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HOW THEY SAW THE COPTS: “PANORAMA OF NATIONS” ON THE COPTS

March 4, 2013

In 1888 a great American book, by by H. G. Cutler and L. W. Yaggy, “Panorama of Nations  or, Journeys Among The Families Of Men” was published,[1]  which the reader can access here. Among the countries it covers is Egypt; and in Egypt it talks about the nations: Copts (or “ancient inhabitants” as it calls them), Fellaheen and Bedouins.

On the Copts, it produces a drawing of a Coptic man, “A Copt”:

 A Copt

Figure 1: A Copt, from Panorama of Nations.[2]

This lithograph is clearly taken from the original one in the German Meyers Lexikon, which I have written about before. Although we have it in the 1888 edition of the Meyers Lexikon, it appears that it had been printed in older editions too. It appears that the image was first reproduced from the Meyers Lexikon by the Austrian artist, Leopold Carl Müller in the 1870s,[3] and from it Panorama of Nations copied.

Under Egypt, the authors pass much to focus on the Copts on whom they had high opinion as “a very intelligent, courteous, industrious and humble class of the Egyptians”:

But we pass them [the pyramids] by, and the splendid mosques of Cairo, and the tombs of its rulers, and the beautiful villas in the suburbs, and ancient glory, and present attempts at magnificence, and go into the “by-ways and hedges” to get acquainted with the people. We will have nothing to do with the Turk, for he is not a native; although he has imposed many of his customs among the Egyptians. We shall avoid the Italians, French, English, Armenians and other nationalities, who live in the “Frank” quarter of Cairo and Alexandria, and who are traveling up and down the Nile country, viewing curiosities, trafficking in precious stones, or awaiting the return of the pilgrims from Mecca laden with the wealth of the far East; who are the agents of commercial houses in their native lands, or the principals themselves in this central station of the overland route to India. For the present we have no interest in these people, except in so far as they have relations to a very intelligent, courteous, industrious and humble class of the Egyptians, the COPTS.

They number about one-fifteenth of the entire population of the country, and are the sole remnant of the ancient Egyptians. In Lower Egypt they are of a yellowish tinge, which shades into a dark brown further south. The Copts inhabit small sections of the larger cities, while in Upper Egypt they have settled whole towns and villages. What is their business? They are clerks and accountants in government and mercantile offices; they are the Christian priests of Egypt, cheerful, humane and hospitable, with their convents and monasteries scattered along the Nile. They are the scribes, priests and scholars of Egypt, and an ink-horn at the girdle (for they wear the turban and flowing robe) is a masculine badge, as is the cross, tattooed upon the hand of the Copt woman, her mark of honor. The Coptic priesthood have considerably lapsed from the rigor of their religious observances as primitive Christians, although in the regular monasteries their discipline is still severe. The dress is a simple skirt of coarse woolen fabric. Only on feast days are small quantities of animal food allowed, the ordinary food being black bread and lentils. The convents, when not situated on some inaccessible rock, are surrounded by a high and strong wall which has only a single iron door, and in some cases is wholly without opening, the means of entrance being a pulley from the top.

The religious rites of the Copt are many and severe, the services lasting many hours at a time. Seven times daily he repeats his Pater Noster, and begs for Divine mercy forty-one. The churches are decorated with ornaments of ostrich eggs and divided into four compartments. Furthest from the doorway is the chancel, or sanctuary, where the eucharist is celebrated, and which is hidden behind a high screen. Next is the room where the priests interpret in Arabic the Coptic service to the singers, the leading men of the congregation and to strangers. In the third compartment are the mass of the congregation, moving round in their bare feet to pray before the pictures of the saints, or leaning upon long crutches for support. The veiled women occupy the fourth room, which is dimly lighted, and usually situated in the extreme rear of the church.

The domestic life of the Copts is very similar to that of the Arabs who have settled along the Nile. They have adopted also many of the Moslem customs, such as the veiling of the faces of many of their women. Some Coptic women are allowed to go out from time to time and even to visit and shop pretty freely. Others, again, are as closely secluded as if they were actual denizens of a harem. Nearly all keep black female slaves instead of hiring servants.

There are some peculiarities in the Coptic marriage ceremony, however. The bride, unlike the Moslem, has no canopy to cover her in the procession to the bridegroom’s house. At the preliminary feast, pigeons are released from pies and fly around the room shaking bells attached to their feet. After the marriage ceremony, the priests set on the foreheads of the new couple a thin gilt diadem. In entering her husband’s house, the bride must step over the blood of a newly killed lamb. The whole pageant, after lasting eight days, ends with a grand feast at the bridegroom’s house. This is the custom, of course, among the well-to-do classes, but certainly would not prevail in the hut of a poor chicken hatcher or fellah (farmer). But we shall soon be among these poor swarthy sons of the Nile and it will become evident that they could not be the originators of pageants and feasts of superlative grandeur.[4]

There is clearly much that can be learned from this book about the Copts. It is interesting to know that in the 19th century the Coptic churches had no pews for seating: “the congregation, moving round in their bare feet to pray before the pictures of the saints, or leaning upon long crutches for support”; and that “[t]he veiled women occupy the fourth room [of the church (see above)], which is dimly lighted, and usually situated in the extreme rear of the church”. The practices of entering the church barefooted, standing up throughout the service that can continue of hours and using long crutches to lean on if one is frail were old traditions. At the present I don’t know if they predated the Arab invasion, but it is clear the practices came to an end in the modern age, particularly after the British came to Egypt in 1882. Again, another practice for secluding women in the rear of the church is intriguing. I don’t know if this is Christian at all; and I although I don’t have any evidence to prove at the present, I think this practice has crept to us as part of the Arabisation and Islamic culturalisation (assimilation) of our people,[5] as also the veiling of women. Thanks God these foreign practices, of secluding women worshipers behind the men and veiling them, have ended now.

I also find what the authors call “some peculiarities in the Coptic marriage ceremony” very interesting. The fact that “[t]he [Coptic] bride, unlike the Moslem, has no canopy to cover her in the procession to the bridegroom’s house” is of course part of the oppression and persecution the Copts were experiencing by the Muslims, and is well known. The practice of stepping by the bride over the blood of a newly killed lamb dates back to Pharaonic times, and is kept by the Copts. The tradition at the preliminary feast of the marriage ceremony when “pigeons are released from pies and fly around the room shaking bells attached to their feet” is a beautiful one, and is not well known.


[1] By Law, King & Law Publishing House in Chicago.

[2] Panorama of Nations; p. 20.

[3] The picture is published in Egypt: descriptive, historical, and picturesque (Aegypten in Bild und Wort) by George Ebers. Translated from the Original German By Clara Bell. With an introduction and notes by S. Birch, D.C.L., LL.D., F.S.A., Keeper of the Department of Oriental Antiquities in the British Museum; President of the Society of Biblical Archœology, etc., etc., etc. VOL. I. (Cassell & Company, Limited: New York, London, Paris & Melbourne; 1879); p. 35. The reader can go to our article for more on this, here.

[4] Panorama of Nations ; pp. 18-23.

[5] For the definitions of these terms, “Arabisation” and “Islamic culturalisation”, in the Coptic context, go here.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 4, 2013 7:46 pm

    Reblogged this on socialhumanrace and commented:
    More gems of EgyptiCoptic first nation of Egyptic language speaking culture & Civil Sociaql world before the Arab Empire invade Egypt1

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