Cultural Property News spoke with art historian Elizabeth S. Bolman, founder and director of the Red Monastery restoration project near Sohag, Egypt.
For over fifteen years, Bolman directed the conservation of the Red Monastery Coptic church, described as “the most important extant early Christian monument in Egypt’s Nile Valley, and one of the most significant of its period in the Mediterranean region.” A stunning example of early Byzantine art and architecture, the 5th century CE church was the center of a flourishing monastic community until sometime in the 14th century. Although surrounding Coptic Christian settlements have been much reduced in the 20th century, it is an important place of worship for local inhabitants and visiting Coptic Christians, especially for the celebration of saints’ days.
When Bolman first saw the church in the mid-1990s, its brilliant paintings and architectural detail were almost completely obscured by centuries of encrustation of desert dirt, incense and candle smoke. Already familiar with the conservation of Egyptian churches, Bolman recognized the potential for a dramatic restoration. She initiated, developed, and led the Red Monastery project. The U.S. Agency for International Development supported the conservation of the Red Monastery church through grants administered by the American Research Center’s Egyptian Antiquities Project that began in 2003. By the time the project was completed in 2014, not only were the paintings and decoration brilliantly restored, the church had also been made usable for a rejuvenated Coptic monastic community, and transformed into a functional 21st-century church by the installation of subtly placed electrical lighting, new floors and doors.
Today, the interior of the church glows with remarkable late antique and early Byzantine period decoration. Its form is a triconch basilica; a colonnaded nave with a three-lobed sanctuary. The sanctuary is covered in jeweled-style paintings of Christian devotional figures and decorative patterns reaching from the floor to the height of its dome. The process of removing the centuries of dirt and grime overlaying the paintings was almost archaeological, according to conservators working on the site; a “rediscovery of the material and aesthetic characteristics of the images.” In a conservation process taking over ten years, a team of twenty-six conservators, working at different times, consolidated, repaired, cleaned, and aesthetically reintegrated the paintings. The completed re-integration of this elaborately decorated space may be seen in a 360 degree panorama online.
The conservation of the church was the subject of Bolman’s 2016 book, The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt and a video of the church featured in the 2012 exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, entitled Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition.
The story of the Red Monastery’s restoration also raises fundamental questions about the purposes of preservation of a monument that still functions as both a community and religious center. Is it a living church or a tourist attraction? Is the purpose of restoration to further scholarly study or to enhance the devotions of the monks who live there?
The Red Monastery project spanned a period of great unrest in the Middle East, including the rise of Muslim extremism, increased persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt, and the Arab Spring. In this exclusive CPN interview, Bolman offers insight into these issues as well as the practical aspects of the Egyptian government’s Antiquities Ministry’s authority over the property of a minority religious community and how officials on the ground often brought more novel and accommodating views than expected to the project.
CPN: How did you become involved in preserving Coptic monasteries in Egypt?
Bolman: I was doing dissertation research in Egypt and had a fellowship from the American Research Center in Egypt. They had just started a conservation project of some 13th century paintings in the monastery of St. Antony near the Red Sea. I said, “If you need an art historian, let me know.” Some months later, I got a phone call from Cairo and I was invited to be the art historian on the project. I think the reason that happened – generally a senior person would be chosen, not someone who hadn’t finished their Ph.D. – is because there are so few people that specialize in Egyptian Christian visual culture. I was the one they knew and I ended up being lucky.
I got to put together a really great book on that conservation project, which was the first book I published in 2002, Monastic Visions: Wall Paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea.
CPN: Why Egypt? Why particularly Coptic?
Bolman: I follow what attracts me on a visceral level visually in art. I’ve always been drawn to fringe kinds of things. I did my master’s thesis on circa 1000 CE illuminated Spanish manuscripts of the Book of Revelation. Those are also very strongly colored, very stylized. I love all kinds of art – but I am not driven by an interest in illusionistic work that takes the surface of a plane and tries to make you think that you are looking through a window. I’m much more interested in the powerful potential of depictions that don’t try to do that but try to express spiritual truth or other qualities that don’t involve illusionism.
CPN: How has the art historical narrative regarding this early Egyptian Coptic material changed?
Bolman: The narrative used to be that the early period material – for example, the Red Monastery church in the book that I recently finished – was substandard and that Egypt was cut off from the rest of the Roman Empire in the early Byzantine period. Then, after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, the feeling was that artistic creativity from Christians petered out. It was always thought that the best work was done in Alexandria and the further south you got up the Nile, the more crude and more folk-like things were.
On examination of actual evidence at these locations, with an open mind, it turns out that the old paradigm was based on moveable material that people slotted into whatever location they wanted. If something was illusionistic, or made of silk, or gold jewelry, scholars determined that it must be from Constantinople and that it had somehow made its way to Upper Egypt, or at worst was made in Alexandria. No one could imagine that places far from Alexandria actually had any artistic punch, but in fact they had a lot. It turns out that in the early Byzantine period, Egypt was thoroughly integrated into the rest of the empire. It was one of the economic drivers of the empire, since Egypt had three growing seasons a year, due to the Nile. It provided the major grain for the grain dole in Rome and Constantinople.
Recently, the narrative has totally changed to one where Egypt was actually a serious player and contributor. Coptologists have been saying this for a couple of decades. But many art historians have clung to the old racially informed idea that everything done in Egypt was substandard.
CPN: Then, there is no one central point from which all artistic ideas flowed? Would hardships at certain periods within the Byzantine Empire, periods of iconoclasm and so forth have allowed greater creativity to take place further from the center?
Bolman: The subject of generative centers of cultural production has been grossly oversimplified. If you look at how often people moved around in late antiquity, it was far more than we can imagine today since they lacked cars and trains and airplanes. If you also look at money, monasteries in the early Byzantine period became powerhouses financially. They started building monumental churches, in the middle of the desert. Previously, monumental structures had only been urban and aristocratic. The monks were saying, “We’re the new aristocracy.” And “We’re where it’s happening.” They were using very worldly tools to do it. One of the largest churches ever erected in the 5th century, was built a couple miles down the road from the Red Monastery church, about 25 years earlier, also in the desert, at the center of a monastery.
When we travel around Europe and see all these fabulous medieval monastic churches, the conjunction of monks who left the world to live in great poverty and yet built monumental buildings now seems normal to us. But that sort of thing had its origins in 5th century Upper Egypt, when it was a very radical idea for monks to build huge churches, the most expensive thing they could possibly do.
CPN: Where was the wealth coming from to support this?
Bolman: It was from super wealthy landowners who grew the grain that went to Constantinople and Rome, and also potentially from the imperial court. There is some evidence suggesting that the man who built the huge church near the Red Monastery, which the Red Monastery is a smaller copy of, actually met the emperor. He was definitely in Constantinople, and we think he got imperial support for his church.
CPN: You point out how nuanced the ownership of culture or the ownership of ideas is, when the energy and the money and the dedication to spiritual matters is all present locally.
Bolman: It made total sense to me. Absolutely!
CPN: Let’s get practical. How was the project supported and funded over time?
Bolman: I founded the Red Monastery project. My goal was to study the church, the historical context, and the paintings, and then to publish them after the eastern end, the old sanctuary, was conserved. The funding for my almost twenty-year project came from the United States Agency for International Development. It was administered by the American Research Center in Egypt. So, I was its director, I was the chief art historian, and I edited the book on it. When I finished the laser scanning of the church, which was the last site work that I did, I then turned my attention to the book, and that was the end of the project for me.
But the project architect, Nicholas Warner, has maintained his involvement at the site and has been fixing up the nave and making a visitor center as well as other great things, and that money has come from the American Research Center in Egypt. It’s a much smaller project now. The project that I worked on ultimately cost about two million dollars. Now it’s a small-scale project. Very important work, just not the same scale.
CPN: How much were local religious or ethnic identities or values at issue during the project? How did locals relate to the project?
Bolman: The village around the church was largely Christian but Egypt is primarily Muslim and the Ministry of Antiquities inspectors who came out every campaign, and spent time with us every day, were also Muslim.
Local people gradually became interested. It wasn’t the case instantly, but it became the case. People became fascinated with what was happening. It was like you were in a darkened room and bit-by-bit spotlights hit various parts of the walls and suddenly you see these magical paintings that had been covered in dirt and soot and almost completely illegible before the project. It was really magical!
From outside of the country, it’s very easy to think of polarization, Muslim versus Christian, but when you are in Egypt, just as with anything in life it is much more complicated. There are plenty of Muslims and Christians who are friends, who work together very happily, who have lunch or dinner together, who think of themselves as Egyptian first, rather than a Muslim or Christian first. Of course, the monks are actually the most radical of the Copts and many of them are more extreme in their views. But what interested me was to see how the Muslim Antiquities Inspectors would bend over backward not to tread on the toes of the monks. The power dynamic was that the Antiquities Inspectors had the upper hand because they had the authority of the state behind them and they were the majority religion, but their activities were tremendously respectful. I remember one conversation when the head of the local Antiquities Ministry visited us. We were all sitting around having tea like one does in the Arab world, and he said, “I’ll never tell another man where to pray.” That was in the context of me trying to get everyone to agree that the Red Monastery church should be open for tourism most of the year and used by the monks and other Christians only on Easter and Christmas for liturgical purposes. I lost that fight. But I never will forget how that Antiquities Inspector refused to say, “This is an historic site only and it has to be open to the public.” Instead he said, “I’m not going to tell another man where to pray.” I thought that was so respectful.
CPN: You said you lost the fight about access to the site. What was the end result?
Bolman: The American Research Center in Egypt decided to turn the church back over to the monks. In the fifteen plus years that we were on site, the political situation in Egypt changed a lot. There were a lot more attacks on Copts and understandably the monks were clinging to anything they could.
They were saying, this is our church built by our forefathers, you can’t tell us what to do with this building. I don’t think any other choice was available except to say, “Ok, thank you for letting us work here for all these years.” It was such a great privilege to be able to work in that context. We lived in that monastery. I had an international team; a marvelous group of Italian conservators, a whole host of other people. It was one of life’s great privileges to be there.
We turned it back over to them and they built a couple of new churches that they are using more. I think lately it’s been easier to get in to see the historic church.
CPN: Over time, there have been changes in conservation thinking about how much to restore, and what condition or style to restore to – do you re-create or preserve, and how much latitude is there in re-creation? It goes to the purpose of conservation and restoration.
Bolman: I’m very proud of the approach we took towards conserving the paintings, which almost never involved repainting a subject – on which I will say more in a minute. Damaged and missing areas of the walls were patched with new plaster of the same composition as the original. These repairs were bright white and drew the eye away from the historic paintings. To counter this, we used the aqua sporca (dirty water) technique – which sounds a lot better in Italian than it does in English. Essentially, the amazingly talented conservators covered areas of loss with watercolors to make them recede visually. They created muted backgrounds comprised of tones from the paintings around the loss. The final effect makes it look as if we have repainted the subjects, but closer inspection shows that we did not.
There was one conservation battle that I lost. The eastern semi-dome was the least well preserved of the three semi-domes in the sanctuary. You could see significant parts of the under-painting for a scene of the Ascension of Christ, which is probably the earliest extant painting in a monumental church anywhere in the world. That first phase was partially covered over by three later phases of painting, which were themselves incompletely preserved, so the eastern semi-dome was very confusing and visually illegible from the floor unless you really knew what you were looking at. The American Research Center in Egypt made the determination, also against my will, to have the fourth and final phase of painting in that semi-dome, which was a monumental Christ in Majesty, enhanced through aesthetic reintegration. What that meant was that they partially obscured the earlier Ascension and emphasized this later painting. I was against compromising the earliest painting in the semi-dome, but the then the director of the American Research Center in Egypt, who took the matter very seriously, called together a panel of experts. No one could agree on what should happen, and he ended up making a determination. That was within the scope of his authority, but I was most definitely opposed to his decision.
Those were the two battles that I lost; having the church open primarily for tourism, with restricted liturgical use, and not emphasizing the fourth phase painting at the expense of the early Ascension.
The Red Monastery church was the third of the major Coptic wall painting conservation projects that the American Research Center in Egypt administered with USAID funding. A decision was reached early on that if there was an important religious figure, whose eye was missing, for example, then the conservators would recreate the eye with thin colored lines, a technique called tratteggio.
From a couple of feet away you can easily see what had been restored and what was original, but from a distance you can’t. They still function as religious subjects that people pray to. We did some of that in the Red Monastery, there were a couple of eyes that were restored, but not very often. But the decision to essentially recreate the fourth phase Christ was to me a deeply shocking one.
CPN: I can see why you felt strongly. The results would be very different and covering the early phases would remove their value to scholars.
Bolman: Working in Egypt can be a challenging activity. A project of that magnitude involved an incredible amount of human sacrifice as well as privilege. The conservators would live there for half a year, every year, in the monastery, away from their homes in Rome. The contrast was pretty strange. The remarkable thing was that we managed to finish the project to a very high standard, and document it to a very high standard, and also publish it. All of those successes vastly outweigh any sense of failure that I have about the project.
CPN: Were you able to digitally record the originals?
Bolman: Yes! I was able to have it laser scanned and project photographers and I also took countless high-quality slide and digital images and videos.
CPN: We did want to ask you about the political situation. When you were working on the project, my understanding was that there was an increase in Coptic persecution in Egypt. Was that the case? Was that something people were aware of? Where they aware of it on a national scale?
Bolman: There was, yes. There has been a dialectic of extremism on both sides. As local Muslim extremism has grown so also has Coptic extremism grown. Attacks on churches do nothing to heal that polarization, obviously. We were continuing to work on the project through the Arab Spring as you recall. Although there is really no spring in Egypt, as my husband likes to point out, only a short winter and a long summer.
We knew of young men from small villages working in the area who called themselves future martyrs because they were sure they were going to be killed.
CPN: So there was some reverberation in Sohag of the unrest in other parts of Egypt?
Bolman: Oh definitely!
CPN: Did you have to do anything to manage that situation?
Bolman: We didn’t, because the violence was typically spontaneous and generally in urban areas. In order to get out to the Red Monastery you would have to drive 35 to 40 minutes and organize transportation and all of that. That doesn’t go along with episodic, spontaneous violence. Also the monasteries are walled. At times they have people from the military guarding them. So on Fridays and Sundays, which are the major days where there are services in the churches, typically there was a tank at the main entrance to the monastery.
CPN: Was that the case before the unrest?
Bolman: Not as significantly in the form of tanks, usually it was a van full of police officers. But there was always some sort of government presence on Fridays and Sundays.
CPN: Was that the case for other Coptic churches in the country?
Bolman: I’m pretty sure it was.
CPN: What else would you like to tell us?
Bolman: On the subject of digital preservation, you mentioned the printing press as being a pivotal point where information suddenly was much less expensive, written information could be printed much more quickly and was less costly to buy. I’ve been thinking recently about when music became something that was shared on radio and phonographs, and apparently there was some opposition to that kind of sharing of music. People felt that you couldn’t appreciate the music unless you were in the concert hall with the musicians. Of course what radio and phonographs did was to enable people who could never afford to hear that music in person to get joy from it. The Internet, in our own lives, is another example. We all know what a huge change that has been in terms of information to be shared.
I’m currently collaborating with Adam Lowe of Factum Arte. He’s a polymath who is making copies of objects of cultural heritage that are so good that you can’t tell they are not the original unless you touch them. For example, he created a scale replica of the tomb of Tutankhamun in Luxor that is now being use for tourism. That project also generated scientific knowledge, because he was able to determine that there was a slight depression in one part of the wall that indicated that it wasn’t solid rock, but that there was possibly a hidden room that nobody had noticed before.
So I’m working with Adam and one of the things I want to do with the laser scan data is have him make a replica, maybe twelve feet high, of the triconch sanctuary of the Red Monastery church. Eventually I’d love to have a replica done to scale. I’d have it here in Cleveland and maybe show it elsewhere depending on the needs of various exhibitions.
We are at a moment where we are at the cusp of the democratization of art. This is what I think Adam’s work does for us. It enables us to share monuments of cultural heritage around the world and have the experience be as genuine as seeing the original. What Adam says is we’re not talking about originals and copies, we’re not talking about fakes, he’s not trying to fool anybody, that what we’re talking about is the truth of the experience.
CPN: We agree that digitalization and bringing that art to the world is essential, because having a record will protect artworks in situ better than any law. If there’s a photograph, no one can get away with stealing it. There’s also a question about who can afford to go to Egypt and who is willing at this point to do so? I think that’s something the Egyptian government doesn’t understand, that democracy breeds tourism.
Bolman: Many Egyptians also don’t understand the importance of tourism for their economy. They see themselves as the hub of the Arab world, culturally speaking and that’s of much greater interest to them then tourism. Of course people in Luxor, who depend on the tourist trade for their livelihood, have a much different perspective. I completely agree that the government has little understanding that democracy would encourage tourism.
CPN: Yet increasing tourism is a justification for many of the cultural property claims that the Egyptian government is making internationally. They seem to say, “We won’t have tourism unless we have every single mummy in Egypt”.
Bolman: Which doesn’t make sense because the works of art abroad are the best advertisement for Egypt that they could possibly have.
CPN: Do you have similar concerns about the nationalization of religious heritage in Egypt as in Turkey? In Turkey there was recently a court decision that said the secularization of Christian churches under Atatürk in the 1930s, when they were turned into museums, can be reversed. Turkish President Erdogan has taken the political position that churches including Hagia Sophia can revert to the Turkish state and be converted into mosques.
Bolman: I have not heard of any moves like that in Egypt. In contrast to the Copts in Egypt, who by best estimates are about 10% of the population, though no studies have been permitted to verify this, I doubt there are any native Turks who are Christian. There are some Greek Orthodox in Istanbul because they have a Patriarchate there and there are some Christian Armenians but nothing on the scale of the Copts in Egypt.
In Egypt there is a very healthy Coptic community. Sure, over the centuries they’ve endured periods of persecution, I’m not saying there is a fair playing field for everyone, but you can also look at the survival of the Copts as a combination of their tenacity, and also religious tolerance on the part of Muslim rulers.
CPN: What is the most important message from you to students and scholars?
Bolman: I would encourage people to document and share, but I would also encourage people who have never thought about being involved in a big project, like that at the Red Monastery, to do so. I would encourage people to think big, have big aspirations, and be willing to face failure, which is always a possibility if you set your sights high. But I’ve been really surprised that thinking big has gotten amazing things done in my life.
It takes everyone, not just one person. All these projects involve the tremendous dedication of numerous people over many, many years. So sure, I am the director of the project, but I most certainly didn’t do it alone.
CPN: That is inspiring and very contrary to the parochialism and xenophobia and other forces that are active in in our world right now. Work cooperatively, work multinationally, and we will all learn in the process. How else has this project built bridges between people that would not otherwise readily understand one another?
Bolman: There is a group currently working with local people of all backgrounds in the vicinity of the Red Monastery. Their project is to engage the local community with the monument and in understanding what it means to protect it. Dina Bakhoum, who is leading the project, is an Egyptian and an architect. I would have liked to have had her, or someone like her, involved with the project from the very beginning, but the funding wasn’t enough to support something like that at that time. I’m glad that the American Research Center in Egypt changed their approach over the years and that she is doing that work.
In summary, the collaboration at the Red Monastery involved international and institutional vision and cooperation. The project was supported by the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, the American Research Center in Egypt, and the United States Agency for International Development. This all resulted in the conservation and documentation of an extraordinarily important church, as well as a large book, several digital online means of experiencing the church, and enough 3D data to replicate the monument anywhere in the world, now and in the future.
I’d like to do one more thing. The Red Monastery Project represents the labors of countless people and institutions. I am deeply grateful to all of them. I would like especially to thank my numerous colleagues: the conservators, monks, inspectors, administrators, and staff at ARCE and USAID, Egyptian site staff, and contributors to the book on the project. Particularly instrumental in the launching and maintenance of the project were Mark Easton, ARCE’s director at the time, Robert Chip Vincent, then director of the ARCE conservation projects, and Michael Jones, then associate director of the Egyptian Antiquities Conservation Project. The previous director of ARCE, Gerry D. Scott III, supported the project for the majority of its existence, and the current director, Louise Bertini, continues in this tradition with ongoing work on site, under the direction of Nicholas Warner. Directors of Fine Art Conservation were: Adriano Luzi, Luigi De Cesaris, Alberto Sucato and Emiliano Ricchi. Assistant conservators working on-site were Emiliano Albanese, Chiara DiMarco, Emiliano Abrusca, Luigi De Prezzo, Diego Pistone, Valentina Peri Proto, Ilaria Bigiaretti, Alessandra Meschini, Maria Cristina Tomassetti, Chiara Arrighi, Federico Ratti, Emiliano Antonelli, Gerardo Russo, Riccardo Remigio, Cristina Caldi, Sara Scarafoni, Gianluca Tancioni, Ilaria De Martinis, and Chiara Compostella. Contributors to documentation in various media were Nicholas Warner, Sergio Tagliacozzi, Patrick Godeau, Arnaldo Vescovo, Pietro Gaspari, Giovanni Tamburro, Gustavo Camps, Pieter Collett, Michelangelo Lupo, Marti Gorini, and Marina Marchese. Father Maximous El-Antony was an invaluable member of the team from the very beginning, functioning as a conservation consultant, liaison with the monastery, and administrator of the local staff. The Coptic Orthodox Church provided constant support and generous hospitality, led by Bishop Youannis and Father Antonious al-Shenoudi. Our colleagues in what was then called the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and more recently the Ministry of Antiquities, were stellar collaborators. Of special significance from the Sohag office were Mohammed abdel Rahim, Saad Mohammed Mohammed Osman, and Aly Zaghloul Aly. I thank them all.
Elizabeth Bolman generously provided Cultural Property News with a collection of images from the restoration project, linked here: The Red Monastery – Image Collection. All images are copyright American Research Center Egypt (ARCE). The Laser Scan views of the triconch are by Pietro Gasparri,
 Elizabeth S. Bolman is currently the Elsie B. Smith Professor in the Liberal Arts and Chair of the Department of Art History and Art, in the College of Arts and Sciences, at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her publications may be found at https://case.academia.edu/ElizabethBolman.
 Luigi De Cesaris, Alberto Sucato, and Emiliano Ricchi, ‘Wall Painting Conservation at the Red Monastery Church,” in Elizabeth S. Bolman (ed.), The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2016. Pp. xxxix, 390. ISBN 9780300212303
 Red Monastery Triconch, 360 Cities Panorama http://www.360cities.net/image/red-monastery-sohag-egypt#2.10,-83.70,90.0
Elizabeth S. Bolman (ed.), The Red Monastery Church: Beauty and Asceticism in Upper Egypt. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2016. Pp. xxxix, 390. ISBN 9780300212303. See also, David Brakke, Review of The Red Monastery Church, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2019-01-54, http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2019/2019-01-54.html
 The exhibition catalog is by Helen C. Evans, ed., with Brandie Ratliff, Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. Film, Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition—The Red Monastery – 2012 Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VT7TDxZ9NpY
 Elizabeth S. Bolman (ed.), Monastic Visions: Wall Paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea, Yale University Press (February 1, 2002)
 Capacity Building at the Red Monastery: A Long-Term Outreach Program for Safeguarding its Historic, Spiritual, Artistic and Architectural Value: http://archive.arce.org/news/2016/12/u193/capacity-building-at-the-red-monastery-a-long-term-outreach-program-for-safeguarding-its-historic-spiritual-artistic-and-architectural-value