related yuta to manuscript writing. The yuta is the first letter in the name of Jesus Christ Isos and the tenth letter in the Coptic alphabet. Number ten is considered a holy number, reminding us of God’s Ten Commandments.
The yuta cross is painted in five colours; white is a symbol of purity, red symbolises the blood of Christ, yellow stands for light, gold for kingship, and light green for peace; which is why it is only used for painting the frame of the yuta cross. Two letters are usually drawn for yuta, intertwined to form a cross, X, the first letter of Christos, Jesus’s name. The Greek cross dates from the fifth and sixth centuries; the largest yuta cross is a mural in the Abu Fana Church in Malawi.

Men with wings
Coptic art is rich with symbols, and one unusual Coptic painting shows humans with wings, which was the subject of the paper delivered by Nader Alfi, a lecturer at Menoufiya University. Dr Alfi also demonstrated that people were wearing earrings which were then considered symbols of various virtues. Such illustrations were found only in monasteries in Sakariya (cell no.607) and Bawit (cell no.18), and they date from the sixth and seventh centuries. Dr Alfi believes the monks would paint murals in their cells to aid their contemplation.
Girgis Dawoud, librarian and professor at the Institute of Coptic Studies, who sadly passed away not long after the convention, talked about the shell symbol in Coptic art. Dr Dawoud said the shell, a symbol deeply rooted in antiquity, was common in the Greek and Roman eras because of their affection for the sea. Morqos Faris, however, highlighted why the Copts used symbols and he related it to the Roman oppression of Christians. Dr Fares said that symbols were often taken from nature, both plant and animal.

No Coptic studies
Lu’ai Mahmoud, general manager of the General Department of Documentation and Registration of Coptic Monuments (GDDRCM), spoke about the project to photograph and index all Coptic antiquities. He pointed out that nearly 45 Coptic sites, encompassing monasteries and churches, were built within archaeological areas dating from the pharaonic, Greek and Roman periods. Although there are more than 300 old monasteries and churches in Egypt, only 90 of them are indexed. There are also caves and manshubiyat (cells used for a monk and his adherents). Dr Mahmoud said there were no Coptology departments in Egyptian universities, and that as a result of this lack of scholarship many manuscripts and antiquities remained unregistered. He also mentioned the projects secured under the auspices of GDDRCM, one of which was organising an international conference for Coptology in 2010 and establishing a scientific centre for Coptic antiquities studies. A third project involved indexing Coptic textiles in Egyptian museums.

No funds
Sobhi Abdel-Malek spoke about the Mamluk era when conspiracies and conflicts were prevalent. Dr Abdel-Malek, professor in the antiquities department at the Institute of Coptic Studies, said Copts were severely oppressed then and were forced to pay huge tribute money. They were thus without funds to build or restore churches. They lived in fear of losing their culture because of the dominance of the Arabic language while Coptic was declining. Copts therefore collected and classified old manuscripts, and even made copies to protect their culture.
Atef Awad, an engineer and a professor at the Institute of Coptic Studies, talked about the halos around the heads of saints and how the Copts took this idea from ancient civilizations. Antoun Yacoub, dean of the Institute of Coptic Studies pointed out the importance of accurate research to discover the influence of the Coptic culture in Africa.

Solemnity of ritual
George al-Qasrawi holder of a Masters degree from the Institute of Coptic Studies, presented his research on the funerary rituals of Copts. Mr Qasrawi said that Egyptians, being an emotional people, had always hated death because they suffered deeply when they lost someone close. Through their belief in eternity and the life hereafter, many rituals emerged. It is mentioned in the Book of Genesis that Jacob was mummified in 40 days according to the Egyptian tradition, and was mourned in “great and sore lamentation”.
Sadness has many facets for Egyptians at times of death; they pay visits to the graves during feast days, and some men do not shave, women wear black, and families may abstain from eating sweets or cooked food as a sign of mourning. Church bells toll to announce a death, and people from nearby villages join in the funeral procession and strew the gateway to the tomb with palm fronds. The funeral procession often follows a cross draped with a red flag on which was written a verse from the Bible relating to the Resurrection—an implication that new life follows death. In case of Coptic families, prayers are held in the home of the deceased on the third day of the death, with the Bible reading focusing on the 11th chapter in the Gospel of St John, in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The family of the deceased attends a commemorative Mass on the fortieth day after their relative’s death, echoing the ancient mummification process. Friends are all invited to join.

Contemporary art
Fr Mina Azer, priest of St Mary’s Church and founder of the Coptology Week tradition, which first convened in 1991, said the event helped spread awareness of Egypt’s Pharaonic and Coptic culture. He added that publications that were the outcome of the lectures served to fill a gap in the Arab library, since they formed a rich forum for Coptic history, ritual, art, archaeology and architecture in addition to revitalising valuable records

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