This week marks the arbaeen of Tamav (Mother) Mariam, the late Mother Superior of the Convent of the Holy Virgin in Haret Zweila in Fatimid Cairo. Arbaeen is literal for forty in Arabic; the word denotes the passage of 40 days on the death of a person, and relates to the mummification process in ancient Egypt, but is still marked in present-day Egypt by prayers for the soul of the deceased. Holy Mass will be held to celebrate the arbaeen of Tamav Mariam on Thursday 23 November at the Nubariya branch of the convent in Beheira, some 60km southeast Alexandria.
Tamav (Mother) Mariam was born on 26 June 1933, and joined the convent of Abu-Seifein (St Mercurius) in Old Cairo in January 1963. She took orders in August 1966. In May 1969, Pope Kyrillos VI consecrated her Mother Superior of the convent of the Holy Virgin in Haret Zweila.
I count myself blessed to have had the opportunity to meet Tamav Mariam more than once. I saw her as a wise, soft-spoken, gentle and humble woman; yet she was confident and firm, and radiated love.
The first time I met Tamav was in 1992 as I worked on a feature story on the 4th-century church of the Holy Virgin in Haret Zweila, a church to which the convent is annexed. I needed historical references, and was told I could find them at the convent’s library, but it was not open to the public. I knocked on the door of Tamav Mariam and asked for special permission to access the library. Tamav generously gave me the required permit, and I spent a full day delving into the library’s trove of old books and manuscripts. She even allowed me to attend Holy Mass with the nuns, another event from which members of the public are routinely excluded.
It was difficult for me to approach the convent a few days ago to talk about the ‘late’ Tamav Mariam. Yet this is what I had to do, again to write a story for Watani. I was received by Sister Maria who, being the eldest among the nuns, supervises the convent till a new Mother Superior replaces Tamav Mariam. Sister Maria was a contemporary of Tamav Mariam; she joined the convent only two months after Tamav was consecrated Mother Superior.
New discipline for convent
I sat with Sister Maria and thoroughly enjoyed her talk about Tamav.
“Before Tamav Mariam came,” she said, “the convent was very poor and housed no more than 16 nuns, most of them uneducated and many with special problems. At the time, it was customary for one with desperate circumstances to join the convent as a last refuge. The convent’s gate was left open all day long even though it opens on a busy commercial street in an old Cairo district; it was only closed at night. The nuns had no privacy; friends and members of their families used to walk in and go up to the upper floor to the nuns’ cells any time of the day. But when Tamav Mariam took charge, she changed all that. She imposed discipline, ordered the door to be closed and to open only by permission, allocated special visiting hours and had rooms and toilets prepared on the ground floor for the nuns to receive visitors.
“There are four entrances to the convent. Tamav placed controls on three of them, but had a problem with one that allowed access from the adjacent church on the ground floor. The supervisor of the church, Mitry Christo, used to walk in at any time, order a coffee, and sit there in total disregard of the convent’s discipline. Tamav was not happy. At the time, Pope Kyrillos VI used to have a weekly meeting every Thursday morning with the abbesses of the convents. Tamav Mariam spoke to him of the problem, and he advised her to take a firm stance and insist that discipline be imposed. She did, and that was the last we saw of Mr Christo.”
“Before Tamav Mariam’s time,” Sister Maria said, “the nuns never sang Midnight Praise. Tamav taught each of us to do so by sitting with us individually or in small groups. I found her visiting me in my cell, accompanied with two other nuns, and we sat on the floor and learned the Praise from her. Since that time, we regularly sang Midnight Praise. She also used to hold communal prayer daily at 5pm, following which we held a Bible study. The result was that our spiritual knowledge and scope widened and grew more profound.
“Tamav was concerned about each and every one of us; she would have regular time with each of us individually to listen to us.
“On the practical level, she set up a sewing workshop, and herself taught us needlework and crochet. She set hours to organise life at the convent: the nuns worked from 10am till 1pm, took a rest and had lunch, then resumed work till it was time for worship.”
“The earthquake that shook Egypt in October 1992,” Sisiter Maria recalled, “left the convent’s old walls near collapse. Tamav Mariam ordered the dilapidated walls demolished and rebuilt. She retained the features and hominess of the original building but used the change to modernise the nuns’ quarters. Now every nun has her own cell with a private bath.”
The talk about buildings brought about a question on the new convent at Nubariya, and how it came to be. Sister Maria said that Tamav Mariam was long pre-occupied with the idea of finding new quarters that would house the increasing number of nuns, and would preferably be in a tranquil spot far from the city. She asked Pope Shenouda’s advice; he approved, but said the new place had better have access to water, because otherwise the new convent would have longstanding problems. He was of course speaking out of a long experience with desert monasteries.
“The land in Nubariya was a Godsend,” Tamav Mariam used to say. According to Sister Maria, it was originally farmland on which rabbits were reared, and a canal passed nearby. This secured a precious water source. The land was owned by a Copt who had died, and the inheritors wished to sell it. That was in 1986. “Tamav’s first impression, which we all shared, was an initial sense of peace and serenity. We purchased the place and started work to build the convent.
“We never made the convent project public, in order to work in peace. But word got around. The workers who came in daily had to ride microbuses, and we got to know that the microbus drivers called the nearest stop ‘mahattet al-deir’, the convent’s stop.
“Once it became public knowledge that a convent was being built, so many obstacles were put in our path. But Jesus Christ and the Holy Virgin helped us through. At one point, the workers were working on the foundation of the church but found great difficulty because there was no light. Then the workers saw the Holy Virgin manifest herself in a vision of light; it was as though the Lady was herself placing the foundation.”
Taking orders: privilege in its own right
The Nubariya convent accommodates a large number of nuns, as Tamav had hoped it would. The big church, in the name of the Holy Virgin, was consecrated by Pope Tawadros II. Another small church was consecrated in the name of St Abiskharoun al-Qillini.
Among the major changes worked by Tamav Mariam has been the imposition of new conditions upon which women may qualify to take orders. According to rules decreed by Pope Shenouda III, no man or woman may take orders unless they have a university degree and are at an age of no less than 21 years old. The logic behind this condition was that a monastery or convent would not be used as a refuge from seemingly insolvable problems, but should be a privilege in its own right. In addition to that, Tamav Mariam put the condition that a novice should remain under probation for three years, and should have the consent of her parents in order for them not to make any claims later.
Now, according to Sister Maria, many of the nuns come from professional backgrounds. Sister Maria herself was a high-ranking official before she gave up her career to take orders. Apart from Tamav Mariam, three of the older nuns have been granted the highest monastic rank of Eskim: Sister Helena, Sister Mustafiyah, and Sister Suzannah.
Sister Tekla, who lived with Tamav Mariam for many years, talked about Tamav’s spiritual gifts.
“I joined the convent in 1971,” Sister Tekla said, “Tamav Mariam had spiritual insight and clairvoyance. I remember Anba Yulius, General Bishop of Old Cairo, who used to visit the monastery while yet a monk, but Tamav Mariam invariably greeted him with a bright smile and ‘Hello Abouna (Father) the Bishop’.
“There was also a young woman in the neighbourhood who had a hard time because the doctors told her she could never have a baby. But Tamav told her: “Don’t worry, you’ll be Umm Youssef (Mother of Youssef)’. The woman did get a baby boy whom she called Youssef.”
Sister Tekla claims Tamav Mariam knew the day of her departure. “Sister Maria and I were visiting Nubariya the day before and were preparing to leave as the day drew to an end, but Tamav Mariam uncannily insisted we stay on. She prayed with us till 7pm, and then stayed up until 1am. She then went to her cell, but asked us to sit with her, saying she wasn’t feeling well. Her condition suddenly declined and, before the ambulance could come by, she breathed her last. It was God’s will that Tamav should go peacefully, amid her daughters, in her convent in Nubariya where a shrine has now been built for her.
“Tamav Mariam loved every one of us very dearly,” Sister Tekla said. I can vouch for that; Tamav instilled in the nuns a spirit of overflowing love palpable to all who deal with them. Her love lives on in her spiritual daughters.
22 November 2017