Restoration of Relics Miff Some

Wednesday, February 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) — The black-robed, bearded Coptic priest clasped four candles in his hands to help him see in the dark of his ancient church. In the candlelight's gloom, he appeared a dramatic, angry figure.

``It's a crime,'' Father Morcos Aziz Khalil says.

The target of his wrath was not unbelievers or sinners. It was the engineers, workers and bureaucrats who were involved in an $8 million restoration at Cairo's 4th-century Hanging Church.

Father Morcos' quarrel with Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities, which has for months played out in the local press as the restoration neared completion, harks back to past, widely publicized controversies over the quality of work on Egyptian monuments. It also echoes similar debates around the world, such as the storm when art critics complained that restorers working on Rome's Sistine Chapel trampled on Michelangelo's intentions.

Passions generally become inflamed when, with the best of intentions, restorers set out to touch up history.

Abdullah Al-Attar, head of the Islamic and Coptic monuments department of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, says restoration work has saved the Hanging Church from ``serious danger.'' The church was badly damaged in a 1992 earthquake.

``The work on the church was done by experts who have won recognition from many parts of the world,'' Al-Attar says. ``We know what we are doing. We respect Father Morcos and hold him in high esteem, but we are the specialists.''

Father Morcos may be no restoration expert, but he has a fierce love for the church with which he has been associated for 21 years.

The Hanging Church is the most potent symbol of Egypt's ancient Christian heritage and is particularly revered by the Copts. Copts, members of one of the world's oldest Christian communities, account for about 10 percent of Egypt's population of some 60 million, which is predominately Muslim.

Once the seat of the Coptic Patriarchate and a medieval center of learning, the Hanging Church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It takes its name from its precarious perch across two bastions of the Roman fortress of Babylon in Cairo's ancient Christian quarter. Supported in large part by beams of wood, it contains icons dating back to the 18th century, and 14th century screens carved of ebony wood and ivory inlay.

Bringing his candles close to a church wall, Father Morcos shows a visitor that very little is left of a wall painting depicting the birth of Christ and thought to date back to the 12th or 13th century.

``They stripped most of the walls with chisels, destroying multiple layers of frescoes painted over centuries.''

The wall was stripped down to bare stones in preparation for a new coat of plaster.

Cataloging what he terms irreparable damage done in three years of restoration work, he says foundation stones are being eroded by chlorine used to treat water trapped under the church to protect workers against disease. The church's twin towers, he laments, have been virtually replaced with new materials.

Al-Attar of the antiquities council refuses to discuss any of Father Morcos' specific complaints, but says: ``Whenever there is work, mistakes are made. But we correct our mistakes and also have to deal with the results of improper restoration work done by the church itself in the past.''

Abdul-Haleem Noureddin, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities between 1993 and 1996, says a ``crisis of trust'' has developed between Father Morcos and the government.

``There also is a lack of efficient supervision of the work,'' says Noureddin, who now is dean of the Faculty of Antiquities in the oasis town of Fayoum, southwest of Cairo.

Wolfgang Mayer, a restoration expert at the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, says the ``pressure of deadlines'' led the Antiquities Council to contract large construction companies for the Hanging Church project. But the large companies, he says, may lack the restoration expertise of smaller, more specialized companies.

``They are certainly better than they were, say, two years ago, but I don't understand why such work should go to big construction companies rather than small ones with plenty of time on their hands,'' says Mayer, who also teaches restoration at Cairo University.

Al-Attar says the government is just as passionate about the Hanging Church as its priest.

``We work for our history and to safeguard our heritage. I love monuments just as I love my own children,'' Al-Attar says. ``We have spent about 30 million pounds (about $8 million) on the church and it is just one of thousands of sites we have in Egypt. I think that speaks volumes about our commitment.''