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THE TIME FOR BAPTISM IN EARLY COPTIC CHURCH AT THE TIME OF PATRIARCH PETER I (300 – 311)

November 12, 2017

We have seen in a previous article, ‘The time for baptism in early Coptic Church according to Ibn Siba’a’, what the 13th century Coptic theologian Yuhanna ibn abi Zakariyya ibn Siba’a has written in his book , The Precious Jewel in Ecclesiastical Sciences (الجوهرة النفيسة فى علوم الكنيسة Al-Jawharah al-Nafisah fi ‘Ulum al-Kanisah),that baptism in the early Church was practised on a certain day, once every year. That day was “the sixth Friday of the Holy Fast”, by which he means Friday of the sixth week of the Lenten fast. As for the reason of choosing this day in particular:

[T]he reason for choosing that day specifically is that Christ’s crucifixion, his sufferings, his death and his entrance into the grave – I mean by his earthly element – was on Friday, the sixth day, in the six thousandth [year of Creation].  Therefore, the Fathers, Teachers of the Church, made it to simulate what the Lord Christ did in his entrance into the grave to release all who deserved salvation from the progeny of Adam. For that they arranged for baptism to be like the death of Christ on Friday, the sixth day in the sixth Friday of the Fast, in the six thousand Year of the World. They [the Fathers] made baptism release everyone who was immersed in it as the death of Christ for us has released us from the custody of Satan.[1]

The reason Ibn Siba’a gives, suggests that that sixth Friday of the Holy Fast was actually Good Friday. However, in another section of his book, which I wrote about in another article, Ibn Siba’a writes about the duration of Lent, considering it eight weeks in duration. It is, therefore, reasonable to postulate that the Baptism Day in early Church, if we take his reckoning, occurred on the 30th day of Lent – that is on the sixth week of an eight week long Lent, and not on Good Friday at the end of Lent.

Now, we have earlier evidence than Ibn Siba’a’s that confirms the early Church of Alexandria did perform baptism on only one day each year, and sheds more light into this matter. The evidence is in the first part of History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church which was written sometime in the fifth century by a certain Menas the Scribe.[2] It includes the lives of the Patriarchs of the Church of Alexandria from its founder in the first century St. Mark the Evangelist to St. Dioscorus I (444 – 454) its twentieth patriarch. In the Live of St. Peter I (300 – 311), we read the beautiful story of St. Marturia and her two children, Philopator and Eutropius,[3] from Antioch of Pisidia,[4] who lived at the time of the Great Persecution (303 – 311). The Christian woman’s husband was one Socrates who was one of the commanders of the troops and served at the palace under Emperor Diocletian (284 – 305). Socrates was “by birth a Christian, and was baptised; but he denied his religion, and came to hate the Christians.”[5] When the two children “grew and were fit for baptism”,[6] Marturia begged her husband to travel with her to Alexandria, away from the eyes of Diocletian, to baptise her children. He refused and tried to scare her by the vengeance of the king. Seeing that he has refused, she embarked on a ship to Alexandria with her two children. On the way, a strong wind rose and all on the ship thought they would drown. Fearing that her children may die unbaptised, Marturia prayed, and then:

“She cut her right breast with the knife, and took from it three drops of blood, with which she made the sign of the cross on the foreheads of her two children, and over their hearts, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and she dipped them in the sea, saying: ‘I baptize you, my children, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost’”.[7] After threatening the ship with wreckage, the wind, however, calmed down, and all travellers safely arrived at the city of Alexandria.”[8]

As it happened, the day Marturia entered Alexandria, as History of the Patriarchs tells us, was a day in “the week of Baptism, which is the sixth week of the Fast, when infants are baptized”.[9] And Marturia immediately saw a deacon and asked him to facilitate for her a meeting with Patriarch Peter in order to add her children to those who would be baptised. The deacon asked her to take a seat in the church, and reassured her that her children will be baptised when the patriarch came. “When the time came, and the father and patriarch had finished the liturgy, they presented to him for baptism the infants who were to be baptized, and so they were baptized. Then they brought to him the two children of the woman of Antioch; but when the patriarch took the two infants to baptize them, the water was congealed, and became like stone.”[10] St. Peter set Philopator and Eutropius aside, and brought other children for baptism, and immediately the water liquefied. Bringing Philopator and Eutropius again, the water solidified; and he repeated the matter with other children and then Philopator and Eutropius three times; and each time the same happened.

St. Peter asked the archdeacon to fetch the mother of Philopator and Eutropius; and when she was brought to him, he asked her: “Make known to me, woman, thy circumstances, and tell me what thy religion is.”[11] He probably thought that Marturia wasn’t Christian and that she might wanted to mock the Christian baptism. Marturia explained to him everything, and what she did on the ship to her children when the storm rose against the ship and threatened them with drowning in the sea. On hearing her story, St. Peter told her:

“Let thy heart be comforted, my daughter; fear not, for the Lord is with thee. When thou didst wound thy breast, and take from it the blood, and make the sign of the cross upon the faces of thy two children, in the faith of God the Incarnate Word, whose side was pierced on the cross with the spear, when the water and the blood came forth from it, he it was who made the cross over thy two children with his divine hand.”

He then blessed the two children, and did not baptise them, “for he could not baptize them a second time, because the Lord has accepted them on the sea. For the patriarch said: ‘None can be baptised twice, for there is one baptism only; and these two have already been baptized once by the intention and faith of their mother, and by what she did.’”[12]

As with all who have received baptism, St. Peter gave Philopator and Eutropius of the holy Mysteries. He took Marturia and her sons into his house until after the Feast of the Holy Easter, and then they returned back to Antioch.[13]

History of the Patriarchs tells us that St. Peter composed a homily on the story of Marturia and her two sons, Philopator and Eutropius.[14] This homily was most probably made in Greek. It has vanished; but most likely the individual who has written the Live of St. Peter has depended on this homily. What we learn from The History of the Patriarchs is that there was a Baptism Day, and it fell in what was called Baptism Week; and that that week was the sixth week of the Lenten fast. So far, it does not offer us more than what Ibn Siba’a has already given us.

We have another source for the story of Madura and her two children: Brit. Mus. Ms. Oriental, No. 6783. This manuscript was published and translated by E. A. Wallis Budge, in 1914, in his book Coptic Martyrdoms, etc., in the Dialect of Upper Egypt.[15] The Coptic Sahidic manuscript was copied by one Victor Mercurius Eponuchos, a deacon from Esna, in Upper Egypt, in AD 1003.[16] The relevant part is titled by Budge, “The Encomium on Demetrius, Archbishop of Alexandria, by Flavianus, Bishop of Ephesus[17]”. The first part of The Encomium is about St. Demetrius I, particularly about the mystery of his virginity,[18] while the second part is about St. Peter I and the story of Marturia and her two sons.[19] The story as in The History of Patriarchs and in The Encomium is almost identical, but with more details in the latter. It can be said that they both took from a common source, which I suggest was the homily delivered by St. Peter himself.

We have seen in History of the Patriarchs that Marturia arrived in Alexandria on a day in “the week of Baptism, which is the sixth week of the Fast”.  It does not tell us, however, on which day of that week exactly Marturia arrived with her children in Alexandria or on which day was baptism held. As we have in Coptic literature two differing views on the duration of Lent, one saying that it lasted for eight weeks (Ibn Siba’a)[20] and the other says it lasted for sixth week only (St. Athanasius of Alexandria)[21]; we are not sure of the chronological position of this ‘Baptism week’ within Lent. There is certainly no indication in The History of the Patriarchs that the Baptism week coincided with the Pascal week at the end of Lent.

Fortunately, there is some detail in Brit. Mus. Ms. Oriental, No. 6783 that helps us in finding more about this matter. After informing us about what Merturia had done at the sea to baptise her children, it tells us:

“And within three days they arrived at Rakote. And by the help of God they came into Rakote on the day of preparation, on the fourth day of the week, on the Passover [Pascha], whereon they are wont to baptize children according to the tradition of the Egyptians. And the woman saw that the whole city was draped in white, and she asked what the matter was. And they told her, saying, ‘All the Christians who are living in the city are going to baptize their children to-morrow.’

And she answered, saying, ‘In truth God hath made straight my way.’ Then she made her way to a certain deacon, and said unto him, ‘My father, I wish to meet the Archbishop.’ And he said unto her, ‘What is thy business with the Archbishop?’ And she said unto him, ‘I am a stranger, and I want to baptize my children.’ And the deacon said unto her, ‘Hast thou any other business with the Archbishop besides this?’ And she said unto him, ‘No, I have not.’ And the deacon said unto her, ‘If this be really the only thing for which thou wishest to meet the Archbishop then tarry thou here. For behold, the children of this city are to be baptized tomorrow and your own children shall be baptized with them.’”[22]

Here we learn that Marturia and her children arrived in Alexandria on the fourth day of the Pascha week, which is Wednesday.[23] It was a day of preparation for the baptism of the children of Alexandria on the following day – a day of preparation and purification in which the whole city was clothed in white. One would expect the Baptism Day to be Thursday, but that wasn’t the case. The Enconium tells us that on the following day:

“And when the evening had come, and the Archbishop had finished Divine Service, he commanded them to bring to him the little children, and to make them ready for baptism.”[24]

In our modern definition of the twenty-four hour day, day starts in midnight and is followed by the night. In the days of Pascha, the Jewish definition of the day was held, where night precedes day time, and the day starts with sunset and the onset of night (the appearance of the stars).[25] Therefore, when The Encomium says, “when the evening had come,” and St. Peter had asked for the children to make them ready for baptism, one should not take the day as Thursday evening but the evening of Friday – that is Good Friday.

We can conclude from all that that the Egyptian tradition on the timing of baptism, at least of children, was on the evening of Good Friday in the sixth and last week of Lent, that is on the Pascha week. This is consistent with Ibn Siba’a’s statement that “… in the early age prayers were not made on water to baptise people except on a certain day in the year, which was the sixth Friday of the Holy Fast.” We must here reject Ibn Siba’a’s assertion that Lent continued for eight week and take St. Athanasius’ evidence that it was rather six weeks. The Baptism Day was therefore Good Friday, and the Baptism Week was the same as the Pascha Week. It was a mass baptism day.

James C. Robertson tells us in his History of the Christian Church:

“With the system of preparatory training [for catechumens] was introduced the practice of confining the ordinary administration of baptism to particular seasons. Easter and Whitsuntide[26] were considered as especially suitable, on account of the connexion between the sacrament and the great events which those seasons respectively commemorated; and it was on the vigil of each festival that the chief performance of the baptismal rites took place.”[27]

St. Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240), indeed, in his On Baptism, of Passover and Pentecost as the times most suitable for baptism, even though he adds: “However, every day is the Lord’s; every hour, every time, is apt for baptism: if there is a difference in the solemnity, distinction there is none in the grace.”[28] The Egyptian tradition was definitely holding a mass baptism on the evening of Good Friday and not on Pentcost, while baptising those who are in threat of death at any time they needed baptism.

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[1] See: Jean Périer, Ibn Sabba, Yohanna ibn Abi Zakariya, La Perle Précieuse in Patrologia Orientalis. Tome 16, fasc. 4 (Paris, 1922); pp. 671-672.

[2] See: Johannes Den Heijer, History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria in Coptic Encyclopedia (New Yourk, 1991); p. 1239.

[3] The names of the mother and her two children are not given in History of the Patriarchs but are included in The Encomium on Demetrius, Archbishop of Alexandria, by Flavianus, Bishop of Ephesus in Coptic Martyrdoms, etc., in the Dialect of Upper Egypt, edited and translated from Coptic by E. A. Wallis Budge (London, 1914).

[4] In present day Turkey.

[5] Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria  (1904) Part 1: St. Mark – Theonas (300 AD). Patrologia Orientalis (Paris, 1904); p. 385.

[6] Ibid. The ages of the children are not clear, but at least one of them is above the age of one year old.

[7] Ibid, p. 386.

[8] Ibid, p. 387.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid; p. 388.

[12] Ibid; p. 389.

[13] Ibid; p. 390

[14] Ibid; p. 389.

[15] See n. 3.

[16] Coptic Martyrdoms, p. xx.

[17] I have not been successful in establishing the identity of Flavius, bishop of Ephesus. The lists of the bishops of Ephesus do not contain a bishop by the name of Flavius; however, the lists are not complete.

[18] Coptic Martyrdoms; pp. 390-401.

[19] Ibid; pp. 401-408.

[20] See: Dioscorus Boles, The duration of the Coptic Lenten fast according to Ibn Siba’a, which you can access here.

[21] See: Dioscorus Boles, The duration of the Coptic Lenten fast according to St. Athanasius, which you can access here.

[22] Coptic Martyrdoms; pp. 403-404.

[23] The Christian week starts on Sunday.

[24] Coptic Martyrdoms, p. 404.

[25] We have evidence of this, for example, in the Festal Letter for the year AD 334 in Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Volume IV: Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1891); p. 523.

[26] Whitsuntide is the week beginning with Whitsunday (Pentecost) and especially the first three days of this week. Pentecost is celebrated on the fiftieth day after Easter to commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Christ.

[27] James C. Robertson, History of the Christian Church, Vol. I (John Murray, London, 1918); p. 230.

[28] Chapter 19 in Tertullian: On Baptism. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885);

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THE DURATION OF THE LENTEN FAST ACCORDING TO SAINT ATHANASIUS THE GREAT

November 8, 2017

In a previous article, “The duration of the Lenten Fast according to Ibn Siba’a”, we have seen that the 13th century Coptic theologian Yuhanna ibn abi Zakariyya who was known as Ibn Siba’a believed that the Lenten fast in early Church extended to forty one days, in emulation of Christ’s fasting for forty days and forty nights after His baptism.[1] Since early Christians did not fast on Saturdays (except Saturday that falls in between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday) and Sundays, Lent was comprised of eight weeks, with only five days (Monday to Friday) each week being fasted. Ibn Siba’a does not say why Christians did not fast on Saturday but it is clear that the reason was its association with Jewish traditions. Fasting on Sunday was not allowed, however, because “Sunday is a day of spiritual joy indicative of the General Resurrection in the coming age where there will be no tiredness or suffering”.[2]

Ibn Siba’a does not give a date to that arrangement of the Lenten fast but only says it was made by the Fathers. I would like today to talk about the duration of Lenten fast according to St. Athanasius the Great (328 – 373), the 20th patriarch of the Coptic Church. Since the days of Patriarch Demetrius I (189 – 232), the 12th patriarch, it was customary that the patriarchs of the Church of Alexandria circulated a letter after Epiphany each year to all Christendom establishing the date of Easter.

St. Athanasius wrote forty-five festal letters. Not all of them are extant or complete. The first festal letter he wrote was in 329, the year after his election to the patriarchate. Philip Schaff has collected and translated what is available of these festal letters in his The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Volume IV: Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (1891).[3]  The festal letters is sent to the churches in Egypt and abroad giving the customary notice of the holy Easter which usually included the beginning of what St. Athanasius always calls ‘the fast of the forty days’,[4] the beginning and end of the holy week of Easter,[5] the Great Sunday (Easter day) and the beginning of the seven weeks of the Great Pentecost. Fortunately, we have eight festal letters (those for the years AD 330, 331, 334, 335, 338, 339, 341 and 347) that give us the times of these events. They form invaluable sources for the understanding of the duration of Lent and the Lenten fast in Early Church.[6]

I reproduce below the relative parts in the eight festal letters that detail the Lenten fast:

AD 330. We begin the fast of forty days on the 13th of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 9). After we have given ourselves to fasting in continued succession, let us begin the holy Paschal week on the 18th of the month Pharmuthi (April 13). Then resting on the 23rd of the same month Pharmuthi (April 18), and keeping the feast afterwards on the first of the week, on the 24th (April 19), let us add to these the seven weeks of the great Pentecost, wholly rejoicing and exulting in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion in the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.[7]

AD 331. The beginning of the fast of forty days is on the fifth of Phamenoth (Mar. 1); and when, as I have said, we have first been purified and prepared by those days, we begin the holy week of the great Easter on the tenth of Pharmuthi (Apr. 5), in which, my beloved brethren, we should use more prolonged prayers, and fastings, and watchings, that we may be enabled to anoint our lintels with precious blood, and to escape the destroyer. Let us rest then, on the fifteenth of the month Pharmuthi (Apr. 10), for on the evening of that Saturday we hear the angels’ message, ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is risen.’ Immediately afterwards that great Sunday receives us, I mean on the sixteenth of the same month Pharmuthi (April 11), on which our Lord having risen, gave us peace towards our neighbours. When then we have kept the feast according to His will, let us add from that first day in the holy week, the seven weeks of Pentecost, and as we then receive the grace of the Spirit, let us at all times give thanks to the Lord; through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion, in the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.[8]

AD 334. We begin the fast of forty days on the first day of the month Phamenoth (Feb. 25); and having prolonged it till the fifth of Pharmuthi (Mar. 31), suspending it upon the Sundays and the Saturdays preceding them, we then begin again on the holy days of Easter, on the sixth of Pharmuthi (Apr, 1), and cease on the eleventh of the same month (Apr. 6), late in the evening of the Saturday, whence dawns on us the holy Sunday, on the twelfth of Pharmuthi (Apr. 7), which extends its beams, with unobscured grace, to all the seven weeks of the holy Pentecost. Resting on that day, let us ever keep Easter joy in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom, to the Father, be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.[9]

AD 335. We begin the fast of forty days on the twenty-third of Mechir (Feb. 17), and the holy fast of the blessed feast on the twenty-eighth of Phamenoth (Mar. 24); and having joined to these six days after them, in fastings and watchings, as each one is able, let us rest on the third of the month Pharmuthi (Mar. 29), on the evening of the seventh day. Also that day which is holy and blessed in everything, which possesses the name of Christ, namely the Lord’s day, having risen upon us on the fourth of Pharmuthi (Mar. 30), let us afterwards keep the holy feast of Pentecost. Let us at all times worship the Father in Christ, through Whom to Him and with Him be glory and dominion by the Holy Ghost for ever and ever. Amen.[10]

AD 338. We begin the fast of forty days on the nineteenth of the month Mechir (Feb. 13); and the holy Easter-fast on the twenty-fourth of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 20). We cease from the fast on the twenty-ninth of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 25), late in the evening of the seventh day. And we thus keep the feast on the first day of the week which dawns on the thirtieth of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 26); from which, to Pentecost, we keep holy-day, through seven weeks, one after the other. For when we have first meditated properly on these things, we shall attain to be counted worthy of those which are eternal, through Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.[11]

AD 339. We begin the fast of forty days on the ninth of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 5); and having, in these days, served the Lord with abstinence, and first purified ourselves, we commence also the holy Easter on the fourteenth of the month Pharmuthi (April 9). Afterwards, extending the fast to the seventh day, on the seventeenth of the month, let us rest late in the evening. And the light of the Lord having first dawned upon us, and the holy Sunday on which our Lord rose shining upon us, we should rejoice and be glad with the joy which arises from good works, during the seven weeks which remain—to Pentecost—giving glory to the Father, and saying, ‘This is the day which the Lord hath made: we will rejoice and be glad in it, through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, through Whom to the same, and to His Father, be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.[12]

AD 341. We begin the fast of forty days on the thirteenth of Phamenoth (9 Mar.), and the holy week of Easter on the eighteenth of Pharmuthi (Apr. 13); and resting on the seventh day, being the twenty-third (Apr. 18), and the first of the great week having dawned on the twenty-fourth of the same month Pharmuthi (Apr. 19), let us reckon from it till Pentecost. And at all times let us sing praises, calling on Christ, being delivered from our enemies by Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.[13]

AD 347. We begin the fast of forty days on the sixth day of Phamenoth (Mar. 2); and having passed through that properly, with fasting and prayers, we may be able to attain to the holy day. For he who neglects to observe the fast of forty days, as one who rashly and impurely treads on holy things, cannot celebrate the Easter festival. Further, let us put one another in remembrance, and stimulate one another not to be negligent, and especially that we should fast those days, so that fasts may receive us in succession, and we may rightly bring the feast to a close.

The fast of forty days begins then, as was already said, on the sixth of Phamenoth (Mar. 2), and the great week of the Passion on the eleventh of Pharmuthi (Apr. 6). And let us rest from the fast on the sixteenth of it (Apr. 11), on the seventh day, late in the evening. Let us keep the feast when the first of the week dawns upon us, on the seventeenth of the same month Pharmuthi (Apr. 12). Let us then add, one after the other, the seven holy weeks of Pentecost, rejoicing and praising God, that He hath by these things made known to us beforehand, joy and rest everlasting, prepared in heaven for us and for those who truly believe in Christ Jesus our Lord; through Whom, and with Whom, be glory and dominion to the Father, with the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.[14]

Since the festal letter of AD 334 (50 anno Diocletiano/anno Martyri)[15] is the most detailed on the Lenten fast, I will use it to study the matter:

  • In that year, the fast of the forty days started on 1st of the Coptic month of Phamenoth[16] (25 February), which was Monday.
  • The holy week of Easter started on 6th of the Coptic month of Pharamuthi (1 April), which was a Monday.
  • Late in the evening of the Saturday, the 11th of Pharamuthi[17] (7 April), and as the holy Easter Sunday dawned, the Lenten fast ended.
  • Easter Day, the holy Sunday, was on 12th of Pharamuthi (8 April).
  • Easter Day is followed by seven weeks of the holy Pentecost that were crowned by the movable Pentecost feast.

It is clear that the fast of the holy week of Easter did not comprise a separate fast but it was an integral part of the forty days fast.

The following table shows the details of Lent and the Lenten fast in AD 334, according to St. Athanasius.

Baptism2              Table showing Lent and the Lenten fast in the year AD 334 (50 AM), extending from 1 Phamenoth to 11 Pharmuthi, while Easter Day was on 12 Pharmuthi (blue-shaded areas represent days of fasting)

A24

Since the Lent period was six weeks in length, one would expect the Lenten fast to be 41 days (35 days in the first part of Lent, and 6 days of the Paschal week in the second part); however, St. Athanasius tells us that this wasn’t the case as during the first part of Lent, fasting was suspended on Saturdays and Sundays: “We begin the fast of forty days on the first day of the month Phamenoth; and having prolonged it till the fifth of Pharmuthi, suspending it upon the Sundays and the Saturdays preceding them, we then begin again on the holy days of Easter, on the sixth of Pharmuthi.” This is not explicitly stated in Athanasius’ other festal letter but is so clear here that it cannot simply be ignored. In fact, it confirms what Ibn Siba’a has said in the 13th century that no fasting occurred on Saturdays and Sundays in early Church, except on the one Saturday that fell between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Schaff confirms this early tradition, saying, “The Saturdays and Sundays during Lent were not observed as fasts, with the exception of the day before Easter-day;” and he uses as a reference St. Ambrose of Milan (374 – 397).[18]

St. Athanasius speaks of ‘the fast of the forty days’, but, although Lent lasted for 41 days, not all these days were days of fasting: Christians fasted on Phamenoth 1 to 5, 8 to 12, 15 to 19, 22 to 26, and Phamenoth 29 to Pharmuthi 3 – they suspended fasting on five Saturdays and Sundays (total of 10 days), on Phamenoth 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21, 27 and 28, and on Pharmuthi 4 and 5. The total days on which the fast was observed during these six weeks of Lent were only 31 days (25 days in the first part of Lent, which occupied the first five weeks of Lent, and 6 days in the second part, which was the Paschal week at the end).

Although St. Athanasius confirms what Ibn Siba’a has said about the suspension of fasting on Saturdays (except the one Saturday before Easter Sunday) and Sundays, he differs from him in one important matter: Lent, for St. Athanasius, occupied a period of six weeks only, not the eight weeks period that Ibn Siba’a speaks of. Ibn Siba’a refers his understanding of the Lent duration to the early Church; however, it is clear that the eight weeks duration of Lent was introduced at some point after the fourth century in which St. Athanasius lived. At the present I don’t have any idea as to the timing of that change, but it is possible to speculate on the reason behind such a change. As we have seen, the Lenten fast was arranged by the early Church to imitate Christ in His forty days and forty nights fast. In reality, though, the Lenten fast differed from Christ’s fast: first, no human being could fast continuously for forty days and forty nights in succession; second, since the Christians banned fasting on Saturdays and Sundays, fasting during the six weeks of Lent was intermittent, being performed in blocks of five days (Monday to Friday) every week in the first five weeks, and a block of six days in the last week. The Lenten fast, therefore, was observed only on 31 days out of the 41 days of Lent.

The reason for the later increase of Lent to eight weeks, as Ibn Siba’a attests, is open for speculation; but, it is reasonable to assume that the Christians at a later stage, after the fourth century, wanted to fast for forty days rather than only thirty one days, and, thereby, be closer to the fast of Christ. The two extra weeks that were added to the top of Lent made it possible to increase the days of fasting to forty one days by adding two Monday-Friday fasting blocks from each week to the total. So, while continuing the suspension of the fast on Saturdays and Sundays, they were able to have their ‘forty days fast’ in full.

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[1] After Epiphany, “Jesus [was] led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungered.” (Matt. 4:1-2 [KJV]).

[2] See: Jean Périer, Ibn Sabba, Yohanna ibn Abi Zakariya, La Perle Précieuse in Patrologia Orientalis. Tome 16, fasc. 4 (Paris, 1922); p. 671.

[3] Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Volume IV: Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1891); pp. 506 – 553.

[4] The Early Church always knew the Lenten fast as ‘the fast of the forty days’ (Quandragesmia [the fortieth] in Latin and ‘Saracosti’ in Greek and Coptic).

[5] St. Athanasius speaks of the holy week of Easter in various terms including: the holy paschal week, the holy fast, the holy week of the great Easter, the holy days of Easter, the holy fast of the blessed feast, the holy Easter fast, the holy Easter, the holy Easter feast and the great week of the Passion.

[6] In the years AD 329, 332, 333 and 342, St. Athanasius speaks about the holy week of Easter only; while in the years AD 345 and 346 he barely declare Easter Day.

[7] Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, p. 512.

[8] Ibid, p. 515.

[9] Ibid, p. 523.

[10] Ibid, p. 527.

[11] Ibid, p. 532.

[12] Ibid, p. 538.

[13] Ibid, p. 541.

[14] Ibid, p. 548.

[15] The era of Diocletian started in AD 284, using the Julian calendar. The Copts later called the era of anno Diocletiani, ‘anno Martyri’ to commorate the many martyrs from Egypt who suffered under Diocletian.

[16] Phamenoth is the seventh month in the Coptic calendar. In the fourth century, it extended from 25 February to 26 March in the Julian calendar (in leap Coptic years: 26 February – 27 March).

[17] Paramuthi is the eighth month in the Coptic calendar. In the fourth century, it extended from 27 March to 25 April in the Julian calendar (in both simple and leap Coptic years).

[18] Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, n. 4128.

THE TIME FOR BAPTISM IN EARLY COPTIC CHURCH ACCORDING TO IBN SIBA’A

November 5, 2017

Baptism Ethiopian

Ethiopian biblical manuscript showing baptism of an adult (kept at University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History)

It seems that baptism was held in the Coptic Church in the past once in a year on a certain day. We have the evidence from the 13th century Coptic theologian Yuhanna ibn abi Zakariyya, known as Ibn Siba’a (يوحنا بن ابى زكريا المعروف بابن سِبَاعْ) in his invaluable book The Precious Jewel in Ecclesiastical Sciences (الجوهرة النفيسة فى علوم الكنيسة Al-Jawharah al-Nafisah fi ‘Ulum al-Kanisah).

Ibn Siba’a starts by telling us that the baptised person in early Church was not allowed baptism until he was thirty years old, the age in which the Lord Christ was baptised by John [the Baptist].[1] Then:

And in the early age prayers were not made on water to baptise people except on a certain day in the year, which was the sixth Friday of the Holy Fast. And the reason for choosing that day specifically is that Christ’s crucifixion, his sufferings, his death and his entrance into the grave – I mean by his earthly element – was on Friday, the sixth day, in the six thousandth [year of Creation].  Therefore, the Fathers, Teachers of the Church, made it to simulate what the Lord Christ did in his entrance into the grave to release all who deserved salvation from the progeny of Adam. For that they arranged for baptism to be like the death of Christ on Friday, the sixth day in the sixth Friday of the Fast, in the six thousand Year of the World. They [the Fathers] made baptism release everyone who was immersed in it as the death of Christ for us has released us from the custody of Satan.[2]

Ibn Siba’a then adds:

And those who arranged this with this meaningful and perfect vision, also envisaged something for the flock of the Almighty God who would perish without baptism and without simulating the death of Christ for us if they died in childhood without reaching thirty years of age akin to the perfect age of Christ [at his baptism]. They arranged for the male child [to be baptised], when they are purified of the unclean postpartum blood of their mothers, after forty days; and, in the case of a female child, after eighty days. They arranged that as they feared that they [the flock] may die and miss the high Kingdom of God and the progress towards it, their souls staying with Satan and surrounded with death in fire.[3]

Ibn Siba’a clearly talks about two groups of individuals: those adults who are new converts, and, if in good health, I suppose, would be baptised at the age of thirty years; and the new-borns of Christian families who are baptised any time after the passage of forty days from their birth for boys and eighty days for girls. Still, with the second group, there is no indication that baptism in early Church was undertaken on other days other than on the one day in the year he tells us baptism was held – Friday, the sixth day of the week (since the week started with Sunday), in the sixth Friday of the Holy Fast (the Lenten Fast).

In a previous article, I talked about Ibn Siba’a’s understanding of the duration of the Coptic Lenten Fast: to him, the Lenten Fast included eight weeks before Easter, with only forty one days fasted as Saturdays, except the Saturday of Light, and Sundays were not fasted. Each Monday to Friday period fasted in a week, he calls ‘Friday’. The Baptism Friday (the 6th Friday of the Holy Fast), which Ibn Siba’a speaks of, is, therefore, the 30th day of the Lenten Fast. I mark that Baptism Day with a star in the figure below.

Baptism Day

Figure showing the duration of the Lenten Fast according to Ibn Siba’a, and the Baptism Annual Day

 ________________________

[1] See: Jean Périer, Ibn Sabba, Yohanna ibn Abi Zakariya, La Perle Précieuse in Patrologia Orientalis. Tome 16, fasc. 4 (Paris, 1922); p. 671. Périer publishes only the first 56 chapters of the book of Ibn Siba’a (out of 115) in Arabic accompanied by French translation. The English translation here is mine.

[2] Ibid; pp. 671-2.

[3] Ibid; p. 672.

THE DURATION OF THE COPTIC LENTEN FAST ACCORDING TO IBN SIBA’A

November 4, 2017

Lent

Figurative representation of the Lenten Fast according to Ibn Siba’a

I shall start this series on the history of Coptic fasts by studying what the 13th century[1] Coptic theologian Yuhanna ibn abi Zakariyya, known as Ibn Siba’a (يوحنا بن ابى زكريا المعروف بابن سِبَاعْ) has to say, and I shall limit myself here to Lent. Ibn Siba’a wrote a few books, but The Precious Jewel in Ecclesiastical Sciences (الجوهرة النفيسة فى علوم الكنيسة Al-Jawharah al-Nafisah fi ‘Ulum al-Kanisah), or simply The Precious Jewel, is perhaps his greatest.[2] The reader can read more about this book in my previous article, here.

Ibn Siba’a calls the Lenten Fast, the Holly Fast (الصوم المقدس). On it, he writes:

[The Fathers who were filled with grace] appointed that forty days every year are fasted akin to the fast of the Lord Christ, and they completed it forty days: five days every week; so that the fast consists of eight Fridays. As the Didascalia says: the first of the Fridays falls at the end of winter and their last falls at the beginning of summer: five days in every week excepting Saturdays and Sundays; for there is no fasting on Saturdays except the one Saturday when the Lord of the World was entombed; and there is no fasting at all on Sundays for Sunday is a day of spiritual joy indicative of the General Resurrection in the coming age where there will be no tiredness or suffering, and as fasting is tiredness and suffering, they [the Fathers] left out on Sundays for Sunday is the prototype of Resurrection.[3]

Ibn Siba’a talks about forty days but in fact it is 41 days: five days every week (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) for the eight weeks that precede The Sunday of Resurrection; plus the only Saturday in which fasting is allowed, the Saturday before the Sunday of Resurrection (which we call now Sabt al-Nour (سبت النور, The Saturday of the Light).  The Coptic Lenten Fast according to Ibn Siba’a then starts on Monday in the First Friday (he calls every fasting chunk of the week, ‘Friday’) and it represents Day – 55 before the Resurrection Sunday.

The Lenten Fast in the Coptic Church at the present is not 41 days but extends to 55 days in one continuous fast without a break on Saturdays and Sundays. Clearly, the Copts at some point felt it was reasonable to fast in the Saturdays and Sundays that intervene between the eight periods of Fridays; and in this way the whole eight weeks are fasted. It is not yet clear to me at what point of our history that had happened. A few explanations were made as to the reason for extending the duration of the Lenten Fast, which I hope I would discuss later.

Above, I have represented the Forty Days Fast in a figurative way.


__________________

 [1] Unfortunately it is not possible to locate his life more precisely. Some believe that he lived into the 14th century.

[2] The work is often referred to in Western literature as The Precious Pearl; La Perle Précieuse. This is in fact wrong: while “جوهرة” means “jewel”; “لؤلؤة” means “pearl”.

[3] See: Jean Périer, Ibn Sabba, Yohanna ibn Abi Zakariya, La Perle Précieuse in Patrologia Orientalis. Tome 16, fasc. 4 (Paris, 1922); p. 678. Périer publishes only the first 56 chapters of the book of Ibn Siba’a (out of 115) in Arabic accompanied by French translation. The English translation here is mine.

A 1942 HAND LIST OF ALL ORIENTAL ILLUMINATED CHRISTIAN MANUSCRIPTS

November 3, 2017

A valuable resource which was published in 1942 by the research institution attached to London University Warburg Institute and written by Fritz Saxl (1890 – 1948) and Hugo Buchthal (1909 – 1996) is titled “A Hand list of the Oriental Illuminated Christian Manuscripts” and was intended by the authors to be primarily an index of such manuscripts available in libraries and museums. It lists Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Nubian, Ethiopian, Armenian and Georgian Christian manuscripts.

The reader can access this book here.

WAGUIH GHALI: AN EXTRAORDINARY COPT

November 2, 2017

Ghali1

Waguih Ghali in the early 1960s in Paris

Not many Copts know about Waguih Ghali – I didn’t know him until recently; and I regard that as shameful. Ghali is interesting in many ways: he was the first Copt to write a novel in any language, ‘Beer at the Snooker Club’, in 1964; and he wrote it in English. He is considered not just the first Copt but the first Egyptian to write a novel in English. The novel was hailed literary critics as a masterpiece and the best book ever written about Egypt. Martin Levin writes about it:

A small masterpiece of a novel that does several things with astonishing virtuosity. It gives an Egyptian’s view of Nasser’s Egypt that brilliantly communicates the texture of this experience. It depicts political conflicts before and after Suez in terms of imagery that transcend journalistic platitudes. And it creates an original and complex protagonist.[1]

And Gabriel David Josipovici, a friend of Ghali in his last year,[2] writes:

Beer in the Snooker Club is the best book ever written about Egypt (better even than my grandfather’s Goha le Simple) and it is a crying shame that it is out of print…

This is a wonderful book. Quiet, understated, seemingly without any artistic or formal pretentions. Yet quite devastating in its human and political insights… if you want to convey to someone what Egypt was like in the forties and fifties, and why it is impossible for Europeans or Americans to understand, give them this book. It makes The Alexandria Quartet look like the travel brochure it is.[3]

Waguih Ghali was born in Alexandria in 1929[4] to a rich, landowning family, related to the famous, cosmopolitan Coptic Ghali family that for the last two hundred years or so got involved in Egypt’s politics, with perhaps the best known being Boutros Ghali, prime minister in Egypt (1908 – 1910) and Boutros Boutros Ghali, Secretary General of the United Nations (1992 – 1996). The family was Anglophone, and had sent many of her children to study in France. He died on 5 January 1969, aged 40 years old, in hospital, after having ingested an overdose of sleeping pills in the apartment of the British literary editor and author Diana Athill in north London in order to commit suicide on 26 December 1968. He had suffered from severe depression before his death.

For the last four or five years before his death, Ghali was in close contact with Diana Athill (b. 1917) since 1963[5] after reading his novel and becoming acquainted with him. Although a German acquaintance had described him to her as “a modest, tender and gazelle-like being,” when she met him, she says, “[h]e looked more like a goat than a gazelle;” nonetheless, she fell in love with him. He lived a guest in one of her flat’s rooms in north London. After Ghali’s death, Athill wrote in 1986 a candid biography of her life from 1961 until Ghali’s death, in anything to do with Ghali. Her biography, titled After a Funeral, is the best source to get from a glimpse into Ghali’s life, character and soul. In the book, she calls him Didi. As I wanted to know more about Ghali, I read Athill’s memoir about Didi; and read it as a Copt wanting to know more about this extraordinary Copt.

Ghali2

Athill’s book ‘After a Funeral’ cover

The publisher’s review of Athill’s memoir reads as follows:

This is the story of how and why a talented writer came to kill himself. When Diana Athill met the man she calls Didi, an Egyptian in exile, she fell in love instantly and out of love just as fast. Didi moved into her flat: they started housework and holidays, and a life of easy intimacy seemed to beckon. But Didi’s sweetness and intelligence soon revealed a darker side – he was a gambler, a drinker and a womanizer, impossible to live with but impossible to ignore. With painful honesty, Athill explores the three years they spent together, a period that culminated in Didi’s suicide – in her home – an event he described in the journals he left for her to read as ‘the one authentic act of my life’.[6]

Hilary Hicklin writes about it:

This is such an extraordinary book that it’s hard to know where to begin. Diana Athill recounts the story of her friendship with a young Egyptian writer who comes to live with her in England on a “temporary” basis. Three years later he commits suicide while she is away. Athill tries to unravel the complexity of his character and behaviour – charming and delightful one minute, vindictive and self-destructive the next. It is a fascinating but poignant account, especially for anyone who has loved and lived with that kind of person. His personal demons were drink, gambling, and womanising and an inability to hold down any sort of proper employment. Yet his wit and charm made everyone around him forgive him. The seeds of his erratic behaviour lay, of course, in his childhood and Athill has written the book partly as a lesson to parents.[7]

Ghali was a mentally troubled man, and reading After a Funeral makes a painful read because it reveals his complex personality and sad story. There is nothing characteristically Coptic in Ghali – for once, although he was a Copt, he did not follow the Coptic Orthodox Church – his family was Catholic; and there is no hint in his novel or Athill’s memoir about him that indicate that he was in any way attentive to the conservative Coptic culture. His path in life was not typically Copt.

He cut reading medicine at Cairo University and joined the Sorbonne Medical School in Paris sometime in the early 1950s, but he did not finish his education; and in 1953, after the coup d’état of Nasser in 1952, he left Paris to London, where he lived for some years. During that period, he wrote six short narrative essays in the Manchester Guardian. From London he went to Stockholm and in 1960 he moved to Berlin in West Germany where he associated himself with members of the political Left. There, he worked in menial jobs but in the years 1964-1966 he worked at the British Army Royal Pay Corps in Rheydt in West Germany. Beer in the Snooker Club was written in Stockholm and completed in Berlin; and in 1964 it was published by Andre Deutsch in London, a publishing company in which Athill worked. From 1966, he lived in London until his death in 1969. During that period, which was spent at Athill’s flat, Ghali visited Israel where he stayed from July to September. This was a mere month after the Arab-Israeli War in 1967 in which Egypt was defeated. The visit, which was facilitated by a group of left-wing Israeli expatriates in London, infuriated the Nasser regime in Egypt; but Ghali had already been banned from returning back to Egypt. In 1958, he was forced to leave Egypt for good as he was threatened by arrest for being a member of the Egyptian Communist Party. When his passport expired, there was no way of renewing it and he had to live as an exile in the West.

It is easy to understand why Ghali did not like Nasser’s regime – most Copts didn’t. Ghali was critical of Nasser’s coup d’état that “neither serves the people nor allows their rich aunts to live the life of leisure they are accustomed to.”[8] It is easy also to understand why Nasser’s regime hated Beer in the Snooker Club and why the Jewish community in London loved him for it. The story is that of a young Copt, Ram, and his friend, Font. Ram, like Ghali himself, is from a rich family background but his family branch poor. His friend Font was equally poor. The two young Copts, while students at Cairo University and engaged in anti-British occupation activities, meet a Jewish girl by the name of Edna with whom Ram falls in love. Edna, who is a Communist, comes from a rich family and did have enough resources to live on and spent. She encourages the two Copts to complete their education and sends them to London. When the 1956 Suez Crisis occurs, Ram joins the Communist party, and participates in the anti-war campaign, and during one of the demonstrations at Trafalgar Square he hits a policeman. Consequently he is deported to Egypt. There, Ram finds himself disappointed in Nasser’s coup, which he previously regarded as a welcome revolution to help the poor fellaheen (peasants).  He finds that the new regime was corrupt, unjust and oppressive to Communists and Jews. He starts gathering evidence of torture in Egyptian prisons.

A24

I am afraid I don’t identify with Ghali even though I feel very sorry for him and for his early death – a talented life that was prematurely cut and could have been used better. I sympathise with him enormously in his mental illness and his sad life, and find in his early childhood the key to his later struggles and complex personality.  Children who are neglected and abused, physically, emotionally or sexually, mostly turn out to be ‘Waguihs’.  It is now established science that children who have experienced adverse childhood events have higher incidence of mental illness, ranging from anxiety, severe depression and schizophrenia, trouble with police, gambling, drinking, suicide and early death.

A few months before his death, and after an incident in which he disappointed Athill, he wrote:

The situation I am in now has been typical since boyhood. No one putting up with me. Whatever unorthodox or mischievous thing I did met with ‘He must go away’. Where to? From Grandpa’s to Tante B, to my mother, to the S’s, to the J’s, to Dolly[9] for a couple of nights, from Alex to Cairo to Alex to Cairo to Alex. Each autumn, the end of summer, I would be staying with friends – school would be starting again soon and I had to go ‘back’. But ‘back’ where? To whom? The Cairo school or the Alex school? I would stand, my heart sinking inside me, with my suitcases, in the street as it were. Dolly would finally ‘arrange’ something (never at her place, though). Finally a pension, when I was still a boy, and never any home since. I keep thinking about all that. And this, I suppose, turns me into a manic-depressive, presumably incapable of ‘coping with life’. What shall I do?

Ghali had known what he should do, from his point of view, for a long time – to kill himself; which he did on Boxing Day in 1969 by taking a large dose of sleeping pills. Athill found his death intolerable:

It was intolerable that a man should be so crippled by things done to him in his defenceless childhood that he had been made, literally and precisely, unendurable to himself. He had tried to change. All through his adult life the part of him which he thought of as his ‘mental sanity’ had stood in the wings and watched the part he called ‘emotional insanity’ – watched and judged, in vain. His intelligence, his gifts – useless to him. Other people’s patience, kindness, affection, understanding – useless to him. Love? Too late, and equally useless. […] He was certain at too deep a level, in the very fibres of his being, that he was unworthy of love. Being unworthy of love, he must be punished; and the only way he could secure this was by plunging out to the point where he was driven to punish himself.

What could have been the origin of Ghali’s misery in his life? It seems it was his mother. Ghali’s mother was a teenager when she got married to a doctor, a man older than her. She didn’t love her husband, and didn’t want to get pregnant. Shortly after Waguih was born, his father died. The young family moved to Ghali’s maternal grandparents, where Ghali spent his early childhood. His mother did not have much time for him, and Dolly, his elder aunty, looked after him until she got married. When Ghali’s mother got married again, Ghali moved with her to her new home, but she was horrible and neglectful to him. Mémé, Ghali’s cousin and son of Dolly, tells us this story which Athill adds to her book:

When Didi was about eight or ten he came back from school one evening and there was no one at home. … He rang and rang, and no one answered. So he went away and walked round looking at shops and things, and then came back and rang again, and still no one was there. So he went away, and came back, and went away, and came back, and it wasn’t until about eleven o’clock that a servant from the flat above came down and said ‘Oh there you are, your mother and her father have gone away for a week. They asked me to tell you and give you this.’ And he gave him one piaster – one piaster – so he could find a telephone and ask someone for a place to sleep. She was always doing things like that. When he won a prize at school and she’d promised to come to the prizegiving, she didn’t, and when he cried and asked her why she hadn’t come, all she said was why wouldn’t he stop being such a nuisance.

Ghali’s family was not less horrible, as Mémé says:

He was always poor, and my family is so horrible. They talk so much about loving people, but if there was a party, say, and all the cousins were coming, they wouldn’t ask Didi. They’d say ‘Well, he hasn’t the right clothes, it would embarrass him.’ And they got all his money, you know – all the money he had from his father. They made lawsuits and got it all.

It is not surprising that Ghali was full of anger and was always shouting when he was a child. What was fundamentally lacking in his childhood was his mother’s love. Had he been fully orphaned the impact on his later life would not have been so great, but with her alive and showing all the signs that she didn’t want him, in my opinion, resulted in Ghali’s bad destructive behaviour as an adult and ended up with him being dead at the early age of forty.

____________________________

[1] Levin, Martin, Futility Lurked at Every Corner (New York Times Book Review, June 14, 1964).

[2] See: London Review of Books (Vol. 8 No. 12 · 3 July 1986).

[3] See: Waguih Ghali in Wikipedia.

[4] Ghali’s diary confirms that he was born on 25 February without mentioning the year. Researchers have suggested a year of birth between 1927 and 1930.

[5] Athill met Ghali for the first time in the summer of 1963.

[6] Diana Athill, After a Funeral (2012 edition by Granta Books); backcover.

[7] Comment in Goodreads.

[8] The publisher’s review of Beer in the Snooker Club (Serpent’s Tail Classics, 1910).

[9] Dolly was one of Ghali’s maternal aunties who visited London and met Athill.

THE GERMAN SCHOLAR JOHANN VANSLEB THOUGHT COPTIC COULD BE REVIVED BY HELP OF THE LINGUAL WORKS OF AWLAD AL-‘ASSAL

October 21, 2017

In many articles I recently wrote, I used the German scholar, traveller and theologian Johann Michael Vansleb’s book ‘The Present State of Egypt; or, A New Relation of a Late Voyage into that Kingdom, Performed in the Years 1672 and 1673[1] as a source. That is because it is a treasure trove in Coptic matters.

There are a few notes on the Coptic language in Vansleb’s book.

In Asyut, he visited its bishop, Amba Joannes [Yo’annis], whom he describes as “a very honest man, of a good life”[2]. Bishop Yo’annis took him to see Muallim [Master] Athanasius, an old man who was about eighty years old, “the only man of all of the Upper Egypt that understood his natural tongue, that is, the Copties [Coptic]”[3]. Here is his account:

“A few days after [I had arrived in Asyut], I craved acquaintance with the bishop of the city, called Amba Joannes; he is a very honest man, of a good life. He made me know a certain Coptie, named Muallim Athanasius, the only man of all the Upper Egypt that understood his natural tongue, that is, the Copties; but I could not benefit myself much by him, because he was deaf, and about fourscore years of age: nevertheless I had the satisfaction to behold that man, with whom the Copties language will be utterly lost.”[4]

But the Coptic language was not utterly lost for we know that Muallim Athanasius was not the last man who spoke Coptic. Coptic was spoken until the 20th century and until today as we know but admittedly by a few families. However, even if no one spoke Coptic at all is left, Coptic cannot be described as lost. As I have written in a previous article, in languages that don’t have living speakers, there is a major difference between languages that are not recorded in writing disappeared from lingual existence because theirs population have been wiped out from the face of the earth through massacres, epidemics or some other natural disaster, such as the Venezuelan Trumai language[5] and the Cameroonian Kasabe language[6], and languages, such as Sanskrit, Latin, Hebrew [before its revival after the establishment of Israel], Ge’ez and Coptic, which are extensively recorded in rich literature, grammars and dictionaries. While the first group is extinct, dead, and utterly lost – that is they cannot be resurrected or revived; the second group is not dead but only dormant, waiting only for the right conditions to come back again and become spoken language.

Despite Vansleb’s above remark that with the death of Muallim Athanasius, which most probably happened shortly after Vansleb’s visit to him in 1673, Coptic would be “utterly lost”; in another place, he writes what makes us believe that he did not actually think that Coptic could utterly be lost for as long as it kept its literature, dictionaries and grammars. When Vansleb visited the Monastery of Saint Anthony at the Red Sea, he visited its library situated at the Monastery’s keep (fort)[7]. After exploring some of its treasures, he writes about some he found interesting:

“Two amongst the rest were very curious, which I had a great desire to have; one was the Copties Grammar and Dictionary in Arabic, of Ibn il assal. It was one of the exactest [sic] and largest that ever I saw: they [the monks] esteemed it worth thirty crowns; I dare say, that with this Dictionary and Grammar it is possible to re-establish the Copties language, which now is lost: The other book was a rubric of their ceremonies in Folio, very well written.”[8]

Vansleb is most probably talking about more than one ‘Ibn il assal’ here. We know of three Ibn al-‘Assal (Sons of the Honeybee keeper) brothers who lived in the 13th century.[9] The dictionary he found was “al-Sullam al-Muqaffa wa-l-Dhahab al-Musaffa” (The Rhymed Dictionary and the Purified Gold) by al-Mu’taman Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn al-‘Assal,[10] and whose work was partially published and edited by Athanasius Kircher (1602 – 1680) in 1643 in his Lingua Aegyptiaca Restituta.  And the grammar that Vansleb found besides the dictionary was most probably the one written by As‘ad Abu AL-Faraj Hibat Allah Ibn al-‘Assal “Muqadamah fi al-Luqqah al-Qibtiyah” (Introduction in the Coptic Language).[11]

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[1] F. Vansleb, The Present State of Egypt; or, A New Relation of a Late Voyage into that Kingdom, Performed in the Years 1672 and 1673 (London, 1678).

[2] Ibid; p. 218.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Trumai language is a language that used to be spoken in Venezuela until possibly shortly after the 1960s. David Crystal tells us of the striking loss of Trumai by an influenza epidemic: “A dramatic illustration of how a language disappears took place in Venezuela in the 1960s. As part of the drive to tap the vast resources of the Amazonian rain forests, a group of Western explorers passed through a small village on the bank of the Coluene River. Unfortunately, they brought with them the influenza virus, and the villagers, who lacked any immunity, were immediately susceptible to the disease. Fewer than 10 people survived. A human tragedy, it was a linguistic tragedy too, for this village contained the only speakers of the Trumai language. And with so few people left to pass it on, the language was doomed.” David Crystal, Languages, when the last speakers go, they take with them their history and culture. Civilization. February/March 1997; p. 41.

[6] The date of death of the Kasabe language, a Cameroonian language, is given as the 5th November 1996. David Crystal, again, gives us the story of its sad death: “In late 1995, a linguist, Bruce Connell, was doing some field work in the Mambila region of Cameroon. He found a language called Kasabe, which no westerner had studied before. It had just one speaker left, a man called Bogon. Connell had no time on that visit to find out much about the language, so he decided to return to Cameroon a year later. He arrived in mid-November, only to learn that Bogon had died on 5th November, taking Kasabe with him.” David crystal, Millennium Brirfing: the death of language. Prospect. November 1999; p. 56.

[7] About the Keep of the Monastery of Saint Anthony, see my article here.

[8] The Present State of Egypt; p. 188.

[9] See: Awlad Al-‘Assal by Aziz Suryal Atiya in Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (1991).

[10] See: Mu’taman Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Ibn Al-‘Assal by Aziz Suryal Atiya in Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 5 (1991); and Sullam (or Scala) by Werner Vycichl in Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 8 (1991).

[11] See: As‘ad Abu AL-Faraj Hibat Allah Ibn al-‘Assal by Aziz Suryal Atiya in Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (1991).

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