The American Research Center in Eygpt

Preserving and Developing Living Religious Heritage: The Case of The Church of Saint Bishai and Saint Bigol

Preserving and Developing Living Religious Heritage: The Case of The Church of Saint Bishai and Saint Bigol

Preserving and Developing Living Religious Heritage: The Case of The Church of Saint Bishai and Saint Bigol
December 6 - 7 2012, an international

Mr. Ali Zaghloul (c. left) SCA Director of West Sohag, Mr. Saad Mohamed Osman (c. right) SCA General Director, Sohag, Father Maximous (c.) and El Sayed Mohamed Mahmoud (c. right) sit in the ancient nave. Addressing the dilemma of how to accommodate the needs of a diverse public including the Coptic faithful, the monastic community, scholars and domestic and international tourists dominated the round table discussions.

group of invited architects, archaeologists, conservators, art historians, cultural heritage management specialists and antiquities officials, together with USAID representatives and clergy of the Coptic Church, met at the Red Monastery in Sohag, Upper Egypt.

The meeting was convened to discuss the thorny issues relating to the preservation, conservation and management of living religious heritage, in this case specifically the Church of Saint Bishai and Saint Bigol known as the ‘Red Monastery’. Diverse points of view were shared and more questions were raised than answered, but the topics addressed through academic presentations and subsequent discussions are relevant for managers of living cultural heritage worldwide.

Difficult but pertinent questions were asked arising from unavoidable differences of appreciation. For the outsider there is always something exotic and fascinating while for the insider there is an instinctive connection with lived faith and tradition and a sense of ownership: How do we help people accept different ways of understanding their religious buildings and the objects of art and sculpture? How can the religious building be presented with respect to the art as well as the faith? How can religious and secular tourism co-exist? How do we monitor and protect the fragile environment? How can advocates of good stewardship influence the future preservation this area? What can we do to modify the church to receive large numbers of visitors? And perhaps the most difficult question of all: What is the wish of the owner?


Mr. Saad Mohamed Osman, General Manager of Antiquities for Sohag (r.) addresses and welcomes visitors and participants. As a historic monument, the Ministry of Antiquities is responsible for the preservation and future of the Red Monastery church. The Coptic community uses this important site of living heritage. New ideas presented at the round table could promote positive change and aid development despite multiple stakeholders.

This last question brings to the fore the complexity facing those who will be involved in the future management of this unique site. “There is not one owner. There are multiple owners.”

Guided visits to the churches, sanctuaries and archaeological sites of the Red and nearby White Monastery and presentations on topics such as, Living Religious Heritage, Memory and Identity - Religious Perspectives and Tourism, The House of Our Fathers: The Archaeology of Place and the Place of Archaeology at the Red and White Monasteries, Authenticity, Material and Immaterial Meaning of Monuments, and Interpreting the Recent History of the White and Red Monasteries of Sohag through the Bulletins of the Comité pour le conservation des monuments de l’art Arabe: 1882-1954 provided the participants with a historical context as well as stimulating discussion about the future management and conservation of the church as an archaeological site and as a shrine.

While ARCE did not expect to reach consensus for the management of this historic monument during this initial round table, the passion and dedication of those who have been part of this project for the past ten years was evident with often conflicting viewpoints openly expressed, every question raised and recommendations made for further meetings of this kind. Photo gallery of this event >>

ARCE wishes to acknowledge staff members Mary Sadek, Zakaria Yacoub, Djodi Deutsch and Michael Jones for organizing the event and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (U.S. State Department) through a grant with the Council of American Overseas Research Centers for funding it.

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