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THE TERM ‘COPT’ IS ETHNICO-RELIGIOUS

October 15, 2017

The term ‘Copt’ has been explained ad nauseam by returning it to the pharaonic word ‘Het-ka-Ptah’, ‘the house of the soul of Ptah’, the name of the ancient shrine at Memphis. The nauseating repetition in every narrative about the Copts, represents, in my opinion, the author’s previous ignorance on the subject more than advancing a new point since the word was explained for the first time in the eighteenth century.

Rather than explaining the etymology of the word in writings about the Copts, one would like to see a more advanced definition. The term ‘Copt’ is an ethnico-religious one that means at once the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians and the Christians of that stock. Some use it sometimes in a religious sense only to designate the followers of the liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and then it applies to the Christians of Egyptian stock and also to the Ethiopians and Eritreans.

The ethnic component in the definition is important as it describes more than a religious denomination (طائفة) – it describes a nation (أمة) with a particular ethnicity and religion is an important element in its composition.

The new understanding, once kept in the mind, focuses the attention on the Copts as a nation, and not only as religious denomination.

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THE COPTS OF MANQABAD NEAR ASYUT SPOKE COPTIC UNTIL AT LEAST THE 1860s

October 13, 2017

A40

Matt. 3:17 in Bohairic Coptic

I have read an interesting story about the Coptic language which I share with you. Apparently, Coptic was still spoken in Manqabad, a village that falls 10 km north of Asyut, until at least the 1860s. The anecdote comes in a book published first time in 1990 titled “دير جبل قسقام: قدس – تراث” (The Monastery of the Mountain of Qusqam: Its Holiness and Heritage).[1] I translate the passage:

“130 years ago, the inhabitants of Manqabad spoke Coptic. And it is told that one day, a Coptic lady immersed her son in the Nile, and said in Coptic (translated into English), ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’[2] And one of the rulers heard her, and thought that she was swearing at him; and, so, he passed an edict that no one should use Coptic.”[3] (Second edition, undated, page 220)

I cannot find any other source to collaborate the story but there is no reason to doubt it. Anyway, it is interesting story.

_____________

[1] Monastery of the Mountain of Qusqam is also called Monastery of the Virgin Mary and Mount Qusqam Monastery. It is located near the western mountains of Qusqam, just south of Cusae (al-Qusiya), some 50 km northwest of Asyut in Upper Egypt.

[2] Matt. 3: 17.

[3] دير جبل قسقام: قدس – تراث (The Monastery of the Virgin Mary in al-Muharraq, 2nd ed., undated); p. 220.

HOW THE CHURCHES IN ALEXANDRIA HELPED IN THE DECLINE OF COPTIC LANGUAGE AND AIDED THE SHIFT FROM COPTIC TO ARABIC

October 13, 2017

In two previous articles I talked about “The responsibility of Pope Gabriel ibn Turayk in the decline of Coptic, Arabisation of the church, and the language shift from Coptic to Arabic” and “How the Greek in Coptic liturgy contributed to the decline of Coptic, the Arabisation of the church, and our language shift from Coptic to Arabic”. My intention was to explore the different reasons behind the decline of the Coptic language and the disastrous shift from Coptic to Arabic, and to show it was a complex process which has different causes, some of which we must expose as historical mistakes of the Coptic nation that ought to be criticised.

Today, I would like to talk about another reason that the Coptic inhabitants of Alexandria ought to take responsibility for. We have the evidence of the contribution of the Alexandrians towards the decline of Coptic in the book of Al-Mu’taman Abu al-Makarim Sa’d Allah Jirjis ibn Mas’ud (known simply as Abu al-Makarim), who was a Coptic priest and historian from the 12th/13th century, entitled “تاريخ الكنائس والأديرة”. This book was translated by B. T. A. Evetts as The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries in 1895.[1] Evetts says the work is attributed to an Armenian by the name of Abu Salih, but that is wrong. Evett also did not publish all of the book, as the first part that talks about the churches and monasteries in Lower Egypt, including Cairo and Alexandria, was not available to him. This part was published by Bishop Samuel, Bishop of Shabeen al-Qanatir and Annexes, in 1984, under the title “تاريخ أبو المكارم: تاريخ الكنائس والأديرة في القرن ١٢ بالوجه البحري” (History of Abu al-Makarim: History of Churches and Monasteries in the Twelfth Century in Lower Egypt). The book is a treasure trove and until now it has not find itself translated into any Western language to aid researchers.

Abu al-Makarim mentions several churches in Alexandria (over twenty), and says, “وجميع ما يقرأ بالبيع بهذا الثغر باللغة الرومية ما خلا البيعة المعروفة بالقمجا فأن الذي يقرى بها قبطيا”. I give an English translation:

“And all that is read in these churches is in Rūmi language except in the church known as al-Gamja where what is read is done in Coptic.”[2]

The Rūmi language is Greek language. It is clear that all churches in Alexandria, except al-Gamja, where the patriarchs used to be consecrated, insisted on praying in Greek rather than Coptic. This was perhaps – and I say, perhaps, only – acceptable in the period prior to the Arab occupation in 642 AD, when Greek was a known language, particularly in Alexandria. But, since the Arab occupation, Greek receded, and whilst a few understood Greek in the first two or three centuries after the Arab occupation, almost none could understand or speak it after that.

How did that affect the Coptic language?

First, it led to keeping Greek as the ecclesiastically prestigious language in Alexandria, in which most Christian inhabitants were Copts (that is from an Egyptian stock); and thus, Coptic wasn’t regarded as prestigious or important to keep, promote and protect. It can be reasonably assumed that no Coptic was taught in the schools attached to the churches using Greek in the Divine Liturgy since it served no ecclesiastical purpose.

Second, it furnished reason for those who embarked on Arabisation of the Coptic Church under the pretext of using a language in the Liturgy that the people understood; and since no one understood Greek then, Arabic was introduced in its place.

On its own, the insistence of the Alexandrians on using Greek in the Divine Liturgy, rather than Coptic, cannot be taken as the cause of the decline of Coptic and the language shift we experienced in the Middle Period of our history to Arabic. However, it was a contributing factor in a complex phenomenon.

______________________________

[1] B.T.A.Evetts, The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries, attributed to Abu Salih the Armenian (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1895).

 

[2] تاريخ أبو المكارم: تاريخ الكنائس والأديرة في القرن ١٢ بالوجه, ed. Bishop Samuel (The Monastery of the Syrians, 1984); p. 119.

HISTORY OF DIOSCORUS, THE 25TH PATRIARCH OF THE CHURCH OF ALEXANDRIA

October 12, 2017

A39

The Council of Chalcedon, 451, by the Russian artist Vasily Surikov, 1876. Unlike other Church councils, the Emperor and Empress (Marcian and Bulcheria) presided over its proceedings. This was a matter criticised by Dioscorus. It is not clear to me if Dioscorus is represented in this painting

Perhaps no man has assumed a central role in Coptic history, after St. Mark the Evangelist, more than St. Dioscorus (444 – 454 AD), the 25th patriarch of the Coptic Church. His stance in the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD, in which he rejected the Imperial creed presented by Emperor Marcian (450 – 457) and Pulcheria his wife, and which was supported by the Roman Pope, Leo I (440 – 461 AD), and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Anatolius (449 – 458), has had a historic impact on the Egyptian Church and the Egyptians. The humiliating and unfair way he was treated by the Council, his exile to Gangra, in Paphlagonia (in Asia Minor), his torture and his eventual death in it, accompanied by the severe persecution that broke out in Egypt against his followers, created in the Copts a national consciousness and resentment that shaped their history since then. The rift that occurred between Alexandria on one hand and Rome and Constantinople on the other has undoubtedly helped in the eventual fall of Egypt in the hands of the Muslim and Arab invaders in 642 AD.

And yet, the Coptic History of the Patriarchs, the main book that collects the Lives of the Coptic Patriarchs, has only two short and inadequate paragraphs to tell us about Dioscorus:

After the holy patriarch Cyril had departed to his rest, Dioscorus was made patriarch in the see of the city of Alexandria. He endured severe persecution for the orthodox faith at the hands of the prince Marcian and his wife; and they banished him from his see, through the partial action of the council of Chalcedon, and their subserviency to the will of the prince and his wife. It is for this reason that the members of that council and all the followers of their corrupt creed are called Melkites, because they follow the opinion of the prince and his wife, in proclaiming and renewing the doctrine of Nestorius.

It was a custom of the ancients to write histories of their predecessors in every generation. In the time of the Israelites, Philo, the Pharian, and Justus and Josephus and Hegesippus wrote part of the life of Jesus Christ, and an account of the ruin of Jerusalem by Vespasian and Titus his son, and of what took place after them. And after that, Africanus and Eusebius wrote, and Mennas wrote of the trials and persecution endured by the pastors and their flocks in the days of the patriarch Abba Cyril the Wise, and what passed between him and Nestorius; also of what the Father Dioscorus after him suffered in the council of Chalcedon. But at that time the creeds were separated, and the sees were torn asunder, so that none was left to write histories of the patriarchs, and the practice of composing them was interrupted. But the Lord remains for ever. In this way no biography of the holy patriarch Dioscorus after his banishment has been found. He preserved the orthodox faith, which persists in the see of the evangelist Saint Mark to this day and for ever, until he received the crown of martyrdom in the island of Gangra, by the command of the prince Marcian; for it was in that island that Dioscorus died.[1]

The writer of these words, which form the beginning of the second series of biographies in the History of Patriarchs, is Jirja (Georgios) who wrote in the beginning of the eighth century the lives of eighteen patriarchs from Dioscorus I to Simon I, whom he served as a scribe.[2] The section he wrote covers the period from 444 – 700 AD. It is a long and turbulent period which saw not only the sundering of the relationship between the three great Churches in Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople, but also an intense persecution of the Copts who refused Chalcedon 451 AD, and the occupation of Egypt by the Arabs in 642 AD, and their oppression of the Copts. All these events disrupted Coptic life and culture: monasteries and churches were either taken away from the Copts or ruined; books confiscated, damaged or lost; and literature declined. It is not surprising that no one before Jirja took the initiative to write the history of this period, or that Jirja could not find the biography of St. Dioscorus. But despite the lack of a continuous narrative, individual biographies did exist though not easily available. When Jirja writes: “But at that time [after 451 AD] the creeds were separated, and the sees were torn asunder, so that none was left to write histories of the patriarchs, and the practice of composing them was interrupted. But the Lord remains for ever. In this way no biography of the holy patriarch Dioscorus after his banishment has been found;” one should be careful not to interpret it as that no one wrote a biography of Dioscorus.[3]

A24

One of the biographies that existed early, and Jirja wasn’t aware of, is that of St. Dioscorus I. In Egypt, no manuscript containing the biography of St. Dioscorus has been published so far. The Coptic Synaxarium is very deficient on its take on Dioscorus.[4] There is an Arabic manuscript (no. 171) kept at the Coptic Patriarchate in Cairo, but, to my understanding, it is a short biography, and has not been published yet. I believe it is similar to the 19th century Arabic manuscript (Paris 4786) kept at the Bibliotheque nationale de France.

In the West, the Life of Dioscorus remained of little interest, due to some Chacedonian prejudice against the man. Some Coptologists, however, have published manuscripts that tell us some of St. Dioscorus’ history: Georg Zoëga (1755 – 1809);[5] Charles Eugene Revillout (1843 – 1913);[6] and Émile Amélineau (1850 – 1915).[7]  These, however, as the French Syriacist[8] François Nau (1864 – 1931) believes, are secondary sources to what he published in 1903 in Journal AsiatiqueHistoire de Dioscore, patriarche d’Alexandrie, écrite par son disciple théopiste(History of Dioscorus, Patriarch of Alexandria, written by his disciple Theopiste).[9] Nau, who published the original Syriac text with a French translation, depended on the Syriac manuscript (Paris, 234 [P]),[10] which was written in Antioch in the 13th century. As it lacks a few pages, he used another manuscript (Oxford, O),[11] to collate and complete the Paris manuscript.[12]

 

Theopiste, or more accurately Theopistus, was an Egyptian deacon who accompanied St. Dioscorus in his exile to Gangra in 451 and stayed with him until the death of the Saint in 454 AD. Following that, Theopistus left Gangra and went to Pentapolis, in present day Libya, where he, as he tells us, immediately wrote his history. Nau summarises the Histoire de Dioscore:

Theopiste tells us in his own way the preliminaries of the Council of Chalcedon, the death of Theodosius the Younger[13] and the advent of Marcian, the convocation of the Council, the departure of Dioscorus to Constantinople, his arrival, his first visit to the Emperor, intrigues which preceded the meeting of the Council, the first session, the cause of the deposition of Dioscorus, his efforts to bring back some of the bishops who abandoned [the Alexandrian faith], especially Juvenal of Jerusalem[14] and Leontius of Ascalon[15], his exile, life, miracles and sufferings in Gangra where he was visited by Paphnutius, superior monk at the Monastery of St. Pachomius, and finally his death on September 4 (454).[16]

The Histoire de Dioscore is clearly not a full history of St. Dioscorus, since it ignores the Life of Dioscorus prior to 451 AD. It is concerned of what happened around the Council of Chalcedon and what happened immediately after it to Dioscorus until his death. It contains original information, one can’t find elsewhere, about the Council of Chalcedon and the Coptic viewpoint of it that is essential for the Copts to understand what happened exactly at Chalcedon.

The authenticity and date of the writing of Histoire de Dioscore has been a matter of controversy. Theopistus tells us, as we have seen, that after the death of Dioscorus, he left Gangra to Pentapolis, and, there, he immediately set himself to write the book. In the 18th century, the orientalist Giuseppe Simone Assemani (1687 – 1768)[17] had unfairly passed Theopistus’ book as a literary fake that had recently been written from scratch with help from the Panegyric of Macarius of Tkoou[18] and The Plerophories[19] by John, Bishop of Maiuma[20] [21].[22]

Nau proves that Assemani was wrong on the date of the Histoire de Dioscore.[23] He shows that fragmentary manuscript of the same writing, London, 1463 (A), exists and belongs to the 10th century, which disproves Assemani’s claim that the Histoire de Dioscore was a recent composition. Further, he concludes that rather than being the original composition, the Panegyric of Macarius of Tkoou, in fact, depended on the Histoire de Dioscore.

He shows that the Histoire de Dioscore is a composite structure:

First, its first layer was written by Theopistus, after the death of Dioscorus as Theopistus tells us, and with a terminus post quem not later than 477 AD. This point of history is taken because scholars agree that Peter, the other disciple of Dioscorus, besides Theopistus, mentioned in the story, was actually Peter Mongus, who later became the 27th Patriarch of Alexandria (477 – 489 AD). This part reveals an Egyptian milieu, and Egyptian figures, like Shenute the Archimandrite, Macarius the Bishop of Tkoou and Paphnutius the Superior of the Bachomian Monastery, figure prominently in it. It is a part concerned mostly with what happened from the time Marcian called the Egyptian bishops to Constantinople in 451 AD, the Council of Chalcedon and Dioscorus’ role in it, and his exile to Gangra until his death in 454 AD.

Second, another layer was later added to the original Egyptian nucleus by a person of a Palestinian background, “one of the orators of the school of Peter the Iberian,” as Nau says. This layer has a terminus a quo not earlier than 512 AD. This is because in it Severus, the famous Patriarch of Antioch (513 – 518 AD), is mentioned. The Palestinian origin is revealed by the frequent mentioning of personalities from Palestine, such as John of Maiuma, Peter the Iberian, Juvenal of Jerusalem, and Leontius of Ascalon.

It can, therefore, be said that the Egyptian nucleus of the Histoire de Dioscore, which is what interests us more, was written sometime between 454 and 477 AD. The Polish historian Felix Haase (1882 – 1965), writing in 1902, who defends the authenticity of Histoire de Dioscore and thinks that it was indeed written by Theopistus, and in Greek, puts its date more precisely, in 455 AD.[24] We have no reason to doubt Theopistus’ assertion that he wrote the Histoire de Dioscore immediately after arriving in Pentapolis, after the death of St. Dioscorus.

Most probably both Egyptian and Palestinian layers were written in Greek and then later got translated into Coptic and Syriac. While the full version in Coptic seems to have been lost unfortunately, the Syriac survived.

A24

We must be thankful that the Syriac manuscript of Histoire de Dioscore has survived. It is essential to our understanding what happened at and around Calcedon. It is a shame that it has not yet been translated into English or Arabic. With help from the Panegyric of Macarius of Tkoou, the Histoire de Dioscore can form the foundation of a biography of Saint Dioscorus.

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[1] Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria. Part 2: Peter I – Benjamin I (661 AD); Arabic text edited, translated, and annotated by B. Evetts. Patrologia Orientalis (1904); pp. 443-4.

[2] Atiya, Aziz Suryal. The Coptic Encyclopedia (New York City, Macmillan Publishers, 1991); pp. 1239-1240.

[3] Whether the biography is a complete one, describing his Live from his ascension in 444 AD to the patriarchate until his death in 458 AD, is another matter.

[4] The reposing of St. Dioscorus I is celebrated on 7 Tut.

[5] Cat. cod. copt. mus. Borg., Rome, 1810, p. 99-107.

[6] Revue Egyptolog., t. I. p. 187-189; t. II, p. 21-25; t.III, p. 17-25.

[7] Mémoires publiés par la mission archéologique française au Caire, t IV, p. XV-XXVIII et 92-165.

[8] A specialist in Syriac studies.

[9] Journal Asiatique, Dixieme Serie, Tome 1 (Paris, Imprimerie Nationale, 1903); pp. 5-108.

[10] Fol. 39-60. It lacks a sheet, fol. 30-31.

[11] Hunt 199, fol. 441-475.

[12] Nau also reviewed two London fragmentary manuscripts (No. 1463[A], which is from the 10th century [fol. 1-12]); No. 14732[B], fol. 218-221).

[13] Theodosius the Younger, or Theodosius II, was Byzantine emperor with Arcadius from 402 to 408 AD and alone from 408 to 450 AD.

[14] Juvenal of Jerusalem was bishop of Jerusalem from 422 to 451 AD. He sided with the Chalcedonians, and as a reward he was made first Patriarch of Jerusalem from 451 to 458 AD.

[15] Ascalon (or Ashkelon) is a coastal town in what is now Israel, 13 km north of the border with the Gaza Strip. Leontius was its bishop during the Second Council of Ephesus in 439 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.

[16] The English translation is mine.

[17] يوسف بن سمعان السمعاني‎‎ Yusuf ibn Sim’aan al-Sim’aani.

[18] Ed. David W. Johnson, A Panegyric of Macarius Bishop of Tkow Attributed to Dioscorus of Alexandria, CSCO 415-416, Scriptores coptici 41-42 (Louvain: Sécretariat du CorpusSCO, 1980).

[19] Plerophories means convictions.

[20] Maiuma was an ancient town near Gaza, Palestine.

[21] For the Plerophories, see: F. Nau, Les plérophories de Jean, évêque de Maiouma: récits anecdotiques relatifs au Ve siècle by Joannes Rufus, Bp. of Maiuma (Paris, 1899).

[22] Bibl. vatic. catal., t. III, p. 497.

[23] I depend on Nau’s excellent Introduction.

[24] See: A Panegyric of Macarius Bishop of Tkow; pp. 10-11.

I CANNOT FULLY UNDERSTAND THE COPTIC ICON OF SAINT ERIPSIMA

October 12, 2017

Eripsima

Eripsima (also, Eripseme, Hripsime, Rhipsime, Ripseme and Arsema) is a saint martyr venerated in the Coptic Church as in the Catholic and Eastern Churches. She was from Rome and was executed in Armenia by the Armenian ruler, Tridates III (287 – c.330), who himself converted to Christianity on her influence and that of the Armenian saint, Gregory the Illuminator, and who made Armenia Christian. She was murdered together with her friends the nuns, including Saint Gaiana. Her memory is kept in the Coptic Synaxarium in three places:

  1. On 29th of Tut: The memory of St. Eripsima’s martyrdom with her friends, the other nuns. In this part we know that, after the nuns’ flight to Armenia, they lived in a garden in a wine (or oil) press, and they lived on the income of selling glass vessels that one of the nuns made.
  2. On 19th Tut: The memory of Gregory the Illuminator, the famous Armenian saint.
  3. 15th Kiahk: The memory of the reposing of Gregory the Illuminator.

When these saints celebrated by Armenia became known to Egypt, I don’t know. I suspect it was sometimes in the second half of the Fatimid Dynasty, in the 12th or 13th century when the Armenians came to Egypt with the Armenian vizier Badr al-Jamal (1015 – 1094).

There is a neo-icon by a Coptic iconographer, Y. Nasief, (dated 2001), which I have put up above. It is a beautiful icon that applies shadows more than one would normally find in modern Coptic icons. The vessels shown, presumably made of glass, are beautifully coloured and designed. The plants shown bear flowers rather than fruits. But, I cannot understand the purpose of the doves in the picture; neither do I understand the thing which Erispima holds in her right hand. Coptic icons use symbolism to help showing the identity of the figures painted: the vessels and the trees are understandable symbols, but the doves and the thing which is in Eripsima’s right hand, are, however, not clear to me.

 

 

THE DISPLAY OF THE REMAINS OF SAINT JIRJIS HABIB WAS UNWISE AND UNDIGNIFYING TO THE SAINT

October 11, 2017

Jirjis Habib 1

Saint Archdeacon Jirjis Habib with Pope Cyril V (1874 – 1927)

Jirjis Habib (1876 – 1951) is known as the Reformer of Religious Education in the Coptic Church. His lasting achievement for the Coptic Church was his establishing the Sunday Schools movement which has been influential in giving most Coptic children a basic understanding of their faith. The Coptic Encyclpedia has this about him:

[Jirjis Habib] was born at Azbakiyyah, Cairo, and joined the Coptic School at Harit al-Saqqayin. He was one of the earliest students enrolled in the Clerical College after its inception in 1892. He graduated in 1898, became a teacher of theology at the College, and then dean in 1918.

He became an outstanding preacher and played a key role in the organization of the Sunday School movement. Until his death he acted as adviser to various patriarchs, particularly Cyril V. He was the author of many compilations and meditations on the church service, and wrote hymns, books for children, and prayers suitable for all occasions. He founded the weekly periodical al-Karmah (1906-1923), which served as a channel for his teachings.

Because of his scholarship, his experience as archdeacon, and his long service as a member of the Community Council, Cyril V invited Habib Jirjis to attend the Holy Synod sessions. All these factors helped to inspire his book, al-Islahat al‘Amaliyyah lil-Kanisah al-Urthudhuksiyyah (Practical Reforms in the Orthodox Church). He succeeded in introducing the study of the Christian religion to Coptic students in government schools, and wrote a two-volume manual as a teacher’s guidebook. He also was instrumental in persuading Cyril V to issue a special directive to metropolitans to limit the ordination of priests in their dioceses to graduates of the Clerical College.[1]

During his active life, Habib served mainly at the Church of St. Mary Orthodox Church in Mahmasha, al-Sharabiya, Cairo.[2] Habib died in 1951, and was buried in his family’s burial site at al-Jabal al-Ahmar Cemetery in Cairo. On 20 June 2013, the Coptic Holy Synod declared Jirjis Habib a saint; and in the same year his body was moved from the cemetery to the Church of St. Mary in Mahmasha, where it was kept in the church covered and protected by a glass box.

So far, all was good; but on 20 August 2017 the cover of the casket of the relics of Habib was removed; the remains of the body shown to the world with the media present; perfumed paste added to them, and the body was dressed in a phelonion (burnus بُرْنُس).[3] Now, I don’t know what the point of that was. In previous article, we have seen that St. Anthony the Great was against displaying the bodies of martyrs and saints. We have also seen in another article that from the first days of the Coptic Church, saints and martyrs were buried, rather than displayed, in Coptic churches, in a crypt below the altar. Contrary to that, present day Copts are fascinated by displaying the relics of their saints and martyrs.

I don’t think such practice is wise or preserves the dignity of the reposed saints and martyrs. I sincerely hope that all relics of saints and martyrs displayed in all our churches are buried in a crypt underneath the altar. That is where the Early Church placed them; and that is where they should be kept according to the apocalyptic vision: “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.”[4]

I hate to do this, including a photo of the remains of St. Jirjis Habib when they were displayed last August to the world, but I do it to advance my point:

Jirjis Habeeb

The remains of St. Jirjis Habib as displayed on 20 August 2017

I wonder if the Saint himself would be happy with the idea of displaying his remains to the public. As you can see the body, contrary to what we have been told, is degraded. But that does not mean anything and shouldn’t. Amongst the Copts a body that is not degraded – usually means being kept in a mummified shape – is taken as a sign of sainthood. It is a ridiculous belief that is not supported by the scriptures or reality. The bodies of great saints, even martyrs, patriarchs and prophets, have disappeared, and naturally returned unto dust. If anything good could come out of the incident above, I hope it would be a lesson to the Copts that the degradation or not of the body after death has got nothing to do with the sainthood or sinfulness of the individual when alive.

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[1] Suliman Nasim: Habib Jirjis, in The Coptic Encyclopedia, ed. Aziz Suryal  Atiya, V. IV (New York, Macmillan, 1991).

[2] It is located east of Cairo Train Station.

[3] Also called, supervestment. See A. J. Buler, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, Vol. Two (Oxford, 1970); pp. 173-200.

[4] Rev. 6: 9.

THE COPTS IN THE ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA 1911

October 11, 2017

The 11th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica is one of its greatest. It is now available free online, and one can still benefit from reading its various articles. It has a section on the Copts under the title ‘Copts’. It was written by the English historian and Coptologist Alfred Joshua Butler who wrote two great books, The Arab Conquest of Egypt (1902) and The Ancient Churches of Egypt (1884).

The article is long, and I advise my readers to read it online. I am, however, interested in the last section of it under the title ‘Present state of the church’. With all due respect to the great Coptologist, I don’t think it is adequate, even though it was written in 1911. I include the relative section below:

The British occupation of Egypt profoundly modified Coptic religious life. Before it the Copts lived in their own semi-fortified quarters in Cairo or Old Cairo or in country or desert Dairs (Ders). Walls and gates were now thrown down or disused: the Copts began to mix and live freely among the Moslems, their children to frequent the same schools, and the people to abandon their distinctively Christian dress, names, customs and even religion. Freedom and prosperity threatened to injure the Church more than centuries of persecution. Many of the younger generation of Copts began openly to boast their indifference and even scepticism: in the large towns churches came to be too often frequented only by the old or the uneducated, confession and fasts fell into neglect and the number of communicants diminished; while the facility of divorce granted by Islam occasioned many perversions from among the Copts to that religion. On the other hand the necessity of resistance to these tendencies and of reform from within was strongly realized. Unfortunately, the institution of a lay council of eminent churchmen, which has been formed for the patriarch and for every bishop in his own diocese, has led to prolonged struggles and on one occasion to a serious crisis, in which the patriarch and the metropolitan of Alexandria were for a while banished to the desert. A principal object of these lay councils is to control the financial and legal powers vested in patriarch and bishops—powers which have often been greatly abused. Other objects are (1) to provide Christian religious education in all Coptic schools and to raise these schools to a high standard in secular matters; (2) to promote the education of women; (3) to apply church revenues to the maintenance of churches and schools and to the better payment of the clergy, who are now often compelled to live on charity; (4) to ensure prompt administration of justice in ecclesiastical causes such as divorce, inheritance, &c.; and (5) to establish colleges for the efficient training of the clergy. Educated Copts remember the time when the church of Alexandria was as famous for learning as for zeal. They desire also to resist the serious encroachments of Roman Catholic, American Presbyterian, and other foreign missions upon their ancient faith.

Two things are of interest here:

First, Butler speaks about the impact of the freedom that the Copts enjoyed since the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 in a negative way: “Freedom and prosperity threatened to injure the Church more than centuries of persecution”. He forgets the flowering of the Church and the cultural life that followed 1882. Although some of what he has mentioned is correct, the positive effects of the British occupation on the Copts have been greater than its negative effects. Copts were treated equally with their Muslim co-patriots, churches and monasteries were built and repaired freely, schools built, books and other different publications were printed, Coptic language was progressing, and charities and other organisations thrived.

Second, he treats the reaction to these negative changes inadequately. The Copts realised the challenge facing them, and despite the unfortunate differences between the clergy and laity on how to address the threats that faced the Coptic nation, the response was not without good results.

It has been kind of politically incorrect in Egypt to talk about the positive effects of the British occupation on Egypt as a whole, and on the Copts particularly. This has prevented the Copts from an accurate appraisal of the situation, and has even led them sometimes to take actions that were injurious to their interests.

Do I appear more British than Butler? No, the British have not always acted for the best interest of the Copts: there were actions that have definitely harmed the Copts, like the political policy of Eldon Gorst, Consul-General in Egypt from 1907-1911. I just want us to assess the overall situation accurately and adequately.

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