Friday, 13 July 2012

Pagans, Christians and Muslims: Egypt in the First Millennium AD (9-10 July 2012)

Pagans, Christians and Muslims: Egypt in the First Millennium AD – The Annual International Egyptology Colloquium 2012. 

 9-10 July 2012.

Due to work based commitments I was unable to reach the first day of the conference until the 4pm break, where I met up with Metropolitan Seraphim at the Museum as well as some known Egyptologists who I have had the pleasure of meeting before. Though I missed the first two lectures, I was there in time to catch Jochem Kahl and Jane Faiers' talks on Middle Egypt.

Both talks were excellent and highly insightful, looking at monastic settlements in middle Egypt. Jochem Khal's detailed contemporary expeditions and analysis of the Gebel Asyut Al-Gharbi site but, of the two, I found Mrs Faiers' especially interesting as it used a photo diary from the last century to analyse previous knowledge of the site. This talk was met with questions and links to other research which Mrs Faiers said she would look into.

After this, we had the chance to discuss the talks with others in the museum and look around the books before heading in for Dr Gawdat Gabra's talk, which was this year's Raymond and Beverly Sackler lecture.

Dr Gabra's lecture was focussed on the connections between the Coptic mindset's link to Martyrdom and the Ancient Egyptian view of death. It looked heavily at what Coptic Christianity had inherited from its ancient ancestors, which sometimes made it sound like a polemic, but resonated at a time when Egypt is facing political uncertainty after the election of the Islamist Dr Mursi as President.

The part of this lecture which I found extremely interesting was the link between the christianisation of the Ankh and the mindset of Martyrdom. Dr Gabra looked at this with respect to the tradition of the Soldier-Saint in Coptic iconography, a topic which I have recently studied myself. This made the lecture's underlying study of the Coptic 'Church of the Martyrs' extremely interesting though somewhat out of place in an Egyptology conference.

When the lecture ended, we attended the reception which gave the guests a chance to talk and people the chance to talk to Abba seraphim about Coptic Christianity, as most were Egyptologists, so did not study the faith on its own. Having an Archbishop there to talk to helped them put Dr Gabra's talk in context and gain a further understanding of the faith behind the Copts.

On the Second day, I reached the Colloquium at 10.30, in time to hear Dr Cäcilia Fluck speak on the discovery of a female Tomb at Antinoupolis. Though the title of the lecture leant heavily on the study of textiles (Which I expected to be very boring) it was a fascinating look at the traditions of the day. It developed into a lecture on the clothing designs of women in 5th Century Coptic Egypt, something which it is rare to have explained since the majority of women we hear about in that period our the Holy Desert Mothers or the aristocracy. 

From this, we were given three lectures on the area of Minya (Now Al-Minya) and the monastic settlements here. The first two focussed heavily on the tombs of the area. The first was by Dr. Katja Lembke, who explained the changes in burial traditions in the Necropolis of Tuna El-Gebel. The lecture looked into how the traditions became Hellenised, though his did not cover the later Christian period, only the change from the Egyptian Gods and rituals to the more Hellenic style of Roman and Greek burial with images of their Gods and Myths. 

This led smoothly on to the final two talks of the morning which were on the use of Tombs and quarry worker settlements by 4th and 5th century Anchorites and the evidence at sites across Minya which show the presence of monks. It covered the pattern of monastic settlements around cities in the area and the development of Christian communities close to abandoned cities such as Amarna which was the short lived Capital of Egypt under Akenaten. 

This final talk led to some interesting discussions and questions on the Monks who lived there such as St Ammonas who wrote to other monks in the area, instructing them in the teachings of Saint Anthony. Some of the questions and comments were far more obscure, such as a claim of Kabbalistic and Gnostic teachings by the Monks under Ammonas, which led to some sniggers by people in the audience. On the whole it was a productive session, looking at the links and marriage between the Egyptian Landscape and Christianity and explaining how it was a fertile environment for the faith to develop and grow, even under the most difficult of circumstances.

Altogether, the Colloquium was an extremely successful event and a rare chance for Coptology to take the forefront at an Egyptology event in the UK. With a demonstration of the ongoing and planned work on the somewhat forgotten monastic settlements of Early Medieval Egypt it demonstrated that the study of Christian Egypt is still alive and well, with many breakthroughs expected in the field within the next few years.

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