YA’AGUB BEY NAKHLA ROFEILAH, FIRST COPTIC HISTORIAN IN OUR MODERN AGE
Ya’agub Bey Nakhla Rofeilah (1847 – 1905)
Ya’agub Bey Nakhla Rofeilah (1847 – 1905) was born in Cairo during the patriarchate of Pope Butrus (Peter) VII (1809 – 1852), and lived during the patriarchates of Popes Kyrillos (Cyril) IV (1854 – 1861), Demetrios II (1861 – 1870), and Kyrillos (Cyril) V (1874 – 1927).
He learned at the Coptic schools established by the reformer Pope Kyrillos IV, and studied Italian and English. He was appointed a teacher for these two languages at the Coptic school in Harat al-Saqa’een, in Cairo; and, while a teacher there, he studied and learned French.
He left teaching at some point and worked as copy editor at the state’s main printing house. His works there helped him later in establishing two printing houses for the Coptic newspaper, Al-Watan, and the Coptic charity, Al-Tawfiq Society.
He then resigned his post, and worked as a clerk in the ministry of finance, and was promoted to the position of a director. He was made Bey while working there, and continued to work for the ministry until he retired.
After that, he was appointed secretary to Fayum’s railways company. While living in Fayum, he established Coptic charities, and two schools for the education of boys and girls.
On 14 April 1905 he passed away, aged 58, and was buried at the monastery of St. Mina.
Rofailah was heavily involved in what is called the Reform Movement. Tawfiq Society was heavily involved in that movement; and he was one of the active members of the Coptic Millet Council (National Council).
He has four books:
- Tarikh al-Umma al-Qibtiya (History of the Coptic Nation تاريخ الأمة القبطية) (1898)
- A book on how to learn Arabic for the English (التحفة المرضية في تعليم الإنجليز اللغة العربية) (1882)
- A book on learning English (الابريز في تعليم لغة الإنجليز) (1882)
- Gamous al-Islahat (The Dictionary of Reforms قاموس الإصلاحات) (This book, was not yet printed in 1910; and to my knowledge, it is not in print until this day)
The second print (2000) of the History of the Coptic Nation by St. Mark Foundation for Coptic History Studies
His history of the Coptic Church is the most important. Since the 13th century, no one really wrote Coptic history, apart from a few scattered biographies of the patriarchs. Rofeilah’s history is the first one in our modern age; after it other Coptic historians emerged. He starts his history from Pre-History in Egypt, and the Pharaonic dynasties, the Persian rule, Greeks, Romans, and then the various Arab and Islamic periods until the end of the 19th century. In his last three chapters, he gives summary of Coptic history in modern age, which he, rightly, considers to have started with Pope Kyrillos IV, who is called by him, “Abi al-Islah (Father of Reform)”: he divides that history into three periods, and call the first period, First Renaissance, the second period, Second Renaissance, and the third period, Third Renaissance. Rofeilah adds to his book a useful glossary at the end.
To my knowledge, Rofeila is the first Copt who uses the term “Coptic nation” in a publication. This term was subsequently was used by all educated Copts, until it was suppressed by the Nasser regime after 1952.
Rofeilah’s history is not accurate sometimes, as he draws it from various sources, including Arab and Islamic ones. However, this book, published in 1898, is the first one that treated Coptic history along modern lines. In 2000, the book was reprinted by the St. Mark Foundation for Coptic History Studies, with Dr Gawdat Gabra writing a preface for the new print.
Details of the biography of Rofeilah has been taken from Ramzi Tadrus, The Copts in the Twentieth Century (1911); pp. 24-5. His picture is from the same book, opposite p. 104.