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October 6, 2015

A Coptic Christian woman dictating a letter to a scribe, Cairo, Egypt

A Coptic Christian woman dictating a letter to a scribe, Cairo, Egypt. Coloured lithograph by Louis Haghe after David Roberts, 1849

I would like to share with my readers the above lithograph by Louis Haghe which is kept at Wellcome Library, London.[1] It is lithograph with tint plate, with watercolour and gum Arabic, which was published by F.G. Moon, London, in 1849, as one of a series of 247 lithographs of Middle Eastern subjects – all printed in a six volumes: the first three volumes are called “The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia”[2]; and the last three volumes are called “Egypt & Nubia”[3].
Louis Haghe (1806 – 1885) was Belgian lithographer but lived his productive live in London. Although he is the lithographer of this piece of art, he was not the original artist. All his lithographs were based on the watercolours of the famous Scottish Orientalist painter, David Roberts (1796 – 1864). Roberts visited Egypt between 1838 and 1839, staying in it for nearly six months.[4] During his Oriental tour, he visited also the Holy Land, Jordan and Lebanon. That tour provided him with many interesting people, monuments and scenes that he drew and watercoloured, and took with him to London to form the basis for paintings and lithographs. He worked with Louis Haghe to produce the above volumes.

In Egypt, Roberts visited Nubia and Sinai too. There, he drew a lot, including a few pieces with Coptic theme, such as the lithograph I am sharing with you today, “The Holy Tree, Materea”, “Ruins of a Christian Church in the Grand Court of the Temple of Medinet Abou”.

A Coptic Christian woman dictating a letter to a scribe is a beautiful and precious lithograph. In previous articles I explained the importance of paintings and photographs are sources for historians: a lot of history can be obtained from them. Here, we have a depiction of a Coptic woman and a Coptic clerk most probably in the first few months of 1839: this was during the reign of Muhammad Ali (1805 – 1848) and the patriarchate of Petros VII (1809 – 1852). These were tough times, and even though Muhammad Ali tried to modernised Egypt and used the skills of Europeans and Copts in his administration, Egypt was still part of the Ottoman Empire and the Copts were still Dhimmis, who were being under the rule of Sharia which differentiated between Muslim and Christian and discriminated against the latter.

One ominous sign of that discrimination against Copts is ghi’yar which was derived from the Pact of Umar, the second Muslim Caliph (834 – 644): it dictated that non-Muslims be kept different from Muslims in attire, including headgear, to mark him out for discrimination and humiliation. The Copts must wear cheap and rough clothes made of dark colours, mainly dark brown and dark blue. Here, the Coptic clerk displays that.

As I have explained in previous articles, ghi’yar was theoretically abolished in 1854 after the Crimean War, and as a result of pressure from the European Powers on the Ottoman Empire. This, however, did not end practically until after the British arrived in Egypt in 1882.

[1] Wellcome Library no. 34531i.

[2] Also called “The Holy Land”. Printed in London, 1842-49.

[3] Printed in London, 1846-49.

[4] He set sail for Egypt on 31 august 1838 and departed from it shortly after 16 vMay 1839.


October 5, 2015

Holy Martyrs of Libya

The Holy Martyrs of Libya, icon by Nikola Sarić

Nikola Sarić (b. 1985), is a Serbian artist who currently lives in Hannover, Germany. He is specialised in Christian art, having been influenced by Greco-Roman and Byzantine art.

One of his interesting works of art is Holy Martyrs of Libya – the 20 Coptic martyrs and their companion, the African martyr (Matthew Arayiga), who gave his life at the same time, in February 2015, at Sirte, Libya, having been beheaded at the Mediterranean beach by the Islamic terrorists of ISIS. Our Coptic Church has added their names to the Coptic Synaxarium and celebrates their martyrdom on 15 February.

The icon by Nikola Sarić is 100×70 cm, and is aquarelle[1] on paper. It was displayed in the “Earthly Stories with Heavenly Meanings” exhibition (27th August – 18th October 2015) at Brenkhausen Monastry in Höxter-Brenkhausen, Germany. This Medieval monastery was obtained in 1994 by the Coptic Church, and is now the monastery of the Virgin St. Mary, and is the Coptic bishop seat.

The artist says that he plans to sell it and to support the bereaved families of the martyrs (Here is how to contact him).

About the martyrs, the artist says: “The Holy Martyrs of Libya are 21 Christians, who were murdered by IS (ISIS) terrorists in February 2015. They declined to renounce their faith though threatened with death for 40 days. The Coptic Orthodox church acknowledged them new martyrs.”[2]

On this beautiful icon, the New Liturgical Movement wrote: “Notice how the waves of the sea stained with the martyrs’ blood are shown around the edge of the image; Matthew Arayiga is distinct among the group on the top right. The men were killed wearing orange prisoners’ jumpsuits; all them are looking at Christ except for the one at the bottom, who is looking out at us.”

[1] A style of painting using thin, typically transparent, watercolours.

[2] I have made a small correction in the text which I think was incorrect, having most probably been translated from Serbian.


September 27, 2015

The Alexandrian Church

Ewa Wipszycka (or Ewa Maria Wipszycka-Bravo, in full) is a professor of history at the University of Warsaw; and she specializes in the history of Egypt, the Greeks and Christianity. Her academic work is huge as one can see from the link provided.

Recently, she has published The Alexandrian Church. People and Institutions (Warsaw, 2015)[1] The rich contents of the book are to be found here.

Wipszycka writes in her preface to the book:

My intellectual adventure with the history of the Church began with research on ecclesiastical economy, incomes and the manner of their administration, expenditures, and the material status of the clergy. The choice of these subjects was absolutely natural to me, since my academic education had provided me with a solid background for tackling such issues; I had also learnt much while preparing my doctoral dissertation on the textile industry of Roman Egypt. In spite of having enough reasons to find the results of my previous research satisfactory, I did not want to explore the subject any farther. It was late antique Egypt that captivated me.

I have not read the book yet, but it seems promising.

[1] Hard cover, 490 pages (Price: 93 EUR).


September 27, 2015

saint mark

Saint Mark the Evangelist is the one who brought Christianity to Egypt in the six decade of our era; and he is considered the first bishop of Alexandria – that is the first Coptic Pope. Others know him as the author of the Gospel of Saint Mark.

The Benaki Museum in Athens has a great collection of Coptic textiles, and one of its fabrics is a “Coptic embroidered roundel with an extraordinarily expressive bust of the Apostle Mark, who evangelised Egypt.”[1] It goes back to the sixth century – that is before the Arab occupation of Egypt.

This may be the earliest extant Coptic representation of Patriarch Mark the Evangelist. I simply share it with my readers, and hope that it will be reproduced by modern Coptic artists.

[1] ΓΕ 6991. It is 0.09 m. in diameter.


September 21, 2015

Are the Copts Coptic Christians or Arab Christians like some Palestinian, Jordanian, and even Lebanese Christians confess? This is the question I should think that will be central to the future of the Copts, and ought to be discussed by all Copts in a serious manner.

Do not underestimate the strength of those who would like to see the Copts as Arab Christians: this camp includes many who call themselves Leftists, or work in the Egyptian government and media, and even some clerics, including bishops, sadly. To this camp, all that is important is Christianity, and everything else is valueless. Our language, or ethnicity, and our unique history that has often been at odd with Arabs, do not worth a dime. Let’s forget about our language, our history, our roots; and let us celebrate Arabism – let’s submerge in Arab culture, and as long as we don’t leave the Church, it is ok. Let’s adopt Arabic as our language; pray our liturgy in full in Arabic; and write poetry and hymns in it. Let’s ignore Coptic – let’s set up classes in our churches to teach our children, even in the Diaspora, Arabic and not Coptic. Let’s be part of the Arab nation; and let’s call our patriarchs “Popes of the Arabs”! Let’s consider Arab issues ours; Arab fights ours; and let’s even glorify Arab history and culture.

This of course runs against the grain of Coptic nationalism that sees the Copts as Coptic Christians not Arab Christians – it sees the Copts as no Arabs, and wants to revive this unique nation with its special language and culture. It sees Christianity – this Coptic Christianity – as of paramount importance, not just nationally for its central role in the development of our nation,  but also spiritually for its life-giving unique quality: Christ has and will remain the central point of our whole being.

Between these two camps the cultural fight will be joined – and there can be no question that the Coptic Nationalists will win.

Two points I would like to stress here:

1. Many, many people, lay and clergy, even bishops, join us in our position.

2. Coptic nationalism is not anti-Arab or anti-Muslim: it only wants to free itself from every Arab or Islamic influence.

You must decide on which side you stand! You cannot be neutral on this if you are a Copt!


September 14, 2015

Pyramid at floodThe pyramids during the Nile flood. 1 Tout=11 September (Coptic New Year Day or the Crown of the Year) occurs at the height of the flood season.

The Copts would frequently want to find a Coptic origin to Arabic words as they are spoken in Egypt today; and sometimes this takes them to ridiculous ends to try to prove it. No doubt some words that are used now in Egypt have Coptic origin, such as “ikh” and “pikh”; and that is good to know, but that is it. It does not help the Coptic language at all to find that some words spoken in Egypt today has originated from it – at best, the exercise is a study in Arabic words etymology. It seems that the Copts, who lost their language through negligence, but nevertheless mourn its demise, are somehow relieved by seeing that the language of their oppressors that they had to speak instead of their beautiful and sacred language has borrowed some words from it: this is a very odd situation akin to that of the parents whose daughter had been raped and killed by others, and find in the knowledge that the women of their enemy wear some of the gems of their slaughtered daughter some weird pleasure.

Knowledge is good, but to try to find some relieve out of this particular knowledge, is unhealthy; and that is why I call it a syndrome. Those who are obsessed with such exercise of trying to find a Coptic origin to Arabic words, do misdirect their energy and waste it – instead of working to resuscitate Coptic, they satisfy themselves with Egyptian Arabic, and what they perceive as Coptic in it. And the syndrome sometimes takes them to the fantastic world of absurdity: consider the effort to explain the etymology of the Arabic word “nayrouz نيروز”, which Copts currently use to indicate their New Year: I came across this recently, and it appears it has already had its way into Wikipedia![1] According to this theory, the word “nayrouz” is derived from “ni-yarwou”,[2] which means in Coptic “the rivers”. When the Greeks entered Egypt, they added the letter ‘cima’ to the end of the word, and so it became “ni-yarwous”; and when the Arabs arrived in Egypt, they confused the Graecized Egyptian word “ni-yarwous” with the Persian word “Nowruz”! According to this theory, then, the word “nayrouz” is essentially Coptic; and the idea that it came from the Persian language is wrong.

Now, the Arabs are responsible for so much misunderstanding and confusion, but I cannot accuse them of this one. The Copts of today use the word “Nayrouz”, as I said, to indicate their New Year Day, which falls on the first of Tut,[3] and which marks the beginning of the Coptic calendar. In Coptic language, New Year Day is called, “Pi iklom ente ti rompi”,[4] which means “The Crown of the Year”: the expression is included in the Coptic liturgy, which is rooted in Egypt’s soil and the Nile, in the Litanies of Waters (prayed from 12 Paoni to 9 Paopi),[5] Sowing (from 10 Paopi to 10 Tobi),[6] and Harvest (from 11 Tobi to 11 Paoni)[7]. These Litanies cover the Egyptian inundation and agricultural cycle; and after each Litany, the priest adds: “Bless the crown of the year with Your goodness for the sake of the poor of Your people, the widow, the orphan, the traveller, the stranger, and for the sake of us all, who entreat You and seek Your Holy Name.”[8] This is a strong evidence of how “Pi iklom ente ti rompi” got well established in Coptic language.

There is no evidence that the Copts used the word “ni-yarwou” in their literature to mean New Year. One would expect to find the word “nayrouz”, or any derivative of it, to be included in the Coptic Synaxarium, as it covers all days of the Coptic calendar year; but, there is no mention of it at all. In fact, instead, we find the mention of “رأس السنة : Head of the Year” and “إكليل السنة : Crown of the Year”, which are fundamentally the same, at the beginning of the Synaxarium, under 1 Tout: “Let us make this day a sacred day a sacred day in all holiness and purity, because it is the head of the blessed Coptic year; and let us avoid every wicked deed, and start it off with good and acceptable work.”[9] I then it adds Psalm 65:11: “Thou hast blessed the crown of the year by Thy grace; and Thy lands are full with fatness.”[10] [11]

The wordnayrouz” is completely foreign to the Coptic language: it became familiar to the Copts only after the Arab occupation of Egypt in the 7th century; and only after the Abbasids had established their dynastic rule in 750 AD, and the Muslim Caliphate came increasingly under the influence of the Persians, who converted to Islam. Ancient Iran celebrated its New Year on the first day of spring, or the Equinox, and called it Nowruz, meaning “New Day”, which fell on the 21 March and marked the beginning of the Persian year. It had been a holy feast in Zoroastrianism, celebrated by people with certain popular and religious rituals; and, with the Persianisation of the Caliphate, Muslim rulers joined in the non-religious aspects of the celebrations of Nowruz. Arab writers called it “يوم النيروز (Yoam al-Nayrouz)”, which means “The Day of the Nowruz”; and, in time, the specific word came to be generalised, and the Coptic New Year, celebrated with equal zeal, pomp and ritual, became known as the “Coptic nayrouz”, or simply “nayrouz”.[12] And from these Arabs, the word passed on to the Copts: as they abandoned their language and replaced it with Arabic in the Middle Ages, they replaced “pi iklom ente ti rompi” by “nayrouz”; as they had replaced many other words, even sacred ones, by Arabic ones, such as “ipchois: Lord”, “ephnouti: God”, “isous: Jesus”, and “maria: Mary”.[13]

If anything, it is the Copts who confused the matter by abandoning their language and accepting the language of the Hijra.[14] And now, feeling guilty of neglecting their language, they try to take the easy way by convincing themselves that “nayrouz”, after all, is Coptic! This demonstrates the ridiculousness of the syndrome.

I say, “nayrouz” is not Coptic – our forefathers, in all probabolity, never uttered the word before it found its way out of our mouths in the Middle Age through Arabisation. I add, ditch the word; and replaced it by “pi iklom ente ti rompi”!

[1] For the Wikipedia article, go here; and see also this article.

[2] Nyarowou

[3] Corresponds to 29 August, in the Julian calendar; 11 September, on the Gregorian calendar.

[4]  pi iklom ente ti rompi

[5] 6 June – 7 October (Julian); 19 June – 20 October (Gregorian). This period corresponds to the season of Akhet.

[6] 8 October – 6 January (Julian); 21 October – 10 January (Gregorian). This period corresponds to the season of Peret.

[7] 7 January – 5 June (Julian); 20 January – 18 June (Gregorian). This period corresponds to the season of Shemu.

[8] See كتاب الخولاجي المقدس – الطبعة الأولى 1902

جمع وتحقيق القمص عبد المسيح المسعودي

[9] See Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite, Arabic with a French translation, by Réne Basset, in Patrologia Orientalis (P.O.), Tome 1 (1907), p. 223.

[10] This is a literal translation: the verse in Arabic as in the Synaxarium is: “بركة اكليل السنة بنعمتك تمتلى بقاعك سمنا”.

[11] The Synaxarium also quotes 2 Cornithians 5:17 and Isiah 61:1-2.

[12] See Les Fêtes des Coptes par Taqi ed-Din Ahmad ibn ‘Ali Al-Maqrizi in Patrologia Orientalis, Tome 10 (1915), pp. 333-343.

[13] These became, “rabb”, “allah”, “Yaso’a”, and “Mariam”, respectively.

[14] Hijra refers to the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD. Copts in the past used to call Arabic, “language of the hijra”.


September 13, 2015

Interior of Santa Barbara

Frederick Oswell Jones (1873 – 1969) was a British artist and army captain officer, who was stationed in Cairo during WWI. One of his most beautiful pieces of artwork is a watercolour on paper drawing (12 by 8.75 inch” kept at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and is titled, “Interior of the Coptic Church of Santa Barbara, Cairo”. The artist inscribed the title in ink at the back of it and gave us the date, 9 November 1919. He signed it “F. Oswell Jones” in ink.
The V&A Museum tell us that the watercolour was given to the museum by the artist in 1949, and aadds a note: “Watercolour drawing of the interior of the Coptic Church of Santa Barbara in Cairo, reputed to be the first Christian church ever to have been built. Egypt, 1918.”


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