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July 19, 2019

Coptic quarter

A woman in the Coptic Quarter in Old Cairo. Photograph by Svetlana

I have written previously about Flinders Petrie’s high estimate and trust in the Copts.[1] Petrie (1853 – 1942), the great Egyptologist who is respected across the scientific wold for his excellent work, has written several books. The previous article focused on what he wrote in his book, Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt (1892), about the Copts. In this article, I share with my readers what Petrie had to say about the Copts in his great book, Seventy Years in Archaeology (1932).[2]

On 2 January 1907, Petrie attended Lord Cromer’s farewell party.[3] There could have been no bigger difference in opinion on the Copts than that between Petrie and Cromer. I have written about Lord Cromer’s prejudiced opinion on the Copts before.[4] Their meeting a week before Petrie left Cairo to the southern parts of the Asyut Governorate to continue his excavations comes as a reminder of the diverse views on the Copts between those who never approached or mixed with the Copts (Cromer) and those who visited Coptic homes, villages, churches and monasteries (Petrie), and knew their character, values and way of living.

On 9 January, Petrie left to Rifeh (or Deir Rifeh), a village about 12km south of Asyut city. There, he discovered the house models, known as the ‘soul houses’ and had been provided by the ancient Egyptians in the Middle Kingdom, about the Xth to XIIth dynasties, for the deceased.  When Petrie was in Rifeh, he decided to go and visit the Copts in the nearby village of Dronkeh. As he tells us, he “wished to be friendly to the Coptic community settled [there].” Dronkeh is a village around 3.5km north-west of Rifeh. It is still almost exclusively inhabited by the Copts and prides itself by the presence of the Monastery of St. Mary (Deir al-Dornkeh) just outside it. Dronkeh was mentioned by the Muslim historian, Ahmed Abdel Qader al-Maqrizi (1364 – 1442) in his Khotat,[5] saying that in his days (15th century) the Copts of Dronkeh, young and old, spoke Coptic.

So, sometime, most probably in February or March 1907, Petrie visited Dronkeh. With him went the archaeologist and traveller, John Ward (or Ward of Edinburgh), another Coptophile (1832 – 1912).[6] We read in Seventy Years of Archaeology how they both went to the village, and how they were admirably received by the young daughter of the village’s Coptic sheikh (or omda, chief):

While there [at Rifeh], I wished to be friendly to the Coptic community settled at Dronkeh nearby. So, one day, Ward and I went up with a modest offering of jams. The sheikh was away, but his little daughter, certainly not over twelve, received us in a most dignified and pleasant manner. Some years later we found the girl of a Coptic police officer reading the lessons in the church service. There is none of the scandalous shamefaced manner of the Mohammedan seen in Coptic ladies and children, as may be noticed in the family groups attending service.[7]

Compare that report on how women in Coptic communities are and Cromer’s anti-Coptic tripe.

Petrie then goes on to describe the cleanliness of Coptic villages, streets and quarters and the behaviour of Coptic women, and compares them to women in the Mediterranean – by which it seems he means women in southern Europe, in such places as in Spain, Italy and Greece; and he compares them with the case in Arab places:

A Coptic village is clean and well swept, the women sitting at work in the doorways and chatting across the street. It is on the level of a civilised Mediterranean land, and not like the filthy confusion of the Mohammedan village. The same difference is seen in Cairo; the Coptic main road, the Fagallah, is well repaired, planted and watered. The great Mohammedan boulevard Mohomet Ali has the pavements broken and full of holes, and dust and filth heaped up in all the corners.[8]

At last Petrie presents his opinion – opinion shocking to some – on Egypt and the Copts:

Egypt will never be a civilised land till it is ruled by the Copts – if ever.[9]

“If ever”, indeed. We know Egypt will not be ruled by the Copts: we forfeited this possibility once we gave up to the Arabs in the seventh century. Egypt’s demography and political reality have changed. All we hope for is that the Copts retain cultural autonomy, and run their affairs as they wish. Let the Arabs run their affairs as they want, and let the Copts do likewise. Let no one oppress or rule the other, but let all live in peace in a recognised multi-national and democratic state. Meanwhile, let us dream of what Egypt could be had it still been mainly Coptic. It is a luxury that can be entertained. We can think of no chaos; no traffic problems; no dirt in the streets; no oppression of women; no despise of knowledge and science; no dictatorship; and no undermining of the rule of law.

Egypt would have been part of Europe. Let’s not doubt that.


[1] See: Dioscorus Boles, Flinders Petrie, Father of Egyptian Archaeology, on the Copts (13 June 2019).

[2] Flinders Petrie, Seventy Years in Archaeology (New York, 1932).

[3] Ibid, p. 222.

[4] Dioscorus Boles: Lord Cromer on the Copts: I, II, and III.

[5] Khotat’s full name is: Mawaiz wa al-‘i’tibar bi dhikr al-khitat wa al-‘athar (2 Vols., Bulaq, 1854).

[6] See: Dioscorus Boles, British Egyptologist John Ward on the Native Christians of Egypt (14 June 2019).

[7] Seventy Years in Archaeology, p. 223.

[8] Ibid, pp. 223-4.

[9] Ibid, p. 224.

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