Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Ken Parry: Rejoice for Me, O Desert: Fresh Light on the Remains of Nestorius in Egypt

As a result of recent archaeological surveys in the Kharga Oasis in the Western Desert and in the Akhmim region of Upper Egypt by a team from Macquarie University new evidence has come to light regarding Nestorius’ exile and demise in Egypt. The phrase used in the title of this paper is taken from the closing passage of Nestorius’ The Bazaar of Heracleides and is poignant reminder of subsequent attempts to besmirched his name and destroy his remains. Nestorius spent the last days of his exile in Upper Egypt near Akhmim (ancient Panopolis), physically and mentally exhausted from being moved from one place of exile to another, under threat of capture by raiding Nubian (Blemmyes) tribesmen and at the whim of local governors. He probably died in 451 before the Council of Chalcedon began in October of that year, and although his exact place of burial is still unknown, there is sufficient evidence as well as local tradition to pinpoint several possible sites in the Akhmim region. His original place of exile in Egypt was the Kharga (Great) Oasis and evidence relating to a building known locally as the ‘church of Nestorius’ has emerged. We will examine this new material as well as the literary evidence in relation to the fate of Nestorius and his remains. There are various accounts of his death written from different sides of the theological divide. One Coptic source mentions that Apa Shenoute and Nestorius met up again (Shenoute’s famous White Monastery is near Akhmim) and Nestorius was struck down because he would not utter the shibboleth ‘Theotokos’. According to Pseudo-Zachariah in the 6th century Nestorius died a painful death as a result of falling from his mule, while Bar Hebraeus in the 13th century tells of a failed attempt in the 9th century to recover his remains and return them to the Catholicate at Baghdad. We have a notice of a bishop of the Church of the East appointed for Egypt by the Catholicos in the 8th century, and a report of an East Syrian monastery church south of Cairo converted into a mosque during the caliphate of al-Hakim (996-1021). Also of interest is the fact that there was community of the Church of the East at Damietta as late as the 14th century. More research on the Coptic and Syriac sources may reveal a reference to a pilgrimage to the tomb of Nestorius while future archaeology could provide additional material evidence for his exile and death in Egypt

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