Remembrance of Things Forgotten: Egypt's Valuable Coptic Architecture Has until Recently Been Overlooked but Interest Is Reviving. Maria Golia Writes from Cairo

Article excerpt

EGYPT'S COPTS ARE proud of their place in the early history of Christianity. St Mark, author of the oldest canonical gospel brought the religion here in the first century AD. Soon afterwards, the Coptic faithful introduced the practice of monasticism to the Christian world.

In the current atmosphere of heightened religious sensitivity, the Coptic community is revisiting history as a means of strengthening its cultural identity, while the Egyptian government is seeking ways to emphasise religious tolerance.

Aside from the establishment of Coptic Christmas as a national holiday in 2003, there has been a pragmatic revival of interest in Coptic culture. While Egyptian textbooks tend to gloss over the country's Coptic past, the bi-millennial anniversary of the Holy Family's flight through Egypt, commemorated in June 2000, provided an opportunity to promote national unity--and tourism.

Historic Christian sites were given a desperately needed facelift. As a tourist lure, the Holy Family did not score as highly as was hoped, especially after 9/11. But the turn of the millennia did shine an unprecedented light on Coptic Egypt.

In 2003, the American University in Cairo established Egypt's first Coptic studies curricula. Donors such as USAid, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) are now sponsoring excavations, and conservationists are restoring the paintings decorating the churches of several important monasteries. Cairo's Coptic museum was recently renovated at the cost of 30m Egyptian pounds ($5.26m). In the past, Coptic monuments were neglected, with the bulk of the available finance reserved for the more popular and lucrative pharaonic re mains. They also suffered due to a lack of expertise on behalf of antiquities inspectors who failed to fully document their findings. Some feel religious rivalries may have influenced conservation priorities, but Islamic monuments have also been neglected. These days, recognising the value of its multi-faceted heritage, the state is either executing or hosting a number of conservation projects.

Despite Egypt's ten-to-one ratio of Muslims to Copts, the latter do not see themselves as a minority so much as indigenous Egyptians. The Arab invaders of 649 found well-established Coptic communities and referred to the conquered land as dar El Gibt, 'home of the Egyptians'.

The word Copt comes from Gibt, the Arabic corruption of the Greek Aigyptos, itself derived from Hikaptah, the ancient Egyptian name for the country's first capital of Memphis. The Coptic language is philologically linked to that of the pharaonic era, and Coptic masses, some still celebrated ill the original tongue, offer evocative echoes not only of Christianity's birth, but of the speech of the pyramid builders.

Nevertheless, Coptology did not become a formal discipline until 1971, when Munster University in Germany appointed a specialised professor. Other European universities followed suit, with studies focused on Coptic language and literature.

Coptic art was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1941, and in Essen, Germany in 1961, but the first exhibition to attract worldwide acclaim was held in Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe in the year 2000.

The recent restoration of the Church of St Antony unveiled medieval Coptic paintings formerly invisible beneath centuries of accumulated grime. The subsequent publication of Monastic Visions (Yale University Press and ARCE, 2002) illustrated the paintings and their history, sparking fresh appraisals of Coptic art, while raising awareness of the need to preserve Egypt's Coptic antiquities.

Medievalist Dr Elizabeth Bolman, editor of Monastic Visions, was an early champion of Coptic art, a form previously viewed by some art historians as primitive or simply 'bad'. She participated in the restoration project at St Antony's and is currently involved ill work at the Red and White Monasteries near Sohag, involving painting from late antiquity. …