What Coptic Artefacts Tell us About Women in Antique Egypt | Part One

Monday February 10, 2020                      By: Dr. Engy Hanna

81890145_512020912754388_1512541289554378752_nMany psychiatrists have argued that a person’s preference for what he/she wears sends out social messages about their personalities. So, do women’s images in ancient arts tell us anything about their lives, identities, culture, or dreams? anything about the secrets which have been submerged in ancient manuscripts and which were ignored by male historians? By speculating on women’s representations on Coptic artefacts, we may get an interesting answer for these questions.

Women in Coptic Egypt -in the early centuries- lived in a world where various – sometimes contradictory – ideologies coexisted; religious, philosophical, and public ideologies and foreign tendencies resulted from the cultural interaction between Egypt and other regions. They lived in a society, which was influenced by classical survivals (Ancient Egyptian and Greek-Roman). This influence generally promoted for a patriarchal society, where women were featured as being weak and sometimes inferior to men. Women of Egypt lived in the shade of the Roman Law (as Egypt was one of the Roman- and later Byzantine – provinces). They lead their lives according to legislations that deprived women from holding administrative posts, but theoretically protected the safety of their lives and possessions, as long as those women showed conformity to the norms of the Egyptian society and its definitions of shame and honour.

Simultaneously, the Egyptian society at that time witnessed the spread of the newly-risen religion (Christianity) which elevated the position of women and promoted for their spiritual perfection; a faith that magnified the model of the pious woman who is able to compete with men and attain the highest levels of ascetic and spiritual lifestyles. This world, where women lived, witnessed a growing global tendency (known as oikoumene ) or (A whole World); a concept that connected the distant parts of the Byzantine empire and exported thoughts and tastes to Egypt, these thoughts and tastes were embraced sometimes by Egyptians and denounced some other times.

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Theodosea

Coptic artists interpreted the outcome of the interaction of these dynamics and expressed this in their portrayal of women on the walls of the tombs and churches, curtains, jewellery, and clothes. Their brush, spindle and loom told scattered fragments of forgotten stories. Our first story is about Theodosea, a female member of a prestigious Greek family, which resided in an ancient Coptic city called Antinopolis (Al-Sheikh Ebada in Mallawi, Minia Governorate). The artists portrayed Theodosea wearing a sleeved tunic (a popular garment that dates back to early Roman times) of fine linen, which is embroidered with woollen threads. The trim of the tunic extends down to her ankles. A palla headdress is thrown on Theodosea’s hair and shoulder and wrapped around her body. The headdress could be a sign of her subjugation to the teachings of some church fathers, like Anba Bisentius, the bishop of Jeme. It could be a sign of her marital fidelity; a gesture initiated by the wife of the priest of Jupitar.

The headdress is placed on top of a distinctive coiffure, which is composed of tiers of hair locks surmounted by a golden hairnet. It was not merely a hairstyle, but a sign of a civilized fashion lady imitating (Roman, and later Byzantine) imperial women. It seems that the hairstyle was inspired by the coiffure of the imperial women from the Flavian dynasty (ruling Roman emperors at the end of the first century A.D.). Perhaps, such hairstyles made their way to Egypt and other provinces through the images of imperial women on coins and/or their portraits, which were displayed in public spaces. This hairstyle was particularly popular among well-to-do women all over the empire during the 5th and 6th centuries.

83042054_2779970902097339_5316386204902490112_nSaint Pollinus, the bishop of Nola, mentioned something about how women at his days were obsessed by doing this hairstyle. The Roman satirist Juvenal mocked women who wore this hairstyle. He said: “so numerous are the tiers and storeys piled one upon another on her head! In front, you would take her for an Andromache (tall); she is not so tall behind: you would not think it was the same person”. In brief, we may assume that the Coptic artist aimed to highlight some underlying meanings through Theodosea’s appearance: modesty, the subjugation to the norms of society, wealth and coping with world fashion; an appearance that may not represent a particular personality, but rather speaks of a broader sector of upper class women, who chose to follow the teachings of church fathers regarding modesty (defined at this time by covering women’s bodies and head); women who expressed their social power through the language of fine linen and rare tapestry weaving technique (which was only afforded by the well-to-do); women who imitated imperial class to boast their membership in a prestigious social class.

Then what about other women lasses (nuns, well-educated women, dancers, and prostitutes)? This will be discussed in my next article…

83077852_871663743263975_8868534874084999168_nDr Engy Hanna, Lecturer of Coptic Art and Archaeology in Minia University.  She completed her Ph.D. at Sussex University in 2017. Her research interests lie in the area of Early Byzantine Art History, more specifically social history, secular art, gender, and sensory perception. Dr Hanna has collaborated actively with staff members at Sussex University. She designed and implemented courses about Coptic Art, Early Christian Art, and Byzantine art history in Egypt and UK. Her book Women in Antique Egypt Through Coptic Art,  will be available in bookstores Soon.

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