The Lonely Desert

coptic desert
“Missionaries and religious travellers to Egypt were baffled by the willing long-term relocation by ascetics to the desert, which they considered dreary and lonely. The desert was a lifeless landscape. The desert was simply not considered acceptable as a place for true Christian living. The locations of monastic sites served only to underscore the greater need for Protestants to resuscitate a dying national church, one that was dark and decaying. Therefore the despair for the Coptic Church would inadvertently cultivate a perception of monasticism and its physical remains as being useless and unworthy of study. To see the mud brick monuments of Egypt’s Christian past, such as the site of Deir el Bala’ziah, standing isolated in the desertscape created despair in the missionary viewer. As possible disseminators of British and American industrialization and imperialist ideology, Anglo American missionaries struggled to assimilate the vastness of the non-agrarian landscape
into their imagined geographies of the Egyptian desert… Such opinions occur within narrations of visits to desert monasteries where missionaries were confronted by the
desert and the existing monastic life at the monasteries in Wadi Natrun and by the Red Sea.”

Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom “The Lonely Desert of the Coptic Church”, “Material Religion. The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief”, Volume 8, Issue 2, pp128-153
coptic desert 2
See also Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom “Treading on Antiquity: Anglo-American Missionaries and the Religious Landscape of Nineteenth-Century Coptic Egypt”
available at http://www.academia.edu/1823051/Treading_on_Antiquity_Anglo-American_Missionaries_and_the_Religious_Landscape_of_Nineteenth-Century_Coptic_Egypt :

“Anglo-American missionaries traveled to Egypt in the nineteenth century in the hopes of revitalizing the Christian minority living under the Ottomans. They quickly realized that the Coptic Church, whose antiquity carried back to the first century, did not welcome or desire assistance from the Protestants. The missionaries were part of a larger colonial movement in the Middle East that drew them into direct contact with a material culture different from their own. The materiality of the Coptic Church, with its icons, Coptic manuscripts, monuments, and valued monastic hierarchy of saints, provided the rhetorical base for missionaries to articulate the deficiencies of the Copts in favor of the enlightened teachings of the Protestants. A complex layer of iconic images of the desolate desert, the lifeless tomb, and fanatics in the monasteries helped substantiate the colonial claim that Coptic Christianity was a ruined monument, akin to the ruined temples of antiquity. Travelogs and narratives of Anglo-American missionaries in Egypt provide a rich selection of evidence to examine the rhetorical strategies employed to legitimize why the Copts should abandon their traditional religion and adopt a new Christian heritage. The most effective image used was the desert as the uninhabited land of the uneducated and illiterate. The desert became an iconographic description to communicate the dire state of the Coptic Church.”

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