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Call the Copts

The artistic and religious treasures of the Copts, Egypt’s native Christian population, will now “get the home they deserve,” according to Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly On-Line. The Coptic Museum, which houses some of the masterworks of Christian antiquity, is once again open to the public.

After a three-year restoration project the Coptic Museum was officially reopened by President Hosni Mubarak on Monday… The museum’s displays have been reordered, and are now arranged according to provenance, chronologically ordered or grouped according to material.

Among the most impressive of the exhibits are the frescoes from the Monastery of Bawait, showing Christ enthroned in the upper part, supported by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, and in the lower section the Virgin and Child flanked by apostles and two local saints. Alongside the frescoes the gallery exhibits objects carved with biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments, including Abraham and Isaac with the sacrificial lamb and three men in a fiery furnace with a fourth, probably a saint….

Metal and glass liturgical vessels, incense burners and gospel caskets, pottery, metalwork and glass lamps dating from the sixth century are also on show.

Perhaps the most prized exhibit, though, is a copy of The Psalms of David, given a gallery to itself. Philip Halim, director general of the Coptic Museum, told the Weekly that the copy is the only complete version of the psalms ever found. It includes 151 psalms written by David, and the psalms of other Old Testament Prophets, including Solomon and Essaf. Written in Coptic, on very fine vellum, the copy dates back to the fifth century and was found in 1987, buried in sand beneath the head of a child mummy in a tomb in the upper Egyptian city of Beni Sueif.

Along with the psalms is an ankh-shaped piece of ivory which was used as a book marker.

While you’re in a Coptic state of mind, look up “Treasures Pulled from a Briny Tomb,” published in the Washington Times earlier this week. Suzanne Fields reports on the artifacts pulled from Alexandria’s harbor and now on exhibit in Berlin, Germany.

Spectacular artifacts from two lost cities of ancient Egypt, rescued from the sea after more than 1,300 years, have taken the breath away from more than 1 million visitors to the Martin-Gropius Building in Berlin. They have even ignited religious debate — nonviolent so far — in Egypt.

French archaeological adventurer Franck Goddio and his team of divers, armed with robotic equipment, swim masks and flippers, pulled the treasures from the depths at the ancient Egyptian harbor of Alexandria and the two lost neighboring cities of Herakleion and Canopus in 1999 and 2000…

[S]ome Egyptians are not happy about it. Sheik Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, saying statuary in the human form is forbidden in Egyptian homes. He didn’t specifically include museums in the fatwa, but cited an Islamic text that “sculptors would be tormented most on Judgment Day.”

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Those Well-Dressed Corpses in Rome

Those of you who are waiting breathlessly for more small details on the recent catacomb discovery in Rome should visit PhDiva — Dorothy King’s Archaeology Blog. Dr. King translates the most recent coverage from the Italian press. It seems that the piles of well-dressed corpses died in an epidemic rather than a persecution, as was first hypothesized. Dr. King says that the newly found corridors are filled with graffiti, which will be published in time. That’s very cool. We have lots to look forward to.

PhDiva also puts us onto Constantine the Great, described as “a major international exhibition” at the Yorkshire Museum in England, running till October 29. The museum’s site gives details.

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Ancient Manuscripts Found

Here’s good news on the feast of a great Egyptian saint.

Egyptology Blog alerts us to the recent discovery of a cache of seventh- or eighth-century Coptic manuscripts in Egypt. Since these texts didn’t rehabilitate traitors — or portray the Messiah as an itinerant organ grinder who was married to the Venus de Milo — they were ignored by the media. Instead of novelties, these books just repeated, like most ancient Christian manuscripts, the same old (sigh) orthodoxy.

Those of you who are interested in such things may read on.

A team of Polish researchers found the leather-bound papyrus books in the trash heap of an ancient monastery in the village of Gourna near Luxor. The manuscripts contain the oldest known complete Coptic translation of the biblical Book of Isaiah. Other texts in the collection are the “Code of Pseudo-Basili,” a collection of rules governing Church discipline; a life of St. Pistentios the bishop; and the apocryphal “Passion of St. Peter.”

The archeological team has posted a news release in English.

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Underground Movement

I suspect some of you have, like this blogger, been waiting to hear more on the recently discovered catacombs in Rome. Well, a few more details are now available at The Scotsman. The Scotsman’s post includes a lively debate, in the comments field, on whether Christianity had even spread to Rome by the end of the first century, which soon becomes a debate on the nature of Christianity. Hope you’ll weigh in on the side of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Hat tip: Those rogues at Rogue Classicism.

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More on the Newest Oldest Crucifix

A couple of weeks back I reported the discovery of Christian remains, including the earliest known image of a crucifix, in the Basque Country of Spain. Aliens in This World — a blog of sparkling reportage on linguistic, cultural, and spiritual themes — has translated much of the fascinating European news coverage into English. The Vatican sent its archeologists to check the place out. And German and French labs have confirmed the early dating of objects found at the site. There’s lots more, too, on a brilliant and very entertaining blog you should get to know.

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Underwater Byzness

According to the AP, Turkish archeologists confirmed yesterday the discovery of a submarine Byzantine site, including maybe a fourth-century church:

So far, archaeologists have found what they think might be a church, an old gate to the city and eight sunken ships, which archaeologist Cemal Pulak says he believes were all wiped out by a giant storm more than 1,000 years ago.

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Pictures at a Crucifixion

Yesterday I blogged on the exciting archeological discovery in the Basque Country. Among the finds was the a third-century rendering of Calvary — the earliest ever found. The crucifixion scene is primitive in technique, but rich in details from the canonical gospels. (Nothing from the Gospel of Judas, though. Was there perhaps … a coverup? Dan Brown, call your agent!) Some folks said they want to see pictures. Others let us know where to find pictures.

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Did the Fathers Use Mac or PC?

Rod Bennett reports the archeological discovery of a patristic-era computer. (I’m not making this up.) The big question is, of course, which operating system the Fathers would use. It’s a question ripe with theological implication, as Umberto Eco pointed out in his 1994 essay “The Holy War: Mac vs. DOS.” Eco echoes my allegiances exactly. Rod’s reporting is delightful as always.

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Archeological Discovery — Basque in This — “Important as Pompeii”

Talk about paydirt. Archeologists in the Basque Country announced this week that they have have discovered 270 third-century Roman inscriptions, many of them Christian in character. This epigraphic set is “among the most important of the Roman world” and includes an image of Calvary — “the most ancient known up to this moment.”

The site seems to represent a transitional phase, when Christianity was emerging in a pagan religious landscape that included cults of Egyptian deities as well as the more familiar local gods.

The managers of the archaeological site, located near the Alavan town of Nanclares de Oca, have officially unveiled these findings, identified and analysed last summer.

The tools with the inscriptions and drawings, most of them ceramics, were found in a room of the “Domus de pompeia valentina,” one of the urban residences of the old city of Veleia, built up in the last quarter of the first century and inhabited until the fifth century.

A 57-square metre room was found in that town, sealed as in a “time capsule with its contents untouched,” and inside there were feeding remains and fragments of different recipients and other tools that had been used for writing …

In the findings, the “early and extraordinary testimonies of Christianisation” stand out. For instance, the presentation of a Calvary, “the most ancient known up to this moment,” a small piece “between eight and ten square centimetres.”

Archaeologists also highlighted that “this is one of the most important epigraphic sets in the Roman world,” as important as those in Pompeii, Rome or Vindolanda (northern England).

The rest of the story’s here.

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Unconditional Saranda

Rabbinic Judaism and orthodox Christianity emerged from the same culture, and for a few centuries their houses of worship were strikingly similar in design and decoration. The iconography was mostly symbolic, though with occasional narrative scenes. Jews and Christians even tended to favor the same symbols (fish, peacock, dove) and the same biblical narratives (Abraham and Isaac, Noah and the Ark). The two groups often lived in close proximity, and influence ran both ways across the street. It’s only in later centuries that synagogues tended to be strictly and almost universally aniconic (forbidding images).

With all that in mind, you might want to visit this excavation of a synagogue in Albania, from the pages of Archaeology magazine:

Colorful mosaic pavements and the fifth- or sixth-century A.D. synagogue that housed them were unearthed in the Albanian coastal town of Saranda, opposite the Greek island of Corfu. It is the first time such remains have been found from this region and time period.

Albanian archaeologists first discovered remnants of a house of worship 20 years ago during an initial excavation of the site, when Communist prohibition of religion made a more thorough survey difficult. Because the structure had undergone multiple uses throughout the centuries–most recently as a Christian church–the synagogue remained well hidden for years. When further excavations uncovered evidence of the structure’s Jewish past, the Archaeology Institute of the Albanian Academy of Sciences teamed up in 2003 with archaeologists from the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology for a joint excavation.

The first mosaic pavement depicts items associated with Jewish holidays: a menorah, a citron tree, and a ram’s horn. The other, located in the basilica of the synagogue, includes trees, animals, and the facade of a structure that may be a Torah shrine. Future excavations will venture beneath adjacent streets and buildings, where parts of the synagogue remain.

You’ll find a lovely (copyrighted) selection of photos from Saranda here, with close-ups of some of the mosaics.

For more on Jewish-Christian mutual influence in antiquity, see Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.

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Submarine Prophecies

Since posting the story about Alexandria’s underwater ruins this morning, I’ve been haunted by these lines from Der Spiegel: “These are all relics of a city full of deep contradictions. Alexandria produced some of the most advanced technology of its day … But as advanced as it was in some respects, life in this ancient city, spoiled and given to the pleasures of the flesh, lacked inner strength.”

Is there a city in Europe or North America that can escape this judgment?

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Up from Alexandria

Until recently, much of the glory that had been Alexandria lay deep beneath coffee-colored seawater off the Egyptian coast. Once the intellectual capital of the world — and one of the most powerful and influential patriarchates in the Church — Alexandria produced giants of Christian thought: Pantaenus, Clement, Origen, Alexander, Athanasius, Cyril. Eroding banks, rising seas, and seismic activity left some of its Christian locales invisible beneath the sea — till recent exploration by archeological teams whose equipment could see through coffee. Since so little of ancient Alexandria remains above ground and water, these explorers have given us an extremely rare and precious glimpse of the lives and setting of some of our favorite Fathers.

Many of the artifacts are now temporarily on display in Germany, and were covered by Der Spiegel:

Goddio’s divers recovered most of their finds in Herakleion, a nearby temple city, where they also found Christian artifacts. Alexandria, of all places, was also the birthplace of a new morality. By as early as the Third Century A.D., Herakleion was home to monks living on monastery-like estates. Goddio found 1,500-year-old crosses on the ocean floor, some made of gold, others of lead. The foundation of a church his team excavated in Herakleion is one of the world’s earliest.

These are all relics of a city full of deep contradictions. Alexandria produced some of the most advanced technology of its day. Horizontal looms — a hint of industrial production — rattled away in its factories. But as advanced as it was in some respects, life in this ancient city, spoiled and given to the pleasures of the flesh, lacked inner strength.

But most of all Alexandria was the kind of place New York is today — the center of a globalized world.

Read the rest.

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Ghost Towns of the Wild East

Some years back, I read William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, the moving account of his travels among the vanishing Christian peoples of the Middle East. I was struck by his description of Syria’s Byzantine “ghost towns,” where flocks of sheep today take shelter in fifth-century churches — churches where, perhaps, one or more of the Fathers preached and prayed. The homes were so well preserved that olive presses still stood intact in the doorways. I’m just now learning that there are many such abandoned villages.

Dotting the barren limestone hills of north-central Syria, between Antioch and Aleppo, are the well-preserved remains of some 700 villages that flourished under the Christian Roman empire of the fourth century and later. Set two to three miles apart, with their elegant churches and clusters of gray stone buildings, many of them look as if they had been abandoned yesterday … About 550 [A.D. came] a series of known disasters: Sassanian invasions, epidemics of bubonic plague, drought, and famine. From the mid-seventh century onward living conditions deteriorated. Nonetheless the region remained occupied through the eighth century, after which it was gradually abandoned.

See the rest of the story, and a photo, at Archaeology magazine.

Dalrymple’s book is not perfect, but it’s well worth your time.