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June 24, 2019


Hilda Petrie (1871 – 1957) with her husband Flinders Petrie (1853 – 1942)

Hilda Petrie (1871 – 1957) was an English Egyptologist and artist, and wife of the great Egyptologist, Flinders Petrie. She was married to him when she was 25 years old and he was 43 (she was his junior by 18 years).

Immediately after marriage in 1896, the couple went to Egypt. Hilda was to join Flinders in his great excavations across Egypt, and she proved to be a great assistant. Later, she will become an Egyptologist of her own right.

The Petries loved the Copts. I have written an article about Flinders Petrie’s opinion on the Copts. Here, I would like to share an article by Hilda Petrie which I found in The Palestine Post (Friday, February 28, 1947, p. 5). The article, which was written in 1947 after Flinders had been long dead, is entitled “Visiting Copt Villages”. Most of the Petries’ archaeological focus after 1926 was now centred on Egyptian frontier fortresses in Palestine. In 1933, the couple moved to Jerusalem, Palestine, which was under British control. It seems that her article about the Coptic villages was published shortly after her return to England in 1947. She died in 1957 in Hampstead, in the London Borough of Camden (Flinders had died in Jerusalem 1942).

Hilda Petrie, in her article, draws the attention of the readers to the Copts whose history is often ignored. The Copts, she tells the reader:

[A]re more strictly descended from the ancient Egyptians than any other people in Egypt; their religion having kept them from intermarriage with Islam, they are singularly free from admixture with any other stock.


They are a reddish-brown people, unlike the yellowish-brown Arabs, and they are much more developed than the Fellaheen and even more intelligent.

Their Church is older than that of Rome, she adds. Their language owns its origin to that of the hieroglyphics.

She observes that the Copts in towns work as traders and in accounting; but in rural areas, where they form one tenth of the population, they often “live grouped together in a village of their own for protection.” The shape of their monasteries and churches tell of their persecution. It is these Coptic villages which Hilda Petrie liked to visit and attend the liturgies in, such as on Christmas and Palm Sunday. Her sweetness and love for the Copts can perhaps be most inferred from her description of a Coptic Palm Sunday, and the behavior of children, “swarming up the lectern” during service, but it is “from simplicity, not from irreverence” – “They are in the House of their Father.” Here, there is only sympathy and understanding, not the condescending and cruel criticism which one finds in some of the British of the time.



People often find it difficult to realize what there was of Egypt in the age immediately preceding the Arab invasion. They study the Pre-historic age, and the 30 dynasties down to 300 B.C. and they may have knowledge of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Then they confess to a blank, but the early centuries of our era in Egypt would probably repay any attention we might be able to spare.

Even without such knowledge, it is of great interest to wander in and out of the ancient Coptic churches of Old Cairo, and to make a point of attending divine service in the village church of any country district where one be stationed.

One should certainly not spend a week in Cairo without taking the tram out to Old Cairo to visit the fine old, buildings of early Christianity with their unique screens of ebony and ivory pentagons, and their primitive paintings of Coptic saints.

It is seldom remembered that for nearly 600 years Egypt was an entirely Christian country. The Coptic Church was founded before that of Rome, and Mohammedanism only entered Egypt with the Arabs in the VII century. It was the Evangelist Mark who introduced Christianity, and the official title of the Coptic Church is “The Church of the Preaching of Saint Mark.” The Copts are more strictly descended from the ancient Egyptians than any other people in Egypt; their religion having kept them from intermarriage with Islam, they are singularly free from admixture with any other stock. Their language likewise owes its origin to that of the hieroglyphics. They are a reddish-brown people, unlike the yellowish-brown Arabs, and they are much more developed than the Fellaheen and even more intelligent. In the towns they are given to shop-keeping and accounts, for the most part. In country districts, where they form a tenth of the population, they often live grouped in a village of their own for protection. Their fortified deyr with its strong gateway and the fortress-like church, almost windowless, are relics of the days of persecution.

Village Churches

The village church has clustered domes, and a row of sanctuaries with altars, separated from side to side by a length of paneled screening. This is enriched with eikon pictures of Biblical and Coptic saints, and especially Girghis (St. George) on horseback. The services are impressive but lengthy, and the liturgy is an interesting one, though rather full of repetition. It is a dignified ritual, with fine vestments. Only the priest can master the ancient Coptic, and when the lessons have been duly read by him, they are read again in Arabic so as to be “understanded of the people.” A layman usually does this, but I have once heard it done by a young girl. In their simplicity, they seemed more advanced than we are, in this respect. Men, however, occupy the main part of the church, and the women sit huddled on the floor in an aisle, with their babies. Small boys are much in evidence, some being acolytes and, down to the smallest, they partake in the Communion.

All eyes are fixed on me, throughout the service, if I attend. I am placed in front of the men, and stand facing the high altar. Afterwards the priest talks with me outside, and coffee is brought. He is generally a massively built man with a black beard, and wears a black robe and black turban; he has a presence, but his wife merely resembles the other village women. He is always keen to hear about England and the Church of England. One old Coptic landowner, on whom I used frequently to call, was imbued with a sense of the unity of Churches and said to me once, with great fervour — “We are all one family in Christ.”

Old-Style Calendar

When at Lahun, one season, I made inquiries as to the date of Christmas. Their calendar is Old Style. The Copts seemed uncertain till the actual day arrived, when an urgent letter, in misspelt English, was borne across the Fayyum desert to our camp, addressed to me, and its sole contents — “Dear Sir, it will be Christi-mass this very night.” At 11 p.m. I started off and an hour later, out of the dark desert, and crossing the ruins of the pyramid-town Lahun[1], found my way down to join the assembled few, in a little church where there was gleaming of lamps and chanting of an introit. The villagers sang lustily; the music reminded one somewhat of the Gregorian mode, and accorded with the solemn midnight service.

One lasting recollection of a Coptic place of worship is connected with their Palm Sunday, when all the congregation squats or stands about, plaiting crosses, some plain, some elaborated, from the fresh sword-leaves of the green date-palm, and all the floor is deeply littered with the remnant of them. If two little boys are swarming up the lectern, during service, it is from simplicity, not from irreverence; they are in the House of their Father.


[1] In the article, written as ‘Kahun’, but it is obviously wrong. The correct village is Lahun, which associated with the Pyramid of Senusret II (Pyramid of Lahun).

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