Wednesday, December 24, 2014
In search of 'le point vierge'
That icon of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus was photographed by me last week at the Coptic monastery of Dayr Mar Girgis in Upper Egypt. The Trappist monk, mystic and author Thomas Merton wrote of le point vierge - the virgin point - and described how there is "at the center of our being a a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God... which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will". Le point vierge is found in different forms in the great wisdom traditions, particularly in Sufism, and it is from this tradition that Thomas Merton developed his vision of a point of pure truth. This vision is also found in popular culture: for instance in John Lennon's Imagine, which - in an unashamed hymn to le point vierge - implores us to "imagine there is no heaven.. no religion... no countries.. no possessions". This search for a point of nothingness can be extended beyond faith traditions to cultural traditions, and in an unstructured way I have in recent years found myself exploring diverse overgrown paths in search of the point where dogma and conditioning disappear and pure truth can be glimpsed. At this central point classical, sacred, world and all music fuse into a single Nada Brahma, and the great wisdom traditions - Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism - coexist without conflict. My search for le point vierge took me in the summer to the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of remote Ladakh, and a few weeks ago, once again accompanied by my infinitely supportive wife, to the Coptic monasteries of Upper Egypt, where all the photos in this post were taken.
The Holy Family spent three-and-a-half years in Egypt after they fled from Herod's mass infanticide. Matthew is the only canonical gospel to mention the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, and much of the acholarship on their journey is based on apocryphal texts.
In 2000 the Coptic Church defined the route that Mary, Joseph and Jesus took during their time in Egypt. The Copts, who are the indigenous Christians of Egypt, believe that they are the direct descendants of the first pharaoh King Narmer, who ruled around the 31st century BCE. The Coptic lineage is remarkably resilient and St Mark, who founded the Coptic church in 42 CE, was the first of an unbroken succession of one hundred and seventeen Coptic popes and patriarchs. Elements of Coptic culture predate Christianity, and the Coptic language, which today survives only in the liturgy of the Coptic Church, evolved out of Ancient Egyptian, and once used the pictorial writing system of hieroglyphics. Coptic theologians have also pointed to parallels between the monotheism of the pharaohs - le point vierge of all the great wisdom traditions - and Christianity, and the Coptic Cross - seen below - is derived from the hieroglyph ankh symbol.
The inherent conservatism of the Coptic Church means that its music tradition has remained virtually unchanged over the centuries and it is generally accepted that the Coptic Church practices not only the oldest form of Christian music, but also the oldest form of any music in the world. It is also thought that Coptic music predates Christianity and has its origins in the Ancient Egyptian religious ceremonies, with the distinguished Egyptologist Étienne Drioton explaining that “the key to the secret of the music of the pharaohs can be found in a good, modern-day rendition of Coptic liturgical music.
There has been a long history of persecution of Coptic Christians, starting with a pogrom by the Roman emperor Diocletian in the third century. In 639 CE the Muslims conquered Egypt, but the transition from a majority Christian to majority Muslim country took another eight hundred years. There are no accurate statistics on the number of Copts in Egypt today, and the alleged manipulation of data by the theoretically secular but actually Muslim biased government has generated considerable controversy. However it is generally accepted that an estimate of eight million Christians (10% of the population) is reasonably accurate. Persecution of Copts became widespread during the reign of the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in the eleventh century and has continued to this day. In July 2013 Salafist mobs killed four Coptic Christians in the area we visited recently.
Monasticism is the most important contribution of the Copts to history. Cenobitic (communal) monasticism originated in Egypt, and Saint Anthony of Egypt (251-356 CE) is known as "the father of the monks". An early monastic rule was developed by Saint Pachom in the third century; this was subsequently translated into Latin and taken by travellers to Europe where the rule was adapted to form the basis of the great Catholic monastic orders including the Benedictine. Today there are twelve inhabited Coptic monasteries in Egypt at which more than six hundred monks lead a cenobitic life.
For our own flight to Egypt we chose to travel by Boeing 767 rather than donkey. During our stay we visited two Coptic monasteries in the Luxor region: Dayr al-Sahib (Monastery of the Cross) on the East Bank of the Nile and Dayr Mar Girgis (Monastery of St George) on the West Bank. Egypt's beleaguered tourist industry is totally focussed on its pharaonic heritage: if you want to visit the famous temples at Luxor and Karnak, or the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, that is not a problem at all. But if you want to sample the rich Coptic heritage, then you are really struggling and on your own. When it comes to the Coptic tradition, collective amnesia afflicts the Muslim population. For instance, the generously staffed Luxor tourist office, which had absolutely no clients other than us, was unable to offer any advice or information about visiting nearby Coptic monasteries. You will search in vain on the internet for any information about the two monasteries that we visited; which meant that, thankfully, we were entering a TripAdvisor-free zone. Tourists have deserted Egypt following the recent political upheavals, and the rare Western visitor to destinations such as Luxor is now seen as fair game for every possible scam and rip-off. So making local travel arrangements was, to say the least, interesting. In fact one opportunist driver - not the one in the photo below - abandoned us at one of the monasteries; fortunately we had not paid him.
When visiting the Coptic monasteries we had the inescapable feeling of stepping into a war zone. Because of the continuing attacks on Copts, their monasteries have become fortified communities with massive gates and protecting walls - see photos above and below. In fact the entrance to Dayr Mar Girgis was protected by an armed soldier when we arrived, and we were the only visitors at both monasteries.
Coptic churches are celebrated for their art and architecture, and examples can be seen in my photos. Below is the interior of the church at Dayr Mar Girgis.
But these are also functional places where believers worship in harsh physical (temperatures stay above 40 degrees celsius in the summer months) and political conditions. So sacred art mixes with defensive walls, air conditioners, and cooling fans. And some of the art is a little less sacred, as can be seen in the photo below advertising the monastic shop at Dayr al-Sahib.
The monastery of Dayr Mar Girgis is just one of four in Egypt that venerate Saint George (Girgis = George). Saint George was a Roman soldier and Christian martyr who never visited England and who has absolutely no connection with the country other than being adopted at its patron saint. In the photo below taken at Dayr Mar Girgis the representation of Saint George could have been taken staight from an English pub sign. Saint George is venerated in many other countries including Romania, Lithuania, Iraq and the Ukraine, and is respected by Muslims as a manifestation of the mystical figure al-Khidr in the Qaran. Which puts UKIP's campaign to make Saint George's Day a national holiday in England into an interesting perspective.
In 431 CE a dispute over the Monophysite doctrine (the belief that the human and divine natures of Christ were fused into a single nature) caused the Coptic Curch and other Oriental Orthodox Churches (Armenian, Syriac, Goan and Eritrean) to split from the established churches of Rome and Constantinople.
Despite this split there are clear visual links between the Coptic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
These can be seen from the accompanying photos taken at Dayr al-Sahib and Dayr Mar Girgis.
In her book Sufism, Mystics and Saints in Modern Egypt Valerie J. Hoffman describes how the liberal Sufi mysticism of Islam has much in common with Christian Coptic spirituality. Examples of this common ground include the mosque built by monks for local Bedouins in the precints of one of the oldest continuously occupied monastery in the world, the Coptic monastery of Saint Catherine's on Mount Sinai. Another example is that the first spiritual master of the celebrated early Sufi saint Ibrahim ibn Adham was a Christian monk called Simeon. The visual common ground between Islamic Sufism and Coptic Christianity can be seen in the following photos. Look at the geometric decoration around the figure of Christ on this gate at Dayr al-Sahib.
Then compare it with this decoration at the shrine of the thirteenth century Sufi saint Sufi Shaykh Yusuf Abu al-Hajjaj in nearby Luxor.
The representation of living beings is, of course, forbidden in Islam. When the figure is removed the commonality between Islam and the Coptic tradition becomes even more striking. The photo below shows a doorway in a recent addition to the monastery at Dayr Mar Girgis.
Compare it with this photo taken by me at the famous Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech, Morocco.
Central to the visual language of both Sufi and Coptic architecture is the dome. The photo below shows the exterior of the church at Dayr Mar Girgis.
Below is the eponymous Sufi shrine in the Moroccan town of Sidi Ifni.
This post describes a search for le point vierge. If such a virgin point exists it must be somewhere close to the heavens, and there is a striking resemblance between the minarets of Islam and the bell towers of the Coptic Church, both of which point towards the heavens. This mosque in Luxor was photographed from the luxuriant gardens of the Winter Palace Hotel.
While the photo below shows the entrance of the Coptic monastery of Dayr al-Sahib.
My continuing search for le point vierge - a point of common truth - uncovered some surprising common ground between the Coptic Christian and mystical Islamic traditions. Some of this commonality may be tentative. But at a time of escalating tension between extreme elements in both traditions, any path that takes us to the point that Thomas Merton described as "inaccessible to... the brutalities of our own will" demands exploration. Because as Hazrat Inayat Khan, who created an ecumenical Sufi order as his contribution to the search for le point vierge' told us: "“If people but knew their own religion, how tolerant they would become, and how free from any grudge against the religion of others”.
* The Churches of Egypt by Gawdat Gabra and Gertrud J.M. van Loon
* Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture by Gawdat Gabra
* Sufism, Mystics and Saints in Modern Egypt by Valerie by J. Hoffman
* Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East edited by James S. Cutsinger
* Who are the Copts? by H.P. Rev. Fr. Shenouda Hanna
All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. Our trip to Egypt was entirely self-funded. My thanks go to the Coptic staff of the Gaddis Bookshop in Luxor for their assistance. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.