Traditions of Men in Coptic Cairo

Approximately 1,970 years ago one of the disciples of Jesus, Mark, travelled to Alexandria, Egypt.  It was in Alexandria that the teachings of “The New Way” were introduced to the people of Africa, thus beginning the continental spread of the Good News about salvation by grace through Jesus, the Messiah.  As you would imagine, this new teaching was in strong opposition to the diverse polytheistic beliefs that had held captive the hearts and minds of the people.  Nevertheless, Mark’s message was as much provocative as it was exciting and it didn’t take long before the people began to abandon their previous beliefs to adopt this New Way which offered them redemption (right-standing) with God in a way that excluded the pride of self-redemption, ceremony, or proxies.  In less than 50 years, this New Way had spread throughout most of Egypt.  Fast-forward 150 years further and you’ll find the beginnings of the traditionalized Coptic Christian orthodoxy.  Aided by the many writings and teachings of Origen Adamantius (considered the father of theology), the Coptic church began to formalize, leading to hierarchy and ceremony.  Origen recognized that the early Christian teaching was simple and devoid of the traditions of men that were prevalent in the pagan religions.  This made it a hard sell to the remaining population that resisted turning away from the splendor of their religions to the simplicity of redemption through belief in Jesus’s sacrifice for them.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

Origen nailed it and his understanding of the “problem” inspired others to the formation of an highly-organized religion which prided itself in formality, awe-inspiring structures, icons and artwork.  This man-made splendor drew people in like never before.  A few hundred years of progression in this idea led to the monastics (monks, etc), asceticism(severe self-discipline), sainthoods, human proxies to God (popes, priests, etc).  This swelling orthodoxy resulted in the construction of some of the earliest physical churches (buildings) ascribed to their religion.  The oldest in Egypt is in Alexandria and is believed to have been built around the year 311.  Cairo wasn’t far behind in constructing its own.  It was here in Cairo that I explored the Coptic Area that contains within its walls some of these ancient churches.  Among them, I visited The Hanging Church (est. 690 AD) and the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George (est. 10th century).

 

The courtyard leading to the entrance of the Hanging Church.

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The entrances to this building.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

When I visit these buildings, I’m always more fascinated by the intricate craftsmanship displayed in even the simplest things, like this door.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

The right-side nave.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

 

Exquisite wood working adorns the many paneled walls inside the building.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

 

I sat along a back wall to observe the circulation of people passing through.  Paintings of religious figures lined the walls and in certain areas an altar was setup for burning candles.  Candles could be purchased if you desired to fire one up.  People would pass by each painting, either kissing it or touching it with their hand as they moved along.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

Through a paneled wall at the front of the building, you could catch a glimpse of the altar room with a cloth screen depicting Mary and Jesus.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

 

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

Another intricately detailed piece of craftsmanship that adorns a paneled wall.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

 

This panel features a form of the Coptic cross.

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On my way out of the Hanging Church, I came across this pleasant scene inside the courtyard.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

 

From there I walked a little ways to the Church of Saint George.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

 

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

This building contained an overwhelming amount of icons, idols, and kissable painted portraits.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

 

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

 

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

Same as the Hanging Church, candles aplenty were for sale inside.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

 

The large, stained-glass windows around the dome provided spectacular shafts of colored light throughout the nave

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

In addition to the standard rows of pews, seating also ran along the circumference of this circular nave.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

I spent over an hour inside the Church of Saint George.  There was not one surface inside it which did not show the handiwork of some fantastic craftsmen or artist.  As it was getting on in the evening, the interior was getting quite warm so I decided to leave.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

A view from the top of the stairs, looking out over Old Cairo.  Through a warm haze, the silhouette of a minaret to a mosque can be seen.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

Random statue.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

The wall surrounding the Coptic Area had some particularly beautiful scenes.  The setting sun glances off the lens to set a warm glow about this decorated portion of it.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

I’m definitely going to print this one for the house.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

 

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

Across the street from this spot is a line of old shops and street cafes.  I walked around inside an antique store for a few minutes and found a few interesting details to photograph.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

 

Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)
Sony A7RmkII w/ Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro (3rd Gen)

While I was touring these shops I met a man who I’ve now spent several evenings with, chatting together for hours with his friends and family who live in the surrounding Old Cairo area.  Last weekend, I was invited by him to attend an Egyptian street wedding – the marriage of his brother’s son.  That was an epic night which resulted in some great photos to share with you.  Stay tuned… these are coming up soon.  Until then, I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and will return soon.

 

 

Sola Scriptura

 

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13 thoughts on “Traditions of Men in Coptic Cairo

  1. Wow. First- great explanation of the Coptic church. Second- what amazing workmanship! The detail and artistry on the building is just incredible! Beautiful images!

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  2. Thank you for sharing a great post!
    I like your theme of Coptic Christians and the things you said about it, and of course your photos too.
    The part that I like about your photos is first the soothing colors and the light, like the one that going through the church window or stained glass. Second, I like the different angles that you use depending on the subject. Third, I can’t explain in words well but your photos here have aesthetic that is very refreshing and facinating.

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  3. Jon,

    Thank you for the kind, encouraging words. I do try to keep things interesting by photographing the less obvious things from a different angle. When visiting places that you know have been captured countless times by other people, I find that makes the difference in achieving my own, personal, satisfaction. Did you read a post from awhile back titled, ‘Musings on The Power Interpretation’? That bit of writing best summarized this recognition of why and how to bother about shooting something/someone/some place that has been over-popularized.

    By the way, I really like your word choice, “Soothing” to describe the images. I’ve failed to ascribe that word before but I think it best describes the look I’m after in most of my images. A combination of lens choice, subject:distance relationship, and, of course, post-processing decisions. I’ve found that after prepping my RAW files, stacking a combination of select 3D LUTs in Photoshop gives me a reliable means to support that look. Perhaps a post is in order to share how I go about doing that. Would you be interested in this?

    Cheers,

    Tom

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  4. Great post as usual Tom. I for one am definitely interested in your post processing routine as I am sure many of your followers would be. On a technical note. I am looking at purchasing the A7II. I currently own the Minolta 35-70 f3.5-4.5 and was wandering what your thoughts are as to its “reliability” with the A7II. I do use it on my A6000 and quite happy with the results.

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  5. Hi Nino,

    I think you’ll thoroughly enjoy the A7II. As I’m sure you’re aware, switching over to full-frame will give you the correct field of view through that 35-70mm lens. Shooting it with a crop sensor A6000, you see an equivalent ~ 52-112mm focal range due to the 1.5X crop factor. You’ll have no compatibility issues with A7II, just expect things to look wider on it. I think you’ll find the full-frame field of view much more suitable as a general purpose walk around lens.
    Have you looked into buying the variant of your lens: Minolta MD Rokkor 35-70mm f/3.5 (with macro setting)? This lens is quite different from the one you’re using and I know you’d be very happy with it. It is my go-to lens for nearly everything I shoot. I’ve found it to be all-around better than the MUCH more expensive e-mount Zeiss 24-70mm f/4. This little Minolta can be had for about $150 in excellent condition with the lens hood. If you’re interested in the lens, let me know and I’d be happy to help you find a good one on eBay.

    Tom

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  6. Tom, thank you for your reply.
    Yes, I’m interested in “stacking a combination of select 3D LUTs in Photoshop.”
    I will read your back article, “Musings on the Power Interpretation.”

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  7. Hello, again, alibey!

    I had a lot of fun digging into the origins of Origen…moowhahaha. For years I had been acquainted with his name but never took the notion to dig much beyond that. Tracing back to the roots of the establishment of the traditions of men, at its intersection with the revelation of the New Covenant, was truly fascinating to me. Not one for icons and said traditions, I still found the exploration of these ancient churches to be fascinating.

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  8. It is fascinating; and more one reads about Origen, the more amazed I get; I will try to find his church or hermitary in Alex, when I go this Fall. cheers and good luck with everything.

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  9. Another interesting fact about Origen: He was absolutely fascinated by the life and preaching of the apostle, Paul. Paul’s ministry began a few years after the Messiah’s resurrection. Prior to his miraculous change (see the book of Acts, Ch. 9) to becoming the minister of salvation to the gentiles, he was an iron fist against it. Paul (called Saul at the time) was a zealous Pharisee who fought tooth and nail against anyone who accepted Jesus (Yahashua) as the Messiah. The arrest and death of many believers were the result of his efforts. Under the authority of the Temple in Jerusalem, Saul would go from town to town seeking out anyone following this New Way and see to it that they were caught and either severely punished or put to death. Coming from such a background to then becoming the voice to the world of the hope of salvation, Origen found Paul a truly exemplary and interesting figure. Origen also spent a great deal of time studying the Greek philosophers of the day and their many teachings. Origen never accepted the simple truth of salvation. When he established his school in Alexandria, he taught his students his version of things which was a blend of Greek philosophy and the teachings of Paul. In other words, he created his own religion (traditions of men) in order that it suit his own ideas. Anytime man tries to “improve” on the simplicity of salvation, we get nothing but trouble. The power of human pride leads to self-worship, tyranny, and, ultimately, self-destruction. Origen’s good intention to assist the Truth to spread really only taught the world a version (his version) that is rife with error through the propagation of vain efforts to be made right with God through self-redemptive acts – which is impossible. A brilliant man he was but, like all men, pride precedes the fall. The ironic thing is that the very man, Paul, who Origen so intently studied, said in his one of his many letters (Romans 1:22), “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools”.

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  10. this is fascinating. but i say this for selfish reasons. i started writing a novella this past winter about a young egyptian from the delta, whose uncle was a lapsed anchorite, and once a follower of John Cassian. However, when I read Cassian’s works, I was totally unispired. So insteaded of propelling the narrative, this project stalled at 42 pages. This incredible discovery of Origen, via your blog, is breathing much needed new creative into my novella, as I see better opportunities here, that were not working with Cassian. In partiuclar, I think that instread of .leaving a invented village in the Delta, as happens in my novella, and going to Marseilles, I think having the uncle travel instead to the Alexandria of the 1950s (which is when part of the novella transpires) to perhaps some obscure Coptic sect that follows the teachings of Origen, perhaps doing so in the underground catacombs. This possiblity has breathed new life into my project, enabling me to discard the encumbering French aspect of the story, and keeping it entirely in Egypt, which is infinitely more desirable. It also works well with the last and most important third version of the novella, as I now envision it, where the characters, both the aging uncle, and his younger, dissipated nephew, travel together to some version of Elba nation park, past Marsa Alam. This is part of the reason why I am travelling to Gouna in September (I am currently in Fla): to get a first hand feel for the dysptopian Red Sea deep south and the mist shrouded, mystical Gebel Elba. There is much to thank you for, in terms of the unexpeced influence of WP photography blog on a deeply spiritual narrative. If you wish to discuss further, please leave me your email via my contact page (no else can see, it just goesd to some anynomous pidmail acct, which I can then reply to via my real email account), and we can discuss this matter in some more depth more privately and more extensively via emails. Who knows, we may even meet one day, when I go to Cairo in mid September to pay my respects to what is left of my family. salamaat.

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  11. I too would be most interested in your processing methods Tom. These images are amazing. My new (to me) Minolta MD 35-70 f3.5 macro is coming from Japan so it will take a while to get here. We are visiting Havana in October and I want to practice with it and the new RII (ordered today!) for a few weeks before we go.

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  12. Cuba, how exciting! That sounds like an excellent place to break-in a new camera and lens. You will not be disappointed with the image quality from either. Do let me know how that trip goes and how you got on with the new equipment.

    Cheers,

    Tom

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