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April 3, 2016

schoolInterior of School (Muslim) in Cairo by John Frederick Lewis (1865)

Edward William Lane (1801 – 1876), the British Orientalist was not a friend of the Copts. In fact, he was a notorious anti-Copt, who is responsible for much of the misinformation about the Copts which Europeans got from his book An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, in which he included a chapter about the Copts and another about the Jews in Egypt, but the bulk of the book is about the Muslims. Lane visited Egypt in the years 1825-1828 and 1833-1835, during the reign of Muhammad Ali (1811 – 1848), and wrote his famous book in 1836.[1]

As I said, Lane’s writing about the Copts was inaccurate and prejudiced – he never met Copts to enquire about their customs and manners, and got his information from a hateful man who converted to Islam, and, therefore, had every reason to denigrate the Copts. The reader can read more about that in my article, Edward William Lane and his Responsibility for Demonising the Copts and Misguiding the British about the Copts.

Despite his anti-Coptism, Lane managed to write about some of the practices of the Muslims of Egypt which were directed towards implanting hatred of Copts, and other non-Muslims, in the hearts and minds of the Egyptian from early age. In Chapter 5, Infant and Early Education, Lane describes the education Muslim children got and its purpose:

The parents seldom devote much of their time or attention to the intellectual education of their children; generally contenting themselves with instilling into their young minds a few principles of religion, and then submitting them, if they can afford to do so, to the instruction of a schoolmaster. As early as possible, the child is taught to say, “I testify that there is no deity but God; and I testify that Mohammad is God’s Apostle.” He receives also lessons of religious pride, and learns to hate the Christians, and all other sects but his own, as thoroughly as does the Muslim in advanced age. Most of the children of the higher and middle classes, and some of those of the lower orders, are taught by the schoolmaster to read, and to recite and chant the whole or certain portions of the Koran by memory. They afterwards learn the most common rules of arithmetic.[2]

Again, Lane, in Appendix D, Prayer of Muslim Schoolboys, shows us an example of “hezb” (or prayer), “which the Muslim youths in many of the schools of Cairo recite, before they return to their homes, every day of their attendance, at the period of the “‘asr,”[3] except on Thursday, when they recite it at noon; being allowed to leave the school, on this day, at the early hour of the “duhr,”[4] in consideration of the approach of Friday, their sabbath and holiday.” He observes that this prayer is similar to a portion of the “khutbet en-naat”( خُطْبَة النَّعْت), the sermon which the Muslim Khateebs[5] deliver in all mosques every Friday. The prayer calls for all sorts of misfortunes and catastrophies befalling the non-Muslims. Here is his translation for it:

“I seek refuge with Allah from Satan the accursed. In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. O Allah, aid Islam, and exalt the word of truth, and the faith, by the preservation of thy servant, and the son of thy servant, the Sultan of the two continents,[6] and Khakan[7] of the two seas,[8] the Sultan, son of the Sultan, the Sultan [Mahmud[9]] Khan. O Allah, assist him, and assist his armies, and all the forces of the Muslims: O Lord of the beings of the whole world. O Allah, destroy the infidels and polytheists, thine enemies, the enemies of the religion. O Allah, make their children orphans, and defile their abodes, and cause their feet to slip, and give them and their families and their households and their women and their children and their relations by marriage and their brothers and their friends and their possessions and their race and their wealth and their lands as booty to the Muslims: O Lord of the beings of the whole world.”[10]

The infidels and polytheists include all non-Muslims, native and foreign. That was how Muslim children’s were brought up. But why am I talking about the way home and school education was in the first half of the 19th century when we are now in the 21st century? The reason is that Muslim Egyptian children are still largely brought up within their families to hate Copts – they are almost breastfed this anti-Coptism. Although the hizb described above is not prayed anymore in Egyptian public schools, it still forms part of the khuṭbah (sermon) every Friday in the mosques of Cairo and the rest of the country. Copts and other non-Muslims hear this every Friday; and no one tries to hide it – it is, on the contrary, broadcast from mosques through loud speakers all-over the place. This is coupled by the poisonous education undertaken by Muslim religious leaders everywhere in Egypt, including Al-Azhar.

Of course, not all Muslim Egyptians are brought up the same, but it is reasonable to say that the majority of Muslims are brought up in the same way their 1820s and 1830s predecessors were brought up. The problem is huge – it may get less (just less) with certain political changes, like it is currently under President Sisi, but it is still  endemic in Egypt.

Next time, I will write about the “khutbet en-naat”( خُطْبَة النَّعْت), which spits hatred and incites violence every Friday against all non-Muslims.



[1] I use the 5th Edition of 1960. Edward William Lane, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (London, John Murray, 1960).

[2] Ibid, pp. 59-60.

[3] Afternoon.

[4] Noon.

[5] Plural of khateeb (خطيب): the person (usually the imam who leads the prayer) who delivers the khuṭbah (sermon), during the Friday prayer and Eid prayers.

[6] Europe and Asia.

[7] Emperor or monarch.

[8] The Mediterranean and Black seas.

[9] Sultan Mahmud II was the reigning Sultan then (1808 – 1839), at the time when the above was written.

[10] An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, p. 575. I have changed God to Allah, El-Islam to Islam, and Mahmood to Mahmud.


April 2, 2016


The Portland State University, in Portland, Oregon, United States, has in its possession a Coptic Agpiya (Prayer Book) manuscript/book from the 15th century or after. It is in Coptic and Arabic script and studded with colourful Coptic decorations and paintings of three warrior saints, St. George, St, Theodore the Eastern, and St. Mercurius.

Professor Anne McClanan, the medieval art historian at Portland State University, teaches on this beautiful manuscript book, and has online page describing the book and the paintings (written by Bronwyn Dorhofer and Denise Loncar, two of the Medieval Portland Capstone Students). You can access it here.

The paintings of St. George and St. Theodore the Eastern are produced below:

AG2.jpgSt. George beating the dragon




Theodore the eastern with Emperor Diocletian beaten


An educational video is also attached:




April 2, 2016

G1Archangel Gabriel. Fragment of Coptic fresco of the 7th century

G2The face of St. Gabriel

G3The Archangel Gabriel holding the world sphere in his left hand


Marie-Gabrielle Leblanc is a French art historian with special interest in Coptic art, wrote a short article on the fresco from the Cathedral of Faras, in Lower Nubia, which is dated the 7th century, and represents Archangel Gabriel. Archangel Gabriel is one of three main archangels revered in the Coptic Church, together with Michael and Raphael. In the Coptic Synaxarium, he is commemorated on 22 Kiyahk.

I have translated and abridged Leblanc’s short article, with little editing:

This angel is a rare example of the Christian art of Sudan. It is a fresco from the Cathedral of Faras. Faras (Παχώρας, Pakhôras) was a Christian site in Lower Nubia on the Sudanese-Egyptian border from the Sudanese side, 20 kilometers south of Abu Simbel. Since 1964, Faras drowned in the waters of Lake Nasser. The temple of Abu Simbel and thirteen ancient temples were moved, and only the excavated contents of other sites excavated were moved. The Cathedral of Faras was excavated by Polish archaeologists, and the frescoes were shared between Poland and Sudan (Khartoum Museum). The above painted fresco is kept at the National Museum in Warsaw.

Although Faras (or its submerged site) is located in modern Sudan, this piece of art is actually Christian Egyptian (Coptic) art. The simplified rounded, open eyes that stare at the unseen and eternal are typical of this art.

“Gabriel” is written in Greek above his head. He wears the long stole of Coptic Orthodox deacons. The face has stylised features typical of Coptic Egypt and Ethiopia. The eyes recall the funerary portraits of Roman Egypt, the “Fayum portraits”, of the 1st century BC to 1st century AD, which inspired the first icons from the third century. His wings are studded with eyes, because he sees God constantly. He holds in his right hand a roll of papyrus (God’s word), recalling what he brought in the announcement to Mary in Nazareth. In his left hand, he holds a sphere representing the world.




April 2, 2016


Rania Kuhn (signs her work Roro), a brilliant Coptic artist, describes herself as Egyptian Coptic Christian. She was graduated in 2000 from the Faculty of Art Education, Cairo, and resides now in Ireland. She says about herself: “I have always been interested in Arts and Crafts and love to paint children, Coptic Icons, birds and making Jewellery. I’ve always felt the urge to create art in smaller formats along with my larger paintings. I continue to be challenged to search for what inspires me personally. My skills have been always supported by my great husband and my family. I work with different materials like Oil, pastels, mixed media and much more.” She works with oil, tempera, felt, beads and much more material.

She has a great collection on line, which the reader can visit here. I love her work, and I think she adds something new to Coptic art. To me, Coptic art is art produced by Copts using Coptic themes. Kuhn does that in an innovative way; and although she is not restricted by the Neo-Coptic iconographic tradition, no one can miss the Coptic in her work, even when she deals with neutral subjects such as birds, cats, fish, etc. If you look at her birds, you see birds one finds in Coptic fabrics and tapestry of the Coptic Period.

Here, I select a few examples of her beautiful work.


Cat needle felting brooch


Mother and Child, oil on canvas


Birds of the Tree. Painted in oil, and using real gold leafs and pastel


Christ The Sower


The Flight to Egypt


St. Mark. Hand painted icon with egg-tempera and gold leaf


St. George. A print from an original painting



Guardian angel. Painting on canvas panel and gold paper


Hand painted Robin brooch on canvas board


Black moor fish brooch needle felting








April 2, 2016


The story of the nuns of Asyut is, by all means, a very interesting story – a story of impressive chastity and purity, and great courage. The forty saintly nuns refused to surrender to the Muslim attackers to be used as sex slaves, and lose their virginity which they had dedicated to Christ only. They preferred to die, committing mass suicide, rather than to submit to the enemy who was intent on defiling their bodies. There is every evidence that the forty nuns did not take their decision lightly but as the last resort, in fact, as the only resort other than allowing themselves to be raped by the Muslim forces and be denied a life of virginity and asceticism in their convent. They considered the burning of their bodies for the sake of their virginity a ‘gorban’, in Coptic ‘dwron (doron)’ – an offering and sacrifice. Their abbess, who set the thirty-nine on fire, and then threw herself down to die, even praying: “Oh, Lord, do not hold this sin against me.” But to her, and to the rest of the nuns with her, “their death in this manner is better than being assaulted by those offenders … those people [who] came from their lands seeking to frustrate [their] salvation”. This cannot be taken except as a heroic and virtuous suicide – martyrdom for Christ.

It is a painful story – one cannot possibly imagine the fear and the agony of the thirty-nine nuns and their abbess as they were confronted by their Muslim attackers. It is an indictment to all Coptic men, in 1167 and throughout the Islamic control of Egypt, who saw their women and daughters often being taken captives and defiled by Muslim man who took them as sex slaves, without doing much to protect their women. But the saddest thing, in my opinion, is that this great story of heroic martyrdom by the forty nuns of Asyut is little known by the Copts, as it does not seem to have been registered in their collective memory; that is, in their official Synaxarium.

The original Coptic Synaxarium is available only in Arabic. It forms part of the Copto-Arabic literature of the Middle-Ages. The word “Synaxarium” is derived from a Greek word Συναξάριον,[1] which means a liturgical book containing short narratives of the lives of saints, or exposition of feasts and fasts, arranged on the days of the year, and read in the religious services of the Church throughout the year[2].[3] The Copto-Arabic original manuscript was compiled in the 13th and 14th centuries at two stages by two Copts: Butrus al-Jamil, bishop of Malij[4], who is considered as the first compiler and editor of the Coptic Synaxarium,[5] and Mikha’il bishop of Atrib[6] and Malij.[7] Their work included translation, from Greek and Coptic, of old manuscripts of the lives of the saints, which had existed separately and read eulogistically at the saints’ passion and last days; and adding stories of later saints which were originally written in Arabic. These stories, old and new, were compiled in a single large manuscript, which became the Seneksar (سِنكسار). There are several copies of the Seneksar scattered in several libraries and museums across the world. The story of the nuns of Asyut does not seem to figure in most of them.

Basset studied two manuscripts of the Seneksar which he found at the Bibliothèque nationale de France: MS No. 256, designated A by him, which is dated to the 16th century, and MS Nos. 4869-4870, designated B, which goes back to the 14th century. This earlier manuscript (B) contains the story of the nuns of Asyut, whereas the late manuscript, A, doesn’t.[8] As manuscript B is one of the earliest of all extant manuscripts of the Seneksar (possibly predated only by the 1340 AD manuscript kept at the Coptic Museum Library in Old Cairo[9]),[10] we can assume that the story of the nuns of Asyut was originally included in the Seneksar of Butrus and Mikha’il, although we don’t know who of the two had incorporated it first.

Not only Basset’s manuscript A that has no mention of the story, but, it seems, all later manuscripts have omitted it too. Ethiopia has its own Synaxarium, which is a direct translation from a Copto-Arabic recension of the Seneksar.[11] In its oldest form, as Wallis Budge says, “it was simply a translation from Arabic into Ethiopic of the Synaxarium of the Jacobite Church of Egypt, and it only commemorated the saints venerated by the Egyptian Church.”[12] It does not mention the story of the nuns of Asyut.

The list of Coptic feasts in the Coptic calendar has been studied by Europeans. In 1655, John Selden (1584 – 1654), the English scholar, published two Arabic manuscripts of such list, which he translated into Latin, attached to the end of his De Synedriis Veterum Ebraeorum.[13] In these two lists, there is no mention of a feast for the nuns of Asyut. The German Orientalist, Hiob Ludolf (1624 – 1704), gave, in 1691, another list of the feasts of the Ethiopian and Egyptian Churches in his Commentarius ad historiam Æthiopicam, and here, again, we don’t find a mention of their story.[14] In 1873, the English Orientalist, Solomon Caesar Malan (1812-1894), published his The Calendar of the Coptic Church.[15] His list, which he tells us he has translated it from “a manuscript calendar in Arabic which, until quite lately, was used in a Jacobite Church at Cairo,” is more comprehensive; but, here again, there is no mention of the nuns of Asyut.

Until the 20th century, the Coptic Church used in its liturgical services the Synaxarium in a manuscript form. The first printed Synaxarium was published in 1913 under the title “الصادق الأمين (The Truthful and Honest)”, during the patriarchate of Pope Kyrillos V (1874 – 1927), by two clerics, Filotheos al-Maqari, the pope’s secretary, and a certain Mikha’il al-Maqari, using manuscripts from the Monastery of St. Macarius (Abu Maqar) in Wadi al-Natrun.[16] This was followed by a new publication in 1935-1937, “السنكسار الجامع (The Inclusive Seneksar)”,[17] under the patriarchate of Pope Yoannis XIX (1928 – 1942). It was edited by two clerics again, ‘Abd al-Masih Mikha’il (1886 – 1959) and Armaniyus al-Birmawi[18] (1894 – 1939), who tried to standardise the Coptic Synaxarium, using the French publication by Basset and seven manuscripts from Egypt, and updating it by adding other saints who were not mentioned in the manuscripts or appeared after the 14th century. The Inclusive Synaxarium was printed several times by Maktabat al-Mahabba in Cairo, and used widely in the Coptic Church. It remained the official ecclesiastical version until in June 2012 a new version, “كتاب السنكسار (The Book of Seneksar)”[19] was produced by the Liturgical Commission of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Church, which is formed of bishops only. The project was initiated by Pope Shenouda III (1971 – 2012) in 1988, but was not published until after his death on 17 March. All the 20th century, three official versions sponsored by the Coptic Church do not include the story of the nuns of Asyut. This is despite the fact that the 1935-1937 used Basset’s publication.

What could have accounted for the inclusion of the story of the nuns of Asyut which is based, according to basset, on the late 14th century manuscript of the Synaxarium available at the Biblioteque Nationale (MS No. 4869-4870) and its serious absence from the 16th century MS 256 and other late manuscripts, the Ethiopian Synaxarium, the calendars of the Coptic Church, and the 20th and 21st centuries printed versions by the Coptic Church? The fact that the story is written in poor Arabic as to make it incomprehensible to some extent cannot be the real reason, as the Seneksar’s Arabic is generally very poor, and many of its stories are difficult to understand without much study and search. It seems to me that the story was suppressed by careless later editors.

Suppression by heavy editing is not unusual. René-Georges Coquin tells us that “[t]he authors [of the 1935-1937 Inclusive Seneksar] suppressed what appeared to them worthless or unseemly.”[20] The 2012 edition, in its turn, made its changes.[21] This is understandable when it is meant to remove text that expresses dogma contrary to that of the Coptic Church or stories and references that are clearly inaccurate or illogical. The Church has always preached against reckless martyrdom and suicide. However, suicide in order to preserve one’s chastity, what could be called “chastity suicide”, “virginity suicide”, “purity suicide” or “virtuous suicide” and martyrdom, has been exempted by many saints, including St. Ambrose who, in an answer to a question by his sister Marcellina, about certain virgins who had committed suicide rather than lose their chastity, allowed it.[22] In the Coptic Church, one can find several examples that can appear on the face of it recklessly inappropriate. Consider, for instance, the martyrdom of St. Moses the Black and his seven ascetic associates in 408: when the Berbers of the Libyan Desert sacked the monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun, they refused to run and hide like the rest of the monks; and consequently they were massacred by the Berbers. The Coptic Church celebrates their martyrdom on 24 Ba’una, and retains their memory in the official Synaxarium. Consider, too, the martyrdom celebrated on 26 Tuba of the Forty-Nine Elders of Shiheet (Wadi Natrun), who were martyred by the same Berbers in 444 during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II (408 – 450): when the monks saw the Berbers approaching, Saint Yu’annis, one of the Forty-Nine, addressed the rest of the monks: “The Berbers have come to kill us. Whoever amongst you would like to become a martyr, let him stand; and whoever is afraid, let him hide in the keep (castle).” While many escaped, he and forty-eight of his colleagues remained, and were slaughtered by the Berbers. Martinos, a Roman envoy of the King, and his son, Zius, who had just departed from the monastery, heard of the attack, and decided to go back to obtain martyrdom with the monks. They too were killed by the Berber. The Coptic Church rightly celebrates the martyrdom of all of them to this day.

And yet, there are other stories of more or less similar acts of martyrdom which seem to have been suppressed for no apparent reason. I have put up the story of the nuns of Asyut as an example. Another example is the story of the martyrdom of Bartanouba, a Roman young nun who, during the reign of Constantine the Great (d. 337), committed suicide by throwing herself in fire to avoid being taken as wife by a Persian royalty. The story is told in Basset’s Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite under 21 Tuba; being present only in the earlier manuscript B (there is no mention of it in the 16th century manuscript A).[23] There is no mention of it, too, in the Ethiopian Synaxarium, the Coptic calendar lists of Seldon, Ludolf and Malan, and the printed versions of the Coptic Synaxarium. Another similar story is that of the two virgin friends, Atrasis the daughter of Emperor Hadrian (117 – 138), and Yoanna daughter of Philospheron: when Hadrian knew about the Christianisation of his daughter, who was converted by Yoanna, he ordered that they both get thrown into furnace. They were taken to the execution site, clad in their best attire, and the slaves and royal servants weeping for them, while the citizens of the city expressing pity on their youth, and exhorting them to listen to the King and recant Christ in order to save their lives. “But [the virgins] did not change their mind neither did they lose the power of their faith. And when [the executioners] dug the trench and lit the fire, the [two virgins] held the hand of each other, and jumped into the furnace. And many saw them standing in the midst of the fire, praying as they turned their faces to the east; and they followed that with praising [God].”[24] This story comes under 18 Hathor, and is recorded in both manuscripts used by Basset. It appears in an abridged form in the printed Synaxarium of the Coptic Church: on the way they undertook their martyrdom, the 2012 Book of Seneksar says only in a much contracted manner that Hadrian “immediately ordered that they get burned together. In the fire, the two saints prayed, and died in peace.”[25]

Outside the Synaxarium, one finds a similar story of chastity suicide in the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church (HPOCC) – the story of Fibronia.[26] This section was written by John I, an associate and sharer in the passion of Patriarch Mikha’il I (743 – 767). These were troubled times for the Copts, Egypt and the Muslims who were fighting each other as the forces of the Abbasids were driving the last Ummayad Caliph, Marwan II (744 – 750) from east to west into Egypt where he was killed on August 6 in Upper Egypt. When the army of Marwan II was in Egypt, it committed tremendous atrocities against the Copts, which included capturing Coptic women, married and virgins, and taking them for sex slavery. One of the monasteries which they attacked had a young woman, Febronia, who was taken by the army chief. But the saintly virgin smartly tricked him and his soldiers into beheading her so that “she might not be contaminated by the defilements of those miscreants, nor her pure body by polluted by them.”[27] Sadly, like so many saints and martyrs of Egypt, her story has not been entered in the Coptic Synaxarium.

It seems then, that the Coptic Church has no official position against chastity suicide. Despite that, it appears that the story of the nuns of Asyut was omitted at some time between the 14th century (when Basset’s manuscript B was written) and the 16th century (when manuscript A was written) because it was believed then that virtuous suicide and martyrdom was unacceptable. What prompted that and by who are interesting questions that need further search. Of course, one cannot be absolutely sure of the time of the disappearance of the story without studying all the available manuscripts of the Coptic Synaxarium, inside and outside Egypt.

The author would hope that the heroic martyrdom of the nuns of Asyut in 1167 will be rehabilitated by the Coptic Church; and be commemorated as a great act of faith, chastity and courage. The korban that these forty nuns raised, in their moment of distress that should shame all of us, must be remembered by all Copts.



[1] The Greek word Συναξάριον itself is derived from συναγειν, meaning ‘to bring together’.

[2] Except during Pentecost.

[3] See, T. Y. Malati: Dictionary of Church Terminology (in Arabic) (Cairo, 1991).

[4] Malij was a city in the Nile Delta (See: Randall Stewart, Malij. The Coptic Encyclopedia, volume 5; ed. Aziz Suryal Atiya (New York, Macmillan, 1991).

[5] For Butrus al-Jamil, see: Vincent Frederick, Butrus Sawirus al-Jamil, The Coptic Encyclopedia, volume 2.

[6] Atrib was a city in the Nile Delta (see: Stewart Randall, Atrib, The Coptic Encyclopedia, volume 1).

[7] For the bishop, see: René-Georges Coquin, Mikha’il, The Coptic Encyclopedia, volume 5.

[8] See footnote 1 to the Arabic text, Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite, ed. Réne Basset. P.O., Tome XVI (Paris, 1922), p. 206 [848].

[9] See: Aziz S. Atiya, The List of Saints, The Copto-Arabic Synaxarium in The Coptic Encyclopedia, Vol. 7.

[10] I have not studied the manuscript at the Coptic Museum, and I am not sure if it includes the story or not.

[11] The Ethiopian Synaxarium was translated into French (By Ignazio Guidi, under the title Le synaxaire éthiopien), and published in the PO, beginning in the same year the Coptic Synaxarium was published. Unlike the Coptic Synaxarium, it has also been translated into English (in 1928) by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge under the title The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church, A Translation of the Ethiopic Synaxarium (Mashafa Senkesar): Made from the Mss. Oriental 660 and 661 in the British Museum.

[12] Introduction by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge in The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church (Cambridge, 1928). The Ethiopian Synaxarium, taken from the Copto-Arabic Synaxarium, however, has grown to incorporate local saints and feasts. As David Buxton says in his The Abyssinians, “Although this was at first simply the synaxarium of the Copts, the book underwent gradual ‘acclimatization’ in the Abyssinian scriptoria: they enriched it with more and more lives and acts of local saints while introducing copious references to the festivals peculiar to the Abyssinian Church.” See David Buxton, The Abyssinians (New York, Thames and Hudson, 1970), pp. 123-124.

[13] In full: V. Cl. Joannis Seldeni, De synedriis & praefecturis juridicis veterum Ebraeorum libri tres, Lib. III (Paris, 1655), pp. 202-256.

[14] In full: Hiob Ludolf, Iobi Lvdolfi aliàs Leutholf dicti ad suam Historiam æthiopicam antehac editam commentarivs,: in quo multa breviter dicta fusius narrantur: contraria refelluntur: atque hac occasione præter res æthiopicas multa autorum, quædam etiam S. Scripturæ loca declarantur: aliaque plurima geographica, historica et critica, inprimis verò antiqvitatem ecclesiasticam illvstrantia, alibi haud facilè obvia, exponuntur; vt variarvm observationvm loco haberi possit cum tabula capitum, figuris, & variis indicibus locupletissimis… (sumptibus Johannis David Zvnneri, 1691).

[15] Solomon Caesar Malan, Original Documents of the Coptic Church, II, The Calendar of the Coptic Church (London, 1873).

[16] See: René-Georges Coquin, Copto-Arabic Synaxarium, Editions of the Synaxarium in The Coptic Encyclopedia, Vol. 7 (New York, Macmillan, 1991).

[17] The full title is “السنكسار الجامع لأخبار القديسين والبطاركة التى وضعها الآباء الأنبا يوحنا أسقف البرلس والأنبا بطرس الجميل أسقف مليج والأنبا ميخائيل أسقف اتريب وغيرهم من الآباء القديسين” (The Inclusive Synaxarium of the News of the Saints and Patriarchs which were authored by the fathers, Anba Yohanna bishop of Burlus and Anba Butrus al-Jamil bishop of Malij and Anba Mikha’il bishop of Atrib and others of the saintly fathers).

[18] His full name was Armaniyus Habashi Shita al-Birmawi.

[19] Full title is: كتاب السنكسار الذى يحوى أخبار الأنبياء والرسل والشهداء والقديسيين المستعمل فى كنائس الكرازة المرقسية (The Book of Synaxarium, which contains the news of the Prophets, and the Apostles, and the Martyrs, and the Saints that is used in the Churches of the Saint Mark Episcopate).

[20] René-Georges Coquin, Copto-Arabic Synaxarium, Editions of the Synaxarium.

[21] كتاب السنكسار، إعداد اللجنة المجمعية للطقوس، الجزء الأول (القاهرة، ٢٠١٢)، ص ٩.

[22] See: Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers; Series II; Volume X. Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters, Chapter VII.

[23] Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite, ed. Réne Basset. P.O., Tome XI (Paris, 1915), pp. 652-661 [619-627].

[24] Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite, ed. Réne Basset. P.O., Tome III (Paris, 1909), pp. 304-307 [328-231].

[25] كتاب السنكسار، إعداد اللجنة المجمعية للطقوس، الجزء الأول (القاهرة، ٢٠١٢)، ص ٢١٧

[26] History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, ed. B. T. A. Evetts. Part III: Agathon – Michael I (766 AD). Patrologia Orientalis, Tome V (Paris, 1910), pp. 162-164. The story is also included in The churches and monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries by Abu al-Makarim (wrongly attributed to Abu Salih al-Armani); translated by B. T. A. Evetts (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1895), pp. 240-242. It is from Abu al-Makarim that we know that the martyr’s name was Febronia.

[27] History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, p. 164.


April 1, 2016

In the Coptic Synaxarium published by Réne Basset (1848-1924), Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite,[1] we find a very interesting story of a group of forty Coptic nuns from the Mountain of Asyut who in Muslim times preferred to commit mass suicide rather than submit to Muslim soldiers who were intent on capturing and defiling them.[2] The story is commemorated on the 6th of Baramhat, the seventh month in the Coptic calendar. The date corresponds to the 2nd of March in the Julian calendar and the 25th of March in the Gregorian calendar.

The Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite includes the original Arabic text and a French translation by Basset. I include below both of them.[3]





The Arabic of the original manuscript of the synaxarium is generally very poor, with lots of spelling and grammatical mistakes that often alter the meaning intended or make it incomprehensible altogether. I believe the poor Arabic reflects that of the original authors but the copyists added their usual mistakes to make it even worse. The lingual defects in the above text concerning the nuns of Asyut are an example; and they start from the beginning. For instance, the first line in the Arabic text reads, “اعلموا يا اخوة ان فى مثل هذا اليوم ملكوا الحبش الغريب الديار المصرية”. This is uncritically mirrored in Basset’s translation: “Sachez, mes frères, qu’a pareil jour, les Éthiopiens (El- Ḥahach) s’emparèrent de l’onuest de l’Égypte [ed-diâr el-miṣriyah)”.[4] Even Otto F.E. Meinardus falls for the obvious mistake; and, so, in his Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, he includes in the calendar of the Coptic Church, under 6 Baramhat, “Occupation of the western part of Egypt by the Ethiopians”[5]. This does not make sense: the Ethiopians have never seized the western part of Egypt since the 25th Dynasty (746 – 653 BC), let alone during the Islamic period when this story occurred. The original text (through a copyist mistake) and its translation, therefore, are historically wrong and have led to the incomprehension of the story of the nuns of Asyut; possibly contributing to readers ignoring the interesting story altogether. The author’s original text must have been, “اعلموا يا اخوة ان فى مثل هذا اليوم ملكوا الجنس الغريب الديار المصرية”, which translates into “Know my brethren that on this day, the foreign race occupied the Egyptian Lands”. This fits in well with the rest of the story and puts sense back into it. I include my own English translation[6] of the full Arabic text below:

 Know my brethren that on this day, the foreign race occupied the Egyptian Lands; and they chased the Christians everywhere. There was in the Mount of Asyut a convent where thirty nine virgins and their abbess, forty in total, lived; and they were engaged in many prayers, constant watchfulness, fasting, and prostrations; entreating God for salvation and mercy. And God had given them the gift of healing; and any woman with an illness who visited them was cured through their pure prayers.

And the Ghuzz heard about them and came to the convent. And the virgin nuns were scared, and beseeched God to save them from temptations and misfortunes, saying to Him that the Ghuzz had come to the convent to take them, go to their countries with them, and treat them as slave girls.[7]

And the old abbess said to the virgins: “My children, seek [for yourselves] the salvation of your souls from these unjust and evil people; and see how you could save yourselves [from them].” And there was at that time great wailing because the soldiers had surrounded the convent from all sides, and knocked at the door of the gate with great noise. And a young nun in the convent said to the abbess: “My mistress, listen to what I say to you: lay each one of us on a straw mat, and set the mats on fire, so that we may go to the Lord like pure korban (offering/sacrifice).”

And when the rest of the virgins heard what the girl had to say, they said to the abbess: “Oh, blessed, hurry up with what this blessed sister has said.” And the abbess quickly wound a straw mat around each of the virgins, and prayed: “My Lord, may thou accept this korban; for those people have come from their lands seeking to frustrate the salvation of these virgins. The death [of the nuns] in this manner is better than them being assaulted by those offenders. Oh, Lord, do not hold this sin against me.” She then set them on fire; and their smoke ascended to heaven.

And when the soldiers entered the convent, they found that the fire had consumed all the virgins; and they were wroth with the abbess, and said to her: “No one has done this except you.” The abbess [after she had set the virgins on fire], got to the convent’s keep.[8] The soldiers said to her: “Come down. We shall not do anything to you.” But she threw herself down from the top of the keep to the ground, and gave up her soul into the hands of God, the Lord.

My God have mercy on us through their prayers.

The historical backdrop to the story of the nuns of Asyut, which starts with the “foreign race occup[ying] Egyptian Lands”, is the struggle between the Ayyubids and the Fatimids over Egypt. Egypt was then ruled by the comparatively tolerant Ismaili-Shiite Fatimids (969 – 1171); while Syria, with its capital Damascus, was recently seized by the fanatic Sunni Ayyubids, headed by Nur al-Din Zengi (1146 – 1174), who was intent on occupying Egypt, taking it away from the Fatimids, whom he considered as heretics. Between 1164 and 1169, Nur al-Din dispatched his army to Egypt, in three major campaigns, led by his ablest generals, Shirkuh, and accompanied by his nephew, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (the famous Saladin).[9] It was during the second campaign, in 1167, that the story of the nuns of Asyut occurred. During that campaign the Ayyubid army, or a large chunk of it, marched into Upper Egypt, pillaging cities and villages on both banks of the Nile; and killing and enslaving, as the story says, “chasing the Christians everywhere”. The brutality of the Ayyubids during these years and the first few years of their rule in Egypt (they were practically in control of Egypt from 1169, when Shirkuh became vizier to the last Fatimid Caliph, al-‘Aḍid [1149 – 1171]) is well documented in Coptic sources [10] Most of the Ayyubid army was composed of Kurds. In Coptic sources of the period, the Kurds are called Ghuzz (غُزْ) – a word derived from the Oguz, which was a Turkish tribe originally from Central Asia. The Coptic convent in the Mount of Asyut that is mentioned in the story was attacked by these Ghuzz.

Asyut (Lycopolis during the Ptolemaic-Roman-Byzantine period) was, and still is, though to a lesser degree, a large Coptic centre. It lies some 320 km (200 miles) south of Cairo, on the western bank of the Nile. Mount Asyut is located 10 km to the west of Asyut. In the past, it was awash with monasteries and convents, since it was considered a holy place. Today, only one monastery remains in it, that of the Virgin Mary (also called Monastery of Dronka after the adjacent village); and it houses both monks and nuns. It has a cave chapel that dates from the first century; and is believed to have been the resting place of the Holy Family before it took the boat on its way back to Nazareth in Palestine, after it had remained in Egypt for three and a half years to escape the threat of Herod the Great. It is conceivable that the convent in the story, where the forty nuns sacrificed their bodies, was the same as today’s Monastery of Dronka.



[1] Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite was published, in Paris, in five volumes of Patrologia Orientalis (PO), from 1907 to 1923: tomes I, III, XI, XVI, and XVII, and covered the 13 Coptic months. In 1999, the late Anba Samuel, bishop of Shabin al-Qanatir[1] (r. 1992 – 2003), published the Arabic text as it appeared in Basset’s publication in P.O. under the title السنكسار القبطى اليعقوبى لرينيه باسيه in three volumes; and he included the story of the nuns of Asyut under ٦ برمهات.[1] Samuel’s publication, although it is sold at ecclesiastical outlets, is, however, not regarded as an official Church copy.

[2] Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite, ed. Réne Basset. P.O., Tome XVI (Paris, 1922), pp. 206-207 [848-849].

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 206 [848].

[5] Otto F. A. Meinardus, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity (Cairo, AUP, 2002), p. 298

[6] I could not find any existing English translation of the story.

[7] The original says, “ليتزوجوهم” (to marry them). This, in my opinion, reflects the writer/s poor Arabic rather than anything. It is clear from the text that the nuns knew that the intention of the Ghuzz was not marriage. I believe the Arabic should have read, “ليتخذوهن سرايا”; that is, to be taken saraya (‘saraya’ is plural of sariya, which is a woman captured in war, enslaved and used for service and sex.

[8] Keep or qasr (castle) is a fortress-like building that was used by monks and nuns when they were attacked by Berbers, Arabs, etc., to protect them. In it was kept sufficient supply of food and water. Keeps have drawbridges that connect the keep to the roof of a church or other buildings; and once the ascetics cross the drawbridge to the safety of the keep, it is lifted up or drawn.

[9] Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, 2 Kingdom of Jerusalem, pp. 362-400.

[10] One can review the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church attributed to Severus of Ashmunein; and The churches and monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries Abu al-Makarim (wrongly attributed to Abu Salih al-Armani); translated by B. T. A. Evetts.


March 28, 2016

The Copto-Arabic Synaxarium[1] that was published with a French translation was taken from two manuscripts; the earlier was from the late 14th century,[2] which is close to the time the Synaxarium was first compiled.

It contains the story of the martyrdom of Saint Theodore the Eastern (Oriental, Anatolian) under 12 Tuba. With him, but not on the same day, were martyred his two associates, Leontius the Arab (22 Apip) and Panigerus the Persian (5 Tuba).

Associated with the story of St. Theodore the Eastern also is the family of Yustus (or Justus) the son of Emperor Numerianus (r. 273 – 274). Yustus was sent with his wife, Theokleia, and his son, Apolli, to Egypt to be tortured there, and if they insist on not renouncing Christ, to be killed. Justus was beheaded in Antinopolis (Antinoë, in Upper Egypt (Synaxarium: 10 Amshir); Theokleia was beheaded in Sais, in the Western Nile Delta on the Canopic branch of the Nile. (Synaxarium: 11 Pashons); Apolli was beheaded in Bubastis, in the eastern part of the Nile Delta (Synaxarium: 1 Mesouri). Yustus, the son of the King, is mentioned again in the Coptic Synaxarium under 17 Misouri in the feast of the Egyptian martyrs, Yacobos and the Elderly Man, who were beheaded in the same year, as one would conclude, Yustus was martyred.

Saint Theodore the General (of Shwtp) is often associated with Saint Theodore the Eastern. One find his mention in Synaxarium: 12 Apip and 5 Hathor.


[1] René Basset, Synaxaire arabe-jacobite (rédaction copte) in the Patrologia Orientalis (Paris, 1904 – 1929).

[2] The second dates to the 17th century.


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