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THE TOMBS OF MEIR – DID THE CHRISTIAN MONKS DESTROY SOME OF THEIR RELIEFS?

December 14, 2015

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Meir (or Mir) is a village in the Governorate of Asyut, in Upper Egypt, not far off from al-Qusiya and the Christian Monastery of al-Muharraq. It contains a large Christian population and is famous for its Tombs of Meir that are ancient Egyptian rock-cut tombs, west of the village. These tombs belong to the nobles of the 6th and the 12th Dynasties in the nome of Cusae (al-Qusiya); and they are decorated with beautiful relief that reflects the life and religion of these two periods of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Despite the facts they have suffered illicit digging, they still preserve magnificent scenes from Ancient Egypt. The first archaeologist to study the tombs was the British Egyptologist, Ayward M. Blackman (1883 – 1956), who wrote about his findings in his book, The Rock Tombs of Meir (1915 – 1953).

When Egypt became Christian – a faith change, I should remind, that had not been brought about on the heads of spears and swords by foreign armies like the case with Islam – Christian monks took these tombs of their ancestors as cells and worshipped Christ in them. Some writers claim that the Copts destroyed some of the faces and names of the Ancient Egyptian deities in these tombs – a claim repeated by Lonely Planets.[1] There is no evidence whatsoever that the Copts actually did that. A few years ago, I visited the tombs, and with the local Egyptian Antiquity Department guide, we went patients over the wonderful reliefs, and we saw nothing to support that. I saw some naked genitalia which have not been obliterated or disfigured – one would expect the puritanical monks to have targeted these first if they had been carried away by their religion to destroy anything. Admittedly, the Copts have added their marks in some of Egypt’s Pharaonic monuments, such as engraving crosses or writing Coptic graffiti. But they were doing that to their property – monuments that belonged to their fathers and great fathers: the Copts were merely putting their stamp on what belonged to them.

Of course one would have preferred no interference whatsoever for the sake of the discipline of Egyptology. But it is unfair to criticise the Copts for using what’s theirs for what was then their new faith. One must also remember that the interference by the Copts in Pharaonic monuments is minimal. Those who decry such Coptic stamping of their properties are possibly driven by anti-Christian zeal rather than anything else; and one can detect in many of them unfairness and unfriendliness towards the Copts. Without wanting to be seen as critical of the great Western Egyptologists, I would like to point to the fact that the damage caused by the graffiti of Western travelers; inexperienced and amateur excavation, illicit trade and the pulling out of reliefs for exportation have all possibly caused greater damage to Egypt’s ancient monuments than any “damage” the Copts might have caused. Further, let us not forget that the damage caused to Egypt’s Pharaonic past by Arabs and Muslims, who invaded Egypt and ruled it, is huge and was carried out in industrial scale by people who had no connection or attachment or respect to Ancient Egypt.I have no heard much criticism of that.

 

[1] Lonely Planet Egypt by Lonely Planet, Anthony Sattin, Jessica Lee (2012).

 

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