Why Coptic tattoos should be signs of unity in Egypt

It’s early in the morning, the sun is slowly gaining warmth and the scenery of this agricultural region makes a huge contrast to the crowded city I am calling my hometown for a while. The peaceful green lands marked by arbitrarily placed palm trees stretch as far as I can see. I’m in a van heading south to Qufādah, a small village four hours’ drive from Cairo. The reason for making this trip is to visit a Coptic Orthodox priest, Yo’annis. In his village, Muslims and Christians live together in good harmony.

As we enter the courtyard of his church building, I’m greeted by a large printed portrait of the previous Pope Shenouda mounted onto the side of the church building. Kids are kicking a ball on the tiny courtyard. One thing immediately catches my eye: they have some black spots on their arms. From a distance I can’t define what it is. Coming closer I see these kids have real tattoos. And they are not just the small crosses on their wrists either, they’re large ones. They wear images of Christ, various popes and saints as tattoos on their arm. I’m astonished, as I’ve never seen this before. It makes me eager to find out more about it.

Although tattooing has a very long history in Egypt, some mummies dating from 2000 BC had dots and lines tattooed over their bodies, tattooing children emerged in the first centuries after Christ. With Alexandria as a stage for important synods and the Desert Fathers as founders of monasticism, Egypt was a major country for early Christianity. A movement called Montanism, in the late 2nd century used needles to prick infants, which might have been used for tattoos. The Montanists relied heavy on the Bible’s Book of Revelation and its focus on eschatology. Since tattooing was often used for marking slaves, the Montanists tattooed themselves as slaves for God in their times of trouble.

The earliest tattoo evidence takes us back to the 8th century AD. Monks in Egypt used to burn crosses on their hands and forehead. It’s not entirely sure whether this is a tradition coming from the Montanists, some scholars think they learned this from Ethiopian Christians.

In the centuries that followed, when Christians were growing in number yet still had a minor role in Egypt after the Arab ‘opening’ that occurred from 639 to 641 A.D., tattoos became more common among Copts. On this development, the German scholar of Coptic studies Otto Meinardus states: “In times of persecution, the tattoo of the cross has given strength to the faithful and has made it impossible for them to deny their faith.

Scarred society
Diving into the history of these tattoos makes them a powerful sign of an intercultural society that has existed for hundreds and hundreds of years. It shows Christians and Muslims have been living together for ages with Christians making their faith visible through tattoos. This, however, has not always been under the best conditions, and the tattoos are the proof of that. For Copts, their tattoos have not only been used for protection from above, it’s a mark of their identity as minority. The sign of unity among Copts is one of diversity for Egypt. You may even call it a scar in that sense.

Over the past couple of years this scar has proven its actuality by a several violent incidents stirred by these tattoos. A quick online search brings up the murder of a schoolboy who did not want to cover his wrist tattoo in 2011, and according to Bishop Raphael, a woman was killed because of her wrist tattoo this spring. The reporting of such incidents, however, tends to focus on tensions, and rarely on dialogue.

It was back to Qufādah, the peaceful village in Upper Egypt, were I first saw children with these religious tattoos, and where I sat and shared lunch with a Salafi Sheikh and Coptic Orthodox priest — Sheikh Hamdi and Abuna Yo’annis.

Father Yo’annis says in his village there are no problems between Muslims and Christians. As an example of this, he uses local leadership. “Priests, whether Father Mikhail [a brother of Yo’annis] or myself, have good relations with Muslims. Mikhail helps the Muslim poor. We have a clinic here that he supervises. I have a relationship with two prominent Muslims in Qufādah, with Sheikh Hamdī, who was a former People’s Assembly candidate, a Salafī, and Sheikh Hasan, the village Ma’zūn [marriage official]. We three act as one. If there is any problem in the village, we discuss it and solve it together, whether it involves Muslims or Christians.

Even in everyday situations, the people in Qufādah are helpful and stay close to each other, explains Yo’annis. “When a Muslim dies, I go to offer condolences and sit for a while, or I do my duty and take something with me like tea, sugar or coffee; as a nicety. On Christian holidays lots of poor Muslims take blessings from the church. They help us too. Most of the houses around the church on the eastern side are Muslims. They help preserve the church. No one can even spill a glass of water next to the church wall — the Muslims will stop them. When we built the church wall, Muslims were the ones who brought benches and put them on the foundation and slept the whole night guarding the church until the wall was built. So we don’t have a difference — I wish this spirit existed elsewhere. This is what makes Qufādah a lovely village.”

It is striking how Father Yo’annis puts this harmonious living in a bigger picture, knowing this is not just a natural given. “This is an Islamic country, not a Christian or foreign country. So we need to adapt to its climate. We’re not foreigners, we’re Egyptians, so we need to dress in a way that suits Egypt. We as Egyptians need to be careful to adapt to the general environment. It’s an Islamic environment, so we go along with it. And there’s nothing wrong with this.”

It is this deep rooted sense of unity despite religious differences what makes the village of Qufādah truly special.

Thus for me, the tattoos I first saw on the arms of children in Qufādah are a symbol of unity. A symbol of a rooted religion living next to the other in celebrated harmony. May these tattoos one day be a symbol of unity in Egypt, rather than a scar of an uneasy past. And may they be worn by welcoming people on welcoming grounds.

To take the words of Father Yu’annis one step further: I wish this spirit existed everywhere.

Jonathan Vink, currently studies journalism in the Netherlands, and is an intern at the Center for Arab-West Understanding in Cairo.

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