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ALFRED JOSHUA BUTLER, THE ENGLISH FRIEND OF THE COPTS, AND HISTORIAN WHO WROTE ABOUT THE ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT; THE COPTS AND THEIR CULTURE

January 4, 2012


Alfred J. Butler, English historian (1850-1936)

 

BUTLER, ALFRED JOSHUA (1850-1936), English historian who was educated at Oxford, becoming a fellow of Brasenose College in 1877 and receiving his doctorate in 1902. He wrote a number of works on Egypt that spanned from the Coptic era to the medieval period, including his Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt (Oxford, 1884) and the acclaimed The Arab Conquest of Egypt (Oxford, 1902).[i]

I am delighted to be able to publish today Alfred J. Butler’s picture on the internet for the first time. This is perhaps the only picture available for him, and was first published in the Arabic translation of his The Arab Conquest of Egypt by Muhammad Farid Abu Hadid, in 1933, under the title فتح العرب لمصر.

Alfred J. Butler was a self-confessed “friend of the Copts”. On them he wrote in 1911, “ … having known the Copts for upwards of thirty years, I have the highest opinion of their capacity and their character.”[ii] When the Coptic Congress in 1911 raised some demands to the British authority to end the injustices the Copts suffered from under British rule he sided with the Copts against Sir Eldon Gorst, the British Consul-General in Egypt (1907-1911), whose policy was “(to) exalt the Mohammedan and to tread down the Christian, to license the majority and to curb the minority.”[iii] Addressing the policy makers who thought that the Copt could not be given a position of command and authority in a country with Muslim majority, he said, with the knowledge of the character of the Copts he possessed, “I for one should have no fear that a Coptic Mudir or Mamur would fail in tact or in justice, in kindness or in courage.”[iv]

But Butler’s main achievement for the Copts was in the field of scientific study. He was one of the great English gentlemen who through meticulous and hard research have done great services to the Copts. The Coptic nationalists are grateful for him for all his important work in Coptology; but particularly in correcting the story of the Arab occupation of Egypt, and in refuting the unfounded claims that the Egyptians (the Copts) welcomed and assisted the Arabs at the conquest; that the Arabs treated the Egyptians well at the invasion; and that the Arabs were received by the Egyptians as liberators – all are baseless lies and propagandist claims that some of the Muslims of Egypt kept repeating. The Arab Conquest of Egypt[v] remains the main reference for the events that preceded, accompanied and shortly followed the Arab conquest of Egypt. No one can understand Coptic history without reading Butler’s books. It is interesting to mention here that Butler benefited a lot in his study from The Chronicle of John of Nikiu,[vi] the Coptic historian who was contemporaneous to the Arab occupation in 640 AD, and gave us a more accurate record of the conquest’s events, and their chronology, than the Arab and Byzantine historians.

The full list of Alfred J. Butler’s books on Coptic history and culture: (with links to electronic copies at Internet Archive)

1.  The ancient Coptic churches of Egypt (Oxford; Clarendon Press; 1884).

Volume I: http://www.archive.org/stream/ancientcopticchu01butliala#page/n7/mode/2up

Volume II: http://www.archive.org/stream/ancientcopticchu02butliala#page/n7/mode/2up

2.  The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries attributed to Abu Salih, al-Armani;[vii] edited and translated by B. T. A. Evetts with added notes by Alfred J. Butler (Oxford; Clarendon Press; 1895).

http://www.archive.org/stream/churchesandmona00butlgoog#page/n8/mode/2up

3.  The Arab conquest of Egypt and the last thirty years of the Roman dominion (Oxford; Clarendon Press; 1902).

http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924028717324#page/n5/mode/2up

4.  Babylon of Egypt, a study in the history of Old Cairo (Oxford; Clarendon Press; 1914).

http://www.archive.org/stream/babylonofegyptst00butluoft#page/n3/mode/2up

5.  The Treaty of Misr in Tabari, an essay in historical criticism (Oxford; Clarendon Press; 1913).

http://www.archive.org/stream/treatyofmisrinta00butluoft#page/n5/mode/2up

N.B. The last three books have been combined in one book and published by the Clarendon Press in 1978 and 1998.

You can find the Arabic translation of The Arab Conquest of Egypt by Muhammad Farid Abu Hadid, which was published in 1933 in Cairo under the title فتح العرب لمصر here:

http://dar.bibalex.org/webpages/mainpage.jsf?PID=DAF-Job:163983&q=


[i] Entry in the Coptic Encyclopedia (Aziz S. Atiya, ed., The Coptic Encyclopedia. 8 vols; New York: Macmillan, 1991) by S Kent Brown.

[ii] See Kyriakos Mikhail, Copts and Moslems Under British Control; a collection of facts and a résumé of authoritative opinions on the Coptic question (London; Smith, Elder & Co.; 1911); pp. xi-xiv.

[iii] Ibid. p. xiv.

[iv] Ibid. pp. xiii-xiv.

[v] The full title of the book is: The Arab Conquest of Egypt – And the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion.

[vi] The Chronicle of John of Nikiu was originally written in Greek, and partly in Coptic. It was later translated to Arabic but survived only in an Ethiopian translation made in 1602. It is available in European languages in both French and English. The French translation from “La Chronique de Jean de Nikioû”, ed. and translated into French by H. Zotenberg in Notices et Extraits des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Nationale, t. XXIV, I, pp. 125–605 (Paris, 1883) and also separately (Paris, 1883). The English translation, which is more accurate, was made in 1916 by R. H. Charles (The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu: Translated from Zotenberg’s Ethiopic Text, 1916. Reprinted 2007).

[vii] The book was actually written by the Copt, Abu al-Makarim.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. mindthehat permalink
    January 5, 2012 9:47 am

    Dear Dioscorus, to my mind this is the best book ever written on the subject. Read it twice and gave it as a Christmas present over 10 times.

    For another great book, I would like to recommend to your readers: B.L. Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics 1918-1952, Cairo, AUC, [1986]. More specifically, Chapters II and III discuss the Coptic/Egyptian identity and the two Coptic conferences of Heliopolis and Assuit of 1911. . . etc.

    Another book that I came across recently is The Copts of Egypt, New York, Tauris Academic Studies [2011]. I cannot recommend this book, however. It seems that the author made little effort to understand the Copts and as a result the book’s finding is of little relevance. Most probably it was originally written as UG/ Masters dissertation.

  2. Dioscorus Boles permalink
    January 5, 2012 8:12 pm

    I agree with you. Barbara Lynn Carter’s book, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, 1918-1952 is the reference for any researcher of Coptic history and affairs during that important period. It is simply irreplaceable. I haven’t read Vivian Ibrahim’s book, The Copts of Egypt: The Challenges of Modernisation and Identity, yet. I had some correspondence with her a few years ago and knew she was planning to publish her PhD dissertation. Abba Seraphim, Metropolitan of Glastonbury and Head of the British Orthodox Church, has written a review of the book (http://britishorthodox.org/glastonburyreview/issue-120-book-reviews/ ).

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