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January 16, 2012

I take leave of the reader to bravely coin a new word for those who love or admire the Copts and their culture – “Philocopt”. I coin it after the word “Philhellene”.[i] Philhellene was coined in the early 19th century to mean an admirer or lover of Greece or the Greeks.[ii] Later, as it became more political, it was used to mean supporter of the cause of Greek national independence from the oppression of the Ottoman Empire. Philhellenism, the love of Greek culture, became the word that embodied this sentiment and movement. Notable philhellenes were Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jeremy Bentham, Sir Richard Church, Lord Cochrane and other lovers of Greece and the Greek people. The list included academicians, poets, artists, journalist, politicians and church leaders. They did not only sway the public opinion in Europe and America in favour of seeing Greece coming out of the shackles of the Ottoman oppression but provided material and personal help in Greece’s War of Independence (1821-1832). All worked to see Greece reborn again and that its golden years returned. “Could any man suppress his desire to see reborn in Greece the days of liberation of Marathon and Salamis and if possible the blessed age when Plato listened to Socrates and when the songs of Homer and the choruses of Sophocles resounded through the court of Pericles and the temple of Phidias?”[iii]

There are many great people out there who admire the Copts – their Pharaonic roots, their contribution to Christianity, their patience and perseverance in the face of formidable odds, their character, their culture, their Church, and their struggle for a life free of injustices and oppression. And they sympathise with them and with their cause. These cannot be described with a better word than “Philocopts”. Their love and support for the Copts is “philocoptism”.

Let’s try to list a few of them. I have already spoken about the English historian, Alfred Joshua Butler.[iv] I can add a few more Philocopts now: Archibald Henry Sayce,[v] Edith L. Butcher,[vi] Émile Amélineau,[vii] Gaston Maspero,[viii] Jean-François Champollion,[ix] Auguste Mariette,[x] Flinders Petrie,[xi] Sir Ronald Storrs,[xii] S. H. Leeder,[xiii] Rev. W. H. Oxley,[xiv] John Ward,[xv] O.H.E.Burmester,[xvi] Otto Meinardus,[xvii] B. Evetts,[xviii] Ernest Newlandsmith,[xix] etc., etc.  I have not added any of the living Philocopts. There is a great number of them. They know themselves and we know them. And we are grateful to them. As Coptic nationalism, with its moderate form and modest, justifiable demands become better articulated, there is no doubt that many will join the increasing number of Philocopts from all walks of life, and from all countries and all nations – historians, Coptologists,[xx] church leaders, politicians, artists, linguists, musicians, human rights activists, etc.

The sentiments of the Philocopts and their opinion on the Copts are better expressed by the British archaeologist Archibald Henry Sayce:

“During the last thirty years I have seen a good deal of the Coptic people, more especially of the younger generation, and I have found them to compare favourably with other nations. They have inherited the aptitudes and intellectual abilities of their forefathers; their morality and conception of the family is that of a Christian people, in other words, of Western European civilisation; and I see no reason why they should not again take the same high place in the civilised world that was taken by their Pharaonic ancestors. Egypt, as Sir Gaston Maspero once said to me, is the mother of most of the ideas that have since ruled the world, and the children of the mother are still with us, under the name of the Copts.”[xxi]

The Philhellenes and their Philhellenic idea had been criticised by some as being naïve, based on fantasy, and, worse still, irresponsible.[xxii] Some may say that about the Phiocopts and the Philocoptic idea; but does their allegation stand? Those I have included in the list of Philocopts are some of the most fair-minded individuals one can ever meet. Alfred J. Butler as he told us in 1911 had known the Copts for upwards of thirty years, and “I have the highest opinion of their capacity and their character.” He refuted British official reports or utterances that misled some, as he said, into the belief that the Coptic grievances of the Copts, which they expressed in the Asyut Congress earlier in the year, were shadowy and unreal: “So far is this from being the case, so substantial and so serious are the injustices which the Copts suffer from under British rule, and which in a large measure have been created by British rule, that I do not hesitate to say that their position as an oppressed minority is a standing discredit and reproach to our boasted method of government.” The policy of the British occupation of Egypt, he added, was, “To exalt the Mohammedan and to tread down the Christian, to license the majority and to curb the minority.”  But even though he was a staunch believer in the right of the Copts for full equality, he never incited the Copts to hate the Muslims of Egypt: he applauded the Coptic leaders of 1911 for their calm and temperate tone; and wrote: “And this principle of avoiding all wild and wounding words is one which I hope will continue to govern all discussions, whether in the public press or out of it, between Christian and Muslim. For, through all the clouds and storms of persecution which have darkened and depressed the fortunes of the Copts, the teaching of history is clear, that Copt and Muslim have no innate antagonism, that each has qualities worthy of the respect of the other, and that the two can live together and work together for the common good of their country in unity and amity.”[xxiii] Many Copts may read Butler’s words with some doubt – the times are different; and the situation today, after the birth of the Islamists in 1928 and their recent rise to power, leads to a different reading and description of the Muslim-Copt relationship. However, his core message remains true – that “Copt and (moderate) Muslim have no innate antagonism”.[xxiv]

Not only that, but one of the Philocopts, S. H. Leeder, in his Modern sons of the Pharaohs, specified a whole chapter, The Egyptian Christians and British Rule”, to discuss the complicated relationship between Copt and Muslim, and the role of the British in it, and came up with some conclusions and advice that he gave to the Copts – an advice that cannot be described as inciting at all.[xxv]

No, the Copts are moderate and modest in their demands. At times, however, they may be radical, but their cause is just. And they do not expect from their Philocoptic friends but to be good, responsible and real friends.

[i] I am not a linguist but I understand the importance of words in developing concepts.

[ii] All Oxford, Cambridge and Merriam-Webster dictionaries give this meaning.

[iii] Professor of Greek literature at Strasbourg, quoted by William St Clair in his That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence (London; Oxford University Press, 1972); p. 56.

[v] Professor of Assyriology at the University of Oxford (1891 to 1919); and author of many books, including The religions of ancient Egypt and Babylonia: the Gifford lectures on the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian conception of the divine, delivered in Aberdeen (1903).

[vi] Author of Story of the Church of Egypt (1897) and Egypt As We Knew It (London; Mills & Boon; 1911).

[vii] French Egyptologist and Coptist (1850- 1915) and author of so many works on Egypt and the Copts.

[viii] French Egyptologist (1846-1916) and author of so many books on Egypt.

[ix] Jean-François Champollion (1790 – 1832) – French classical scholar, philologist and decipherer of the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

[x] François Auguste Ferdinand Mariette (1821 – 1881) was a French scholar, archaeologist and Egyptologist.

[xi] William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), the famous British Egyptologist.

[xii] Sir Ronald Henry Amherst Storrs, (1881-1955) was an official in the British Foreign and Colonial Office who served, inter alia, as Oriental Secretary in Cairo.

[xiii] Author of Modern sons of the Pharaohs (Hodder and Stoughton, 1918)

[xiv] Author of The Copts (Association for the Furtherance of Christianity in Egypt; 1883)

[xv] Author of Pyramids and Progress, Sketches from Egypt (Eyre and Spottiswoode; 1900)

[xvi] Oswald Hugh Ewart KHS-Burmester (1897-1977) was British Coptologist. He translated into English most of the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria (under the title: History of the patriarchs of the Egyptian Church, known as the History of the Holy Church / by Sawīrus ibn al-Muḳaffaʻ, Bishop of al-Ašmūnīn (1943-1974). He was helped in his translation and editing by Antoine Khater, Aziz Suryal Atiya and Yassa ‘Abd al-Masih.

[xvii] Otto Friedrich August Meinardus, a German Coptologist and pastor (1925 – 2005). He wrote several books on the Copts, their history, culture and Church.

[xviii] Evetts, B. T. A. (Basil Thomas Alfred), was born in 1858. He was editor and translator of two famous works: History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria (up to Joseph, the 52nd patriarch (830-849) (1904-1910); The churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries, attributed to Abû Ṣâliḥ, the Armenian; (1895); and The rites of the Coptic Church(1888).

[xix] Oxford professor, who, in 1931, delivered a famous lecture on The Ancient Music of the Coptic Church at the University Church, Oxford. He had worked for the previous three years with the Copt, Mr. Ragheb Muftah, to understand and unlock the beauty of Coptic music, and ascertain its Pharaonic roots.

[xx] I would like to caution the reader that not all Coptologists are admirers of the Copts or sympathisers with their cause – so it is important to remember that a Coptologist is not necessarily a Philocopt.

[xxi] See Preface by Professor A. H. Sayce, D. Litt., L.L.D, D.D., in Copts and Moslems Under British Control, a collection of facts and a résumé of authoritative opinions on the Coptic question by Kyriakos Mikhail (London; Smith, Elder & Co.; 1911).

[xxii] See David Howarth, The Greek Adventure (London; William Collins Sons & Co Ltd; 1976); pp. 64-81.

[xxiii] Kyriakos Mikhail, Copts and Moslems Under British Control (London; Smith, Elder & Co.; 1911); pp. xi-xiv.

[xxiv] I have no doubt that Butler, when talking about the Muslim in 1911 who had no innate antagonism with the Copt, did not mean extremist Muslims, like Shaykh Abdul Aziz al-Jawish, who were anticopts, and in political affiliation terms, Islamists.

[xxv] See Modern sons of the Pharaohs (Hodder and Stoughton, 1918); pp. 327-343. We shall come to this in another article.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2012 2:52 am

    Thank you for the posts it’s very educational for me to read and to get a better insight of the relation Copts – Muslims.

  2. January 17, 2012 4:16 am

    Mr. Boles; I admire and salute your intellectual leadership. In addition to the expression you coined, there is also [Coptophile] which serves a similar meaning. The Revd. Dr. John Watson contributed numerous articles in Watani International (when I was page editor) under the ttle of [The Coptophile Column]. Try to google his name and/or [The Coptophile Column].

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink
      January 17, 2012 8:07 am

      Thank you very much, Saad, and glad to see you here. I know Rev. Dr. John Watson is a Coptophile through his excellent book, Among the Copts. It is good to know that another word, Coptophile, that gives the same meaning, was used by him. It does sound lighter, and could be adopted rather than Philocopt. I hope those readers who are Greek linguists could give advise on the accuracy of the two terms. Dioscorus

  3. January 17, 2012 12:48 pm

    If I may suggest the word “Coptophile” sounds more to me as the French word for Philocopt.



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