INTERVIEW: Promoting the rediscovery of Egypt's Coptic era

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 4 Jan 2018

Coptic historian Atef Naguib discusses a key, but often overlooked, era in Egyptian history

A drawing depicting the birth of Jesus Christ from the walls of a Nubian Coptic church
A drawing depicting the birth of Jesus Christ from the walls of a Nubian Coptic church

Atef Naguib, director of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, is committed to spreading awareness about the many forgotten unknown pages of Egypt’s Coptic history.

It was in the mid-1960s that Naguib was set to join the Archaeology Department at Assiut University in Upper Egypt with the hope of studying Coptic history and archaeology. However, to his dismay, particularly for someone born and brought up in a Coptic environment in the Upper Egyptian city of Aswan, there was no department that specialised in Coptic archaeology and history at this or any other university in Egypt at the time.

“There were only two departments; one for Pharaonic and one for Islamic history, art and archaeology,” Naguib recalled.

After graduation, Naguib did not give up on his ambition to specialise in Coptic history, even though it was something that was not given serious attention in society or schoolbooks at the time. His time spent at a Coptic school meant that Naguib was allowed entry into an otherwise overlooked era of Egyptian history.

“It was there that I developed a serious interest in learning more about this era, which did not receive serious attention at the time,” he said.

At the Institute for Coptic Studies, which is affiliated with the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, Naguib found a place to pursue his interest and receive a degree in Coptic archaeology. This was the beginning of a long path that led him to a PhD in the same discipline.

“It was a long and revealing learning process that allowed me to find out a great deal of information about Coptic history, not only in religious terms as many might think, but also in terms of learning more about the history of Egypt. The country was introduced to Christianity in the first century CE and evolved to be predominantly Christian, essentially Coptic Orthodox, until the day [Muslim military commander] Amr Ibn Al-Aas conquered Egypt in the seventh century CE,” Naguib recalled.

During these years, Naguib developed an interest in the Christian era of Nubia in particular, which he describes as “a truly overlooked phase in the history of this country.”

Icon of St Barbra
Icon of St Barbra

There is one narrative that is predominant in Egyptian culture about Ibn Al-Aas’s conquest of Egypt in 642 CE, which says that the country’s Copts were suffering from discrimination at the hands of the country’s Byzantine rulers and that the following years were marked by a general, even if interrupted, tolerance by Egypt’s new Muslim rulers for the Coptic population.

Naguib is not willing to contest this narrative. He merely says that it is “one among other” versions of what happened, and that the latter should also be examined in order to understand the history of the country.

“There was discrimination against the Copts under Byzantine rule, but there were also Muslim rulers who discriminated against the Copts,” Naguib said.

He added that “what should not be forgotten is that for the most part people do not learn much about the history of the Copts even before, and not just after, the Arab conquest, and this is a function of a lack of general awareness.”

Naguib is convinced that many Copts today might not be sufficiently informed about the history of Christianity in Egypt.

“I know for a fact that not many are aware of the Christian period in Nubia, which lasted from the sixth to the 14th century CE,” he argued.

“We hardly even stop to think about the fact that many of today’s Muslim Nubians carry what would otherwise be typical Coptic names like Dawoud, Elias and Yacoub, and of course Mariam, which is more shared by Muslims,” Naguib said.

He noted that the archaeological excavations of the churches of Nubia, both Upper Nubia in today’s Sudan and Lower Nubia in Egypt, are not given sufficient attention by the media, “not even when the archaeological missions arrived upon the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the mid-1960s to save as many Nubian monuments as possible before the water covered what were once the lands of Nubia.”

“It is not really there in the newspapers or on TV, and it is not there in the history curriculum, so where are people supposed to learn about the Coptic history of Egypt? Nowhere, unless you are a Copt who attends cultural activities at your church,” Naguib lamented.

This lack of communication about Coptic history is not made up for among history and archaeology students because it was only recently that universities started to give serious attention to Coptic studies.

“The trouble is that we act as if Coptic history is a matter of religion that only interests followers of the Coptic faith. But this is untrue because it is part of our wider history and our culture,” he said.

According to Naguib, the fact that Coptic history is not mentioned in textbooks and that there is limited interest in encouraging students to visit the Coptic Museum, not to mention the many Coptic archaeological sites, is an unfortunate situation that creates a lack of awareness in the wider population about an integral part of the history of their country and the culture of their fellow citizens who follow the Coptic faith.

Today, Naguib says, the many pages of Coptic history are essentially kept in strictly Coptic bodies. Apart from the Coptic Museum and sites such as the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, for example, Coptic history is kept by bodies such as the Coptic Cathedral, along with its associated Institute for Coptic Studies, the Association for Coptic Archaeology, the Coptic Culture Centre and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Centre for Coptic Studies.

“Today, there is a bit more awareness in the media about the celebration of Coptic feasts, especially Christmas, but beyond that there are only a few reminders of the Coptic contribution to the culture and history of the country,” Naguib said. “This is so even though the Copts are not living in ghettos and have never done so, even if historically there were areas of higher density.”

The way out of this alienation from Egypt’s Coptic history is to allow people to learn about it, he said. 

“I know that it is hard to change long-established norms, but we could start by some obvious and uncontroversial steps, such as including the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt in history textbooks as well as prominent Coptic figures over the centuries, including under Muslim rule,” Naguib said.

He added that there was no reason to believe that anyone would object to the inclusion of a few lines in the history books about the arrival of Christianity in Egypt or the establishment of the first monasteries or a biography of Pope Kyrollos IV, who started Coptic schools in Upper Egypt for girls.  

“It is unfair to deny people knowledge of the history of the Copts and then to blame these same people for their lack of affinity towards the Copts. I believe education is essential if we are really committed to understanding one another better, and this is why the Coptic Museum tries to make use of every opportunity to welcome more visitors of all age brackets and backgrounds,” Naguib said.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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