How did you get started in the historical profession? What drew you to the subject matter of your first book?
In many ways, I’m first and foremost indebted to my grandparents. I was born and raised in Cairo, where I lived for several years and where I was fortunate to have been surrounded by a loving, vibrant, and inquisitive family. My paternal grandfather was an English teacher and an informal historian of the Coptic Church who spent time chronicling the lives of local saints and martyrs in his hometown of Esna, in Upper Egypt. My maternal grandmother was a pioneering educator and the headmistress at an all-girls school in Cairo in the 1940s and 1950s. Both of them imbued within me a love and an appreciation for the humanities: for the study of the broad human experience in all of its dimensions. Still, it took me a while to figure out how to channel these values and teachings into a career path. In fact, my path to the historical profession was somewhat circuitous. As an undergraduate, I embraced the study of history and of the sciences and I couldn’t decide between them for a while. But things really fell into place after graduation. I took some time off to travel in the Middle East, especially within Egypt, and I jumped right into the study of Egypt’s history with a focus on the Coptic community.
At the Ohio State University, where I completed my graduate studies I was fortunate to work with accomplished scholars both in Ottoman history (Professors Jane Hathaway and Carter Findley) as well as Russian Orthodox Church history (Professor Eve Levin). During graduate school, I noticed a major vacuum in the scholarship when it came to Coptic history between 1500 and 1800, and so the seeds were planted for the topic of my PhD dissertation, which later became my first book, Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt. For historians, the story of Coptic Christians in the Ottoman period was somewhat of a black hole, with few scholars—in Arabic or English—having tackled the topic in depth. I was most intrigued, when examining this subject, in investigating the idea of lived religion: in trying to assess how Copts’ daily religious practices—from the veneration of the saints and martyrs, to pilgrimages and church sermons—shaped the communal ethos and how the Coptic Church, in particular, functioned as a religious and political institution in Egyptian society.
Today, we see that the Church and its (male) clerical elders can have a powerful and at times quite domineering presence in the lives of Coptic believers. But in the Ottoman period, as my book shows, Coptic laity were often the community’s premier leaders: wealthy Copts funded the less fortunate, helped choose clerical leaders, and supported the restoration of churches, monasteries, books, and artwork. The Church and its clergy depended on the laity’s counsel (and financial support) at almost every stage, and their relationship was interactive and mutually dependent, if at times tense. Religious practices were at the core of communal life, but the community’s overall leadership emerged from varied ranks.
In this context, and even though their voices are mostly muted in the historical documents, I also worked hard to salvage an understanding of women’s lives in Coptic religious life during the Ottoman centuries. Whether through a focus on female martyrs and their veneration or on how women were addressed in Coptic sermons of the eighteenth century, an awareness of (changing) gender roles and dynamics infused my own approach to the study of this period. The topic of Coptic women, in general, has received special consideration in much of my research on the community and it continues to be shaped in dialogue with some newly expanding scholarship on this topic.
Finally, it was critical, in my research, to illuminate the writings of Coptic authors during the Ottoman centuries. Thus, I scoured archives in Egypt’s monasteries, at the Coptic Museum, and the library at the Old Coptic Patriarchate in Cairo (Clot Bey), and I also consulted resources major Egyptian, European, and American archives. I am grateful for the archivists, monks, and librarians who opened their doors to me and who had a profound impact on how I read my material and thought about its place and meaning. Although there is still so much more to uncover, research, and write about with regard to Coptic history in the Ottoman period, I am proud of the fact that I had the chance to shine some light on Coptic traditions, worldviews, and self-perceptions in my first book.
Considering the state of Middle East History more generally, and Egyptian History more particularly, what topics and issues would you like to see addressed?
Historians of the Middle East today, as others have pointed out, are facing an array of challenges and constraints, much more so than twenty years ago. But perhaps these challenges could invite us to think a bit outside this box. For instance, there might be more opportunities for collaborative historical projects that bring together the work of multiple scholars who have access to separate archives in different languages. Personally, I’ve started thinking of how my own research on Christians in Egypt might connect to that of other communities in the Middle East and the Balkans. The latter, of course, were under Ottoman rule for nearly six hundred years, and were therefore tied to the Middle East economically, culturally, religiously, and politically in ways that we have yet to fully uncover. It would be great to have more organized conferences and workshops dedicated to collaborative themes with the hopes that they will yield co-authored publications. That is, there are potentially exciting opportunities to consider comparative history and to address, in particular, the nuances and variations in the experiences of Copts, Maronites, Greeks, Syrians, Armenians, Chaldeans, among others.
I would also like to see a greater representation of scholars who are working on Coptic history, after the Islamic conquests, as well as Coptic anthropology, sociology, and political science in the International Association of Coptic Studies (IACS). This organization holds a meeting, every four years, that brings together the world’s foremost experts on Coptic Christianity: history, religion, archeology, paleography, architecture, liturgical studies, among others. Until a decade or so, the conference was predominantly attended by the most renowned and esteemed scholars of early Egyptian Christianity, with a focus on the centuries prior to Islam. Now we are starting to see other scholars present their work—with more papers on the Coptic experience in the Islamic centuries and modern Egypt. These trends should continue and grow. There is a need to highlight—on a global stage—the variety of new and exciting research in historical and contemporary Coptic Studies, research that covers Egypt and the diaspora.
Given your current or past interest in Egypt’s Coptic populations, how would you frame the issue of Coptic belonging in Egypt and its diasporas?
I think the Coptic identity is a dynamic and transforming concept, and that it is our job—as historians—to show how it has changed in response to different events, challenges, and opportunities. For instance, one thing that often emerges in common discussions within the Coptic Church, both in Egypt and in the diaspora, is the idea of an indelible “Orthodoxy.” When used in sermons, writings, and church songs today, that term evokes a timelessness, an enduring and unchanging tradition, and highly defined communal boundaries. There are, of course, recurring elements, themes, and beliefs that characterize Egyptian Christianity since ancient times. But when one digs deeper into historical and present events, we find a process of negotiation, debate, dispute, and dialogue about what constitutes “Coptic-ness”: throughout the centuries, communal members wrestled with tough issues in order to define the boundaries of “Coptic-ness” and of “Orthodoxy.” And today, to put it more concretely, local considerations matter more than ever before: Coptic self-definitions and liturgical practices in South Africa and Kenya look a little different than those in Southern California or Toronto which also look different from those in (and within) Egypt. Whether it’s the language of prayer, the timbre of the hymns, the use of musical instruments, or the day-to-day rituals, Coptic Christian practices and identity today reflect a rich plurality of voices, across multiple generations and cultures. Sensitivity and openness to these variations is critical for the study of Copts and their history.
I also think that media has played a critical role in shaping a sense of “Coptic belonging” both in Egypt and the diaspora. Back in the early 2000s, and in response to the rise of more evangelical-oriented televangelism, Coptic bishops, priests, and laity felt the need to establish media outlets that were more reflective of the Church’s agenda and politics, and so several television channels were established to articulate Coptic concerns in Egypt and, later, those of Coptic diaspora communities. Today, these channels are followed closely in Egypt and abroad: many Copts turn them on at home, front and center or in the background, to reinforce the concept of the “church within the home” which is an important idea that the Coptic Church has advocated over the past several decades. Through this media, Copts also feel more connected to a broader (if virtual) community of fellow believers. They identify common films, songs, and even political ideals that delineate their sense of communal belonging. Incidentally, I am currently working on a book project that explores the history of Christian television in the Middle East which covers, in part, this particular Coptic story. In general, some exciting scholarship has emerged on varied aspects of Coptic media in Egypt (for example, by Angie Heo, Elizabeth Iskander, Carolyn Ramzy, and others), as well as by up and coming graduate students on the Coptic diaspora: all of these trends will help nurture this nascent and exciting field.
As scholars, what sort of impact do you believe we should have in the increasingly xenophobic and Islamophobic climate in North America?
I remember reading somewhere how the study of history inspires us to imagine and to consider how people have experienced pain, adversity, joy, excitement, and struggle, at another time and place. I think this is a profoundly important exercise in our world today, where empathy for people of different backgrounds, religions, and cultures is often in short supply and where xenophobia and Islamophobia have become more prevalent. As scholars and teachers, I think it’s critical to focus on the complex history of the Middle East: in my own classes, I teach about the Middle East’s rich historical, cultural, economic, religious, and political diversity. I take my students on a journey through art and literature, sound and sight, and even food, so that they can have an appreciation of the “other” and so that they can value the Middle East’s rich heritage. Seeing the collective experiences of suffering, trauma, dispossession, and anguish that each community in the region has experienced, at one point in history or another, helps humanize all peoples—regardless of their ethnic, religious, or political background.
Are you working on a new project? What topics and themes do you hope to address in your future work?
I am currently working on two projects. The first, as I mentioned, is a book on the history of Christian television in the Middle East. I am very excited about this project as the research speaks to my new appreciation for comparative links between Christian communities in the region. I have traveled throughout the Middle East, Europe, and North America to conduct research for this work. In the project, I rely on oral history as well as archival documents. I tell a story that stretches from the region’s first Christian TV channel, which started in South Lebanon in 1980, to the present proliferation of dozens of satellite Christian television stations representing a plethora of regional and extra-regional interests. Be they Maronite, Coptic, Protestant, or non-denominational, I follow the motivations of these channels’ founders and their evolving goals and interests. This story is important, in my view, as television has played a critical role in the lives of Middle Eastern Christians in recent years, and yet people know very little about these channels and their scope. The work has provided me with exciting opportunities to personally interact with the founders and producers of the region’s first Christian TV channels, and I’m eager to complete this project soon.
My second project is still in its early stages, but it builds on my passion for food studies. I am working on a book about the comparative history of Christian food practices in the Middle East and Southern Europe. This would be a hybrid food history-cookbook project where I can bring together historical traditions and perhaps more contemporary recipes drawn from different Christian communities—including Copts, Ethiopians, Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and Roman Catholics—particularly as practiced during times of religiously sanctioned fasting (e.g., Advent or Lent). We often associate food prohibitions with the Jewish or Islamic faiths, and we forget that Christianity is quite rich with a variety of food restrictions, limitations, and prohibitions. It would be fascinating to bring together these customs and to consider their overlaps and variations. Food studies is a growing field in the academy, and it is gaining more attention in the context of Middle East Studies. But there are very few publications on Christian food traditions in this geographic context, particularly in the centuries after early Christianity, so I’m eager to dive into this project. And, in fact, I would openly welcome any information (and recipes) from readers about their families’ Coptic food traditions!
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Febe Armanios is Associate Professor of History at Middlebury College. She previously worked as an Analyst in Middle Eastern Cultures and Religions at the Congressional Research Service, at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. She received her BA, MA, and PhD from the Ohio State University. In the past, she’s been a Fulbright Scholar, as well as a recipient of awards from the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and the John Templeton Foundation, among others. Her books include Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Halal Food: A History, co-authored with Boğaç Ergene (Oxford University Press, 2018).