Three captivating events held late last month in two places miles apart appeared to have nothing in common. One was held in the Cairo church of the Holy Virgin on the Nile bank in Maadi to mark the close of a month of celebrating the annual Coptic Feast of the Entry of the Holy Family into Egypt; the feast proper was celebrated by churches all over Egypt on 1 July, 24 Pashans on the Coptic calendar.
The other two events were held at the medieval Palazzo Dei Papi (Palace of the Popes) in Viterbo, Italy, which served as the papal seat for 24 years in the 13th century, where two Egyptian exhibitions opened during the last week of June: one showcases Coptic icons and the other displays stunning replicas of ancient Egyptian antiquities, including the famous Tutankhamun collection.
A closer look, however, reveals an unmistakeable connection between the event in Cairo and those in Viterbo. They all relate strongly to the history, culture, and art of ancient and Coptic Egypt; and they promote tourism, including religious tourism to Egypt. The path trodden by the Holy Family—Baby Jesus, St Mary, and St Joseph—on their flight into Egypt from the face of Herod the King, as mentioned in the 2nd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, was last year declared by Pope Francis a Vatican pilgrimage destination.
Egypt of peace
The 4th century Maadi Church, which commands one of the most fascinating Nile scenes in Egypt, occupies a special place in the hearts of Copts. It was built on the site where the Holy Family boarded a boat to travel along the Nile to Upper Egypt where they spent the bigger part of their almost three-year Egypt sojourn in Assiut, some 350km south of Cairo. It was also scene of a 20th-century miracle when, in 1967, a large open book was found floating on the Nile water in front of the church. The book was retrieved; it was a Bible open at chapter 19 in Isaiah, which closes with the verse 25: “Blessed be Egypt my people”. The Book is today displayed in a glass reliquary case at the church.
The recent event at Maadi Church was held under the title Masr as-Salam, The Egypt of Peace, organised by the NGO Lovers of Egypt of Peace. It took place on the evening of Saturday 1 June in the wide terraced church courtyard that overlooks the Nile. The pleasant, cool summer evening made it the perfect setting for the celebration which was attended by a large congregation.
Gracing the event was Pope Tawadros II. He was welcomed by the scout drummers of Maadi church who led him in a procession from the gate to the courtyard where he joined high-ranking State and Church officials. There was Rania al-Mashat, Minister of Tourism, representing Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli; as well as Khaled al-Anani, Minister of Antiquities; Ines Abdel-Dayem, Minister of Culture; Usama Heikal, head of the Media Committee of the House of Representatives; Maya Morsi, Head of the National Council for Women. A number of public figures and ambassadors also attended, as did Hany Aziz, Secretary General of Lovers of Egypt of Peace.
Proud to stand where Holy Family stood
Participating in the celebration were the bishops Anba Danial, Secretary-General of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Council and Bishop of Maadi; Anba Psanti, Bishop of Helwan and Maasara; Anba Epiphanius, Bishop and Abbot of the Monastery of St Macarius; Anba Ermiya, General Bishop and Supervisor of the Coptic Cultural Centre, and Anba Martyros, Bishop of the Cairo Churches East of the Railway.
Pope Tawadros said: “We thank the Lord for this beautiful evening, for our beautiful Egypt and her beautiful people, rocks, and land. We thank Him for this beautiful celebration that witnesses to the heightened general awareness of the flight of the Holy Family in Egypt, an event that the Church has celebrated since the first century.” He thanked every one who participated in or helped organise the event.
Ms Mashat delivered the word of PM Madbouli. At the outset, she said she was proud to be standing on a spot that was blessed by the presence of the Holy Family. All Egyptians, she said, saw themselves as fortunate to have hosted Baby Jesus and His family on their trip from the north of Sinai, through the Nile Delta region, the Western Desert, Cairo, and Upper Egypt up to Assiut. “Every place they stayed at,” Ms Mashat said, “now houses some church or another. Egypt has always offered asylum to those who needed it, and now extends a welcome to all who come to visit these holy places.”
Mr Aziz, Head of the NGO that organised the celebration, thanked all who took part in it, and announced the launching of an interactive application on the Holy Family in Egypt.
As preparations had been going on head and foot for the Maadi Church celebration in Cairo, the town of Viterbo in Italy witnessed the two Palazzo dei Papi events that had to do with Egypt.
The first was an exhibition of Coptic icons that showcased some 60 replicas of icons; 40 of the originals hang in Egypt’s churches, and 20 are at Coptic Museum in Old Cairo. The icons go back to periods that extend over various eras in Egypt’s history, and depict the Holy Family in Egypt, the Nativity, and St Joseph with the Child Jesus.
The exhibition also displayed a collection of crosses engraved on limestone or made of bronze or brass; ceramic formations, a wooden piece engraved with a depiction of Jesus as a child, as well as a number of ceramic plates with inscriptions of fishes.
Bishop of Viterbo, Lino Fumagalli, opened the exhibition on 24 June. He was joined by Egypt’s Minister of Culture, Ines Abdel-Dayem; Egyptian Ambassador to Rome, Hisham Badr; Coptic Bishop of Torino and Rome, Anba Barnaba; Italian businessman, philanthropist and President of the fundraising society Società Italiana di Beneficienza (SIB) Eugenio Benedetti; and a number of Italian officials. SIB is the sponsor of the event.
Amr al-Tibi, head of the Antiquities Replica Unit of the Antiquities Ministry, was also present at the opening. Mr Tibi had overseen the production of all the replicas exhibited, and proudly told Watani: “This is a very important exhibition that sheds the light on Coptic art as belonging to a pivotal period in Egypt’s history. Our unit has produced all the replicas on display.”
The exhibition runs till 28 October 2018.
Desire for eternal life
The other exhibition held at the Palazzo dei Papi in Viterbo and opened by Bishop Lino Fumagalli on 30 June was titled “Egyptian Treasures”. It showcased 190 replicas of Egyptian antiquity pieces, many of the originals of which are displayed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The Viterbo replicas include perfect copies of the entire treasure of Tutankhamun: the famous golden mask of the Pharaoh who died young and became a symbol of Egyptomania, his sarcophagus, throne, lid of a canopic jar, and regal jewels.
The collection also includes eight sphinxes, perfect marble replicas of those in the triumphal avenue entry to the great temple of Karnak in Luxor. These are not any duplicates, or commercial copies; they are life-size replicas commissioned by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.
During the opening, Bishop Fumagalli said: “What fascinates me most by the Egyptian civilization is the desire for eternal life.” This, he said, carries strong parallels with the Etruscan culture that flourished in northern and middle Italy some 800 years BC.
The Egyptian exhibitions coincided with the Caffeina 2018 festival, a 10-day festival in Viterbo that ran from 22 June to 1 July and that brought together music, theatre, writers, and artists from Italy and internationally.
Act of love
Once the Egyptian Treasures show is over on 28 October 2018, the replicas will be put up for sale either through auction or at prices put by the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry. The large pieces such as the sphinxes, Mr Benedetti said, will command a high price and can only be afforded by companies, institutions and the wealthy. But the public will be able to buy some 2000 – 3000 smaller replicas each of which comes with a certificate of authenticity.
However, Mr Benedetti stressed that: “The economic aspect is only marginal. The spirit of the event is the warm relations between Italy and Egypt; it is an act of love.”
Photos of Tutankhamun exhibition courtesy of newspaper Tusciaweb
Reported by Nasser Sobhy, Dina Sidhom, Nevine Gadallah, Amal Gamal
4 July 2018