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

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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

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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"

Indiana Jones and the Coptologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Maged Atiya

 


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

Simaika

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

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

 


Copts Under Western Eyes

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A French Jesuit by the name of Sicard remarked in 1723 that “the Copts in Egypt are a strange people far removed from the kingdom of God. Indeed many of them are so odd that outside their physical form scarcely anything human can be detected in them” and “in any event we should not omit to teach the ignorant Copts in the faith as incapable as they always are of learning its mysteries without incontestable effort”.

Less than two centuries later, in 1911, a British Assyriologist and Egyptologist, Archibald Sayce, remarked in an introduction to a pamphlet by a Copt, Kyriakos Mikhail, that “ They [Copts] alone trace an unadulterated descent from the race to whom the civilization and culture of the ancient world so largely due. Thanks to their religion, they have kept their blood pure from admixture with the semi-barbarous Arabs and savage Kurds, or other foreign elements whom the licentiousness of Mohammedan family life has introduced into the country.

What is remarkable about these two accounts, different as they are, is how little they seem to focus on the Copts, except as a means of confirming preconceived notions, or as ancillary tools to support other endeavors.  Little is said of individual men and women, or their joys and sufferings, of their triumphs and tribulations. They are simply “Copts”. Of course, the accounts contain kernels of truth wrapped in layers of cultural and racial prejudices. We would like to believe that we live in more enlightened times. Things have indeed changed, for both the West and the Copts. The West is far more open to diversity, and the Copts are acquiring new identities, beyond that of Egyptians, as many are born and raised in the West. Egypt, where 90% of the Copts reside, has changed too. Islamism has weakened the notion of an Egyptian national identity, to which Coptic thinkers contributed heavily. The Copts are targets of both extremists and political opportunists. At some point they may need to abandon the idea that they can love Egypt hard enough to stop the majority from kicking them in the teeth. One thing, oddly enough, has not changed, which is how Western eyes -or the majority of them- view Copts. They are still seen as “others”, victims and thus scarcely human. When atrocities occur, horror and grief are expressed in profusion. In between atrocities little thought is given to what really matters to Egyptian Copts. In fact, recommendations are made out with a healthy dose of confidence of what is good for them and for Egypt. Few pundits today would approve of Sicard or Sayce; yet many regularly provide cleaned up versions of their ideas. When Western eyes are cast on the Copts, they see what they wish to see and disregard the rest.

The majority of Western experts on Egypt treat the country as part of the “Middle East” (an invention of an American Admiral), the “Arab World” (an invention of wacky Englishmen) or the “Muslim World”. It is the rare few who see Egypt as unique, a diverse culture, a country as much Christian as Muslim, as much African as Arab, as much Mediterranean as Middle Eastern. Most do not know individual Copts, even if the majority of Westerners of Egyptian descent are Copts. In the rush to study the region, identify its problems and recommend solutions, the Western experts on the region have disappeared the Copts, except when inconveniently their dead bodies call their attention, and perhaps complicate their neat theories. In between massacres, many Western pundits lecture Copts about “support for dictators”, recommend free elections that will bring bigots to power, demur when asked about support for true liberalism that will actually protect those few in number or different in belief. They might even employ those who advertise love for “illiberal democracy”. Others find it easy to use the difficulty of being a Copt in Egypt to buttress simple bigotry toward Muslims. Their arguments float better on the blood of Copts. And so it goes, on every ideological side, the “Copts” remain a powerful tool to use or put away as need be.

Those of us who know Copts can not romanticize them. “The Coptic mind can have a sharp edge”, in the words of John Watson, an English clergyman who knows them. But at least he views them more than victims or tools for arguments. To have a mind, and occasionally express anger, justified or not, is to be human. Humanity is precisely what is often denied the Copts, by their killers and their self-identified defenders.

Instead of condolences, please get to know us.

— Maged Atiya


A New Church For An Ancient Church

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Copts have hundreds of liturgies throughout the year. Few are as moving as the Good Friday liturgies and one of its center pieces is a hymn called “Pek-ethronos” or “Your Throne”. The hymn is a single sentence from Psalm 45 “Your Throne, God, is Forever”. But the hymn typically lasts close to 20 minutes of praise on the darkest day of the Christian liturgical calendar. It is less a song than an audible play of opposites, death and resurrection, suffering and redemption, tragedy and joy, defeat and victory. Strange as it may sound to Western ears (Herodotus’ claim about the strangeness of the Egyptians comes to mind), to most Copts it is a full encapsulation of their history, which is hardly surprising. Except for its early history, and recent times, the Church encoded its theology in hymns and liturgies, rather than commit it to scholarly books. Such thoughts come to mind on hearing liturgies read for the first time in a new Church. This particular one, nearly the 250th Church in 50 years of immigration, is located the East Side of Manhattan, in the heart of the so-called “Silk Stocking District”. The genesis of that single Church is a reflection, writ small, of Christianity as it enters its third millenia.

The Church, a designated landmark, was built in 1886 for the prosperous burghers of German descent in what was rapidly becoming the home of the wealthy of New York, less than 3 square miles dense with museums, schools, cultural centers, Churches and elegant mansions and apartments. As new waves of immigrants came, the Church changed its character, becoming home to Irish and then Italian Catholics, as our “Lady of Peace” Church. Aging population and declining attendance forced the Catholic Church to merge the parish into another and lease the Church to the Copts, while negotiations are ongoing for outright purchase (on occasion involving both Pope Francis I and Tawadros II). All New York stories, as they say, are about real estate. The celebration of the Copts was a stark contrast to the previous image of the Church as a hushed place of worship sometimes sparsely attended by the older faithful. The Copts overflowed the pews with entire families, mostly young, many with children adding what the parish priest, Father Gregory, called the “sound, not of noise, but of growth”.  But the deeper backstory to this small event is a large one, about the destinies of Eastern and Western Christianity, the differing threats they face, their changing relationship, and finally the fortunes of the Copts both in Egypt and outside it.

No Coptic Church event in America these days fails to reference the suffering of Egyptian Copts, especially those events that tell of the dynamism and good fortune of the American Church. The most recent instance was symbolized by seven killings and a funeral. The killings were brutal door-to-door murders that successfully removed all Copts from the North of Sinai. The funeral was that of the “Blind Sheikh”, a man who dedicated his life to hate and mayhem, first of his fellow Egyptians, Muslims but especially Copts, and finally Americans who had given him refuge in their country. He died in prison of old age, but his funeral in Egypt was a raucous celebration and chilling reminder of the hold his angry and murderous vision still has on many Egyptians. Meanwhile in the Church on the East side of Manhattan, the presiding Bishop, Anba David, gave the assembled throng a brief sketch of how this new Church came to be. His friendship with the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Dolan, was forged two years ago in the aftermath of the horrific beheading of 21 Copts in Libya. The idea of obtaining a Catholic Church building for the use of Manhattan Copts germinated at a memorial service for the murdered men. In this case, the blood of the Martyrs was indeed the seed of the Church. Further assistance came from Pope Francis I, who waved aside the usual theological and historical differences between the Catholic and Orthodox rites to claim a unity and “ecumenism of blood”. It is possible to see the actions of Francis as that of a powerful Church lending support to a persecuted one. It is also possible to see it differently, that Francis wishes to revive his Church by reminding its members of the power of faith and hope as demonstrated by the persecuted Eastern Christians, as indeed he did by quoting the Coptic monk and theologian,  Matta el Meskin (Matthew the Poor) to the Curia on December 22 2016.

The event at the Coptic Church ended with a short speech by an early immigrant, a member of the “Class of 1969”, who reminded those attending it of how, less than fifty years ago when liturgies were usually heard in private homes, this event would have seemed exceedingly unlikely. Those not attending it, however, can also use such a reminder. The 21th Century, still young, has already delivered plenty of carnage, hate and reasons to fear that established good orders are at risk from negligence, malice or indolence. As with the message of the Good Friday hymn, hope, however naive in the presence of adversity, remains the most potent force to overcome it.

— Maged Atiya

 

 


The Last of Their Kind?

 

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Once upon a time a Copt named Boutros Ghali rose to be Prime Minister. The time was the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The place was Egypt. Boutros was the son of Ghali Nayrouz, who had become an overseer of Khedival lands, just about the best kind of job open to capable Copts since the Arab invasion in the 7th Century. Boutros Pasha begat three sons and a daughter, Naguib, Wassif, Youssef and Galila. The humbler and poorer Copts were proud of him, and many named their children after his (This observer’s paternal uncle and maternal grandmother were accordingly named Naguib and Galila). Naguib Boutros Ghali begat two sons: Gueffrey and Merrit. Wassif had no children. Youssef Boutros Ghali begat three sons: Boutros, Wassif and Raouf. Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali begat three sons: Youssef, Boutros and Kareem. Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali has edited a new book called,  A Coptic Narrative in Egypt : A Biography of the Boutros Ghali Family.

51lj4my9jxl-_sx384_bo1204203200_It is possible to read this handsome book, with its elegant typography and many photographs and reproductions, in the spirit that the author intended, a praise of famous men lest we should forget them. But there is a certain weariness in the first paragraph of the preface “people who are condemned to repeat history must seek to find truth in it”. It is an implicit urging to find other and more nuanced readings in the book. While the author does not explicitly point in these directions, the possibility is raised by the insertion of one word in the title, “Coptic”. It is an indication, indeed a surrender, to the otherness of the Copts, the Sisyphean nature of their struggles, and to the indelibly sectarian nature of Egypt, regardless of all the grand pronouncements by many great men, including several family members in the book. This is, after all, a remarkably accomplished family (there has been at least one member in the upper echelon of Egyptian governance since the 1850s. The family has outlasted several empires). The title could have included any number of descriptions, but “Copt” is the one to have leapt to the head of the line. Also the “a” is an indication that there are other narratives, equally compelling, and indeed also threading through the book. Yet in spite of the title much of the book is really about Egyptian history, an indication of the truism that Egyptian Copts are frequently a stand-in for the country at large, whatever their predicament. These are matters to come to in due course, but first about the book.

It is clear that the author consciously wishes us to see parallels between himself and his great-grandfather, noting that both were made Finance Ministers 111 years apart. Both men attempted, and nearly succeeded, in setting Egypt’s finances on a more favorable course. Both were ultimately undone by compromises with the powerful, which they saw as attempts to lessen oppression, but were easily portrayed as a collaboration with oppressors. And there are more parallels. As his great grandfather was assassinated by a proto-Islamist, Youssef was chased out of Egypt by the assassin’s ideological successors. The death of Boutros Ghali prompted a conclave of Copts in 1911 to demand equal rights. The reaction to that conference figured prominently in the rise of the Society of Muslim Brothers. Their demise would come shortly after Youssef’s exile, prompted by their final grab at power. Between the author and his great-grandfather, there were many prominent men in the family. The book has eight chapters on four public men (Naguib Boutros Ghali, Wassif Boutros Ghali , Boutros Youssef Boutros Ghali, and the author), four private men (Youssef Boutros Ghali, Gueffrey Naguib Boutros Ghali, Wassif Youssef Boutros Ghali and Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali), and one towering intellectual, Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali. The public men, who served the State, get longer and more detailed treatments that the private men, who served their families and often the Nation as well. As always with Egypt, the projects of State building and Nation building did not work in tandem. The secret to understanding Egypt’s history is to view it as an overbearing State in search of a nascent Nation. Indeed, it was Youssef’s uncle, Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali who diagnosed the Egyptian identity crisis in a remarkable essay in 1978. The final chapter in the book is not about a famous man, but a famous Church, the Boutrossiya Church, built to honor Boutros Ghali after his assassination. Within a few months of the book’s publication, the Church would be attacked by the so-called Islamic State terrorists, in what may prove to be a seminal moment in Egypt’s long history, and the Copts’ relationship to the difficult land that they believe God anointed them as its guardians.

The family has a recessive gene for state service, which expressed itself across four generations of men who served in entirely different periods of modern Egyptian history, the British tutelage, the “liberal age”, the Nasser revolution, and finally the Mubarak stagnation. Yet, each politician’s career and life were remarkably similar. There is a rise to prominence powered by personal merit and occasioned by a desire for both personal and national prestige. As the author summarizes in the preface : “they were concerned for the fate of the country as if they were personally responsible for it”. There is also inevitably a fall, as Egypt undergoes an upheaval, and the fall is made more severe by that very same Coptic identity, and perhaps some of its unattractive aspects. Each man performs a difficult high wire act while buffeted by social forces, and tyrannical bosses, that constantly strive to affect a fall. In the case of Boutros Ghali it was the combination of the resentful Khedive Abbas Hilmi and the racist Lord Cromer. His killer, Ibrahim Nassif Al Wardani, accused him of treason to a “nation” whose nature many disagreed about. It is said with some authority that crowds chanted “Al Wardani Qatal Al Nustrani” (Al Waradani killed the Nazarene). Men of the time recognized Boutros Ghali’s contributions to Egypt, and Lord Cromer took a leave from his customary dislike of Copts to note that Ghali was a capable man and true patriot. But he was the last Copt to occupy that position*.The British Foreign Office noted that had it not been for the victim’s religion, the assassin would not have fired the fatal bullets. Boutros’ son Naguib Boutros Ghali served the rulers of Egypt well from before the death of his father until 1921, but the new nationalist regime that took over in 1923 had little use for a man cut in the mold of the past. He spent the last decade of his life in charitable work and away from public life. His brother Wassif Boutros Ghali was more nimble. He rose to prominence as Foreign Minister in various Wafd governments from 1923 onward. In that position, Wassif worked diligently to reduce British influence in Egypt. The crowning achievement of his career was the 1936 treaty with Britain. It also effectively ended his public life. The 1938 election was an ugly spectacle of anti-Copt and anti-Semitic hate, and was rigged to boot. The Wafd party began to trim its sails to match the stronger winds of bigotry embodied in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and would have less use for such men as Wassif, who gradually withdrew from politics for the last two decades of his life. He was the last Copt to occupy the office of Foreign Minister. Wassif’s nephew Boutros Youssef Boutros Ghali was equally nimble and a man capable of adjusting to the new Egypt, formed by the rise of Islamism and eventually by Army rule. From the 1950s into the 1990s he served Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak as an able diplomat, but would never rise to his uncle’s station, even if he matched him in talent. He was a self-possessed and proud man. He was neither awed by Henry Kissinger, nor alarmed by the cast of loud and blustering Israeli politicians, generals and diplomats, nor made uneasy by the casual condescension of his bosses (Sadat addressed him as Peter, Boutros or Ghali depending on his degree of irritation with him.). His career culminated in becoming Secretary General of the UN. The new role freed him from the customary deference he showed to Egypt’s rulers and he felt free to talk back to the main financial backer of the UN, the United States. He ran afoul of First Lady Hillary Clinton, and her appointed surrogate, Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State. The latter showed visible glee and scorn when she vetoed his reappointment as Secretary General. His nephew Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali followed him into international service, in the IMF, as a talented economist. On his return to Egypt he rose in various government jobs until he became the Minister of Finance in 2004. And as with his kin, his fall from grace was a result of a historic lurch. A few months after the 2011 revolution, he was awarded a 30 year sentence in a six minute trial. Additional trials added yet another 35 years to his jail time. The charges amounted to little more than hearsay about misuse of government cars.  The entire cadre of Egyptian revolutionaries sprang into ecstasy when one of their own assaulted him on a London street. Nearly six years after the revolution many think Egypt needs the skills of Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali, but none are willing to invite him back or guarantee his safety.

These stories of rise and fall find echoes in the lives of many other great Coptic men too numerous to list, whether it is the wily politician Makram Ebeid or the eminent scientist Rushdi Sa’id. All lived at the mercy of their Coptic identity, the futility of downplaying it, and the capriciousness of rulers. All of them would have nodded in agreement with the author’s claim that “like my great-grandfather, my great uncles and my uncle, I worked for an autocrat who, with time, grew to trust me and let me implement reforms that I believe served Egypt best and brought progress even if late and never enough“. Indeed, even an earlier distant relative would have agreed. In the 1840s Muhammad Ali had his faithful Coptic accountant, another Ghali, strangled for honestly reporting a budget shortfall. The accountant’s son kissed the killer’s hand. Such is the pathology of the Coptic condition in Egypt. These events occur with a regularity that belittles their grotesqueness. Two generations after that event, when the 1911 conference was called in the aftermath of the Ghali assassination. Boutros Pasha’s son, Wassif, refused to attend, insisting that “I would rather side with the those who killed my father than those who wish to kill my country”. Wassif’s nephew Boutros, the UN Secretary General, chaired a Human Rights panel in Egypt that did little to point out regular violations against Copts. The sociologist Sana Hasan, a rebellious daughter of Egypt’s Muslim aristocracy, called him to account on such matters. She pressed Boutros about the absurd claim that there is no discrimination against Copts in the foreign service. He, clearly irritated, responded “You have been listening to too many frightened Copts. Besides, instead of whining and lamenting they should do something about their problems. Let us face it, the Copts just don’t have balls!”. In response, Hasan lumps Boutros with another famous Copt, Makram Ebeid, as “more finely attuned to the call of the minaret than to their own people’s cry of distress”. These two positions are also a template for the general, and generally futile, discussion of modern Egyptian governance. Is the State a reflection of the people’s supine attitude, or are the rulers to blame for ignoring the people’s needs? The answer is likely that it is both in uncertain and varying measures. The author lends his voice on this matter at the outset of the preface “the passive resistance of those who know they cannot throw their yoke but seek to lighten its burden. The courage to face challenges often gets misinterpreted as weakness and capitulation”. This brings us back to a fundamental question; is Egypt doomed to authoritarianism and the best that can be done is to make it light and enlightened, or is there a different path? A hint of an answer is also within the book in the life of Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali.

For more than half a century, from the 1930s until his passing in 1992, Merrit Ghali, by word and action, outlined a different vision for Egypt and its Copts. Although technically half Armenian (his mother was the granddaughter of Nubar Pasha), he embraced his Coptic identity naturally, while advocating for a country that respected diversity as the cornerstone for proper governance. Although nominally a member of Egypt’s diplomatic corp, he served where his interests led him (generally Ethiopia) rather than the whims of his bosses. He neither endorsed nor revolted against the various manifestations of the State, but sought to build a better alternative in its shadow. His recipe for success, advocated in a variety of writing including his book “Traditions for the Future”, is simple. Egypt must recognize the diversity of its religious, cultural and ethnic heritage, and refuse to identify itself as only one thing or another, as its frequent and disrespected Constitutions insist. Although a leader in the revival of Coptic studies, he never engaged in the injured and injurious Coptic discourse of “we are the only true Egyptians”. He, and many members of his wide circle of friends and collaborators, also sought to keep scholarship apart from the Church’s hagiography. There is a rare photograph in the book showing him behind his desk receiving the usually indomitable Pope Shenouda almost as a supplicant. There is a hint of a deeper desire to see culture and religion on equal footing, with neither appropriating the other for its purposes. His wide interest in African Orthodox Christianity, and his involvement in Coptic studies in the West, point to a future, now almost within reach, when Copts might outgrow the narrowness of the Egyptian identity. In contrast to many of his men folk, he seemed to be a man of the future, and if hope persists, the first rather than the last of his kind. For it will take many like him for Egypt to escape its current predicament, where power, not politics, mediates social differences.

There are those who study Egypt hoping to understand its storied history, and then there are those who see in its history repeated couplets of an encompassing and all too human threnody. This elegiac book is a work of the latter, especially as its author remains marooned outside his country, and the Church of his family subjected to a horrific attack. Much of the current discourse about Egypt, and indeed the wider region, consists of laments about golden days, and tears for the “last of their kind”. This is understandable, and whatever sympathy that may elicit must be balanced by a desire to develop new kinds, anchored in traditions but not weighed by them.

— Maged Atiya

*  There was another Coptic Prime Minister, Youssef Wahba, who served for a few months during the 1919-1920 revolutionary disturbances, at the behest of the Sultan. His legitimacy was never widely accepted. I am grateful to Samuel Tadros for the correction.