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December 15, 2015

Somers Clarke

Somers Clarke (1841 – 1926)

Somers Clarke (1841–1926)[1] was a prominent English Egyptologist, Coptologist and architect. He was born in Brighton where many churches were designed by him. He later moved to Egypt where he combined his architectural interests with that of an ethical Egyptologist and Coptologist. “Clarke was an active participant in archaeological excavations from 1893, working principally at the Ancient Egyptian sites of al-Kab[2] and Hierakonpolis[3] in Upper Egypt. In the winter of 1909-10 he made a journey down the Nile from Aswan to Khartoum through Nubia, which resulted in further publications concerning the buildings of this little-explored area. He also directed a number of temple restoration projects, including one at Deir al-Bahri on the West Bank of Luxor.[4] From the outset of his engagement with the architecture of Ancient Egypt, Clarke was fascinated by the various technologies of production he encountered. His accumulated knowledge of ancient building techniques was eventually manifested in a book, Ancient Egyptian Masonry, the Building Craft, co-authored with the Egyptologist Reginald Engelbach[5] and posthumously published in 1930.[6] This work remains one of the standard references for the study of Ancient Egyptian architecture to this day, and even its title provides clear evidence of Clarke’s preference for ‘nuts and bolts’ construction techniques rather than art history. Clarke’s activities were not, however, confined to the sphere of pharaonic Egypt: he was in addition an indefatigable recorder of early Christian architecture. In 1912 these efforts culminated in a volume entitled Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley.[7] He was active in archaeological excavations in Egypt from 1893 and died in it in 1926.”[8]

Clarke’s Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley, which was published in 1912, but work on it had started from 1893/4, is wider in its scope than, and an essential companion to, Alfred Butler’s The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, which was published in 1884.[9] In it, Clarke dedicated his study to the construction and architecture of Coptic churches in both Nuba and Egypt. No other study has exceeded this great work of Clarke’s. It is a shame that this monumental work is hard to find in bookshops and even on the internet.[10] 




Clarke’s explains in his historical sketch at the outset of his study the way Copts used the disused temples of their ancestors in the Pharaonic times in their new worship:

It is a thing by no means to be overlooked that when converted to Christianity the Egyptians did not erect any churches in the traditional way in which the temples of their forefathers had been built. They made a clean cut with the past. We have direct evidence that they made use of parts of temples, converting them to the purposes of a church, but taking great care entirely to hide the architectural and sculptured adornments with which their interiors were decorated.[11]

This hiding of the architectural and sculptural adornments of the interiors of the temples, the Copts did not achieve by destruction or disfiguring but by concealing them in the following way:

A thick coat of plaster covered the sculpture on the walls, the plaster being itself covered with painted imagery of Christian saints, symbols, and so on. The ceilings were similarly painted.[12]

This can hardly be vandalism, and it was possible later for the archaeologists to remove the Christian layer to reveal the older layer that belonged to Pharaonic Egypt. This contrasted with how mosques were built when Egypt was invaded by Arabs, and then other Muslims:

It does not appear that after the Arab Conquest churches were often converted into mosques. They were generally pulled down and mosques built with their materials.[13]

Clarke explains the reason that the Arabs did not convert churches to mosques by adding a note in which he asks and answers: “Is there not a good reason for this? What makes a suitable plan for a church is very ill suited to a mosque.”[14]



Egyptology and Coptology are closely knit disciplines since they deal with the antiquities of the same people – the same race. A professional archaeologist faced with a monument that has two layers of human achievement – particularly if they tell us about the same people – must be very careful not to destroy the one for the other: in this case destroy the outer layer, which is Coptic, for the deeper layer, which is pre-Christianity. But, sadly, a few archaeologists did vandalise the Coptic layer as they showed no interest at all in the Christianised Ancient Egyptians – the Copts – and their achievement.

Such an archaeologist was the French Eugène Grébaut, who became Director of the Department of Antiquities in Egypt between 1892 and 1897, following the great Gaston Maspero (1846 0 1916). Although Clarke does not mention him by name, one can easily identify him from the context. In him, Clarke finds embodied unprofessional and non-ethical archaeology – those Egyptologists who hated the Copts, called them “Les méchantes Coptes”,[15] and looked at their history and achievements with disrespect and contempt; and having such a toxic attitude towards the Copts, they committed what Clarke describe as unnecessary unscientific, barbarian, violent, vandalic acts of archaeology. Here is what Clarke had to say:

The materials here offered for the consideration of the reader have been many years in course of collection, beginning in the year 1893-4. The mental attitude of the Egyptologist towards any study of Egyptian Archaeology, excepting along his own lines, was, at that time, as unscientific as it was discouraging. The Director-General of Antiquities could speak only with disdain of ‘les méchants Coptes’. He was guilty of cruel and absolutely needless barbarities at Medinet Habu. One of the courts of this ponderous and impressive building had, at a remote period, been turned into a church. Monolithic columns had been erected and an apse constructed for the reception of the altar. The walls of the ancient building had not been seriously defaced—indeed, it is probable that the work done by the Christians had assisted to preserve the original wall sculptures, for it was, as we know, their custom to cover with a thick coat of plaster the ‘superstitious images’ of the old religion, and on this plaster to paint ‘superstitious images’ of their own. However, this page of history did not please the gentle man who was director-general at that time, so out the evidences must come.

At no little trouble and cost the monoliths were dragged away and are to be seen lying outside the walls of the courtyard on its south side. And not only so, but no plans, drawings, or notes were published. We must now, to find out how the Christian community had tried to re-arrange the court to suit its own uses, refer to a plan in the Description de l’Egypte.

In the temple of Luxor, the same gentleman carried forward works of destruction begun by others. After passing through the great court and hypostyle hall of Amenophis III we enter what is now an open court, but what had been a covered chamber, its roof supported by columns. To quote Murray’s Handbook:[16]

‘This Hall was in early Christian times converted into a church. A niche or apse was hammered out in the south wall and the ancient reliefs were daubed over with frescoes, which have now nearly disappeared.’

I quote these words as they stand because they so well interpret the venomous feelings displayed towards any work of ‘les méchants Coptes’. As a matter of fact, the ‘ niche hammered out ’ was a doorway, which, by slight alterations, had been re-arranged as an apse, whilst the sculptures were covered with a thick coat of plaster, on which were painted some exceedingly stately and monumental figures—none better in Egypt. We may admit that for the purposes of a complete study of the excellent wall sculptures it was necessary to remove these paintings; but it was a piece of unscientific barbarism to break them up without even procuring careful copies. The monastic remains at Der el Bahari which encrusted the beautiful temple were broken up in the same reckless way. It was sufficiently obvious that they could not be maintained, but surely, careful plans and registers should not have been neglected, as they were.


[1] Or George Somers Clarke. Not to be confused by his uncle, George Somers Leigh Clarke (1922 – 1882), who was also an architect.

[2] Al-Kab or El Kab (the ancient town of Nekheb) is an Upper Egyptian site on the east bank of the Nile about 80 km south of Luxor, consisting of prehistoric and pharaonic settlements, rock-cut tombs of the early 18th Dynasty (1550–1295 BC), remains of temples dating from the Early Dynastic period (3100–2686 BC) to the Ptolemaic period (332–30 BC), as well as part of the walls of a Coptic monastery. At al-Kab, Clarke built a house where he lived there.

[3] Hierakonpolis (the ancient Nekhen), known in Arabic as الكوم الأحمر‎ (Al-Kom Al-Aħmar, “red mound”). It was the religious and political capital of Upper Egypt at the end of the Predynastic period (c. 3200 – 3100 BC), and probably also during the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3100 – 2686 BC).

[4] Deir al-Bahari (Arabic: الدير البحري ad-dayr al-baḥrī, which means “The Northern Monastery”, pointing to the monastery built by the Copts on the site). It is part of the Theban Necropolis: a complex of mortuary temples and tombs located on the west bank of the Nile, opposite the city of Luxor. The first monument built at the site was the mortuary temple of Mentuhotep II of the 11th Dynasty, which was constructed during the 15th century BC. During the 18th Dynasty, Amenhotep I and Hatshepsut also built extensively at the site.

[5] Another prominent English Egyptologist (1888 – 1946).

[6] S. Clarke and R. Engelbach, Ancient Egyptian Masonry, the Building Craft (London: Oxford University Press, 1930).

[7] S. Clarke, Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley. A contribution towards the study of the ancient Churches (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912).

[8] Nicholas Warner: Somers Clarke and the revival of mud brick architecture in Egypt. (online)

[9] Alfred Joshua Butler (1850 – 1936), the great British historian and Coptologist.

[10] There is an Arabic translation of it by Ibrahim Salama Ibrahim published in 1999 in Cairo but the translation is not very good.

[11] Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley, p. 14.

[12] Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley, pp. 14-15.

[13] Ibid, p. 192.

[14] Ibid, no.1, p. 192.

[15] The wicked Copts (الأقباط الأشرار).

[16] Egypt and the Sudan, eleventh edition. Edward Stanford, 1907, p. 390.

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