Contemporary Coptic Nuns

By Watson, John | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Coptic Nuns


Watson, John, The Middle East Journal


Contemporary Coptic Nuns, by Pieternella van Doom-Harder. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. xiii + 205 pages. Notes to p. 228. Gloss. to p. 231. Bibl. to p. 243. Index to p. 253. $49.95.

Reviewed by John Watson

There are very few good books in English dealing with the Coptic Orthodox Renaissance of the last four decades. The volume under review is an important addition to the library of modern Coptic studies. Pieternella van Doom-Harder clearly knows the world of the Coptic nun; her research is thorough, and the material is generally wellpresented. The social and cultural reportage, however, is superior to the historical and theological coverage, which is adequate. It is very unlikely that in the foreseeable future there will be another study in the field to compete with this volume. This edition must, therefore, find a place on the shelves of anyone in the English-speaking world claiming to have a general interest in 20th-century Egypt or a specialised interest in the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The strongest and most revealing parts of the text are those that present striking vignettes of Abuna (Father) Yustus al-Antuni, Ummina (Mother) Martha, Ummina Irini, and Tasuni Hannah. These religious figures guarantee the survival of the Copts and their unique religious observance. Van Doom-Harder has a healthy skepticism when it comes to dealing with the central church functionaries, and there are occasional hints of the powerful control which a patriarchal element in the Church attempts to exert with a barely disguised misogyny.

Another delightful part of the book is the straightforward reporting of life and ceremonial within the convents. These passages introduce the reader into an otherwise closed world. It is a strange, spiritually potent, and most politicallyincorrect environment, controlled completely by non-resident men-the bishops of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Women have a subservient role in the Church, and there is an unavoidable sense of relief when one of the "mothers" scores even against the Patriarch.

The volume has a few problems. First, it is a very strange feature of the book that every Coptic Pope is entitled Patriarch. Whilst it is true that the Copts claim to hold the Patriarchate of Saint Mark, even the youngest Coptologist knows that all leaders of the Coptic Orthodox Church are called "Pope" and that Copts pride themselves on having had their own pope before there was one in Rome. …

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