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Scene set for Coptic studies
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 11 - 2005

The Third International Seminar on Coptic Studies will be held in Sohag early next year. Jill Kamil looks at the preparations
"People have come to know that the series of Coptic studies seminars that take place in monasteries are serious affairs," well-known Coptologist Gawdat Gabra says. "Already we have had a most satisfactory response to our announcement that the next seminar will take place in Sohag early next year, and it promises to be even more successful than the other two."
Gabra, editor-in-chief of the St Mark Foundation and an active participant at international congresses on Coptology, was in Cairo recently following an inspection of the arrangements in Sohag. He is delighted that everything seems to be going so well so far in advance of the event.
"Finance is coming from different quarters. Various individuals and institutions are contributing accommodation, transport and other facilities," he says. "You'd be surprised to see the change, both in Sohag city and in the monasteries."
Gabra's evident relief was understandable. Until relatively recently Sohag was a somewhat run-down Nile Valley town in Middle Egypt, off the regular tourist track despite its archaeological wealth which covers both the Pharaonic and Coptic eras.
"Forty rooms with hot water from solar energy, 12 of them with air-conditioning, have been reserved for the seminar participants," Gabra says. "The food will be prepared by chiefs from Luxor under the supervision of a Coptic lady who prepares meals for the local hospital." To my raised eyebrows, he adds quickly: "Don't worry, it won't be hospital food!"
Gabra is confident that the Sohag event will be even more successful than the two earlier seminars. "Professors and students of Coptic studies know by now that our seminars are serious affairs," he says. "And I must say that having them staged in famous monasteries is a great attraction. Some of the most distinguished scholars in the world have already signed up to give papers on the particular themes on monastic development in the area of Sohag in which they are specialised. This time we hope that more students of Coptic studies attend, and also members of the lay public."
The first of this series of symposia at monastic sites in Egypt, which took place in Wadi Al-Natrun from 31 January to 5 February 1903 in the Monastery of St Bishoy (Anba Pschoi), was presided over by HH Pope Shenouda III. It was organised by Gabra, Fawzi Estafanous of the St Mark Foundation for Coptic History Studies, and Hani Takla, president of the St Shenouda Society and the patriarchate. It was the first of its kind and brought together a group of highly professional and gifted individuals who presented some two dozen papers on subjects of their expertise concerning the heritage of Wadi Al-Natrun -- an ideal location for an ascetic life, being distanced from the heavily-inhabited western Delta, yet with a water table near the surface.
On that occasion, a plea was made for the protection of the area from further infringement from farming communities. It was noted that the ruins of more than 20 of the earliest monastic settlements -- mostly mud-covered buildings with domes and vaults ( manshoubiya ) -- had been found, along with ruins of the monasteries of the Armenians ( Deir Al-Arman ), the Monastery of the Abyssinians, the Monastery of the Nubians, and a church dedicated to John the Little ( Anba Yuhannas ), but all these were being threatened by farmers who had already dug wells which adversely affected the structure as well as that of many as yet undiscovered sites.
The second symposium in this series took place at the Monastery of Al-Azeb in Fayoum from 19-24 February 2004. This monastery, built at some point in the 12th or 13th centuries, ceased to function as such in the 18th century but is today the residence of the bishops of Fayoum. The new church, popularly known as Deir Abraam, is the burial place of the much loved bishop of Fayoum and Giza who died in 1914.
The 2004 seminar drew attention to Fayoum's importance to the growth and development of Christianity throughout history from ancient to modern times, and also to the fact that some periods were more significant to the diffusion of the new faith than others.
Like the earlier seminar at Wadi Al-Natrun, the one in Fayoum revealed that many areas which were widely excavated -- and indeed exploited -- around and after the turn of the 20th century have now been lost. The province has been subjected to massive urban development and agricultural expansion, while many archaeological areas have come to grief through sheer neglect and the ravages of time.
Many of the papers gave rise to lively, sometimes heated discussions during the question period, but unfortunately too little time was allocated for what should have been truly productive opportunities for the interchange of ideas and opinions. It is hoped that this will be remedied in the forthcoming seminar at Sohag.
The interdisciplinary approach to archaeology as revealed by widespread excavations at Wadi Al-Natrun and Fayoum provided a clear indication of the value of such international gatherings. They not only focussed attention on the history of the area and the work being carried out there, but also provided avenues through which to begin collating the wide variety of diverse material.
Gabra was responsible for ensuring the speedy publication of some of the papers presented at the Fayoum seminar. A book entitled Christianity and Monasticism in the Fayoum Oasis, a St Mark Foundation book, is already on the market, published by the American University in Cairo Press. It is a tribute to the scholarly work of the father of modern Coptology, Martin Krause, and among the contributors is Father Bigoul El-Suraini, a Coptic monk and scholar, and curator of manuscripts at the library of the Syrian Monastery in Wadi Al-Natrun. Suraini is responsible for the monastery's conservation, restoration, and excavation projects.
"At the first seminar in Wadi Al-Natrun, few Egyptian scholars participated and that was a great disappointment," Gabra says. "It was encouraging to see that the second seminar in Fayoum saw more active participation, and I confidently expect to see an even larger Egyptian turnout in Sohag. An entire coach on the train has been reserved for participants -- maybe another will be needed.
"We welcome students of Pharaonic and Islamic history as well as Coptic studies," he adds. "This is after all part of their heritage."

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