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May 23, 2011

ST. PISENTIOS (also written Pisuntios and Pisentius; and in Arabic  بيسنتاوس  ) was the Bishop of Coptos (Qift/ قفط ) in the 7th Century. We know that he was bishop of that Upper Egyptian town from his biographies that existed for us in Coptic, Arabic and Ethiopic versions, and have been translated into English and French. These are mostly available now on the internet, and to which I provide links in this article. Coptos lies on the east bank of the Nile, in the Governorate of Qena – 20 km south of the town of Qena and 40 km north of Luxor. Pisentios was bishop of this important town of Upper Egypt at the time of the Persian invasion of Egypt in 619 AD, when Khosraw II Pevez wrestled Egypt from the Byzantines. This Third Persian Period (619-629 AD)[i] lasted only ten years, and ended when Heraclius I resumed Byzantine control of Egypt.

The canons of the Church specify that no one can be elected as bishop unless his age is 40 years or more. It is possible that Pisentios was chosen as bishop for Coptos when he was in his early 40’s. If that was the case, then it is conceivable that he survived the Great Persecution by Byzantines (630-640 AD); and, also, witnessed the Arab invasion and occupation of Egypt in 640 AD, and the brutality that accompanied it.

The Life of Bishop Pisentios is written in the 7th Century by his disciple, John the Elder. It tells us something about the history of the Copts during the Persian invasion of Egypt. We know from it, as A. Butler has stated, that the Copts (Egyptians) did not welcome the Persians as liberators, contrary to what some have claimed.[ii] Bishop Pisentios, once the news got to him that the invaders were on their way, fled to the mountain. As Bulter says: “The idea of seeking protection from the Persians by submission, or of claiming friendship from them, never entered the mind of the bishop: and his action is in ludicrous contrast with the theory that the Copts welcomed the Persians”.[iii] Unfortunately, as Bulter has justly said in his criticism of the historical sense of the Copts, the biographer tells us “nothing more about the Persians – what they did after the taking of Coptos, or how long they remained in Upper Egypt”.[iv] However, the Life of Pisentios does give us some understanding of the then prevailing Coptic philosophy of history; the Copts’ apprehension of and opposition to the merciless foreign nations that invaded their country; and their constant prayers that the evil that had befallen them get lifted. Once Bishop Pisentius got the news of the approaching Persians, which he had learned of from the Coptic Patriach Andronichus (616-622 AD), we learn that he wrote a pastoral to all his diocese, in which he said, “Because of our sins God has abandoned us; he has delivered us to the nations without mercy.”[v] And when Pisentios and his disciple, and biographer, fled to the mountains, they stayed in their retreat, “praying night and day that God would save the people from bondage to those cruel nations.”[vi]

We don’t know if Bishop Pisentius had similar uttering about the Arab invasion of Egypt, and in regard to their shedding of Egyptian blood; but that is conceivable. The Second Letter (see below) which is attributed to him, although clearly had been written in the 13th Century, must have been based on a genuine literary nucleus attributed to Pisentius.

One of the loveliest stories that one can come across in all Coptic literature is the story of Bishop Pisentios talking to one of the mummies. When Coptos fell to the Persians, perhaps in 620 AD, Bishop Pisentios, and his disciple, John the Elder, were forced to flee three miles into the rocky desert. I will allow A. Butler to tell us the story in his own words:

There on a mountain-side the two friends found an open doorway, which they entered. Within was a chamber some 70 ft. square and high in proportion, hollowed out of the solid rock, and supported by six piers or columns. It was the burial-place of a vast number of mummies, which lay there undisturbed in their coffins or cases.

Here Pisentios resolved to live alone, directing John to depart and to return with a measure of meal and with water, once a week. As John was about to leave the cave, he saw a roll of parchment which he gave to the bishop. The bishop on reading it found that it contained the names of all those whose bodies were laid to rest in that burial-place … When John returned, he heard his master talking in the cavern, and listening discovered that he was speaking with one of the mummies, which had come out of its case to demand the bishop’s intercession : for the mummy declared that all its kith and kin had been Greeks and worshippers of the pagan gods…When the mummy had done speaking, it went back to its coffin.” [vii]


Original works:

  1. The Coptic Life of Bishop Pisentios translated into English by Wallis Budge
  2. The Arabic Life of Bishop Pisentios translated into English by De Lacy O’Leary
  3. The Ethiopic Life of Bishop Pisentios translated into English by Wallis Budge
  4. M. Amèlineau’s translation of the Life of Pisentius from Coptic

Secondary works:

  1. Alfred Butler on Bishop Pisentios
  2. Biography of Pisentius in the German Biographical-Bibliographical Church Dictionary

The Coptic Life[ix]

The Life of Bishop Pisentius, by John the Elder

Coptic text (pp. 75-127)

Plate LIII. Brit. Mus. MS. Oriental 7026, Fol. 20 b. The Life of Pisentius. This plate represents a typical page of the MS., and illustrates a decorated initial. P. 76

English translation (pp. 258-321)

Appendix (pp. 322-330)

The Arabic Life[x]

Introduction (pp. 317-321)

Arabic text and English translation (pp. 322-487)

The Ethiopic Life[xi]

Ethiopic text (pp.331-2)

English translation (pp. 333-4)

M. Amèlineau’s Life of Pisentius from Coptic

Alfred Butler says, in his The Arab Conquest of Egypt, that the Life of Pisentios exists and has been translated from Coptic by M. Amèlineau: Étude sur le Christianisme en Égypte au septième siècle (Paris, 1887). The work is also called in the ‘tirage a part’ Vie d’un èveque de keft au septième siècle. But I could not find that work available on the internet. Whoever can locate this important work, please let me know.[xii]

Alfred Butler on Pisentios[xiii]

The German Biographical-Bibliographical Church Dictionary on Pisentius[xiv]


These two letters were published in Revue de l’Orient Chrétien (ROC); Volume 19; 1914, Bureau des oeuvres d’Orient; Paris.

We have talked about these two letters in:

The First Letter of Bishop Pisentios

The First Letter is exhortation for the Copts to stick to Christianity and not change to Islam. It is translated by A. Perier under Lettre de pisuntios évèque de qeft a ses fidèles.

French introduction (pp. 70-80)

If you want to skip introduction and go direct to the Arabic text (pp. 80-87)

The French translation (pp. 88-92)

The Second Letter of Bishop Pisentios

The Second Letter also translated into French by A. Perier under Lettre de pisuntios évèque de qeft a ses fidèles (fin). Unlike the First Letter, this letter forms part of the Apocalyptic literature of the Copts, and is a most important document that has not been studied adequately. Researchers should pay this Letter more interest.

The Arabic Text (pp. 302-316)

The French translation (pp. 316-323)

Melanges (Miscellaneous)

R. Griveau, Notes sur la letter de Pisuntios (p. 441)

Melanges (Miscellaneous)

A. Perier, Lettre de Pisuntios (Appendice) (p. 445)

How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (23 May 2011), AN AID TO THE STUDY OF ST. PISENTIOS, BISHOP OF COPTOS: HIS LIFE AND TWO FAMOUS LETTERS,

[i] This invasion was undertaken by the Sassanid king, Khosraw II Parvez. Two previous Persian invasions occurred under the Archaemenids: the First Persian Period (525-402 BC) was inaugurated by Cambyses II who ended the 26th Dynasty, and established the 27th Dynasty (the 1st Persian Dynasty). The Second Persian Period (343-332 BC), which was established by Artaxerxes III, who conquered Egypt for a brief period, and founded the 31st Dynasty. This dynasty was ended by Alexander the Great.

[ii] The same will also be falsely said about the Copts welcoming the Arab invaders later on – A. Bulter again in his invaluable book, The Arab Conquest of Egypt, refutes that allegation.

[iii]  A. Butler: Arab Conquest of Egypt; 1902; p85.

[iv] Ibid; p. 87. I copy Butler’s veredict on the biographer’s historical sense here, for it is, in my opinion, a fair judgement that could be extended to many Coptic writers, although not all: “as usual with these Coptic writers, their whole mind is concentrated on childish fairy tales of wonders wrought by the saints/ Their sole delight is in the miraculous and impossible : and it is only by some strange oversight or accident that they record any fact whatever relating to the great movements of history which they witnessed, and which they knew to involve the fate of their country.”

[v] Ibid; p. 85.

[vi] Ibid; p. 85.

[vii] Ibid; pp. 85-7.

[viii] Ibid; p. 86.

[ix] Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt by E.A. Wallis Budge; 1913.

[x] Patrologia Orientalis; Tome XXII; 1930. The Arabic Life of S. Pisentius according to the text of the two manuscripts Paris Bib. Nat. Arabe 4785, and Arabe 4794 edited with English translation by by De Lacy O’Leary.

[xi] Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt by E.A. Wallis Budge; 1913.The Life of Pisentius, from the Ethiopic synaxarium: pp. 331-334.

[xii] Page 84. See reference v.

[xiii] A. Butler: The Arab Conquest of Egypt; 1902. Chapter VII: Persian Conquest of Egypt pp. 54-68; particularly pp. 84-87.

[xiv] Biographisch-Bibliographisches KIRCHENLEXIKON.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2011 8:03 am

    Hi Mr Boles

    I have a seemingly unrelated question – what is the earliest evidence for the Coptic New Year being called Nayrouz? I don’t buy some of the explanations I have heard from Copts about this name. It has to come from the Persian New Year festival of the same name. The question of course is how it stuck. I have never read an intelligent explanation of this phenomenon. Was hoping you could come up with something


  2. Sofía Torallas permalink
    June 7, 2012 4:25 pm

    Amelineau’s Life is in


  1. An article on the life and works of the Coptic saint Pisentios at Roger Pearse

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