The American Research Center in Eygpt

CAPACITY BUILDING AT THE RED MONASTERY: A LONG-TERM OUTREACH PROGRAM FOR SAFEGUARDING ITS HISTORIC, SPIRITUAL, ARTISTIC AND ARCHITECTURAL VALUE

CAPACITY BUILDING AT THE RED MONASTERY: A LONG-TERM OUTREACH PROGRAM FOR SAFEGUARDING ITS HISTORIC, SPIRITUAL, ARTISTIC AND ARCHITECTURAL VALUE

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CAPACITY BUILDING AT THE RED MONASTERY: A LONG-TERM OUTREACH PROGRAM FOR SAFEGUARDING ITS HISTORIC, SPIRITUAL, ARTISTIC AND ARCHITECTURAL VALUE

In Egypt, Coptic Christians have a tradition of visiting monasteries and taking the baraka (blessings) of their particular saint(s). In Sohag, Upper Egypt, the White Monastery (Deir al-Anba Shenouda) and the Red Monastery (Deir al-Anba Bigol and al-Anba Bishay) form an important part of the itinerary. The significance of these monasteries lies not only in their spiritual value but also in their historic, artistic and architectural value. ARCE's conservation and restoration efforts at the Red Monastery from 2003 to present have increased the draw of local and foreign visitors who are not religious pilgrims, but are eager to experience the monastery's outstanding paintings and architecture.

While ensuring that protective measures are taken for safeguarding the monastery's historic church, ARCE in collaboration with Abuna (Father) Antonious, head of the Red Monastery, is currently piloting a capacity building course for young community members who are willing to assist the monastery to promote visitation and guide visitors through the historic church.

Abuna Antonious, Michael Jones and Dina Bakhoum with the participants of the capacity building course at the Red Monastery. Photo: Matjaz Kacicnik 

One of these activities is organizing a capacity building course for young community members who have degrees in a heritage related field, or are interested in the subject and willing to assist the monastery in matters related to promoting visitation as well as guiding visitors through the historic church.

In July 2015, the idea was discussed with Abuna Antonious, who was very supportive and who, with the help of a community member, selected a group of young women to participate in the course. The participants ranging in age from 23 to 32 are colleague graduates with degrees in various topics including archaeology, Egyptology and conservation. All of them are employed but only a few found jobs in a heritage-related field. Participants demonstrated an interest in attending the capacity building course in order to improve their knowledge and also assist the monastery. The theoretical lectures took place in the afternoon in a hall at the monastery, which had a data projector; Abuna Antonious provided transportation to and from the monastery for participants from Sohag as well as refreshments and lunches.

A wide variety of heritage-related topics were presented and discussed including the value of heritage, factors affecting heritage and its valuation, the charters guiding conservation principles, documentation and conservation project case studies and World Heritage.

The methodology employed throughout this course aimed to guarantee active engagement by all participants. This was achieved by asking them to perform group exercises in which they discussed and presented a specific topic. Each participant was asked to prepare a PowerPoint presentation of a particular heritage site with personal significance. For some, this was their first time to use PowerPoint to present in front of others and to carry out research on a historic site. The sites presented varied from archaeological sites to religious buildings both Christian and Islamic.

Visit at the White Monastery guided by Michael Jones. Photo: Matjaz Kacicnik

Visits to nearby sites were additionally part of the course methodology. Michael Jones, ARCE Associate Director for Conservation, led a visit to the White Monastery where he demonstrated how to question popular concepts such as the name and architectural development of the church, by “reading” the building and through archaeological and research work.

The historic church of the Red Monastery was the main location for in situ explanations of numerous concepts discussed throughout the course. Moreover, the Italian conservators showed the participants the various stages of their test cleaning campaign on the wall paintings and shared the conservation theories and principles they have followed throughout the years.

In addition, the participants were trained how to conduct a visitors’ satisfaction survey that was carried out to better gauge through personal contact, visitors’ impressions of the conservation and restoration works implemented by ARCE, as well as visitor needs in terms of facilities such as toilets, parking and information panels, etc.

The participants observing the cleaning tests in the nave of the historic church carried out by the Italian conservators. Photo: Dina Bakhoum

Capacity building course sessions are held once every two months and Abuna Antonious often joins in the discussions. Other activities such as training of Ministry of Antiquities inspectors and workshops for tourist guides are also planned. Community outreach is a long-term commitment and the continuous presence and interaction between the course participants, clergy, visitors, worshipers, the Ministry of Antiquities and ARCE’s team members will ensure the conservation of the monastery and the diverse values associated with it.

During one of the course sessions the participants attended a service celebrated by Abuna Antonious in the historic church.  It was an unforgettable moment that captured the expression of the building as an example of living heritage within which aesthetic, historic, architectural, artistic and spiritual values co-exist.

Article written by Dina Bakhoum, Specialist in Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management, who consults with ARCE on numerous historic preservation projects.

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