Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs
By Jill Kamil
Jill Kamil’s “Christianity in the land of the Land of the Pharaohs is a book I picked up last year on a visit to the AUC in Cairo. Having finally gotten the chance to read it through, I found it a very interesting book and a change from the usual texts on Coptology and Egyptian History due to its change in focus from the Church and its teachings to the people of Egypt themselves. As a text on the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church it avoids any of the traditional trappings of selling itself as an apologetic for the Church and looks at the links between Egyptian Culture and the Church’s development. This is both quite refreshing and somewhat frustrating for the reader.
The book is structured in a way that gives the history from the visit of the Holy Family to the modern times. The Chapters consist on various historical instances, such as the rise of monasticism, the legalisation of Christianity, the Chalcedonian Council, Roman Persecution and the rise of Islam. These all allow for the book to flow in a way that creates a clear narrative, however this is sometimes confused by tangents from the author which can at times disjoint the flow of the text. The book ends with a look into the future of the text, in which the author praises the conversation of Icons in monasteries and the revival of this practice, demonstrating the preservation of many of the aspects covered in the book today.
In a way, this book is a breath of fresh air, since it takes a very novel approach to the history of the church. It does this by avoiding dwelling on any of the traditional Theological aspects which many would fawn over it looks at the Church as the Christian people of Egypt. In the same way, it has a brilliant analysis of Egyptian monasticism as a phenomenon within the cultural scape of Egypt. This allows the book to sell itself as a purely historical endeavour, making this clear from the start when it makes a historical link between the worship of Isis in the Middle-Kingdom and the strong veneration of the Virgin Mary. This is a rare and often side-lined focus, though in the case of this text it marks as a marker for the way in which the book will flow into a demonstration of the development of an ‘Egyptian Style’ of Christianity.
In the same way, the nationalistic tendencies of the text are also its downfall. Rather than the book being a history of the development of Orthodox Christianity in Egypt it retains far too prominent a focus on the Egyptian cultural element as opposed to the Church itself. This can often be a frustration to the reader, as it forces them to endure a 5 page link to pagan practices in pre-Christian Egypt followed by an explanation of how the Christian idea is superimposed onto this. I feel that, when reading from a Christian stance, it damages the book as a text on the history of the Church as it almost implies that the cultural element is more important than the Church itself.
So, would I recommend this book? Yes, to some extent. I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in a cultural history of Egypt and understanding the influence of its ancient past on the development of Coptic Civilisation. In the same way, I would advise it to anyone interested in the development of Coptic culture and the Church as a ‘national church.’ On the other hand, I would not advise the book for someone looking into the development of the Church from an Orthodox perspective, though I feel that this is not what the book was designed for. Overall, a good and interesting Cultural history book, though not for someone seeking a text on the Church itself.