It has been 60 years since the Coptic Orthodox Church’s Institute of Coptic Studies (ICS) first saw light. The scholastic centre was established in 1954, upon a written request presented to the then patriarch, Pope Yusab II, by a number of Coptic laity who sensed the importance of having an Egyptian centre of learning and research that would focus on Coptology. Among the principal founders was the first president of the institute, Professor Aziz Surial Attiya, who also founded the Middle East Centre at the University of Utah. Other prominent Coptologists and Egyptologists who contributed to its establishment were Professor Pahor Labib, Director of the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo from 1951 to 1965; as well as the professors Murad Kamel, Samy Gabra, and Zaher Riyadh. The institute opened in a building on the grounds of Anba Rweiss in Abassiya, Cairo, where it remains to this day.
The current Dean of the Institute of Coptic Studies Dr Samy Sabry told Watani that, to mark the 60th anniversary of the institute, the building housing the institute has been refurbished, and three lecture halls have been renovated and upgraded to state-of-the-art standard. The institute’s library is being digitised, he said, in order to make it accessible online to researchers the world over. Dr Sabry said that among the most important future projects is the establishment of a remote learning programme, the expansion of the exchange of research with counterpart institutes or research centres in the world, and the publication of books that include the most prominent research works done at the institute. There are also plans, he said, to set up a department of Coptic political studies that should look into the political role of the Copts in Egypt in the past and present, and to activate the organisation of more seminars and international conferences on Coptic culture, heritage and issues. A centre for the restoration and renovation of churches, he said, is in the works.
The ICS has a rich history behind its back. It was born with the mission of promoting research and advancing knowledge of Egypt’s Coptic heritage, as well as doing valuable work on the documentation and protection of this heritage in all its intellectual, spiritual and physical forms and carrying out needed physical repairs and registration.
The institute includes nine departments concerned with: Theology; Coptic Language; Hymns and Music; Coptic History; Sociology and Psychology; African Studies; Coptic Architecture; Coptic Art and Coptic Antiquities. Other departments are the Pope Shenouda Centre for Languages, the Dr Ragheb Moftah Centre for Hymns, and a free studies section.
The years from 1985 to 2013 saw 1,528 men and women graduate from the ICS, and 71 dissertations including 32 PhD and 39 Masters degrees. The ICS Secretary-General, Professor Ishaq Agban, mentioned the many foreign students who came to study from Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Senegal, Kenya, the United Kingdom, Germany, South Korea, India, Jamaica, Syria and Armenia. Some 15 Coptic scholars gained fellowships from the ICS, and another 12 from the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, the Vatican City and Sweden.
The ICS helped found the International Association for Coptic Studies (IACS) in Münster, Germany. Since its foundation in 1976 the IACS has held several international conferences jointly with the ICS, among them conferences in Cairo, Rome, Warsaw, Paris, Leuven University in Belgium, Münster University in Germany, and Leiden University in Holland. It has also had close ties with the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo; as well as the Dutch, Italian, Polish, and the Franciscan institutes in Cairo.
Jointly with the American University in Cairo (AUC), the ICS has written down Coptic hymns in musical notation. AUC Press had already published the musical notation of the Bassily Mass in 1998. In 2009, in cooperation with Hanover University, the ICS digitally recorded Coptic hymns under the supervision of Dr Michel Abdel-Malek, head of the Hymns section at the ICS. From October 2010 to May 2011 the ICS completed a project to write down the musical notation of 88 Coptic hymns as part of the European Union’s international European and Mediterranean heritages project. The choir of the ICS and the Clerical College also presented Coptic hymns in various countries including France, Germany, Spain and Italy.
ICS Dean Samy Sabry said that the institute has a vital role to play in exploring and registering Coptic monuments, and has published several references by prominent scholars on monuments in general and specifically Coptic monuments.
In 1999 the ICS helped carry out an icon restoration project in conjunction with the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE). It also conducted a comprehensive survey of icons in need of restoration in Egyptian churches and monasteries.
For all its achievements, however, Dr Sabry deplored the fact that the ICS was internationally accredited but was not accredited locally.
A few weeks ago, the Institute of Coptic Studies celebrated 60 years since its foundation. To mark the occasion, the institute hosted a three-day international conference at its headquarters in the grounds of the St Mark Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo. The conference ran on the theme of “Coptic studies: future aspirations” and was sponsored by Pope Tawadros II. It was attended by a large number of archbishops, bishops, priests and heads of Churches in Egypt, along with a number of former and current State ministers. Participating were 81 Coptologists from Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Libya, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Switzerland who presented research papers and lectures. Egyptian researchers in Coptic studies also took part; they came from the universities of Cairo, Ain Shams, Alexandria, Helwan, Fayoum, Kafr al-Sheikh, Assiut and Sohag.
Participating institutions included the International Association for Coptic Studies, the AUC, the Franciscan Institute, the French Institute for Eastern Studies, the Italian Institute, the Coptic Orthodox Clerical College, the Coptic Museum, the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, the Coptic Orthodox Cultural Centre, the Society of Coptic Archaeology, and representatives of several bishoprics and monasteries.
The ceremony opened with the arrival of the Pope’s procession to the accompaniment of Coptic praises sung to melodies that go back to pharaonic times and which were used by the ancient Egyptians as their king entered the temple, The National Anthem followed, and the Pope opened the conference. He spoke of the vital role played by the Institute, describing it as “a storehouse of treasured knowledge and preserver of culture, history and heritage”. Pope Tawadros underlined the importance of the creation of a bridge between the Institute and other counterpart institutes in the world.
Some 81 research papers were presented in the conference, among them one by Anba Demitrius, Bishop of Mallawi, on the Coptic language. Anba Demitrius delivered his presentation in Coptic with accompanying translation in Arabic and English.
Prayers for the River Nile
In the field of Coptic history, the Institute’s Deputy Director Adel Fakhry delivered his paper on the life and culture of the Assiuti poet Dioscorus, who lived in Aphrodito in Assiut from 520 to 585 AD. Dioscorus’s sixth-century papyrus manuscripts, with revisions and corrections, were discovered in 1905 beneath the village of Kom Ashqaw, the modern name for the site of ancient Aphrodito. These manuscripts are now held in museums and libraries around the world. Although Dioscorus was Egyptian he composed his poetry in Greek, the cultural language of the Byzantine era.
Dr Ashraf Sadek, an Egyptologist and Coptologist who resides in Paris, reviewed his research on the Hebrews in Egypt in the second millennium BC. This writer introduced a study on the Coptic icon as tackled by the media in Egypt; and yet another, the Archdeacon Rushdy Wassef presented the prayers in the Coptic Orthodox liturgical tradition to bless the Nile waters.
Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Watani, gave a talk on “Watani and the Copts, a testimony of the times”, which centred on how Watani had been a witness of the time since it was founded in 1958 by the late Antoun Sidhom. The paper, he said, not only focused on Coptic heritage, culture, and contribution to Egyptian public life, but also chronicled the marginalisation and suffering of the Copts on account of their faith during the second half of the 20th century and through to the Arab Spring in Egypt in January 2011. It highlighted the status of the Copts in Egypt following the Arab Spring and the consequent rise of Islamist power until the massive revolution that overthrew the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime in June/July 2013. All through, Watani demanded full citizenship rights for Copts and an end to discrimination against them.
Music, books, icons, and honours
Alongside the conference the Institute held an exhibition of Coptic icons at the St Athanasius Gallery. A book fair showcased works published by several scientific associations, including the ministries of antiquities and culture, the General Authority for Books and National Documents, the Egyptian General Books Authority, the Clerical College and a number of publishing houses.
Coptic hymns were sung by the Institute’s choir conducted by Michel Abdel-Malek, while Ethiopian deacons sung more hymns in their native language and music.
The ensemble of the Coptic Theatre in Mallawi performed a play in Coptic about St Mark the Apostle.
Pope Tawadros honoured the names of figures of previous generations who are considered pillars of the Institute, and also the researchers who presented distinguished papers at the conference. Among the honourees were Aziz Suryal Atia (1898 – 1988); Samy Gabra (1893 – 1979); Pope Shenouda III in his capacity as Bishop of Education before he became patriarch in 1971; Anba Gregorius, Bishop of Scientific Research and Theological Studies from 1967 till his death in 2001; Anba Bishoi, Bishop of Damietta; the current Dean of the institute Samy Sabry; and Watani’s Youssef Sidhom. His Holiness also praised all the researchers for their distinguished studies.
The final resolutions of the conference cited a demand to the education authorities in Egypt to grant accreditation to the Institute of Coptic Studies as a specialised higher studies institute, to merge Coptic heritage and culture into the Egyptian education curriculum as part and parcel of Egypt’s history and culture, and to promote Coptic art and heritage in the media to raise public awareness of them. It was recommended that Coptic icons should be used as illustrations and gifts in Sunday schools, and that prominent Coptic figures should be promoted as role models among the Coptic young. As far as the Institute itself is concerned, the resolutions recommended the setting up of a database of Coptologists and researchers in the field and their works, and establishing a programme for distant learning.
Guardians of Egyptian culture
The closing ceremony of the conference was graced by the Egyptian Muslim writer Fatma Naout, who expressed her appreciation of the Institute that was preserving the heritage of the Coptic language. Ms Naout referred to one of her previous articles in which she wrote that Egypt’s Copts should be commended for being the last bastion of authentic Egyptian culture in our present times. Egypt’s Christians, she said, had over the ages closely guarded their Egyptian identity; they maintained their denomination as ‘Copts’ and that of their Church as ‘Coptic’, the former term for ‘Egyptian’. They also continued to use the Coptic language, the last form of the ancient Egyptian language, in all their rituals; and unadulterated Egyptian music in their liturgy, hymns and praises.
“They prevented our native Egyptian, aka Coptic, culture from vanishing under pressure from the many foreign cultures which invaded Egypt,” she noted.
21 January 2015