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October 19, 2017

When the German Catholic theologian Johann Michael Vansleb [or Wansleben] (1635 – 1679) visited Egypt in 1672-3, he went to Sinnuris, a small village in Fayum Governorate, on the 31st of July 1672, one Sunday. In a section titled “A Little Journey to Sennuris”, he tells us that he went to it to see the remains of Antiquity. He liked the village, and describes it as ‘great, and very beautiful’. There, he saw the only Coptic church in Sinnuris, an old church that was dedicated to the Archangel St. Michael. This church still stands in the same place. The Copts were suffering centuries of suppression and persecution, and the church was poor. Vansleb describes it as ‘very mean’.

However, Vansleb’s keen eye got attracted to a piece of art he found in the poor church – a square stone, one and a half foot from side to side. It has three figures engraved in it: the Virgin Mary, carrying Jesus in her arms, and flanked on each side by one of the archangels, St. Michael and St, Raphael. Underneath each figure was written the relevant name in Coptic.

Sensing Vansleb’s interest in it, the priests of the church wanted to sell to him for a piaster and a half. To justify their action, they gave Vansleb a lame reason. Fortunately, Vansleb did not buy it since it would be so onerous job on him to take it with him to Upper Egypt and then back to Cairo, and then to his country. Let us read together what Vansleb had to say on the story:

Sunday the 31. of July I went to Sennuris, a village belonging to the Caschiefik of Fium,[1] situated on the north of the town,[2] and about four hours travelling on horseback, to see the remains of Antiquity that are there, and thereabouts; besides my servants, some other Copties[3] Christians went with me.

When I had a little rested myself at Sennuris, in the house of Sciech il Beled,[4] the Chief of the Village, a Moor[5], where my friends obliged me to take my lodging, I went to take notice of the village, which is great, and very beautiful; and at the same time I saw the church of the Copties dedicated to the Archangel S. Michael, but it is very mean.

Nevertheless, I took notice there of one thing very remarkable, namely, a square stone, where are three little figures cut; the first represents the Archangel S. Michael, the middle represents the Virgin Mary, who holds in her arms her Son, and the third the Angel Raphael. The names of every one is written underneath in Greek letters, in the Copties language.[6] This stone is a foot and a half long from side to side: The priests informed me that this stone was heretofore in the chancel[7], but when they saw that the people rendered homage to these figures, they placed them in  corner of the church, that they might hinder them from idolatry. They offered it to me for a piaster and a half, because I seemed to value it at high rate; I would not take it, because I had no intent to return so soon to Cairo, but to go further into Sayds[8].[9]

I read this story with much sadness. One can think of the many invaluable manuscripts and pieces of art that were lost to our nation by the ignorance and greed of some priests and monks. I can understand that they were worried about the superstition of some of their congregation who rendered homage to the figures of the Virgin Mary, Archangel Michael and Archangel Raphael rather than to Christ, for this is what I understand from their concern. We the Copts often border on polytheism in our religious zeal. But the response to this challenge is to educate the congregation, and never to get rid of what was apparently a very beautiful and sacred piece of art depicting the Virgin Mary and SS. Michael and Raphael. The priests clearly used the lame reason they dwelt on to sell it for silver – in this case a piaster and a half!

Fortunately, Vansleb did not buy it. And even more fortunate that the engraved stone still exists. The ancient church of St. Michael in Sinnuris has been ruined. We do not know the date it was ruined but we know that another church was built to its south in 1890 AD. The sacred stone is actually marble stone, was taken from the ancient church and fitted to the wall of the 19th century church.

I have not seen this stone myself, and I do not have a picture of it. Any of the readers who can have easy access to it, please, share it.


[1] Caschiefik (Kishofiya) was an administrative unit in Ottoman Egypt. It was smaller than Wilaya. Fayum was kishofiya.

[2] That is north of the town of Fayum – 12 km north.

[3] Vansleb calls the Copts Copties. He used it also for Coptic.

[4] Sheikh al-balad.

[5] Muslim.

[6] Most Coptic letters were taken from Greek.

[7] The chancel is the area between the nave and the altar (heikal) where the choir and clergy sit.

[8] Upper Egypt.

[9] F. Vansleb, The Present State of Egypt; or, A New Relation of a Late Voyage into that Kingdom, Performed in the Years 1672 and 1673 (London, 1678); p. 160.

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