“What is a Copt?” A Review of “Marcus Simaika, Father of Coptic Archaeology”Posted: October 8, 2017
Sometime in late 1872 or early 1873 the 14 year-old Theodore Roosevelt, future President of United States, visited Egypt. Later in life he blurted out in his diary “How I gazed on Egypt. It was the land of my dreams; Egypt, the most ancient of all countries! A land that was old when Rome was bright, was old when Babylon was in its glory, was old when Troy was taken! It was a sight to awaken a thousand thoughts, and it did” The precocious boy exhibits a certainty of what Egypt is, an attitude shared by outsiders, then as now. Two decades after Roosevelt’s visit outsiders (mostly) brought forth the great age of museums in Egypt, with four of them built in two decades. First to be established was the Egyptian museum, the plaque on top of it lists the great men of Egyptology, all of them European. The items within would whet the appetite of every Teddy, and cuttingly remind Egyptians of how unworthy they have become of their ancestors. Then came the museum of “Arab” (actually Islamic) art. It was also built by Europeans of a different stripe; romantics who saw in Islam the exotic and the “other”. Then came the museum of Greco-Roman art in Alexandria. Again it was built by Europeans, of yet a third kind; eager to cement their claim to the city by attaching it firmly to the southern end of Europe. The last, and the most modest, was unique in that it was started by a native Egyptian, a bulldozer of a man and a Copt. The man was Murqus Pasha Simaika (1864-1944), and the museum was dedicated to “Coptic Archaeology”. It was an odd designation given that the Copts were not dead, and in fact were very much on the rebound at that time. Well into the 1970s Egyptians referred to the museum as “Mat7af Murqus Basha Simaika”, or the museum of Murqus Pasha Simaika. Simaika was not a scholar, but a mover and a shaker, an able administrator and dogged collector. His efforts lit a spark to the field of Coptology, with reverberations that echo to this day. He also fought in the trenches of the communal struggles between the 1870s into the 1940s. He was not a man of letters, and his opinions often changed, but by action set markers for Coptic identity that others continually sought to support or refute. It is not that he settled the question of “What is a Copt?”, but that he raised the question in the first place, without even meaning to do so.
The years after his visit to Egypt were kind to Theodore Roosevelt. He went from honor to greater honor until he reached the pinnacle of power as President of the United States, ending his term in 1909. In his first year away from power he traveled the world and visited Egypt. He gave a memorable speech denouncing the assassination of Prime Minister Boutros Ghali, a Copt, and advising the Egyptians that “the training of a nation to fit itself successfully to fulfill the duties of self-government is a matter, not of a decade or two, but of generations”. Grateful Copts whisked him away to visit the recently established Coptic museum where Murqus Pasha was his guide. The Simaika and Roosevelt families were equally ancient. In the middle of the 17th century the Simaika family was among the most powerful Coptic notables, at the same time that the Roosevelts traveled to New York to become landed gentry. It must be said that the artifacts in the museum fail to answer with complete certainty the question of “What is a Copt?”, since many predate Christianity and appear decidedly both Coptic and Hellenic, while others are medieval and appear both Coptic and Islamic. In a further swirl of identities and accidents, we know that this was not the last interaction between the Roosevelts and the Simaikas. Farid Simaika, the nephew of Murqus Pasha, and an Olympic diver, was inducted into the US Army air corps under a special program set up by President Franklin Roosevelt. He had recently become an American. He volunteered for a highly dangerous spying mission to the South Pacific where his airplane was shot
down. It is surmised with near certainty that he was beheaded by the Japanese forces. He is believed to be the first,and perhaps the only Copt to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. It is a sober reflection on where America was then that Farid was able to marry an American woman only after the local California court ruled that “Egyptians belonged to the Hamitic and Semitic branch of the Caucasian race”. The court expressed certitude about Egyptians, and by implication Copts, that they themselves lack even today.
Murqus Pasha stood astride many divides among the Copts. There was the divide between the laity and the Church as how to reform and modernize the community. There was also the divide between the landed aristocracy and self-made new men. But perhaps most critically there was an identity divide. Should the Copts attach themselves to ancient Egypt, as the “true sons of the Pharaohs”, of hew to a Christian identity? How much of the Copts’ identity is tied to Egypt’s ancient history and how much is a product of their Christianity? Murqus Pasha was a bold and forceful man; he lacked what Stanley Lane-Poole insisted Copts possess, “the vices of servitude”. Yet it is possible to find in his life and actions clear evidence that he was on all sides of those divides. It is perhaps his great contradictions, as well as as his great actions, that make him worthy of study, especially in our current times.
A chronicler and molder of Egyptian and Coptic identity, Mirrit Boutros Ghali, wrote the obituary of Murqus Pasha. It was a fit choice, as Ghali had become a prominent archeologist by that time, and Murqus had been a friend of both his paternal and maternal grandfathers, as well as a grateful recipient of the assistance of Mirrit’s mother. In an entry in the Coptic Encyclopedia written four decades later he quotes from Simaika’s unpublished memoirs, which were kept privately by Murqus’s son Youssef. It was always hoped that full accounting of them be made public. A new account of Murqus Pasha and his times based on these memoirs is now published in English by AUC Press, by the Pasha’s grandson, the eminent gynecologist Samir Mahfouz Simaika, and Nevine Henein. This follows an earlier publication of a similar volume by the Farid Atiya Press. Samir Simaika is also the grandson of Naguib Mahfouz, the famous Coptic Gynecologist, after whom the Nobel Prize novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who is a Muslim, is named, in recognition of the doctor who made his life possible after a difficult birth. Islamists would always hold Mahfouz’s name against him, and late in life attempt to assassinate him for it. We should also note that the editor of the Encyclopedia, Aziz Atiya, who was Farid Atiya’s uncle and this blogger’s adoptive grandfather, was inspired to attempt his monumental work late in life through the example of men such as Simaika. So much of the focus on Egypt today centers on the roles of the military and Islamists, but those who wish to read Egypt beyond the doleful reality of power and prejudice will find rare treasures in this book, even if it is a difficult dig.
The book is divided neatly into four parts that tell of Semaika’s upbringing, his services to his nation, his services to his fellow Copts, and finally his efforts to establish and grow his museum. These correspond roughly to the divides mentioned earlier. A notably curious fact about both books is that they use the Latinized version of Simaika’s name, Marcus, rather than the pronunciation favored by Egyptians, Murqus, thus banishing the harsh Semitic Qoph. It is possible that the Pasha would have approved of this. In official photographs the old Copt seems pleased as his chest proudly displays the multitude of medals and accolades bestowed on him by kings and potentates from various countries. A 1923 photograph of the Simaikas looks remarkably like a European aristocratic family. The memoirs of Marcus display an easy familiarity with the top colonial and Egyptian officials, as well as many eminent scholars of the time, such as Alfred Butler, Somers Clarke, Josef Strzygowski, and Ugo de Villard. But the old Copt within him chafed underneath the charming veneer of a man of the modern world and occasionally it would lash out in resentment. He confronted Sa’ad Zaghlul over the matter of teaching only Muslim religious thoughts in schools, and Zaghlul, who favored the word “uskut”, or “shut up”, in debates, gave in. He was angry with multiple British officials for sowing seeds of dissent and general run-of-the-mill condescension. After all, the Pasha came from a family of Coptic notables accustomed to respect for centuries. Throughout his life, and in quoted passages from his memoirs, he promoted a vision of Egyptian identity that stands beyond religion, only to be faced with ugly realities at all times. He attended the funeral of Prime Minister Boutros Pasha Ghali after his assassination, but could recall with precision the “praise” bestowed by Sheikh Al Azhar on Ghali, “this Copt did more for his country than many Muslims”. The sense of anger, coiled beneath a requisite surface of amity, must feel familiar to many Copts. When aroused, the anger can take on unhappy forms. In a speech regarding the dispute with the Ethiopian Church over the ownership of Deir Al Sultan in Jerusalem (still ongoing a century later), he notes that “after each incident … the repenting Ethiopians came back tearfully begging to be allowed to stay, and the Copts taking pity on them and considering them as their brothers in faith always pardoned them ..”. It is expected of ambitious men to stand up for themselves, unless they are Copts. Marcus Pasha is advised by a more traditional Coptic politician, Youssef Wahba, to turn it down a notch, saying “when you want something …you seem to carry a stick in one hand and a knife in the other”. The quotations in the book leave no doubt that Marcus Pasha was shadowed by anger. In the preface his grandson notes that unlike many other Coptic grandees he never turned his back on his people, or ignored their needs, after he achieved wider fame. That is exactly true of Simaika, he remained a passionate Copt and fully engaged in the affairs of the community. His greatest battles were with other Copts, usually the clerical hierarchy. A dynamic man in a time of rapid social change could not possibly avoid that predicament. It is not so much that he was a bridge between generations, but that he was a familiar and oft repeated note in an endless fugue.
The Pasha was not an easy man, and he sometimes clashed with many of his contemporaries, especially the prelates of the Coptic Church. The book bills him as the “Father of Coptic Archaeology”, which is a richly deserved honor. The title of “Founder of Coptology” should be reserved to the intellectual Cladius Labib (1868-1918). He, and his son Pahor (who directed the Coptic museum after Simaika’s death), tried and failed to revive Coptic as a spoken language, something all other Coptologists shied away from, in favor of Arabic, English, French and German as their favored tongues. But Simaika should be counted as one of Coptology’s early founder and a prototype for many of subsequent followers, even if he was more of a man of power than scholarship. His contemporary in that work, Prince Omar Toussoun, also deserves equal honors. The Prince, a descendant of Muhammad Ali on both sides of his parents, was an accomplished scholar who studied the geography and history of Egypt. Although a Muslim, he too is a father of Coptology. The book features a rare photograph of the two of them at the Coptic museum in 1942, a few years before both would pass away. By that time these two men were already passing the baton to a new generation of Coptologists cut from a different cloth, but with equal or greater ambitions. These men shared a curious feature. All would make major contributions to the revival of Coptic culture while denying any thought that there is a “Coptic nation”. Most saw the contradiction between their actions and words (as indeed did Simaika) but perhaps felt it was the price of gaining agency in a world beyond their control.
The book features many anecdotes so familiar that they seem apocryphal. There is the story of the strong-willed Marcus defying his father, who wanted him to be a priest, and learning English and venturing out onto the wider world. He was not the first Copt to do so, as many Boutros, Murqus and Salamas would try to transcend and outgrow their Coptic identity. The older man, made wiser by the buffeting of the world, returns to serve his people in ways far more important than a mere parish priest. This is a familiar story of many “founders”, whether they were secular Zionists who rejected the rabbinical ways of their families, or Brahmin Hindus who adopted the manners and language of the British they loved and resented. There is a hesitant uncertainty about the world made by Western culture. The arms embrace it but the eyes betray a suspicion of it. In the case of Marcus Pasha the ironies and ambiguities loop on each other. He went to a school founded by Pope Kyrillos IV, “Father of Reform”, but open to Muslims and Copts, although Copts could not attend state schools at the time. The English Church Mission Society (CMS) made the Pope’s task easier, but he was a iconoclastic man, both figuratively and literally. Marcus the ambitious young man must have appreciated the “figurative” part, while the older Marcus as an art collector resented the senseless destruction brought on by this Pope. Admiration and censoriousness have a common heart.
The foundation myth, even if true, of the Coptic museum is also a familiar one. Marcus Pasha sees Pope Kyrillos V, the man he battled for years, about to melt ancient and beautiful silver bowls. He snatches them from his hands and with these as the first artifacts builds the museum dedicated to the history and culture of the Copts. Since then the story has been repeated and retouched by many a Coptologist. Ragheb Moftah documented Coptic sacred music with Western musical notation to save it from the mouths of ignorant priests who mumbled it without understanding. Aziz Atiya would not let Pope Shenouda have a final say on the editors of the Coptic Encyclopedia lest it becomes a uselessly hagiographic paean. These stories, all true, share a common theme. The determined scholar eager to use the tools of Western knowledge to serve “his” people must face down the entrenched and sometimes ignorant official Church. The reality also contains additional notes. The majority of Copts at those times likely supported Kyrillos V and Shenouda III, and viewed these men as “fathers” necessary for their survival. Whatever these scholars did to guarantee the cultural survival of the common folks was likely to be under-appreciated by the beneficiaries. There were more than a few shades of gray to all the confrontations. Samir Simaika notes the difficulty of collecting old Coptic sacramental artifacts since any item anointed by chrism must be destroyed once unusable lest it falls to profane hands. There is an echo of this in the tale of the Cairo Geniza records. European, or “advanced” Jews, wrested these documents from their rightful owners, the Egyptian or “backward” Jews, and sent them to Europe and the US for preservation and study. The act is either a perfidious theft or a heroic effort that documents the ways of a people now literally extinct. Individuals often pay a heavy price for communal reform. Conventional morality is a confused waif when it comes to the difficult work of preserving and building a nation’s culture.
Marcus was elected to the newly created Al Majlis Al Mili or “Community Council” at the tender age of 25. And for decades he was one of its most notable voices. As befitting a man of his temperament, his positions and views were unambiguous, until they changed. He favored the primacy of the lay Copts over the clerical hierarchy in the running of the affairs of the community, yet he paid homage to the very same bishops to pry items from their monasteries and churches. He favored exiling Pope Kyrillos V, and also bringing him back with honors. Many a man cut in Marcus’ mold would bend down and kiss the hand of a Bishop or a Pope that he believed to be an uneducated rube.The men in his party found themselves in paradoxical situations. The Church has been the backbone of the Copts for centuries, and the common folks loved Christ and their Church even while occasionally disapproving of the behavior of the men in black. But the Copts must be beaten out of these views if they are to be whipped into shape and made fit for the modern world, so thought many men like Simaika. The century-long battle now seems to have been decided in favor of the Church, perhaps. The Church was reformed from within, by laymen who joined its ranks. The Coptic notables seem to have largely disappeared, victims of the various “isms” that haunt Egypt today. But listening closely one can hear the opening salvo of a renewal of that struggle. The old notables like the Simaika family, born and bred to serve Egypt’s despots, are gone, but new notables made of a different stock are coming on the scene. These are the figurative descendants of Marcus’ Pasha nephew Farid, Copts born outside Egypt and sometimes less than fully acquainted with its realities, but with entirely different sense of entitlements and expectations. They expect the world to respect their individual and personal rights, they expect the state to serve them not the other way around, and they expect the Church to administer to their spiritual needs but not be in control of their views and actions. These new notables are eager to belong and serve, but under a new compact. The shape of the future struggle, or even if there is one, is still unknown. Recently this author found himself in an audience with Pope Tawadros II and a number of young women. They were all Copts, most were not Egyptian, and a few were not even of Egyptian stock. They could just as easily have been in an audience of Oprah as with a Patriarch of an ancient Church. He listened to them with a great deal of fatherly love and some incomprehension. What came to heart were the twin feelings that underpin most religious experiences; hope and dread.
Marcus Simaika spent the last decades of his life collecting Coptic artifacts and building up his museum. The book is rich in telling details. He was not a man to take “No” or even “Yes” for an answer. He insisted on “Yes, Now!” (“Whenever I heard of some object worthy of being added to our collection, I began my attack. I never despaired if refused once … and obtained it when the possessor became tired of my visits”). There is a comic underside to such a man in Egypt, for “now” among the Egyptians often stretched to years or never. There was also a tragic underside. His searches proved beyond doubt that much of Coptic heritage was destroyed in the Mamluk pogroms of the 13th and 14th centuries. As his collection grew the state became interested in it, less because it supported Coptic culture but because it wished to look like it is solicitous of the welfare of the Copts, especially to outsiders. Marcus Pasha did nothing to expose the condescending sneer behind the smiling facades. In this manner he was a model for the men who followed him. Most ignored the painful realities that touched them in favor of a distant vision of a better country. Aziz Atiya, who was hounded out of his university professorship by Islamists, would later write that “Copts enjoy full citizenship rights in Egypt today”. Mirrit Ghali would serve the Free Officers as minister (briefly) and diplomat, even after he was certain they would destroy his vision of a genuinely liberal Egypt. Pope Tawadros II insists that Copts can trust their safety to the state, even as policeman watch idly while mobs ransack Coptic properties in Minya. A sympathetic American asked “Why do Copts do that?”, stopping short of repeating Lane-Poole’s charge. We can only look in vain for an answer among Marcus Simaika’s words. He was a nominal support of Lutfi El-Sayed brand of Egyptian nationalism, which time has shown to be inimical to the interests of the Copts, while also developing an ideological framework for the violent suppression of Islamists. Yet he, and the majority of Coptic public men, remained faithful to it. Simaika, while building up the Christian portion of the Coptic identity, insisted that Copts attach themselves to the ancient Egyptian heritage. This seeming contradiction persists, even within the Church, where Egyptian nationalism has attached itself to its theology, as a barnacle would to a magnificent ship. The Copts are full-fledged members of the fraternity of reviled minorities, yet have struck out differently from others. Unlike the Jews and the Kurds, for example, they never sought out a geographic state fortified behind secure walls. Also, unlike the Christians of the Levant, they never sought out communally based representation, nor attempted to secure special rights. Most even reject the label “minority”, a triumph of aspiration over arithmetic. These stands might be a product of nearly two centuries of sacralization of Egypt and a belief in its exceptionalism, or simply a realistic approach favoring the possible over the desirable. But whatever the reasons these views have become problematic, and might set up new communal struggles, as the percentage of non-Egyptians among Copts grows.
For all its rewards, one can come to the last few pages of a book about a man who collected and preserved Coptic heritage without a satisfactory answer to “What is a Copt?”. For that we must look inward. A simple tribal definition that draws boundaries, defining who is in and who is out seems unsatisfactory. If any attempt at preserving cultural identity is to succeed it must account for change and allow for a constant redefinition of that identity by future generations. No culture can thrive behind high walls, and no wall is high enough to protect and contain a thriving culture. What might work is a series of concentric definitions radiating outward. There are those born into the Coptic identity, then there are those who wish to join it. Others might earn a place of honor by their understanding and support. Still others might look at the trials and triumphs of Copts and respect them as a retelling of the larger human condition. They are all Copts, and Copts would do well to embrace them without fear of dilution or loss of identity.
— Maged Atiya