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December 26, 2017

In a previous article, I wrote about the contribution of the Copts of Alexandria to the decline of the Coptic language and language shift from Coptic to Arabic. There, I used evidence from Abu al-Makarim the 13th century Coptic historian. In his book, The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt (تاريخ الكنائس والأديرة), Abu al-Makarim tells us that all churches in Alexandria used Greek language in the liturgy and not Coptic, except one church: the church known as Al-Gamja. This insistence by the Copts of Alexandria on using Greek rather than Coptic in the liturgy, even after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and the decline of Greek language, as I have said in the article, has contributed, in my opinion, to the decline of Coptic at least in Alexandria and its environs.

Now, I would like to share with my readers another piece of evidence on the same matter: it seems that the people of Alexandria – both clergy and laity – were so stubborn in retaining Greek as the official, ecclesiastical language of the Liturgy that they made it a precondition on the prdination of any patriarch-elect. We find in the invaluable book, al jawharah al-nafisa fi ulum al-kanisah (The Precious Jewel in Ecclesiastical Sciences), by the 13th century Coptic historian, Yohanna ibn abi-Zakariyya ibn Siba’a, that after the laity had elected a man to be ordained a patriarch, he was taken from Cairo/Misr to Alexandria for the official ordination ceremony. Alexandria was the site for ordination of a patriarch for he was but the bishop of Alexandria in the long line of succession to the throne of Saint Mark the Evangelist. This was done at the Church of Saint Mark known as ‘The Gamja’. Before he was ordained, however, and as he was put in chains,[1]āhl thaghr al-iskandaria” (the people of the port of Alexandria) would obtain a written pledge from him that he would not “change the tongue of their rûmi (Greek) language which they had taken from Mark the Evangelist.”[2]

What does that mean? It means that the Copts of Alexandria resisted the ‘Copticisation’ of Liturgy, and most likely all prayers, in the churches of Alexandria, and preferred to stick to a foreign language on the excuse that they took it from Saint Mark. Clearly, they regarded Greek, and not Coptic, as their language. Greek perhaps was the language of the Alexandrians in the first seven centuries of our era when the official language of the state was Greek; many Greeks resided in Alexandria; many Egyptians became culturally Hellenised and spoke the language; and churches remained mainly in the hands of the Melkites (Royalists) after the Chalcedonian schism in AD 450. This state of affairs, however, did not last for long following the Arab occupation of Alexandria in AD 642, wrestling it from Byzantium: Arabic became the official language of the state, increasingly replacing Greek in administration; and most churches, which had previously been in the hands of the Melkites, were handed over to the Copts.

There is no doubt that the bulk of the followers of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which took over the churches previously in Chalcedonian hands, were of Egyptian stock and spoke Coptic, rather than Greek, as their mother tongue. With the collapse of Byzantine authority in Egypt, Greek was gradually abandoned and forgotten. This means that the Alexandrians, who attended church, could not comprehend the Liturgy and other prayers.  This discordance between language used in the churches of Alexandria (Greek) and language spoken outside it (Coptic) preceded the later discordance that was observed in the same settings between Coptic and Arabic. There is, however, a fundamental difference between the two situations: in the former, there was foolish adherence to a foreign language and reluctance to adopt the national language; whereas, in the latter, there was a foolish abandoning of the national language and a rush, sometimes eagerly made, to use a foreign language – the language of those who oppressed us and occupied our country – in church matters.

But how did the obstinate retention of the Greek language in Church services by the Alexandrians contribute to the decline of Coptic? The answer is obvious: the Alexandrians denied the Coptic language its rightful place in being the language of the liturgy. Coptic, and not Greek was the national language of the Egyptians. Retention of Greek at the expense of Coptic meant prevention of the Copts from using their national language in their churches in Alexandria, even when the Egyptians had forgotten Greek. It is not so much that the Copts were praying in a foreign language – for Greek despite its superiority to Arabic was just another foreign language – that they did not understand but the fact that they were prevented from learning their language and promoting it in the environs of Alexandria. It ghas not been studied properly, but there are some signs that the Arabisation of the Copts started at Alexandria before even in Cairo and Misr. I will leave talking about this to another article; but, here, I would like to suggest that the prevention of Coptic from taking its rightful place in the churches of Alexandria has led to the Copts adopting Arabic earlier than Copts elsewhere in Egypt have.



[1] It was customary to chain the patriarch-elect until his consecration as many would try to escape, preferring a quiet life of solitude.

[2] Ibn Siba, Yuhanna ibn abi-Zakariyya ibn Siba’a, al jawharah al-nafisa fi ulum al-kanisah; ed. and annotated with a Latin translation by Vincentio P. Mistrih, O. F. M., as Pretiosa Margarita de Scientiis Ecclesiasticis (Cairo, 196); pp. 234-5.

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