In search of nothingness

In the photo above I have just arrived at the Coptic monastery of Dayr al-Salib (Monastery of the Cross) on the East Bank of the Nile 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 point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth... 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 including the esoteric strand of Islam known as Sufism, and it is from this tradition that Thomas Merton developed his vision of a point of pure truth. In Zen Buddhism the vision is manifested in what Shunryu Suzuki famously described as 'beginner's mind'. 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". My personal search for this elusive point where something approaching pure truth can be glimpsed if only momentarily took me late in 2014 to the Coptic monasteries of Dayr al-Salib (Monastery of the Cross) on the East Bank of the Nile and Dayr Mar Girgis (Monastery of St George) on the West Bank in Upper Egypt, where I took the photos.

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. 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. In an impressive but overlooked exercise in speculative musicology the composer and musicologist Dr. Rafael Pérez Arroyo reimagined Egyptian music from the Old Kingdom (c3000BC) based on studying the iconography and hieroglyphics of the period, instruments of the period conserved in museums and the Coptic litany. One result of this project was the 2001 CD Ancient Egypt: Music in the Age of the Pyramids which used reconstructed period instruments including a seven-string curved harp and with musicians including Jordi Savall' percussionist extraordinaire Pedro Estevan. The sound is impressive with the choral sections recorded in the famous Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos where many great recordings of Gregorian Chant have ben made. Although the CD is deleted it lives on as a download.

Sadly 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 five 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.

My pilgrimage predated the destruction of the Russian Metrojet over the Sinai desert on a flight from Egypt, which made Upper Egypt a virtual no go areas for foreigners. But during my visit Egypt's already beleaguered tourist industry was totally focussed on its pharaonic heritage: if I had wanted to visit the famous temples at Luxor and Karnak, or the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, that was not a problem at all. But engaging with the rich Coptic heritage was really a struggle. 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 me, was unable to offer any advice or information about travelling to the nearby Coptic monasteries. You will search in vain on the internet for any information about the two monasteries that I visited - thankfully this is a TripAdvisor free zone! - and thanks go to the Coptic staff of the Gaddis Bookshop in Luxor for their valuable assistance. When I reached the Coptic monasteries there was 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 photo below. In fact the entrance to Dayr Mar Girgis was protected by an armed soldier when I arrived, and I was the only visitor of any ethnicity at both monasteries.

Coptic churches are celebrated for their art and architecture; below is the interior of the church at Dayr Mar Girgis.

But these are also functional places where believers worship under constant threat of attack and in harsh physical - temperatures stay above 40 degrees celsius in the summer months. 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-Salib.

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.

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 photos above and below taken at Dayr al-Salib 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-Salib.

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 the photo below taken by me the Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech, Morocco 3500 miles to the west.

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 Sidi Ifni on the western margin of Islam in Morocco.

If such le point vierge 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 was photographed from the luxuriant gardens of the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor.

While the photo below shows the entrance of the Coptic monastery of Dayr al-Salib.

My Egyptian search for a point of common truth uncovered some surprising common ground between Coptic Christianity and mystical Islam. Some of this commonality may well be tentative. But at a time of escalating tension between extreme elements in both traditions, any path that leading 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”.

Sources include:
* 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
* Egyptian Mystics: Seekers of the Way by Moustafa Gadalla
* Western Sufism by Mark Sedgwick
* Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
* Who are the Copts? by H.P. Rev. Fr. Shenouda Hanna
* Ancient Egypt: Music in the Age of the Pyramids - CD
* Liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church - CD

This post is a revised version of one first published in December 2014. All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2017. My trip to Egypt was entirely self-funded. 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.


Pliable said…
John, thank you for pointing out my error in the transliteration of Dayr al-Salib which has now been corrected - I have used the monastery's version of the name found in The Churches of Egypt by Gawdat Gabra and Gertrud J.M. van Loon. Apologies for the mistake and for taking a few days to reply and correct.
Regards Bob

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