Reaping with songs of joy

21-09-2016 01:17 PM






Saad Michael Saad


The 11th International Congress of Coptic Studies



For an intensive, broad, and profound look at how the academic world sees and values Coptic civilisation, there is no event that can come close to the International Congress of Coptic Studies. Held every four years by the International Association for Coptic Studies (IACS), this scholarly congress rotates between world institutions that are famous for their focus on Coptic studies.

This year, the 11th Congress was held from 25 to 30 July at Claremont Graduate University (CGU) in California. It was organised by St Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society (SSACS) in Los Angeles. The 10th Congress was hosted by the University of Rome, jointly with Vatican academic institutions.

The First International Congress of Coptic Studies was held in Cairo in December 1976. It was hosted by Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, and carried the theme: Colloquium on the Future of Coptic Studies. In attendance were H.H. Pope Shenouda III and Egypt’s then First Lady, Gihan al-Sadat.

Later Congresses were held in European capitals except in 1992 when the Congress was hosted by the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., and in 2008 when it was held at St Mark Cathedral in Cairo at the special invitation of H.H. Pope Shenouda III. The 2008 Congress was organised by the St Mark Foundation for Coptic History Studies, founded in 1998.

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Half a century of Coptic Studies at CGU

This year’s Congress saw 275 scholars, students, and members of the Coptic community from 24 countries on six continents converge on the CGU campus to present and discuss 171 papers, tackling various aspects of Coptic studies.

Following nearly four years of meticulous planning, the 11th Congress opened with a speech by Mr. Hany N. Takla, SSACS President and Secretary of the 2016 Congress. He welcomed the participants and reviewed the Congress agenda. A speech by the President of CGU, Mr Robert Schult, followed. Mr Schult also welcomed the Congress to the Claremont campus, and talked about Coptic studies at CGU throughout the past half-century.  

Professor Tammi Schneider, Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities (SAH) at CGU, next gave an address, where she called attention to the efforts of Professor Gawdat Gabra, Mr Takla, and Dr S. Michael Saad in calling for the 11th Congress to be held at CGU, based upon its expanding Coptic Studies program. While Coptic Studies has been important at CGU for more than half a century, its specific Coptic Studies program in CGU’s School of Arts and Humanities has flourished throughout the last ten years. One of its greatest achievements thus far has been the online publication of the Coptic Encyclopedia.

The next speech was by H.E. Ambassador Lamia Mekhemar, Consul General of Egypt in Los Angeles. She talked about the interest in the Coptic heritage that has been displayed by both the Egyptian government and President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. This was evident, Ambassador Mekhemar said, in the establishment of the Institute of Coptic Studies and Research at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Arts in 2014; the Institute was represented at the 11th Congress by its dean, Professor Essam al-Saeed. Ambassador Mekhemar also discussed the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Centre for Coptic Studies, which has held prolific activities and conferences in collaboration with Churches and Christian institutions in Egypt. She was followed at the podium by H.E. Anba Serapion, Metropolitan of Los Angeles.

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Papal visits

H.E. Anba Serapion started his speech by conveying the greetings of H.H. Pope Tawadros II to Congress attendants. He focused on the Pope’s profound interest in Coptic studies, currently being conducted in various theological seminaries and universities worldwide. Anba Serapion also discussed the significance of Coptic studies for the world in general and for Egypt in specific, as well as common interests between secular studies of Coptic civilization held worldwide and those directed by the Coptic Orthodox Church.

“The Church’s interest in Coptic studies,” said Anba Serapion, “is clearly manifest in the large number of participating clergy in this Congress, whether from Egypt or the Diaspora.” At the top of the list of participating clergy were H.G. Anba Suriel, Bishop of Melbourne; H.G. Anba Martyros, Bishop-General in Cairo; and H.G. Anba Abraham and H.G. Anba Kyrillos, both Bishops-General in Los Angeles.

Almost all of the Congress’s opening speakers referred to the visit H.H. Pope Tawadros II paid to CGU on 19 October 2015 to celebrate the new partnership in a memorandum of understanding between CGU and the Saint Athanasius and Saint Cyril Coptic Orthodox Theological School (ACTS). Several speakers also noted that H.H. Pope Shenouda III also visited Claremont, in 1977 and 1989.


PhD competition

The current IACS President, Dr Jacques van der Vliet, who is also a professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, expressed his deep thanks to Claremont Graduate University for hosting the Congress, and to SSACS for organising it. Dr Van der Vliet added that, with the convening of the 11th Coptic Congress, the award for the best PhD dissertation in the field of Coptic studies worldwide continued for the second Congress in a row. “For this competition,” he said, “we received 17 entries. The award was given jointly to two PhD studies from The University of Paris (the Sorbonne).”

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Many papers presented

To write about all of the Congress presentations and papers would take volumes. Congress papers tackled Coptic linguistics, Coptic art and archaeology, Egyptian monasticism, Coptic liturgy, manuscripts, museology, and Egyptian relations with Nubia and Ethiopia, as well as the Coptic Diaspora and dozens of other Coptic Studies-related subjects.

Papers and presentations were made during the Congress week, by students and professionals alike. The majority of papers were by non-Copts. Most of the research papers presented in the Congress will be published by the Peeters academic publishing house before the next Congress in 2020. Anyone interested in reading abstracts from the 11th Congress’s presentations will find them at the Congress website:

I was especially fortunate to delve into a number of presentations amid the bustle of the Congress, and will share my experience with you.

So Miyagawa, 26, studied Coptic language in his native Japan, where he also became acquainted with the newly-founded Coptic Church there. He is now a PhD student at Göttingen University in Germany, and his studies focus on the sixth volume of the nine-volume canon law written by St Shenouda the Archimandrite. Miyagawa is currently translating that 325-page volume from Coptic into German and English, while analysing excerpts St Shenouda utilised from the Bible and from Patristics.

Along the same theme, I will be remiss if I do not mention the paper that IACS Secretary Professor Stephen Emmel of Münster University presented on the progress of studying and publishing St Shenouda the Archimandrite’s works. Emmel is regarded as the father of modern Shenoutian Studies, following his seminal Yale dissertation on the literary corpus of this Coptic saint. The project that he started to publish this corpus is an international cooperative effort of scholars from various universities around the Globe.


Coptic Goes Digital

Professor Elizabeth Bolman of Temple University in Pennsylvania, who is an expert in monastic art history, delivered a lecture on the restoration of the murals at the Red Monastery in Sohag, Upper Egypt, where she was head of the restoration team. A mega-volume in colour was recently published on that important work under the title of The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt.

Professor Gawdat Gabra, currently leading the Coptic Studies Track at CGU and Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia (, presented a paper on Saint Ammonius of Tuna. Professor Gabra explained how one would tackle the rich biography of this saint from several aspects: Coptic spirituality; Church and monastic history, art, literature, and language; as well as political and social climates between Egypt and Nubia. Gabra introduced St Ammonius of Tuna as a case study in Coptology hoping that Copts in the USA will establish chairs of Coptic Studies in a number of its universities.

Several papers in the field of digitisation of Coptic language were especially significant. This ongoing digitisation process involves the Coptic alphabet, vocabulary, dictionary, and literature. Foremost in this field are Professor Caroline T. Schroeder of the University of the Pacific and Dr. Amir Zeldes of Georgetown University along with other collaborators. Crowning these avid endeavours in Coptic digitisation, the Internet now boasts a Coptic Scriptorium ( and a Coptic Dictionary Online (


Muslims and Copts from Egypt

It is remarkable that a large number of scholars, both Muslims and Copts, came from Egypt to take part in the Congress, some at their own expense. They presented very important research in various fields. Three scholars from the Archaeology Department of Fayoum University and Sadat University: Dr Abdelrazek Elnaggar, Dr. Louay Said , and Dr Maher Eissa,  presented a paper on the Monastery of St Macarius the Alexandrian in Fayoum. A paper by Dr Kamal Farid Ishaq, a medical doctor and expert on Coptic language, focused on the manner of pronunciation of the Coptic language in Egypt. His professional background was useful in shedding light on this topic. Professor Sherin Sadek El Gendi, a Muslim scholar who is chair of the Department of Tourism Guidance at Ain Shams University, presented a paper on images of Adam and Eve in Coptic art.

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Coptic exhibition during the Congress

A three-part exhibition was held simultaneously alongside the Congress, titled The Legacy of Christian Egypt. It was organised by the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) at the joint invitation of SSACS and CGU. Its first part combined an exhibit of manuscripts and artefacts from Egypt dating from prior to the 14th Century. The exhibit’s second part displayed a representative portion of the SSACS manuscript collection of Coptic and Christian Arabic manuscripts dating from the 14th Century to the early 20th Century. Its third part, contributed by CGU, addressed the University’s own history of Coptic studies, led by the late Professor James Robinson, and displayed manuscripts and rare photographs currently held at Claremont’s Honnold Library.

The 11th International Congress’s success was the fruit of efforts by many over several decades, “so that the sower and the reaper may rejoice together” (John 4:36). Through such a successful event, the Divine promise is fulfilled: “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy” (Psalms 126:5).   


Dr. Saad Michael Saad is Chair of the Coptic Studies Council at Claremont Graduate University ( He also served on the organising committee of the 11th International Congress of Coptic Studies.




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Watani International

21 September 2016

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