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Biblio-art: How Polish artist adorns Egyptian monastery with Christian designs

“My work is meant to tell spiritual stories of this mountain and of Christianity in general.” -Mariusz Dybich

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Biblio-art: How Polish artist adorns Egyptian monastery with Christian designs
Polish artist Mario, sculptor of St. Simon the Tanner Monastery complex, poses for a picture alongside sculptures at the church in the Egyptian capital Cairo's eastern hillside Mokkatam district. (Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP)

Whistling a tune, Mario nimbly clambered up the scaffolding enveloping part of the rock-hewn St. Simon Monastery atop Cairo’s Mokkatam hills to add the final touches to his latest sculpture.

He had spent more than two decades carving the rugged insides of the seven cave churches and chapels of the monastery with designs inspired by biblical stories.

It was all done to fulfil the wishes of the monastery’s parish priest who met Mario in the early 1990s in Cairo. The Polish artist, who had arrived in Egypt earlier on an educational mission, was then looking for an opportunity to serve God at the monastery.

Biblio-art: How Polish artist adorns Egyptian monastery with Christian designs
Polish artist Mario, sculptor of St. Simon the Tanner Monastery complex, works on a scene at the church in the Egyptian capital Cairo’s eastern hillside Mokkatam district. (Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP)

“I want you to turn the mountain into an open Bible,” Mario recalls the priest telling him.

Back then, Mario had no experience in sculpting. But he bought an electric drill and chisel hammer and within days had finished his first sculpture.

It told the story of the miracle of the moving of Mokkatam mountain, a feat said to have been done by a 10th century craftsman known as Simon the Tanner to prove the strength of his Christian faith. The monastery is named after him.     

READ: Rwanda’s Ubumuntu Arts Festival and the celebration of humanity

“I had no idea sculpting was a talent I have, but it turned out (to be) as you can see,” said Mario as he showed off his work around the walls of a vast cavern which regularly hosts gatherings at the monastery.

Across one, he sketched another chronicle about St. Simon, shown brandishing a needle before gouging his eyes out to punish himself for lusting after a woman.

Other walls recount stories from the New Testament.

“It can take between five days up to half a year to finish a sculpture, depending on the design,” he said.

‘Masterpiece’ – 

“My work is meant to tell spiritual stories of this mountain and of Christianity in general,” he said. “I want them to live on for future generations.”

Biblio-art: How Polish artist adorns Egyptian monastery with Christian designs
Polish artist Mario, sculptor of St. Simon the Tanner Monastery complex, works on a scene relief depicting the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, at the church in the Egyptian capital Cairo’s eastern hillside Mokkatam district. (Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP)

Mario says he kept practicing, sculpting for more than 23 years, and completed about 70 sculptures adding to the monastery’s allure by giving it an ancient look.

Construction of the complex started only in the 1970s, a thousand years after the story of moving Mokkatam mountain believed to have taken place in November 1979.

Building began after the monastery’s current parish priest known as Father Samaan, Arabic for Simon, visited the area and decided to turn it into a worship place.

READ: How South African teens are using radio to fight gun-related crimes

“I also thought then why not carve the miracles of Jesus on the mountain. It will benefit the people and (create) a lively depiction of these stories,” said Father Samaan.

Resting at the pinnacle of Mokkatam mountain, the monastery has a commanding view of the megalopolis of Cairo. Unsurprisingly though, reaching the top of the mountain is no small feat.

The gruelling trip to the top requires visitors to pass through the teeming slum area known as the city of “Garbage Collectors” of uneven roads and malodorous piles of garbage strewn along the way.

Despite the tough journey, the monastery welcomes thousands for services weekly as well as on holidays and celebrations of the Copts, Egypt’s Christian minority which makes up about 10 per cent of the country’s Muslim-majority population.

“The monastery is now a masterpiece,” Samaan said in his office in one of the churches of the monastery. “We have the pyramids and the artefacts in the Egyptian museum. But they are all ancient but this monastery is new.”

‘Most comfortable’ –

For Mario, whose real name is Mariusz Dybich, he grew accustomed to life in Cairo and work at the monastery.

Besides sculpting, he even gives an adrenaline-spiking High Ropes sport course at the monastery.

Biblio-art: How Polish artist adorns Egyptian monastery with Christian designs
(Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP)

“It is surprising to many that a European man willingly leaves his country to work in the city of Garbage Collectors in Cairo,” said Mario. “But I believe it’s God who sent me here.”

READ: Contents of two ancient pyramids unveiled in Egypt

The 51-year-old is originally from the city of Krakow in southern Poland but has been living in Egypt for nearly three decades now. He has over the years become known to everyone in the monastery and the thousands of people living in the city of “Garbage Collectors” by his nickname, Mario. 

He married an Egyptian woman and has two girls. He mastered over the years the Arabic language and developed a particularly strong command of the Egyptian dialect.

He witnessed in Egypt the 2011 uprising which toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak and ensuing years of political and economic turmoil.

Yet he does not see himself settling anywhere else.

“I just love living here. It’s where I am most comfortable among the simple people of Egypt. I would not leave unless God decides otherwise.”

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Practitioners worry as Nigeria’s tradition of facial marking declines

Traditional practitioners, known locally as “oloola” are worried about the decline of facial scarification, but critics remain opposed to it

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Practitioners worry as Nigeria's tradition of facial marking declines
A Muslim lady bearing tribal marks on her cheeks poses in Lagos. - The incisions have traditionally been performed in an array of styles by different ethnic groups in Nigeria. The scarring is done by burning or cutting of the skin during childhood. From the Yoruba in the southwest to Igbo in the east and Hausa in the north, the marks serve different purposes: identification, healing, spiritual protection, beautification. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

When six-year-old Naziru Abdulwahab was abducted from northern Nigeria, his kidnapper transported him across the country and tried to sell him — but the potential buyer backed out. 

What saved the boy from the child-smuggling rings, police said, was the traditional facial scarrings on his cheeks that he had been marked with at birth.

Fearing they would make him too recognisable, the would-be purchaser refused to buy him.

After suspicions were then raised by local residents, the trafficker was arrested and the child rescued.

The incident in June shone a spotlight on the practice of tribal markings that has been fading since the 1980s in the fast-changing country of nearly 200 million people. 

Traditional practitioners, known locally as “oloola”, said it showed the benefits of the practice that critics have long argued is unsafe and child abuse.

Practitioners worry as Nigeria's tradition of facial marking declines
A man bearing tribal marks on his cheeks speaks in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

“Our taste for foreign things has robbed us of our customs,” Mashopa Adekunle, an oloola in the southwestern city of Ibadan, told reporters. 

“Nobody wants to put tribal marks on his child anymore. People see the practice as archaic, fetish and unhygienic.”

On the battlefield – 

The incisions have traditionally been performed in an array of styles by different ethnic groups in Nigeria. 

The scarring is done — both to boys and girls — by burning or cutting of the skin during childhood. 

From the Yoruba in the south-west to Igbo in the south-east and Hausa in the north, the marks serve different purposes: identification, healing, spiritual protection, beautification.

Prominent figures, including ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo, have tribal marks on their cheeks.  

“In the days of inter-communal wars, tribal marks helped to identify fighters. You would know who were your friends and enemies in the battlefield,” said Adekunle. 

He agreed that the traditional practitioners needed to move with the times if they wanted to remain relevant — pointing to the growing numbers of Nigerian youths embracing western-style tattoos. 

“The oloola have to do more to convince their critics that their tools are safe for use,” he said.

‘Facial mutilation’ –

Opponents have pushed for a country-wide ban on facial markings.

In 2017, the Nigerian Senate debated a bill for the “prohibition of facial mutilation” that would have introduced punishments for those who perform it and protection for those at risk. 

Proponents of the move argued that the “barbaric” practice left people disfigured for life and put them at risk of contracting HIV. 

The proposed legislation is currently bogged down in parliamentary procedure.

The practice of facial markings has been waning for around 40 years, said the Oloola Descendant Association in Ibadan, whose members barely carry out one case a month now, compared to about 10 in the 1980s.

Sefiu Yusuf, the association’s head, insisted that there was still a role for traditional methods, as he showed reporters his metal instruments wrapped in white handkerchiefs at his dark clinic.

A man holds native instruments for tribal markings at the family compound of the Oloola Descendant Association, traditional practitioners of tribal markings in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

He inherited his position from his father and said his family had long been known for performing circumcisions. 

“Only yesterday, a boy was brought here because our patrons believe in our ability,” Yusuf told reporters, at his dilapidated home in the centre of the city. 

“Even doctors and nurses seek our help when they have complicated cases.” 

He dismissed criticism that his practices were unsafe.

“It’s a smear campaign by NGOs and people in government to… put us out of business,” he said.

For another Ibadan-based oloola, Babatunde Hamzat, the decline of the tradition has had serious consequences for the Nigerian society. 

He said its loss had contributed to the high levels of crime in the country. 

“In the time of our fathers, a child with tribal marks would not want to commit any crime for fear of being identified,” he said. 

“But nowadays, people commit crimes with levity since there is nothing to identify them with.”

‘Preserve family identity’ –

Trader Dauda Lawal, 60, proudly sports the facial marks his parents gave him as a child and says he was happy to do the same to his offspring.  

“Being the first son, my parents gave me tribal marks. Though the practice is dying, I still made sure my first son got it to preserve the family identity,” he said. 

Practitioners worry as Nigeria's tradition of facial marking declines
Head of the Oloola Descendant Association, traditional practitioners of tribal markings Sefiu Yusuf, speaks about the benefits of the customs in Ibadan, north of Lagos. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Lawal claimed his wife married him because of the facial marks he bears. 

But he is not sure if his son will follow suit.

“I will be happy if he does a similar thing to his own son because it’s part of our culture that should not be allowed to die,” he said.

That positive view of facial marking is not shared by everyone.

“I can never allow tribal marks on my child’s face because the practice is old-fashioned and unhealthy,” said Lagos beautician Damilola Ajayi.

She said that she was firmly opposed on both health and aesthetic grounds. 

“In these days of HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases, it’s risky to use unsterilised instruments such as the ones used by the oloola on a child’s body,” she said.

“I also cannot date, not to talk of marrying, a man with tribal marks. It’s disgusting.”

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Kenya’s fossil treasury contains unearthed mysteries

Museum staff knew the bones were something special – they just didn’t know what exactly.

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Newly-discovered giant 'simbakubwa kutokaafrika

The only hint that something extraordinary lay inside the plain wooden drawer in an unassuming office behind Nairobi National Museum was a handwritten note stuck to the front: “Pull Carefully”.

Inside, a monstrous jawbone with colossal fangs grinned from a bed of tattered foam – the only known remains of a prehistoric mega-carnivore, larger than a polar bear, that researchers only this year declared a new species.

“This is one-of-a-kind,” said Kenyan palaeontologist Job Kibii, holding up the 23-million-year-old bones of the newly-discovered giant, Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, whose unveiling made headlines around the world.

But the remarkable fossils were not unearthed this year, or even this decade. They weren’t even found this century. For nearly 40 years, the specimens – proof of the existence of Africa’s largest-ever predator, a 1,500 kilograms meat-eater that dwarfed later hunters like lions – lived in a nondescript drawer in downtown Nairobi.

Museum staff knew the bones were something special – they just didn’t know what exactly. A source of intrigue dusted off on occasion for guests, Simbakubwa lay in wait, largely forgotten. How did these fossils, first excavated on a dig in western Kenya in the early 1980s, go unrecognised for so long?

Kibii – who presides over the National Museums of Kenya’s palaeontology department, a collection unrivalled in East Africa and one of the world’s great fossil treasuries – has a pretty good idea. “We have tonnes and tonnes of specimens… that haven’t been analysed, Definitely there are things waiting to be discovered,” he said.

Out of space

The main wing has changed little since legendary paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey first started stockpiling his finds there in the early 1960s. A card-based filing system is still used to find a specific fossil among the trove, the entries written by hand. 

Reconstruction image shows a Simbakubwa kutokaafrika
This handout reconstruction image released on April 18, 2019, by Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, shows a Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, a gigantic mammalian carnivore that lived 22 million years ago in Africa and was larger than a polar bear. (Photo by Mauricio ANTON / Ohio University / AFP)

But the collection has grown exponentially, faster than Kibii and his team can keep up. “We’ve run out of space,” said Kibii, pausing between dusty archival shelves crammed floor to ceiling with finds, dating back more than half a century. “In this section alone, we have more than a million specimens.” 

Gigantic skulls of ancient crocodiles compete for space with a bygone species of horned giraffe. Nearby, the behemoth tusks of an early African elephant take up valuable real estate. Even the windowsills are littered with the petrified remains of all manner of weird and wonderful creatures. 

Between 7,000 and 10,000 new fossils arrive at the lab every year, Kibii says, overwhelming his 15 staff who must painstakingly clean and log each specimen. By law, fossils uncovered in Kenya must go to the museum for “accessioning” – the process of labelling, recording and storing for future generations. The backlog is enormous.

Chipping away

In a dark room, a lone staff in a protective mask blast away rock from fossil using an air-powered brush, as Kenyan pop tunes crackle through an old radio. Outside the door, metal chests sent from dig sites filled to the brim await his magic touch – literally years of work stretching before him.

If a specific expert is not on hand to identify a specimen, things can get wrongly categorised or waylaid. In some cases, they’re sent to the dreaded “waiting area”, where faded cardboard boxes, sagging with unknown and abandoned fossils, gather dust.

Pay Attention: Tutankhamun gilded coffin receives restoration in Egypt

“We have fossils from the 1980s that have not been accessioned,” said collections manager Francis Muchemi, chipping away at a giant elephant molar.

Cradle of humanity

Simbakubwa met a similar fate. Thought to be a type of hyena, it was filed away in a backroom and unstudied for decades, until stumbled upon by American researchers. Specific finds unearthed at one of Kenya’s many digs by researchers writing academic papers are given priority and fast-tracked for assessment by the museum.

Even today though, the museum lacks specialists and resources. Kibii is one of just seven palaeontologists in Kenya. He trained in South Africa because there was no course available at home.

“It’s important because Kenya is the cradle of human evolution,” said Muchemi, who learned his skills on the job. “We have very few Kenyans doing this job. Ninety-nine per cent of the people who work here are foreign.”

Kibii said palaeontology was considered a lower priority than conserving Africa’s endangered wildlife. “This one has been in the ground for millions of years. What are you saving it from?” he said, of the prevailing attitude to the science.

Pay Attention: Biblio-art: How Polish artist adorns Egyptian monastery with Christian designs

He hopes to acquire collapsible shelves to create space in the collection. Even better, a micro-CT scanner – a powerful tool driving breakthroughs in the world of palaeontology – would allow a fresh look at the museum’s most-forgotten corners.

“I always wonder what lies in there on some of these shelves,” Kibii said. “Simbakubwa is telling a new story. What if, among these thousands, we have 10, 20, new stories that are lying, waiting to be told? That’s always the mystery.”

WATCH: Kenya’s fossil treasury contains unearthed mysteries

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Tutankhamun gilded coffin receives restoration in Egypt

The golden coffin of the boy king will be displayed along with other Tutankhamun artefacts towards the end of next year

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Egyptian archaeologists restore the coffin and mummy of King Tutankhamun

Egypt displayed on Sunday the gilded coffin of Tutankhamun, under restoration for the first time since the boy king’s tomb was discovered in 1922. The restoration process began in mid-July after the three-tiered coffin was transferred to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo from the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, southern Egypt.

“We are showing you a unique historical artefact, not just for Egypt but for the world,” Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Enany told a press conference at the new museum, which overlooks the famed Giza Pyramids.

The golden coffin of the boy king will be displayed along with other Tutankhamun artefacts towards the end of next year when Egypt’s new mega-museum is opened to the public. The restoration is expected to take around eight months.

The outer gilded wood coffin stands at 2.23 metres (7.3 feet) and is decorated with a depiction of the boy king holding the pharaonic symbols the flail and crook, according to the ministry. In the last century, the coffin has “developed cracks in its gilded layers of plaster, especially those of the lid and base”.

Famed British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the 18th dynasty king in Luxor in 1922. Sunday’s announcement comes after the controversy the Pharoah courted in early July when a 3,000-year-old Tutankhamun artefact was sold in London for $6 million.

Furious Egyptian officials condemned the sale and asked the international police agency Interpol to trace the artefact which it deems looted.

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