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MISINTERPRETING DAVID’S “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts.”

January 6, 2018

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Coptic mural at the Monastery of Apollo in Bawit, north of Asyut (6/7th century), showing David clothed by King Saul in the king’s armour, including his coat of mail, a bronze helmet, and his sword. As the story goes, David found those cumbersome, and took them off, and abandoned the sword.

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Coptic mural at the Monastery of Apollo in Bawit, north of Asyut (6/7th century), showing David facing up to Goliath: David wearing a simple tunic and a sandal; the tunic girdle is tied up in the shape of a cross, as one end goes up over the left shoulder; in his left hand he carries a staff, and on his right hands he holds his sling with one stone in it, while the shepherd back is hung from his left upper arm. Goliath is shown here in all his heavy bronze gear: a helmet, coat of mail, armour on legs, and a shield. Goliath carries a spear and a sword. The Copts have never liked bloody or cruel scenes or scenes of torture, and therefore the spectacle of Goliath’s death or his cut head is not painted.

As the attacks on the Copts by the Islamists, and the persecution by successive governments of Egypt, mount, the Copts, in their helplessness to defend themselves against these attacks or reverse the persecution they are exposed to, find themselves fond of quoting 1 Samuel 17:45: “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts.[1] The quotation is often given truncated, and the rest of the verse “…, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied”; is often omitted. The omission is understandable but the purpose for which the verse is often invoked is not.

You will realise that the verse, which represents a speech by David the Israelite to Goliath the Philistine, forms part of the story of the war between the Israelites and Philistines recorded in Chapter 17 of the Book of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament. The story runs as follows:

Now the Philistines gathered their armies together to battle, and were gathered at Sochoh[2], which belongs to Judah; they encamped between Sochoh and Azekah, in Ephes Dammim. And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together, and they encamped in the Valley of Elah, and drew up in battle array against the Philistines. The Philistines stood on a mountain on one side, and Israel stood on a mountain on the other side, with a valley between them.

And a champion went out from the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, from Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.[3] He had a bronze helmet on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels[4] of bronze. And he had bronze armor on his legs and a bronze javelin between his shoulders. Now the staff of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his iron spearhead weighed six hundred shekels; and a shield-bearer went before him. Then he stood and cried out to the armies of Israel, and said to them, “Why have you come out to line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and you the servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “I defy the armies of Israel this day; give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.[5]

David – the later King David – was youngest of eight sons of one Jesse from Bethlehem. Three older brothers of his were recruits in the army of Saul. David stayed behind with his father to shepherd his sheep. At some point, Jesse sent David with some food rations to take to his soldier brothers. When David arrived there, he found that the two warring sides had drawn up in battle array, army against army. Having heard Goliath’s defiance of the Israelites, David volunteered to challenge him. Goliath was a giant of a man – he was little under three meters tall[6] – who was battle hardened and well armed. David, however, was only a boy, a shepherd by profession, and inexperienced in wars. Even David’s own side had doubts on his fighting ability to stand up for Goliath:

Now when the words which David spoke were heard,[7] they reported them to Saul; and he sent for him. Then David said to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.”

And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are a youth, and he a man of war from his youth.”

But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both lion and bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.” Moreover David said, “The Lord, who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”

And Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you!”

So Saul clothed David with his armor, and he put a bronze helmet on his head; he also clothed him with a coat of mail. David fastened his sword to his armor and tried to walk, for he had not tested them. And David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these, for I have not tested them.” So David took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand; and he chose for himself five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag, in a pouch which he had, and his sling was in his hand.[8]

The contrast in the physical strength, combat experience and might of armour and weaponry between the two could not be greater. David, however, had the courage, confidence in himself and faith in his God; and went ahead to challenge Goliath the Philistine:

And he [David] drew near to the Philistine. So the Philistine came, and began drawing near to David, and the man who bore the shield went before him. And when the Philistine looked about and saw David, he disdained him; for he was only a youth, ruddy and good-looking.So the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. And the Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”

Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you and take your head from you. And this day I will give the carcasses of the camp of the Philistines to the birds of the air and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. Then all this assembly shall know that the Lord does not save with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands.”

So it was, when the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, that David hurried and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine. Then David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone; and he slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead, so that the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the earth. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him. But there was no sword in the hand of David. Therefore David ran and stood over the Philistine, took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him, and cut off his head with it.[9]

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David and Goliath by the French artist Gustave Doré (1832 – 18833), engraved by N. Monvoisin, 1866. Here, David raises the cut head of the dead Goliath; and while the Israelites shout in joy, the Philistines retreat in fear and desperation.

Seeing their gigantic hero defeated and his head cut off, the Philistines lost courage and fled; while the Israelites chased them up and defeated them. David’s daring duel with Goliath thus marked the beginning of the victory of Israelites over the Philistines.

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This is undoubtedly a beautiful story of bravery, confidence and faith. However, it is not a story of pacifism, non-violence or passivity. Doing nothing and praying only in the hope that God will fight his war, was not what David did. David rose up to the challenge and did fight despite all the odds. He prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, as the Bible says; and the stone struck Goliath on the forehead, punctured it and resulted in his death. The stone and sling were indeed weapons –weaker weapon than Goliath’s sword, spear and javelin surely, but, still, potentially deadly. David was not passive; his action was not non-violent; and he was not a pacifist. Although the defeat of Goliath and the Philistines was attributed mainly to God’s intervention, the contribution of David and the Israelites in killing Goliath, chasing up the Philistines and vanquishing them, cannot be ignored. One wonders if the Israelites would have won the battle had David and Saul’s army done nothing and satisfied themselves with prayer alone, refusing to do their duty to fight back and defend themselves and the Israelites.

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Now, the story of David’s fight with Goliath – a more powerful foe – equipped with simple weaponry but strong faith in God is presented in the Old Testament as an historical event; but the Church has almost always ignored its literal meaning and interpreted it allegorically. The Church looked at the whole story as a shadow of the spiritual fight between Christ and Satan. David was the type of Christ, while Goliath was a type of the devil. Practically everything in the story has a spiritual meaning, not just David and Goliath, but also the lion and bear, their killing by David, the two armies, the valley, the duration of the standoff,[10] the staff, the stone, the strike on the forehead, etc. Saint Augustine of Hippo, for instance, gives the following interpretation:

Having been anointed by the blessed Samuel,[11] before coming here, he [David] killed a lion and a bear with no weapon, as he himself told King Saul. The lion and bear both refer to the devil, who dared to attack some of David’s sheep; to get strangled by him. What we are reading, dear brethren, is allegoric: What is symbolised by David, has been realised in our Lord Jesus Christ, who has strangled the lion and the bear, when he descended into Hades to liberate all the saints from their claws. Listen to the supplication of the prophet to the Person of our Lord: ‘Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog. Save me from the lion’s mouth.’[12]

As the strength of the bear in its claws, and that of the lion in its teeth, so the devil is symbolized by these two beasts. That is why it is said of the Person of Christ, that He saves His Church from the hand; namely, from the strength and mouth of the devil.

David came to find the Jewish armies camping in the Terebinth valley[13] to fight against the Philistines; as Christ – the true David – had to come to lift mankind up from the valley of sin and tears. They stood in the valley confronting the Philistines. They were in a valley, because the weight of their sins brought them down. Anyway, they stood there, not daring to fight against the enemy. Why didn’t they dare to do that? Because David, the symbol of Christ, had not yet come. That is true, dear brethren. Who dares to fight against the enemy, before our Lord Jesus Christ sets mankind free from its authority? Now, the word ‘David’ means ‘strong hand’. Who is stronger, brethren, than Him, who has overcome the whole world, armoured with the cross, and not with a sword?!

The children of Israel stood for 40 days before the enemy. Those 40 days refer to the present life, during which Christians do not stop fighting against Goliath and his army; namely, against the devil and his angels…

David came to find the people preparing for battle against the Philistines; yet nobody dared to enter alone into the battle. The symbol of Christ (David) went to battle, carrying only a staff in his hand against Goliath. By that he positively refers to what was realized in our Lord Jesus Christ – the true David – who came and carried His cross to fight the spiritual Goliath; namely, the devil…

It is true that Goliath having been hit in his forehead, and not in any other place, symbolizes something that happens to us. As the one baptized is marked with the sign of the cross on his forehead, that would be a hit against the spiritual Goliath, a defeat to the devil.[14]

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As we have seen, the story of David and Goliath, taken literally, cannot support passivity and pacifism; or that God will fight for one while he apathetically or cowardly decides not to defend his family against attacks by the Islamists. Divorced from its historical setting, and interpreted allegorically, the story can be used in a spiritual sense to describe the fight between Christ and the devil. Both methods of interpretation have their place: the allegorical interpretation can be used in spiritual matters; and the literal interpretation can be used in temporal matters. The two methods are different and complementary in the interpretation of this story; and it has never been claimed by the allegorists that David’s action in combatting Goliath, as history, was wrong. In fact, his fortitude – that is his calmness and courage with which he faced Goliath – and his presentation of himself to danger for the sake of his people were found praiseworthy. Saint Ambrose of Milan writes about David’s admired qualities:

David never waged war unless he was driven to it. Thus prudence was combined in him with fortitude in the battle. For even when about to fight single-handed against Goliath, the enormous giant, he rejected the armour with which he was laden. His strength depended more on his own arm than on the weapons of others. Then, at a distance, to get a stronger throw, with one cast of stone, he slew his enemy. After that he never entered on a war without seeking counsel of the Lord. Thus he was victorious in all wars, and even to his last years was ready to fight. And when war arose with the Philistines, he joined battle with their fierce troops, being desirous of winning renown, whilst careless of his own safety.[15]

It is clear that the two methods of interpretation, the allegorical and the literal, complement each other, particularly in this story of David and Goliath, and no one of them can be used to undermine the other. The fortitudinous act of David, his will to sacrifice himself for his people, defending them against the aggressive Philistines, and his faith in God, all instruct us to do the same when our people are exposed to a similar circumstance.  Using, “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts,” to justify passivity or pacifism, and claiming that we ought to do nothing when our families are attacked by the Islamists for God will fight for and instead of us, is a misinterpretation of the verse as much as a misunderstanding of the whole story of David and Goliath.

As Saint Ambrose says in his The Duties of the Clergy, fortitude cannot be a virtue unless combined with two other virtues, justice and prudence.[16] I am not calling you for fortitude to fight back when your families and people are attacked without any qualifications: you must exercise justice and prudence. In the case of an Islamist attacking your business or home and intending on slaughtering you or your family, I can see all justification for resistance. That would be fortitudinous, just and prudent thing to do.

We must stop using biblical texts to justify our passivity and cowardice; or interpreting them wrongly.

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[1] NKJV.

[2] All geographical locations mentioned here now fall in Israel.

[3] See endnote 6.

[4] A biblical shekel weighs now 14.1g.

[5] 1 Samuel 17: 1-11. I have taken the verse numbers out.

[6] The Hebrew cubit is said to be about one and a half foot; so Goliath was about 9 ¾ foot tall = 292.5 cm.

[7] David was asking of the price for challenging Goliath.

[8] 1 Samuel 17: 31-40.

[9] 1 Samuel 17: 40-51.

[10] The two armies stood against each other for forty days, with Goliath taunting the Israelites for a duel, before David challenged him.

[11] See previous chapters of 1 Samuel.

[12] Psalm 22: 20, 21.

[13] The Valley of Elah.

[14] St. Augustine as quoted by Fr. Tadros Y. Malaty in First Samuel; translated by George Botros (Coptic Orthodox Christian Center, Orange, California, 2004); pp. 91-92.

[15] See: Chapter 35, On Fortitude in The Duties of the Clergy by Saint Ambrose of Milan; included in Volume 10: St. Ambrose, Selected Works and Letters in Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series; p. 108.

[16] Ibid.

THE DANGER OF CONSIDERING ALL WHO ARE MURDERED OF OUR PEOPLE BY THE ISLAMISTS AS MARTYRS

January 1, 2018

There is a trend within the Copts to consider all who die at the hand of the Islamists as martyrs. I disagree with that for the following reasons:

First, the traditional view of a martyr in the Church is somebody who consciously dies for Christ rather than lives when given the choice by the persecutors to deny Christ and live or stick to Christ and die. Such were the martyrs of the classical period such as Saints Menas, Victor and George; and the later martyrs of our Church such as Saint Salib in AD 1512. Christian martyrdom was based on audacity, defiance, courage and faith. In political terms, the martyrs were performing an act of resistance – a peaceful resistance based on conscious self-sacrifice to bring about victory of the Kingdom of Heaven. That was a great and might fight in which the martyr enlisted in the forces of Christ against the forces of the Lords of Darkness of this World: a drama of the highest degree.

Second, not all who have been killed by the Islamists from within us recently are, however, martyrs in the traditional meaning of the word. Some are, such as the 21 Martyrs of Libya in 2015 and the 28 Martyrs of Minya in 2017 who refused to convert to Islam to avoid execution. But, there are many Copts who have been killed, like those attacked at their homes, slaughtered at their work-places or shot or blown up at churches. These were courageous heroes, and many of them were undoubtedly saints; however, it will be hard to call them martyrs as they were not exposed to the same test as that faced by, for example, Saint Salib. They were often attacked and killed unaware; and some might had been, like me, full of sins and often in doubt though always fighting it. Again, some of them might have not wanted to die at all, at least unnaturally and prematurely as they had families to look after and lives, nay, divine gifts, to enjoy and use to help others and make the world better. Some Copts may not be religious at all at the time of their massacre by the Islamists.

Third, and here I come to the main reason behind writing this article: there is a danger in considering all our dead at the hands of our enemy as martyrs since martyrdom is taken as victory in a conflict; something that is welcomed, praised and often invited in our history. It guarantees Paradise – the easiest way to be with Christ, the angels and saints afterlife. Martyrdom is an event to celebrate rather than to be sad about. The Copts, therefore, tend not to see the magnitude of loss once they put in their mind that the dead is a martyr. When it is real martyrdom, there is nothing wrong with that attitude; but, when it is not, there is every reason to regret it: it trivialises the loss; reduces anger; and paralyses one into doing nothing to prevent more of it. It is a recipe for impotence.

No, not all those who were massacred of us by the Islamists were martyrs – many were not aware that they were to die that death; many wanted to live out their natural lives like all normal human beings; and yet many did not want to die unprepared spiritually.  The Copts must not fool themselves into a belief that all is well; that all will enter Paradise; that there was nothing to be angry about or to fight and prevent. The Copts must see their dead as victims of crime – fallen, heroes and brave men and women; but not all martyrs. This will make them appreciate the magnitude of their loss; take it as abnormal, unnatural and unwanted; and fight to prevent its repetition.

You may also want to read my article titled The Coptic concept of martyrdom must not be contaminated by Islam here.

WORLD COPTIC CONGRESS

January 1, 2018

Helwan

The heart-breaking mourning of the families of the Coptic victims who were massacred by the Islamists in Helwan on 29 December 2017

The massacres of Copts by the Islamists in Egypt, and the persecution, intensify. The Coptic situation has never been worse than what it is now under the government of President Sisi. Since the era of the Mamlukes of the pre-French Campaign we haven’t seen anything like this. Even at the days of the Muslim Brotherhood under Morsi we witnessed nothing like it. President Sisi and his government stand accused of impotence in protecting the Copts – nay, it stands accused of encouraging, and colluding with, the attacks on them, their worship-places, residences and work-places through an alliance with the extremist views of al-Azhar and the Salafists.

Naturally, under such conditions, the Copts will ask how they can protect themselves and force the Egyptian government to undertake its duty in bringing the anti-Coptic situation in Egypt under control. One of the legitimate ways to do so is to mount international pressure on the government to realise its duties. Egypt is a member of the international community and a member of the United Nations; and under international law it has duty to stop the anti-Coptic propaganda and protect the Coptic citizens. We, therefore, do not see any wrong in bringing world pressure on it to do its job.

But, one of the reasons this is not happening is the weakness of the Coptic movement in the Diaspora. The Copts now have communities all over the world, spreading from Japan to the US. There are many Coptic activists – leaders – who work to help their brethren in Egypt; however, they represent a divided leadership, and are infective working individually. Further, there is no one organisation to represent them, and their communities.

It is about time to create a world organistion to coordinate the efforts of all Coptic leaders and to make them focus on shared objectives. We suggest the formation of a World Coptic Congress – an international federation of Coptic communities and organisations run in a democratic way that acts as the diplomatic arm of the Copts outside Egypt.

It is a high duty.

 

FURTHER EVIDENCE THAT COPTS OF ALEXANDRIA HELPED IN THE DECLINE OF COPTIC LANGUAGE AND AIDED THE SHIFT FROM COPTIC TO ARABIC

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.

 

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[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.

MY RITUAL TO CELEBRATE THE COPTIC LANGUAGE NATIONAL DAY

December 17, 2017

CLND

Today, the 17th of December, I celebrated the Coptic Language National Day with this simple ritual:

I placed bitter on the tip of my tongue, tasted it and then, turning my head to my left shoulder, made a gesture of spitting it out. I, then, took a mouthful of pure bee honey, swallowed it; and while turning my head to my right shoulder, I uttered the following words: I shall never abandon you, my sweet Coptic language.

The bitter could be any of the known bitter herbs, ranging from chamomile to horseradish. The bitter represents the Arabic language which was forced on us, and now we reject it with a spit; the pure bee honey represents our sweet Coptic language that we are resolved to revive.

Had I been with a similar-minded group today, I would have given a toast in honour of the Coptic language.

This is my simple Coptic Language National Day ritual. Rituals go a long way to enforce beliefs and dramatize events. A ritual like this helps in strengthening our resolve to revive Coptic. I am, therefore, not embarrassed of sharing it with you, and hope all of you will repeat this ritual with me next year.

THE COPTIC LANGUAGE NATIONAL DAY

December 17, 2017

Today, the 17th of December is the Coptic Language National Day. It is also the Feast of Saint Samuel of Kalamoun, the 7th century Coptic saint to whom the Apocalypse of Samuel of Kalamoun is referred. The Apocalypse was composed in a later century but it is likely that it has a nucleus that goes back to Saint Samuel. In the Apocalypse, Saint Samuel laments the decline of Coptic to the advantage of Arabic, and issues woes after woes upon those Copts who enable that shift. Saint Samuel’s feast is a pertinent day to celebrate the Coptic language and to resolve to revive it.

We are in the business of reviving it as a national language for the Copts!

HOW DO WE KNOW THE EXACT DATE MARKING THE BEGINNING OF THE ARAB INVASION OF EGYPT – EGYPT’S BLACK DAY

December 12, 2017

In the middle of the seventh century, the coastal Coptic town of Hrinokorura (or Rhinocolura) in Sinai, known to Arabs as al-‘Arish (العَرِيْش), represented the first town on the north-eastern borders between Egypt and Palestine; and its border was marked by the little valley of al-‘Arish that was reached from the east by crossing a torrent-bed that marked the frontier.[1]

As we are told in Arab sources, ‘Amr ibn al-‘Asi, the emir at the head of the invading Arabs, was not supported by his Caliph, Omar ibn al-Khattab, in his endeavour to invade Egypt. While ‘Amr was enthusiastic, Omar was hesitant and lacked confidence in ‘Amr. In a meeting at al-Jabyah, near Damascus, the two leaders met in the autumn of AD 639, while the siege of Caesarea by the Arabs was still on-going. There, ‘Amr succeeding in convincing Omar of the ease with which Egypt could be occupied. However, it seems that Omar’s doubts and his lack of confidence in ‘Amr intensified afterwards; and after ‘Amr had marched his troops towards the Egyptian border,  Omar sent him a letter that reached him while he, and his troops, were still at Rafah inside Palestinian land, over 45 km away from al-‘Arish. The letter ordered ‘Amr to return back if by the time the letter had reached him he was still within Palestinian borders; however, if he had already crossed the Egyptian frontiers, he should proceed. But ‘Amr, cunning and designing, knew the content of the letter; and, therefore, he did not open the letter and read it to his troops until they had arrived in ‘Arish. He, therefore, took the appearance of not being disobedient to the Caliph.

We don’t know when that exactly happened, but we know from the ninth century Arab historian, Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, in his Futuh Misr (Conquests of Egypt), that ‘Amr and his troops celebrated Eid al-Adha (Muslim Day of Sacrifice) in al-‘Arish on 10 Zhu al-Hijja 18 AH, which corresponds to 12 December 639 AD.[2] This, Alfred Butler finds as a credible, settled date that fits so well with other known dates.[3]

Arab feet might have touched the land of Egypt first time, marking the beginning of their invasion of Egypt, a day or two before that Eid al-Adha; however, the 12th of December in the year 639 AD is the only date we can strongly associate with the presence of the invading Arabs in Hrinokorura; and, therefore, it is appropriate to take as the date in which the Arabs entered our sacred land to occupy. That 12th of December was our Black Day.

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[1] Today, al-‘Arish borders the Gaza Strip and Israel.

[2] For more on this, read: Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Domain, first published in 190; Special edition for Sandpiper Books Ltd., 1998; pp. 195-198.

[3] Ibid; n. 2; p. 198.

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