From Scetis to Sohag

September 12, 2005

The following images are just a sampling of the numerous photographs I have taken over the last couple of years during fieldtrips to Egypt. The photos range geographically from the monastic communities in the depressed desert valley of Scetis (Wadi al-Natrun) on the road between Cairo and Alexandria, to the hot southern region of Sohag, home of monasteries founded by St. Shenouda the Archimandrite (c. 348 – 466 CE). My anthropological research among Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt has been concerned with the mobilization of material culture objects as a means of bridging the physical with the spiritual, as well as the articulation of Coptic history through material things. And while these images reflect my research interests, they do so much more by evincing a coalescence of lifeways and histories. For example, the photo of the priest standing on the mount of Ansina, perhaps deceptively, conceals that he is talking on his mobile phone, to his left Pharaonic quarries that are said to have once served as cells for fourth and fifth century Christian monastics. Another image brings together the contrasting neon-green of a mosque with the glowing white of a church in a Cairo neighborhood, while another exalts wide-eyed, ever-seeing saints of the 4th century greeting pilgrims as they pass by; pilgrims who are increasingly traveling from Coptic diasporic communities in Western Europe and North America. Of course much more can be said and this is why I asked Coptic poet Matthew Shenoda to write a short poem for each image. He kindly agreed, writing one poem of fifteen parts. Each part, often drawing on Coptic historical and liturgical narratives, is a contemplation on a specific image. It is our hope that the reader/viewer will find these images and words to be a window onto a Christian community that even after Napoleonic probing and British obtrusion remains relatively little known in the Western world.

make my face

make my face to be like sand
history leaking between brick & mortar
an effervescence of earth
windows of Baramos
shutters of sweeping sky

we move across

we move across atlantic schism
sail the memory of forgotten
shed our feet
to touch rock
in this our ancestral home

to Him that divided

to Him that divided the Red Sea into parts
an inheritance
outstretched in this heat.
Creator, make me a gazelle
roam these cliffs an eternity

spin the wheat

spin the wheat of our sustenance
rejoice in this toil
orbit the planet of palm and date
set free the tongue of want
grind, revolution, grind

on the mount

on the mount of Ansina
I speak green across the valley
Each word a prayer
Psalm-memory deep within this rock
Revelation seekers

by the staff

by the staff of my elders
I will walk in the line
that they have walked
unlock the gaze from underneath my tomb
& rise like frankincense

and what if

and what if we were to cavalcade
into eternity
steer our mule into eternal pastures
take with us nothing more
than color and faith?

Dayr al -Barsha

Dayr al-Barsha
painted like marrow & bone
each line a symphonic everlasting
unfurling the wings of the rekhyt
so that we may enter like lotus

falcon became raven

falcon became raven
anubus - lion
my elders, open armed in habitation
make yourselves of this place
so as never to remain here

etched on the surface

etched on the surface of our village
a marker of our existence
dry hooks colored with past
rising with childhood dreams
beyond any affliction

in this byword

in this byword world
we rise to the taste of salt
make edible our seeds
and cover the village
with our half-eaten shells

can we read

can we read papyrus in neon
understand our course by way of this
foreign illumination
compressed under night sky
by this, the only river’s edge?

peace must come

peace must come before the name
find the swelling, in the river of your spine
learn to read the eyes of another
this modern hieroglyphics
this modern day tome

we learn our names

we learn our names by water
blessed in the river of struggle
and from beneath the dome, recount:
mubarak al-ati bism al-Rubb
mubarak al-ati bism al-Rubb

wondrous is your song

wondrous is your song
rippling through the palm fronds
eastern resurrection

Anthony Shenoda is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies.