Immigration And The Reinvention of Identity. Part I

This is the half-century mark of the large scale immigration of the Copts from Egypt, which began to gather steam in 1968. It is a good time to reflect on this historic phenomenon and its implication for the ancient people, even if it is still ongoing and its impact remains fluid. As always with the Copts, their predicament is a microcosm, a test case, of the larger Egyptian problem. Their evolution in immigration, although interesting for its own sake, contains clues about Egypt at large. We can begin to understand how Egypt might fare if its political and social systems were freer by understanding what happened when Egyptians were suddenly placed in a freer society.
Immigration involves a departure and an arrival, or a “push” and a “pull”. In the case of the Copts, conditions in Egypt provided the push, where both the successes and failures of the Nasserist project were problematic for them. America, Canada and Australia provided the pull through social changes that made these places more hospitable to non-Westerners and changed their laws to allow more immigrants from outside Europe. For example, the Civil Rights revolution in America overturned the emergency quotas of 1921 through the Hart-Celler act of 1965. Canada and Australia underwent similar changes. Immigrants usually undergo a transformation that leaves them with a hyphenated identity to serve their new needs and the circumstances of their new countries. These identities are marked by various levels and types of activism; social, cultural and political. In the case of the Copts these forms of activism took different paths and were marked by differences in acceptance and success. Social and charitable activism proved most successful, in part because it built on pre-existing norms and practices in Egypt. Cultural activism proved weakest reflecting the tragic history of the Copts since the schisms of the 5th century, and more so in the aftermath of the Arab invasion in the 7th century. To keep their faith, the Copts have surrendered every facet of their native culture, language, music, literature, and all arts except icon painting and liturgical music. But it was political activism which proved most flammable and discordant, and in the end was to deeply mark their interaction with their ancestral home, and their evolution in their new homes. This post will attempt a summary of its earliest evolutions and its current uncertain role.
Political activism is usually grounded in some past, at times mythic, and is forged by the present and articulates a vision for a desirable future. For the immigrant-led activism that rose in the early 1970s, the past was a history of loss and dispossession, while the present was a crucible of conflict, and future was an imagined Egypt where the Copts were finally equal citizens. Fifty years later, its vision for Egypt remains unrealized, and perhaps further undermined. Political activism is still the province of a few leaders and with minimal participation from the larger community. It would not be harsh to declare it a failure by its measure of success, and yet influential in unanticipated ways. There are many causes for this outcome, none more vital that the decade-long conflict, from 1971 to 1981, between President Sadat and Pope Shenouda. Many books and articles have described and examined that conflict reliably and credibly. In almost all of them “immigrant Copts” play a role, often portrayed as secondary to the conflict. In fact, they were essential to the conflict, and in many ways served to aggravate it and drive its course. Immigrant Cops played the role of children in a bitter divorce, where the two parents play to the audience of their children for acceptance, support, approval and on occasions even emotional vengeance. This conclusion is not radical when the facts are looked at afresh. A question that can never be answered, but important to ask, is whether the Sadat-Shenouda conflict would have played out in the same manner, or to have occured at all, had there been no vocal immigrant community. “Aqbat Al Mahgar” (Immigrant Copts) is the term coined by many Islamists, and government officials, as a derogatory shorthand for the critics from afar. This is the clearest sign that immigrant political activism represented more than a passing nuisance, and that its message, and perhaps more importantly its methods, struck a nerve.
Sadat arrived to the President’s office a year before Shenouda rose to be Patriarch of all the Copts. By 1972, and certainly after the 1973 war, both men were comfortable and secure in their new offices and engaged in a punishing match of wills. The two men possessed similar temperaments but occupied different vantage points; indeed different planets. Yet the conflict between them was ahistorical by Egypt’s modern standards. Since the waning of Ottoman power in the 17th century, the rulers of Egypt largely avoided open conflicts with the Copts, regardless of how they felt about them or their degree of tolerance for religious differences. On the other side, Popes never saw fit to adopt a policy of open defiance toward the ruler. These two men, however, were different and came to conflict with unequal powers. Sadat possessed a strong grip on the instruments of the Egyptian state, including the army, police, civil service and propaganda channels, and after 1977, the appreciation of the West and most of the world at large. Against that Shenouda had only a grip on his shepherd’s staff, the symbol of his office. Those who knew Egypt intimately felt that the two men were headed for serious trouble, with more in store for Sadat. The Egyptian papacy is the oldest continuous institution in the country’s history, nearly 2000 years old. It has been headed by 117 men as successors of St Mark the Apostle. They possessed the full range of human characteristics, including saints and thieves, wise men and simpletons, reformers and dolts, and every shade in-between. Yet the office endowed them with power and a form of innate historical wisdom, so none could be touched or easily removed even by the most tyrannical of rulers. Byzantine emperors, Abbasid Caliphs, marauding soldiers of fortunes, European colonialists, and especially powerful lay Copts, found that going up against the Pope, even when their cause is right or just, to be a daunting prospect. At the height of the conflict between the two men in 1980, a man who disapproved of Shenouda’s handling of the relationship with Sadat summarized the grim prospects for the President. “Sadat can ignore Shenouda and appear weak, imprison him and thus become his prisoner, or kill him and be hounded on earth and in the afterlife”. Shenouda’s unyielding stand was perhaps understandable, but Sadat’s escalation of the conflict seemed to be a foolish gambit from a man who displayed a survivor’s wit, keen political instincts and on many occasions a daring ability to change course. Indeed there were many times when the relationship seemed to be taking a better course, only to have outside events inflame it again. For Sadat, it was always the fixation on “immigrant Copts”, a tiny group of little influence that raised his ire beyond reason. Abdel Latif El-Menawy, who once headed the News division of the Egyptian Radio and Television Organization, catalogues the times Sadat blew his top over small provocations from New Jersey or Washington DC. “Why do these Copts want to turn the Christians of the World against me and Egypt”, Sadat complained over and over again. Of course, the immigrants could no such thing; their tiny newspaper ads were little noticed, and the police kept their small demonstrations politely but firmly out of Sadat’s earshot or line of sight. El-Menawy, who knew Shenouda well and interviewed him often, relates a remarkable 1977 exchange between the two men. “How could our children abroad speak against us … they are complaining about me to Carter”, ranted Sadat. Shenouda cuts him off, rising to say “The first thing I want to say is that some Copts might have emotional problems.” He continues on to insist that these emotional problems are the results of discrimination in their past lives in Egypt. He then pivots to deliver a counter punch.”Our children abroad have done a great deal for Egypt. They served us during the war of October 1973 and God knows how much effort they exerted … they are worried about the [new] laws, … should we comfort them it will be over and you won’t be so upset with them”. Shenouda seems to simultaneously disavow immigrant activists while using them to accomplish his desired goals. That encounter encapsulates the trouble with political activism among immigrant Copts. They can irritate the Egyptian state but not alter its behavior. They can provide stout support to the Church in Egypt, and at the same time find themselves in trouble with it. For half a century the activist leaders looked obsessively in the rear view mirror, or fixed their gaze on a very distant horizon, often missing what is directly in front of them. Like generations of Egyptian political activists, they excelled at stating the problems but rarely made an effort at compromise toward a solution. They found a home in the margins and could scarcely imagine themselves wielding any power. Today, with all the concern about the fate of Christians in the Middle East, new activist leaders are unable to formulate a workable set of realistic goals or “asks”. They remain the children of Shawky Karas, the man who kick started Coptic political activism in 1972 and became its prototypical leader, and warning example.
From thousands of miles away, Shawky Karas, an academic mathmatician, could raise Sadat’s blood pressure with a tiny ad or a letter to a Congressman or Senator. He reproduced many of these ads and letters in his self-published 1986 book “The Copts Since The Arab Invasion : Strangers in Their Land”. The book, with type written pages, poor editing and plain blue cover, feels like notes from the fringe. It is a remarkable combination, however, of keen insights placed side by side with wild accusations and barely believable conspiracies. The most powerful part of the book is a 20 page response to Sadat’s May 14 1980 speech in which he declared himself “The Islamic President of an Islamic State”. Karas’ counter arguments anticipate the suffering Egypt would eventually undergo as different men and factions tried to provide concrete realization of that claim. Yet Karas makes no mention of his role in raising Sadat’s ire, nor in precipitating the “Easter rebellion” of 1980. For nearly a decade Karas was propagating a redefinition of the Copts, not only as non-Arabs which the majority accepts, but as living victims of Arab imperialism. It is a flammable message, precisely because it contains sufficient truth to give it credibility, with just enough mythology to make it a powerful cudgel. His retelling of Egypt’s history in the first third of the book explains why he never made an outreach to immigrant Muslims, whose voice might have added weight to his message and demands, and just as importantly why they were unlikely to add their voice, even if he asked. He attempted to recruit other prominent Copts to his side, succeeding with some and failing with many others, who found him too combustible for comfort. His major success came in 1977 when he agitated to convince a church conclave to include the following in its January 17 1977 message “ .. the total sincerity [ of the Copts] for the beloved nation, of which the Copts are the oldest strain, so much so that no people of the world had been tied to its land and nationality like the Copts of Egypt”. While the statement may well be true, it also serves to “other” the majority of Egyptians, who are Muslims. In a meeting at the Jersey City church in February 1977 to plan an upcoming trip by Shenouda to the US, Karas claimed credit for the statement and unveiled what would become his signature message and program for two decades to come. He warned about the “Creeping adoption of Shari’a” in Egyptian law. He centered his message on a single verse from the Bible, Matthew 12:25 “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”, and he read from handwritten notes what he deemed to be a suitable template for every speech about Egypt’s predicament at that moment, “will it be unified by nationalism or divided by religion?”. He also advocated for the cancellation of religious celebrations as a form of passive resistance. Such measures were not unknown in Coptic history, but most in the church hierarchy considered them too extreme for the current situation. In time he began to gather support, most notably from men such as Dr Rodolph Yanney, a doctor and publisher of a cultural newsletter, and two “radical” priests from the US West, Fr. Ibrahim Aziz and Fr. Antonious Heinen, as well as the more mainstream Fr. Ghobrial Abdel Sayed of Jersey City. Others proved cold to his message. Bishops Gregorious and Samuel found him too radical for their tastes, and his entreaties to Aziz Atiya went unanswered. Things seemed to change in early 1980 after the Christmas eve attacks on several churches in Egypt. Shenouda intimated to others that he was considering a cancellation of the Easter celebrations on April 6. The news travelled quickly to America and spread both delight and consternation. Karas praised the step and booked space in several newspapers to coincide with Sadat’s visit in early April and his state dinner at the White House. Others worried about the impact of such a step. Bishop Gregorious records in his memoirs a meeting on March 14 1980 with Aziz Atiya, his wife, and Ishaq Fanous, the noted artist and Icon painter. He states the purpose as “discussion of the Encyclopedia”. Curiously he neglects to mention the presence of another man, Mirrit Boutros Ghali. Nor does he mention that at the end of the meeting both Mirrit and Aziz asked him to intervene with Shenouda and warn against cancelling celebrations. In the end, Shenouda did not heed their advice. Both of these men, and Gregorious himself, represented a rare moment in Egypt’s history that was rapidly vanishing from view. On March 26 1980 the Pope gave a sermon that seemed to borrow heavily from Karas’ 1977 notes. He asked the same question of Sadat and demanded an answer. Sadat was too busy preparing for his trip to Washington DC, and provided his flammable reply during the May 14 1980 speech. El-Menawy in his book “The Copts”, tries to discern the influence of immigrant Copts on Shenouda’s sermon and finds him evasive on the subject. Karas tried to stage a demonstration in front of the White House during Sadat’s state dinner but was rebuffed by the DC police. A rally called by Karas on April 6, Easter Sunday, in New York City fizzled because of a transit strike. The New York Times showed Carter and Sadat talking amiably under a magnolia tree in the Rose Garden, with no hint of Sadat’s rising temper. But the mere attempts at rallies were enough to send Sadat into a frenzy, exactly as Karas predicted in February 1977. “He wants to be loved and obeyed”, Karas said of Sadat then, before issuing his version of the “3 Nos”. “We will not be silent, and we will not obey, and we will not love him”.
The 18 months between Sadat’s April 1980 visit to DC and the end of his life were marked by further strife and nasty sectarian attacks. Karas and his merry band of immigrant Copts were not silent, and did not cease from writing to Congressmen, Senators, Governors and anyone who would listen. They did not seem to realize that few Americans cared about the “Coptic issue”. Peace had broken out between Egypt and Israel, and war between Iran and Iraq, and between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. There was enough strife, and even diplomatic hostages, to divert the spot light. The death of Sadat, the exile of Shenouda and the appointment of a papal committee changed the conflict from one between immigrant Copts and the Egyptian state, to an internecine fight between different groups of Copts. What started out as a noble movement to enlarge the rights of Copts turned in on itself. A movement that started out narrowly Coptic, became ever narrower; indeed sub-Coptic. The entire focus of the activists from 1981 until 1985 was on the release of Shenouda from his desert exile. It can be said that the heat and noise from America did little to accomplish that. In the end it was insider negotiations, and Egypt’s usual reversion to the mean, that released Shenouda. But Karas became a Shenouda partisan, both agitating for his release from internal exile, and passionately ferreting out “enemies of Shenouda”. By 1985 all of Karas’ requests regarding the rights of Copts to politicians were regularly and politely rebuffed. On the other hand, he had won at least one internal battle. Those who opposed his methods, and had doubts about Shenouda’s, were now in retreat. Some walked away from their churches, others fell into silence. The “enemies” included many who might have formed a broader coalition for a broader good in Egypt. Karas’ group, the American Coptic Association, became unintentionally true to its name, having produced a larger impact on American rather than Egyptian Copts.The effect of the movement’s fading in the late 1980s was not to alter the nature of Coptic political activism, but to preserve it in the amber memory of those glory days when a single 2 inch newspaper ad could shake the walls of the presidential palace in Cairo. Soon enough, Shenouda asked the activists to pipe down, as Mubarak had a serious insurgency to deal with. The demonstrations were far and in-between, the demands as grandiose and vague as ever, and new organizations specialized in inside politics in DC, holding conferences and commissioning panels that would regularly identify the problems and not much else. The Copts’ demands became further subsumed within the general worry about terrorism and the demand for democratic reforms in the region. Few bothered to analyze or learn the lessons of the 1970s. The vast majority of immigrants got on with their lives, built their churches, prospered and lived contented lives without much involvement in Karas’ style of political activism, even if they were formed in some degree by it.
When Karas passed away in October 2003, age 75, condolences came by the hundreds from across the US, Canada and Australia. Many mentioned his activism, and more specifically his loyalty to Pope Shenouda. None called attention to his attacks on the Papal committee, or his involvement in the communal fights of the 1980s. While his activism failed to alter conditions for the Copts in Egypt, it did cement the loyalty of the vast majority of the immigrant community to Pope Shenouda. Many of the early immigrants were “children of Samuel”, the bishop who tended to their needs, helped them establish churches, and brought thoughtful discourse to the problems of immigration. In time that influence waned as a well, but not without considerable pain for many. Political activism originally meant to erect a barrier between state and religion in Egypt, brought forth a new immigrant identity that saw the church as a actor in every facet of the Copts’ life, both in Egypt and outside it. Immigrant Copts continued to embrace a cherished Egyptian identity, but one that rarely reached out for the other 90% of Egypt. New churches in the New World were being built at the rate of a handful a year, and all of them were becoming more than houses of worship; instead disciplined outposts for a nation without geography, as Sana Hasan aptly put it.
A generation later things are very different in America and Egypt, but Coptic political activism remains largely true to its older self. It has become vestigial. This is to be expected from a movement whose evolution is subject less to conditions in the new country than in the old one. Egypt has thrown a curve ball to these movements. Yes, sectarian attacks are more frequent, but bishops are not tossed in jail by the dozen, as in 1981. The rights of Copts in Egypt are further eroded, but so are the rights of many others as well. The Islamists who were once on the rise in Egypt in 1970s are now on the outside, themselves in America agitating for change in Egypt in a manner eerily reminiscent of the Copts’ agitation then, and equally likely to become vestigial as well. Protests in America against political oppression and sectarianism in Egypt are rarely cross-confessional, and sometimes even illiberal in character. If there are rays of hope they are usually among the young, those shaped by America, and not deformed by Egypt’s struggle with identity. The irony is that any possible emergence of a genuine “Egyptian-American” hyphenated identity might happen only among those who have far less to do with Egypt than their parents or grandparents.

— Maged Atiya

Among the Primitives – On the “History of Eastern Christianity” at 50.


In the late summer of 1967 a white-haired academic read the final drafts of a book about to be published in England and soon after that in America. The book evolved from a set of lectures he had given at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City a decade earlier. It is easy to imagine him working in a study on the second floor of his Victorian house on Perry Avenue  nestled in the hills east of Salt Lake City by the university campus. He was a year shy of 70, and soon to approach a second retirement, but life was to offer him two more decades which he used to great purpose. The news from the land where he was born, grew up and spent a good part of his adult life was difficult. He was to become an American citizen within a few years, but his connection to Egypt rarely wavered, however the circumstances, and whatever neglect and bias the country threw his way. He also remained involved in the affairs of his church, although he was neither outwardly religious nor a frequent church goer. He expressed this attachment in the preface of the book by offering it as “the fulfilment of a lifelong vow”. “Vow” may seem a paradoxically religious description for an act of scholarship by a man who was largely secular in tastes. But terms such a “secular” and “religious” could not easily be applied to one whose elliptical confession of faith reads “it must be stated that I, a historian by vocation, am also a member of the Coptic Church by birth and upbringing”. “Vocation” along with “Vow” color his life and work with a certain Christian religious brush, even if the bulk of his scholarship was devoted to the study of Islamic history and the late Crusades. Of the book he completed he writes “As a matter of fact, I allowed myself to be persuaded into shouldering this arduous task, partly as a modest work of scholarship, and partly as an act of faith”. These statements and many others throughout the book leave no doubt that his purpose was more than producing a simple scholarly and dry exposition of what the author calls the “primitive churches”, those of the “the Coptic and Ethiopic, the Jacobite, Nestorian, Armenian, Indian, Maronite, and the vanished churches of Nubia and North Africa”. And it is to the “more” that we must pay attention on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Aziz Atiya’s “History of Eastern Christianity”. Although the book does an excellent job of summarizing the history of these churches, it is the Copts that occupy the leading and largest chapter in the book, as befits the confession of the author. There is much to mine in the book, coming at the halfway mark of the last eventful century in the life of the Copts. A close reading of the book leaves the impression of a paradox of an author who both transcended and was limited by the circumstances of his time. The underlying worldview of the book is anti-colonial but not post-colonial. The mood of the author is one of pride in his heritage but unease about what has befallen it in over the centuries. The words that emerge have an uneasy balance between a desire for speaking truth and a reticence born of the author’s position and the consignment he received as a born Copt.

Aziz Suryal Atiya (1898-1988) would have been 120 years old next July 5. He had mused that he wished for a biblical lifespan of 10 dozen years. His tenure on earth was shorter, amounting to seven and half dozen years, and in a broad sense was marked by 12 year cycles of challenges and achievements. At 12, as an aspiring young student in Cairo away from his provincial family, he witnessed the events surrounding the assassination of Prime Minister Boutros Pasha Ghali and remembered them well into his late years. At 24 he was a poor but ambitious young man who left medical school due to lack of funds (his official biography notes that he was kicked out in 1919 due to his nationalist agitation). He experienced Dickensian poverty in the intervening years, made bearable only by the support of a stern father, a loving mother, and an adoring brood of siblings.  He walked the streets of Cairo in shoes stuffed with newspapers, unable or unwilling to spend the streetcar fare, but with dreams of studying medieval history abroad. The poverty neither dimmed his ambition nor weakened his spirit. At 36 he had acquired several degrees from England and was headed to a respected professorship in Germany. He completed a study, now a classic, of the 14th century crusade of Nicopolis, one of the last crusades and an event pregnant with future meaning for Christian-Muslim relations. But Germany in the late 1930s was no place for a brown man and he headed back to Egypt. By 48 he was a resident of cosmopolitan Alexandria, a founding member of its university, married to an intelligent and spirited daughter of the Coptic aristocracy and raising two young children. He would soon start on a project that ultimately led him to America; the microfilming of the library of St Catherine monastery in the Sinai. His collaborators were mostly American and European refugees to America. In 1951 he was invited to summarize his findings to the Library of Congress and his speech was introduced by the then Egyptian ambassador Kamel Bey Abdul Rahim. Those years also brought ominous clouds. His neighbor and friend, the physician and intellectual Ahmed Zaki Abu Shady would immigrate to America one step ahead of the government provocateurs and murderous Islamists. The move, unique at the time, would presage a later flood, as well as Aziz’s own life. The nativist wave that started in the late 1940s and culminated in the educational “reforms” of 1954 occasioned his demotion and finally his departure from Alexandria. Unhappy with the lack of recognition for his work and general badgering by the new regime he resigned one step ahead of the purge. As the so-called liberal age was ending he became increasingly occupied with Coptic studies and affairs of the Church and community. His turn to Coptology bore echoes of earlier involvements with such scholars as Ragheb Muftah and Mirrit Ghali, but was clearly a new occupation for him. During the years immediately following the 1952 coup, when his career in Egyptian universities was nearly at an end, he made three critical contributions to the Coptic community. He established the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies with Sami Gabra, he mentored many students who joined the clergy in senior capacities, and persuaded the Coptic clerical hierarchy to ease its historic suspicion of Protestant churches and initiate ecumenical relations with many other Churches. After leading a delegation to the World Council of Churches conference in 1954, his trips to America became more frequent and at 60 he finally settled in Salt Lake City to head a new institute at the University of Utah. The next dozen years were exceptionally productive. Aside from his academic work, he finished several books, including the “History of Eastern Christianity” and was even involved in such esoteric pursuits as locating the hieroglyphic rolls at the foundation of the Church of Latter Day Saints. At 72 he did not settle into retirement. Instead he was assisting the Egyptian Church with selecting suitable pastors for new immigrants by working with his former student Bishop Samuel in that capacity, and planning his next project. That project was a compendium of scholarly articles on all aspects of the Copts. He succeeded in his ambition to make it an international work of scholarship, with as many non-Copts as Copts involved in it. It was a dozen more years before the project was firmly established and at age 84 he felt certain that a final product might come out in his lifetime. He missed the deadline by only a handful of years, having passed away in 1988 after falling ill while working at his desk, writing the introduction to the eight volume work.

The “History of Eastern Christianity” summarizes the history of these churches with quick brushes and substantial number of references. But beyond the impeccable scholarship there is also a polemic that looks critically at how the West perceived Eastern Christians. Of Catholic writers he notes “[are] usually men of great learning and erudition who viewed the East from the narrow angle of their own profession with sectarian vehemence and considerable lack of understanding”. On the other hand, Protestant writers “failed to come to grips with the essence of Eastern Christian primitivism”. What is needed, he argues, is a narrative by “native historians”. In its purpose the book anticipates later works, such as “Orientalism” by Edward Said, published a decade later. However, in method and conclusion, it is entirely different. It reflects the author’s belief that it is pointless to try to call out bias or demand that it ends; rather it is best to elevate the “native” so that such biases are made silly in the light of new accomplishments. His awareness of the condescension of the West toward Eastern Christians exists side by side with respect and fascination with Western culture and its methods and advances.He grew up among the Coptic clergy who harbored undisguised dislike for the West and Western Christian methods. Yet in 1954 he persuaded an anti-Protestant Pope Yus’ab to bless a mission of a bright young monk and a priest to the World Council of Churches by telling him that “we must strive to educate the Protestants, who are our younger brothers”. More than a dozen years later he looked on the fruits of his argument with some satisfaction. “The Coptic Church, which had chosen the solitude of its own primitiveness, its peculiar spiritualism, and the rough road of its so-called Monophysitism since the black days of Chalcedon in 451, is now steadily recapturing its faith in old friends and foes overseas and in distant climes. The aloofness and traditional suspicion of the patriarchs towards other Christians of different sects is gradually being replaced by a sense of mutual regard and a measure of cooperation ..”. He does not absolve Eastern Christians, and specifically his tribe, the Copts, of a measure of complicity in the Western gaze. Of his people he writes “The place of Copts in the general history of Christianity has long been minimized, sometimes even forgotten, because the Coptic people themselves had voluntarily chosen to live in oblivion. After having led the way for centuries, they decided to segregate themselves from the growing ecclesiastical authority of the West in order to guard their way of worship and retain their national pride”. Rather than air grievances and demand equality, he seeks a position of strength by the jujitsu of proudly adopting the description “primitive”, once hurled by Western missionaries as a rebuke to the East, as a definition for a Christianity uncontaminated by worldly power and its accretions. The epilogue makes clear his agenda of returning the East into a central place in Christian history. He approvingly notes Milton Obote’s demand that “we should have more African clergymen, after all churches are international .. White missionaries have done good work but their era is finished”. From that quote he pivots to making his own demand: “The drive towards proselytism must be arrested once and for all in order to strengthen the churches of the East by a systematic avoidance of separating their sons from their ancient professions”. Yet he notes that “the Eastern churches are at best too limited in their means to cope with those vast responsibilities”. This leads him to the conclusion that Western Christianity can best assure the survival of its Eastern brethren by aid to the native churches rather than direct intervention. Although this has become the official positions of many of the Oriental churches, it has yet to be accepted by all Western churches, especially the right-wing evangelicals. In a calm and deliberate manner he announces his ambition that the “general history of Christianity will have to be rewritten to incorporate the monumental and sometimes turbulent contributions of the Copts”, and by implication other Eastern Christians. The insertion of the word “turbulent” hints at his view that the primitives are not entirely blameless in the schisms of the Fifth century. He notes that he possesses the “inevitable passion of one who writes from within the Coptic world and yet who must view events dispassionately with the mind of a historian from outside”. This necessary distancing was to bring him into conflict with many of the Church leaders, including patriarchs, and accounts for the many misguided attacks some Copts still level against his scholarship to this day.

It is now common to see the rise of Islamists and the violent variants of their ideology as the largest threat to the primitive churches. Atiya was not blind to persecution and its ill effects, but he saw in Western evangelism a different and potent threat. He had studied Islam for decades and came to know it well and see much good in it. His lectures on Islamic history attracted many Muslim students at the University of Utah, and more than a few confessed that he taught them as much about their heritage as their religious leaders, if not more. His views on the threats to primitive christianity were subtle and uncolored by personal biases. This subtlety, and even a certain ambiguity, are demonstrated in his discussion of the  turbulent times between Chalcedon and the arrival of Islam. He gives a full account of the theological differences at Chalcedon only to insist that the “political background can not be minimized”. After Chalcedon “The Copts were humiliated as never before, and the Coptic Church suffered the tortures of the damned at the hands of the Melkite colonialist. The wonder is that their communities were able to bear the brunt of such travesties and survive. But the bulk of the Coptic nation remained faithful unto the last, and harboured a deep-seated hatred of the Byzantine oppressors and all things Byzantine, which found natural expression not only in the so-called Monophysite doctrine but also in the Coptic language, Coptic literature, and above all in the Coptic art”. The Byzantine is a stand-in for all those, before and after him, who oppressed the common folk and ground them to a fate of ignorance and poverty, and survival is a testament to faith but also to sheer stubbornness. The book delivers an unambiguous conclusion about Chalcedon, seeing it as an expression of nascent Egyptian nationalism. While most political scientist would disagree with such an assessment, noting that nationalism is a product of modernity, Atiya is unapologetically romantic in believing in the existence of an essential Egyptian “folk”. This may have the product of the intellectual ferment of his youth in Egypt, or of the European scholars he studied with (most notably Paul Ernst Kahle, the notable orientalist who barely escaped with his life from Nazi Germany). This belief colored his view of Egypt’s conversion to Islam. The arrival of Islam would ultimately decimate the percentage of christians in Egypt from the entire nation to 10%, but he does not subject the Arabs to severe criticism. They, and subsequent rulers, “preserved the Copt as a fine source of revenue” , and their arrival may have been paradoxically providential. The Coptic Church was nearing extermination as a heresy and the arrival of the Arabs allowed it to cleverly outmaneuver the Melkites to “become the sole representative of Christianity in Egypt”. Such an interpretation may seem alien to the Western mind, but to a primitive Christian the survival of an undiluted faith trumps any assumption of secular power or the safety of the majority. He amply documents the horrors of pogroms and other persecutions of Copts during the times of the Mamluks, but refuses to lay the blame on Islam as a religion. He gives a full accounting of the horrors of the Armenian genocide, but blames it on the narrow Turkish ethno-nationalism. He attributes the massacre of christians in the mountains of Lebanon in the 1860s to tribal loyalties, cynical ploys by the Ottoman rulers and the general crookedness of humanity. He tries to find a general theory for the survival of the primitive churches in the final pages of the book. The epilogue begins with a question “At this journey’s end, it is fitting to ponder over the causes of the survival of most ancient Christianity of the East in the midst of the surging sea of Islam”, especially given that Islam was a “good religion” and conversion did not “throw a long shadow of shame on an apostate”. He provides two reasons. First that Islam never wanted to eradicate Christianity noting that “there was no humiliation in being a Christian in the eyes of a Muslim”, a statement of opinion that stands in direct conflict to some of the historical facts the book puts forth. Second was the “eastern Christian was able to preserve the purity of his race from pollution through the intermarriage with the ceaseless waves of conquerors from outside …Initially a way of worship, faith in the end became a comprehensive way of life and a symbol of an old culture”. Specifically with Egypt he notes that “the racial characteristics of the Copts themselves, their unwavering loyalty to their Church, their historic steadfastness toward the faith of their forefathers, and the cohesive elements in their social structure combined to render their community an enduring monument across the ages”. This is as close as he can come to a theory given the breadth of his experience with the local religions. In a hand-written account he notes his excitement upon first visiting St Catherine and locating rolls long thought extinct. The entire trove proves disorienting to anyone wishing a clean delineation between Islam and Christianity. There were bibles written in Kufic script. There were accounts of saints that are clearly “Islamic” in style, and so on.

Yet for all his deep understanding of the complexity of religious interactions, and his seemingly broad and secular views, the cosmopolitan scholar remained a “primitive Copt” according to a handwritten note to one of his relatives. He spent the last two decades of his life immersed in the Coptic Encyclopedia, sparing no effort to locate experts and cultural artifacts to fill its volumes. In a November 23 1977 note to his friend Kurt Weitzmann of Princeton, he inquires about his health and that of his wife, only to pivot quickly to a request to find him some Coptologists “behind the Iron Curtain”. But this immersion ultimately lessened his immediate involvement in the communal affairs of the Church. He reached out to the most prominent Coptic theologian, Matthew the Poor, and excitedly asked him and the monks around him to be involved in the effort. They turned him down. After the October 6 1981 assassination of Bishop Samuel he seemed to lose interest in meeting and conversing with church prelates, favoring the solitude of scholarship and his own Coptness.  His personal travails with the men in black who lead the Church do not prevent him from offering an accurate assessment of the central role of the Church in the life of the Copts noting that “Copts regarded their prelates with the highest deference. To them they looked for spiritual leadership and personal guidance, especially in the days of great trials, which were not infrequent in Coptic annals. Neither massacre, nor persecution, nor dismissal from office, nor confiscation of property could exterminate the Copts as a community, and the hierarchy stood in the midst of all movements to fortify the faithful through times of storm. Faith and fortitude were their means of survival, and their rallying point was the patriarch, whom they feared and revered, not on account of the legal powers accorded to his office, but because of piety and godliness.” It is notable that the quality of great learning does not appear in that assessment.

The publication of the book predates the onset of a historic development for Copts, but also more generally for other christians; the increased immigration to the West. Immigration blurs the neat distinction between Eastern and Western Christianity, and the reduction of faith into a national or racial identification.The realities of immigration, and rapid acculturation, seem to dawn on the author with occasional surprises. In a 1975 note to Weitzmann he apologizes for not stopping by to visit him in Princeton, noting that he spent nearly two weeks driving down the East Coast visiting members of his immediate family, and those of his wife, who now dotted that landscape. In 1982, while dining in a French Vietnamese restaurant in the Soho neighborhood of New York City, he remarked that Pope Shenouda introduced him to some bishops as “Ustaz Amerikani”, or an American Professor. He chuckled at the thought and concluded, in English, “perhaps he is right”. On July 4 1988 he celebrated his 90th and final birthday in a magnificent setting on top of the Rocky mountains, attended by a large number of his immediate family, close friends and many scholars who flew in from several continents. It was an entirely American affair. Of the younger generations in his immediate and extended family, which had grown polyglot by intermarriage with non-Copts, he expressed the hope that “they may not share our blood but perhaps they will remember our culture”. The book from two decades earlier remained the last moment of certainty about his people and their essential nature. After that moment it was increasingly difficult to separate the notion of religion as culture from culture as religion. Just at the moment when he expressed a certainty about what is a Copt (or an Eastern Christian), circumstances of historical proportions threw a large measure of doubt at his answer. It is possible to read the “History of Eastern Christianity” as a relic of a time before the region descended into cultural decay and savagery. It is also possible to read it as a celebration of renewal after centuries of decay. It is probably best to read it as both in accordance with the author’s subtle ambiguity about human effort and the uncertainty of providence. The book remains deserving of a first and many subsequent readings. As for the author, his life should be celebrated as a success clawed from fierce adversity. His wish to be buried in a mausoleum he built with his cousin a short distance from ancient Coptic Cairo, in part with proceeds from the book, remains unfulfilled. He rests in the American Rockies, a primitive Christian among the Protestants.

— Maged Atiya








The Empty Mausoleum


The Sourial Atiya family around the time of the 1919 revolution in Egypt. Sourial, his wife Damiana holding baby Adele, Aziz Standing to the left with his brother Wahba and sister Galila

In early 1968 Samir Nessim Atiya, an Engineer, met with his cousin Aziz Sourial Atiya, a historian, to plan and build a new family mausoleum. The current one was getting pretty full, and the time seemed right for the project. Samir’s company was prospering, while Aziz’s latest book had just gone to print. Their favored architect was finishing his main project, working on the new cathedral due to open that summer. The Engineer and historian planed for something different from the usual, a daring slab of granite more than 12 feet high in a modernist shape of a pyramid over the underground crypt. By their calculation the new mausoleum would be full by 2018. Others would then take up the task of building the next one. At the beginning of 2018 the mausoleum stands nearly empty. Its occupants are the builders’ two sisters, Linda Nessim Atiya and Galila Sourial Atiya, two strong willed women who feuded with each other for most of their lives before resting peaceably next to each other, alone with no one else.

The builders’ fathers, Nessim Atiya and Sourial Atiya had gone into business together 50 years earlier. The older brother, Sourial, was severe, kindly, deliberate and conservative, while Nessim, more than 15 years younger, was expansive, mercurial, daring and imaginative. Several times they made money together, only to lose it all, before trying again. Eventually, in the late 1920s, they went their separate ways. Sourial invested in land, the only thing he thought to be secure. Nessim started a bottling company producing soft drinks in unmarked bottles which the locals around the Delta town of Senbelaween called “Nessim’s Kazouza”. Nessim seemed to be a marketing wizard. Every week a horse drawn cart pulled into a different village loaded with his bottles. A robust body builder got out and gulped an entire bottle in one go, belched loudly, and then went on to do impressive deeds of strength. The message was not lost on the men in the village. They bought and bought into the promise of virility. But misfortune stalked both men. Sourial was shot by his body guard to rob him of his lands’ rent. Nessim died suddenly and painfully of either kidney failure or prostate cancer when Samir was 8 and his younger brother Maurice was a mere toddler. But the families held together. Aziz supported his brothers education with money from abroad while a student in England. He also became a mentor, and effectively an adopted father to Samir. The brothers Sourial and Nessim had ten children between them who survived to adulthood, seven boys and three girls. All of the ten children were to have relatively successful lives, against all odds. They produced 24 children among them. In 1968 only two of that generation lived abroad. Today more than three quarters of them live outside Egypt. On the occasion of burying his older sister Linda, who passed away at the age of 100, Samir noted that the locks on the underground crypt were hopelessly rusted from lack of use. “Our dead have left Egypt”, he remarked to his son.

— Maged Atiya

From the upcoming "Tales of Immigration"

The Public Copt


Egyptian President Sisi inaugurated two floating bridges in Ismailia and Qantara named after two army men who died in combat against terrorists, Ahmed El Mansi and Abanoub Gerges. There is a symbolism in the gesture of twin names, one Muslim and one Copt draping the two bridges. We are supposed to feel a surge of warmth about the naming equivalent of a joined cross and crescent. There will be many notables, of both religions, who see the gesture as the “true” nature of Egypt. Journalist and academic Edward Wakin noted similar gestures while traveling in Egypt in 1961, and was not impressed. In his 1963 book, “A Lonely Minority”, Wakin identified with precision a species of humans that he called “Public Copts”. These men and women speak hopefully of religious equality in Egypt, while proclaiming their fealty to the nation in spite of religious discrimination that they deny exists. They insist that symbolic gestures embody the true feelings of the people, while harsh realities are caused by the wayward few. A Public Copt is always available as evidence against any attempt to identify and rectify obvious social ills. A decade after the publication of Wakin’s book there would be further sighting of the Public Copt in the vicinity of the aforementioned bridges. The liberation of East Qantara, where one of the bridges is located, and the capture of an Israeli corp commander was achieved by a capable and daring general named Fouad Aziz Ghali. After the war he further demonstrated administrative ability by supervising the growth of the Southern Sinai into a tourist destination. This exceptional man behaved as a Public Copt by insisting that his promotion demonstrated a lack of religious discrimination in the Army. The evolution of the Public Copt can be traced to the distant past, as illustrated by two other unrelated Ghalis. One Ghali, in the middle of the 19th century, kissed the hand of the Wali that ordered his father’s execution. Another Ghali, Boutros, served the Khedive and British imperial ruler faithfully even to the point of losing his life. He must have known what Lord Cromer thought of his fellow Copts “The principles of strict impartiality on which the Englishman proceeded were foreign to the nature of the Copt. He thought that the Englishman’s justice to the Moslem involved injustice to himself, for he was apt, perhaps unconsciously, to hold that injustice and absence of favoritism to the Copts where well-nigh synonymous terms”. Many factors must have raised the imperial ire in Cromer. Perhaps it was the Copts very different Christianity. It could also be that their temerity in asking for equal rights exposed the hollow nature of the “Englishman’s justice” and the entire lie of the imperial scheme. Or that Cromer sighted a Public Copt and proceeded to dislike all others, for the Public Copt’s habit of saying one thing while believing another fed directly into the stereotype of the Copts as devious and crafty, something that Cromer readily accepted. The task of a Public Copt is to praise the granting of crumbs.

The Public Copt is familiar to all from an early age, as the young witness what the adults say in public and private. Any anger or rage at such behavior is quickly extinguished in the young by the process of acculturation and socialization. It is nurture, not nature, that creates Public Copts. Many currents contribute to the pathology. First there is the simple need to constantly deal with a perennially authoritarian, and often hapless state. There is also the hope that in stating the perfect outcome as established fact the entire nation will be shamed into reform. Then there is the reality of collective punishment, which is a constant secret sharer of repression. Individual merit will sometimes rebound to the benefit of the owner in uncertain measures, but individual error will invariably be held against the entire community. Every Public Copt is aware that honest discourse is not a test of his or her courage, but of their intestinal fortitude to watch others suffer for their frankness. But perhaps the strongest reason for the existence of the Public Copt is the difficulty of the Coptic identity. There are many unattractive aspects to that identity born of centuries of persecution. The Public Copt may wish to underplay that identity, or escape its worst aspects, but will usually find that it claims him anyway. Every Copt who attempts the magic transformation of being more than a Copt will eventually grow to be an old Copt. Anger invariably stalks the Public Copt, born of the frustration of doing exactly what is known not to be effective for fear of worse.

It would be easy to paint the Public Copt as weak and compromising, but it would also be wrong. Ameen Fahim, a Public Copt from the 1980s, explained the issues facing men such as him. “[It is like] an earthenware vessel banging against a bronze vessel“, he told  sociologist Sanaa Hasan. Magdy Wahba, another Public Copt, also reminded her of the need “to walk close to the wall“. There are plenty of men who enjoy praise for their public display of courage while cutting weasel deals in private. America provided plenty of such examples in 2017. It is rare to have men who undertake private risks without expecting praise for their courage. Such was the lot of Public Copt. The public record is sparse, intentionally, but fragments exist nevertheless. Kamal Ramzi Stino, often ridiculed as a Nasser poodle, took many courageous positions in private against a man that all Egyptians feared or worshiped.  The same can be said of Fakhri Abdel Nour or Mirrit Ghali, and the full knowledge of their courage is likely forever lost to us. Occasionally the records survive in scattered public and some private form. Aziz Atiya left the safety of America in 1961 to travel to Egypt, meet Nasser, and ask that his underlings cease attacking the World Council of Churches. The WCC was in no danger from Nasser’s mouthpieces at Sawt Al ‘Arab, but Atiya felt that a connection to world Christianity is important for the Copts and worth the personal risk. There were many Copts, of a more militant attitude, who condemned the Public Copt. One such man was Pope Shenouda, or at least the first quarter of his long public life. For a decade he exposed the sectarianism and hypocrisy of Sadat, who at the time was the darling of the West. Many Public Copts disapproved of the Pope’s attitude, and he of them, but when he went into a desert exile on the orders of Sadat all worked hard for his release. Eventually, Shenouda too became a Public Copt, of sorts. If there is a lesson in all that, it is a difficult and complex one. And in any case, it is always necessary to calibrate actions to the times. The benefits of the Public Copt seem to be in great decline in today’s Egypt. That country would be unrecognizable to many of them, and their behavior might be entirely different now. Paradoxically, the path to future freedom and survival may well be in doing just the opposite of what has allowed survival after centuries of oppression.

It is difficult to miss the increasing talk of the need for a “New Copt”. This is especially so among those who are born and raised in the West. This desire is a reflection of the current realities in Egypt, and of the failure of Coptic activism abroad. That enterprise maybe necessary but now seems insufficient, as no outsider is able to nudge the Egyptian state into doing its job. The desire for a new reality for the Copts seeps to us via articles and talks. One hears it expressed above the din of a coffee shop by anxious acquaintances. It is elaborated over long meals by men and women of perceptive minds and sharp senses. It is a heady time; for this must be what Vienna felt like in the late 19th century. That analogy should also alerts us that sometimes an awakening is a prelude to future horrors. But the desire for a New Copt is fundamentally sound, even if the shape of it has yet to come into view, and leaders necessary for the transformation have yet to identify themselves. But those who come to raise a “New Copt” must first bury the “Public Copt”.

— Maged Atiya



Of Copts and Christian Zionists


The drive towards proselytism must be arrested once and for all in order to strengthen the churches of the East by a systematic avoidance of separating their sons from their ancient professions” Aziz Atiya, History of Eastern Christianity, 1967

The US recognition of all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel came exactly one century after the Balfour declaration and serves as a historic book end to it. Many applauded the decision, seeing it as a fulfillment of a decades-long Israeli wish and perhaps nothing more than a recognition of the reality of the situation, although reality is remade every day by the powerful. Others were puzzled by the timing of it and the lack of concrete gains from what is purely a symbolic move. There is one way to view the decision that renders it perfectly comprehensible. Its timing and language are designed to make the upcoming tour of the region by Vice President Mike Pence a victory lap. Mr Pence is the highest elected official representing the wing of Christian Evangelism called “Christian Zionism”.  Many Eastern Christians view Christian Zionism as a heterodox sect of Protestant Christianity that places its faith in the fulfillment of prophecies and revelations through the material and historic realization of specific signs and events. Chief among these are the return of the Jews to their ancestral home and their complete control over Jerusalem and the lands around it.

The reaction to the decision among Eastern Christians has been largely negative. The Christians of Palestine, a fraction of their size a century ago, disapproved of the move. Others in the Levant voiced similar disapproval in the midst of an existential crisis arising from the advent of Islamic supremacist movements. In Egypt, home of the largest group of Eastern Christians, the reaction was muted but also negative. Egypt sports a sizable Evangelical community, but the vast majority of Christians are Coptic Orthodox. The patriarch of the Copts, Pope Tawadros II, canceled a meeting with Mr. Pence who had proclaimed that he will advocate on behalf of the Copts during his stopover in Cairo. As always during times of trouble (and these are troubled times) the Copts place their faith in the inscrutable hand of God over the proclaimed power of men. Many Copts and non-Copts criticized the Pope’s decision. The criticism fell into two broad categories; that the Pope was catering to the Egyptian state and the popular passions, or that he was intellectually captured by the “nationalist discourse” common in Egypt. In short, that the refusal to meet Pence reflected either fear or foolishness. Both arguments fail on closer examination.

We should be careful to attribute fear to those who kept the faith for centuries against great odds. But more importantly the argument is internally inconsistent. When Copts face death rather than give up their faith, and when their kin forgive the attackers, they are judged as paragons of Christian virtue and courage. When they refuse to accept a hasty decision by a bumbling American administration, they are accused of cowardice. You can’t have it both ways.

The argument against “foolishness” requires more subtlety. Many Christian Zionists insist that support for Israel is part and parcel of support for Eastern Christians, since those who come for the Jews will eventually come for the Christians. This is true; the Islamic supremacists have a habit of mentioning “Saturday” and “Sunday” people in sequence. But this argument conflates and confuses different things. It conflates secular Zionism (a laudable idea) with religious Zionism (a potentially dangerous one). It conflates the affairs of state (capitals and embassies) with the culture of the people (attachment to land and religion). The intellectual roots of Christian Zionism hark back to the Protestant rediscovery of the Old Testament and the Jewish roots of Christianity. It is perhaps why many Christian Zionists have found an affinity for “the Copts” as a generalization. The Coptic Church, along with its Ethiopian sibling, is the most Jewish of churches, as it had never abandoned many ideas that Protestants rediscovered centuries later. There is an apocryphal tale popular among Copts. One version of it runs as follows. An American Evangelist arrives in 1850s Egypt to tell a humble Coptic priest that he brings news of Jesus Christ. The priest responds with “when did you make his acquaintance? We first met him more than 1800 years ago when he visited as a new born in his mother’s arms”. The sly tale warns against the dangers of Western “Christian-splaining”.

Another variance of the “foolishness” argument insists that Copts are in no shape to refuse assistance from any quarter, and that Pence’s remonstrations to the Egyptian state should have been honored with an audience with the patriarch. This argument stems from a Western habit of wishing that the Eastern Christian should fulfill the rule of a vassal rather than a brother. The largest Christian denominations, such as the Catholic and main Protestants, have long abandoned this notion, but it persists in the American bible belt. In any case, any principled argument for freedom of conscience should include the freedom to disagree with political decisions. This is especially true for those with a track record of impulsive actions that proved harmful to many Eastern Christians (cue the Iraq sanctions and invasion).

The entire episode highlights a growing concern that the persecution of Eastern Christians is often a useful cudgel in political arguments. Recent events, especially with the Copts, have provided unforgettable and searing images. There is the image of 21 men kneeling at a beach and silently praying moments before their execution. There is the image of a small altar boy smiling happily in his vestments moments before a suicide bomber doomed him. It would dishonor the victims’ memories if these images are turned into fodder for political agitprop by those eager for conflict that would leave many more victims behind battle lines. Atiya’s description of the church, of which he proclaimed himself a member, “ Coptic Church … had chosen the solitude of its own primitiveness, its peculiar spiritualism, and the rough road of its so-called Monophysitismremains remarkably accurate today, even as its seemingly modern sons and daughters spread out throughout the world, including the West. They would proudly appropriate the moniker he gave them, as “primitive Christians”, meaning that their faith is rooted in the people who kept a historic steadfastness toward the faith of their forefathers, while never aligning with worldly power and often existing in opposition to it. Many Protestant Evangelicals have not grasped that essential part of it. In their fervor to achieve secular power, legislative, judicial and executive, American Evangelicals, for example, are the antithesis of the Copts. Earlier this year a delegation of Evangelicals, including representative of Christian Zionism, met with President Sisi of Egypt, who enjoys the support of Pope Tawadros, and praised him widely. For its part, the Coptic Church avoided the meeting. These are some of the historic reasons why we should not rush to judge the Pope’s refusal to meet with Mr. Pence as a political or cultural capitulation to the popular rage or fear of the Egyptian state.

— Maged Atiya


Indiana Jones and the Coptologist


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.


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”.


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. 


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


“What is a Copt?” A Review of “Marcus Simaika, Father of Coptic Archaeology”


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


Farid Simaika, Olympic diver and war hero

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