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October 6, 2015

A Coptic Christian woman dictating a letter to a scribe, Cairo, Egypt

A Coptic Christian woman dictating a letter to a scribe, Cairo, Egypt. Coloured lithograph by Louis Haghe after David Roberts, 1849

I would like to share with my readers the above lithograph by Louis Haghe which is kept at Wellcome Library, London.[1] It is lithograph with tint plate, with watercolour and gum Arabic, which was published by F.G. Moon, London, in 1849, as one of a series of 247 lithographs of Middle Eastern subjects – all printed in a six volumes: the first three volumes are called “The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia”[2]; and the last three volumes are called “Egypt & Nubia”[3].
Louis Haghe (1806 – 1885) was Belgian lithographer but lived his productive live in London. Although he is the lithographer of this piece of art, he was not the original artist. All his lithographs were based on the watercolours of the famous Scottish Orientalist painter, David Roberts (1796 – 1864). Roberts visited Egypt between 1838 and 1839, staying in it for nearly six months.[4] During his Oriental tour, he visited also the Holy Land, Jordan and Lebanon. That tour provided him with many interesting people, monuments and scenes that he drew and watercoloured, and took with him to London to form the basis for paintings and lithographs. He worked with Louis Haghe to produce the above volumes.

In Egypt, Roberts visited Nubia and Sinai too. There, he drew a lot, including a few pieces with Coptic theme, such as the lithograph I am sharing with you today, “The Holy Tree, Materea”, “Ruins of a Christian Church in the Grand Court of the Temple of Medinet Abou”.

A Coptic Christian woman dictating a letter to a scribe is a beautiful and precious lithograph. In previous articles I explained the importance of paintings and photographs are sources for historians: a lot of history can be obtained from them. Here, we have a depiction of a Coptic woman and a Coptic clerk most probably in the first few months of 1839: this was during the reign of Muhammad Ali (1805 – 1848) and the patriarchate of Petros VII (1809 – 1852). These were tough times, and even though Muhammad Ali tried to modernised Egypt and used the skills of Europeans and Copts in his administration, Egypt was still part of the Ottoman Empire and the Copts were still Dhimmis, who were being under the rule of Sharia which differentiated between Muslim and Christian and discriminated against the latter.

One ominous sign of that discrimination against Copts is ghi’yar which was derived from the Pact of Umar, the second Muslim Caliph (834 – 644): it dictated that non-Muslims be kept different from Muslims in attire, including headgear, to mark him out for discrimination and humiliation. The Copts must wear cheap and rough clothes made of dark colours, mainly dark brown and dark blue. Here, the Coptic clerk displays that.

As I have explained in previous articles, ghi’yar was theoretically abolished in 1854 after the Crimean War, and as a result of pressure from the European Powers on the Ottoman Empire. This, however, did not end practically until after the British arrived in Egypt in 1882.

[1] Wellcome Library no. 34531i.

[2] Also called “The Holy Land”. Printed in London, 1842-49.

[3] Printed in London, 1846-49.

[4] He set sail for Egypt on 31 august 1838 and departed from it shortly after 16 vMay 1839.

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