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DOES AN ARABIC MANUSCRIPT OF THE CHRONICLE OF JOHN OF NIKIU EXIST?

December 16, 2013

The value of the Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu,[1] who wrote it towards the end of the seventh century, and who was born probably about the time of the Arab Conquest of Egypt, cannot be overemphasised in understanding of history of the Muslim invasion of Egypt in the years 639 – 646 AD. This fact is attested by The Cambridge History of Egypt.[2] Alfred J. Butler, who wrote The Arab Conquest of Egypt in 1902: “Indeed it is the acquisition of John’s MS. by the British Abyssinian expedition which has made it possible to write a history of the Arab conquest of Egypt.”[3]

The Chronicle of John of Nikiu, which covers the history of the world from the Creation until the days of the writer, was originally written in Greek but it is thought that the last eleven chapters, from Chapter CX to Chapter CXXI, which deal with the Arab invasion of Egypt, were written in Coptic. The work was later translated into Arabic from which it was translated again into Ethiopic (Ge’ez) in 1602.

This Ethiopic version of the Chronicle was captured by the British army during its expedition in Ethiopia in 1868, and is now kept at the British Museum (Or. MS. 818). Another Ethiopic manuscript, which is not copy of MS 818 but derived from a common origin, is kept at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.[4]

It was the French[5] Hermann Zotenberg (1836 – 1894), an orientalist and Arabist, who first translated the Ethiopic manuscript at the Bibliothèque Nationale , in 1883, into Western language – French:

Chronique de Jean, évêque de Nikiou / texte éthiopien publié et traduit par H. Zotenberg -Impr. nationale (Paris, 1883)

No translation appeared in English until 1916, when the English biblical scholar and theologian, Robert Henry Charles (1855–1931), made a translation from the Zotenberg’s Ethiopic text:

The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu; translated from Zotenberg’s Ethiopic text by R. H. Charles, D.Litt, D.D, Canon of Westminster, Fellow of the British Academy; published for the text and translation society by Williams & Norgate (London, 1916)

These two French and English translations from the Ethiopic version of the Chronicle of John of Nikiu are invaluable; however, it is acknowledged that the Ethiopic manuscripts are defective at some points in translation and arrangement. They must have suffered in copying (the Zotenberg’s copy is from the 17th century, while the British Museum copy is from the 18th century) and have been imperfectly preserved. It is natural that both Zotenberg’s and Charles’ translations then will carry in their turn some of these defects – defects which the student of the Arab invasion of Egypt meets.

The Coptic version is thought to have vanished but Butler, in his The Arab Conquest of Egypt, mentions that a certain Dr. Schäfer, of whom I am ignorant, found in the Berlin Museum a Sahidic fragment of six leaves showing, “as Mr. Crum notes, a remarkably close relation to John’s Chronicle.”[6]  This, to us, is all hearsay, since no one, to my knowledge, has published the fragment with a translation that can help in the study of John’s Chronicle.

But we know that the Ethiopic version is a translation from an Arabic manuscript as the translator himself tells us at the end of his work. All Arabic manuscripts of John’s Chronicle seem to have vanished.[7] Many valuable Coptic works of literature are known to have perished under Muslim oppression, natural disasters and Coptic neglect. It is possible that the Copts in the past hid the Chronicle intentionally and made it difficult to find since it contains, in its last eleven chapters, text that could land them in trouble with Muslim fanatics. But one is not desperate of a discovery of an Arabic manuscript of this immensely valuable work of Coptic literature. There is a good chance that it has survived, and we have a witness in the great Coptologist, Émile Amélineau (1850 – 1915) that confirms its existence. Amélineau has claimed this on three occasions, and we must not dismiss his claim out of hand:

  • First, he says in his book, Vie du Patriarche Copte Isaac (Paris, 1890), p. XXIV, n., that he understands that the Arabic version still exists.
  • Second, in his La géographie de l’Egypte à l’époque copte (Paris, 1893), p. 525, under Toukhô-Damsis, he talks about an Arabic version again.
  • Third, on direct questioning by Alfred J. Butler as to the location of the precious document (the Arabic version), he responded, “au fond d’une province de l’Ègypte.”[8]

Butler notes that the remark by Amélineau “does not illuminate the mystery.”[9]  This is indeed true, and it is regrettable that Amélineau kept the whereabouts of the Arabic version of John’s Chronicle secret; however, it does not rule out its existence. One explanation as to why Amélineau did not pay John’s Chronicle attention, and publish its Arabic version which was accessible to him, is his low opinion on John and his history, as he confirms in his Vie du Patriarche Copte Isaac, p. XXVI, and which Butler observes.[10]

I do think that an Arabic version of the Chronicle of John of Nikiu is kept somewhere in the distant monasteries of Egypt. Perhaps even the Coptic Patriarchate Library, which is currently being modernised and digitalised, will one day surprise us! Meanwhile, Copts and Coptologists alike must keep praying and repeat with Butler: “It is much to be hoped that a Coptic or Arabic version of John of Nikiou, anterior to the Ethiopic, may one day be discovered.”


[1] On John of Nikiu, see Coptic Encyclopedia; ed. Atiya, Aziz Suryal ; Volume 4; entry, John of Nikiu by Fraser, P.M.

[2] The Cambridge History of Egypt; Volume 1, Islamic Egypt, 640-1517; ed. Carl F. Petry (Cambrisge University Press, 1998); p. 41.

[3] Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt And The Last Thirty Years Of The Roman Dominion, Containing also The Treatise of Misr in Tabari (1913) and Babylon of Egypt (1914) (Oxford University Press, 1998); p. xix.

[4] No. 146 in Zotenberg’s Catalogue of the Ethiopian manuscripts.

[5] He was born in Silesia, Poland, but later moved to France.

[6] The Arab Conquest of Egypt; p. XIX.

[7] In 1996 an Arabic translation of John’s Chronicle was made from Zotenberg’s French translation.

[8] Ibid; p. XIX, n.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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