Book review: History writing one hundred years later

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Sunday 2 Sep 2012

The Story of the Church of Egypt by Edith Butcher, republished this year, was written more than 100 years ago, tracking her journeys across Egypt, shedding light now on how history telling changes

Story of the Church of Egypt

Tareekh Al-Umma Al-Kebteya wa Kanysatha (The Story of the Church of Egypt) by Edith Butcher, translated by Eskandar Tadros, Cairo: Maktabet Al-Azbakeya, 2012. 615pp.

Some 115 years after the first edition of this book was published, it comes to light in a new edition and is worthy of attention. Appreciation is due to the publishing house that brings again to the fore an era of great importance in the history of Egypt, so little spoken about.

The book was published in Arabic in the same year as its English edition in 1897, when Tadros Shenousa Al-Bangabady, who introduces himself as owner of Masr newspaper, translated the book. Republishing the book was not considered until now, maybe because of its problematic nature, where its author let herself fall into intolerance, especially regarding the Arab entry to Egypt and the overtaking of the Arab powers of the Roman Empire's land of wheat at a time when the empire's sun was quickly setting.

The book's importance comes from the experience of its author who spent 20 years roaming Egyptian villages among Copts, listening to testimonies and writing what she saw, depending on various libraries, as she knew the Coptic language and was able to read Coptic manuscripts. Many of these manuscripts were later checked and documented since the time of Butcher's books, shedding different light on the topic — the same as with someone looking at Pharaonic manuscripts today versus 100 years ago, although the history itself is long gone.

This book focuses on the Middle Ages history of the church, and what was recorded by Arabs and foreign Orientalists since then is enormous, such as the Nujum Zahera book on the kings of Egypt and Cairo that was lost until the 1960s and finally verified and documented, and now considered among the most important references about the Arab entry to Egypt until the Mamluk era. This is probably what led to the various gaps and mistakes left by the author.

The most significant contribution of the author is in recording the history of the six centuries before the Arab entry to Egypt, where Egypt was part of the Roman Empire still worshiping Pharaonic Gods with a strict priestly hierarchy. It held some of the grandest schools in Alexandria, vital to the development of philosophical and religious thought, and on the other hand is the empire's history, with its emperors and rulers and links to Egypt and the role it played in the power battles of the day.

The author tracks in detail the entry of Christianity, with the new religion taking over and many Egyptians adopting it, along with the many links between Christianity and the ancient religions. She registers the massacres taking place and the role of the Roman Empire in this regard, and the names of the Egyptian popes since St Mark until Kirollos V who became pope in 1875, and the battles against Roman oppression for long years until Christianity was accepted as a formal religion.

Over 600 pages record this history, and Butcher's contribution here is clarifying the roles played by the church and Copts who stood against horrible persecution. She delves into the era of martyrs, registering the ecumenical councils held by the emperors when debates ensued between diverging religious schools. Monks and early monasticism is also recorded and the philosophies behind running from persecution.

A very different turn is taken upon recording the Islamic entry to Egypt, considering from the very first moment the battle between the Egyptians and the Arabs as a religious battle, and recording many myths about Islamist rulers such as the story of Khalifat Abdel-Malek Ibn Marawan who needs to decapitate one Copt each time he eats, enjoying the view of blood flowing.

Among the stories, the author talks of the ancient town of Awseem, located in Giza, during her visit: that the visitor would see the ruins of old churches and temples, while today it has a Coptic church constructed during the British occupation, and where Copts didn't find trouble in building churches like before. She openly explains that the British occupation was kinder to Copts than the rest of the Egyptians, defending the Western ideology of invasion to divide and conquer. Less than 20 years after this book was published, all of Egypt, Muslims and Copts, rose in revolution against the British occupation in 1919 to refute some of her arguments.

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