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September 20, 2011

 Gustave Flaubert, a portrait by Eugene Giraud

THE FAMOUS FRENCH NOVELIST Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880) is not the type of person one would expect sympathetic words to come from in regard to the Christian Church or any of her leaders, let alone those of the Coptic Church. It was, therefore, a good surprise when I came, some time ago, across a letter which Flaubert had written to his mother on 5 January 1850 from Cairo and in which, inter alia, he described a visit he had paid to the Coptic Patriarch – a visit which he seems to have thoroughly enjoyed and found helpful and educating.[1]

Flaubert travelled to Egypt in the autumn of 1949, and remained there for the first half of the year 1850,[2] with his life-long friend Maxime Du Camp.[3] That journey took them also to Greece (before he arrived in Egypt), Lebanon, the Holy Land, Syria and Turkey. Flaubert was only twenty-eight when he embarked on that journey, and he wasn’t by then the renowned celebrity who was later known all over the world as the pioneer in realism writing following the publication of his Madame Bovary.[4] He had only written a few books before his tour; one of them was a play about the Egyptian (Coptic) ascetic Saint Anthony the Great (c.251 – 356), “La Tentation de Saint Antoine” (The Temptations of Saint Anthony), which he had finished writing, but not publishing, only shortly before his departure to Egypt.[5]

 Gustave Flaubert in the garden of the Nile Hotel, Cairo; a photograph by his friend Maxime Du Camp.[6] Flaubert in a Nubian dress which he was possibly wearing when he visited the Coptic patriarch

 The Temptations of Saint Anthony was just one example by which Flaubert showed an interest in Egypt, and the Orient in general, from an early age. To write that play, he had to study Eastern religions, including whatever material he could get hold of on the Coptic faith (which he calls in his Letter, which we shall see, the ‘Coptic religion’).[7] The Temptations is about the great saint in the Egyptian Thebaid, “assailed by hordes of monsters, gods, heretics and other sinners”, all trying to make him abandon his chosen ascetic life in pursuit of Christ.[8]  Most probably Flaubert had read Vita S Antoni (The Life of Saint Anthony) by the Coptic Patriarch Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296 – 373)[9], which contains a section that describes Saint Anthony’s struggle with the demons in the Egyptian desert. It is said that Flaubert was inspired in writing The Temptations by an oil painting of Saint Anthony by the 16th Century Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.[10] It may be safely said that Flaubert had some fascination with Egypt and the Copts, their saints and their religion even before he set foot in Egypt.

Nonetheless, Flaubert should not be regarded as a religious person – neither his personal life nor his writings suggest that.[11] Furthermore, religion and the clergy in general did not impress him much.[12] When in Egypt, he, for instance, visited the ancient Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Church of Abu Sergah) in Old Cairo, which was built in the 4th Century on the spot where Coptic tradition holds it that Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus rested for some time during their flight into Egypt to escape Herod the Great.[13] It contains an old crypt where the Holy Family is said to have rested.[14] Flaubert does not show much interest in the archeological Coptic church, the sacred crypt, the Coptic Sunday liturgy, the Coptic language that was used during the Mass, or indeed the worshipers; and writes in his travel notes:

“Sunday, [30 December 1849]. Visited the Coptic church in Old Cairo. As M. de Voltaire would have put it: ‘A handful of rogues, gathered together in a hideous church, were celebrating with a total absence of style the rites of a religion whose very prayers they cannot comprehend.’ From time to time one or another of the acolytes supplies, aloud, the pronunciation of some word the priest cannot read.

Crypt of the Virgin, where it is said she rested with her child on arriving in Egypt.”[15]

A few days earlier, on Thursday, 27 December 1849, Flaubert visited what he calls the Catholic bishop. As no Coptic Catholic patriarch was consecrated until 1895, this must have been the Coptic Catholic Apostolic Vicar of the time, Theodore Abu Karim (1832–1855).[16] One would expect Flaubert, who was nominally Catholic though not practising, to show some interest in this dignitary; however, he writes:

“Visit to the Catholic bishop; refectory; those people eat well – two kinds of sponge-cake. Nothing to be gained there; after twenty minutes of conversation, almost entirely by me, I take my leave.”[17]

A day later, on Friday, 28 December 1849,[18] it was the turn to visit the Coptic Patriarch whom Flaubert doesn’t name but simply calls “the Coptic bishop” and “the bishop of the Copts”.  That visit was, however, altogether different; and one feels that Flaubert very much enjoyed it despite himself. The account of this visit to the Coptic Patriarch is to be found in the Letter which Flaubert wrote to his mother a week later on 5 January 1850:

“… A few days ago I spent a fine afternoon. Max[19] stayed at home to do I forgot what, and I took Hasan (the second dragoman we have temporarily hired) and paid a visit to the bishop of the Copts for the sake of a conversation with him. I entered a square courtyard surrounded by columns, with a little garden in the middle – that is, a few big trees and a bed of dark greenery, around which ran a trellised wooden divan. My dragoman, with his wide trousers and his large-sleeved jacket, walked ahead; I behind. On one of the corners of the divan was sitting a scowling old personage with a long white beard, wearing an ample pelisse; books in a baroque kind of handwriting were strewn all about him. At a certain distance were standing three black-robed theologians, younger and also with long beards. The dragoman said: ‘This is a French gentleman (cawadja fransaoui) who is travelling all over the world in search of knowledge, and who has come to you to speak of your religion.’ Such is the kind of language they go in for here. Can you imagine how I talk to them? A while ago when I was looking at seeds in a shop a woman to whom I had given something said: ‘Blessings on you, my sweet lord: God grant that you return safe and sound to your native land.’ There is much use of such blessings and ritual formulas. When Max asked a groom if he wasn’t tired, the answer was: ‘The pleasure of being seen by you suffices.’

But to return to the bishop. He received me with many courtesies; coffee was brought, and soon I began to ask questions concerning the Trinity, the Virgin, the Gospels, the Eucharist – all my old erudition of Saint Anthony came back in a flood. It was superb, the sky blue above us, the trees, the books spread out, the old fellow ruminating in his beard before answering me, myself sitting cross-legged beside him, gesticulating with my pencil and taking notes, while Hasan stood motionless, translating aloud, and the three other theologians, sitting on stools, nodded their heads and interjected an occasional few words. I enjoyed it deeply. That was indeed the old Orient, land of religions and flowing robes. When the bishop gave out, one of the theologians replaced him; and when I finally saw that they were all somewhat flushed, I left. I am going back, for there is much to learn in that place. The Coptic religion is the most ancient of existing Christian sects, and little or nothing is known about it in Europe (so far as I know).[20] [21]

 The Coptic Patriarch who welcomed Gustave Flaubert to his place, Peter VII (Boutros El-Gawli: 1809 – 1852)[22]. This image reflects him as is most probable at a younger age than when Flaubert met him in 1849

THERE WE HAVE Gustave Flaubert paying a visit to the Coptic ‘bishop’ – that bishop was none other than the Coptic Patriarch, or Coptic Pope, Peter VII (or Boutros/Butrus El-Gawli)[23] who sat on the Holy See of Saint Mark as Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria for almost 42 years in the first half of the 19th Century (1809 – 1852), thus heading the Coptic Orthodox Church in those formative years of modern Egypt. We don’t know the year in which Peter VII was born; however, since the Coptic Church canons prohibit the election of a bishop (or patriarch)[24] unless the candidate is forty years old or over, Peter VII must have been in his eighties and a very old man indeed when Flaubert met him towards the end of 1849. Flaubert gives a lively description of the aging Patriarch as he was sitting in the courtyard of his patriarchal residence on one of the corners of a trellised wooden divan, “a scowling[25] old personage with a long white beard, wearing an ample pelisse[26]” and “ruminating in his beard before answering” his theological questions on the Trinity, the Virgin, the Gospels and the Eucharist – all subjects which Flaubert had obtained some knowledge of when he had written his Temptations of Saint Anthony a few months earlier.

Peter VII’s patriarchate coincided with the reigns of Muhammad Ali (1805 – 1848), Ibrahim (1848) and Abbas I (1848 – 1854). Muhammad Ali was a pragmatic ruler – he wanted to consolidate his rule by gaining the support and help of the European powers, particularly France and Britain. His regime, particularly since the 1820s, showed increasing degree of religious tolerance towards the Franks and Christians in general for “(his) great object was to get the European powers to think favourably of his rule”, as Andrew Paton says.[27] This tolerance must not be seen as extending to treat the Copts on an equal footing with the Muslims or removing the traditional disabilities imposed by Islam on the Copts, such as jizya or the segregationist code of dress.[28] However, Muhammad Ali used the Copts, who were relatively more educated and skilled, in his administration; and allowed foreign missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, a larger freedom to establish missions in Egypt and to have freer communication with the Coptic Church.

These European missions had mixed objectives: a desire to convert the Copts to either Catholicism or Protestantism, reform the Coptic Church or assist her, through establishing schools and distribution of sacred scripture in Arabic, in reviving her previous Christian fervour and glory, as stated in various missionary documents.[29] While the Christian Copts largely resisted ‘conversion’ to a Christianity of a Catholic or Protestant flavour, they welcomed any help with building of schools, education and distribution of Christian literature.[30] Patriarch Peter VII’s biography in the official History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church[31] is defective – it does not tell of the huge efforts he had made to seize the opportune political moment, and work to improve the standards of his clergy and educate his people. That role has traditionally been reserved for his great successor Patriarch Cyril IV (1854 – 1861).[32] The truth, however, is that Peter VII started those efforts, and initiated a cooperation with various Europeans, both clergy and lay, to help his Church and nation. He is known to have welcomed so many travellers, writers, artists and politicians from Europe, and Flaubert was just one of these. His efforts were fruitful to some extent but they were frustrated by the still largely intolerant conditions of Egypt and the changing political circumstances, particularly when Abbas I, was known for his intolerance and reactionary tendencies, came to power. With the limited opportunities open to him, Peter VII obtained many copies of printed sacred scripture, both Coptic and Arabic, from the missionaries who were willing to help, and distributed them to his congregation. He was interested, as his biography tells us, in studying the scripture, liturgical and historical books, and in preaching and educating the faithful. We also know that he set up a large patriarchal library and paid it much attention, collecting books and manuscripts for it from different churches and monasteries in Cairo; and he personally catalogued them.[33] Flaubert’s description of “books in a baroque[34] kind of handwriting (that) were strewn all about him (Peter VII)” seems to confirm the story about the Coptic Patriarch’s love for books and study. The baroque writing was most probably Coptic but it might have been Arabic, or both. Whatever the case, Flaubert did not pay the Coptic language or its script serious attention as is evident from his Letter and also from his travel note about his visit to the Church of Abu Sargah in Old Cairo.

The courtyard of the Patriarch in which Peter VII welcomed Flaubert is of special interest. The residence of the Coptic patriarch was transferred, due to renewed hostilities towards the Copts, shortly after the French occupation of Egypt in 1798, from Haret Al-Rum to Al-Azbakiya, in what was known as the Coptic quarter. This happened during the patriarchate of Peter VII’s predecessor, Mark III (1796 – 1809); and all following patriarchs, including Peter VII, resided there until the patriarchate was moved again to Abbasiya in 1970.[35] In that patriarchate in Azbakiya, and in its courtyard, Peter VII welcomed Flaubert as he had welcomed many other interested European visitors before him. Flaubert describes that courtyard: “I entered a square courtyard surrounded by columns, with a little garden in the middle – that is, a few big trees and a bed of dark greenery, around which ran a trellised wooden divan (where on one of its corners sat the Patriarch)”. As we read this, one’s mind is immediately taken to the famous painting The Hosh Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch by the famous 19th Century British artist John Frederick Lewis. Flaubert’s description of the hosh (which is Arabic for courtyard) is not different from what the brush of the artist has beautifully depicted; and it is in a few points complementary. But about the famous oil on wood painting of J. F. Lewis we shall talk in a separate article.


THERE IS NO DOUBT that Gustave Flaubert as he said “deeply enjoyed” his encounter with the Coptic patriarch – all things seemed to have conspired to make it a superb, fine afternoon: nature with its blue sky above and the trees in the courtyard; the Oriental atmosphere, dress and the many courtesies; the old patriarch with books spread round him in a baroque kind of handwriting; the conversation with the patriarch which he found educating. That was “the old Orient” the “land of religions and flowing robes” as he says, and to it he planned to go back for, as he says, “there is much to learn in that place (the Coptic patriarchate)”. We don’t know if Flaubert ever returned back to see the Coptic patriarch again and to converse with him on theological matters. Whatever the case, he ended this story of his encounter with Peter VII by stating that “(t)he Coptic religion is the most ancient of existing Christian sects, and little or nothing is known about it in Europe (so far as I know)”. Since 1849 Coptology – the study of Coptic language, Church, history and culture – has much developed and many valuable work has been published on the Coptic nation and their Church. It seems to me that that was exactly what Gustave Flaubert had wanted to see.


[1] Find the Letter in Flaubert in Egypt: a sensibility on tour: a narrative drawn from Gustave Flaubert’s travel notes & letters translated from the French and edited by Francis Steegmuller (The Bodley Head Ltd; London; 1972); pp. 71-5.You can also find the Letter with slightly different translation in Gustave Flaubert as seen in his works and correspondence by John Charles Tarver (D. Appleton and Company; New York; 1895); pp. 104-5. The latter book you can find at:

[2] It appears that Gustave Flaubert reached Alexandria on 17 November 1849 and left it, on his way to Lebanon, on 19 July 1850.

[3] You can read about Maxime Du Camp here:

[4] You can find a 1919 English translation by Dora Knowlton Ranous of Madame Bovary, with a good biographical preface, here:

[5] Flaubert did not publish his work on Saint Anthony until after he came back from Egypt and only after he worked on it several times. The final version was published in 1874.

[6] 2 albums et 168 phot. du voyage en Egypte, en Nubie et en Syrie de Maxime Du Camp en 1849-1850, provenant de la bibliothèque d’Henri Duveyrier, don 1893 by Du Camp, Maxime (1822-1894).  You can find it at Gallica here:

[7] See Flaubert in Egypt; p. 12.

[8] Ibid; p. 11.

[9] Saint Athanasius knew Saint Anthony personally. He wrote his book between 356 and 362. See:

About Saint Athanasius, read:

[10] Flaubert saw the oil painting of Bruegel (c.1525-1569), which is titled The Temptations of Saint Anthony, in Genoa at the Balbi Palace. You can see the painting here:

[11] Flaubert’s sexual encounters with married women and prostitutes of both sexes are known – a matter which brought upon him the charge of immorality, particularly after his publication of Madame Bovary. I do not intend to dwell on that here. The reader is referred to John Charles Tarver’s Gustave Flaubert and also to:

[12] The reader is referred again to Traver’s book.

[13] Mathew 2:13-23.

[14] The best account of the Church of Abu Sargah and the Crypt, and a good survey of their history, is still that by Alfred J. Butler in his The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt; Volume I (Fletcher and Son Ltd; Norwich; lithographical reprint from the 1884 original); pp. 181-205. You can find the original in Internet Archive here:

[15] Flaubert in Egypt; pp. 70-1.

[16] The first Coptic Catholic Apostolic Vicar was consecrated by Rome in 1741. You can read about the Catholic Church in Egypt in Christian Egypt, Ancient and Modern by Otto F. A. Meinardus (French Institute of Oriental Archaeology; Cairo; 1965); pp. 404-415. For a list of Catholic Vicars and Patriarchs, go to:

[17] Flaubert in Egypt; p. 68.

[18] Ibid; p. 68.

[19] His friend, Maxime Du Camp.

[20] Since the second part of the 19th Century, much has been known in the West about the Copts and their Church.

[21] See Note 1.

[22] This is about the only image we have of Peter VII (Boutros El-Gawli) which is owned and released by the Coptic Patriarchate in Cairo. It does look like a photograph rather than a painting. It would be interesting to dedicate a study for it alone.

[23] Patriarch Boutros was called after the village El-Gawli, Manfalout Makaz, Assiut Governorate, Upper Egypt, from which his family originated. It was customary in those days to add the name of the village or town (sometimes region) from which the monk had come to the monkish name given him.

[24] The Coptic Patriarch is the bishop of the city of Alexandria.

[25] John Charles Tarver in his Gustave Flaubert uses the word ‘repellent’ rather than ‘scowling’. The Oxford Dictionary gives “an angry or bad-tempered expression” for the meaning of ‘scowl’; while the Cambridge Dictionary gives: “to look at someone or something with a very annoyed expression”. It may be that the Patriarch was not expecting Flaubert. Whatever, Flaubert was offered all the courtesies expected and the Patriarch answered his questions. The Letter conveys much satisfaction with the visit which tells one that the initial impression was soon dispelled.

[26] John Charles Tarver in his Gustave Flaubert gives ‘great mantle’ instead. The Cambridge Dictionary does not mention the word ‘pelisse’ while the Oxford Dictionary gives an altogether unlikely meaning “A woman’s ankle-length cloak with armholes or sleeves. A fur-lined cloak, especially as part of a hussar’s uniform.” It, however, gives the origin of the word, which may explain what Flaubert meant by it: “early 18th century: from French, from medieval Latin pellicia (vestis) ‘(garment) of fur’, from pellis ‘skin’.” Flaubert most probably was describing the religious habit of Coptic monks (and Peter VII was one) which is made of rough wool.

[27] Andrew Paton, A History of the Egyptian Revolution, Volume II (Trubner; London; 1870); p. 281.

[28] These disabilities were not lifted until after the Crimean War was concluded and the European powers put pressure on the Ottoman Empire to issue the Hamayoni Decree in 1856.

[29] Read, e.g., Paul D. Sedra: John Lieder and his Mission in Egypt: The Evangelical Ethos at Work Among Nineteenth-Century Copts. The Journal of Religious History; Vol. 28, No. 3, October 2004; pp. 219-239.

[30] Letters and papers concerning the Coptic Church, in relation to the Church of England : under the primacy of Archbishop Howley, 1836-1848 (1883). This important document is available in Internet Archive:

[32] It must be said that the official biography of Cyril IV in the History of the Patriarchs is also defective.

[33] See his Biography.

[34] See Merriam-Webster Dictionary: ‘characterized by grotesqueness, extravagance, complexity, or flamboyance’. The writings might have been Coptic or possibly Arabic.

[35] For the different moves of the patriarchal residence, see The Coptic Encyclopedia; Volume VI; pp. 1912-3.


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