During mass and other religious occasions celebrated by Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, all eyes are often drawn to the vestments of the clergy. While these are often visually beautiful, they are also in essence symbols of the sacred duties of those who wear them towards the Church.
“The clergy and their assistants in religious rituals are obligated to wear special vestments for prayer,” said Christina Monir, PhD holder in Coptic art and antiquities.
During prayer, the clergy don long, loose white garments designed to recall the appearance of the seraphim and cherubim described in the Bible with their six wings, two covering their heads, two covering their bodies, and two covering their feet and symbolising modesty during prayer.
Hence, the Coptic clergy wear a long white garment known as a tonia along with a head covering, Monir said.
There are also differences between the vestments used in the Coptic Church and those used in other denominations, said Milad Nabil, a doctoral researcher in Coptic history.
“All the vestments trace their roots to the attire described as being worn by priests in the Old Testament, which were characterised by ornate and prayer-specific garments. But within the Coptic Church, vestments with specific details and elaborate decorations also distinguish the various ranks of the clergy,” Nabil said.
“The attire worn by assistants to priests in the liturgical service, known as shamamsa or deacons, differs from that worn by priests and bishops, as do the vestments worn by the Pope of the Coptic Church. Wearing these different types of vestments is considered a religious duty observed by those who attain clergy rank.”
Attaining the rank of clergy is a sacred responsibility granted to lay Christians deemed qualified by a priest to assist in religious rituals. The priest nominates those he has selected, and they are then ordained by a bishop to one of the ranks of deacons. They then serve the Church by chanting hymns, reciting liturgical readings, and performing other duties.
There is no specific age requirement to join the rank of diaconate. “I remember I was only 15 years old when I was ordained in the first rank among the five degrees of the diaconate. Since then, it has become my duty to memorise and chant hymns on religious occasions. I also wear the tonia, a white open-sided garment worn over my clothes when reciting hymns,” Nabil said.
“The tonia is the most sought-after garment among the clergy, and it is worn by all ranks with additional pieces used to indicate hierarchy. It has ornate edges adorned with coloured thread on the sleeves, collar, and back, along with a prominent embroidered cross on the front and back. It has openings on the sides, allowing it to be worn over regular clothes during Mass and prayers,” said Keroloss El-Antony, owner of the El-Antony Vestments Shop in Cairo.
Deacons stand in a designated place in the church during services, and neither they nor the priests wear shoes inside the sanctuary during prayers, putting on telig, a kind of thick socks, instead.
They are able to distinguish rank by wearing a white tonia with a coloured sash. “I only wore the tonia as a chanter, but when I was ordained a reader, the second rank of deacon, my attire slightly changed, and I started wearing a sash called a patrashil over the tonia, with one side in red adorned with gold and the other in dark blue or black,” Nabil said.
During celebrations, the liturgy, and prayers throughout the year, Coptic deacons wear the patrashil sash with the red side facing out. However, during funerals and on Good Friday and during Holy Week dedicated to commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, they wear it with the dark side facing out.
Not only does the colour of the patrashil change, but so does that of the flags inside the church and the altar curtain. Throughout the year, they are crimson, symbolising the sacrifice of Jesus Christ with his body and blood on the cross. But in Holy Week, they change to either white or black, similar to the attire of the priests and the deacons, El-Antony explained.
“The way the patrashil is worn varies depends on the deacon’s rank. ‘Readers’ and ‘assistant deacons’ who hold the second and third ranks, respectively, wear it by wrapping it around their waists from the front and crossing it behind their backs, imitating the image of carrying a cross. They then bring it back over their shoulders to both sides and tuck it in at the waist, creating a belt-like appearance with two vertical lines of the sash,” Nabil said.
“The remaining ends hang down in front of their feet. The way the patrashil is tied in the shape of a cross symbolises the deacons’ readiness to serve and assist Jesus Christ in carrying the cross.”
“In a way that is designed to emulating the angels, the fourth and fifth ranks of the deacons, called deacons and archdeacons, tie the patrashil over one shoulder and under the other, leaving it to dropdown like angel wings. They also wear a round head covering that is golden and white during prayer and black outside the church,” El-Antony said.
“The first ranks of deacons are allowed to wear black garments outside the church, but they are not permitted to grow beards like priests.”
PRIESTS’ ATTIRE: Remembering the day he was chosen as a priest at the Virgin Church in Mokattam, Father Basileos Gerges said that “Bishop Raphael presented me, after nomination by the church I was serving in as deacon, to [then head of the Coptic Church] pope Shenouda III for ordination as a priest.
“After I became a priest, I had to give up wearing regular clothes outside the church and wear the black garments of the clergy for the rest of my life. These can be adorned with crosses and patterns on the pockets and sleeves or kept plain,” Gerges said.
Priests wear distinctive garments when compared to deacons. “A priest wears a black head covering, and during the liturgy, he replaces it with a white head cover adorned with gold patterns, called the taylasan,” El-Antony said.
“This is high at the top and extends down the back, with a piece of fabric reaching the feet. On religious occasions, the priest adds a sadra over his tonia, with an opening for the neck extending down to the feet in the front of him, while being shorter to the shoulders from the back. On the front of the sadra, there are embroidered images of the 12 disciples. In addition to the sadra, a priest may wear a sleeveless bornos with crosses and ornamental designs on it during rituals.”
It is only on certain occasions that the priest wears his full celebratory garments, Father Gerges explained. “While I wear the black head covering and clergy garments outside the church, I dress in white and gold for the prayers and liturgy. When I was ordained as a priest, I obtained a tonia and taylasan to pray in as an assistant priest. I then added the bornos and sadra when I became a main priest,” he said.
“I wore this complete set of garments on various occasions, including on my ordination day, as well as during vespers, the evening prayer on the same day, and during the liturgy the following day. Now, I wear the tonia and taylasan regularly, reserving the bornos and sadra for special events.”
The rank of bishop is only bestowed upon those who pursue a monastic life within the Coptic Church. Monks wear the black garments of the clergy throughout their lives, along with a black hood called a qalansuwa that is embroidered with six crosses on each side representing the disciples and a large cross in the centre symbolising Jesus Christ.
“When performing prayers, the monks wear a white tonia and qalansuwa over their black garments,” El-Antony said.
“One of the monks may be chosen as a bishop, being responsible for several churches. In this case, he wears the black clergy garments adorned with crosses and a black head covering. During prayer and religious rituals, a bishop wears a white tonia and a bornos over his black garments and replaces the black head covering with a white one in the same style embroidered with golden thread. The bishop also wears a sadra similar to that of a priest.”
Bishops’ hats, which the pope also wears on non-formal occasions, are among the most challenging head coverings to make in the Coptic Church. According to Jihan Ayad, who makes special head coverings for bishops, priests, and deacons, making a bishop’s hat takes approximately 24 hours and is divided into multiple stages.
“The process begins with creating a mould, followed by cutting strips of satin fabric and using them to construct the hat. The difficulty lies in building the outer structure of the hat by adding one satin strip after another,” Ayad said.
“Despite the similarities in priests’ and bishops’ attire, there are distinct differences and subtle details that indicate the rank of each,” Monir explained. “Bishops and the pope wear bornos that differ in design from those of priests and are more decorated. Bishops also wear a wide linen or silk belt over their chests and fastened at the front. This indicates the need for vigilance and the bishops’ role as the shepherds of the Church.”
“Bishops may also wear a balien, a piece of fabric worn over the usual head covering and fastened cross-shaped over the chest and back. Today, the wearing of this has declined, like the narrow sleeves that priests used to wear over the wide tonia sleeves to facilitate their movements, but some are working on reviving both traditions.” she said.
The pope’s staff, also known as a shepherd’s staff, is topped with two metal serpents symbolising the serpent that Moses is described as mounting on a staff to save those who looked upon it in the Old Testament of the Bible. According to Monir, the staff is one of the most significant parts of the Pope’s attire.
“The pope’s attire is not significantly different from that of the bishops. He wears the same head covering on most occasions, for example, except during celebrations when the pope’s crown is higher than those of the bishops,” she added.
Despite the similarity in clothing, the pope stands out from the bishops owing to his crown adorned with pearls and crystals and intricately embroidered with golden thread, El-Antony said. “This crown takes at least 15 days to make by two workers. One makes the base, while the other embellishes it with embroidery and final additions. The crown is adorned with the images of saints and topped with an upright cross.”
The pope only wears the ceremonial crown during official celebrations and holidays. When reading the Bible during Mass, the pope also removes the crown and substitutes a white qalansuwa.
“Among the ecclesiastical garments in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, there is a ceremonial crown given as a gift by the emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia to pope Kyrillos V, who donated it to the museum,” said Hayam Rushdi, head of the Coptic Museum’s Scientific Department.
“In the 12th room of the museum, which contains ecclesiastical vestments, there are pieces dating back to the 19th century, including sadras, tonia, sleeves, and an altar curtain. Some of the pieces are adorned with images of the Virgin Mary carrying the baby Jesus, as well as saints, angels, and various crosses,” Rushdi said.
“Other pieces have images of Christ’s disciples written in Arabic on them and the Islamic date written out alongside the Coptic date,” she concluded.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly