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March 2, 2016


Coptic script

Jean-François Champollion (1790 – 1832) deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822, and made it possible for modern Egyptology to emerge. He perhaps would not have been able to do that at all had he not studied Coptic first. There is one man, who is still largely enigmatic, who helped him to learn Coptic – Yuhanna Chiftichi, a Coptic priest who worked with the French during the French Campaign in Egypt (1798 – 1801), and left with the French, with many other Copts, to France when the French withdrew.[1] In France, he became priest at the church of Saint-Roch on Rue Saint-Honoré, in Paris. There, he assisted the Egyptian Commission in producing Description de l’Ėgypte; but, perhaps, his lasting service to civilisation was his assistance he gave to Champollion, who befriended him, to learn Coptic.

Champollion knew many European and Oriental languages, at least sixteen in total, including Latin, Greek, French, English, German, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldean (Aramaic), Sanskrit, Persian, and Chinese. When he became fluent in Coptic, he wrote in 1809:

 I have thrown myself into Coptic, I want to know Egyptian as well as I know French, because my great work on the Egyptian papyrus [hieroglyphics] will be based on this language. . . . My Coptic is moving along, and I find in it the greatest joy, because you have to think: to speak the language of my dear Amenhotep, Seth, Ramses, Thuthmos, is no small thing. . . . As for Coptic, I do nothing else. I dream in Coptic. I do nothing but that, I dream only in Coptic, in Egyptian. . . . I am so Coptic, that for fun, I translate into Coptic everything that comes into my head. I speak Coptic all alone to myself (since no one else can understand me). This is the real way for me to put my pure Egyptian into my head. . . . In my view, Coptic is the most perfect, most rational language known.[2]

“Coptic is the most perfect and the most rational language known.”

This is the verdict of Champollion on the Coptic language. Those who know Coptic would tend to agree with him. And the Copts must know this, and be sure of the many beauties of their language.


[1] For more on Yuhanna Chiftichi, see: Chiftichi, Yuhanna (CE:519a-520b) by Anouar Louca in Coptic Encyclopedia, ed. Aziz Suryal Atiya (New York, Macmillan, 1991).     

[2] Muriel Mirak Weissbach, Jean François Champollion And the True Story of Egypt in 21st Century Science & Technology magazine, Winter 1999-2000, 12 (4), 26–39, p. 32. See also, Andrew Robinson, Cracking the Egyptian Code, The Revolutionary Life of Jean-Francois Champollion (London, Thames & Hudson, 2012), p. 61.



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