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HOW THEY SAW THE COPTS: “AN EGYPTIAN PEASANT WOMAN AND HER CHILD” BY THE FRENCH PAINTER LÉON BONNAT: A STUDY IN HER COPTIC IDENTITY

September 10, 2011

Figure 1: Self-portrait, Léon Joseph Florentin Bonnat, 1855

Léon Joseph Florentin Bonnat (1833-1922) was a French painter. This is not the place to give the reader a detailed biography of him.[1] There is no doubt that Bonnat is widely recognised as one of the greatest French painters with international reputation. He is renowned for his religious paintings, and many, including several Copts, are familiar with some of these, particularly his Christ on the Cross.[2] He is also famous as one of the best portraitists.

But what interest us here are his Orientalist themes, of which at least one is Coptic. Bonnat visited Egypt and Sinai in 1868/9 in a trip that took him also to Palestine, Turkey and Greece; a journey in which two other French painters accompanied him, Jean Leon Gerome[3] and Paul Lenoir,[4] and also a French writer, Edmond About.[5] Some of Bonnat’s famous paintings go back to the period of his stay in Egypt during that short sojourn. Egypt’s ruler then was the enlightened Ismail Pasha (1867-1879), who invited the painters to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869; and the Coptic patriarch was Demetrius II (1862-1870). There is no evidence that Bonnat met the Coptic patriarch as other painters who had visited Egypt in the 19th Century did.[6] This most probably was due to his short stay in Egypt. Bonnat, however, showed interest, like all other European painters of the period who visited Egypt, in the Copts; and one of his most famous paintings is the one which we will study in this article, and which I produce below:

  Figure 2: This painting hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) in New York, USA.[7] It is oil on canvas and measures 186.7 X 105.4 cm in dimension. The reader can visit the museum to see the painting at:

http://www.metmuseum.org/works_of_art/collection_database/european_paintings/an_egyptian_peasant_woman_and_her_child_leon_bonnat/objectview_enlarge.aspx?page=6&sort=0&sortdir=asc&keyword=&fp=1&dd1=11&dd2=0&vw=1&collID=11&OID=110000144&vT=1&hi=0&ov=0

Figure 3: A zoom in view of the painting showing the beautiful Coptic woman and child

 Figure 4: A close in of the painting revealing the two tattoos on the forehead and chin of the Coptic woman

 Bonnat based this painting on a sketch which he had made at Port Said at the occasion of the opening (which was performed by French Empress Eugenie) of the Suez Canal on 17 November 1969.[8] It is not known if he executed the oil painting shortly after or later in early 1970. However, we know that the painting was exhibited for the first time at Salon in Paris in April/May 1970, when it was displayed under the title “Femme féllah et son enfant” (A Fellah[9] Woman and her Infant Son). The painting was bought by a New Yorker, John Wolfe, in 1882 for $6,000. It was then under the title “Fallah Woman with Sleeping Child”. The painting then passed on to Mr Wolfe’s cousin, Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, who on her death bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA).[10] The MMA displays the painting under the title of “An Egyptian Peasant Woman and Her Child”.[11]

There is no doubt that the painting depicts an Egyptian woman fellah (peasant) carrying her little child (who has fallen asleep) on her shoulder. But there is more to it than that: it is evident that this woman is Coptic Christian and not Muslim. Although there is nothing wrong in the labelling of the painting, it may be more informative to call it: “Coptic Fellah Woman and her Child/Coptesféllah femme et son enfant”.[12] The great painting has been displayed for a long time without pointing to this woman’s other, and important, identity – an identity which, if recognised, could be very educating to the public and can add to our understanding of this beautiful piece of art and to the artist who made it. Recently, some commentators started pointing to the Coptic identity of the woman,[13] which can easily be discerned from the tattoo of Coptic Christian cross on her forehead.

The Coptic cross cannot be missed: all its four arms are equal in length, which differentiate it from crosses adopted by other congregations. The Coptic cross is old – those who have been to the Island of Philae[14] in Upper Egypt to visit the Temple of Isis have most probably come across a few examples of the Coptic cross that date back to the 5th Century, and that had been engraved on the temple’s reliefs by early Egyptians who converted from paganism to Christianity. Here is one of them:

 Figure 5: Coptic cross on relief at the Temple of Isis, Philae, Egypt[15]

 Tattooing was common in Egypt in the 19th Century. Edward William Lane (1801-1876) in his famous book , An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians – for which he collected material during his stay in Egypt in the years 1833-1835 – tells us that tattooing (which they called dakk) was common among Egyptian women from the poorer classes, “females of the lower order” as he says, in the country-towns and villages of Egypt, and among the same classes in the metropolis (Cairo), but in a lesser degree:

 “(The custom of tattooing) consists in making indelible marks of a blue or greenish hue upon the face and other parts, or, at least, upon the front of the chin, and upon the back of the right hand, and often also upon the left hand, the right arm, or both arms, the feet, the middle of the bosom, and the forehead: the most common of these marks made upon the chin and hands are here represented. The operation is performed with several needles (generally seven) tied together: with these the skin is pricked in the desired pattern: some smoke-black (of wood or oil), mixed with milk from the breast of a woman, is then rubbed in; and about a week after, before the skin has healed, a paste of the pounded fresh leaves of white beet or clover is applied, and gives a blue or greenish colour to the marks: or, to produce the same effect in a more simple manner, some indigo is rubbed into the punctures, instead of the smoke-black, etc. It is generally performed at the age of about five or six years, and by gipsy-women. The term applied to it is ‘dakk’.”[16]

Figure 6: A tattooed Muslim Egyptian woman as illustrated by Lane in his book[17]. She has tattoos on her brow, chin, centre of her chest, dorsum of her hand and medial aspect of her arm (note the open shirt at the bosom which we will come to later)

 The vast part of Lane’s book is about the manners and customs of Muslim Egypt – about Coptic Egypt he did not pay much attention, despite his protestation to the contrary, and the chapter which he dedicates to them at the end of his book, mostly from biased hearsay, is most defective and prejudiced.[18] Missing in many points, he does not talk about tattooing within the Coptic community. Coptic tattooing, however, is very old being inherited by them from their Pharaonic ancestors[19] [20].  It is likely that the Muslims took tattooing from the Copts rather than the Copts took it from them. The influence of the Copts on the Muslim fellaheen is enormous. One can attribute it to the fact that when the Copts converted to Islam in large numbers in the 14th Century the new converts took with them their Coptic customs and preserved them as they became Muslim. This en-mass shift happened as a consequence of the terrible persecutions of 1301, 1321 and 1354[21] [22] [23] to which the Copts were exposed in the era of the Bahri Mamluks (1250-1381 AD).[24] It is in that evil reign of the Mamluks that the Copts, and their Church, were reduced to a miserable and impoverished condition.[25] As persecution pressed hard on the Copts, other factors played to their disadvantage and aided the decline in their number and power: first, the Black Death hit Egypt hard in those years decimating the population of whole villages and monasteries and laying them desolate;[26] second, Christian Nubia fell under the yoke of the Muslims, so the Copts were denied whatever help and protection they previously received from Nubia that used to follow the Coptic Church;[27] and thirdly, in addition Ethiopia, another daughter of the Coptic Church, was passing through difficult times as the Muslim were pressing hard on its borders.[28]  All these factors led to mass conversion of the Coptic fellaheen in villages across Egypt – and to this sudden large religious shift in the population of Egypt one can explain the existing similarities between the bulk of the Egyptian Muslims, of fellaheen origin, and the Copts of Egypt today. As Pierre du Bourguet, in his Coptic Art, puts it: “Moslem Egypt – and this has never been said forcibly enough – remained firmly Coptic in character on both the social and the technical plane.”[29]

But these similarities must not be pushed to extreme. The new religion of the new Coptic converts is bound to influence their customs and manners by subtraction and addition, leading to differences in culture and civilisation that cannot be ignored between the Muslims of Egypt, many of whom convert Copts, and the Copts who remained loyal to Christ and their heritage. The thematic change in the tattoo designs between Muslim and Coptic women can be understood in this context: the female descendants of the new converts to Islam from the Coptic folks gradually abandoned tattoos with Christian significance and started using geometrical and flowery themes such as the ones the Muslim woman in Lane’s illustration above demonstrates and such as the designs below which he published in his book:

 Figure 7: Specimens of tattooing on the chin as illustrated by Lane[30]

 Figure 8: Specimens of tattooing on hands and foot as illustrated by Lane[31]

Coptic women, on the other hand, continued to use tattoos with Christian connotation. Occasionally they used tattoos that were derived from Pharaonic motifs. As we have seen in Bonnat’s work, the Coptic fellah woman displays two tattoos – one of them, on her forefront, depicts a Coptic Christian cross.

Tattooing a cross on the brow of Coptic women seems to have almost disappeared in Egypt now; however, it is still practised in Ethiopia which follows the theology of the Coptic Orthodox Church.[32] Ethiopia has borrowed a great deal from the Copts and it is most likely that the practice of tattooing crosses has been transferred to it from Egypt. The Copts still stamp their children with the Christian cross though the practice seems to be now largely restricted to the inside of the right wrist.[33] [34]Both Coptic boys and girls are often tattooed from an early age:[35]

 “… to be marked by the sign of the cross, in the form of a tattoo on the wrist, is a common thing for most Coptic children. The practice of tattooing crosses probably has roots in early Egyptian Christianity. It is seen today as a sign of protection against evil spirits as well as a sign of Christian identity. Infants are tattooed at the request of their parents and young children will often renew their tattoos, of their own accord, when they reach school age. Both urban and rural Copts use tattoos and the practice does not seem to be in the decline. Families of high social standing may refrain from using tattoos and instead provide their children with gold crosses on chains.

The tattooed cross is a visible reminder of the child’s identity. In the company of strangers, the child may be recognised, for better or for worse, as a Copt. The cross is usually quite small (approximately 1cm by 1cm), located on the wrist near the palm of the right hand. This gives the child the option to reveal or conceal it, according to circumstances. Early on, she or he will learn that revealing a Christian identity can be problematic, and that what is valued inside the family or in the church may be rejected at school or in society at large. Within the church community, though, the tattooed cross is seen as a sign of honor. A well-known Coptic children’s song starts with the following lines:

‘I am a Christian, a Christian/

(Look at) The tattoo on my hand!’”[36]

  Figure 9: Three types of wrist Coptic crosses[37]

Otto Meinardus, one of the prominent Coptologists, adds:

 “There is no doubt that the principal purpose of the application of tattoos by the Copts serves their religious and ethnic identification in a predominantly Muslim and Arab society … In times of persecution, the tattoo of the cross has given strength to the faithful and has made it impossible for them to deny their faith.”[38]

This is all correct: the Copts stick to their Christian faith with a tenacity that has often astonished outside observers. Children are stamped with the sign of the cross from early age and that tattoo is often renewed by individuals when they are older to reaffirm their faith – by doing that the individual is permanently marked ‘belonging to Christ’, therefore reducing his or her chance of converting to Islam, being abducted or forcibly married to a Muslim (if it was a Coptic girl). [39] One cannot find a better, and obvious, example of the characteristic defiance and courage of the Copts than this practice of tattooing crosses on their wrists which could readily be seen – and interpreted in a negative way – by the often hostile and prejudicial Muslim society around them.[40] Many see in it a symbolic act of resistance of assimilation into the larger Muslim and Arab population. The Coptic tattoo on the forehead of Bonnat’s Coptic fellah Woman should be seen, even so more than tattoos on wrists, in this light; a matter that should prompt us to respect and admire the courage and pride which she exhibits in her identity and faith.

But the interest in the tattoos of Bonnat’s Coptic fellah woman does not end there – if one looks carefully at the second tattoo on her chin one can easily identify Aten, the disc of the sun in ancient Egyptian mythology.[41] Aten was one of the ancient Egyptian gods, who during the reign of Akhenaten/Amenhotep IV (1352-1336 BC) of the 18th Dynasty was exalted to be the only god in existence. The monuments that are left for us from the time of Akhnaten and the earlier days of his son Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BC)[42] were mostly unearthed from the modern site of el-Amarna, in Upper Egypt, which is the place where Akhenaten founded his city of ‘Akhet-Aten’ (Horizon of Aten).  Aten was depicted with the sun rays emanating from its disc in the form of hands reaching out to touch and warm up all.

 Figure 10: Aten is shown here shining on, and touching, King Akhenaten and his Queen Nefertiti, and two of their children

The writer is not suggesting that the Coptic fellah woman, or her family, was aware at that time of the full significance of the Aten disc; however, the choice of a Pharaonic motif points to a closer link with the Copts’ ancient ancestors, and their heritage, which is not often recognised by researchers.  Here we have a Coptic woman with tattoos that symbolise the double heritage of the Copts – the twofold identity of the Copts: Christian and Pharaonic. For this reason, I think Bonnat’s Coptic woman stands as a symbol of Coptism, by which I mean our Coptic culture which is derived from these two great sources.

Now a word or two about the Coptic woman’s attire and ornaments. Some may be shocked by her dress which exposes part of her chest and abdomen, particularly in a conservative country such as Egypt and a society such as the Copts. Fortunately we have Lane’s book which details the Egyptian dress code in the 19th Century. Lane’s major work, as we have seen, focused mainly on Muslim Egypt, and the short chapter that was dedicated by him to the Copts does not mention the Copts’ dress code. There is, however, evidence that the Copts largely followed the dress code of the Muslims – to wear differently could only draw the attention of the Muslims to them and invite harassment and insults.[43]

Egyptian attire in the 19th Century was very much dependent on the wealth of the individual and family. The dress of the women of the middle and higher orders, as Lane says, was “handsome and elegant”.[44] That was true, but it was composed of many layers of different types of cloths with the purpose of covering the woman’s head, much of her face and practically all the rest of her body.[45] Such attire must have been costly and could be afforded only by relatively rich families. When in her house, the Egyptian woman wore a shirt, trousers (shintiyan), dikkeh, long (yelek) or short (anteree) vest, a girdle shawl, and a gibbeh or jacket (saltah).[46] The head-dress of the Egyptian woman at home included “a takeeyeh and tarboosh, with a square kerchief (faroodeeyeh) of printed or painted muslin, or one of crape, wound tightly round, composing what is called a ‘rabtah’.”[47] Then on top of that she wore a kind of crown, called ‘kurs’, and other ornaments, which were attached to the head-dress. Over all that “a long piece of white muslin embroidered at each end with coloured silks and gold, or of coloured crape ornamented with gold thread, etc., and spangles, rests upon the head, and hangs down behind, nearly or quite to the ground: this is called ‘tarhah’ – it is the head-veil”.[48] For their feet Egyptian women wore at home mezz (inner shoes), baboog (slippers) and sometimes high wooden clogs or pattens.[49] Such was then the attire of the Egyptian woman in the house. When she went out, riding or walking, the dress got even more complicated: this riding or walking attire was called ‘tezyeereh’, and included a large, loose gown (called ‘tob’ or ‘sebleh’); the face-veil (burko), which concealed the whole of the face except the eyes, and reached nearly to the feet; and a ‘habarah’ which was a wide and long piece of cloth to cover the whole body, forming the most superficial layer of a lady.[50] On her feet she would wear when going out short boots or socks (called ‘khuff’) and over these the ‘baboog’.[51]

 

Poorer families, “those of the lower orders who are not of the poorest class” as Lane calls them,[52] wore simpler attire:

“Many of the women of the lower orders, even in the metropolis, never conceal their faces. Throughout the greater part of Egypt the most common dress of the women merely consists of the blue shirt, or tob, and a tarhah. In the southern parts of Upper Egypt, chiefly above Akhmeem, most of the women envelop themselves in a large piece of dark brown woollen stuff (called a ‘hulaleeyeh’), wrapping it round the body, and attaching the upper parts together over each shoulder; and a piece of the same they use as a trahah.”[53] [54]

The poorest of the country could not always afford this attire, and went partly naked:

“I have often seen, in this country, women but half covered with miserable rags; and several times, females in the prime of womanhood, and others in more advanced age, with nothing on the body but a narrow strip of rag bound round the hips.”[55]

Lane included an illustration in his book which shows the simple dress of Egyptian women and children of the poorer classes, and which I produce below:

Figure 11: The dress of Egyptian women and children of the poorer classes: see Lane’s book[56]

Although all the women in Lane’s illustration (Figure 11) wear face-veils and long shirts (and also tarha), the shirt of the woman in the middle has a long cut at the front exposing part of her chest and abdomen. This can also be shown in other illustrations by Lane (Figure 6). Other artists who visited Egypt in the 19th Century have too left us works of arts which show the same, such as the oil painting, “Femme Fellah Portant Son Enfant”, by the French artist Charles Emile Hippolyte Lecomte-Vernet, who visited Egypt around the same time as Bonnat.[57] [58] [59]

The middle and higher orders in the 19th Century included mainly the Turkish rulers, rich merchants and some Muslim religious dignitaries – the majority of the Egyptians, particularly the fellaheen, Copt and Muslim, were poor, and could not afford the elaborate dress code of the wealthy which Lane described in detail.  And our Coptic fellah woman was but one of those poor. In 1869/70 the Copts started to flourish again after the reforms that were introduced by Muhammad Ali’s dynasty in the second half of the century, and there is no doubt that some Copts became wealthy. However, there is no doubt that the majority of the Copts then were still living in poverty, particularly those who were tilling the soil or hoeing the fields. Bonnat tells us that the woman he painted was a féllahwhile herattire tells us that she was from the lower classes. It is not known where she came from; however, we know that Bonnat drew her sketch at Port Said, a town established on the Mediterranean coast by Said Pasha (1854-1863) in 1859, at the top of the Suez Canal that he was planning to dig.[60] That Canal was built by thousands of fellaheen who were drafted using corvée and collected from all parts of Egypt.[61] It is possible that that Coptic woman, her husband and her family all came from Upper Egypt which had many resident Copts.  Perhaps she was from one of the villages of Minya, Asyut, Sohag or Qena governorates, all of which contained large concentrations of Copts.

When one looks at Bonnan’s painting one can see that the Coptic woman wears a dark blue shirt, most probably made of cotton, with wide and long sleeves, and reaching down to the ground, and is cut at the front and down to about the level of her belly button, thus revealing part of her bosom. The cut at the front is embroidered at its edges with dark red threads, and has coloured beads and a tussle at its lower end. She covers her head with faint orange kerchiefs, possibly two, which she wounds tightly round her head but reveals the lower part of her forefront on which the cross tattoo is imprinted. Resting upon her head is a tarha – a long piece of dark blue fine cloth, most probably muslin, that hangs down behind. She uses part of the tarha to cover the head and back of her naked child, most probably to shield him from the hot sun. She adorns herself with a few ornaments – two large ring-shaped earrings; a broad bracelet on her right arm that is decorated with studs; and elegant two coloured necklaces. All of them were most probably trumpery.[62]

This is a beautiful, proud Coptic woman, whose poverty dictated her dress code, and even though her shirt that reveals part of her bosom may be shocking to some, she is not showing any sign of depravity or cheapness. In her I see motherhood, strength, patience, beauty, pride, shyness and modesty that is moderated by her poverty but not compromised by it.

 

 To conclude, this is a great painting by a great French painter – it depicts a Coptic woman and her child. The full identity of the woman for a long time has not been identified, and she was just passed as an Egyptian peasant. There is nothing wrong in labelling her as such save that it is incomplete. There is no doubt now about her Coptic identity, which she bears on her brow with full pride. It may be about time that we, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which keeps the painting, recognise the full identity of this beautiful woman and her child, and change the title of the painting to: Coptic Fellah Woman and her Child/Coptesféllah femme et son enfant”.  The educational benefit for the public that can be obtained by such a change will not be minimal. 

 

How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (10 September 2011), HOW THEY SAW THE COPTS: “AN EGYPTIAN PEASANT WOMAN AND HER CHILD” BY THE FRENCH PAINTER LÉON BONNAT: A STUDY IN HER COPTIC IDENTITY, https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/09/10/how-they-saw-the-copts-%E2%80%9Can-egyptian-peasant-woman-and-her-child%E2%80%9D-by-the-french-painter-leon-bonnat-a-study-in-her-coptic-identity/

 


[2] This has reached the Copts in slightly altered version, particularly the face. The original is kept at the Musée du Petit Palais in Paris:

 Christ on the Cross by Léon Bonnat, 1873/4

 [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-L%C3%A9on_G%C3%A9r%C3%B4me

[6] One can mention here at least two famous 19th Century artists: John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876) and Frederick Goodall (1822-1904).

[7] Postal address: 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10028 USA. The internet address is: www.metmuseum.org

[9] Fellah is the Egyptian peasant.

[11] See the painting’s exhibition history at: http://www.metmuseum.org/works_of_art/collection_database/european_paintings/an_egyptian_peasant_woman_and_her_child_leon_bonnat/objectview.aspx?collID=11&OID=110000144

As you can see, the painting was exhibited under another name “Egyptian Fellah Woman and Child” in 1963 at Claremont, California Pomona College Gallery.

[12] I used Bonnat’s own title which he gave to his painting but simply added the Coptic adjective to it.

[14] For more on Philae, go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philae

[15] For more on the Coptic cross, go to:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_cross

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Philae_Temple_of_Isis_coptic_cross_1.JPG

http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/philaecoptic.html (interesting collection of Coptic crosses at what the creators of the page call ‘Coptic Philae’).

[16] Edward William Lane: An account of the manners and customs of the modern Egyptians, written in Egypt during the years 1833-1835. London. 1842. Pages 33-5. You can access the book here: http://www.archive.org/stream/accountofmanners00laneuoft#page/n7/mode/2up

[17] Ibid; page 34.

[19] As Otto Meinardus explains the discovery of tattoos on Egyptian mummies “prove beyond doubt that in Egypt the practice of tattooing can be traced to the beginning of the Middle Kingdom”. Otto Meinardus: Christian Egypt, Faith and Life (AUP; Cairo; 1970); Page 2.

[20] It is not clear, however, how early in the history of the Copts the practice of tattooing was generally applied as a symbol of faith, as Otto Meinardus says (see page 3).

[21] For these horrible persecutions, read:

1. DP Little: Coptic Conversion to Islam Under the Bahri Mamluks, 692-755/1293-1354; Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, (1976), 39: 552-569 – Cambridge Univ Press.

2. M Perlmann: Notes on anti-Christian propaganda in the Mamluk Empire; BSOAS, (1942), 10: 843-861 – Cambridge Univ Press.

[23] Read about the effect of the general destruction of churches and monasteries all over Egypt, dismissal of the Coptic civil servants, widespread pogroms and humiliating edicts which revived the Pact of Umar in The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt 641-1517 by Mark N. Swanson (AUC Press; Cairo/New York; 2010; p. 99).

[24] On the Mamluks, read Sir William Muir: The Mamluke; or, Slave Dynasty of Egypt, 1260-1517, AD (London; 1896). You can access it here: http://www.archive.org/stream/mamelukeorslaved00sirw#page/n7/mode/2up

[25] The reader is referred to the excellent chapter “Surviving Mamluk Rule” in the work of Theodore Hall Patrick: Traditional Egyptian Christianity, A History of the Coptic Orthodox Church (Fisher Park Press; Greensboro; 1999; pp. 92-106).

[26] Ibid.

[27] On the fate of Nubia, read Theodore Hall Patrick; pp. 94-5. The reader is also referred to the work of Somers Clarke, F. S. A.: Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley (Clarendon Press; Oxford; 1912) and that of A. J. Arknell: A History of the Sudan to 1821 (2nd. Ed.; University of London; The Athlone Press; London; 1961; “The Coming of Islam AD 600-1500”; pp. 186-202).

[28] For the conflict between the restored Ethiopic Solomonic Dynasty and Islam, read David Buxton: The Abyssinians (Thames & Hudson; London; 1970); pp. 46-56). Also, read AA. H. M. Jones and Elizabeth Monroe: A History of Abyssinia (The Clarendon Press; London; 1935; pp. 53-58).

[29] Coptic Art by Pierre Du Bourguet; Methuen; London; 1971; p. 30.

[30] Edward William Lane; page 34.

[31] Ibid; page 34.

[32] On the Ethiopian practice of tattooing their foreheads with crosses, which was observed as early as the 15th and 16th Centuries by Europeans travelling to the Holy Land, see Otto Meinardus; pp. 3-4. Here is an modern example of the Ethiopian practice which persists:

 A photograph by 1996- National Geographic Society

[33] I do not accept Otto Meinardus’ assertion that Coptic “tattooing crosses on the inside of the right wrist might well have been encouraged if not introduced by the Ethiopians). Page 4. The evidence he cite is not convincing.

[34] Although Copts tattoo the cross on the inside of their right wrist, they sometimes do that on the back of their right hand opposite the thumb.

[35] The Coptic tattoos are usually made by experienced tattooers who usually have their tattoo booths outside churches and monasteries, particularly on the days of Coptic feasts (mulid) of the saint to which the place of worship is dedicated. In the past old tattooing methods were used in which several needles tied together are manually used by the tattooer to prick the skin of the tattooed in the desired pattern, and then using a pigment made of a mixture of lamp-black and either oil or water. This method has almost disappeared, and most tattooers employ now an electric needle. See Otto Meinardus; pp. 5-6.

To watch a video showing the procedure of Coptic tattooing, go to:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Hug703tPus&NR=1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKWvJUzyTR4&NR=1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8PeRk79_rY&NR=1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFNyC0s34KY&NR=1

[36] Nora Stene: Becoming a Copt: The Integration of Coptic Children into the Church Community. In Between Desert and City: The Coptic Orthodox Church Today. Ed. Nelly van Doorn-Harder and Kari Vogt. Novus forlag – Oslo 1997. Page 195.

[37] I credit this picture to the blog ‘Arabic Abroad’ at: http://arabicabroad.blogspot.com/2010/06/from-squalor-to-sacred.html

[38] Otto F. A. Meinardus; page 4. Meinardus gives other less prominent reasons by adding: “In addition, however, we must recognise that especially the Coptic fellahin consider the sign of the cross also as a kind of phylactery, as a protective device against evil spirits, the ginii, and diseases ‘Where the seal of the cross is, the wickedness of Satan hath no power to do harm’, said one of the early fathers. When St. Anthony made the sign of the cross, the devil trembled. Moreover, in some instances, the Coptic tattoo may also serve purely decorative purposes. At the same time, the tattoo of the cross is often thought of as a permanent reminder of certain blessings, which have been received, or certain vows, which have been made.” Pages 4-5.

[39] Abduction of Coptic girls and forcibly made to marry a Muslim, therefore severing all links with her family and community, is a well known phenomenon in Egypt, and still exists despite the campaign by Copts and human rights organisation to induce the Egyptian government to stop it. The reader can consult the various human rights reports produced by different organisations and states, such here: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/nea/154460.htm (2010 Human Rights Report: Egypt by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, USA).

[40] The writer would like to stress here that he does not want to demonise all Egyptian Muslims – undoubtedly there were many good ones; however, the prevailing culture in the 19th Century, which was taught at schools and homes, and prompted by religious zeal, was anti-Coptic. Lane who sympathises with the Muslims and hates the Copts can be quoted here as evidence: “The (Muslim Egyptian) parents seldom devote much of their time or attention to the intellectual education of their children; generally contenting themselves with instilling into their young minds a few principles of religion, and then submitting them, if they can afford to do so, to the instruction of a schoolmaster. As early as possible, the child is taught to say, ‘I testify that there is no deity but God; and I testify that Mohammad is God’s Apostle.’ He receives also lessons of religious pride, and learns to hate the Christians, and all other sects but his own, and thoroughly as does the Muslim in advanced age.” Page 48. Anticoptism still survives in the 21st Century but modernity has made it less (for the meaning of ‘anticoptism’, read my article at: https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/anticoptism-%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%82%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B7-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%A9-%D9%84%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%82%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B7-the-antiseme/ ).

[41] Read more about Aten in: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aten

[42] Both dates for Akhenaten and Tutankhamun are taken from the chronology of Ian Shaw in his The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 2003.

[43] Many Western visitors to Egypt in the 19th Century and before it could not understand the tyrannical influence of hostile cultures in determining other peoples’ cultures. The change of culture may appear to careless third parties as wilful assimilation; however, in fact, it is, directly or indirectly, a much forced assimilation, which the subject nations submitted to in order to survive in as much peace as could possibly be. In this light many of the oriental customs that Copts adopted but are Muslim in origin, such as seclusion and veiling of women, should be understood.

[44] Lane; p. 35.

[45] As Lane says, “The women of Egypt deem it more incumbent upon them to cover the upper and back part of the head than the face; and more requisite to conceal the face than most other parts of the person.” Page 42.

[46] Lane; pp. 35-6.

[47] Ibid; pp. 36-7.

[48] Ibid; p. 37.

[49] Ibid; p. 37.

[50] Ibid; p. 48.

[51] Ibid; p. 39.

[52] Ibid; p. 39.

[53] Ibid; pp. 41-2.

[54] Lane says also that although women in Cairo and Lower Egypt commonly wore shoes, women in Upper Egypt rarely wore them. Ibid; p. 41.

[55] Ibid; p. 42.

[57] “Femme Fellah Portant Son Enfant”, by the French artist Charles Emile Hippolyte Lecomte-Vernet (1821-1900); 1872. See: http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/artist.php?artistid=1376

I produce this painting here:

 Femme Fellah Portant Son Enfant, Egypte, (Fellah Woman Carrying Her Child, Egypt) by Charles Emile Hippolyte Lecomte-Vernet, 1872

[58] The reader can also be referred to the sketch of a fallah woman and her child by Thackeray, William Makepeace, in his Sketches and Travels in London; Notes of a Journey From Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1911, [c1904]); a journey which he made in the 19th Century: http://www.archive.org/stream/sketchestravelsi00thac#page/452/mode/2up

[59] See also the two beautiful paintings of Coptic women by the British painter Frederick Goodall, “Copt Woman and Child, 1859” and “Copt Mother and Child, 1875” at my Blog, Coptic Nationalism: https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/frederick-goodall-and-his-coptic-encounter-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%81%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%AF%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%83-%D8%AC%D9%88%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%84-%D9%88%D9%84%D9%88%D8%AD%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%87/

[60] Read more about Port Said here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_Said#History

[61] About the human toil that was need to build the Suez Canal, and the forced labour required, read: Suez, De Lesseps’ Canal by John Pudney (London; 1969); pp. 97-111.

[62] See Lane; p. 42; and review the appendix which he added to his book and labelled it “female ornaments”; pp. 519-532. It must be said here that our Coptic woman’s ornaments do not look identical to any of the ornaments’ sketches which Lane included in his appendix.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2011 2:33 pm

    Hi.
    Thank you for sharing ,i love to see art and i do love the painting, it’s interesting to see the dual heritage in the tattoos.You are right that the correct name for the work would be Coptic woman and child ,this should be pointed out ,perhaps the Coptic church could write to the MMA?

  2. September 11, 2011 3:27 pm

    With all of my great salutation and deep respect to this wonderful analysis, I have just could not but reading it all till the end with all diligence and adoration, i really learned even how to look to things deeper and more analytically, i also learned a lot about our very rich and precious Coptic history of Egypt, abundant info about customs and traditions and origins of many daily life practices, in a very smooth and relaxed progressive informative writing. Thank you very much for this precious peace of art, that repainted the original peace of art painted more than 240 years ago, in a way that talks to or modern eyes and ears, with all of my appreciation and proudly, I will share this article with all of my “worthy” international friends, who can really understand and appreciate such a perfect and wonderful art of portraying ancient arts and civilizations, i am really proud of having such artists to present our unique Coptic heritage of folklore and culture to the world today and tomorrow. Thanks again and again. Neo Kemet.

  3. Gregg permalink
    September 7, 2012 8:25 pm

    Interestingly enough, my grandmother purchased this painting at an auction for $50 because she loved the frame (the painting is over 6feet tall by 3+feet). Only did we later realize its true history and discussed the painting with experts who have determined that Bonnat painted two copies (not uncommon), one is in the MMA and the other is in my parents home. It certainly needs to be restored, but if anyone has any information about how to go about doing so, I would greatly appreciate it.

    Thank you.

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      September 7, 2012 11:04 pm

      Thank you! Very interesting to hear this! It must cost something, so look after it, and hope somebody reads your request and come to your help. Is it possible to post a photo of the version you have, as I know Bonnat painted a few versions, not all of them the same.

      With kind regards.

      Dioscorus

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