HOW THEY SAW THE COPTS: A COPTIC MAN FROM LUXOR (THEBES) FROM 1848 WATERCOLOUR PAINTING
A Man Standing by Rocks, Thebes; A Copt[i]
This interesting piece of art is kept at the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum) in London;[ii] and is labelled A Man Standing by Rocks; Thebes; A Copt. It is watercolour on pencil and is 35.1cm by 25.2cm in dimension. The artist is unfortunately unknown apart from the letters “M.B.”. It is inscribed, dated and signed “Thebes 29 December 1848 MB” and labelled “A Copt”. All extra that we know of the artist is that in addition to visiting Thebes (Luxor, Egypt), he or she visited also Trieste (Italy) in 1840s and Bethlehem (Palestine) in April 1949. For how long the artist stayed in Egypt we don’t know; but he or she must have left Egypt shortly after the visit to Luxor. We also don’t know if the artist made other paintings in Egypt.
The watercolour painting is interesting artistically; but I am caught by its date and location. It is dated December 1848 which was shortly after the reign of Abbas Helmy I started on 10 November 1848 after the retirement of Muhammad Ali[v] and the death of his son Ibrahim.[vi] Contrary to what many think, the long reign of Muhammad Ali (1805 – 1848) did not bring much to change the Copts’ political and social statuses. Certainly the Islamic dress code forced on the Copts to distinguish them for bad treatment.[vii] The short reigns of Ibrahim (1848) and Abbas Helmy I (1848 – 1854) did not change the matter except to the worse for the Copts. The Copts were obliged to wear dark brown or black galabiya[viii] and turban. They could not wear anything in bright colours including shawls. This state of affair changed only in 1856 after the European Powers obliged the Ottoman Empire to pass the Hamayouni Decree and start the Tanzimat reforms. The Coptic man was painted in Luxor, which is in Upper Egypt, some 500 miles south from Cairo. It is the site of ancient Egyptian Thebes. Luxor has generally been known for its tolerance compared to other parts of Egypt. A few thousand Copts lived there at the time. The area was, and still known, for its large Nubian population, who are the most friendly in all Egypt.
The Coptic man, who is standing by rocks, was depicted in 1848 before the Hamayouni Decree. Although he wears dark brown galabiya and turban, he also puts a striped shawl in blue and red. He also seems to wear a blue vest with long sleeves underneath his galabiya. It may be that that the Copt was allowed that little freedom to wear in colour as he wished due to the comparatively tolerant Nubian area. However, it is possible that the artist used his imagination and wasn’t paying attention to the accuracy of the detail. Other explanations are that the painting was made at the home of the Copt (with the rocky setting imagined) or that the Copt worked with one of the European consulates which would have provided him with some freedom and protection.
[ii] Gallery location: Prints and Drawings Study Room, Level D, Case SC, Shelf 6 (Museum Number: SD.67).
[iii] For those who may want to visit the V&A: it is located at Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL. The nearest underground station to it is South Kensington (on the Piccadilly, Circle and District Line).
[v] Retired for poor health on 20 July 1848 and died in the following year.
[vi] Reigned from 20 July 1848 to 10 November 1848.
[vii] See also:
– THE ENCOUNTER OF THE FRENCH NOVELIST GUSTAVE FLAUBERT WITH THE COPTIC PATRIARCH PETER VII (BOUTROS OR BUTRUS EL-GAWLI) https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/the-encounter-of-the-french-novelist-gustave-flaubert-with-the-coptic-patriarch-peter-vii-boutros-or-butrus-el-gawli/
– MU’ALLEM JIRJIS AL-JAWHARI, ISLAM, NAPLEON BONAPARTE AND THE COPT’S CASHMERE TURBAN https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/mu%E2%80%99allem-jirjis-al-jawhari-islam-napleon-bonaparte-and-the-copt%E2%80%99s-cashmere-turban/
– HOW THEY SAW THE COPTS: THE FRENCH PAINTER ALEXANDRE BIDA, THE COPTIC WRITER IN 1851 AND THE DISCRIMINATORY ATTIRE https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/how-they-saw-the-copts-the-french-painter-alexandre-bida-the-coptic-writer-in-1851-and-the-discriminatory-attire/
[viii] A long robe.