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October 21, 2017

In many articles I recently wrote, I used the German scholar, traveller and theologian Johann Michael Vansleb’s book ‘The Present State of Egypt; or, A New Relation of a Late Voyage into that Kingdom, Performed in the Years 1672 and 1673[1] as a source. That is because it is a treasure trove in Coptic matters.

There are a few notes on the Coptic language in Vansleb’s book.

In Asyut, he visited its bishop, Amba Joannes [Yo’annis], whom he describes as “a very honest man, of a good life”[2]. Bishop Yo’annis took him to see Muallim [Master] Athanasius, an old man who was about eighty years old, “the only man of all of the Upper Egypt that understood his natural tongue, that is, the Copties [Coptic]”[3]. Here is his account:

“A few days after [I had arrived in Asyut], I craved acquaintance with the bishop of the city, called Amba Joannes; he is a very honest man, of a good life. He made me know a certain Coptie, named Muallim Athanasius, the only man of all the Upper Egypt that understood his natural tongue, that is, the Copties; but I could not benefit myself much by him, because he was deaf, and about fourscore years of age: nevertheless I had the satisfaction to behold that man, with whom the Copties language will be utterly lost.”[4]

But the Coptic language was not utterly lost for we know that Muallim Athanasius was not the last man who spoke Coptic. Coptic was spoken until the 20th century and until today as we know but admittedly by a few families. However, even if no one spoke Coptic at all is left, Coptic cannot be described as lost. As I have written in a previous article, in languages that don’t have living speakers, there is a major difference between languages that are not recorded in writing disappeared from lingual existence because theirs population have been wiped out from the face of the earth through massacres, epidemics or some other natural disaster, such as the Venezuelan Trumai language[5] and the Cameroonian Kasabe language[6], and languages, such as Sanskrit, Latin, Hebrew [before its revival after the establishment of Israel], Ge’ez and Coptic, which are extensively recorded in rich literature, grammars and dictionaries. While the first group is extinct, dead, and utterly lost – that is they cannot be resurrected or revived; the second group is not dead but only dormant, waiting only for the right conditions to come back again and become spoken language.

Despite Vansleb’s above remark that with the death of Muallim Athanasius, which most probably happened shortly after Vansleb’s visit to him in 1673, Coptic would be “utterly lost”; in another place, he writes what makes us believe that he did not actually think that Coptic could utterly be lost for as long as it kept its literature, dictionaries and grammars. When Vansleb visited the Monastery of Saint Anthony at the Red Sea, he visited its library situated at the Monastery’s keep (fort)[7]. After exploring some of its treasures, he writes about some he found interesting:

“Two amongst the rest were very curious, which I had a great desire to have; one was the Copties Grammar and Dictionary in Arabic, of Ibn il assal. It was one of the exactest [sic] and largest that ever I saw: they [the monks] esteemed it worth thirty crowns; I dare say, that with this Dictionary and Grammar it is possible to re-establish the Copties language, which now is lost: The other book was a rubric of their ceremonies in Folio, very well written.”[8]

Vansleb is most probably talking about more than one ‘Ibn il assal’ here. We know of three Ibn al-‘Assal (Sons of the Honeybee keeper) brothers who lived in the 13th century.[9] The dictionary he found was “al-Sullam al-Muqaffa wa-l-Dhahab al-Musaffa” (The Rhymed Dictionary and the Purified Gold) by al-Mu’taman Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn al-‘Assal,[10] and whose work was partially published and edited by Athanasius Kircher (1602 – 1680) in 1643 in his Lingua Aegyptiaca Restituta.  And the grammar that Vansleb found besides the dictionary was most probably the one written by As‘ad Abu AL-Faraj Hibat Allah Ibn al-‘Assal “Muqadamah fi al-Luqqah al-Qibtiyah” (Introduction in the Coptic Language).[11]


[1] F. Vansleb, The Present State of Egypt; or, A New Relation of a Late Voyage into that Kingdom, Performed in the Years 1672 and 1673 (London, 1678).

[2] Ibid; p. 218.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Trumai language is a language that used to be spoken in Venezuela until possibly shortly after the 1960s. David Crystal tells us of the striking loss of Trumai by an influenza epidemic: “A dramatic illustration of how a language disappears took place in Venezuela in the 1960s. As part of the drive to tap the vast resources of the Amazonian rain forests, a group of Western explorers passed through a small village on the bank of the Coluene River. Unfortunately, they brought with them the influenza virus, and the villagers, who lacked any immunity, were immediately susceptible to the disease. Fewer than 10 people survived. A human tragedy, it was a linguistic tragedy too, for this village contained the only speakers of the Trumai language. And with so few people left to pass it on, the language was doomed.” David Crystal, Languages, when the last speakers go, they take with them their history and culture. Civilization. February/March 1997; p. 41.

[6] The date of death of the Kasabe language, a Cameroonian language, is given as the 5th November 1996. David Crystal, again, gives us the story of its sad death: “In late 1995, a linguist, Bruce Connell, was doing some field work in the Mambila region of Cameroon. He found a language called Kasabe, which no westerner had studied before. It had just one speaker left, a man called Bogon. Connell had no time on that visit to find out much about the language, so he decided to return to Cameroon a year later. He arrived in mid-November, only to learn that Bogon had died on 5th November, taking Kasabe with him.” David crystal, Millennium Brirfing: the death of language. Prospect. November 1999; p. 56.

[7] About the Keep of the Monastery of Saint Anthony, see my article here.

[8] The Present State of Egypt; p. 188.

[9] See: Awlad Al-‘Assal by Aziz Suryal Atiya in Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (1991).

[10] See: Mu’taman Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Ibn Al-‘Assal by Aziz Suryal Atiya in Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 5 (1991); and Sullam (or Scala) by Werner Vycichl in Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 8 (1991).

[11] See: As‘ad Abu AL-Faraj Hibat Allah Ibn al-‘Assal by Aziz Suryal Atiya in Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (1991).

One Comment leave one →
  1. Emad permalink
    October 28, 2017 11:42 pm

    the silly story that has been transmitted through the tongs of ignorant Copts that coptic is still spoken by some families came from the literature of that German writer and the copts was too sill where they kept on and on and on repeating that story that there is still families who can able to speak our native language Coptic even if there are none and every single coptic child is using Arabic as a daily used mother tongue since coptic has really vanished from daily use but Copts still repeating the same statement until it is no more true but just a silly lie

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