Anyone who thinks the days of saints are long past needs only cast a glance at the life of Anba Abra’am (1829 – 1914), a modern Coptic Orthodox saint who was the Bishop of Fayoum and Giza from 1881 until his death, and was known as the ‘Friend of the Poor’.
He was born in the Upper Egyptian village of Galad in Minya, educated at the village church school, and took orders in 1848 when he was 19. He gained a reputation for exceptional patience and loving-kindness, and was ordained as a priest in 1863. In 1881, he was consecrated Bishop of Fayoum and Giza, during which period word of his saintliness, love for the poor and needy, and the miracles he worked reached far and wide. He refused to wear any costly or ‘new’ clothes, and insisted on eating only from the food the bishopric handed to the poor.
Anba Abra’am saw himself as father of and care giver to all, Muslim or Christian regardless, and more than ten thousand Christians and Muslims walked in his funeral precession. His body was laid in a tomb in the church of the Holy Virgin at the Monastery of Azab in Fayoum, and was later moved to a shrine especially prepared for him in 1987 at the monastery. Many miracles were manifested through him after he passed away, and his tomb became and still is a pilgrimage site for many who have special needs or infirmities.
Commemorating the saint
Anba Abra’am became a celebrity in Fayoum, and several foreign authors and Orientalists wrote about him. One of those was the British S.H. Leeder, who included a whole chapter on Anba Abra’am in his bookModern Sons of the Pharaohs, which was published in English in 1918. An Arabic translation by Ahmad Mahmoud was published in Egypt in 2008 by Dar al-Shurouq. The Coptologist Otto Meinardus (1925 – 2005) also wrote about him in his book Christian Egypt Faith and Life published in 1970 by the AUC Press in Cairo. Last Monday saw Pope Tawadros II head to Fayoum for the festivities marking Anba Abra’am’s centenary. He was accompanied by a number of bishops, and was warmly welcomed by Anba Abra’am III, the current bishop of Fayoum and head of the Coptic Studies Centre at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as well as by Fayoum’s clergy and congregation. The Pope presided over Vespers prayers in the evening and Holy Mass the following day, 10 June, the day Anba Abra’am passed away 100 years ago. Pope Tawadros performed the ritual of anointing the body of Anba Abra’am with sweet smelling spices, and gave a word about “Life of holiness”, using Anba Abra’am as a role model and talking about his legendary charity and generosity towards everyone.
Smallest ever icon of Holy Family
Pope Tawadros II and Anba Abra’am III inaugurated a cultural centre at Azab, aptly named the Coptic Centre of Anba Abra’am. The centre comprises a large library of more than 40,000 books on a wide range of subjects and a lecture hall equipped with the latest technology, as well as a theatre hall and a museum. The museum displays acquisitions from churches of the Fayoum Diocese, including icons, stone and woodwork, and other artworks. One especially remarkable display is the smallest ever icon of the Holy Family in Egypt. The 10x13cm tempra on wood icon dates back to the 17th – 18th century, but the artist is unknown.
The centre also includes a hall for a sound and light show of the Christian history of Fayoum. The show is in several languages, and there is also a children’s version with examples of Fayoum monuments for colouring or making play-dough models. All these services will be available for visitors via an electronic guide.
Apart from the religious and Church commemoration, however, Azab Monastery has been holding a mega celebration to honour the event.
Under the auspices of Pope Tawadros II, Fayoum governor Hazem Attiya, Anba Abra’am III, and the Coptic Studies Centre at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the centenary events at the Azab Monastery went along several major lines.
The first was concerned with the history of Fayoum since pre-dynastic times and through ancient Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Coptic, and Islamic times. These topics were tackled in an international conference from 29 May to 1 June, through studies on Fayoum’s geology, agricultural environment, national parks, architecture, arts, as well as the human and urban development of its inhabitants, sociological and anthropological aspects, and Coptic heritage.
Seminars on Fayoum’s history and civilisation in the fields of medicine, astronomy, agriculture and environment are being held on a weekly basis at the monastery and run till 22 August.
A book fair from 29 May to 15 June displayed, through the participation of 28 publishing houses, more than 10,000 books. An exhibition of Coptic art at a gallery in the monastery is showing icons, murals, mosaics, reliefs and pottery related to Fayoum and Anba Abra’am.
Concerts in which choirs from Ethiopia, Sudan, Greece, Syria, Armenia and Coptic Egypt perform traditional melodies and hymns, are being held.
Children were also included in the celebration. A number of painting and sculpture workshops for children aged six to 15 were held under the supervision of teachers from the faculty of artistic education. An exhibition displayed the children’s artworks.
Atef Awad, archeologist and lecturer at the Institute of Coptic Studies, told Watani more about the history of the monastery and the region. Azab, 5kms south of Fayoum on the way to Beni Sweif, is one of two important monasteries in the governorate. Its architecture is said to date back to the 7th and 8th centuries. It ceased to be a place of monastic life in the 10th century in the wake of a wave of persecution of the Copts and closure of churches under the Fatimids, and the grounds were used as a cemetery for Copts. Yet it always retained the term ‘monastery’.
The monastery contains two important churches: the church of the Holy Virgin that dates back to the 12th century and was mentioned on the list of ancient churches and monasteries in the Coptic Museum guide, and the church of Abu-Seifein (St Mercurius), which was built at the end of the 19th century. Abu Seifein’s underwent extensive remodelling in 1960, and includes the relics of some 24 saints and martyrs, as well as a relic of the Cross. The church was seriously damaged in a huge fire in 1996, but was meticulously restored in 1998.
Anba Isaac, bishop of Fayoum from 1925 to 1951, established guest rooms at Azab for visitors, while Anba Abra’am II c.1951 – 1984, who rebuilt Abu Seifein, laid the foundation of the convent at Azab.
Churches old and modern
The church of the Holy Virgin was renovated in 1970 and again in 1985. Following the major earthquake in 1992 it required a further restoration, but its style was carefully maintained. The most recent restoration was carried out in 1996.
The church is currently closed for the repair of cracks resulting from ground subsidence and the use of substandard cement during previous renovations. However, the icon holders have been preserved.
There are other churches in the monastery. The Anba Abra’am church is adjacent to Abu-Seifein’s and was erected in 1987 and includes the shrine of Anba Abra’am whose body was moved there at the time. To the church is attached a museum that includes the saint’s clothes, his letters, books and the Bible he used, altar furnishings from the period, his chair, his vestments and even his handkerchief, as well as the marble tombstone which stood on his tomb before his body was moved to the shrine.
The Azab grounds also includes the Greek-style Anba Bishoi church which is some way from the two main churches and lies in the cemetery, and the newest church is that of the Holy Cross, which was built in 1999 and consecrated on 6 January 2000 by Anba Abra’am III.
For a photo gallery of the Pope’s visit, by Nasser Sobhy
For photos of Azab monastery and its churches, by Sanaa’ Farouk
11 June 2014