Indiana Jones and the Coptologist

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Wendell and Shirley Phillips in a Christmas card in the Aziz and Lola Atiya collection, likely December 1967

The young American archaeologist and oilman, Wendell Phillips, was in Cairo to deliver a lecture to the Egyptian Geographic Society on Saturday June 27 1953 on his excavations in Southern Arabia trying to locate the historical roots of the Queen of Sheba. While waiting in town he ran another errand. He visited President Mohammad Naguib to hand him a pistol, a gift from President Dwight Eisenhower, with the name of the former Supreme Allied Commander engraved on its handle. The event was widely reported in the Egyptian press. One newspaper, Al Masry of June 26 1953, shows a photograph of President Naguib carefully inspecting the pistol, with the barrel wisely pointing downward. Wendell Phillips stands to his right. Between the two men is another figure, a silver-haired Egyptian academic, a founder of King Farouk University (later Alexandria), named Aziz Suryal Atiya. Atiya, with his signature enigmatic smile, seems to have wandered in from another event. In fact, “Aziz” and “Wendell” had been friends for some time, and within weeks Aziz would make a fateful decision partly on account of his friend. Atiya’s presence was perfectly explainable, as noted by two memos in his hand writing about the event, dated June 25 and June 27 1953 and titled “For forwarding to his Excellency President Mohammad Naguib”. In one of the memos Atiya suggests that Naguib award a medal to the US Librarian of Congress, Luther Evans. In the other, Atiya makes a recommendation to award an oil concession to Phillips and have the revenue flow directly to build Egypt’s power and army outside the regular budget.  We do not know if Naguib read the memos, but by the end of 1953 Phillips had given up on getting a concession in the Western desert and looked at possibilities in the Sinai. This was not the first time the two had dealings with Egyptian rulers. In a letter dated July 20 1952, Phillips writes to Atiya informing him that he has sent a handsome leather bound and gold-edged volume about St Catherine monastery to his Highness King Farouk I. The volume was indeed delivered to Farouk on July 26 1952, a somewhat inopportune day in the life of the Egyptian monarch. The story of the friendship between Wendell Phillips (1921-1975) and Aziz Atiya (1898-1988) is a sidebar to the history of Egypt and America, their close and fraught relationship as lived through two men who remained friends long after their necessary initial collaboration, and after life placed them on unexpected paths.

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Wendell Phillips, Aziz Atiya and Egyptian President Mohammad Naguib. Al Masry June 24 1953.

Max Kutner in a recent article in the Smithsonian magazine calls Phillips a real life Indiana Jones for his work in excavating ancient southern Arabia; the man who “uncovered millennia-old treasures beneath Arabian sands, got rich from oil and died relatively unknown”. The last part was not exactly correct, as Aziz had secured an honorary doctorate for Wendell from the University of Utah shortly before Phillips’ death. In a 1954 review of one of his books the New York Times described him as a “swashbuckling adventurer with the coolness of a gambler and the cunning of a backwoodsman”. Atiya, nearly a generation older, was a historian of Islam, before he turned later in life to the study of Eastern Christianity and becoming one of the founders of “Coptology”, or the study of Egypt’s Christians. The two men came together in an expedition to microfilm the manuscript collection of the St Catherine monastery in Egypt’s Sinai in the late 1940s, which amounted to close to 700,000 documents. Atiya’s interest in the monastery dated back nearly a decade. In 1938 he was a professor at the University of Bonn before having to leave Germany on account of the proclivities of its then rulers. Back in Egypt he followed up a rumor first heard in Germany about the fabled “Firman rolls” in the monastery of St Catherine. The story of these rolls can serve as the script for a Spielberg sequel, “Indiana Jones and the Ottoman Firmans”. It involves two Germans, Karl Schmidt and Bernhard Moritz, who were chased out of  the Sinai at outbreak of World War I, a lost cache of photographs, an Egyptian in Germany trying to track them down on the eve of World War II, an American adventurer, a reluctant Abbot looking for money to fix his monastery, American officials, Egyptian civil servants, a harrowing transport of electrical generators and photographic equipment up a difficult mountain, and finally the revelation of a cache of over 500 documents in dated and uninterrupted sequence. In this script, Phillips earned the role of the American swashbuckler when at the age of 26 he founded the grandly named “American Foundation for the Study of Man” and offered to assist with photographing the entire collection of the monastery and not just these specific rolls. This was his second venture in Africa, at least if we broadly define the location of the Sinai. His first was a trip from Cairo to Cape Town, shortly after WWII, called “The Africa Expedition”, made possible only because he persuaded Jan Smuts, South Africa’s Prime Minister, to support it. At that time he had no money or degrees, or any discernible qualifications.  The same confidence allowed him to take a leadership role in a project he had not previously been associated with and to ask the Library of Congress to fund it. While trying to achieve some fame in archaeology he dabbled in oil leases and eventually became a major oilman with a fortune rumored to be in the hundreds of millions. The Library of Congress agreed to fund the photography effort, after some badgering by Atiya. The Acting Librarian, an icy man named Verner W. Clapps, wrote a precise contract to prevent any filching of monies from the US taxpayers to any purpose beyond the photographing of the monastery texts. Still, the pair found a way to stuff $10,000 into the Abbot’s habit for the repair of the monastery. It was money well-spent. Scholars had long wanted to document the library of the monastery but were rebuffed by the reclusive monks who had survived for 1400 years in a forbidding and often hostile territory. Aziz had earlier secured the friendship of Abbot Porphyrios which made the expedition possible. The exchanges between the two men, and with Egyptian and American officials are fascinating. All the grand events of the time are seen entirely through the narrow focus of the scholarly project. In one letter dated June 21 1949, the rector of King Farouk University, Sadek Gohar, apologizes for delays since conditions in the Sinai were turbulent on account of “recent conditions”. In a letter from August 22 1952 Phillips hopes that Atiya “is in no way endangered by the current trend of events in Egypt” before launching on the specifics of the project and informing him that he received an award from the prince of Comores for his work in Arabia, and expressing disappointment that Egypt has not seen it fit to make a similar award to him at this moment. On July 30 1952 Atiya wrote to Phillips that “events have been moving too fast in Egypt during the last few days“. He was optimistic that “We expect from our American friends to support our action in attempting to turn Egypt really into a democratic country. However, I firmly believe that the present condition of things will be even more favorable to our cultural collaboration with America“. A little more than a year later, on January 8 1954, Atiya sounded a note of alarm in telling Phillips’ mother that he can not send her a collection of stamps on account of “censorship“. In fact his disappointment came to pass earlier. During a wedding on January 25 1953 a relative asked him when he thinks the Army will relinquish power. Atiya flipped over the wedding invitation, pulled a pen from his breast pocket and wrote “July 23 2052”.

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Aziz Atiya shortly after leaving Germany in 1938 and before his first Sinai expedition in 1940 – Private collection

One of the letters to Phillips adds confusion to the history of Atiya’s purge from Egyptian academia. On July 15 1953 he writes to Phillips that he “resigned without regret” from his position in protest over the lack of recognition given to both of them by the University with regard to the St Catherine expedition. In reality, according to both Atiya and others familiar with the events, his position was getting increasingly tenuous since the Free Officers adopted the educational reforms recommended by Sayyd Qutb, and especially since his mentor Taha Hussein was eased out of running higher education in the country. It is possible that Atiya in sensing the upcoming purge simply beat his tormentors to the door, and while at it took a firm stand for his friend. Either way, in a letter to Wendell dated January 8 1954 declared himself “a free man“. It was a watershed year for both men. Aziz, at 55, was headed for America and greater recognition in the next 35 years of his life. Wendell was meanwhile accumulating wealth rapidly from his oil leases, and spending more time in harsh climates pursuing mythical kingdoms and occasionally uncovering fabulous objects.

The St Catherine microfilming project was largely completed by 1951. On March 19 1951 Atiya delivered a lecture on the “Arabic Treasures” of the monastery at the Library of Congress. He later acknowledged that the effort was critical to his turn to the study of Eastern Christianity, as well as its close interactions with Islam. The documents paint a nuanced and complex picture of the early co-existence between Islam and Christianity, and on the relationship between the Eastern and Western branches of the religion. In a classic work “The History Eastern Christianity” published in 1967, he proposes that “the general history of Christianity will have to be rewritten to incorporate the monumental and sometimes turbulent contributions of the Copts [and Eastern Christians]“. For his part, Wendell went on to excavate in present day Yemen and Oman.  With an eye toward value, and having gained the respect of the local rulers, he obtained valuable concessions for oil explorations. Phillips seemed to lack a gene for fatigue. He talked his way out of many troubles and drove himself relentlessly, Later in life Atiya credited Phillips with the kind of restless energy that made practical plans out of scholarly pursuits, such as sending electrical generators up a mountain to be followed by a host of American scholars, including some who were refugees from Nazi Germany. 

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Wendell Phillips. Photograph date and location in dispute, but likely Oman during the insurgency of the 1960s.

The letters between the two men paint a growing friendship and affection, even if neither man was emotionally demonstrative and both had reasons to be circumspect about what to put on paper. The letters are a window on their times and souls. Both men made their home bases in the American West, specifically Utah and Hawaii for Atiya and Phillips, but traveled incessantly. Their correspondences were sometimes delayed or made haphazard by their peripatetic nature. The last and most touching exchange was dated April 8 1974 and written by Aziz in Salt Lake City. He begins by saying “Last night I saw you in a dream. You seem to have lost weight but gained enormous funds”, before asking him to fund a faculty position in his name in Arabic studies. That same night, thousands of miles away in Honolulu, Phillips was struck by a heart attack and a stroke, one of a series that left him wasting and eventually dead within 18 months. Wendell had a way of sharing important events with Atiya in an off-handed manner that nevertheless seemed to demand attention, even affection. In a letter dated May 20 1969 (the same month Aziz was in Egypt tending to his dying Mother-in-Law) Wendell writes of his growing friendship with President Suharto of Indonesia (he was eventually awarded huge concessions there). The note is on the letterhead of the Kingdom of Oman, and its Sultan Said bin Taimur, where Wendell is listed as a “economic advisor and representative”. Toward the end of the letter Wendell confesses to what  troubles him. “I believe I told you that Shirley [his wife] became quite ill and it was decided by the doctors that it was better to dissolve our marriage”. There was more bad news. Wendell was close to the Sultan’s son (and current Sultan), Qaboos, and perhaps more than a witness to the insurgency, especially since he did excavations in Dhofar, the heartland of the fight. That made him “unable to come to Cairo as I am not sure how popular I am with certain individuals in that part of the world”. He had previously informed Aziz of his marriage in a letter on November 24 1968 in a casual way “The second day after my marriage, I was hit in an auto accident and had my back broken in three places”. He continued to travel and followed up on July 2 1969 to inform Aziz that he had become close friends with Sheikh Zaid of Abu Dhabi, in addition to his relationship with Oman.  Phillips’ association with Oman started in the 1950s, and culminated in a book “The Unknown Oman” in 1966. That was the year he began to use the Sultan’s letterhead as his own, and the practice ended only after his friend Qaboos deposed his father on July 23 1970. A letter dated August 31 1970 to Aziz by his assistant is uncharacteristically evasive about Phillips’ general direction, except that he was heading to Korea, where he obtained a concession in September 1970. What is notable about the letterhead is that it is titled “Wendell Phillips Oil Company”, but oddly enough still using the logo of the Kingdom of Oman. Perhaps there was too little time to design new stationary. Later that year, Phillips told the Guardian “I am not a businessman, although I employ many of these. I am an archaeologist”. At that point he owned some of the largest oil field concessions in the world, on three continents. Yet he seemed envious of Atiya’s increased prominence, asking him for copies of the “The History of Eastern Christianity” and for help on an upcoming book “Adventurer meets Jesus and the Koran”. Aziz took an almost parental delight in the adventures of Wendell, at times praising his friend in correspondence with Sunshine Phillips, Wendell’s mother. Aziz had the tact not to ask Wendell about his mysterious absences or the reasons for zigzag trips. The letters were direct and familiar and more than a few times he mentions views and even emotions that he generally kept for those closest to him. In a letter dated August 11 1970 he asks Wendell whether he is still on friendly terms with Qaboos who had recently deposed his father, and what the change might mean to his concessions. In the same letter he lets slip that he now has “three American Grandchildren”, a subtle hint about how Aziz viewed himself, immigration and the assimilation of his own immediate family. Taken as a whole the letters seem to be a conspiracy of two against the wider world. If the two men contrasted sharply they also shared at least one similar trait. Each man outgrew early provincial roots with a passionate desire to see the wider world and transcend any narrow identity. Both men seemed to regard the entire world as their home, with every culture as fair game for study, absorption and even appropriation. Yet both remained at heart paradigms of their roots;  the fast talking American and the bookish Copt; Indiana Jones and the Coptologist.

We must also note a tragic coda to this tale. Almost at the moment this post was written news came of a horrific attack on a mosque in the Sinai by terrorists. The various places where these two men once studied now seem to be the heartland of this brand of senseless violence. Both men knew Islam well, and their knowledge brought them to respect it as a religion and value its cultural heritage. Atiya’s lectures on Islam in Utah attracted a decent following, including many Muslims who later confessed to the value of these lectures. Phillips adventures in Arabia may have been motivated in some part by his oil business, but he was also a genuine student of the Islamic and pre-Islamic culture there. It is tempting, but wrong, to see the descent to violence in these places as a rebuke to legacy of such men. It is better to remind ourselves that the progress of culture and the love of knowledge are the most potent antidotes to the nihilism that powers ignorant men.

— Maged Atiya

 



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