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THE CONVENT OF THE PULLEY (DEIR EL ADRA OR THE MONASTERY OF THE VIRGIN MARY AT GABAL AL-TAYR) 5: THE ENCOUNTER OF FREDERICK WILLIAM FAIRHOLT WITH THE MONKS

August 15, 2017

To read the first four parts of this thread, click on the following:

The Convent of the Pulley (Deir el Adra or the Monastery of the Virgin Mary) at Gabal al-Tayr 1: Intrduction

The Convent of the Pulley (Deir el Adra or the Monastery of the Virgin Mary) at Gabal al-Tayr 2: The Account of the Coptic Historian of the Twelfth Century Abu al-Makarim

The Convent of the Pulley (Deir el Adra or the Monastery of the Virgin Mary) at Gabal al-Tayr 3: Old Photograph from 1923 by the American John Nicholas Brown II

The Convent of the Pulley (Deir el Adra or the Monastery of the Virgin Mary) at Gabal al-Tayr 4: The Encounter of Gustave Flaubert with the Monks

Convent of the Pulley

Frederick William Fairholt (1814 – 1866) was a British artist and writer of German roots. In 1862, he visited Egypt, and sailed via felucca up the Nile and then returned back. He told of his experience in his book ‘Up the Nile, and Home Again’,[1] which was published by Chapman and Hall in London, 1862. He included several drawings in his book. One of them is Plate V, which I share with my readers above.

The drawing is interesting from two points: first, it shows the eastern high cliffs of Gebel-al-Tayr, or Mountain of the Bird, as seen from the Nile, with the cracks in the cliff that house the almost legendary birds, spoken about by so many writers from early times; and, second, it shows the Convent of the Pulley (‘Coptic convent of Sitteh, or Sittina, dedicated to the Virgin’) on top of the mountain. There are three monks depicted up the cliff who wear long black gowns, with wide hanging sleeves, and tall round caps. While the monkish habit depicted in the drawing, and described in the text, is familiar from today’s habit worn by Coptic monks, the headgear is different – the tall round cap was different from the current bonnet that is flat and covers the whole head, hanging down on the back of the head until the shoulders, and is tied to the neck with two thin strings.  The bonnet is embroidered with thirteen crosses:  twelve on the top, six on each side,[2] that symbolise Christ’s twelve disciples; and one on the back of the bonnet which stands for Christ.

Fairholt visited Egypt during the rule of Muhammad Sa’id Pasha (1854 – 1863) and most probably after the death of Pope Kyrillos (Cyril) IV in January 1862 and the ordination of Pope Demetrius II in June 1862. Fairholt was not sympathetic towards the Copts, and his book shows. He was critical of the begging behaviour of the Coptic monks on Gabal al-Tayr, and as we have seen before, he wasn’t the first one. After describing his encounter with them, he goes on to write:

“It was by no means agreeable to see Christianity at so low an ebb, represented by so despicable a set. The [Muslim] boatmen were, of course, far from civil; and when one continued his importunity after he had obtained gifts, and would listen to no refusal, they unceremoniously pitched him into the water. Certainly those who do not respect themselves, have no cause to imagine others will respect them. Surely this convent might manage its begging with more decency, by sending a man in a boat, and not thus allowing a whole horde of naked wretches to disgrace themselves before people who already despise them too much.”[3]

While, I am sure, Fairholt is unsympathetic, and wasn’t completely fair in his opinion about the Coptic monks of Gabal al-Tayr, it is hard not to agree with him on the gist of his criticism: what we used to do there was disrespectful and undignified; and we should have prevented it from happening. It created a bad impression for our monks and our Church which registered in so many Western traveller books. The task of the Coptic nationalist is to criticise what is unbecoming in us, and to praise what is good.

Anyway, I post below the passage in which Fairholt describes his encounter with the Coptic monks (I simply add some endnotes to clarify some words or points). It makes an interesting read:

The rocks, which have been gradually approaching the river on the eastern side, now form bold cliffs many hundred feet in height. The nearest is known as the Gebel-el-Tayr, or Mountain of the Bird, from a curious Arab legend attached to it, thus given by Wilkinson[4]: — “All the birds of the country are reported to assemble annually at this mountain, and after having selected one of their number to remain there till the following year, they fly into Africa, and only return to release their comrade and substitute another in his place.” The lateral ledges of the sandstone rock, upon which the birds rest in the sun, safe from all molestation, have led to the choice by them of these cliffs as perching-places ; and long lines, numbering many thousands, may often be seen here, and probably originated the legend, which may be traced far back, for the writer above-quoted adds, “The story is probably another version of that mentioned by Aelian,[5] who speaks of two hawks being deputed by the rest of the winged community to go to certain desert islands near Libya, for no very definite purpose.”

On the very summit of this rock, is the Coptic convent of Sitteh,[6] or Sittina,[7] dedicated to the Virgin, and inhabited by a small community of monks, whose long black gowns, with wide hanging sleeves, and tall round caps, give them somewhat the aspect of stage necromancers.[8] They subsist on the produce of small portions of land, and are exempt from taxation.[9] The convent and church are confined within dreary walls, from which steps lead downwards to natural platforms on the rock, as exhibited in our view, Plate V. From this platform fissures descend to the water, where they open into small caverns. By this means the monks come down to the river, and leaving their clothes behind them, dash into the stream, clamorously begging of all boats passing. As they have abundant leisure, they don’t throw any chance away, but post themselves along the entire face of the rock at various intervals, and on the flat shore opposite. Two of them swam out to meet our boat on its approach, loudly proclaiming themselves Christians all the way they came. When helped on board, they crouched down and wrapped themselves in an old sail, asking first for something to drink.

This obtained, and duly swallowed, they then begged for money, for more drink for their brethren and the chief of the convent, and ultimately for the bottles they had emptied. The latter they use to hold oil, aniseed, &c, which they cultivate on their lands, and sell in the markets near. The money they carry ashore in their mouths, the bottles, &c, in the left hand, swimming sideways and using the right arm only as a paddle. Once on board, they were in no hurry to go. It was by no means agreeable to see Christianity at so low an ebb, represented by so despicable a set. The boatmen were, of course, far from civil; and when one continued his importunity after he had obtained gifts, and would listen to no refusal, they unceremoniously pitched him into the water. Certainly those who do not respect themselves, have no cause to imagine others will respect them. Surely this convent might manage its begging with more decency, by sending a man in a boat, and not thus allowing a whole horde of naked wretches to disgrace themselves before people who already despise them too much.

The Hon. R. Curzon,[10] in his account of “Visits to Monasteries of the Levant,” has given a graphic and amusing description of his ascent up this cliff, after he had been assisted to the cave at its foot by two of the priests, who “swam like Newfoundland dogs.”[11] A narrow fissure, about the size of an ordinary chimney, had to be climbed. The abbot crept in at a hole at the bottom,” and telling me to observe where he placed his feet, he began to climb up the cleft with considerable agility. A few preliminary lessons from a chimney-sweep would have been of the greatest service to me ; but in this branch of art my education had been neglected, and it was with no small difficulty that I climbed up after the abbot, whom I saw striding and sprawling, in the attitude of a spread eagle, above my head. My slippers soon fell upon the head of a man under me, whom, on looking down, I found to be the reis, or captain of my boat, whose immense turban formed the whole of his costume. At least twenty men were scrambling and puffing underneath him, most of them having their clothes tied in a bundle on their heads, where they had secured them when they swam or waded to the shore. Arms and legs were stretched out in all manner of attitudes, the forms of the more distant climbers being lost in the gloom of the narrow cavern up which we were advancing, the procession being led by the unrobed ecclesiastics. Having climbed up about one hundred and twenty feet, we emerged, in a fine perspiration, on the face of the precipice, which had an unpleasant slope towards the Nile.”

A more agreeable ascent leads from thence to the monastery, a square walled building entered by a low doorway. The church he describes as “one of the earliest Christian buildings which has preserved its originality:” it is partly subterranean; the apsidal end is built in the recesses of an ancient stone quarry. It is constructed on the principle of Latin basilicas, not cruciform; the portion in which the congregation assemble being perfectly square, the roof supported by columns in advance of the walls, a lattice parting the sanctuary therefrom, which is much smaller and is reached by steps. That, and a small cell beside it, are cut in the rock, as shown in the plan given in Mr. Curzon’s valuable little volume.[12]

 

______________________________

[1] The full title of the book is, ‘Up the Nile, and Home Again: A Handbook for Travellers, and a Travel-Book for the Library.’

[2] In the middle of the bonnet is a rip, sown with crochet, which starts from above the forehead up to its third. This rip separates the two sets of six crosses on each side.

[3] Up the Nile, p. 124.

[4] Sir John Gardner Wilkinson in his ‘Modern Egypt and Thebes, being a description of Egypt, including information required for travellers in that country, V. p. 35 (London, 1843).

[5] Claudius Aelianus (175 – 235 AD), a Roman author.

[6] Sitteh in Arabic means, My Lady.

[7] Sittina in Arabic means, Our Lady.

[8] Necromancer is a person who practises necromancy; a wizard or magician. Necromancy is the supposed practice of communicating with the dead, especially in order to predict the future; or, witchcraft, sorcery or black magic in general.

[9] I do not think the writer is accurate here.

[10] Robert Curzon (1810 – 1873), the famous English traveller, diplomat and author; who wrote in 1849, ‘Visits to Monasteries in the Levant’.

[11] The Newfoundland dogs are dogs that originated from Canada (in the Dominion of Newfoundland, which is now part of Canada), and are either black, or white-and-black (Landseer). They are dogs originally used by fishermen; and are known for their giant size, intelligence, tremendous strength, calm disposition, and loyalty. They excel at water rescue because of their muscular build, thick double coat, webbed feet, and innate swimming abilities. (See: Daily Mail; August 27, 2010).

[12] The church is believed to have been built by Empress Helena (d. c. 330), mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (306 – 337), in AD 328, on the place the Holy Family landed on the Gabal al-Tayr.

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