Gawdat Gabra,
Coptic Monasteries:
Egypt's Monastic Art
& Architecture

(American University
in Cairo Press, 2003)

Christian monasticism started in Egypt with St. Antony and St. Pachomius. In the early days of monasticism in Egypt there were numerous monasteries with many monks and nuns. Some communities became very large. Some were cities unto themselves.

Gawdat Gabra provides an interesting look at the monasteries that have survived. Most of them today have Coptic Christian monks and nuns living in them while others are almost museums. He starts the book with an introduction to Coptic monasticism and provides a chronology of Christianity in Egypt. Next, Tim Vivian provides a historical overview of Christianity in Egypt.

The Christians in Egypt over history have been reduced in number by the invasion of the Arab Muslims and then by persecutions by the Muslims. Many Christians were forced to convert, pay higher taxes or even die. Most Christians in Egypt are Coptic, descended from the original Egyptians of the pharaohs. They are not Arabs. The Copts have been able to survive in Egypt during hard times. Even today they are treated as second-class citizens in Egypt. Their leader, Pope Shenouda III, has been jailed at least once.

After the historical overview, Gabra discusses the artistic and architectural aspects of various monasteries in Egypt. Many of them are centuries old. The artwork in the churches could be considered national treasures and many are being preserved for future generations. Some of the art is still being re-discovered. Gabra provides floor plans for the monasteries and illustrations of the art and the architecture. Some of these could be considered the birthplaces of Christian monasticism.

The book is easy and fascinating to read, and the illustrations and maps are good. The author is Coptic and writes from that point of view. He was director of the Coptic Museum in Cairo and has written other books. He discusses a few of the religious problems that have developed in the Church in Egypt, but he does not criticize or condemn, since that is not his purpose in this book. Tim Vivian is an Episcopalian priest who specializes in Christian monasticism.

Gabra has preserved descriptions and illustrations of many monasteries in Egypt. His bibliography will also help those studying Egyptian or Coptic monasticism. This book belongs in any collection of books on monastic history or collections on the Coptic Church.

- Rambles
written by Benet Exton
published 4 June 2005

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