Skip to content


April 2, 2013

What did the Copts think of visiting Jerusalem, the City of God, in the Middle Period[1] of their history? The search for that will not only tell us what Coptic thinking of the Pilgrimage to Jerusalem was but also confirms that they did visit Jerusalem during that age, and that their pilgrimage tradition to Jerusalem, which continues to this day, with rude interventions by their Muslim rulers or self-imposed restrictions by themselves for political expediency, as we have already said in a previous article, is indeed old.

In the year 1239[2] the Coptic scholar al-Safi Abu al-Fadail Majid, known simply by the name al-Safi ibn al-‘Assal[3] الصَفِّىِّ بن العَسَّال (c. 1205 – c. 1265), wrote an important laws book in Arabic, called “Al-Majmo’a Al-Safawi (The Safawi Collection المجموع الصفوي)”.[4] This nomocanon is the largest collection of ecclesiastical and civil laws in Coptic literature; and while its ecclesiastical part today forms an important part of the laws of the Coptic Church,[5] the Ethiopian Church and State, which call it Fetha Nagast (legislation of the kings), accept both its ecclesiastical and civil parts to a large degree[6]. Extremely important as it is, this is not the occasion to study this book in detail; however, we will focus here on what it tells us about the Coptic pilgrimage tradition to Jerusalem.

al-Safi ibn al-‘Assal includes in Chapter 19 of his book, which is headed “On Sunday, Saturday, the Feasts of the Lord and the Pilgrimage”[7], a passage at the end which deals with what he calls “فى الحج الى القدس الشريف بيت اللّه تعالى In the hajj (pilgrimage) to al-Quds al-Sharif (the Noble al-Quds), Bayt Allah (House of God), ta’alla (Almighty).”[8] He uses Arabic language which is tinged with Islamic flavour, the sad result of the Arabisation of the Copts in Lower Egypt in the Middle Period. Jerusalem in Coptic language is erosalem (Bohairic) or terosolema (Sahidic), as in the Coptic Bible according to St. Luke (13:34)[9] ; first, in Bohairic and then, in Sahidic:[10]



We may be tempted to think both Coptic forms for Jerusalem are Greek in origin (Ιερουσαλήμ) but the reader must be alerted to the fact that the Ancient Egyptians knew Jerusalem, at least since the 19th century BC, as “Rushalimum”,[11] way before Greece came into existence. “القدس الشريف The Noble al-Quds” and “بيت القدس Bayt al-Quds”, which our writer uses, however are Arabic based on the Aramaic words for the Temple of Solomon, “Beyt ha-Miqdash”, words which the Jews used, and which means “House of Holiness”: this the early Muslims used to call the whole city “مَدِيْنَة بَيْت المَقْدِس Madinat Bayt al-Maqdis”, the City of Bayt al-Maqdis; i.e., the City of the Temple.[12]  Bayt al-Maqdis stood short for the City of Jerusalem with early Arabs until “القُدْس al-Quds”, The Holy One, replaced it in AD 832, during the Abbasid Caliphate of Al-Ma’mun (813 – 833),[13] and continued to be used afterwards by Arabs and Muslims. Our writer is using the Muslim terminology for Jerusalem as it was known then during the Ayyubid Dynasty.

Here is the Arabic text as it appears in Al-Majmo’a Al-Safawi:



And below is a translation into English by myself of the Arabic text:[14]

Whoever is able amongst you to pray in Bayt al-Quds, the City of God in which exist His sacred antiquities, should not postpone it unless he has a prohibitive reason, so that he could visit the sites in which our Lord the Christ accepted suffering in His body, and see the place of His Resurrection, and get blessed by these divine antiquities. And those who could not [visit them] should send [to the City of God] if he can offerings according to his ability to its buildings and to assist those in it, either gold or silver or clothes or utensils or accepted books, etc. And let it [the City of God] have a share in the legacy of the Faithful (with his heirs) for that is good act before God. It will be a grace for him in the sacred City of God, and a selected, acceptable offering that is accepted by God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

al-Safi ibn al-‘Assal is clearly talking about religious tourism to the Holy Land, by those who can: visiting the holy sites where Jesus lived, died and was risen can bring about to the pilgrims blessings. For those who are unable to visit Jerusalem for whatever reason, our writer advocates practising charity by donating money, etc., to help assist Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.

It is interesting that the writer does not quote any ecclesiastic canon to support his call – the pilgrimage to Jerusalem is clearly not a Christian duty, and, unlike Muslim Hajj to Mecca, is not wrapped in rituality. He rather uses a Byzantine civil law, which he gives the sign of “مك ١٢١”,[15] as a reference to support the tradition of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem – a tradition most probably established in the fourth century when Emperor Constantine I (306 – 307) built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Copts as part of the Byzantine Empire then, and active members in its Christian life, shared in this tradition – and this tradition still continues.

[1] I take the Middle Period of Coptic history to extend from the beginning of the Fatimid Dynasty in AD 969 to the end of the Ayyubid Period in AD 1250.

[2] The Coptic Encyclopedia says “In September 1238, al-Safi completed the redaction of his Nomocanon.” (See: Khalil Samir, Safi Ibn al-‘Assal, al-, in The Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 7). This is, however, inaccurate: the manuscript which Guiguis Filotheus Awad published in 1908 says that the writer of the manuscript finished it “on Saturday, the 27th of Mesori, 955 AM, which corresponds to the 18th of Muharram 637 AH.” This date corresponds in fact to the 20th August 1239 AD. (See: Al-Majmo’a Al-Safawi by al-Safi Abu al-Fadail ibn al-‘Assal; Vol. 1; edited by Guiguis Filotheus Awad (Cairo, 1908); p. ج.

[3] Al-Safi was the eldest in the family of Awlad al-‘Assal. For Awlad al-‘Assal, see: Aziz Suryal Atiya,     Awlad Al-‘Assal, The Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 1.

[4] Khalil Samir, Safi Ibn al-‘Assal, al.

[5] Ibid.

[6] David Buxton, The Abyssinians (Thames and Hudson, 1970); pp. 80-85.

[7] Al-Majmo’a Al-Safawi by al-Safi Abu al-Fadail ibn al-‘Assal; Vol. 1; p. 196.

[8] Ibid; p. 199.

[9] “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!” (KJV).

[10] I am indebted to J. Warren Wells, who published the New Testament, in both dialects, in 2007.

[11] Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (London, Harper Perennial, 1996); p. 6.

[12] Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem the Biography (London, Phoenix, 2012); n. pp. 211-212.

[13] Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem; p. 253.

[14] Al-Majmo’a Al-Safawi by al-Safi Abu al-Fadail ibn al-‘Assal; Vol. 1; edited by Guiguis Filotheus Awad; pp. 199-200.

[15] Ibid.; p. 199.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: