56. Islands of the blessed

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article discusses the annual Coptic Cultural Conference, and the anomaly of the location of the conference. It details the

rich Coptic cultural heritage in oases throughout Egypt, and how they have influenced Coptic traditions to this day.

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Despite their importance and breathtaking beauty, the five oases of Egypt: Siwa, Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga, are

unfamiliar to most Egyptians. It was therefore a remarkable initiative on the part of Anba Silwanis, the papal deputy in Misr

al-Qadima (Old Cairo), to suggest that the annual Coptic cultural conference at St Mina’s Church in Fom al-Khalig would place

a discussion on the Coptic heritage in the oases on its agenda. The relevant scientific material was prepared by Haggagi

Ibrahim, head of the Faculty of Arts at Tanta Univesity, with the help of Badr Helmi, a Church volunteer worker. Worth noting

is that this is the fourth year in succession that Zahi Hawwas, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities

declines an invitation to attend the opening session.
The Greek historian Herodotus described the Egyptian oases as

the “Islands of the Blessed.” The Arabic word waha (oasis) comes from a pharaonic word meaning ‘place of rest’. The three-day

conference began on 30 October with a briefing by Coptic Studies Institute professor Atef Awad. The Western Desert in which

the oases lie is overlapped by three governorates: Wadi al-Gedid (the New Valley), Giza and Marsa Matrouh. The five large

oases and dozens of smaller ones, many of which are deserted, fall under the jurisdiction of these three


Hidden facts
Kharga Oasis, formerly known as Tiba, contains the unique Bagawat necropolis, the remains

of the monastery of Mustafa Kashef –named after al-Kashef, a tax collector who took refuge in the monastery on his flight

from the Ottomans. Ein Saaf Monastery is actually a conglomerate of small monasteries. On the outskirts of Kharga are several

remains of altars, grand fortresses, monks’ cells and the remains of unknown churches dating from the fifth century. Dr Awad

believes that if these remains were excavated thoroughly many new facts would emerge about the history of Christianity and

monasticism in Egypt; the latter is widely held to have been concentrated in Wadi Natroun and Upper Egypt. Of all the oases

in Egypt, Dakhla is the largest. Its capital, Mut, is as ancient as its name suggests. The oasis is dotted with significant

Christian remains: the sensitively-restored Deir al-Hagar (Monastery of the Rocks) has emblems of grape leaves and fish, and

a representation of Jesus Christ. Dakhla’s other village, Qasr, recently revealed Roman foundations.
In ancient times

Farafra Oasis was named Ta-khet (The land of the cow). Its only village surrounds its citadel, Qasr al-Farafra, where several

iron and bronze crosses have been discovered. The ancient road to Farafra is scattered with remains dating back to the Roman

Christian era, especially in the area of Abu Manqar, a modern name which is probably a corruption of St Abu Maqar, one of the

famous desert fathers of Wadi Natroun.

Ancient Church
To the north of the oases of Khargha, Dakhla and Farafra, but

linked to the same underwater channels, is Bahariya Oasis which is administered by the governorate of Giza. Fortunately

historians have left written and illustrated records of St George’s Church, which lies in the neighboring sub-oasis of Haizz,

because the church was recently so ineptly restored that it found itself in danger of total collapse. The Church has two

domes, while the walls are covered with Coptic inscriptions and frescoes. More excavations need to be carried out in this

area, which may have been one of early Christianity’s most important centers and which also contains the archaeological

remains of the Rayiss Monastery discovered in 1938.
Siwa Oasis, famous for its basketwork, weaving and silverwork,

lies close to the Libyan border way to the south-west of Marsa Matrouh. The main oasis is surrounded by several smaller

oases, some with well-peopled villages and some which were inhabited in ancient times but have long been deserted. Apart from

some symbols found in outlying tombs, which suggests they might have been used by anchorite monks, no Christian landmarks

have been discovered in Siwa and it is possible that the only Christians to have lived there were those exiled to this remote


Caravan routes
Faiza Mahmoud Saqr, professor of Ancient Egyptian civilisation at the Faculty of Arts in

Damanhour, outlined the history of the commercial caravans that criss-crossed the Western Desert until the 1970s and forged

the economic ties between the oases and the Nile valley. Atef Naguib, deputy director of the Aswan Museum, added that there

were also strong bonds between the oases and Nubia, as well as mutual cooperation in commerce, art and industry; to say

nothing of the many familial ties created.

Professor Sobhi Abdel-Malak of the Coptic Studies Institute raised the issue of

the spread of Christianity in the oases and in Nubia. This was not mentioned precisely in the Coptic Synaxirium or other

traditional Coptic sources, but clear reference has been made to both in other historical sources.

Christianity bloomed in

the oases when believers sought refuge there from the oppression under Diocletian in the third century. A bishopric was

established in Siwa and another two in the southern oases, one of which survived until the 14th century. After the Persian

invasion in 620 AD, Christians again suffered great oppression, and many took refuge in the oasis. After the Arab invasion in

641 tribes of Arabian origin gradually spread across the desert, and Christianity underwent periods of persecution until it

completely disappeared from the oases. Nowadays the Christian community is served by churches in Kharga, Dakhla and


Hymn to architecture
Sami Sabri Shaker, who describes the cemetery of Bagawat as an “architectural hymn,”

attributes the name to the colloquial Arabic word al-Qabawat (literally; the domes) after the style of the tombs—the letter

“q” in Upper Egypt is usually exchanged for “g” so the name was changed to ++al-Gabawat++, which in turn was gradually

altered to al-Bagawat. The cemetery is located some 2.5 kilometres west of Kharga, the most southerly oasis in

Of the 263 grave sites on the hill of Bagawat, 28 are in ruins. Bagawat was part of the necropolis of Hibis,

the former capital of the oasis. Interest in this area started when the explorer and illustrator F.Caillaud visited it in

1821, after which many explorers started visiting the area, the most famous of which were A.Edmondstone in 1835 and W.de Bock

in 1901. The Egyptologist Ahmed Fakhry made several visits from 1937.
Each site consists of the tomb well, a chamber

usually carved in the rocks under ground level. The well leads to two burial rooms which generally held a number of mummies.

The well is covered by a large, square-shaped rock. Twenty-three sites have now been identified that contain mural paintings

in the fresco style, where the drawing is inscribed on the white layer before it dries. Mohsen Mansour from the Coptic

Studies Institute says this serves to make the colours more durable and fixed. The artists used the natural pigments and

metal oxides available locally, which meant there was not a wide range of colours; these were restricted to red, brown and


Pompeii of the desert
One of the most special sites is the Exodus, which is covered with murals starting with

the Exodus of the Israeli people from Egypt and going on to Noah’s ark; Adam and Eve being expelled from paradise; Daniel

praying in the lion’s den; the three young men in the fiery furnace; the sawing of Isaiah the prophet; the mariners throwing

Jonah from the ship and the whale swallowing him; Eleizer at the well and Rebecca carrying water; the suffering of Job;

Susanna; Jeremaiah praying while gazing at the temple of Jerusalem; Ibrahim, Isaac and Sarah; a shepherd leading his lamb;

the torture of St Takla; the five wise virgins; and two men walking with two camels in a garden.
All the topics of the

paintings, which date back to the first half of the fourth century, are concerned with the concept of redemption and escape

from evil. The site is adorned with paintings of boats on the east and west walls. This idea is originally taken from the

funereal idea in pharaonic times, as they believed that the boat is a way to cross to the other world. Another site is the

Peace tomb, which consists of only one room with one dome and with paintings dating back to the fifth century. The drawings

include a woman holding the symbol of the key of life in her right hand, which means peace. On his visit in 1902 Kaufmann

called it ‘Pompeii of the Desert’.

These sites have suffered utter neglect, and harsh weathering.

This rare heritage that incarnates early Christian funereal art is under threat. The attendants at the conference claimed

that the mummies that remain had not been registered or secured, and were therefore liable to be stolen or trafficked. The

conference came up with several recommendations, including stopping investors from using the quarries at Dakrour and banning

of the use of explosives in mining. The attendees stressed the importance of installing barbed wire around the engravings and

planting trees round the monuments of the Western Desert to protect them from sand.

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