The History and Religious Heritage of Old Cairo
On 24 April 2013 Claremont Graduate University in southern California—home to a graduate-level program in Coptic Studies—celebrated the release of a new book on the diverse and rich heritage of Old Cairo with a public reception, lecture, and book signing
On 24 April 2013 Claremont Graduate University in southern California—home to a graduate-level program in Coptic Studies—celebrated the release of a new book on the diverse and rich heritage of Old Cairo with a public reception, lecture, and book signing. Old Cairo is the area immediately south of modern Cairo whose history includes the Roman fortress of Babylon and which carries forth an inter-faith and multi-cultural lineage of monuments shared at various times by ancient Egyptians, Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
The book, entitled The History and Religious Heritage of Old Cairo: Its Fortress, Churches, Synagogue, and Mosque, was published earlier this year by the American University in Cairo Press and edited by Carolyn Ludwig and Morris Jackson. Co-authors include scholars and archaeologists Gawdat Gabra, Gertrud J.M. van Loon, Stefan Reif, and Tarek Swelim. The acclaimed Sherif Sonbol provided photography.
The event at Claremont Graduate University (CGU), sponsored by the Department of Religion’s Councils for Coptic Studies, Islamic Studies, and Jewish Studies, was hosted by Coptic Chair Dr. Saad Michael Saad. CGU Professor Karen Torjesen introduced a lecture on the newly released book given by co-editor and publisher Carolyn Ludwig.
Along with her husband Bruce, Ludwig has published and co-published two previous volumes: Jewels in Our Crown (2003), exploring the beauty and diversity of churches in Los Angeles, and The Churches of Egypt: From the Journey of the Holy Family to the Present Day (2007), which documents places of worship in Egypt in the footsteps of the Holy Family’s visit to the region over 2,000 years ago.
Ludwig’s lecture on her third and latest volume introduced Old Cairo to a cross-section of scholars, students, guests from the Greater Los Angeles Area. The new text describes the history of Old Cairo from the time of the ancient Egyptians and the Romans to the founding of the first Muslim city of al-Fustat.
Most of the volume concerns Coptic heritage, especially Coptic churches, such as the famous Hanging Church (Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church). The book also documents the Coptic Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of Egyptian Christian artifacts as well as the early Gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi Library.
However, the volume also has a secondary focuses on the Jewish and Islamic history of the area, exploring for instance the famous Genizah documents found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue that reveal aspects of everyday life in medieval Egypt. Also explored is the construction of the oldest mosque in Africa.
Ludwig’s Claremont presentation was accompanied throughout by a visual introduction to the volume that displayed pictures of Old Cairo taken by Sherif Sonbol.
In recent years, southern California has become home to a number of vibrant academic and ecclesiastical programs for the study of Coptic Christianity in the Diaspora. The release event at CGU was therefore quite fitting given that one of the book’s co-authors, eminent Coptic scholar Gawdat Gabra, also heads the university’s Coptic Studies program, which under his leadership has become the most visible center of scholarship on Egyptian Christianity in southern California.
The university’s Department of Religion offers master and doctoral degrees in religion and students can choose the Coptic Studies Track (www.cgu.edu/pages/9884.asp) or incorporate Coptic Studies into other programs. The Coptic Studies Council exists at the university to coordinate public lectures, conferences, and community participation, and partners with other religious councils representing traditions as diverse as Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Protestantism, and Zoroastrianism.
Claremont has also proven itself to be an international center for Coptic scholarship through its online presence. In 2009 Claremont Graduate University acquired the rights to the eight-volume Coptic Encyclopedia originally published in 1991 by Macmillan. An electronic version of the encyclopedia (www.cgu.edu/cce) is now housed and publicly available in the archives of the Claremont Colleges Digital Library. The encyclopedia will be continuously expanded and updated by scholars and editors across the world.
The History and Religious Heritage of Old Cairo: Its Fortress, Churches, Synagogue, and Mosque can be ordered online from LudwigPublishing@aol.com and is also available at outlets such as the American University in Cairo Press (http://www.aucpress.com/p-4228-religious-studies.aspx). The AUC Press website includes audio interviews about the book as well as statements by His Eminence Anba Bakhomious, former Acting Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church; His Excellency Dr. Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt; and the Honorable Daniel Kurtzer, former United States Ambassador to Egypt.
His Eminence Anba Bakhomious writes about the historical richness of Old Cairo and its inter-faith past and present in his review of the book: “Over the many centuries, communities of Jews, Christians, and Muslims have lived and worshiped here side by side in tolerance, love, and respect, sharing a history, a culture, and a language. Old Cairo is a wonderful microcosm of the spiritual Egypt, encompassing the country’s oldest churches, oldest synagogue, and oldest mosque, and this beautifully illustrated book brings to life these great cultural treasures and the peaceful age-old coexistence of the three great faith communities they represent.”
In photo: present at the book signing and reception from left are Dr. S. Michael Saad, Fr. Shenouda Ghattas, Mr. Bruce Ludwig, Mrs. Carolyn Ludwig, Professor Gawdat Gabra, and Professor Karen Torjesen.
Donald Westbrook is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. He holds an MA from Fuller Seminary and BA from UC Berkeley. He was on the staff that published the eight-volume Coptic Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 1991) in electronic form at the Claremont Colleges Digital Library.
2 June 2013