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Coptic Christian history lost to thieves in Egypt

Coptic Christian women slowly trudge up many steps to the caves carved into a limestone mountain. Although winded by the steep climb, they stream inside a 4th century cave known as St. Kolta Church and begin to sing.

Coptic Christian history lost to thieves in Egypt
St. Kolta Church was founded in the four century and flourished in the sixth. Experts say this area is a link between ancient Egypt and medieval Egypt and is an important part of early Christian history [Credit: Betsy Heil/Tribune-Review]
Down in the village, a four-sided stone tablet declares in English, Arabic, Coptic and hieroglyphics that the Holy Family stopped here while fleeing from Judea. On the mountain, 6th century icons painted on the church walls portray the birth of Jesus Christ and King Herod killing the children of Bethlehem; writing in five ancient tongues — Arabic, Coptic, Demotic, Greek and Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Christ — covers the walls.

Samah Shehata, who is supervising construction of the Virgin Nunnery at the mountain's base, says Christians come here to pray every 15 days. He calls it “a beautiful thing.”

Lush farm fields circle the stark desert mountain like a green carpet; the only sound comes from an irrigation pump drawing water from the Nile.

Coptic Christian history lost to thieves in Egypt
Ishaq El Bagoushy, a researcher of the early Christian history in this area in Upper Egypt. Paintings from the sixth century adorn the walls. Here the story of the birth of Jesus is shown on the walls. Now this area is threatened by looters [Credit: Betsy Heil/Tribune-Review]
Ancient Egyptians buried their dead in limestone mountain tombs here in Minya province. Ishaq El Bagoushy, 34, a lawyer researching the area's history, says the mountains “were holy places for … the poor and the nobles.”

This is where Christianity mixed with ancient Egypt, he says. Early Coptic Christians came here to pray and “to escape repression and preserve religious texts.”

Christian scribes lived in a cave that became a library, he explains. An escape hatch between its two floors allowed them to flee if attacked; hooks for oil lamps hang from its ceiling.

Coptic Christian history lost to thieves in Egypt
St. Kolta Church up in the mountains in eastern Mallawi in Upper Egypt was built in a cave in the 4th century. Every fifteen days Coptic Christians make a pilgrimage up to the church to pray. Looters are threatening this ancient site [Credit: Betsy Heil/Tribune-Review]
Monks of that era copied religious texts and carved hermit-like fortifications into the rock to protect them, adds Monica Hanna, an Egyptian archaeologist who works tirelessly to preserve Egyptian antiquities.

Now, like so many ancient Christian and Pharaonic sites in Egypt, this one faces a new threat.

Ansana, as this largely unstudied region once was called, is important because it documents centuries of “Christianity in Egypt, as well as the daily life of Egyptians and monks,” Hanna says.

Coptic Christian history lost to thieves in Egypt
Looters are digging in an area where early Coptic Christians built a church and school for monks. The area was famous in ancient times for the monks who used to copy religious texts and cut hermetic formations into the rock walls [Credit: Betsy Heil/Tribune-Review]
The Coptic Orthodox church appeared here in the first century. Today, Copts are 10 percent of Egypt's population of more than 80 million — the Middle East's largest Christian concentration.

They are targets of growing violence, especially since the country's 2011 revolution. Islamists burned nearly 50 churches in August in the aftermath of the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsy.

Looters are the threat to this mountain church and surrounding caves; they scavenge for artifacts to sell to tourists or collectors.

Coptic Christian history lost to thieves in Egypt
St. Kolta Church that was built in the fourth century and flourished in the sixth century. Five ancient languages are found on its walls. Egypt's Coptic Christians climb up to the church every fifteen days. Now this area is threatened by looters [Credit: Betsy Heil/Tribune-Review]
El Bagoushy points to where looters dug into one cave's floor in September. “Here they used dynamite to blow up part of the wall,” he says, gesturing toward a gaping hole. “They think there will be gold inside.”

Scavengers chipped away at an elaborate cross engraved into the rock entrance of another cave, trying to loosen it.

A similar cross, decorated with church bells and eagles, marks a cave where students once studied to become monks. Not far off, three looters brazenly dig, fresh red earth piled around the hole.

Coptic Christian history lost to thieves in Egypt
An old elaborate Christian carving in the mountains near Deir Abu Hanas village. Looters have tried to extract it from the cave walls [Credit: Betsy Heil/Tribune-Review]
“What are you doing here?” El Bagoushy asks one of them. “I am watching. What are you doing here?” the man replies, slipping a handgun into a pocket of his dirty, ankle-length gown.

El Bagoushy says he is a guide and, surprisingly, persuades the looter to pose with him for a photograph. The other men, one carrying a shotgun, quickly scoot away.

El Bagoushy says government and church authorities ignore “all this sneak digging.”

Coptic Christian history lost to thieves in Egypt
Looters are digging up an area that early Coptic Christians used as a Church and school for monks. They were famous for copying religious texts and cut hermetic formations into the rock walls to protect them [Credit: Betsy Heil/Tribune-Review]
Shehata, the building supervisor, says “teams of robbers … come here all the time.”

“We try as much as we can to stop them,” he says, “but, as you can see, they are armed.”

The mesh is ripped from a gate guarding St. Kolta Church; Shehata says authorities have ignored requests for two years to put gates on other caves.

Hanna, the archaeologist, mourns the “huge loss for Christian history” from the thievery.

Coptic Christian history lost to thieves in Egypt
Ishaq El Bagoushy shows the 6th century icons depicting the birth of Jesus, Herod and the children of Bethlehem in the 4th Century Church of St. Kolta in Upper Egypt [Credit: Betsy Heil/Tribune-Review]
This site once attracted monks from Syria and Ethiopia as well as Egypt, she says, and it all “will be gone due to the excessive looting and dynamiting … if the Egyptian government does not take steps to protect it.”

El Bagoushy agrees: “It is not just Christian history, it is Egyptian history. Any trespass on our antiquities or our history is an assault on us all.”

In the distance, a group of men ride motorcycles up the mountainside. “Look, you can see them going back up again, to continue looting,” he says.

Author: Betsy Hiel | Source: Tribune Live [December 24, 2013]

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