Toward the Documentation of the Monastery of the Holy Virgin at al-Muharraq, Asyut
The site of Dayr al-Muharraq is located at the foot of the mountains of Qusqam (Coptic Syowt and present day al-Qusiya), GPS location Latitude 27.38491 Longitude 30.77989. Nothing is known for certain about the date of the foundation of this monastery (Coquin and Martin 199Id: 841). According to tradition, found in a sermon attributed to Pope Theophilus of Alexandria, the Holy Family stayed at this site for a period of six months, and Jesus returned here after the resurrection to consecrate the altar mentioned in .
The site encompasses a number of unique and important architectural elements, including a marbled-top stone altar, and a unique collection of beautifully illustrated icons. It is therefore vital that these important examples of art and architecture, representing the Coptic tradition, be collated and recorded for the heritage of the Coptic culture. In addition, by standardizing the documentation record, a similar system may be employed at many other early Christian sites in Egypt toward a universal catalog, which in turn may be maintained and referenced for the legacy of the Coptic people.
Method of Documentation
In January 2011, a short while after the tragic church bombing in Alexandria and only a week prior to the Egyptian revolution, an important presentation was given at the Patriarchate in Cairo (Middleton-Jones 2011). Its premise was to offer a system of documentation whereby a national ‘register’ could be developed for the churches and monasteries of Egypt. The register would maintain the full records of all associated architectural elements, artwork, and important archaeological finds.
Unfortunately, due to the political upheaval and unrest since 2011, energies have been concentrated on other more important matters, and thus the formulation of such a register was never further discussed or implemented. The development of such a register would provide the foundations and impetus for the cultural growth of the Coptic heritage, while simultaneously promoting public awareness of these important early Christian sites and monuments.
By developing and maintaining such records, especially those of a photographic nature, the register documentation would provide an important tool in aiding the conservators toward a correct and individual approach to the conservation of each site. A register would also be beneficial in maintaining an archaeological record, especially in connection to any ‘at risk’ sites, thus providing vital documentation toward future management programs, including applications for conservation funding.
This register would differ slightly from that of the Coptic Monasteries Multi-Media Database (Middleton-Jones 2010) in that the documentation would be more of an ‘in-house’ record that would be individually suited for each unique Coptic site and recorded on site.
Dayr al-Muharraq Documentation
Throughout the monastery there are many diverse and important examples of unique Coptic art and architectural elements; thus it is vital to develop a standardized system whereby these elements and objects may be recorded for posterity. Much work has already been carried out by Fr. Athanasios al-Muharraqi and the brothers at the monastery, especially in the recording of the history of the site and the cataloging of the beautiful icons (Dayr al- Muharraq 2012).
The incorporation of such a register, utilizing a standard recording technique (Middleton-Jones 1997) for this and other sites, would provide an important documentation package for the continued preservation of the monastery. In addition, with the increasing use of the many available photographic packages incorporating digitally enhanced software, high-resolution images of objects may be reproduced.
The resulting images would be of great advantage especially in deciphering inscriptions and analyzing artwork. The high-resolution process would offer clarity toward recognizing the origins of texts and illustrations that have a technique that would prove invaluable in studying icon images. A similar photographic survey was utilized at the site of the church remains at Qubbat al-Hawa, Aswan (Middleton-Jones and Dekker 2010) (fig. 25.1).
The important apse and wall illustrations along with the associated inscriptions are rapidly eroding at this site, and without any recording or documentation, the site may be lost forever. While using this technique of high-resolution image photography, a new discovery of a hitherto unknown wall illustration was revealed, that of a painting of an outline of a priest (fig. 25.2). This proved to be an effective demonstration of what may be discovered during a survey and the post-editing of high-resolution site images.
In order to carry out such a photographic recording program, the minimum equipment required would be a standard SLR (single-lens reflex) camera such as a Canon 550D, a sturdy tripod, and post-editing software such as Photoshop (minimum CS5). The actual photographing of any object or site, in general, should be carried out with the ‘RAW’ option available with the camera, and it may be also advantageous to combine the RAW with the JPEG (.jpg) setting. Utilizing this combination would make it easier when selecting the images on the computer prior to post-editing.
This is due to the fact that RAW files only show up as a file, not as an image, while JPEG images show the actual image.
This way the viewer is able to quickly select the required image by opening the adjacent corresponding RAW file in the post-editing suite.
The advantage of shooting in RAW is that the intention of the process is to capture as closely as possible the characteristics of the image or scene. Because RAW file images contain unprocessed qualities they are much larger files than normal JPEG files. Often RAW files are 28—30 megabytes in size compared to the smaller 3—5 megabyte JPEG files. Therefore, a reasonably sized memory card must be used in the camera, such as a 16-gigabyte card, to hold the larger files. Thus, selecting the RAW files and opening in Photoshop, for example, and ultimately converting to .jpg will offer a detailed image with greater clarity, providing more options for future publications and use in advanced digital programs.
Utilizing the above method would be extremely advantageous when documenting icon images, for example, where the high-resolution images may be edited and enhanced to allow detailed study. This would be especially true when looking for faded inscriptions, or even where the artist or writer has overlaid a second text.
Method of Recording and Documentation
Prior to any recording or documentation, a ‘standard’ recording document, or ‘caption’ or ‘style’ sheet, should be developed (Middleton-Jones 2010). Utilizing such a template would ensure the uniformity of documentation for a diverse array of objects and sites, but also allow the option of customization to each individual unique site. An example of a blank ‘caption sheet’ and a completed one are provided below.
- Inventory number (a reference unique to that site or object)
- Date recorded (the date when the object was documented or photographed) Category (architectural element/painting/icon/carving/textile) Material (stone/wood/textile)
- Period (date of manufacture or origin)
- Measurements (in centimeters and millimeters)
- State of preservation (complete/fragment/condition)
- Location of object (current location of object)
- Description (free textual description, history and original location when found, and description of individuals in the scene)
- Artist or author (if known)
- Images (photographs/drawings of object)
- Bibliography (references)
- Archaeological records (past or current excavations)
- Restoration (description of any past or current conservation work)
Comments (additional information that may be of interest relating to the object) Keywords (separated by commas, such as artist, icon, image, stone, sculpture, wood, period, etc.—any information that would assist in retrieving the documentation if maintained in electronic form)
Documenter signature (name of person who recorded the information)
Example of Completed Caption Sheet
Inventory number: MUR/005
Date recorded: 25 November 2013
Category: icon painting
Period: 19th century
Measurements: 98.5 cm x 77 cm
State of preservation: complete, in good condition
Location of object: Church of the Holy Virgin, mounted on the southern wall of the first section
Description: an icon of Queen St. Mary the Virgin Artist or author: Anastasy al-Romy Images: al-Muharraq image library
Bibliography: Dayr al-Muharraq. 2012. The Monastery of the Holy Virgin, al-
Muharraq. Asyut: Dayr al-Muharraq. Archaeological records: N/A Restoration: none recorded Comments: The publication Dayr al-Muharraq 2012, produced by the brothers especially for the sixth International Symposium of Christianity and Monasticism at the Monastery of al-Muharraq, contains information on this and other icons in addition to other important architectural elements of the monastery.
Keywords: icon, painting, wood, Virgin, Mary, Church, southern, wall, Anastasy, al-Romy, Asyut, Jesus, al-Muharraq
Documenter signature: xxxxxxxxxx
As can be observed with the above example of completed documentation, it is important to enter the maximum amount of data possible, especially when formatting the information for wall illustrations and icons. Including such information would prove highly advantageous for any restoration program by providing the restorer with the necessary detailed information on the artwork to be restored. In this way, the optimum planning and method of restoration can be carried out with the minimum of alteration or damage to the original artwork.
An additional advantage of this type of standardized recording is that related objects, not only from the same site but also from other sites, may be discovered by cross-matching keywords and descriptions. This, in turn, may assist in completing a jigsaw or mosaic of the overall and larger picture of the Coptic past.
The Coptic Church was and is the backbone of Christianity in Egypt, a central hub from which the growth of not only the spiritual, but also the cultural, Coptic identity permeates throughout Egypt and beyond. It is vital that the cultural heritage of the Coptic period be maintained and enhanced by documenting these unique and important artifacts belonging to the early Christian sites. This would not only maintain the communal and religious identification of the Coptic people but enhance general awareness in the public domain of this unique heritage.
There are also many advantages in documenting records on a more local level, such as assisting in the daily administration of a site, maintaining a ‘watching brief’ (care and upkeep of the buildings and associated architectural elements), reporting any site erosion or damage, and recording visitor numbers to the site. More importantly, by maintaining a record, site security may be improved, so that the future of the site can be protected by implementing methods to safeguard it, especially in the more isolated locations.
This type of documentary record, in conjunction with a site register, would provide the resources and information for a cultural heritage program in education, conservation, and preservation. Ultimately, a correctly maintained record would be of the utmost importance for any future management plan of the site, and would assist applications for funding and aid for the many unique, but often overlooked, early Christian sites.
I would like to thank Fr. Athanasios al-Muharraqi and his brothers at the monastery of al-Muharraq for kindly providing and allowing the use of the icon images presented in this chapter.