ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Coptic Villagers of the Upper Nile — Islands of Christianity

In the land of the Holy Family, despite isolation and poverty, Coptic Christians in rural Egypt maintain an unwavering faith.

In the ancient Nile Valley, the past flows imperceptibly into the present, particularly for the Coptic fellahin, “the people who work the land.” These contemporary Christian peasants toil under the empty blue sky of Egypt using pharaonic-age methods, including handoperated well sweeps and single-bladed plows pulled by oxen.

Although the Coptic Church officially dates from St. Mark’s visit to Egypt in the middle of the first century, in the popular imagination Egypt’s Christianity begins with the visit of the Holy Family. In the Coptic elaboration of Matthew’s gospel story, Joseph and Mary brought the infant Jesus from what is now Ismailia in the north through the Delta to Cairo, and then up the Nile Valley to Asyut before returning to Palestine after Herod’s death.

Coptic Christians can trace their ancient peasant heritage back farther than the predominant Muslim population. In fact, the word Egyptian, from the Greek Aigyptios, derives from the Arabic word for Christian, Gibt. Copt, in turn, comes from this word. Egypt’s six million Copts, out of a total population of 47 million, generally consider themselves to be the true direct descendents of the pharaonicage people. Muslims trace their ancestry back to the Islamic conquest of 640. Before then Egypt was a Christian country centered around Alexandria’s patriarchate. Even today the Copts form the largest Christian group in any Muslim country.

Isolation has kept rural Copts unchanged for centuries. For the past 1300 years they have had almost no contact with Christians of the West. They rarely travel abroad for business or education, preferring to cling to their land. They live in remote hamlets along the 700-mile stretch of the Egyptian Nile from Alexandria to Aswan, like Christian islands in a Muslim sea.

If the Holy Family traveled as far as Asyut, they probably would have encountered fellahin like those surviving further upriver in Ezbat Basili, a Christian hamlet on the Nile’s west bank opposite Luxor. Here, in the plain of ancient Thebes, where monuments to the pharaohs draw hordes of western tourists, 400 Christians live among 12,000 Muslims within the larger village of Bairat.

Ezbat Basili is one of Bairat’s poorest hamlets, perched at the very edge of the desert, far from the more fertile riparian land. The shabby mud-brick Christian houses are distinguished by crosses over the doorways. Signs of prestige, such as televisions, washing machines, and ceiling fans, are more commonly found in the Muslim homes.

Some 220 yards to the west of the hamlet in the desert sits the focus of Ezbat Basili’s Christian community. The Deir Shahid Tadros al Mahareb, “Monastery of St. Theodore the Warrior,” consists of a multi-domed church and several outbuildings enclosed by a wall. Local tradition holds that the church dates from 785. Indeed, some stone columns inside the church are embossed with Greek crosses in the Byzantine style and may be of great antiquity, but the structure itself appears to have been rebuilt many times.

Having such an important Christian institution is Ezbat Basili’s only relief from isolation. Local Copts contribute food and voluntary labor to support the deir. Then, every January 20 a major festival is held there in honor of its patron, who was martyred during a great persecution initiated by the Roman emperor Diocletian in 303. The festival attracts hundreds of people from the Upper Nile region.

The hamlet owes its existence to the deir. During the latter part of the 19th century, most of Bairat’s Christians lived in the hamlet of El Kom. Sheikh Balad Basili, then chief of the ghafirs (rural police), decided to move his home nearer the deir. As a man of prestige in the village, he attracted other Christian families from El Kom to settle near him. The new hamlet was named Ezbat, “place of,” Basili in his honor.

Sheikh Basili’s son Mata went into the priesthood and became a figure of great importance to Christians in the Luxor area. When Father Mata died in the late 1970s, he was buried at the deir in a tomb whose dome is higher than that of the church itself. Almost every Copt in the Upper Nile region knows Father Mata is buried here. The tomb is now a pilgrimage site for local Copts, who leave animal sacrifices at its entrance and write on the white-washed walls imploring the dead priest’s intercession for solving their problems. When Father Mata was active in his ministry, another Ezbat Basili family produced a prominent priest, Father Tadros, of whom the villagers still tell miracle stories.

Now these priests are gone, and Ezbat Basili no longer attracts the stream of important visitors who visited them. Only poor farmers live there, on the edge of the desert. The hamlet is quiet at night, except for cool desert breezes rustling the date palm fronds and for the desultory barking of dogs.

As they live their hard lot as fellahin, the Christians of Ezbat Basili tap the strength of their deep faith. It is not unusual to see families of villagers traveling along the desert road to celebrate feast days at shrines such as the Monastery of St. Mary at Armant. They bring their high spirits as they clap joyfully and sing the praises of Mary: “You are a good mother, Mary. You can help us when we have problems. Lovely Mary, when we have problems, we come to you and your Son.”

To see them on their small pilgrimage is like seeing the Holy Family travel that same landscape during an earlier sojourn. At the monastery the Coptic worshippers’ communion reaffirms their long-lived Christian tradition.

Kenneth Cline is a writer who has traveled extensively throughout the Near East.

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