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April 2, 2016


The story of the nuns of Asyut is, by all means, a very interesting story – a story of impressive chastity and purity, and great courage. The forty saintly nuns refused to surrender to the Muslim attackers to be used as sex slaves, and lose their virginity which they had dedicated to Christ only. They preferred to die, committing mass suicide, rather than to submit to the enemy who was intent on defiling their bodies. There is every evidence that the forty nuns did not take their decision lightly but as the last resort, in fact, as the only resort other than allowing themselves to be raped by the Muslim forces and be denied a life of virginity and asceticism in their convent. They considered the burning of their bodies for the sake of their virginity a ‘gorban’, in Coptic ‘dwron (doron)’ – an offering and sacrifice. Their abbess, who set the thirty-nine on fire, and then threw herself down to die, even praying: “Oh, Lord, do not hold this sin against me.” But to her, and to the rest of the nuns with her, “their death in this manner is better than being assaulted by those offenders … those people [who] came from their lands seeking to frustrate [their] salvation”. This cannot be taken except as a heroic and virtuous suicide – martyrdom for Christ.

It is a painful story – one cannot possibly imagine the fear and the agony of the thirty-nine nuns and their abbess as they were confronted by their Muslim attackers. It is an indictment to all Coptic men, in 1167 and throughout the Islamic control of Egypt, who saw their women and daughters often being taken captives and defiled by Muslim man who took them as sex slaves, without doing much to protect their women. But the saddest thing, in my opinion, is that this great story of heroic martyrdom by the forty nuns of Asyut is little known by the Copts, as it does not seem to have been registered in their collective memory; that is, in their official Synaxarium.

The original Coptic Synaxarium is available only in Arabic. It forms part of the Copto-Arabic literature of the Middle-Ages. The word “Synaxarium” is derived from a Greek word Συναξάριον,[1] which means a liturgical book containing short narratives of the lives of saints, or exposition of feasts and fasts, arranged on the days of the year, and read in the religious services of the Church throughout the year[2].[3] The Copto-Arabic original manuscript was compiled in the 13th and 14th centuries at two stages by two Copts: Butrus al-Jamil, bishop of Malij[4], who is considered as the first compiler and editor of the Coptic Synaxarium,[5] and Mikha’il bishop of Atrib[6] and Malij.[7] Their work included translation, from Greek and Coptic, of old manuscripts of the lives of the saints, which had existed separately and read eulogistically at the saints’ passion and last days; and adding stories of later saints which were originally written in Arabic. These stories, old and new, were compiled in a single large manuscript, which became the Seneksar (سِنكسار). There are several copies of the Seneksar scattered in several libraries and museums across the world. The story of the nuns of Asyut does not seem to figure in most of them.

Basset studied two manuscripts of the Seneksar which he found at the Bibliothèque nationale de France: MS No. 256, designated A by him, which is dated to the 16th century, and MS Nos. 4869-4870, designated B, which goes back to the 14th century. This earlier manuscript (B) contains the story of the nuns of Asyut, whereas the late manuscript, A, doesn’t.[8] As manuscript B is one of the earliest of all extant manuscripts of the Seneksar (possibly predated only by the 1340 AD manuscript kept at the Coptic Museum Library in Old Cairo[9]),[10] we can assume that the story of the nuns of Asyut was originally included in the Seneksar of Butrus and Mikha’il, although we don’t know who of the two had incorporated it first.

Not only Basset’s manuscript A that has no mention of the story, but, it seems, all later manuscripts have omitted it too. Ethiopia has its own Synaxarium, which is a direct translation from a Copto-Arabic recension of the Seneksar.[11] In its oldest form, as Wallis Budge says, “it was simply a translation from Arabic into Ethiopic of the Synaxarium of the Jacobite Church of Egypt, and it only commemorated the saints venerated by the Egyptian Church.”[12] It does not mention the story of the nuns of Asyut.

The list of Coptic feasts in the Coptic calendar has been studied by Europeans. In 1655, John Selden (1584 – 1654), the English scholar, published two Arabic manuscripts of such list, which he translated into Latin, attached to the end of his De Synedriis Veterum Ebraeorum.[13] In these two lists, there is no mention of a feast for the nuns of Asyut. The German Orientalist, Hiob Ludolf (1624 – 1704), gave, in 1691, another list of the feasts of the Ethiopian and Egyptian Churches in his Commentarius ad historiam Æthiopicam, and here, again, we don’t find a mention of their story.[14] In 1873, the English Orientalist, Solomon Caesar Malan (1812-1894), published his The Calendar of the Coptic Church.[15] His list, which he tells us he has translated it from “a manuscript calendar in Arabic which, until quite lately, was used in a Jacobite Church at Cairo,” is more comprehensive; but, here again, there is no mention of the nuns of Asyut.

Until the 20th century, the Coptic Church used in its liturgical services the Synaxarium in a manuscript form. The first printed Synaxarium was published in 1913 under the title “الصادق الأمين (The Truthful and Honest)”, during the patriarchate of Pope Kyrillos V (1874 – 1927), by two clerics, Filotheos al-Maqari, the pope’s secretary, and a certain Mikha’il al-Maqari, using manuscripts from the Monastery of St. Macarius (Abu Maqar) in Wadi al-Natrun.[16] This was followed by a new publication in 1935-1937, “السنكسار الجامع (The Inclusive Seneksar)”,[17] under the patriarchate of Pope Yoannis XIX (1928 – 1942). It was edited by two clerics again, ‘Abd al-Masih Mikha’il (1886 – 1959) and Armaniyus al-Birmawi[18] (1894 – 1939), who tried to standardise the Coptic Synaxarium, using the French publication by Basset and seven manuscripts from Egypt, and updating it by adding other saints who were not mentioned in the manuscripts or appeared after the 14th century. The Inclusive Synaxarium was printed several times by Maktabat al-Mahabba in Cairo, and used widely in the Coptic Church. It remained the official ecclesiastical version until in June 2012 a new version, “كتاب السنكسار (The Book of Seneksar)”[19] was produced by the Liturgical Commission of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Church, which is formed of bishops only. The project was initiated by Pope Shenouda III (1971 – 2012) in 1988, but was not published until after his death on 17 March. All the 20th century, three official versions sponsored by the Coptic Church do not include the story of the nuns of Asyut. This is despite the fact that the 1935-1937 used Basset’s publication.

What could have accounted for the inclusion of the story of the nuns of Asyut which is based, according to basset, on the late 14th century manuscript of the Synaxarium available at the Biblioteque Nationale (MS No. 4869-4870) and its serious absence from the 16th century MS 256 and other late manuscripts, the Ethiopian Synaxarium, the calendars of the Coptic Church, and the 20th and 21st centuries printed versions by the Coptic Church? The fact that the story is written in poor Arabic as to make it incomprehensible to some extent cannot be the real reason, as the Seneksar’s Arabic is generally very poor, and many of its stories are difficult to understand without much study and search. It seems to me that the story was suppressed by careless later editors.

Suppression by heavy editing is not unusual. René-Georges Coquin tells us that “[t]he authors [of the 1935-1937 Inclusive Seneksar] suppressed what appeared to them worthless or unseemly.”[20] The 2012 edition, in its turn, made its changes.[21] This is understandable when it is meant to remove text that expresses dogma contrary to that of the Coptic Church or stories and references that are clearly inaccurate or illogical. The Church has always preached against reckless martyrdom and suicide. However, suicide in order to preserve one’s chastity, what could be called “chastity suicide”, “virginity suicide”, “purity suicide” or “virtuous suicide” and martyrdom, has been exempted by many saints, including St. Ambrose who, in an answer to a question by his sister Marcellina, about certain virgins who had committed suicide rather than lose their chastity, allowed it.[22] In the Coptic Church, one can find several examples that can appear on the face of it recklessly inappropriate. Consider, for instance, the martyrdom of St. Moses the Black and his seven ascetic associates in 408: when the Berbers of the Libyan Desert sacked the monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun, they refused to run and hide like the rest of the monks; and consequently they were massacred by the Berbers. The Coptic Church celebrates their martyrdom on 24 Ba’una, and retains their memory in the official Synaxarium. Consider, too, the martyrdom celebrated on 26 Tuba of the Forty-Nine Elders of Shiheet (Wadi Natrun), who were martyred by the same Berbers in 444 during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II (408 – 450): when the monks saw the Berbers approaching, Saint Yu’annis, one of the Forty-Nine, addressed the rest of the monks: “The Berbers have come to kill us. Whoever amongst you would like to become a martyr, let him stand; and whoever is afraid, let him hide in the keep (castle).” While many escaped, he and forty-eight of his colleagues remained, and were slaughtered by the Berbers. Martinos, a Roman envoy of the King, and his son, Zius, who had just departed from the monastery, heard of the attack, and decided to go back to obtain martyrdom with the monks. They too were killed by the Berber. The Coptic Church rightly celebrates the martyrdom of all of them to this day.

And yet, there are other stories of more or less similar acts of martyrdom which seem to have been suppressed for no apparent reason. I have put up the story of the nuns of Asyut as an example. Another example is the story of the martyrdom of Bartanouba, a Roman young nun who, during the reign of Constantine the Great (d. 337), committed suicide by throwing herself in fire to avoid being taken as wife by a Persian royalty. The story is told in Basset’s Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite under 21 Tuba; being present only in the earlier manuscript B (there is no mention of it in the 16th century manuscript A).[23] There is no mention of it, too, in the Ethiopian Synaxarium, the Coptic calendar lists of Seldon, Ludolf and Malan, and the printed versions of the Coptic Synaxarium. Another similar story is that of the two virgin friends, Atrasis the daughter of Emperor Hadrian (117 – 138), and Yoanna daughter of Philospheron: when Hadrian knew about the Christianisation of his daughter, who was converted by Yoanna, he ordered that they both get thrown into furnace. They were taken to the execution site, clad in their best attire, and the slaves and royal servants weeping for them, while the citizens of the city expressing pity on their youth, and exhorting them to listen to the King and recant Christ in order to save their lives. “But [the virgins] did not change their mind neither did they lose the power of their faith. And when [the executioners] dug the trench and lit the fire, the [two virgins] held the hand of each other, and jumped into the furnace. And many saw them standing in the midst of the fire, praying as they turned their faces to the east; and they followed that with praising [God].”[24] This story comes under 18 Hathor, and is recorded in both manuscripts used by Basset. It appears in an abridged form in the printed Synaxarium of the Coptic Church: on the way they undertook their martyrdom, the 2012 Book of Seneksar says only in a much contracted manner that Hadrian “immediately ordered that they get burned together. In the fire, the two saints prayed, and died in peace.”[25]

Outside the Synaxarium, one finds a similar story of chastity suicide in the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church (HPOCC) – the story of Fibronia.[26] This section was written by John I, an associate and sharer in the passion of Patriarch Mikha’il I (743 – 767). These were troubled times for the Copts, Egypt and the Muslims who were fighting each other as the forces of the Abbasids were driving the last Ummayad Caliph, Marwan II (744 – 750) from east to west into Egypt where he was killed on August 6 in Upper Egypt. When the army of Marwan II was in Egypt, it committed tremendous atrocities against the Copts, which included capturing Coptic women, married and virgins, and taking them for sex slavery. One of the monasteries which they attacked had a young woman, Febronia, who was taken by the army chief. But the saintly virgin smartly tricked him and his soldiers into beheading her so that “she might not be contaminated by the defilements of those miscreants, nor her pure body by polluted by them.”[27] Sadly, like so many saints and martyrs of Egypt, her story has not been entered in the Coptic Synaxarium.

It seems then, that the Coptic Church has no official position against chastity suicide. Despite that, it appears that the story of the nuns of Asyut was omitted at some time between the 14th century (when Basset’s manuscript B was written) and the 16th century (when manuscript A was written) because it was believed then that virtuous suicide and martyrdom was unacceptable. What prompted that and by who are interesting questions that need further search. Of course, one cannot be absolutely sure of the time of the disappearance of the story without studying all the available manuscripts of the Coptic Synaxarium, inside and outside Egypt.

The author would hope that the heroic martyrdom of the nuns of Asyut in 1167 will be rehabilitated by the Coptic Church; and be commemorated as a great act of faith, chastity and courage. The korban that these forty nuns raised, in their moment of distress that should shame all of us, must be remembered by all Copts.



[1] The Greek word Συναξάριον itself is derived from συναγειν, meaning ‘to bring together’.

[2] Except during Pentecost.

[3] See, T. Y. Malati: Dictionary of Church Terminology (in Arabic) (Cairo, 1991).

[4] Malij was a city in the Nile Delta (See: Randall Stewart, Malij. The Coptic Encyclopedia, volume 5; ed. Aziz Suryal Atiya (New York, Macmillan, 1991).

[5] For Butrus al-Jamil, see: Vincent Frederick, Butrus Sawirus al-Jamil, The Coptic Encyclopedia, volume 2.

[6] Atrib was a city in the Nile Delta (see: Stewart Randall, Atrib, The Coptic Encyclopedia, volume 1).

[7] For the bishop, see: René-Georges Coquin, Mikha’il, The Coptic Encyclopedia, volume 5.

[8] See footnote 1 to the Arabic text, Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite, ed. Réne Basset. P.O., Tome XVI (Paris, 1922), p. 206 [848].

[9] See: Aziz S. Atiya, The List of Saints, The Copto-Arabic Synaxarium in The Coptic Encyclopedia, Vol. 7.

[10] I have not studied the manuscript at the Coptic Museum, and I am not sure if it includes the story or not.

[11] The Ethiopian Synaxarium was translated into French (By Ignazio Guidi, under the title Le synaxaire éthiopien), and published in the PO, beginning in the same year the Coptic Synaxarium was published. Unlike the Coptic Synaxarium, it has also been translated into English (in 1928) by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge under the title The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church, A Translation of the Ethiopic Synaxarium (Mashafa Senkesar): Made from the Mss. Oriental 660 and 661 in the British Museum.

[12] Introduction by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge in The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church (Cambridge, 1928). The Ethiopian Synaxarium, taken from the Copto-Arabic Synaxarium, however, has grown to incorporate local saints and feasts. As David Buxton says in his The Abyssinians, “Although this was at first simply the synaxarium of the Copts, the book underwent gradual ‘acclimatization’ in the Abyssinian scriptoria: they enriched it with more and more lives and acts of local saints while introducing copious references to the festivals peculiar to the Abyssinian Church.” See David Buxton, The Abyssinians (New York, Thames and Hudson, 1970), pp. 123-124.

[13] In full: V. Cl. Joannis Seldeni, De synedriis & praefecturis juridicis veterum Ebraeorum libri tres, Lib. III (Paris, 1655), pp. 202-256.

[14] In full: Hiob Ludolf, Iobi Lvdolfi aliàs Leutholf dicti ad suam Historiam æthiopicam antehac editam commentarivs,: in quo multa breviter dicta fusius narrantur: contraria refelluntur: atque hac occasione præter res æthiopicas multa autorum, quædam etiam S. Scripturæ loca declarantur: aliaque plurima geographica, historica et critica, inprimis verò antiqvitatem ecclesiasticam illvstrantia, alibi haud facilè obvia, exponuntur; vt variarvm observationvm loco haberi possit cum tabula capitum, figuris, & variis indicibus locupletissimis… (sumptibus Johannis David Zvnneri, 1691).

[15] Solomon Caesar Malan, Original Documents of the Coptic Church, II, The Calendar of the Coptic Church (London, 1873).

[16] See: René-Georges Coquin, Copto-Arabic Synaxarium, Editions of the Synaxarium in The Coptic Encyclopedia, Vol. 7 (New York, Macmillan, 1991).

[17] The full title is “السنكسار الجامع لأخبار القديسين والبطاركة التى وضعها الآباء الأنبا يوحنا أسقف البرلس والأنبا بطرس الجميل أسقف مليج والأنبا ميخائيل أسقف اتريب وغيرهم من الآباء القديسين” (The Inclusive Synaxarium of the News of the Saints and Patriarchs which were authored by the fathers, Anba Yohanna bishop of Burlus and Anba Butrus al-Jamil bishop of Malij and Anba Mikha’il bishop of Atrib and others of the saintly fathers).

[18] His full name was Armaniyus Habashi Shita al-Birmawi.

[19] Full title is: كتاب السنكسار الذى يحوى أخبار الأنبياء والرسل والشهداء والقديسيين المستعمل فى كنائس الكرازة المرقسية (The Book of Synaxarium, which contains the news of the Prophets, and the Apostles, and the Martyrs, and the Saints that is used in the Churches of the Saint Mark Episcopate).

[20] René-Georges Coquin, Copto-Arabic Synaxarium, Editions of the Synaxarium.

[21] كتاب السنكسار، إعداد اللجنة المجمعية للطقوس، الجزء الأول (القاهرة، ٢٠١٢)، ص ٩.

[22] See: Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers; Series II; Volume X. Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters, Chapter VII.

[23] Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite, ed. Réne Basset. P.O., Tome XI (Paris, 1915), pp. 652-661 [619-627].

[24] Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite, ed. Réne Basset. P.O., Tome III (Paris, 1909), pp. 304-307 [328-231].

[25] كتاب السنكسار، إعداد اللجنة المجمعية للطقوس، الجزء الأول (القاهرة، ٢٠١٢)، ص ٢١٧

[26] History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, ed. B. T. A. Evetts. Part III: Agathon – Michael I (766 AD). Patrologia Orientalis, Tome V (Paris, 1910), pp. 162-164. The story is also included in The churches and monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries by Abu al-Makarim (wrongly attributed to Abu Salih al-Armani); translated by B. T. A. Evetts (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1895), pp. 240-242. It is from Abu al-Makarim that we know that the martyr’s name was Febronia.

[27] History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, p. 164.

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