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June 13, 2019


The great Egyptologist and Coptophile, Flinders Petrie (1853 – 1942)

William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853 – 1942), an English archaeologist, and the Father of Egyptian archaeology, was a Coptophile. Petrie spent the years from 1884 to 1928 mainly in Egypt, and written a total of 97 books, the majority of them on Egyptian topics.

Petrie had a great respect for the Copts, the direct descendants of the Pharaonic race. In the Preface written by the eminent archaeologist Re. Archibald Henry Sayce for Kyriakos Mikhail’s book, The Copts Under British Rule, quotes a remark by Petrie on the Copts:

[T]he fact that through all these centuries of persecution the Copts should nevertheless have not only maintained themselves, but have even made themselves indispensable to their Mohammedan masters, is both a testimony to their extraordinary ability and a proof that they are indeed the children of their Egyptian fathers. They have kept alive the old traditions of education and culture through centuries of darkness, along with the Christian conception of family morality and all that this implies.[1]

I have been trying to dig this quotation out from Petrie’s many publications, but so far have not be able to locate this particular quote; however, in Petrie’s book, Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt (1892), I found a few references to the Copts. Petrie talks about the fanaticism of the Muslim Egyptian:

Islam is all in all to the fellah: the unbelievers he looks on as a miserable minority; and it is only the unpleasant fact that they cannot be crushed at present that prevents his crushing them, and asserting the supremacy of Islam. A clever Arab once remarked to me concerning a department which was mismanaged by European direction, ‘How much better it would be to have an Arab over it!’ But on my asking where he could find a native whose corruption would not be far worse than the present rule, he could but reluctantly give in. This fanatical feeling of dislike to the Nusrani, or Nazarene, was the mainstay of Arabi’s revolt; and the very existence of such a feeling shows how dangerous it might become if fed on success. The children unintentionally reveal what is the tone and talk of the households in private; they constantly greet the European with howls of Ya Nusrani (‘O Nazarene’), the full force of which title is felt when your donkey-boy urges on his beast by calling it, ‘Son of a dog! son of a pig! son of a Nazarene!’ Any abuse will do to howl at the infidel, and I have been for months shouted at across every field as Ya khawaga mefales! (‘bankrupt foreigner’), because I preferred walking to the slow jolt of a donkey. The fact that dozens of the villagers were depending on me for good pay all the time did not seem to weigh in the youthful mind, compared with the pleasure of finding a handy insult. This temper, if not held down, might easily rise in the arrogance of its ignorance to such a height as to need a much sharper lesson than it has ever received. That a massacre of the Coptic Christians was fully anticipated by them when Arabi drove out the foreigners, is a well-known matter of history, which should not be lightly forgotten.[2]

Petrie was not the first one to write about the expected massacre of the Copts in the Arabi Rebellion had the British not intervened and saved them from that fate. Petrie demonstrates the fanaticism of the Muslims of Egypt which form an important part of the general Muslim character, and which, though always present, can erupt into violence at any time against the Christian. The characterisation of the Muslims of Egypt by Petrie is accurate to a large extent, and is still observable in many Muslims in contemporary Egypt, more than 120 years after Petrie had written his book.

Muslim education of that period, and the same holds true to a large extent in religious schools of today, only consolidates that negative picture in the Muslim character:

Unfortunately the result of education is rather to spoil than to develop natural ability. Of the very few peasants I have met with who had been taught to write, two were fools in other matters, all common sense and ability appearing to have been crushed out of them. Nor is this at all surprising, when we know that the cardinal part of Muslim education is the learning of the pointless prolixities of the Koran by heart, as a pure matter of rote, without the use of the reason or intellect. To burden a child’s mind with such a fearful task is enough to ruin it, if not strong. It is a sad sight to see the whole of the coming intellects of a town rocking themselves to and fro while they gabble through sura after sura of the Koran in a gusty sing-song voice without pause or point ; and then to reflect that this is the end and aim of nearly all their education.[3]

Coptic education, however, is different:

The native Coptic schools are the only encouraging sight of indigenous training; and the ability shown by some of their boys is astonishing.[4]

In a special chapter titled, The Active Tripper in Egypt, Petrie gives practical advice to travelers to Egypt and while encouraging them to travel, he warns them of certain matters. In case of emergencies, Petrie advises his readers to go to station-masters or post-maters, who are largely Copts, for help, which they will certainly receive:

The above details are of course only supplementary to the usual guide-book information. But there is no real difficulty likely to be met with in roughing it thus; and in case of emergencies the station-masters or post-masters can be appealed to, as they all understand English or French. Many of them have been in Europe, and I may say that I have received much kindness and friendliness from these excellent officials, who are largely Coptic Christians. They are above the common greed for petty bakhshish; though of course kindness may be recognized by a book, photographs, or other presents, as to a European official.[5]


I think more on Petrie’s views on the Copts are out there, and will be revealed in time.

[1] Kyriakos Mikhail, The Copts Under British Rule (London, 1911), p. ix.

[2] W M Flinders Petrie, Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt, 1881-1891 (1892), pp. 173-4.

[3] Ibid, pp. 184-5.

[4] Ibid, p. 185.

[5] Ibid, p. 194.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2019 9:39 am

    Flinders Petrie was not the Father of Egyptian Archaeology. Richard Lepsius, Auguste Mariette and Gaston Maspero were. At any given moment, pioneers in Egyptology were the French, the Germans, and the Italians. Not the English.

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      June 14, 2019 8:43 am

      Probably the title is given to Petrie because of the sheer number of discoveries he has made and the books he has published.

      • June 14, 2019 8:49 am

        Hehe! This is called ‘Prodigious Explorer’, although Mariette unearthed huge temples partly submerged in the sand. Yes, I know that Flinders Petrie published extensively. Good continuation!
        Greetings from a Greek brother who always deplored the lack of Greek support toward our Coptic brethren!

      • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
        June 14, 2019 9:02 am

        Thank you, my good friend. As it happened, I am just about to publish an article about the glorious Greek War of Independence.

      • June 14, 2019 9:23 am

        Oooh! I am looking forward to … learning from which villages originated the soldiers of Ibrahim Pasha who landed in Moria (Southern Greece)!!! I constantly mention your publications/postings here:

        These last days, I wrote extensively about Philae, Greek inscriptions on the walls of the Isis temple, Isiac cults spread in Greece, Rome and Europe, and Isiac Mysteries.

        I visited Egypt several times and I was in Philae; I found it very interesting that the huge temple was transformed into St Stephen’s church!



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