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July 6, 2012

Figure 1: Coptic Old Testament fragment from the 5th century, with Job and his daughters illustrated (Naples, Biblioteca Vittorio Emanuele III, 1 B 18).


What is literature?

Literature, as the British Encyclopaedia defines it, is “a body of written works. The name has traditionally been applied to those imaginative works of poetry and prose distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the perceived aesthetic excellence of their execution.”[1] Whatever dictionary we review for the meaning of literature, the stress is that the body of the written work is of a high and lasting artistic value (Cambridge); of superior or lasting artistic merit (Oxford); of having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest (Merriam-Webster).

Literature is a form of expression on practically everything in life – its subjects are limitless and its scope wide.[2] Its genres include:

  1. Poetry: lyric poetry; narrative poetry; and concrete poetry.
  2. Narrative fiction: epic; fable, parable and allegory; ballad; romance; saga; novel; and short stories.
  3. Drama: comedy and tragedy.
  4. Other genres: satire; nonfictional prose (such as nature; elements; approaches; the essay; history; doctrinal, philosophical, and religious prose; political, polemical, and scientific prose); biographical literature; and literary criticism.

Further classification of literature:

Literature then is written works having excellence in form, expression, ideas and widespread and lasting interest. This is the core of literature definition. The Book of the Dead, the Eloquent Peasant, the Story of Sinuhe, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Republic of Plato, the Bible, the Homilies of St. Shenute, the History of the Patriarchs, the Koran, the One Thousand and One Nights, the Cairo Trilogy, Thaïs, Émile, Faust, Eugene Onegin, Brothers Karamazov, Romeo and Juliet, Oliver Twist, and millions of other writings, are all literary works which have passed the test of literature. They all form one world literature that has been produced by humanity – written in different languages and dealing with many subjects and themes presented in various genres. Within that core definition and world concept of literature, however, literature has been grouped into certain classes to ease its study; and also to put in categories those written works that possess common characteristics, usually determined by nationality, geography and language,[3] which confer on them a unique cultural character and literary taste. All good literature is essentially the same – it is beautifully executed, expresses universal ideas, and is enjoyed by all humanity. But one can still distinguish between Russian literature, French literature, German literature, Jewish literature, Arabic literature, Coptic literature, etc. Each class of literature carries special flavour to it, dictated in the last analysis by the cultural make-up of the people who have produced it.

Russian literature has been defined as the body of written works produced in the Russian language;[4] French literature, the body of written works in the French language produced within the geographic and political boundaries of France;[5] German literature, the written works of the German-speaking peoples of central Europe.[6] Many other literatures are defined in the same way, using combined criteria of language, geography, but most importantly nationality. Literature, after having passed the quality test, is, therefore, a body of writings by a people or by peoples, in a confined geographical area (or a wider area), using the same language.[7] These determinants, however, can lead to unsatisfactory results – consider, for instance, Jewish literature: the Jews, like the Copts, have a long history as a people but they did not live in one geographical area all the time and they used different language to express themselves in written works.  We therefore have Hebrew literature,[8] Yiddish literature,[9] and Ladino literature; [10] but that is not all, since the Jews wrote in other languages, including Greek, Aramaic, and Arabic. Here we have different geographic areas, different languages, but one people – Jewish literature is, therefore, in general, any literary work written by writers who are essentially Jewish writers, whatever the language.[11] It is the people who possess a distinct cultural heritage, and have common history, wherever they are, and in whatever language they express themselves, who matter. Some critics narrow the definition of Jewish literature by insisting that it must have Jewish themes to it to qualify.

The traditional definition of Coptic literature:

Coptic literature has been rightly defined on the criterion of the people who have produced it – the Copts – but the definition has often restricted it to literary works that have been executed in Coptic language only. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica thus writes: “Coptic literature is the body of writings … that dates from the 2nd century, when the Coptic language of Egypt, the last stage of ancient Egyptian, began to be used as a literary language, until its decline in the 7th and 8th centuries. It contains, in addition to translations from the Greek, original writings by the Greek Fathers and founders of Eastern monasticism and texts throwing light on early Gnosticism and Manichaeism within the Christian church”.[12]

What should be the definition of Coptic literature?

One can immediately see the inadequacy of such a definition. It would have been accurate had the Copts ceased to exist after the 7th or 8th centuries, and failed to produce any further literature. The relevant truth, however, is two folds: first, Coptic literature did not end in the 8th century – many writings of good quality in Coptic continued to be produced into Coptia’s Middle Period (969-1250 AD), and beyond;[13] second, the Copts, though they lost their national language, produced literary works in Arabic, the language to which they shifted in that same period – a literature designated Copto-Arabic by scholars.[14] Furthermore, the Copts used Greek in the past to produce literature; and in the modern age, we see Copts writing in French, English, and other languages, and producing literary works of high quality in them. I would like to point my reader, for instance, to the prose works of Gaston Homsy in French,[15] and the poems of Matthew Shenoda in English[16]. To define Coptic literature as only those literary works written in Coptic, and to exclude literary writings made by Copts in Greek, Arabic, French, English, and other languages, from the body of Coptic literature, is not only narrow and restrictive, but also unhelpful. Coptic literature in its classical form is better termed Copto-Coptic literature, where the second adjective refers to the people who have produced the literature while the first refers to the language in which such literature has been produced. In this way we can also speak about Greco-Coptic literature, Arabo-Coptic literature, Gallico-Coptic literature, Anglo-Coptic literature, etc. All these, including Copto-Coptic literature, are subclasses of Coptic Literature. We must be proud of all of these and study them as part of our national heritage. Coptic literature is more accurately, and simply, defined then as literary works written by the Copts in any language. Works written in Coptic should always take the pride of all since in that language – and in it alone – do Copts nationally identify.

A final ideal definition of Coptic literature:

Coptic literature is the collective body of literary works written by members of the Coptic people, anywhere in the world, in whatever language. It expresses the mind and mood of the nation in prose, poetry and drama; uses varied subjects, religious and secular, to describe reality and add to it;[17] and reflects universal human values, presented through the cultural prism of the Copts. Its themes are Coptic but not exclusively. Although Coptic literature is written in any language, works composed in Coptic – during the process of reviving the language – must take the forefront of our literary endeavour.

We must exercise self-criticism: Coptic literature in general has been deficient – it does not describe the various aspects of Coptic reality, and it has failed to enrich that reality with more ideas and values. The Copts currently live largely in literary vacuum except from a little bit of religious writings in the Arabic language, which are often poor in content, syntax, form and style; and, in addition, suffer from problems related to the quality of publishing and printing. There seem to be no other interests other than the religious in our lives – there are no writings that focus on the various aspects of life that interest and inspire men and women to write about them – love, hate, struggle, suffering, happiness, sadness, birth, marriage, divorce, death, despair, hope, envy, pride, greed, war, crime, sin, poverty, injustice, etc. Whatever secular space exists in us is filled in by foreign literature that mostly reflects an alien culture, the culture of the Arabs and Muslims, which we may not hate but do not love either, and which is forced on us by virtue of our politico-social subjugation.  Although we see some Coptic literary work with Coptic themes that is being produced, it is not enough, and rarely of exceptional quality – we still have to wait for Coptic short stories, novels, drama, comedy, etc., that express our reality.  It seems that Coptia suffers with literary sterility, and lacks creativity – or is it? Only time will tell. But we must first redefine what we mean by Coptic literature – we must focus not on what it is, but on what it should be.

An ideal definition looks into the future, and tries to serve a practical purpose – it directs, and pushes, toward a goal: the production of a vibrant, rich, diverse literature that is Coptic in outline but expressive of universal values and ideas, and is enjoyable not just by Copts but by all humanity. If the Copts can produce that, then they will be having a great literature, and they will be contributing towards a richer world literary heritage.  More importantly though, from a justifiable selfish perspective, they will be able to survive amidst the cultural onslaught from the Arab culture that surrounds them, and tries to abolish their unique culture and identity.


[1] The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 7, Micropaedia, 15th ed. (2007); p. 398.

[2] The major genres of literature are poetry, prose and drama.

[3] Other classification systems of literature use the subject matter of literature as criterion for classification (for instance, religious [scripture] literature, patristic literature, secular literature, feminine literature, scientific literature, historical literature, children literature, etc.). Occasionally literature is classified according to the historical period in which it has been produced (so, medieval literature, renaissance literature, New Kingdom literature, etc.).

[4] Encyclopaedia Britannica.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Some literatures are produced by so many peoples, not racially related, and distributed over a large area, even globally, such as the English literature (which is defined as literary works written in the English language, including literature composed in English by writers not necessarily from England). Other literatures that assumed a similar position are Arabic and Spanish in our times, and Greek and Latin in the old days. French, like English is widely spread, however, literature produced in French language by non-French citizens is classified under Francophone literature.

[8] The body of written works produced in the Hebrew language and distinct from Jewish literature, which also exists in other languages (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

[9] The body of written works produced in the Yiddish language of Ashkenazic Jewry (central and eastern European Jews and their descendants) (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

[10] Ladino (also called, Judeo-Spanish, Sefardic, or Sephardic) is Romance language spoken by Sefardic Jews in the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa, Greece, and Turkey; it is very nearly extinct in many of these areas (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

[11] 2012AICE: The Jewish Virtual LibraryJewish Literature.

[12] The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 3, Micropaedia; p. 616.

[13] Coptia is a coined word that means the Coptic nation, or Coptic communities, or Coptic space. I take the Fatimid and Ayyubid periods between 969 and 1250 AD as the periods in which Coptic literature and art experienced a renaissance, and I call it Middle Period. Copts continued to use Coptic in writing in this period and beyond, but in decreasing numbers. Examples of literature written in Coptic at late dates are Michael, bishop of Tinnis, who wrote in 1051 or 1058 the Lives of the Coptic Patriarchs 56-65 (Kha’il II to Shenoute II, 880-1046) [see Coptic Encyclopedia: CE:1239b-1242b (New York, Macmillian, 1991)]; and the Martyrdom of John of Phanijoit, which occurred in 1412 AD. [See On the Martyrdom of John of Phanijoit (Bho 519) by Maccoull, Leslie S.B. in Medieval Encounters, Volume 6, Numbers 1-3, 2000, pp. 58-79 (22)].

[14] Aziz S. Atiya calls it Copto-Arabic literature in the Coptic Encyclopedia – CE:1460a-1467b (New York, Macmillian, 1991). The reader will notice that I prefer to call it rather Arabo-Coptic literature.

[15] Gaston Homsy is one of the descendants of General Ya’qub. Some of his published books are: Si les Allemande avalent gagné la guerre… roman (1821); Quand J’eus Treize Ans Ou Silhouettes Marseillaises (1836); Ressorts poétiques (1896); Les Baisers restent (1897).

[16] Matthew Shenoda published two poetry books: Somewhere Else (2005) and Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone (2009).

[17] I have used here C. S. Lewis’s description of the function of literature “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it”.

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