"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Coptic Culture Past and Present

Given the recent turmoil in Egypt, attention has been focused there in a way not seen for many years. At last some attention is being given to the plight of the Copts, though many in the Western media, being indolent, ignorant, or idiotic (or, usually, a nasty combination of all three) have taken to portraying the persecution of the Copts as simply "sectarian conflict" in which "clashes" mysteriously emerge between supposedly competing religious groups, as though the Copts, comprising perhaps 10% of the population, regularly rise up and smite the Muslim majority in Egypt.

In truth, the Copts are, and have been for over a thousand years, persecuted and martyred in Egypt in ways that almost nobody, especially in the West today, understands. To treat this with the kind of "on the one hand...on the other hand" approach of the Western press betrays a revolting moral equivalency born, as noted, of laziness as well as tendentiousness.

Happily, scholarship on Coptic realities continues to emerge at a good clip, and one recent book is set to emerge soon: Mariam Ayad, ed., Coptic Culture: Past, Present and Future (Oxbow Press, 2011).

About this book, the publisher tells us:

In May 2008, the Coptic Orthodox Centre in Stevenage, UK organized a conference on Coptic Culture: Past, Present, and Future. The conference aimed to highlight the contributions and achievements of one of the most obscure periods of Egyptian history: the Coptic Period. The importance of this period lies in its valuable contributions to some of the most formative theological debates of Christianity.

Strictly defined as a Late Antique culture, spanning only the third to the seventh centuries AD, the heritage of the Coptic Period still survives today in the artistic expression, liturgical services, and heritage of millions of Egyptian Christians who live in Egypt and abroad. This period's lasting contributions, however, remain underappreciated, and many of its aspects remain unclear, or unknown to the general public.

For the first time, the conference at the Coptic Centre brought together specialists working on all aspects of Coptic Culture, from its earliest phases to the present day. One of the aims of the conference was to highlight new research on Coptic art, writings, and archaeology. By bringing together specialists, academics, and Coptic clergy, the conference fostered an active discussion of what defined Coptic identity in centuries past, and what it means to be Coptic in contemporary culture, both in Egypt and abroad.

It is important that we draw on, understand, and appreciate the rich cultural heritage of this period as we look to our past to inform our present and define our future.

The conference drew scholars from Australia, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the USA. Their papers were organized along 5 general thematic blocks that dealt with (1) The Egyptian roots of Coptic culture; (2) How do we know what we know: Archaeological Sites and Museum Collections; (3) Aspects of Early and Medieval Coptic Culture: Case Studies; (4) Current Trends in Coptic Studies; and (5) Coptic Culture Today and where it's heading. This volume contains their contributions.

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