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A Visit to the Venerated Bishop of the Fayoum, Amba Abraam

There is a man in Egypt whose name is unknown to the ruling class, and who is yet the most talked of and the most deeply venerated man in all the valley of the Nile. Although he is a Christian bishop he is just as much a saint of heaven to the Moslem as to the Christian; and the Christians who join in the daily throng that seek his spiritual help and blessing number Copts and Greeks and Romans — the latter being by no means confined even to natives of Egypt.


Before I even thought of seeking an audience of this wonderful old man I had heard Catholic people as far away as France speaking of the Bishop of the Fayoum and Gizeh in Egypt as an ascetic in whose powers were confirmed all the signs which our Lord had said should follow them that believe — “In My name they shall cast out devils…they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.”


This old saint, whose power is known over all the Eastern world, is in the direct and unbroken succession of those early Christians who — again in the words of our Lord — spoke with new tongues; they took up serpents; and if they drank any deadly thing, it should not hurt them. These words have been understood alone in the East. When the Western Christians comment on the manifestations of Oriental Christianity, it should be kept in mind that these “signs” are all included in the first promise of the risen Christ to them that believe (Mark xvi. 17, 18).


No matter where I had gone in Egypt, I had heard again and again of the Bishop of the Fayoum; and incredible stories were told to me of his self-denials, his fastings, his mystical wisdom, his power of divination, his faculty to exorcise evil spirits and to cure all manner of sickness; and of the comfort his words gave to the afflicted both in soul and in body; of his unstinted kindness to the poor, whom he helped out of a coffer which was like unto the widow’s cruse; and how, with flashes of insight, he reproved the evil-doers who thought to deceive him, the spiritual force that was in him seeming to overtake such even when they had left his presence. And of course the power was attributed to him, as it is to all Eastern saints, of being able to confound all thieves by a sort of spiritual detective gift.


Many stories are told of his detachment from every sort of mundane claim, and of his contempt of the needs of the body which was like that of the saints of old. As he has now reached nearly a century of years, the veneration always felt for him has gained in depth as he has survived one generation after another of those who have felt his influence.


[…]


The old man apparently had no liking for the idea of being sought out by travellers as a celebrity; this was not his Master’s work. If the Englishman was poor, or sad, or ill, or had need in any way of spiritual ministration, or counsel, then he would see him, but not otherwise.


Again I was told what was not the old man’s answer, but that a serious relapse in the Bishop’s health that day had made it impossible for him to fulfil his earnest desire to see me.


Still the troublesome Briton would not be satisfied, or say ma’aleesh (do not trouble), as the polite and easily turned aside Oriental would. Fortunately ill-manners are excused to the English by the Egyptian, on the ground that it is our national habits that are peculiar, and we are not altogether to be held accountable for them. Oriental courtesy will often cover the rudeness of a European guest, with this as a sufficient excuse; the host will still go on striving to create a feeling of satisfaction and content in his visitor, so long as there is a chance left of meeting his wishes. I ought to have said ma’aleesh, but if I could not show this politeness — well, I had left my friends in trouble which they must still struggle as my hosts to overcome.


These men looked very gravely concerned when I maintained my protests, with an assumed mulishness that I knew well enough would intrigue them to try again to remove the direst of trouble to them, the displeasure of a guest.


A Coptic friend, whom I have known in Cairo for some time, now had a brilliant inspiration. Had I not a weak throat; had I not, two years before, made a long stay in Egypt purely for health reasons? That was enough. The Bishop was quickly informed that an Englishman out of health sought his blessing.


“Bring the poor man to me,” he said at once, and appointed the next afternoon at five o’clock for the visit.


When the deputation returned with this news (they forgot now to be even plausible about the Bishop’s ill-health) we beamed upon each other with restored good feeling, like a party of children who, after prolonged sulks, are overjoyed to “make it up.”


I recalled what I had read of that early Coptic saint, Anthony, who when persons of rank often sought, in vain, to tempt him from his hermitage, had but one reply, “As a fish dies out of water, so a monk dies out of his cell.” The only chance of gaining an interview with St. Anthony of old was to claim his intervention for some one in distress.


The last thing that hindered the happiness of a great Coptic gathering of friends that evening were the misgivings, which now cropped up again, of what I might think of the state in which I should find the Bishop living. By every kind of delicate suggestion and apology they tried to prepare my mind for the visit, so that I might put the most favourable interpretation possible on things.


The next day we set off in the carriages of my host, to be driven through the picturesque town (at that dashing pace which is the Egyptian’s delight) to the out-of-the-way slum in which the church of Fayoum is hidden.


[…]


We reached an outer apartment, dark and bare as a garret in a ruined tenement, the floor black with grime, the walls naked as the builder left them ages since, except for the dust-laden festoons of spiders. The windows were opaque with dirt, and much of the glass was broken. In this apartment we waited, while the chief priest passed once or twice in and out of an adjoining room, whispering comments in Arabic to our party which I could not hear.


Now the word is given, and we are ushered into a chamber, proving to be rather larger than the anteroom; in much the same condition, and equally bare, but for a square bed, and two chairs obviously imported for the occasion.


On the bed, sitting in the Eastern posture, and wrapped in a threadbare robe of black, with a black plaited turban on his head, sat the frail, emaciated form of the Bishop.


Introductions were made, the old man being particular to know correctly the names of those who were strange to him. He took the hand of each visitor in turn, but kept his own hands all the time partly concealed in the wide sleeve of his robe. The instinct of every Oriental is to kiss the hand of any man for whom he has deep veneration, but Bishop Abraam, I found, will never allow his hand to be kissed, if by covering it in this way he can avoid it.


It was with deep emotion that I looked into the face of this modern saint. To doubt his right to the title was impossible, for the power of a pure and beautiful soul made itself felt at once, with a force that was almost overwhelming.


The eyes looked out of a calm, grave face, fringed with a small white beard, which in no way obscured the sensitive mouth. The turban was worn farther back than is usual, leaving the broad unwrinkled forehead to suggest that the ascetic, in this case, had been governed by a fine intelligence.


That the Bishop was a centenarian seemed difficult of belief; he might be as weak as the frailness of his body suggested, but nothing about him even hinted that the mind was touched with age; and when one caught the steady glance of his eye, and heard him speak, the physical limitations were forgotten, which perforce made of his bed the throne from which he ruled his diocese and ministered to the larger world of suffering humanity.


The two chairs were placed close to the bed, so that my wife and I might sit near to the Bishop. He then questioned me earnestly about the Church in England, and the Bishop of London, who was visiting Egypt at that time, for he had heard of him, and that I was acquainted with him, and that we had met in Khartoum. Then he turned to more personal matters, and was concerned for our general well-being.


To my request that the Bishop would give us his blessing, he asked, in a very quiet voice, one of the priests who were present to bring to him his hand-cross. I had often heard of this particular cross, which had been held in blessing over tens of thousands of Egyptians, and was believed by most of them to have in itself mystical powers. It is the cross the Bishop has used all his clerical life, and I know that he himself is so attached to it that he considers his powers would be disturbed by its injury or loss.


It is usual, I believe, in every Christian Church to kneel in receiving a bishop’s blessing; but on no account would Amba Abraam consent to any person kneeling before him — to God, he said, alone was such obeisance due. He was distressed that I felt obliged to kneel, but when I explained that my first reverence was to God, and then to His good servant, he gently gave way.


Taking the cross in his right hand, and holding it closely over our heads, the Bishop poured out, mostly in the Coptic language, in tones of rapt devotion, the wonderful prayers and blessings of his Church.


Of the mere words, I of course recognised little, except the oft-repeated “Kyrie Eleison!” (Lord have mercy!). But I was thrilled nevertheless by the childlike earnestness of the man who uttered them; never had I heard a prayer which seemed to establish a link with the Throne of Grace with such instant security; it seemed as if earth fell away, to leave this man speaking in the clear presence of God Himself.


The form of the blessing was so very Oriental that I afterwards asked the one priest present who knew both Coptic and English well, to transcribe it for me; and I give it here, omitting only the passages that were personal to my wife and myself. If I should relate the long-drawn-out endeavours by which I got this translation I should have to tell a story of many months’ ingenious persistency on the part of faithful Coptic friends and myself, which any one who knows the bookra (to-morrow) of the East would read with sympathy. The Coptic form of the Lord’s Prayer is of interest. I give the whole form as the priest wrote it.


[…]


The blessing over, the gentle old man again inquired, in tones of tender solicitude, as to the welfare of all, myself and family. In Oriental terms he spoke of the pleasure such a visit had given him.


Turning to a priest, the Bishop asked him to bring to him certain little gifts, consisting of as many coloured manâdîl (The Arabic word for handkerchief. These were red, stamped in black of a coarse quality, possibly of the value of a penny) as there were members of our party. Taking these separately in his left hand, he held his little cross over them and blessed them, in the name of each of us in turn, handing them to us as a souvenir of the visit.


It is usual in the East, as I have already noted, always to make presents to visitors; this trifling gift was at the same time a sign of politeness and a symbol of the poverty in which the Bishop lived; it is the form the Bishop’s presents always take, and because of the personal blessing going with it, the little red handkerchief, distributed all over Egypt, is treasured in thousands of homes, doubtless as a sort of holy talisman.


We now saluted the Bishop and withdrew. The chief priest, Abd-el-Sayed, accompanied us to the outer gate, where quite a crowd of natives of that quarter of the town were awaiting our appearance — and before the final leave-taking he formally addressed us, as we stood in the open court, in these words:


“Your visit has brought us great honour this day. The Bishop Amba Abraam, the speaker, and all the people of El Fayoum, take a great delight in your visit. Accept our deep thanks. May God preserve you for ever. Amen.”


So long as any Coptic record has been kept it has been usual to address visitors to the churches and monasteries in this way — generally at vastly greater length.


[…]


After I had written the above sketch, I heard of the death of the sainted Bishop of Fayoum. From friends in Fayoum and in Cairo I have received particulars of his passing. A representative was at once sent from the Patriarch to report on the personal property of the Bishop, and the only things he found were the hand-cross and a walking stick. He had given to the poor all the money he had, so that the chief Copts of the town had to contribute the money to pay the funeral expenses. Over twenty thousand people attended the funeral, all mourning as for a personal friend. The poor people of that countryside are desolate and quite inconsolable. He has been buried in the cemetery of one of the desert monasteries.


I am able to give a purely Coptic version of the Bishop’s life, translated from a little book published in Arabic, since his death, by a Coptic priest who knew him — the Rev. M. A. El-Baramousi El-Saghir:

Amba Abraam was born in a village called Galada, in the Assiout province. His parents were true Christians, and they brought him up on sound Christian principles, which he always followed.

He was sent to a kuttab (or village school). When he left this kuttab he was deeply interested in reading the Bible, Church songs, etc. At the age of nineteen he entered the Monastery of the Virgin Mary, known as Deir El-Moharrac, which is near to Assiout, and of which some speak as the place where Jesus stopped when He fled from Herod the King. He was very popular in the monastery. The monks got very fond of him, especially the Head, the Rev. Abd-El-Malik. The duty of Amba Abraam was, at that time, to receive the visitors and to attend to the sick.

It was necessary to take the opinion of the monks present in the monastery about any one who was going to be nominated as a monk; so the Chief held a meeting of all the monks, and asked their opinion about the character of Amba Abraam, and whether he deserved to be their companion and brother. They all spoke favourably of him, and consequently he was nominated a monk, and was then called Bulos Gahabrial El-Moharrakawi. He has been always a good example in the monastery. He used even at that time to give all he possessed to the poor. He had a strong will, and was able always to rule himself.

There was a Bishop at Minieh at that time called Amba Yakovous. He was very fond of spending his time with the monks. He chose Bulos Gahabrial El-Moharrakawi to be his companion, and wanted him to stay at Minieh. The Chief of the Monastery did not like the monk to live away, but he had to fulfil the duty of obeying the Bishop of Minieh, who was higher in the Church rank; and so Bulos Gahabrial El-Moharrakawi went to Minieh, and was authorised to take charge of the Visitors’ Department, and keep an eye on the Bishop’s house in general.

The Bishop of Minieh used to admire him very much, and some time later, when he wanted to go back to his monastery, the Bishop before he left promoted him to the rank of Reverend, and asked him to pray for him. He encouraged him, and showed him great admiration.

So he lived quietly in his monastery for some time with his brethren, who had great reputation at that time for their piety and purity. Being all admirers of him, they now joined in asking the Patriarch to appoint him Head of the Monastery, and he was officially appointed to this influential position, which enabled him to exercise his generosity.

He continued five years as the Head of the Monastery, during which the institution was known as a shelter for thousands of the poor.

During his tenure of this office he cultivated a four-acre garden, increased the buildings, and raised the morality of the monks, from whom there are now Bishops. The present Bishop of Abyssinia, as well as Amba Locas, Bishop of Keneh, Amba Marcos, Bishop of Esneh, and others, were monks at the monastery under his presidency.

After five years as Chief of the Monastery he resigned, and went to another monastery called Deir-El-Baramous. He was followed by a great number of monks, who could not live without him.

Deir-El-Baramous is one of the oldest monasteries in Egypt. At this last monastery he did not take an active part in managing affairs, but he took apartments for himself and his followers, and engaged himself in prayers and religious study, always showing great sympathy with the poor; he used to share his clothing with the bedouins and fellaheen in the neighbourhood.

In the year 1597 (Coptic) he was chosen Bishop of Fayoum and Gizeh. When he got this important position, he showed great attention to the poor and the widows and orphans, and he lived exactly like one of God’s men. He never cared about wealth. His food was always very simple. He used to spend his nights in a narrow room on a rough bed — he never used a bedstead until the end of his life, when he was strongly advised to do so, on account of his age.

When his name got widely known as the friend of the poor, his house was crowded with needy people, come from every part of the country. Consequently, he brought a nun, who was at one time Head of one of the nunnerys in Cairo, and asked her to take charge of the poor. This woman once thought to give to the Bishop food of a better quality than that given to the poor. This fact was unknown to the Bishop, but one day he decided to go and have his dinner with these poor people. It was a surprise to him to see that the food offered them was different from his own. He therefore approached the nun, and asked the reason why this was done. She did not utter a word in reply. He took the keys from her. She was greatly shocked, and has been lying ill ever since.

I should not be exaggerating if I called him our father Abraham, for his faith and love to strangers; he might be called Moses for his patience; or David for the purity of his heart; or Elijah for the eloquence of his tongue; or Paul for the strength of his proofs.

I once stayed a week with the Bishop of Fayoum. These are the things I saw during my stay. A woman of Balout, a village near Manfalout, in Assiout province, was ill for a very long period of time. She had spent all she possessed on doctors, with no good result. At last she heard the people talking about the Bishop of Fayoum. This woman was doubtful whether the Bishop’s blessing was given only to Christians, as she was not a Christian herself. However, she was taken by four men of her relatives to Fayoum. In addition to all her other ailments, she was dumb.

When they arrived at the Bishop’s house, they laid the woman before him, requesting him to pray for her. So he continued praying for her for three days. After these three days, the woman was able to walk in the streets, and went back to her village, telling the people about the result of the Bishop’s prayers.

Another man who had changed his Christian religion, and left his wife, was brought to him. The Bishop tried in vain to influence him to go back and live with his wife, and follow his original religion. The man did not listen. The Bishop said, “God knows what to do with you.” So the man went, but died shortly afterwards.

I saw great numbers of women coming from all parts, with different diseases, and all were cured through his prayers.

His annual visits to the people of his diocese were unique of their kind. The first thing he used to do when he entered a village, was to ask about its poor people. During his stay in villages he used to think a great deal about the peaceful relations between the community, and do his best to make them live on friendly terms.

He used to examine carefully any candidate for the ministry. He used to consider greatly the people’s will, and unless the candidate was very popular, he would not appoint him. He used to follow the saying of Paul to Timothy, “Do not be hasty in putting your hand on one.” Very often he preferred poor candidates to rich ones. In any case, the approval of all the people was very essential.

In the year 1618 (Coptic) the chief Bishop of Abyssinia visited Egypt. He was one of those nominated monks by the Bishop of Fayoum. After being received in Cairo by the Patriarch and the Khedive, he went through some of the capitals of the provinces. Then he intended to visit his old monastery. He asked his old Bishop to accompany him on this visit. He granted his request. They were joined by the Bishops of Alexandria and Esneh, and others, and they stopped at several places in response to invitations from Coptic notables.

In Abu Kerkasa they were the guests of Adib Bey Wahba, who was until that time without a son. All the Bishops joined in asking the Bishop of Fayoum to pray for him, that God might give him a son. So the Bishop prayed that God would, after a year’s time, give him a son. The Bey believed strongly in the Bishop’s prayer, and after ten months God granted the prayer of the Bishop, and Adib Bey Wahba was granted a son, who is now about twelve years old.

In remembrance of the Bishop’s visit, Adib Bey Wahba used to visit the Bishop every year, and he used to kill a number of beasts for the poor, and give meat and other things to the poor and needful. During recent years, owing to his age, the Bishop was unable to make his tour in the villages.

He was a self-denying man. Once the Patriarch wanted to promote him to the rank of Metropolitan, but he courteously refused it.

What makes the generosity of this Bishop more appreciated, is the fact that he never made a distinction between different religions and creeds. He was always ready to give when asked, and he never delayed a prayer when needed and when requested to make it. Most of his time was spent in praying, especially for the poor.



Adapted from S.H. Leeder, Modern Sons of the Pharaohs, 265-304.

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