FROM SCETIS TO SOHAG – CONTEMPLATION IN ANTHROPOLOGICAL IMAGERY BY COPTIC BROTHERS, MATTHEW AND ANTHONY SHENODA
In a previous article I wrote about the wonderful work of the Coptic poet, Matthew Shenoda, particularly in his collection “Somewhere Else”.[i] Following that I found he had published some poems that have been in the public domain for some time. It is my intention now to bring these to my readers so that they enjoy them as well. The work is published under the title “From Scetis to Sohag”.[ii]
This work is a joint endeavour by Matthew and his younger brother, Anthony Shenoda. Anthony is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Scripps College in Claremont, California. His PhD dissertation at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), Harvard University, is titled “Cultivating Mystery: Miracles and the Coptic Moral Imaginary”. In 2003-5, he made a few fieldtrips to Egypt while undertaking anthropological research among Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt. He took many beautiful photographs during these visits; and he published some of them on the official website of the Harvard University CMES. The photographs, as he says, “range geographically from the monastic communities in the depressed desert valley of Scetis (Wadi al-Natrun) on the road between Cairo and Alexandria, to the hot southern region of Sohag, home of monasteries founded by St. Shenouda the Archimandrite (c. 348 – 466 CE)”. They reflect the wide variety of Coptic life and its strong nexus with religion and history. As he says, these images do much by “evincing a coalescence of lifeways and histories”. Anthropology is the study of humanity; and one can read much into these images of Coptia.[iii] “For example,” he says, “the photo of the priest standing on the mount of Ansina [Photo No. V], perhaps deceptively, conceals that he is talking on his mobile phone, to his left Pharaonic quarries that are said to have once served as cells for fourth and fifth century Christian monastics. Another image [Photo No. XII] brings together the contrasting neon-green of a mosque with the glowing white of a church in a Cairo neighborhood, while another [Photo No. IX] exalts wide-eyed, ever-seeing saints of the 4th century greeting pilgrims as they pass by; pilgrims who are increasingly travelling from Coptic diasporic communities in Western Europe and North America.”
The poetic beauty of these photographs, however, was expressed by Anthony’s brother and Coptic poet, Professor Matthew Shenoda. Matthew wrote a short poem for each image, and as the images are fifteen in number but with a common core, we have at hand “one poem of fifteen parts”. As Anthony says, “Each part, often drawing on Coptic historical and liturgical narratives, is contemplation on a specific image.”
The two brothers hope that “the reader/viewer will find these images and words to be a window onto a Christian community that even after Napoleonic probing and British obtrusion remains relatively little known in the Western world.” By republishing them on “On Coptic Nationalism” I intend to help make my readers better informed about the Coptic nation; but, equally, I would like to present them with some beautiful samples of Coptic photography and poetry, and their authors.
Make my face to be like sand
history leaking between brick & mortar
an effervescence of earth
windows of Baramos[vi]
shutters of sweeping sky.
We move across atlantic schism
sail the memory of forgotten
shed our feet
to touch rock
in this our ancestral home.
To Him that divided the Red Sea into parts
outstretched in this heat.
Creator, make me a gazelle
roam these cliffs an eternity.
Spin the wheat of our sustenance
rejoice in this toil
orbit the planet of palm and date
set free the tongue of want
grind, revolution, grind.
On the mount of Ansina[vii]
I speak green across the valley
Each word a prayer
Psalm-memory deep within this rock
By the staff of my elders
I will walk in the line
that they have walked
unlock the gaze from underneath my tomb
& rise like frankincense.
And what if we were to cavalcade
steer our mule into eternal pastures
take with us nothing more
than color and faith?
Falcon became raven
anubus[x] – lion
my elders, open armed in habitation
make yourselves of this place
so as never to remain here.
Etched on the surface of our village
a marker of our existence
dry hooks colored with past
rising with childhood dreams
beyond any affliction.
In this byword world
we rise to the taste of salt
make edible our seeds
and cover the village
with our half-eaten shells.
Can we read papyrus in neon
understand our course by way of this
compressed under night sky
by this, the only river’s edge?
Peace must come before the name
find the swelling, in the river of your spine
learn to read the eyes of another
this modern hieroglyphics
this modern day tome.
We learn our names by water
blessed in the river of struggle
and from beneath the dome, recount:
mubarak al-ati bism al-Rubb[xi]
mubarak al-ati bism al-Rubb.
Wondrous is your song
rippling through the palm fronds
[ii] Find the work here: http://cmes.hmdc.harvard.edu/ecmes/photo/from_scetis_to_sohag
[iii] Coptia is a coined word that means the Coptic geographical apace (patrie), Coptic community/ties or Coptic nation. For more, see: https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/coptia-%E2%80%93-coining-a-new-word-the-copts%E2%80%99-physical-space-community-and-nation-%D9%83%D9%88%D8%A8%D8%AA%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%8C-%D9%83%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A9-%D8%AC%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D8%AA/
[iv] I have capitalised the beginning of each part of the fifteen parts poem, and ended each with a stop.
[v] All endnotes are mine.
[vi] Baramos or Dair al-Barâmûs is the earliest settlement in the Desert of Scetis. Barâmûs is derived from the Coptic Barômaios, which means “belonging to the Romans”. It is, therefore, Monastery of the Romans. The Romans being the two saints, Maximus and Domitius, sons of the Roman emperor Valentinian (364 to 375), who became monks in Scetis. See Otto Meinardus, Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts (American University Press; Cairo; 2002); pp. 52-71.
[vii] Ansena is the Coptic name for Antinopolis (or Antinoë). Its place is now the village Sheikh ‘Ibada. It lies north to Dair al-Barsha. For more, see the following endnote.
[viii] Dair al-Barsha (or Deir el-Bersha) is a Coptic village in Middle Egypt, which is located on the east bank of the River Nile in Mellawi Markaz, Minya Governorate, to the south of Antinopolis (modern Sheikh ‘Ibada). It falls almost opposite the city of Mallawi, on the opposite bank of the Nile, and has to its north the village of Dair Abu Hinnis and to its south Nazlat al-Barsha. The area is heavily populated by Copts. Dair al-Barsha village is said to have almost thirty thousand inhabitants, almost all of them Coptic Christians, and has nine churches. The whole area is rich with archaeological sites from the Pharaonic, Greek and Coptic periods. The village of Dair al-Barsha has a monastery that carries the same name. The photograph is taken from the church (after Anba Bishoy) in that monastery. For more, see: Otto Meinardus, Christian Egypt, Ancient and Modern (Cairo; 1965); pp. 267-9.
[ix] The crested head, rekhyt bird is the term for the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus). It was often used as a symbol for subject peoples or foreign captives.
[x] The jackal-god of mummification, he assisted in the rites by which a dead man was admitted to the underworld.
[xi] mubarak al-ati bism al-Rubb is the Arabic translation of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Psalm 118:26)