Egyptologist: The Autoimmune Disease of the Coptic Church

Monica Hanna Image 1

Dr Monica Hanna is a well known Egyptologist and third generation descendant of Morcos Gerges Saad. Dr Hanna writes about an unfortunate event that has taken place in Matai, El Minya, where an ancient church was demolished.  Dr Hanna  pursued her doctorate at the University of Pisa with a dissertation on the “Problems of Preservation of Mural Paintings in the Theban Necropolis: a Pilot Study on the Theban Tomb 14 using 3D Scanning Techniques.  

The Autoimmune Disease of the Coptic Church

On the night between April 25 and April 26, 2018, the Archbishop of Matai, Minya, carried out the demolition of the old Metropolitan Cathedral of the town. Monica Hanna Image 3

The advantage of the festivity and the time of the day favoured that the operation could go on undisturbed. This behaviour brings about suspicions of administrative misconduct, not only against the laws of the country, which will be assessed in due time and in the courts of justice, but also against the moral laws of the church.

If the local community needed a larger church – which is a most legitimate aspiration – what was the need to knock down the old one, other than a total lack of gratitude for past benefactors, bad managerial skills (another plot of land was purchased for the purpose, but the transaction was botched and marred by irregularities), or selfish interests.

The cathedral was built by Morqos Girgis Saad (1878-1933), a local landowner, in around 1645 AM/AD 1929; the descendants claim ownership of the place and believe the building has been taken down illegally. Beside the infringement of the property rights, the Archbishop has committed a pernicious offence against cultural heritage.

The local office in charge of protecting and registering buildings of architectural interest refused to intervene, stating that the church had nothing special and was only built in the 20th century. This brings in the whole issue of what constitutes heritage.

The fact that the cathedral was built by a private sponsor for the benefit of the local Christian community speaks loads about the social and economic situation of the Coptic Church back in 1920s. It was also part of a historical trend, where rich provincial families would enrich the heritage of their hometowns with the erection of private mansions and public buildings. In fact, a number of Coptic families can boast a house in the Sa’id and a family church. So even though the architecture of the building itself was not of particular interest, the history of the place itself constitutes heritage, because it is a testimony to a period and a cultural tendency.

As a matter of fact, heritage is also relative to its location. A church built in 1929 might not be of particular interest somewhere else, but it is in Matai, where nothing else is left of the architecture of the early 20th century or before, apart from a couple of family mansions. The church did constitute heritage because it was, in fact, one of the oldest buildings in town. Another important element that contributes to qualify the church as heritage is that the paintings of the iconostasis were the work of a Muslim artist, who also worked in Cairo at a church in the Izbikiya district. The fact that a Muslim painter was called to decorate a Christian church also speaks loads about the situation of the country back in the 1920s, when priests were invited to give conferences to al-Azhar and Muslim clerics would talk in churches, when nationalistic sentiments prevailed over sectarian ones (rejecting the justification of the British intervention in Egypt as protection of the Christian community, a famous Coptic preacher in 1919 said: “If this is the case, then let all the Copts of Egypt die and the Muslims live as free men”).

Another important element of the heritage essence of the building was that the benefactor himself was granted the privilege of a burial inside the church, not yet in a crypt, but in the chancel (haykal), an almost unique case that reminds of Butrus Ghali Pasha, buried in the family Church of al-Botrosiya in Abbasiya, Cairo, after his assassination in 1910.

Even if the iconostasis has been retrieved after being intentionally destroyed to remove any memory from the old church, it is important to consider that heritage is constituted of a context, not only of single elements: it mattered that that iconostasis was in that specific church, with those specific proportions and surrounded by other elements of the decoration (in particular the beautifully painted domes).

In pursuing with ruthless determination, the demolition of the cathedral, the Coptic church has not only prevaricated the rights of the family, which owned the building, but it has also insulted the memory of the benefactor who had erected the cathedral for the benefit of the local community and for which he was rewarded with a special burial. This is only the last and perhaps smallest of the abuses carried out by the Coptic church against its own cultural heritage: among the latest is the demolition of the 18th century cells in Dayr al-Suryian and many other important Coptic historic and archaeological sites that will be published in detail later. As a matter of fact, the Coptic church has to (re)think its whole strategy regarding cultural heritage; lack of intervention is proof of a poor management even at its highest levels and of great ignorance about cultural issues and a lack of a vision and strategy for the Coptic Heritage.

In a moment where the Christian cultural heritage in the Middle East is suffering from the abuses of extremist groups such as the so-called Islamic State, it brings great sadness to see church leaders carry out their own destructions at home and to see the congregation to blindly follow such vandalism to their own heritage and identity.

Monica Hanna
A third generation descendant of Morcos Gerges Saad who lost all her childhood memories and family heritage of the Church of Matai

Follow Monica on twitter @monznomad

Monica Hanna image 2Monica Hanna Image 1

Matai heritage destroyed

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply

Copyright © Australian Coptic Movement (ACM) | Australian Copts Calling for Human Rights in Egypt | Site by Mammoth Web