Egypt Today, April 1997

Preserving Pharos Psalms



Dr Ragheb Moftah has spent a lifetime gathering and recording the hymns chanted in Coptic Masses. Now in a forthcoming book, his historic work has preserved what has existed primarily as oral tradition since pharaonic times.

The chants rise and flutter soothingly on clear monks' voices, neither very high nor very low. As the 22-year-old audio cassette whirls, the vowels of Coptic words, part of the liturgy of St. Basil, stretch on in constant melodic variation. The chants rise again, yet so effortlessly that they remain strangely level and serene. They carry words for Christ on tunes once used to praise the gods of the pharaohs, in what remains of the pharaohs' language. 

The liturgy of St. Basil, used in Coptic Masses for all but the four great feasts of the year, has recently been recorded for the first time on six hour-long audio cassettes by Dr. Ragheb Moftah, head of the music and hymns department at Cairo's Institute of Higher Coptic Studies. Over the last seven decades, Moftah has also recorded an additional 24 hours of Coptic chants on oldfashioned paper reels and made numerous other recordings while supervising the transcription of the liturgy for publication.

Dr. Ragheb Mofteh (left), now 98, end the lote musical scholor Ernest Newlandsmith (above) began notating the music of the coptic Church in 1927.
Moftah has lived near the pyramids in Giza since the 1940s. His travels have taken him to Aswan (right) for a religious retreat in the 1920s and to Venice (left) with his sister Farida and her husband.

Thanks mainly to Moftah, now 98 and still working, most of the musical heritage of the Coptic Church, which springs from perhaps the oldest musical tradition in the world, has finally been preserved.

By the end of this year, the complete music of St. Basil's liturgy, accompanied by its words in Coptic and translation into English and Arabic, will be published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press. Amassed in a manuscript of 1,200 pages, the words and music of the liturgy have never been published in a standardized form in their entirety. Their publication now is a culmination of Moftah's lifetime of work and a successful collaboration with Head of the Coptic Church Pope Shenouda III, Director of the AUC Press Mark Linz and two scholars who have devoted many years to saving this music with Moftah: American Dr. Martha Roy and Hungarian Dr. Margit Toth. Although all these people played important parts, the force that made all this possible was Moftah - though he, like the rest, would probably credit a higher power.

Moftah, whom the Coptic patriarch has called "the father of hymnology," has been doggedly gathering, recording and transcribing this ephemeral mass of material since meeting a young English ethnomusicologist named Ernest Newlandsmith 71 years ago. His extraordinary longevity is dwarfed only by the age of his subject. According to Moftah, Coptic Church chant is the oldest liturgical music in the world. Its Christian origins are tied to those of the Coptic Church itself, which appeared with St. Mark in Alexandria in roughly 45 A.D. But at least some of the new church hymns were based on rnelodies used in odes to the pharaonic era deities of Isis and Osiris in their temples.

A number of pharaonic elements have remained in Coptic music. One of the most basic traditions in Coptic chant, for example, is that it is passed on orally by succeeding generations of blind cantors who are believed to have greater sensitivity in hearing than those who can see. The use of professional blind singers was apparently common in pharaonic temples. The famous hymn "Kyrie Eleison" may have descended frorn prayers to Aton, the sun god. And the techniques of vocalise and melisma (drawing out the sound of a single vowel or syllable for long periods, with either regular or irregular rhythm) in Coptic chant may have corne from the hymn of the Middle Kingdom.

In its early days, the church discouraged the use of most musical instruments, but the harp (the Greek kithara or lyra) was allowed.

Gradually cymbals, drums, flutes and clarinets were used, as was the sistrum, a primitive rattle sacred to the goddesses Bastet Hathor and Isis in former times. All these devices had been common in Ancient Egypt. New instruments were used as well. A kind of bell, the naqus, struck with an iron rod, was a special Coptic invention and may have been the prototype for the bells adopted by the Latin church in Rome. Early in the Christian era, the Egyptian harp also appeared in Europe - first in Ireland, then Italy. Eventually, the harp became Ireland's national symbol and one of the most popular instruments on the continent. By the modern era, the Coptic liturgy had become almost entirely vocal. Today, only two instruments are commonly used - small hand cymbals called sagat and the metal triangle or muthallath. Percussion instruments such as these were frequently used in certain basic rituals in pharaonic temples.

The music's pharaonic roots are also found in the Coptic language, the direct descendent of the language of Ancient Egypt.

It was spoken widely in the country until at least the llth century, but Coptic and GrecoCoptic liturgy survived even longer and, while Arabic began to replace the older tongues in recent centuries, the music's core has remained largely unchanged. A rival with Ancient Egyptian melodies, however, was early jewish music, which in Egypt may have been influenced by the music in the pagan temples. The chant 'khouab, khouab, khouab' (Coptic for holy, holy, holy) may have come from this heritage, among others.

While Coptic chant predates Islam, the work of Coptic cantors and the recitation of the Holy Quran probably influenced each other, and both share common elements with the ancient, and continuing, jewish institution of master singers in the synagogue. Professional training for Coptic chanters did not arise until 1850 under Patriarch Cyril IV. One of Moftah's most important tasks was the teaching, for many years, of hymns and responses to aspiring church singers at the Coptic Clerical College next to the Institute of Higher Coptic Studies and at a summer school in Alexandria. He is said to have had an infallible ear for a wrong note and would correct anyone he heard straying from the traditional melodies and rhythms of the music. But how Moftah himself was drawn to his self-ordained role as the savior of this tradition can only be understood by knowing him and his roots.

Born into an upper-class family in Faggala, Cairo on December 21, 1898, Moftah descends from a line of prominent figures in the Coptic community. One of them, Moftah's great-greatuncle Yusuf, received an imploring letter from Napoleon Bonaparte during the French occupation of Egypt attesting to his personal prestige across religions lines. Bonaparte asked Yusuf to use his influence over both the Copts and the Muslims in his quarter of El Darb El-Was' in Cairo to calm anti-French disturbances there in about 1799. Unfortunately, it is not known how Yusuf replied. Ironically, it was only during Bonaparte's ill-fated expedition that the first attempts at transcribing the orally transmitted music of the Coptic Church into the Westem notation system were made. This was done by Guillaume Andre Villoteau, who gave some five pages of Description de l'Egypte in 1809 to the Coptic "Alleluia."

The emotional support Moftah received from his family, includinq his father, Haboshi (above), and sister Forida (left) helped build up the endurance he would need to complete his life's work. In the early years, Moftah and Newlandsmith spent nine winters with master contor Mu'allim Mikha'il Jirjis al-Batanuni (below) recording his chants on paper.

Moftah’s father, Habashi (who Moftah says kept Napoleon's letter in their house), was an official in Egypts railroad company. Described as extremely elegant, he died in 1933. But Moftah says the greatest influence on his life - probably, it seems, more emotionally than intellectually - came from his

Moftah (above, circa 1960s) and Nazir Jayyad (right), now known as Pope Shenouda III, have been close friends since Jayyad's school days. So close, that on the night Jayyad entered the monastery in 1954, he paid a special visit to Moftah. In 1963, Moftah married Mary Gabriel Rizq (middle).

mother, Labiba. They remained very close until her death, shortly before that of her husband. Luckily, Moftah says, though his father was strict and his mother indulgent, both his parents were very supportive of any career he might choose.

Over the decades, Moftah has labored quietly, discussing his recordings and findings with colleagues at the Institute of Higher Coptic Studies (above, circu 1970s). By 1995, he had attracted the attention of James Billington (right, third from right) of the Library of Congress.

Of Moftah's nine siblings, his brothers generally grew up to be distinguished, but his three sisters were more dramatic - sometimes daring, even formidable. Several years before activists Hoda Shaarawi and Ceza Nabaraoui dropped their face veils at the harbor in Alexandria in 1923, launching Egyptian feminism, Moftah’s oldest sister, Victoria, rode to school in a carriage without a head covering. At that time, even Coptic women used to cover their hair. Another sister, Farida, with the help of Shaarawi and other prominent citizens, established the first orphanage for girls in Egypt. Throughout her life, Farida wielded such influence over Moftah that he never dared address her by name, calling her simply "my sister." A third sister, Blanche, married the prominent lawyer Kamil Sidqi, who became minister of finance in one of the Wafdist cabinets and was awarded the rank of pasha.

At an early age, Moftah found himself enchanted by the haunting music of the Coptic Mass. However, he first chose a more conventional career and left for Germany in 1919, where he studied agriculture in Bonn for four years. He returned to Egypt where, in 1926, he met someone who would utterly transform his life. Newlandsmith, a clergyman's son who composed music and played the violine was just over 50 when he encountered Moftah while passing through Cairo en route to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Newlandsmith, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, was himself larger than life. A monastic eccentric for 20 years, in 1940 he married Maria Romero, a British diplomat's daughter who reportedly believed her ancestors came from the lost continent of Atlantis. Described by his biographer as "a philosopher, a mystical theologian, a violinist, a composer, an author, a lecturer" and "a reformer," Newlandsmith began to call himself "the Hermit of Mount Cannel" after his sojourn in Palestine. The sobriquet stuck, and in his later years it was often used in announcements of his many concerts and lectures.

On his return from Palestine to England, Newlandsmith stopped back in Egypt and again met Moftah. Finding they had a love of religions music in common, Moftah saw in the ascetic Englishman a superior musical scholar. He invited him to stay on his houseboat on the Nile, at what is now the site of the Semiramis Intercontinental and Helnan Shepheard hotels, and undertake a great project together. Moftah proposed that they collaborate to notate the music of the Coptic Church. They would begin with the liturgy of St. Basil.

With background rhythm from the River Nile and singing mainly by the great blind master cantor Mu'allim Mikha'il jirjis alBatanuni, the two men spent nine winters listening to these chants, day in, day out. Newlandsmith labored to get it all down on paper, scribbling madly while sitting crosslegged in a corner on the floor. Meanwhile, Moftah, who paid all expenses, including Newlandsmith's travel and living costs, recorded the music on paper tape reels.

Under Moftah's guidance, Newlandsmith strove to strip away what he contemptuously termed "an appalling debris of Arabic ornamentation" to get at the pure core of original Coptic psalmody. He declared that, "After piercing through this unfortunate outer cloak, the true Egyptian idiom emerged. The music is not Arabic, it is not Turkish and it is not Greek - often as these elements appear." A true believer in the pharaonic roots of Coptic incantation, Newlandsmith added, "It seems impossible to doubt but that this is Ancient Egyptian. Moreover, it is great music: grand, pathetic, noble and deeply spirituel."

Not only Moftah and Newlandsmith worried about preserving the music's integrity. When one cantor on the houseboat asked if it was dangerous to present this music in the potentially corrupting Western environment, al-Batanuni replied, "Do not fear my brother, no one in Europe could possibly sing it!"

Newlandsmith also had a great regard for his patron, Moftah, whom he described as a "highly cultured Coptic effendi" and whom he credited as "the initiator of these extensive musical researches in the Near East." He also saw Moftah as a bridge between nations, "a man of very remarkable gifts, a leading spirit in many of the higher reforms of Egypt and a thinker whose work in the near future may count for much in establishing a happier understanding between Egypt and the people of England." It is not known what work

Newlandsmith had in mind exactly, but presumably it was about Moftah's contributions to explaining the likely link between Ancient Egyptian and Western music.

In 1931, they stopped briefly to complete Newlandsmith's return to England together. There they lectured on the glories of Coptic music - its first recognition in the West since it reached Ireland with Egyptian missionaries around the fifth century - at Oxford and Cambridge universities, among other places. Once, at Oxford, they had a special visitor in the audience - a young physicist named Albert Einstein. The lectures drew many notices in the press, which seized on the theme of Western music's hitherto neglected Egyptian roots.

In 1996, Moftah, Dr. Margit Toth (left) und Dr. Mortha Roy signed an agreement with Mark Linz, director of AUC Press (standing) to publish the complete music of St. Basil's liturgy. Writer and Arabic translator Peter Theroux visited with Moftah (right, center) and the choir at the Institute of Higher Coptic Studies in the early 1990s.

Moftah and Newlandsmith made their way back to Cairo, more deterrnined than ever to finish the daunting enterprise. There were great successes and sadly missed opportunities as well. For a brief while, their work intrigued Béla Bàrtok, who visited Egypt in 1932 to attend a giant conference on Arab music sponsored by King Fouad. The great Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist corresponded with them before his arrival, promising to work with them when he came. Before they could begin, however, Bàrtok was called away to a more urgent project in Turkey and never returned. Despite this disappointment, by 1936, with Moftah's expert organizing of the various singers, some 16 volumes of music were transcribed. These include "special songs for the various feasts and fasts, and special songs reserved for high church officiels" according to University of Utah ethnomusicologist Marian Robertson, writing in the Coptic Encyclopedia. The liturgy of St. Basil, whose music Moftah describes as "plain, like Coptic painting and frescos - simple and captivating and deeply spirituel," was still a work in progress.

Devotion is what has kept Moftah going in his drive to preserve this complex and elusive music. As recordings did not exist, Moftah and Newlandsmith, followed by the German Hans Hickmann and the Frenchman Rene Menard in the 1940s, had to recruit singers to perform the same material over and over again in order to copy it properly. Often, there were many competing versions of the same songs, varying from subtly to vastly different. Finally, after Moftah established the music section of the Institute of Higher Coptic Studies in 1954 and began taping the songs on more modern equipment, it became easier to standardise the versions for transcription and for use in Holy Mass.

Moftah's life went through many phases, though apparently undisturbed by the turbulence around him - World War II, the 1952 Revolution, wars with Israel and, finally, the uncertainty of peace. In his youth a dapper figure who loved the opera and dressing up, he gradually settled for simple clothes and a monkish lifestyle. Though he wed Mary Gabriel Rizq, now 70, in 1963, in the villa they still occupy near the pyramids in Giza, "The marriage has never been consummated," he says. "I just needed someone to look after me." Those who have seen them together say they lead a life of obvious contentment, harmony and mutual affection.

The efforts of musical scholars Roy and Toth have been invaluable. Roy, 84, is fluent in Arabic, Coptic and German and holds a master's in musicology from Columbia University, a subject she now teaches at the Coptic Seminary in Cairo. Toth, 76, is the former head of the ethnomusicology department at the University of Budapest. The two women have worked together on and off since 1970, transcribing the music and transliterating the words. Moftah selects the songs while Roy, working with Anba Gregorius, a cleric who specializes in translating the liturgical texts, transliterates the Coptic, Greek and Arabic words into Roman script. Toth transcribes the music into the Western system of notation. Yet, after many years of complex collaboration, by the mid-1990s they were still unsure what would become of their work. Intricate negotiations to arrange publication with the AUC Press and the church seemed to be bogged down in technical details unto Moftah sought the help of his longtime friend Pope Shenouda III. When he learned of their plight, Pope Shenouda is said to have declared, "This music is the property of the church and not of any one man." The patriarch proved to be the catalyse for the publishing and copyright agreements.

Another admirer of Moftah's work is James Billington, head of the Library of Congress in Washington. In a May 1995 visit to Cairo, Billington threw a reception in Moftah's honor at AUC. He called for Moftah's legacy of recordings and the 16 volumes he transcribed with Newlandsmith to be kept at the library, and to be added to his own pet project - a survey of the world's musical heritage. "Your work is important not for the Coptic Church or Egypt alone, but all humanity," Billington told Moftah. Since then, Moftah has signed agreements with the Library of Congress to preserve all of his collected recordings and transcriptions.

In addition to the six audio cassettes of St. Basil's liturgy, this includes recordings on 24 reels of paper-based tape of the liturgy of St. Gregory, traditionary used for feasts of the Epiphany, Nativity and Easter. These are now being rerecorded on cassette and digitalized at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Since November 1996, the Library of Congress has also been conducting an oral history project with Moftah in which he and his niece Laurence are interviewed in Arabic on videotape about his work. Moftah appears happy in the recording sessions and, in a retum to earlier ways, always elegantly dressed. His mind and memory are clear, his eyesight and hearing are good, and his voice is strong. He is a remarkably boyish man with a wise face, features straight from an Ancient Egyptian wall painting and a very infections laugh.

The publishing and copyright agreements 
may never have been signed without the
influence of the Coptic patriarch seen here 
with Moftah and Rizq in 1995. 

Laurence, who is head of the reference department at the AUC Library, became involved in her uncle's work in 1979. "I was inspired by the desire to prevent what happened to my Uncle Aziz [Moftah's brother] - whose 4,000-page opus in four volumes on St. Mark vanished when he died - from happening to Uncle Ragheb." She was determined to prevent Moftah's work from going unrecorded and unprotected by copyright. To this end, she has served as his all-round assistant and advocate for the past 18 years. With his agreements with both the AUC Press and the Library of Congress - the latter of which grants Moftah copyright to all the material on audio tape and to the music in Newlandsmith's 16 folios of transcriptions her mission has been accomplished.

And there's more to come. In the last two years, working quietly with "a very talented deacon" at his home, Moftah has restored about two-thirds of the recently rediscovered Coptic liturgy of St. Cyril. According to Roy and Toth, the liturgy, which is used for Grand Friday (the Friday before Palm Sunday), was believed to have been almost totally lost over the last 50 years due to the deaths of the last surviving cantons who knew this music.

But who will follow? Moftah thinks that for the most part, his work is done. "I did what 1 was obliged to do, and it's finished," he declared at the end of a videotaped interview for the Library of Congress late last year. Without any trace of fatigue, he added, "Praise be to God." ET

Raymond Stock, a doctoral student in Arabic literature at the University of Pennsylvania, interviewed Ragheb Moftah on videotape in 1996 and 1997 as an oral history project for the Library of Congress. He is currently writing a biography of Egyptian NobeI Prize winner in literature Naguib Mahfouz for Farrar, Straus and Giroux book publishers in New York.

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