For Coptic heritage lovers it was gratifying indeed to see more than 100 researchers from all over the world converge on Cairo to take part in the first Gathering for Arab Coptologists. Anba Maqar, Bishop of Sharqiya and 10th of Ramadan city, proudly told Watani: “Finding under the same roof so many researchers in Coptic studies who have come from places as far away as Europe,the US and Australia has filled me with joy, especially that they include young Christians and Muslims.”
The gathering was organised by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s (BA) Centre for Coptic Studies, in cooperation with the Coptic Museum in Cairo and the Coptic Heritage Lovers Society.
The two-day event was held at Bayt al-Sinnari, the splendid 18th-century Islamic house which acts as the BA’s Cairo venue. Addressing the opening session were Wafiq al-Ghitani, General Coordinator of the Wafd party; Muhammad Abdel-Latif, Professor of Islamic and Coptic Monuments at Mansoura University and former head of the Ministry of Antiquities’ Coptic and Islamic Antiquities Department; Father Gorgius of Mar-Girgis church at 10th of Ramadan City on behalf of Anba Maqar; Rev.
Waguih Mikhail, head of the Centre of Middle Eastern Christianity of the Evangelical College of Theology in Abbasiya; and Archimandrite Boulos Iyad, pastor of the Resurrection Church of
the Melkite Greek Catholics.
Extension of Egyptology While the spacious rooms of Bayt al-Sinnari were the stage for papers given in Coptic history, art, architecture, restoration and language, the hallways hosted a Coptic book fair of 15 publishing houses and an exhibition of icons by 20 iconographers.
Anba Maqar insisted that Coptology is not a separate science but is rather an extension of Egyptology and constitutes a bridge into the Islamic era. “Coptology is a very important part of the history of Egypt as a whole,” he said. “But I must say it is disappointing indeed that there are no Coptology departments in Egyptian Universities.
I wish that this gathering could take place regularly and that the participants could develop a common strategy to promote the study of Coptology. All we need is will and hard work.”
Anba Maqar said the icons on display constituted a new generation of Coptic icons, an extension of the works of Isaac Fanous (1919 – 2007), the father of modern Coptic iconography.
“Today we see a new generation of iconographers, including a Muslim artist, who are taking the art of iconography to a new level by adding modern themes and modern spirit to this traditional Coptic art,” he added.
Fr Gorgius praised the brotherly spirit between the different Church denominations present at the event and said it was heartwarming to see “our Muslim brothers here.
I believe the choice of date of this gathering is auspicious,” he said. The gathering commemorates the events of the nationalist 1919 uprising against British occupation, during which Fr Sergius was the first priest to give a speech inside a mosque.
Taking Coptology out of narrow circle Dr Loay Mahmoud Said, head of the BA’s Centre for Coptic Studies, greeted the participants in both Arabic and Coptic. “The BA,” he said, “sowed the seeds of
interest in Coptology in 2010 and in 2011 by creating a programme for Coptic Studies which soon evolved into the Centre for Coptic Studies, considered the first academic entity in an Egyptian government establishment specialising in Coptology.”
The centre had two main goals, Dr Mahmoud said. The first was to promote interest in Coptic Studies on the widest possible scale and take it out of the narrow circle of scholars and confines of churches and monasteries.
This, he said, endowed this field with a religious hue and linked it to a particular faith, which made others refrain from approaching it. The second goal was to coordinate with the various individuals and establishments interested in Coptology inside and outside Egypt, to achieve intellectual integration and to enrich and promote academic and scientific research in the field.
The centre, he added, ran a wide range of activities including cultural events and training sessions in various Egyptian governorates, as well as publications such as the recently-published series of booklets on Coptic culture. It had also launched the first specialised diploma in Coptology.
“The centre has built bridges with universities, Churches, authorities, organisations, ministries, and individuals interested in Coptology,” Dr Mahmoud said. “It is therefore a real pleasure to see today more than 100 researchers discussing papers, 20 Christian and Muslim iconographers displaying their works in the icons exhibition, and Coptic publishing houses participating in the Coptic book fair.
A Coptic choir and an Ethiopian choir are also performing at this event.” Listed monuments A paper by Dr Muhammad Abdel-Latif pointed out that there were 82 monuments listed as Coptic heritage around Egypt, 36 of which were churches and 46 were monasteries.
Twenty of those, 17 churches and three monasteries, were in Cairo, 51 in Upper Egypt and 11 in the Delta. “As Upper Egypt is already home to many tourist attractions from Pharaonic times,
the fact that the majority of Coptic monuments are located there adds extra value to the region.
These monuments must be put on Egypt’s tourist map, as well as the route of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, from al-Arish city in the north to Dronka in Assiut in the south.”
Dr Abdel-Latif said there were many more Christian monuments in Egypt that were as yet unlisted on the Ministry of Antiquities’ heritage list.
Orator of the Revolution Since the gathering commemorated the events of the 1919 uprising against British occupation, Muhammad Afifi, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Culture and Professor of Contemporary History, gave a lecture on Father Sergius, the Coptic priest famous as the ‘orator of the 1919 Revolution’.
After screening the scene of the 1919 Revolution from one of Egypt’s best known films, Bayn al-Qasrain (Palace Walkway),(1964), Dr Afifi gave a brief account of the life of Fr Sergius who was born in Girga, Sohag, some 500km south of Cairo.
He joined the Clerical College in 1899 and started out as a preacher before his ordination as priest in the Assiut bishopric in 1907. In 1912 he was appointed deputy of Khartoum bishopric in Sudan, where he published a magazine that called for unity and brotherhood between Christians and Muslims, and encouraged the Sudanese to resist British occupation. This offended the British authorities in Sudan, and he was deported to Cairo. On his return Fr Sergius resumed his national effort and, when the nationalist 1919 uprising broke out calling for Egypt’s independence from the British, he was among the leaders of the protests.
He gave fiery speeches inside al-Azhar mosque, also in Cairo’s public squares and mosques, prompting Egyptians to continue their fight against the British; for this he was exiled to the town of Rafah on the Egyptian-Palestinian border.
When Egypt gained her independence in 1922, Fr Sergius was not allowed to join a political party because of his religious rank. In 1950 he was the first priest to be elected for the Coptic Melli Council, thus opening the door for priests to become members of this community laity council. He passed away in 1964 at the age of 81.
Spiritual Even spiritual matters had a place at the gathering. Anba Maqar gave a lecture on the spirituality of the Biblical texts included in the Holy Mass ritual marradaat (responses) sung by the deacons and congregations, especially on the various occasions such as during Lent, Advent, the Resurrection and Coptic New Year.
He said that the Holy Bible had been the heart and soul of the Coptic Church since its establishment by St Mark the Apostle in the first century AD. A pivotal verse may be repeated several times in the responses and applied to drive in a spiritual message or to relate to the life of a specific saint.
The purpose, he said, “is to keep the Word of God alive in our hearts and daily life.”
1 June 2016