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HOW THE COPTS OF ALEXANDRIA HELPED IN THE DECLINE OF COPTIC LANGUAGE AND AIDED THE SHIFT FROM COPTIC TO ARABIC

October 13, 2017

In two previous articles I talked about “The responsibility of Pope Gabriel ibn Turayk in the decline of Coptic, Arabisation of the church, and the language shift from Coptic to Arabic” and “How the Greek in Coptic liturgy contributed to the decline of Coptic, the Arabisation of the church, and our language shift from Coptic to Arabic”. My intention was to explore the different reasons behind the decline of the Coptic language and the disastrous shift from Coptic to Arabic, and to show it was a complex process which has different causes, some of which we must expose as historical mistakes of the Coptic nation that ought to be criticised.

Today, I would like to talk about another reason that the Coptic inhabitants of Alexandria ought to take responsibility for. We have the evidence of the contribution of the Alexandrians towards the decline of Coptic in the book of Al-Mu’taman Abu al-Makarim Sa’d Allah Jirjis ibn Mas’ud (known simply as Abu al-Makarim), who was a Coptic priest and historian from the 12th/13th century, entitled “تاريخ الكنائس والأديرة”. This book was translated by B. T. A. Evetts as The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries in 1895.[1] Evetts says the work is attributed to an Armenian by the name of Abu Salih, but that is wrong. Evett also did not publish all of the book, as the first part that talks about the churches and monasteries in Lower Egypt, including Cairo and Alexandria, was not available to him. This part was published by Bishop Samuel, Bishop of Shabeen al-Qanatir and Annexes, in 1984, under the title “تاريخ أبو المكارم: تاريخ الكنائس والأديرة في القرن ١٢ بالوجه البحري” (History of Abu al-Makarim: History of Churches and Monasteries in the Twelfth Century in Lower Egypt). The book is a treasure trove and until now it has not find itself translated into any Western language to aid researchers.

Abu al-Makarim mentions several churches in Alexandria (over twenty), and says, “وجميع ما يقرأ بالبيع بهذا الثغر باللغة الرومية ما خلا البيعة المعروفة بالقمجا فأن الذي يقرى بها قبطيا”. I give an English translation:

“And all that is read in these churches is in Rūmi language except in the church known as al-Gamja where what is read is done in Coptic.”[2]

The Rūmi language is Greek language. It is clear that all churches in Alexandria, except al-Gamja, where the patriarchs used to be consecrated, insisted on praying in Greek rather than Coptic. This was perhaps – and I say, perhaps, only – acceptable in the period prior to the Arab occupation in 642 AD, when Greek was a known language, particularly in Alexandria. But, since the Arab occupation, Greek receded, and whilst a few understood Greek in the first two or three centuries after the Arab occupation, almost none could understand or speak it after that.

How did that affect the Coptic language?

First, it led to keeping Greek as the ecclesiastically prestigious language in Alexandria, in which most Christian inhabitants were Copts (that is from an Egyptian stock); and thus, Coptic wasn’t regarded as prestigious or important to keep, promote and protect. It can be reasonably assumed that no Coptic was taught in the schools attached to the churches using Greek in the Divine Liturgy since it served no ecclesiastical purpose.

Second, it furnished reason for those who embarked on Arabisation of the Coptic Church under the pretext of using a language in the Liturgy that the people understood; and since no one understood Greek then, Arabic was introduced in its place.

On its own, the insistence of the Alexandrians on using Greek in the Divine Liturgy, rather than Coptic, cannot be taken as the cause of the decline of Coptic and the language shift we experienced in the Middle Period of our history to Arabic. However, it was a contributing factor in a complex phenomenon.

______________________________

[1] B.T.A.Evetts, The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries, attributed to Abu Salih the Armenian (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1895).

 

[2] تاريخ أبو المكارم: تاريخ الكنائس والأديرة في القرن ١٢ بالوجه, ed. Bishop Samuel (The Monastery of the Syrians, 1984); p. 119.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Egiziane permalink
    October 13, 2017 2:34 pm

    What a sad ending to our ancestral language and culture.

  2. Emad permalink
    October 14, 2017 10:30 pm

    then some one called Muftah tried to pronounce the Coptic as Greek language

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      October 14, 2017 9:36 pm

      Completely different matters.

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  1. FURTHER EVIDENCE THAT COPTS OF ALEXANDRIA HELPED IN THE DECLINE OF COPTIC LANGUAGE AND AIDED THE SHIFT FROM COPTIC TO ARABIC | ON COPTIC NATIONALISM في القومية القبطية

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