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May 2, 2021

Until I prayed in the language of my people

February 25, 2021

I tried to pray to Thee in different languages:
The languages of the Greeks, the Arabs, and the English.
But my words came out hollow and cold,
Until I prayed in the language of my people,
I sighed from the depth of my soul as I cried out in the best way I could:
“Nai nie, Isous Pixristos, o’woh nai nie.”
And I felt Antoni and Makari,
Pachom and Shenouti,
Cry out with me.
And as I was connected to Thine sacred name,
I got into Thine essence,
And all my problems suddenly ceased.

24 2 2021


  1. “Nai nie, Isous Pixristos, o’woh nai nie” = Have mercy on me, Jesus Christ, and (again) have mercy on me.
  2. Antoni (Saint Antonius); Makari = Saint Macarius the Great; Pachom = Saint Pachomius; Shenouti = Saint Shenouti the Archimandrite.


February 7, 2021

Saint Shenouda Press is a new project by St Shenouda Monastery, in Putty, New South Wales, Australia that I find its fresh and modern look a very much welcome endeavour. It translates into English and publishes some of the great classics in Coptic, Arabic, and Syriac. It also publishes contemporary English books. It also accepts manuscripts and translated work for publication. It publishes books using On Demand Printing, which is the latest technology in the publishing world. They accept orders from the US, UK, Canada &Australia without the extra add on cost of international shipping as they only charge for local shipping. Furthermore, their books are made available in major online book outlets.

Their mission, as they state it, is to provide everyone the opportunity to enjoy contemporary high-quality Christian books and to order and receive the best books.

You can access Saint Shenouda Press here and here.


February 6, 2021

In the last decade or so, the English word ‘Christmas’ has been commonly taken by Copts as originally Coptic, from ‘Christmisi’. It has been entered in some books that deal with Coptic neologisms and in 2011 the belief in its Coptic etymology received a huge boost by Pope Shenouda III (1971 – 2012), who declared that the word is definitely Coptic. Here is what Pope Shenouda III had to say in one of his speeches:

The word ‘Christmas’ is a compound word that is formed from two nouns: Christ, which is Greek, and ‘mas’, which is Coptic Egyptian, and this is absolutely incontestable. We try to find its [mas] root in English, French, Italian, and German, or any of the other Latin-derived languages, but to no avail. For mas actually comes from the Coptic verb ‘misi’, which is the same in Hieroglyphic, and means ‘to give birth’.

Misi’ means the same as mas as in Thutmose, which means “the born from Thut (Thoth)” or Ramesses, which means “the born from Ra”, the sun god of the Ancient Egyptians.

So, the word ‘Christmas’ means “the birth of Christ” or “the birthday of Christ”. This shows that the Hieroglyphic or Coptic language has entered into the formation of the word ‘Christmas’, and proves that it has not originated from a foreign language [i.e., non-Coptic languages].[1]

The claim that the word Christmas is Coptic in origin is in fact a claim that the English have borrowed it from Coptic. Now, borrowing is a common process of word formation. While other types of word formation depend on creating new words from the language’s own internal resources, borrowing takes from foreign languages: the language from which the word is taken is called the donor language while the language which takes over the word is called the recipient. In this case Coptic is the donor language and English is the recipient one.

There are two types of borrowing: 

  1. Copying, which involves simple copying of the foreign word as it is by the recipient language without any translation, with or without some sound modification. The word thus introduced into the recipient language is called a ‘loanword’. Copying is usually the result of cultural contact between different languages.  In the following examples, I will use English as a recipient language. Copying can be of:
  2. Single words, as in coffee (from Arabic), café (from French), tea (from China), alcohol (from Arabic), tobacco (from American Indian languages), tomato (from Mexico), potato (from Spanish), croissant (from French), piano (from Italian), yogurt (from Turkish), lilac (from Persian), knackwurst (from German), bratwurst (from German), pumpernickel (from German). Here, the reader will see that the copied single words are actually originally compound names, such as the German words knackwurst,[2] bratwurst,[3] and pumpernickel[4]: the first is a compound word from knacken+wurst, meaning crisp sausage; the second is made of brat+wurst, meaning ground sausage; the third is from pumper+Nickel, meaning farting devil).[5]
  3. Multi-word phrases, as in déjà vu (from French), which means ‘a feeling of having already experienced the present situation’, and tour de force (again from French), which means ‘a performance or achievement that has been accomplished or managed with great skill’.
  4.  Loan-translation, in whichthe recipient language does not take the foreign word as it is, but achieves a direct translation, word for word, of the elements of the foreign word. The word thus created is called ‘calque’. Again, here, loan translation can be of:
  5. Single word, such as with the German words lehnwort and übermensch which the English took and directly translated into the English language to become ‘loanword’ and ‘superman’. 
  6. Multi-word phrase, as with the French phrase, pointde vue, and directly translate it into ‘point of view’.  

From the above, we can further see that the claim that Christmas was taken by the English from Coptic is basically a claim that the compound word Christmas is a loanword copied directly from Coptic into English without any translation (in other words, it is not a borrowed as calque with translation).

Such a claim assumes that there is actually a compound word in Coptic such as:

This presumed Coptic word is, however, not attested in any Coptic document or dictionary.

Pope Shenouda III is, of course, as I have repeated a few times before, a saint and was a great Coptic leader – one of our greatest heroes of all time. However, that does not necessarily mean that everything he says in non-religious matters is right. I do not think he was right on his assessment of the origin of the word ‘Christmas’, and for two reasons:

First, the history and etymology of the English word ‘Christmas’ is well known and attested.[6]

The compound word ‘Christmas’, written thus as one word, is not an old one, and appeared in English language after Coptic had practically died. It actually first appeared in the mid-14th century. In the 1590s it was used too as a verb, meaning “to celebrate Christmas”. Other words related to Christmas made their appearance around the same time or afterwards: so, Father Christmas appeared for the first time in 1435-77, Christmas-tree in 1835 (from the German Weihnachtsbaum), Christmas-card in 1850, Christmas present in 1769, Christmas Eve, which came from Middle English ‘Cristenmesse Even’, in c. 1300.

With time, the use of the neologism ‘Christmas’, led to the use of a shorter version through some clipping, ‘Xmas’ (pronounced exactly like the full Christmas word), where X is an abbreviation of the Greek name of “Christ”, Χριστός (Christos), which starts with the Greek letter Chi (that looks like the English X). Xmas thus appeared in 1755.

Not only is the history of the word ‘Christmas’ in English literature known, but its etymology too. The Online Etymology Dictionary defines Christmas as “Church festival observed annually in memory of the birth of Christ,” and says that it comes from late Old English[7]Cristes mæsse’, from Christ + mass (a shortened form of “Christ’s mass”). Here, ‘mass’ means the “eucharistic service,” which comes from the Middle English[8]messe’, ‘masse’, from the Old English ‘mæsse’, from Vulgar Latin[9]messa’.  Although ‘mass’ is taken to mean the “eucharistic service,” it literally means “dismissal,” from the Late Latin ‘missa’ (i.e., “dismissal,” fem. past participle of mittere (to let go, send).[10]

It is important to note that Christmas is not the only word used in European languages for the feast-day celebrating the birth of Christ. Another common word is ‘nativity’, which goes back to and even earlier date – the early 12c., when it was derived from Nativite, from Old French[11] nativité “birth, origin, descent; birthday; Christmas” (12c.), which comes from Late Latin[12] nativitatem (nominative nativitas) “birth,” from Latin nativus “born, native”. In fact, nativity (and its variants) is more often used in European languages than Christmas.

There is no doubt thus about the history or origin of the word Christmas: it is a neologism invented in the 14th century by compounding two already known nouns: Christ and mas. The first noun was etymologically derived from the Greek word ‘Χριστός’, meaning Christ, and the second noun, ‘mas’, was derived from the Latin word ‘messa’, meaning mass (literally dismissal).

Second, ‘Christmisi’ or ‘Christmas’, which some Copts claim to be Coptic, and the original words for Christmas, do not respect the lingual evidence or the syntactical rules of the Coptic and Late Egyptian languages.

If, as I said, the word ‘Christmas’ cannot be a direct borrowing (that’s, a loanword), as no original Coptic word that looks like it has been attested in any Coptic document or dictionary, can it be a translated word (that’s a calque) from Coptic, and the original Coptic is a combination of noun + noun (Christ + mass) or (Christ + dismissal)?

The answer is that it is very unlikely. Christ’s mass in Coptic would be:

And Christ’s dismissal or the dismissal of Christ will be something like:

Whichever we use, it is generic, meaning that it would have been expressed similarly in other languages. There is no particular reason why the English could not generate a word from their own resources to mean the same. Their contact with the Copts was minimal, and as we have seen, the word ‘Christmas’ is a 15th century innovation, when the Copts were a suppressed minority and Coptic could already be described as technically dead.

The Coptic claim that the word ‘Christmas’ is originally Coptic rests on the assumption that it is a borrowing from Coptic, and meaning, as Pope Shenouda has said, “the birth of Christ” or “the birthday of Christ”, so our focus must turn to the possibility of that. If this is true, one would assume that the English word ‘Christmas’ in its original composition was made of Christistos + misi or Christos + mas. As such, it will be considered as a calque and not a loanword. The Coptic combination will be such as follows:

Is that possible? Let us study the words that combine these two phrases. ‘Christos’ we know is Greek, so the focus should be on the Coptic words ‘misi’ and ‘mas’.

There are two Egyptian Coptic words which donate the verb “to give birth, to deliver, to bring forth, to beget”: one of them is ‘ejpho[13] and the other, which is more often used, and forms the headword of a lemma,[14] is ‘misi’. I shall concentrate on the study of ‘misi’ and its lemma.

The infinitive verb in its transitive function has three forms: the abstract is ‘misi’; the construct is ‘mes –‘;  the pronominal is ‘mas//’.[15] The qualitative, meaning ‘born’ is ‘mosi’. What applies to the infinitive of all intransitive verbs, applies to the verb “to give birth”: the absolute form requires an object article before its object (which could be a noun or an independent object pronoun); the construct does not require an object article before its object; and the pre-pronominal form is attached directly to a suffix, which is a dependent object pronoun. As the reader can see, the difference rests on the relationship of the transitive verb to its object. The following examples illustrate this:

The abstract form is also used as a noun, meaning “progeny, off spring”. It is a masculine noun, and takes the indefinite and definite articles. Compound nouns can also be made from prefixes and misi, such as in sha-misi (firstborn),[16] ref-misi (parent, progenitor), se-misi (birth stool, birth seat, process of giving birth). Compound words can further be made with the aid of the indirect genitive, as in ma-em-misi (place of birth), but the genitive is more often formed without compounding, such as in ehoou em-misi (birth day), joam em-misi (birth record, birth certificate). [For more on the compound nouns and the genitive construction, see below.]

The Coptic active construct participle (the participium conjunctum, p.c.) of the verb misi, mac–,[17] is also used to build compound words with other nouns, such as masnouti, which means mother of God (literally, the one who gave birth to and mothered God) – the equivalent of the Greek Theotokos (Θεοτόκος).

To express the passive voice, the Coptic uses the personal pronoun of the 3rd person plural (au) with the infinitive, as in the following examples:

The sense of a passive voice can also be given by the use of a noun phrase, ‘pimici ebol khen’ (born from) as in:

But how is the feast of the birth of Christ referred to in Coptic? In Coptic the Birthday of Christ is referred to not in the form of a reversed loanword or calque exercise for ‘Christmas’, but has a totally different construction, meaning ‘The Virgin Birth’, with the Coptic word, ‘pijinmisi’, being used for ‘The Birth’ and the Greek adjective, ‘παρθενικόν’, being used for ‘virgin’. The following examples illustrate this:

As the reader can see, the two words donating ‘birth’ (pijinmisi) and ‘virgin’ (parthinikon), the first being a noun and the second an adjective, are connected together with the morpheme ‘em’. This is an adjectival phrase and is neither a verbal sentence nor a genitive construction, as, here, the em morpheme does not function as a genitive particle. I can find nowhere in Coptic literature that the feast of Christ being referred to in any other way, and particularly not as “the birth of Christ”, or “Christ is born”, or “Christ’s mass”, or “the dismissal of Christ”.

But, let us look at a Coptic translation of the English phrases ‘Christ’s Birth’ or ‘The birth of Christ’, and see how it can be made. As the reader can see, this construction is genitive, denoting possession, and in English is marked by the particle ‘of’ and the possessive apostrophe ‘’s’. The equivalent in Coptic is as follows:

If we translate “the feast of Christ’s Birth” or “the feast of the Birth of Christ” into Coptic, we get the following:

The Coptic genitive construction, as the reader can see, is different from that in English, and is made by using the Coptic genitive particles. The genitive in Coptic is formed from its two constituent nouns with the genitive particle located in between them:

The nomen regens[18] (which always comes first) + a genitive marker (that expresses the genitive relationship) + the nomen rectum[19] (which always comes second)

The genitive marker (or article, or morpheme) is of two kinds:  en– (or em–  before labial letters) and ente– (or enta// before suffix pronouns), and all of them mean ‘of’.  

Here, the second noun, the nomen rectum (also called the possessor noun), modifies the second noun, the nomen regens (also called the possessed).  In the example above, ‘Pixristoc’ (Christ) is the nomen rectum that modifies ‘pijinmisi’ (the birth), thereby making it clear that it is the birth of Christ and no one else.

I give below some more examples of the Coptic genitive construction:

There is no direct genitive construction (that’s, joining the possessor noun and the possessed noun together directly without an intervening genitive particle) in Coptic, as in the Coptic stage of the Egyptian language (from c. 300 AD), the direct genitive was lost. The direct genitive was significant in frequency and productivity in Early Egyptian and Middle Egyptian, but by the Late Egyptian phase (starting from 1350 BC), it became less significant and productive, and was used mostly in phrases when the rectum is without a definiteness article (that’s, having no definite of indefinite article).[20]

But Late Egyptian expressed the genitive mainly through the indirect genitive articles, n, nt (occasionally nty), and nw.  The last two (nt and nw) were developed in late Late Egyptian (from 1000 BC), and are generally mere variants or allographs of n. All these variants survived in Demotic (from c. 650 BC) and Coptic.

So, all late Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic have basically exhibit two genitive particles. In Coptic, the two articles as already stated are en (or em), corresponding to the Late Egyptian’s n, and ente (or enta//), corresponding to the Late Egyptian’s nt/nty and nw. It must be noted, however, that these Late Egyptian genitive particles are the forms Romanised by Friedrich – modern Egyptologists use a different transcription for them: mdj and mtw.[21]

It is important here to note that though the form of the genitive particle has changed, it remained in its place semantically (that’s it always comes before the rectum and after the regens). Important also to note that the order of the two nouns has always been the same: the regens (the modified noun) was always placed first while the rectum (the modifying noun) was always placed second. However, in Late Egyptian, when the rectum was a divinity, it was sometimes for honorific reasons placed first.

Now, let’s focus a bit on the names of Ramesses and Thutmose for they are often presented as a prototype for the word Christmas, and are used to prove that Christmas is originally Coptic. Pope Shenouda has used this:

Misi’ means the same as mas as in Thutmose, which means “the born from Thut (Thoth)” or Ramesses, which means “the born from Ra”, the sun god of the Ancient Egyptians.

Let’s start by studying the nomen (Pharaoh’s birth or personal name)[22] of Thutmose III[23] first and then that of Ramesses II[24], for there is a difference in the verbal phrase employed in them. But before we do that, it is important to see the ancestors of the Coptic words, ‘misi’ (to give birth) and ‘mas’ (child, offspring) – the first is of course a verb while the second is a noun. The following table give the Late Egyptian equivalent to both and some other related words:

So, what is Thutmose’s nomen? And what does it mean? In cartouches, Thutmose’s actually reads “Thutmes”, and is written as follows:

The ibis hieroglyph at the beginning of Thutmose’s cartouche refers to Thut (in Egyptian, djehuti), the god of wisdom and knowledge of the ancient Egyptians. Thutmose’s name can there be transcribed as djehuti-mes (Thutmes). His nomen thus is made of a divine noun + the stative form of the verb misi (ms), meaning “Thut is born”. 

This type of construction is common in Egyptian; and many royal nomens were made on that basis, e.g., Ahmose (iah-mes, “Iah [the moon god] is born”), Ptahmose (ptah-mes, “Ptah is born”), Amunmose (amen-mes, “Amun is born”), and Ramose (ra-mes, “Ra is born”).

Let’s turn now to Ramesses II and see how it is written in Egyptian and what it means. Here is a cartouche of the great Pharaoh, with his nomen included in the right side:

Here, we have the word ‘ra’, indicated by the sun disc, followed by the perfective active participle of the verb ms, which is in turn followed by the ‘him’ pronoun, sw. The name thus reads as follows: ra-ms-sw (Ramessw). The nomen thus is made of the divine name + perfective active participle + enclitic (suffixed) pronoun; and is translated as “Ra is the one who bore him”.

The meanings of the two Pharaonic nomens are therefore different. If Pope Shenouda III simply wanted to say that the word misi is used one way or the other in these nomens, then he is right. However, if he wanted to say that they give the same meaning as he presumed the English word ‘Christmas’ gives – that’s, “Christ is born” – he has not been right here. The syntactic construction of the word “Christmas” is completely different from that of both Ramesses and Thutmose.

The gist of what Pope Shenouda III had to say is that the mas in Christmas comes from the Coptic verb, misi, in one form or the other, which means in its absolute form, “to give birth”. For such a claim to stand – if we are toaccept the assumption that mas in Christmas comes from one of the forms of the Coptic transitive verb misi, meaning   ‘to give birth” – we must assume that the original Coptic word used the pronominal form of the verb, mas//, as follows:

In the above construction the Coptic passive voice is used, by adding the verbal prefix of the personal, 3rd person, plural pronoun ‘aw’ to the beginning, and the suffix of the 2nd person, singular, masculine dependent personal pronoun ‘f’ to the end, of the pronominal verb mas//.

Here, the other way of denoting the passive voice in Coptic by using the adverbial phrase ‘pimisi ebol khen’ does not apply as then the clause will require more to make sense, and then it will mean “the born from [his mother, parents, God, etc.]”, as in:

It is clear that that is not what the English word Christmas, whether we take it as a direct loanword or a translated calque from Coptic. In Coptic we cannot use the combination ‘Pixristosmas’ to mean “Christ is born”. It is just syntactically wrong.

Now, could the English word ‘Christmas’ have been taken from another Coptic construction, a nominal and not verbal one, to mean “the birth of Christ” or “the birthday of Christ”, such as in the following?

The answer is definitely no if we consider Christmas as a loanword from Coptic. It is conceivable that it could be a calque from Coptic, but that is a remote possibility, for five reasons: (a) there etymology of Christmas is known, (b) there was very little contact between Egypt and Britain for Coptic to influence English, (c) the genitive construction is common to all languages, even if the syntax differs, and English would not need to borrow from Coptic to create the meaning of the construction, (d) Christmas as we have seen was a late neologism emerging in the 15th century when Coptic was technically dead, and (e) the Copts have traditionally, as I have explained, used a different way of expressing the feast of the birth of Christ.

I hope the reader has followed my argument, and come to the conclusion as I have that Christmas could not have been borrowed from Coptic, and for various reasons. But, why have I done this, which frankly took a long time for me to come to a sold conclusion about? It has not been easy particularly as I worship Pope Shenouda III, and would not like to focus on undermining any of his claims. It will perhaps be beneficial to explain at the end my reasons for writing this article:

First, it is first and foremost a scientific endeavour, which all Copts should be interested in. We cannot advance our cause of reviving the Coptic language without proper research and scrutinising everything in a scientific way.

Second, we the Copts have a fancy of claiming lots of foreign words as being ours, mainly from Egyptian Arabic (I have written several articles about this before, which the reader can access here, here, here, and here), but also from languages, and the word Christmas is just one example. Almost all such claims are false, and not supported by scientific evidence. It is just not right, and can actually be considered a case of cultural appropriation. I have talked before about the psychology behind this: I think, we as defeated nation and country, losing our former greatness symbolised in the loss of our language – and a language is the soul of a nation – find some consolation and solace in thinking that our language has survived somehow in other languages and influenced them. I do not say that we do that in a conscious way, or with any sinister motive. I don’t think this is a healthy behaviour – it actually may be harmful, as it lures us into thinking that our language is not lost after all, and therefore we do not need to work hard to revive it since it is alive, for instance, in Egyptian Arabic (Misri). WE have heard of the call from some Copts that we must embrace Masri as “our own language”. This is a very harmful call.

Third, as we endeavour to create new words to fill in the lexical gap in our language – a gap and deficiency caused by the fact that it has been in disuse for centuries – we must base the process of word formation on knowledge and not simplistic endeavours.  Being unscientific in one field predicts being unscientific in other fields.


  1. The Abbreviated Coptic-English Dictionary by Adeeb B. Makar (San Francisco, 2001)
  2. Qamouse al-Lugha al-Guiptiyya by Nu’awas Da’ud Abdel Nour (Maryut, 2013)
  3. Friedrich Junge, Late Egyptian Grammar – An Introduction. Translated by David Warburton (Oxford, 2001).
  4. The Coptic New Testament.
  5. Leo Depuydt, The Double Genitive Particle in Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic, Revue d’Égyptologie, Volume: 61, 2010, pp. 43-75.
  6. Barbara Egedi, Possessive Constructions in Egyptian and Coptic. Distribution, Definiteness, and the Construct State Phenomenon, Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, 137(01):1-12 (June 2010).
  7. Wiktionary – Egyptian.
  8. The Online Etymology.
  9. George Yule, The Study of Language, 2nd. Edition (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  10. 10.  Alexis Mallon, Grammaire copte: avec bibliographie, chrestomathie et vocabulaire (1904).
  11. Nabil Mattar, A Study in Bohairic Coptic (1990).
  12. Sameh Younan, So, you want to learn Coptic? A Guide to Bohairic Coptic (2005).
  13. Bentley Layton, Coptic in 20 Lessons (2007).

[1] My translation.

[2] German type of sausage made from beef and pork.

[3] Another type of German sausage, made of veal or pork.


[5] Nickel, which is a name, is associated in German culture with the devil.

[6] See: Online Etymology Dictionary

[7] The English spoken from c. 900-1170.

[8] English after the Norman Conquest until the late 15th century.

[9] Vulgar Latin, spoken form of non-Classical Latin from which originated the Romance group of languages.

[10] The Online Etymology Dictionary says that it is probably so called from the concluding words of the service, Ite, missa est, “Go, (the prayer) has been sent,” or “Go, it is the dismissal.”

[11] The French language up to c. 1400.

[12] Latin of about 200-600 AD.

[13] For example, in Matthew 1: 1-16.

[14] Lemma are words connected to the headword, which is entered first in a dictionary, and then other related words come under.

[15] The abstract infinitive can be compounded to other verbs to create a new verb with a different meaning, such as ou’ahemmici (to be born again) [oahem is the construct of ou’whem/ouo’hem, to repeat, to interpret]. It can also be used as a noun (m.), meaning rebirth.

[16] For example, Rev 1:5.

[17] Mas (m.) is also used as noun, meaning foetus or a newly born baby, whether animal or bird, e.g., mas emmou’i (lion’s club), mas enehtho (foal, young horse).

[18] The nomen regens (Latin phrase meaning the governing noun). It is also called, the possessed noun, nucleus, and governing noun.

[19] The nomen rectum (Latin phrase meaning the governed noun). It is also called the possessor noun, satellite, attribute, and governed noun.

[20] The direct genitive  has, however, survived in some Coptic attributive compounds and nominal prefixes, producing compound nouns, such as:

[21] Leo Depuydt, The Double Genitive Particle in Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic, Revue d’Égyptologie, Volume: 61, 2010, pp. 43-75.

[22] The Ancient Egyptians used five royal titulary names for the Pharaoh: Horus name, Nebty name, Golden Horus name, throne name (prenomen), and birth name (nomen, personal name). 

[23] Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom (1479–1425 BC). It is important to note that the designation II and III, etc., is a modern Egyptologists’ innovation, and ancient Egyptians did not use it.

[24] Pharoah of the 19th Dynasty of the New Kingdom (1279–1213 BC).


February 5, 2021

Egypt is a state dominated by the Arab Muslims, and, as such, the cultural values and worldview of its majority is taken as the cultural values and worldview of the state. This amounts to cultural assimilation of Egypt’s minority nations – the Nuba to a lesser degree, and the Copts to a greater degree. In fact, in the latter case, it amounts to cultural genocide. Gradually the Copts are being assimilated into Arab culture through the educational institutions and media in all its forms, television, radio, press. The abolishment of the Coptic schools in 1956 constituted the beginning of the decline of Coptic cultural autonomy.

The Copts must resist that – it is a sacred struggle that all Copts must enlist in, and they must protect not only their religion but also their language, history, music, art, traditions, and worldview. They must fight assimilation into Arab and Muslim culture, and they must fight to end the cultural genocide of their nation.

This cannot be achieved without the establishment of a cultural national autonomy for the Copts in a consociational democracy. For these two we must work.


January 19, 2021

This is the tenth year since we started our blog/journal On Coptic Nationalism. It is getting stronger and stronger, and it attracts more visitors and viewers than ever from diverse backgrounds and from many countries. We have Coptologists, Egyptologists, Linguists, Sociologists, Anthropologists, etc., who regularly follow our site. Articles written in On Coptic Nationalism are in the hundreds and can fill several volumes. Some of these articles deserve to be published in scholarly journals, but our aim has always been to circumvent printed journals and publish directly to the public.

The blog has stuck to its purposes – fundamentally as a site that discusses freely Coptic news, politics, and culture. This blog has an overarching mission – and it revolves round reviving the Coptic nation, its language and culture.

Over one third of our readers (36.8%) in 2020 come from the US, Egypt, UK, Australia, Germany, and France (in this order). The rest come from other countries, and it seems that we have had visitors from almost all the 195 sovereign states in the world. Below are the top thirty countries from which visitors and viewers of On Coptic Nationalism came. It reflects an amazing diversity.


January 17, 2021

The place where Gordon lived and died in Khartoum. Here also the Coptic clerks were slaughtered by the Mahdists[1]

There is an interesting book titled Pictorial records of the English in Egypt: with a full and descriptive life of General Gordon, the hero of Khartoum.[2] It was probably published in 1885, the same year the Mahdi of Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad (1844 – 22 June 1885) stormed Khartoum on 25 January 1885, when General Gordon (1833 – 1885) was killed and thousands of its inhabitants massacred by the Dervishes and many enslaved, amongst which were Europeans, Jews, Syrians, and Copts.

The book is full of interesting history and stories. One of the very interesting stories I found was about what happened after the fall of Khartoum at the hands of the fanatics of the Mahdi and the massacre that ensued that fateful morning. And what made it especially appealing to me is the information we can get about the fate of the Copts who were in Sudan then. The Copts came to Sudan in the modern age first as clerks, working as secretaries and tax employees in the Turko-Egyptian administration of Egypt’s ruler Muhammad Ali (1805 – 1848) when he sent forty Coptic clerks in 1839 to Sudan to work in his government’s offices there. On the footsteps of clerks, Coptic traders and artisans followed; and when the Mahdist revolution erupted in 1883, there were Copts in Khartoum and all major Sudanese towns, such as Dongola, Al-Obeid, Berber, Kassala, Sennar, Wad Madani, etc.  In 1885, there were seven Coptic churches with their priests, a bishop, and a convent for nuns in Sudan.[3] There were hundreds of Copts serves by these churches in all parts of Sudan.

There are many books that were published in the 1880s and 1890s about the Mahdist Revolution and the rule of the successor of Muhammad Ahmad, Khalifa Abdullah al-Ta’ishi (1846 – 1899). Some interesting ones are:

  • Francis Reginald Wingate, Mahdiism and the Egyptian Sudan: Being an Account of the Rise and

Progress of Mahdiism, and of Subsequent Events in The Sudan to the Present Time (1891)

  • Josef Ohrwalder and F. R. Wingate, Ten Years’ Captivity in the Mahdi’s Camp 1882-1892 (1893)
  • Freiherr von Rudolf Carl Slatin, Fire and Sword in the Sudan (1896)
  • Charles Neufeld, A Prisoner of the Khaleefa: Twelve Years Captivity at Omdurman (1899)
  • Giuseppe Cuzzi, Fifteen Years Prisoner of the False Prophet (in German: 15 Jahre Gefangener des falschen Propheten) (1900)

There is also the very interesting book by the Copt Yousef Mikhail, which was written in 1943 but was kept in a manuscript format until it was published in 2004 under the title “مذكرات يوسف ميخائيل: التركية والمهدية والحكم الثنائي في السودان : شاهد عيان”.

All these are important, and one finds a lot in them about the Copts and other Christians in Sudan during the Mahdiya (1885 – 1898), but still there are many parts of history concerning the Copts that are missing. Pictorial records of the English in Egypt gives us a testimony of a Greek merchant by the name of Rosti Penago who was in Khartoum when it fell to the Mahdists, and some of what he had to say is about the fate of the Copts of Khartoum. It comes in Chapter LXXII under the title: Gordon – His Death – Success of the Mahdi.[4]

Penago as I said was a merchant. His shop was near the barracks (now part of the University of Khartoum camp), and it seems that he used to sell in it spiritual liquor, but during the siege of Khartoum by the Mahdists, when famine raged, he ran out of alcohol and sold coffee. The Greeks used to gather at his shop and play cards. There were 42 Greek men, and many of them were married to Greek women. There were 10 Jews he tells us. Only 10 Greeks escaped after the fall of Khartoum and he thought all the Jews were killed (but that is not exactly true, as we know from other sources that some Jews survived). All survivors were made to convert to Islam and wore the Mahdist costume (the gibba of the Dervishes). They were not made to circumcise, as that was enforced later by Khalifa Abdullah. They were practically made slaves.

In his report, one can see the racial tension between the Greeks and the English, and Penago clearly criticise the English rescue expedition which delayed its coming to Khartoum, and he says that had it arrived 2- or 3-days earlier Khartoum would have been saved. But even with the delay, he says that Khartoum could have resisted the attack by the Mahdi had it not been from internal treachery by one of the Sudanese officers in Gordon’s troops called Farag (see notes). He describes how the troops did not resist the attack: not a hundred shots were fired by Egyptians and the black soldiers; all ran and hid in houses. When Khartoum fell, a general massacre took place, and men were slaughtered in streets, markets, squares, and bazaars. Blood ran everywhere. The slaughter continued from dawn until 8pm on the 25th of January 1885. He gives a version of Gordon’s murder that differs from what Ohrwalder, Neufeld, and Slatin later gave: in his version Gordon was killed in the palace while sitting and reading the Bible. Gordon’s Coptic clerks were murdered at the palace and their bodies were left there to rot. Contrary to what others reported that the Mahdi was sorry for the death of Gordon when he was shown his cut head, Penago says the Mahdi was actually ecstatic and shoed no regret. This story was collaborated by Neufeld who said had the Mahdi really wanted Gordon not killed, none of his Dervishes would have dared to murder him.

The Christian women were taken as concubines, but later Greek women and the Catholic nuns were released to the Greeks. Other European women were kept as concubines. The women of the Egyptians and Turks were kept also, except those who had previously been married – these were returned to their husbands.

About the Coptic women, Penago says that they were collected at a place called Bousi (see note given to the main text), and they were claimed as brides (concubines). They were later allowed to go out and look for husbands. This last story is not clear to me. It will need further study to find what happened to these Coptic women – wives, sisters, and daughters. It is a shame that the Copts did not write their history during that period and left us in the dark.

Penago escaped shortly after the fall of Khartoum through Berber, Aboudom (see notes), and then, after a period of 28 days, he reached Dongola, which at the time was still under the control of the English. He told his story to the British officer, General Buller, whom (with Colonel Butler) he knew from the time they were in Khartoum.

I will publish Penago’s report below, and add some notes for clarification. The parts concerning the Copts, I shall embolden.

We need make no apology for giving another of these deeply, if painfully, interesting accounts of the fall of Khartoum. It is, like all the others, due to the diligence of the newspaper correspondent, who in this case tells us that “Another ‘voice’ from Khartoum is heard” – a Greek, who was made to wear the Mahdi’s uniform,[5] and in this costume walked down to Berber[6] no man forbidding him. He then resolved to escape altogether, and then his troubles commenced. He had no money, but begged his way from village to village. Sometimes he was hunted, and had to hide away; at others he was made to work as a captured slave by men who knew him to be a Greek. At length, after a period of twenty-eight days from Berber, he reached Aboudom,[7] where, suspected at first as a spy, he was made prisoner. He was then sent down by Colonel Butler[8] to General Buller[9], and arrived at Dongola[10] last Saturday. His very disjointed story I will give you in his own words, translated for me by the Greek interpreter of the Transport Department. It will be observed that he emphatically declares that Gordon was killed in, and not outside, the Palace.

“My name is Rosti Penago. I kept stores for some years in Khartoum. I have lost all. I had a great many of Gordon’s cheques. They were taken from me. Shall I get repaid in Cairo? I was a merchant rich in my way; and look at me now! Yes, I remember you when you used to ride through the streets with General Hicks’ staff.[11] Prices went up when you all came. It is true we all combined, we Greeks, with Hicks, Butler, the Syrian Greenburg,[12] a Jew I think he was, to raise the prices of everything. You look upon us all as rogues and rascals. I know we are born so; but we are enterprising. A Greek goes where no other European would venture. Yes, the Greeks here in Dongola, who came to rob, as you say, a good many of them will be ruined; they are obliged to sell off at cost price. But you ought to thank not revile us. English traders rob too. We don’t cheat each other; we are bound to be honest to any compatriot; you cheat each other. What have I to tell you? You say you know everything. What needs my telling you anything?

But this you do not know: the only reason the Mahdi’s power is on the wane is because the people see that he, or rather his dervishes, spoil and plunder and carry off the women of the tribes. He will have difficulty in getting the tribes to follow him again; but, if he can, he will, in spite of what you say, enter Egypt. The dervishes are perpetually preaching that he (the Mahdi) must ultimately reach Morocco, Mecca, and Stamboul[13] but that the time has not arrived. The tenets of the Mahdi’s religion are very strict. If a married man is guilty of sexual immorality, he is put up to his waist in the sand and stoned to death. If he steals, his hand is cut off. Singing or lascivious dancing, such as used to be in Khartoum, is put a stop to. Every man must pray five times a day. Gordon only went about the town on Friday. Stewart[14] used to live in the old house in the square that General Hicks lived in when he first arrived. No one lived in it when I left, nor did any one live in the Palace.[15] The stench is too great. There are dead bodies in it; none were cleared away. Gordon’s Coptic clerks were killed and left there. A fearful stench of putrid corpses pervades the whole atmosphere of Khartoum. The house you dwelt in with other officers, over the post-office, where are the drawings on the walls – your dining saloon, that now presents a horrible sight. It is strewed with corpses. For, you remember, there was a guard there over stores. The guard ran from the gate after closing it up to your dining-room. They were all massacred there. That poor old man, the Italian postmaster, was slain below. Had we the Europeans, supposed that this treachery was going to take place, we should have formed ourselves into a corps for self-defence. As it was, we had all agreed, and Gordon consented, to hold out five days more, and then to jump into the steamer Montniah, and run the gauntlet down the river. It was kept ready for this purpose.

Do you know that Gordon used to send off hundreds of letters, but these were always taken to the Mahdi? People used to come to him volunteering to take letters, and Gordon, believing in them, would give them good baksheesh. Stewart used generally to be at a battery he erected close by the kiosk, where the band played. The rebels, knowing Gordon lived in the Palace, used to fire at it all day long, and Stewart would reply to them. Gordon had sand-bags piled up on the roof, and from this he was watching day and night for the arrival of the English. I think he never slept. By night he used to send up rockets. You ask me about the shops and magazines on the promenade over the Blue Nile. Gordon had all these cleared out for the English, who never arrived. We were starving. Gordon had some biscuit and flour, I believe, in the palace. Some Europeans ate grass, and cut down palms to extract the pith from them. The Egyptians and blacks ate anything they could get hold of – camels, donkeys (I have known a donkey’s tail sell for eight dollars), dogs, cats, rats. We were entirely surrounded for three months.

The English could have come up with great ease. If one Englishman had shown, the whole population would have cheered up out of its despondency. Natives outside, who were starving, too, would have joined us, and I believe the Mahdi’s forces would have melted away. Perhaps you would have had one fight more. As for Berber, that was weak; you could have taken it easily. I don’t think there were more than 2,000 men there when Khartoum was taken.

The steamers arrived at Halfaya.[16] I saw them about one mile and a half from Khartoum. They turned back directly; but I say this – if they had come on then every man would have been destroyed. The soldiers pointed them out to me jeeringly. ‘There are your English!’ they cried. But I must go back. Stewart used to place fougasses all round the town. He took the tops of cartridges and filled them with matches – so fitted on to the mine that any one walking on them would explode them. Gordon often wanted to go on board the steamers himself, but the inhabitants would not let him; his life was considered far too precious to risk.

When the steamers approached, a great cry arose through the town, ‘The English are coming! the English are coming!’’ The rebels took their rifles and commenced to fire at them. ‘Ha!’ said a man to me, ‘look at them; they cannot save you.’

It may have been arranged to deliver up the city just before the English came. I don’t know; but this I know, if you had come three days, or two days, sooner, you would have taken Khartoum easily. Farag[17] moved away the troops guarding the gate that was entered the night before, and took them to the other side of the town on some pretence or other. Gordon did not know of this nor did any one, I think, except the troops themselves. We Europeans knew there were traitors, but we did not think they could do anything, or, as I said before, we should have formed ourselves into a band.

Boom! boom! boom! was the sound that greeted us from dawn to sunset. We were sad, sorrowful, and depressed. Power[18] was in the magazine in the church, guarding and looking after the ammunition. You say you know all I am telling you. Do you know that a woman once got in and nearly succeeded in blowing up all the ammunition? She was seized, but after a while Gordon released her. I used to sit in my shop all day near the barracks selling coffee. All spirituous liquor was gone. We used to sit all day gambling and playing cards: we had tobacco. There were forty-two of us and ten Jews; some of us had our women with us – Greek women – that we had brought with us, but not all. Cuzzi[19] used to go and come with messages from and to Gordon. Gordon said if he came again he would hang him; after that he came no more. And now the day arrived that was to separate husband from wife, brother from sister, and parent from child. The streets were soon to run with blood. I was not at my house. I was with some Greeks eight in all near the mosque, when we heard a hideous uproar as of men shouting and yelling, and of women wailing around about on all sides. Nearer and nearer did this long-continued roar approach, swelling as it were and now bursting close on our ears. Men with frightful gashes on their faces and limbs came flying by, and towards us women with torn garments and dishevelled hair shrieking, screaming ‘Jesu Christo!’ I shall not forget that horrible din to the day of my death. ‘We are lost! We are lost!’ we cried. ‘The place is taken!’ But no one would tell us exactly what was the matter. We ran up to the top of the mosque, and saw that the town was given up to massacre and bloodshed. We ran to a house, barricaded the doors and windows, went upstairs, shut ourselves into a room, and determined never to surrender, but die like Greeks: for we, mindful of our ancestors, fight to the last. Thus it was when our fathers were surrounded by Turks; we are a brave nation! How we escaped I will tell you.

But listen, I pray you. Have you not asked me where Gordon Pasha was slain? You say everybody has said he was either killed on the courtyard steps of the Palace, or outside, going to the Austrian Consul’s house. They all lie! If you choose to believe them you may, it matters not to me. I am a respectable Greek merchant, not an Arab. You want the truth; I tell it to you. True, I did not see Gordon slain; but everybody in Khartoum knows where the event happened. An Arab rushed upstairs and shot him with a gun as he was reading the Bible. Another Arab cut off his head and put it on a spear; and so went forth into the city, carrying it and brandishing it on high. The Copts in the Palace in the rooms below were slaughtered at the same time.

The Arabs came pouring in; they slew every man they could find; no mercy was shown to anyone. There was no resistance. I don’t think a hundred shots were fired by Egyptians or blacks. Men ran in and shut themselves up in houses; but doors were burst open, and spearing, cutting, and slashing went on bravely in the streets, in the market square, in the bazaars. It was a horrible scene this bazaar afterwards. I went through it. Gay curtains, crimson-coloured and oranged-striped, golden-edged satins, silks, and muslins, lay smeared and splashed with blood; everything was upset and strewed about and trampled on. Everywhere was the wildest disorder. You know how narrow it was and how it winds. One corner was so full of corpses and dying that we could not get by. I had my hands tied, and I fell several times in the road, slippery with blood. The havoc went on till eight o’clock. Then Mohammed Ahmed sent over word from Omdurman that Allah had revealed to him that the slaughter must cease. We were told this. It was shouted about the streets, and those that were still hidden were bidden to come forth. Of forty-two Greeks only eight escaped. There were ten Jews; these were killed, I think. Gordon’s head I saw on a spear. It was taken over to Omdurman, and shown to Mohammed Ahmed. It was laid before him. A grim savage smile passed over his face. He gazed long at the countenance of his late enemy. ‘God be praised!’ he cried, ‘can this be his?’ He did not express anger at Gordon’s death, as you say has been reported; he made merry at his death when it was told him. The head was then borne away, and men plucked the hairs out of his head and beard, and spat in his face. His body was cut up into little pieces. This was his end! I omitted to say that Gordon wrote to the Mahdi saying he might be Viceroy of Kordofan. The Mahdi replied: ‘I am sent by God to be king of all,’ and invited him to surrender. Gordon replied in insulting terms, saying he was a false Mahdi, and that he (Gordon) would never surrender to him.

The Copt women were taken to a place called Bousi.[20] They were allowed to go in and out of their house as they pleased, and one by one they got claimed as brides. They went out to look for husbands, and when they found one suitable they were allowed to leave as they liked. But the Greek and all the women in fact were put in a room, and the dervishes and chief leaders picked from among them whom they would. This was at Omdurman. The Greeks, including myself, were dressed in the Mahdi’s uniform, and told that from henceforth we were Mussulmen, but we were not circumcised. We were liberated, and were given two dollars each, a monthly allowance. Now, when we heard that our women were taken over to Omdurman and divided among the dervishes, we proceeded there and craved an interview with the Mahdi. It was allowed. We had to take off our shoes, and when within the inner circle about a quarter of a square mile we were made to crawl towards him on our knees. Everyone has to approach him thus. We addressed him thus: ‘Kill us, we beseech thee it is as well. Your dervishes and great men have carried off our wives, sisters and daughters, and life is of no more value to us. Slay us!’’ Thereupon the Mahdi took pity on our forlorn condition, and ordered our women to be returned to us. To each one was his wife, sister, or relation returned. Those who had lost their husbands were also returned to us, to take care of us; and also Dr. Georgio Demetrio’s daughter,[21] whom you asked after, and whose sister is married in Cairo. She was very pretty. Poor girl, she was lovely. Yes; she was led off at first as a slave; but we got her back, and the nuns too. Two priests were killed. The nuns lived with us Greeks. Mdlle. Demetrio is now married to a Greek. The daughter of poor Klein,[22] the tailor, was carried off as a slave when her father was killed. Among the white women only the Greeks and the nuns were recovered. There were Egyptian-Turkish women carried off; but the Mahdi ordered that those whose husbands were still alive should be returned to them. Why should there be any doubt thrown on this sad story? Is it not probable? Have you not seen many white women in Khartoum, and is it not probable that these Mussulmen would carry them off? I could give you the names of many of European origin. Had you not delayed three days, these would have been saved. Alas! it is a sad story. The picture[23] you showed me (from an illustrated journal) has not the slightest resemblance to Mohammed Ahmed. It must have been drawn from fancy. I will give you a better to-morrow. I am weary of recounting a story over which tears of blood might be shed, so sad and terrible is it even in memory,” and we may add, in recital also.

[1] Page 145 from Pictorial records of the English in Egypt. See No. 2 below.

[2] Full title: Pictorial records of the English in Egypt: with a full and descriptive life of General Gordon, the hero of Khartoum. Together with graphic narratives of the lives and adventures of Lord Wolseley, Stewart, Burnaby, Horatio Nelson, Abercromby, Sidney Smith, Sir John Moore, Bruce, and other world-famous heroes (London, J. Sangster, ?1885).

[3] See Edith Louisa Butcher, The Story of The Church of Egypt Being an Outline of the History of

the Egyptians Under Their Successive Masters from the Roman Conquest Until Now, Volume II (London, 1898), p. 368.

[4] Pages 376-380.

[5] Jellabiya with patches of different colours sawn into it, and with a girdle round the waiste. On the head they worn turban.

[6] A Sudanese town on the Nile, 50 miles north of Atbara.

[7] Ancient town called Abu Dom in the Bayuda Desert to the south east of Merowe in the Northern province of Sudan.

[8] William Butler (1838 – 1910) who was colonel on the staff of the British army in Sudan.

[9] Redvers Buller (1839 – 1908), a British army officer who served in Sudan in 1882-1885.

[10] Dongola is a Nile town in the Northern Province of Sudan, about 278 miles northwest of Khartoum. At the time of the fall of Khartoum it was still under British control.

[11] William Hicks (1830 – 1883), who was a British soldier sent by Egypt with a large army to defeat the Mahdi in 1883, but his army was annihilated by the Mahdists in Kordofan, and he himself was killed.

[12] Could not identify this one.

[13] Istanbul (former Constantinople) in Turkey – the capital of the Ottoman Empire at the time.

[14] Lieutenant-Colonel John Donald Hamill Stewart (1845 – 1884), who accompanied General Gordon to Khartoum in February 1884 to withdrew the Egyptian garrisons in Sudan, and was acting as second-in-command. I September 1884, Gordon sent him by a steamer down the Nile to connect with the British troops in Dongola and try break the siege, but the steamer struck a rock and was stuck somewhere between Abu Hamed and Merowe, where he and those with him were massacred by the Manasir Arab tribe.

[15] The Palace was residence of the Governor-General of Sudan, on the western bank of the Blue Nile, and in it Gordon lived and died. It is now called the Republican Palace, and is still the place where the Sudanese president lives.

[16] Halfaya is a place 7 miles north of Khartoum North (Khartoum Bahri) town.

[17] Faraj Pasha, a Shiluk man who had fought in Mexico before, and Gordon’s appointed Commander-in-Chief of the army in Khartoum, with responsiblity for the defence line built by Gordon south of Khartoum to keep the enemy away. Once he saw that the line of defence was breached by the Mahdists, he changed his uniform to a civilian dress and fled the scene, after ordering his troops to withdraw and surrender to the enemy. This, however, did not save his life for long, as he was killed by the Mahdists shortly after.

[18] Frank Power, Times correspondent. He left Khartoum in September with Stewart, and was killed with him by the Manasir Arabs when their steamer hit a rock and was stuck.

[19] Giuseppe Cuzzi, an Italian man, who was later captured by the Mahdists. After his escape, he wrote Fifteen Years Prisoner of the False Prophet (in German: 15 Jahre Gefangener des falschen Propheten) (1900).

[20] Bousi must be taken as Bousir or, more accurately, Baṣeer, the English neglecting the r as they usually do. Bousir is a place, now in Wad Nubawi in Omdurman, where Sheikh Muhammad al-Tayyib Bousir from the Halaween tribe in al-Jazira, and a supporter of the Mahdi, pitched his tent. There is a street in the area today still known as Shari’a al-Baseer.

[21] A Greek doctor, who was murdered at the fall of Khartoum.

[22] Franz Klein, Hungarian Jew, who later converted to Catholicism. He came to Khartoum in 1868 as a tailor. He was massacred at the fall of Khartoum in front of his wife and daughter.

[23] I am not sure what picture he is talking about, but I guess it is the one which is often perported to be of the Mahdi. Unfortunately, Pictorial History does not follow up Penago’s first report with another.


January 13, 2021

Note. Since the publication of this article, a dear correspondent informed me that the 13th century Scala Magna by Ibn Kabar has entries for elephant, ivory, and trunk. They are as follows:

The forms given for the elephant may be a copyist error. Note that the words for ivory comes in the plural.

Though this corrects my statement in the article that the Middle Age Coptic dictionaries (Salalim) do not include a word for elephant, it does not alter the gist of the article. My purpose of writing the article was to find native words for elephant and ivory. As with the rooster (see my article about the rooster here), I do not think the Egyptians did not have a native word for the elephant. And my purpose was to find that word.

What is the Coptic word for an elephant?

What is elephant in Coptic language? It seems to be an easy question, but it transpires not to be so, judging from the confusion we have inmodern Coptic dictionaries. To begin with, older dictionaries (that is the salalim of the Middle Ages) are not helpful and do not include a word for elephant. Walter Crum in his monumental Coptic Dictionary does not also mention a word in Coptic for elephant.[1] With the absence of a word for elephant we are also at a loss for a word for ivory. A word for elephant’s trunk though exists (benji), a Bohairic word as one finds it in Crum’s dictionary.

It seems annoying that Coptic lexicology is deficient when it comes to my favourite animal – the elephant. The Bible, in its both Old Testament and New Testament, does not mention the elephant, although it mentions its ivory.[2] Had the Bible had a mention of the elephant the Copts would most probably have had a word for it in their old dictionaries.

Does that mean that the ancient Egyptians and the Copts did not know the elephant, and therefore do not seem to have a word for it? One has to be careful in passing that judgement for many reasons. For one, they had a native word for the elephant’s trunk. If we don’t have a word for elephant this does not mean that we didn’t have a word for it – it may just mean that Coptic manuscripts that contained the word have disappeared. But the strongest evidence against this suggestion is to be found in history, archaeology, art, linguistics, and geographical names.


We know that exotic animals, like giraffes, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, leopards, lions, and elephants formed part of the normal fauna of Egypt in the Early Predynastic Period (3050 – 2613 BC), and some of these animals appear in Egypt’s early hunting scenes. Gradually, these animals, including the elephant, became extinct. It is, therefore, natural that the Egyptians had a word for ‘animal’. After that, such animals were imported from Nubia and other countries south of Egypt. Up to the nineteenth century elephants roamed many parts of Sudan in its eastern and western parts (Kassala, Qadarif, Kordofan, and Darfur), but today, as their habitat disappeared, elephants are confined to the South of Sudan.

The Theban tomb of Rekhmire (TT 100) from the Eighteenth Dynasty has paintings that show Nubian tribute bearers with a cheetah, giraffe, monkey, baboon, and leopard; and they too carry elephant tusks.[3]

Nubian tribute bearers in the Theban tomb of Rekhmire (TT 100)

Archaeological excavations have also provided evidence of the presence of elephants in Egypt at an earlier stage. In 2014, tomb at the ancient Egyptian settlement, Hierakonpolis settlement was explored and revealed astonishing results that tells us a lot, including about Egypt’s exotic animals. Hierakonpolis (Hawk City) is the Greek name given to the Pre-dynastic settlement in Upper Egypt called by the Egyptians ‘Nekhen’ (the Arabs of Egypt calls it ‘الكوم الأحمر‎’, al-Koam al-Ahmar, lit. ‘the Red Mound’. It is located on the west side of the Nile some 70 miles north of Aswan, and used to be the religious and political capital of Upper Egypt at the end of prehistoric Egypt (c. 3200–3100 BC) and may be during the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3100–2686 BC) too.  It is one of the richest Predynastic burials that archaeologists have ever seen, and has revealed many interesting objects and bones of exotic animals, such as baboons, hippos, leopards, ostrich, elephants.[4]

Workers excavate the skeleton of a male elephant[5]

The knowledge of elephants in Egypt did not end then. Elephants continued to be known in Egypt until late. Evidence for the presence of elephants in Egypt comes from the Ptolemaic Period from the fortified city of Berenike (Berenice), the ancient Egyptian seaport on the Red Sea, which was built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 BC) in 275 BC. In it, archaeologists discovered a piece of an elephant skull.

Fragments of the skull of a young elephant found in an ancient trash dump located on the south side of the northern defensive wall of Berenike

Elephants were part of the ancient trade between Egypt and the Horn of Africa, and were used as war mounts. DNA study has confirmed that the elephant whose skull bone was excavated at Bernike was most probably imported from Eritrea.[6]

Linguistically, both the elephant and the elephant tusk constituted signs in Egyptian hieroglyphic. The elephant is called in Egyptian ‘ꜣbw’ while the tusk is called ‘ibḥ’.[7] Some say that the word sounding ‘abu’ indicates both the elephant and its tusk.[8]

Gardiner’s hieroglyphic sign for the elephant

Gardiner’s hieroglyphic sign for the elephant’s tusk

The Nile island of Elephantine (in Greek, Ἐλεφαντίνη), in Aswan in Upper Egypt, which the Arabs call ‘جزيرة الفنتين‎’ (Gazirat al-Fantin) is actually called in Ancient Egyptian ‘ꜣbw’.

Amélineau’s entry for Elephantine

E. Amélineau in his La géographie de l’Égypte à l’époque copte mentions Elephantine and says that in all the discovered Greek papyri from Egypt the town appears in its Greek name, but he also gives its ancient Egyptian name as ‘Abou”.[9] Amélineau, however, does not give a Coptic name for it.

Wikipedia says the Coptic name for Elephantine is ‘()ⲓⲏⲃ’ but it does not give a reference.[10] It is possible that the Egyptian name ‘ꜣbw’ is Aramean as the Encyclopaedia Iranica says that the Greek name of Elephantine is the Greek version of the ancient Egyptian ‘Ibw’, which means as it says, “the country of the elephants”, in Aramaic ‘Yb’.[11] says about the etymology of Elephantine: “Elephantine (Aram. יֵב, yb; Eg. ‘ ibw, ‘ bw; Gr. ieb), “the city of ivories).[12] I am not sure of the Aramaean connection, but it is possibly related to the presence of the Jewish mercenaries who formed a garrison at Elephantine from the 26th Dynasty onwards. Their presence increased during the next dynasty, the 27th Dynasty, which was Persian and spoke Aramaic.

Was the word for elephant in ancient Egyptian actually a loanword from Aramaic or was it the other way round? Anyway, we know that the ancient Egyptians called the elephant ‘ꜣbw’ and its tusk ‘ibh’. There is evidence for that. But, what about the Wikipedia claim that the equivalent Coptic word for it is ‘()ⲓⲏⲃ’? We have seen that Wikipedia does not give a reference, but Jaroslav Černý in his Coptic Etymological Dictionary gives the Coptic name for Elephantine:[13]

Černý’s geographical name for Elephantine

Elephantine then in Coptic is iib. Černý says that it is attested for only once in Coptic literature. It does seem similar to a large extent to the Egyptian for elephant ‘ꜣbw’. We can, therefore, take it that it is also the word for elephant, which agrees with Gardiner.


As the modern Copts try to revive their Coptic language, they naturally would like to find words for common animals, and the elephant is one of those animals they try to find a Coptic word for, but it seems a difficult task and often confusing rather than settling the matter. The largest modern Coptic dictionary is that of Mu’awad Da’od Abdel Nour (2014), but he gives no word for the elephant. However, Abdel Nour gives the Bohairic word for trunk (benji) and a Greek word for ivory (elevantinoc) in its Coptic rendering.

ἐλεφάντινος is indeed related to ivory in Ancient Greek but as an adjective (meaning ‘of ivory’) and not a noun. The noun ‘ivory’ in Ancient Greek is actually ‘ἐλεφάντινον’, and in its Coptic rendering should be, ‘elevantinon’. The table below contains also the equivalent word in Modern Greek (and also the words for elephant and trunk in both).

WordAncient GreekModern Greek
Trunkἐλέφαςκορμός ελέφαντα

Did Abdel Nour include elevantinoc in his dictionary as a matter of new borrowing, or did he find that this word is already borrowed in Coptic manuscripts by ancient Copts? We have no idea, as often modern Copts who produce new words do not give attestation to them in Coptic manuscripts. Anyway, it seems that he had taken that word from Ekladious Labib who is known to have tried to introduce new words into Coptic, some of them through new borrowing from Greek. Adeeb Makar in his The Abbreviated Coptic-English Dictionary (2001) uses the same word as a noun. Father Arsani in his Naqlun Dictionary uses it too, but rightly as an adjective.  Father Andrias al-Maqari uses the right Greek form for the noun.[15]  

So far, I have focused on the word for ivory, but what about the Coptic word for elephant in modern dictionaries? Here, we are confronted with another confusion. Father Maximous Kabs uses the Ancient Greek word for ivory (ἐλεφάντινον) as a word for elephant (elevantinon) in Coptic, while Nabil Mikhail uses again the Ancient Greek word ‘ἐλέφας’ for the animal in Coptic (elevac)! But what is more curious is the word ‘iab’ which is used for elephant by Father Andrias al-Maqari, Magdi Ayad, and Father Arsani of Naqaun. This word has been introduced without explanation as to its origin or attestation from Coptic manuscripts given.


So far, we have seen that the Ancient Egyptians used ‘ꜣbw’ for the elephant and ‘ibḥ’ for ivory. We have a word for the elephant’s trunk (binji) from the Bohairic dialect which is not contested. We have also seen that ‘iib’ is used by the Copts to mean Elephantine, and it was most probably also used for the elephant. All other suggested words for elephant or ivory seem to have been taken from Ancient Greek, but with much confusion. The word ‘iab’ given by some Copts for the elephant does sound Coptic but no explanation or attestation to it has been given.

Can the KELLIA Coptic Dictionary Online[16] help us here? The beauty of this online dictionary is that it gives the word and its attestation, in addition it tells us which Coptic dialect it comes from.

Apart from trunk, for which a native Coptic word is used, we can see that the KELLIA Dictionary uses Greek words for both elephant and ivory. This is ok, because they came in Coptic manuscripts, and have, like many other Greek words, been integrated in Coptic and naturalised.


But, as we go about the business of building up our lexical stock, we must follow a clear strategy and pathway. Word formation in Coptic must follow a route true to its nature: that means it must rely on its roots in the first instance. And by talking about the roots of the Coptic language I mean the lexical roots (stems) of Coptic and its historical linguistic roots, that is, Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, and Demotic. If we cannot find a word in our linguistic historical roots, we must invent one using Coptic lexical roots. Only if we can’t do that, or when a modern word in other languages is so dominant, must we then resort to borrowing from other languages. And in this process, in my opinion, Greek and English ought to come first.

So, what should be the Coptic words for the elephant, its ivory, and its trunk be bearing in mind the above understanding?

Here is what I suggest:


[1] Walter Crum, A Coptic Dictionary (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1939).

[2] Some scholars, however, think that the word elephant exists, being compounded with the Hebrew word for ivory, as mentioned in 1 Kings 10:22, and traditionally been taken to mean ivory alone. They claim it should be read ‘elephant ivory’. The reader could consult Claude Mariottini, Elephants in the Bible (August 18, 2014).

[3] Rosalind and Jack Janssen, Egyptian Household Animals (Shire Egyptology, Aylesbury, 1989), pp. 55-56.

[4] Andrew Curry in National Geographic: Artifact Trove at Egyptian Tomb Illuminates Life Before Pharaohs

Archaeologist uncovers human sacrifices and evidence of strife (June 1, 2014). See also: Traci Watson in National Geographic: In Ancient Egypt, Life Wasn’t Easy for Elite Pets (May 25, 2015).

[5] Photograph by Renee Friedman, Courtesy of Hierakonpolis Expedition. See second reference in n.2.

[6] Owen Jarus in LiveScience: This 2,300-Year-Old Egyptian Fortress Had an Unusual Task: Guarding a Port That Sent Elephants to War (January 3, 2019).

[7] Alan Gardiner, List of Hieroglyphic Signs in Egyptian Grammar (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1927).

[8] Egyptian Household Animals, p. 55.

[9] E. Amélineau, La géographie de l’Égypte à l’époque copte (Paris, Imprimerie nationale, 1893), pp. 161-162.

[10] Wikipedia: Elephantine.

[11] Encyclopaedia Iranica: Elephantine.

[12] Elephantine.

[13] J. Černý in his Coptic Etymological Dictionary (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 345.

[14] This word basically means the elephant’s tooth.

[15] Nabil Sabri Ishaak, Coptic Neologism (2018), p. 38.

[16] Coptic Dictionary Online, ed. by the Koptische/Coptic Electronic Language and Literature International Alliance (KELLIA),


January 10, 2021

Le Chat Egyptien (The Egyptian Cat) by the Coptic painter Marguerite Nakhla (1908 – 1977), 1965 [Oil on board, 47.8 by 47.8cm]

The Copts have no Coptic Art Gallery for themselves. Their fine art is distributed in the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo and other museums and galleries inside and outside Egypt.

Let us first define Coptic art. I have written two articles about this before: What Is (Should Be) Coptic Art? (February 10, 2014) and Again: What Is Coptic Art? (February 12, 2014). In these two articles I have defined Coptic art as the art produced by Copts – any piece of art produced by an individual who identifies himself or herself as Copt is Coptic art, but this definition of Coptic art is only a definition at a basic level. At a higher level, only pieces of art that use Coptic subjects and themes should be given the label of proper Coptic art.

Coptic artists may draw beautiful non-Coptic subjects, and some may use in that Coptic neo-iconographic style as a work signature, but that will not be reflecting or expressing Coptic life and reality. In this sense it is an art that does not belong to the Copts as a nation except on a lower level. Coptic art proper must then be produced by a Copt and at the same time be reflecting of Coptic reality and life. Such art must not only be religious, but must encompass and reflect all Coptic reality, religious and non-religious. While Coptic art must not reject iconography, it must be free and express itself in other styles.

All Coptic art, whether at its lowest level of definition or at its highest, must be collected in a Coptic national gallery. There must be a National Coptic Art Gallery. This is most probably going to be rejected by the dictatorial regime in place, but this regime cannot be forever: democracy must one day arrive. And then, the Copts will flower in all aspects – and with cultural autonomy in place, a national gallery for Coptic art can be established.

There may be three objections:

  1. That the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo, which was established in 1908, does contain Coptic iconography. But this is not the place of articles of art in a museum that should be dedicated to antiquities. A special national gallery for Coptic art must be established to house all fine art produced by the Copts, old or modern.
  2. That Coptic art can be distributed in all sorts of Egyptian galleries and museums. Such is the argument of those who want to see Coptic identity diluted and subsumed in what is called “Egyptian identity”, which in reality is Arab-Muslim identity. The English have their own National Gallery in London (established 1824). But this is basically a gallery that is run by the English; and it did not prevent the Scottish people from establishing their own Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh (founded 1859).
  3. That art galleries are usually dedicated to all art, by all peoples and all ethnicities, and cannot be dedicated to the art of an ethnicity or minority. This is a false argument: big nations that had empires in the past do include all types of art in their galleries, many of which is confiscated, but the bulk of the items of art in them is by far by their own peoples. Small nations, on the other hand, include in their national galleries art that reflects their own identity and is produced almost entirely by them. Examples of that are Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, in Barcelona, and of course the galleries of Scotland and Wales.

The idea of a Coptic art gallery is essential for the revival of our nation and the modern cultural renaissance of the Copts. It must happen. Sooner or later, it will.


January 9, 2021

Ragheb Ayad (1892 – 1982)

Painting of Ragheb Ayad by his Italian wife Emma Caly-Ayad

Ragheb Ayad (1892 – 1982)[1] was a Coptic artist born in the neighbourhood of Faggala in Cairo. He received his primary education at the École des Frères before joining the School of Fine Arts in Cairo, the year of its creation by Prince Youssef Kamal in 1908. He was among the first students of this new institution along with artists Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891 – 1934), Youssef Kamel (1891 – 1971), Antoine Haggar (1896 – 1962) and Mohammed Hassan (1892 – 1961). After he graduated in 1911, Ayad worked as a drawing teacher at the Coptic Secondary School in Cairo and made several trips to France and Italy.

Between 1921 and 1922, Ayad and his friend, the painter Youssef Kamel, agreed on an exchange; in turns each would work as a teacher for one year to finance the other’s stay in Italy. In 1925, both Ayad and Kamel received a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome along with their colleague Mohammed Hassan. During that time, Ayad travelled around Italy and visited the cities of Florence, Sienna and Venice where he attended the fifteenth Biennial in 1926. After obtaining his diploma from the Decoration department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome in 1928, he returned to Egypt the following year. While in Rome, he was the first to propose the idea of creating an Egyptian Academy in Rome on the model of the other foreign academies established in the Italian capital.

In 1930, he was appointed as the head of the Decoration department at the School of Applied Arts in Giza where he remained until 1937. Following this appointment, he became professor and director of the Free section of the School of Fine Arts in Cairo that offered evening classes to students who had to work during the day.

In 1936, he married the Italian painter Emma Caly (-Ayad), with whom he held several exhibitions in Egypt.

Ayad also worked as a curator and played an important role in reorganizing the Coptic museum in 1941.

From 1950 to 1955, succeeding Youssef Kamel, he was named director of the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art. During his tenure there, he created a special section in the Museum dedicated to the work of the sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar, which was inaugurated in 1952.

Ragheb Ayad is one of the leading painters of a generation of Egyptian artists commonly referred to as the pioneers (ar-ruwwād​), as they were the first to be educated in artistic institutions established according to European models, such as the School of Fine Arts in Cairo.

Ayad broke away from his academic education at the Fine Arts in Cairo and in Rome to create an original folklorist style that distinguishes him from his contemporaries. Throughout his career, he depicted scenes of rural and popular daily life, such as the market place, the labour in the fields and the popular café, as well as traditional practices rooted in Egyptian culture, such as the zār, a Nubian ritual trance dance, or the taḥtīb, a game of stick fighting practiced in Upper Egypt.

He also painted religious scenes and exterior views of the Coptic monasteries.

Ayad mastered the art of sketching and besides his oil paintings, he produced numerous sketches and drawings enhanced with watercolours such as gouache. His expressive style is characterized by the vivacity of his textured strokes that express the dynamic of constant movement, as well as by the use of powerful colours. His work is profoundly marked by the arts of Ancient Egypt: the formal aesthetic of the decorative bas-reliefs and paintings of the tombs and temples of Thebes inspired him to reinvent the ancient system of superposed narrative scenes, which sometimes led him to use horizontal formats.

Towards the end of his career, his style progressively evolved towards a purification of lines and stylization of forms.

Ayad was also a skilled decorator and painted several interiors of public and private buildings. In 1935, he executed a series of decorative paintings for the old Shepherd Hotel that was unfortunately destroyed in the Cairo fire in 1952. He also participated in the interior decoration of religious buildings such as the Coptic Cathedral of Sohag and the Catholic Churches of Minia and Samalut.

From the 1930’s, Ragheb Ayad exhibited regularly at the Cairo Salon founded by the Society of Fine Art Lovers. During his lifetime, he held numerous solo and collective exhibitions in Egypt and abroad. His works are exposed at the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art, the Agricultural Museum in Cairo, the Museum of Fine Arts in Alexandria and at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha.

He died in Cairo in 1982.

I tried to collect all I can get by googling of Ayad’s work of art with Coptic theme. Below is what I found. They could be divided into three sections: Nativity scenes, scenes from prayers at churches, and scenes from monasteries. Not all of them are dated and titled, and some pictures are of poor quality. But Ragheb Ayad is undoubtedly a great Coptic artist. One would hope that all his works of art are collected one day in a national Coptic gallery together with works of other Coptic artists.

Nativité by Ragheb Ayad. (Photo: courtesy of Safarkhan Gallery)

Caravane de dromadaires, 1958

La Fuite en Égypte (The flight to Egypt), 1954

Ragheb Ayad (Egyptian 1892-1982), The reading, 1964

Ragheb Ayad, Le Moine Lisant l’Évangile [Priest Reading the Gospel], 1980, Kanafani Art Gallery

Ragheb Ayad (Egyptian 1892-1982), Three figures, 1964

 The Monastery, 1965

Moines puisant de l’eau (Monks drawing water), 1977

Ragheb Ayad (Egyptian 1892-1982), Figures outside a church, ca. 1960–1969

Ragheb Ayad (Egyptian 1892-1982), Three holy men in a landscape, ca. 1965

Ragheb Ayad (Egyptian 1892-1982), The Holy supper, ca. 1966

 Ragheb Ayad (Egyptian 1892-1982), The ceremony, ca. 1900–1982

Ragheb Ayad (Egyptian 1892-1982), Worshippers, 1966

Ragheb Ayad (Egyptian 1892-1982), The procession, ca. 1948

[1] I am indebted in this biography to Nadia Radwan, whose biography I took almost entirely.

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