Coptic Manuscripts are the written records left to us by our forefathers. They represent a still-video of the past. Each provides a unique picture as well as a window to view the past. No published text of such manuscripts can reflect that by its mere transcription of the texts included in them. Along with their all-important textual content, one can also observe the art, the life, the history, and even the thoughts of our forefathers. These aspects are very valuable to have when one realizes the turmoil that clung to the Copts for much of their long history. A turmoil that made direct evidence of the culture, at times, nearly impossible to find. Much of these cultural treasures made their way outside of Egypt. Of those several fell prey at times to fire, World Wars, and the oblivion of the vaults of the private collectors. What was left in Egypt even had a worse fate. Their predicament was mainly the ignorance of of their value by those who were entrusted with them . It should be noted that those in foreign hands, except for the private collectors and those that behave in like manner, can be easily consulted and be benefited from. Those left in Egypt are extremely difficult to consult either from within or from without.
St. Shenouda The Archimandrite Coptic Society has long recognized the value of such treasures. As a result, the Society embarked on a project to collect copies of such manuscripts in microfilm format. Such format does limit the information that can be obtained, but beggars can not be choosers. The purpose of the collection is to preserve as well as to study these treasured records. Thus far about 200,000 frames of Coptic, Coptic-Arabic, and Arabic Christian Manuscripts were obtained. This is equivalent to about 300,000 pages. Currently, the collection is being utilized for the compilation of the Coptic Bible, producing critical text editions of liturgical books, and text translation projects. The collection is available in the Society's Center for Coptic Studies in Los Angeles and some copies are available in its Orange County Regional Center.
The manuscripts have come to us in the following forms:
a. Codex: This is the book-format, where pages are combined to form quires and the quires are bound together to form a book. This format was probably invented by the early Christians to distinguish their writings from those of the Jewish ones that favored the scroll format. Keep in mind that both the Jews and the Christians in the early centuries wrote their works in Greek.
b. Scroll: This format was rare among the Christians of Egypt or Christian in General. However, some small scrolls survived, containing Coptic Material. They are written records that can be read horizontally across or vertically down a rolled sheet. Such contained mainly magical texts.
The Copts used a variety of material to record their writings. Such choice depended on the availability of such material to the writer. The material that survived the test of time was of the following types:
a. Papyrus: As an Ancient Egyptian invention, it took the Ancient World by storm. It became the material of choice by the scribes of the past. It continued in use till sometimes in the 10th century AD. The material. comes from the pith of the Papyrus plant, cut in stripes, and pressed together in a grid fashion. Then the different grids are joined together by overlapping these section to form a roll. The roll is then cut up in sheet form to facilitate their use in Codex format. So this format is characterized by a page with vertical stripes and the backside with horizontal ones.
b. Parchment (vellum): The skin of gazelle has long been used for writing manuscripts. However it did not gain popularity until the twilight of the papyrus age. This happened around the 8-9th century AD. It was manufactured by preparing the skin in very thin slices and then they were salted and dried until fit to be written upon. this format is characterized by one smooth face, the flesh side, and a rough one, the hair side. This type of writing material continued in use until the early 13th century AD.
c. Oriental Paper: In the 13th century AD. , the writing world was endowed with the appearance of linen paper in the Middle East. The manufacture of such paper flourished especially in Egypt. Due to its cheaper production cost, it quickly replaced the parchment as the paper of choice but not for too long.
d. European Paper: In the 14th century AD. The Italian mills began to produce a similar but less expensive paper. This was characterized by the introduction of watermarks to distinguish the different manufacturers. Eventually this replaced the Oriental linen paper which apparently fell victim to the collapse of the Moslem Arabic Dynasties in the Middle East around the 14-15th centuries AD.
e. Limestone tablets: Many written records, literary and nonliterary, were recorded on limestone tablets in ink. Many of these have been discovered in the different excavations of ancient monastic sites in Egypt.
f. Wooden Tablets: Some writings have been preserved on small wooden boards. Such practice was relatively rare in Egypt and one of the more ancient forms of writing.
g. Pottery Shreds: A more common and economical writing material was the pottery shreds which was used to record short literary texts or excerpts as well as nonliterary material such as letters and legal texts. Thousands of these pieces, commonly referred to as Ostraca, are preserved in the museums and libraries of Europe and North America.
h. Bones: Animal bones were sometimes used for writings in the earlier centuries of Coptic Christianity. The texts preserved here are usually of lesser important than those recorded on the other writing materials mentioned above.
The Copts utilized the material available in their environment to create ink in a variety of colors to use for recording their manuscripts. Monks were specially noted for such skillful practices. Some of these domestically produced writing tools are as follows:
a. ink: The ink used on the manuscripts was chemically prepared from special materials to which Arabic gum was added to give it a cohesive form. Evidence for that practice is found in a story about St. Macarius Monastery in the Nitrian Desert during the 12th century AD. There, the authorities is mentioned to have confiscated such specially made material used for writing by the monks, based on the slanderous testimony of a dismissed monk.
b. Pens: Wooden reeds were mostly used in writing. Many of these are preserved in the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo. Some features made out of silver have been also found.
c. Pen-cases: To preserve the writing reeds, pen-cases were made. They were either from wood or commonly made of leather. Some as early as the 4th century AD. are still preserved in museums.
d. ink-pots: The copyists employed small pots to store the different ink used in producing the manuscripts. Some of these were found in excavations of old monasteries in Upper Egypt with visible traced of ink in them.
To preserve the manuscripts intact, the Copts covered them with leather bindings. This practice gave rise to a flourishing art that attained a very high standard. These leather binds were embossed with special seals to provide eloquent designs, crosses, and figures of the apostles and the saints. The Pierpont Morgan Library, in New York, preserves a remarkable collection of such bindings as part of its collection of the ancient monastery of St. Michael in the Fayoum.
The format of Coptic Manuscripts provide an indication of the date and purpose of such document. There are many distinguishing and rather unique aspects of this format. The following is some of these unique characteristics found:
a. Rubrics: The word is derived from the Latin "Rubrica" meaning red. It is used in reference to headings or titles used in manuscripts which were usually written in a distinguishing red color. In Coptic manuscripts they were commonly written in large, capital characters.
b. Colors: The Copts used a variety of colors to record their manuscripts. The red was reserved for rubrics and the black for the general textual material. Other colors such as yellow, blue, green, gold, and silver were used predominantly for the beautiful adornments that they decorated their manuscripts with.
c. Columns: The Copts have their manuscripts written either in one or two columns when all in Coptic. The one-column format was the older one. After the 7th century AD. the manuscripts, specially those of liturgical use, were written in a 2-column format. Of course in bilingual manuscripts, Coptic-Greek, the practice was more ancient.
d. Bilingual: Historically, manuscripts of the Christians of Egypt were written first in Greek then in Coptic and finally in Arabic. For mostly liturgical functions, bilingual manuscripts were produced utilizing combinations of either of the non-Coptic texts with that of the Coptic. In other words, they were produced in Coptic-Greek or Coptic-Arabic. The Coptic-Greek was definitely the more ancient of the two. Some manuscripts have survived with the Coptic column written in Arabic characters, as is the unfortunate custom of many of the editions of liturgical books in the Coptic Church nowadays. It should be noted that bilingual Coptic-Arabic manuscripts were not used in the Eucharist services. This is seen in the existence of only Coptic or only Arabic manuscript of the different lectionaries of the Coptic Church. This is due to the fact that each version was read from a different lectern.
e. Size: Size is an important characteristic of the manuscripts. Usually a smaller size manuscript was produced for individual use, whether private or ecclesiastical. The larger format was typically produced for liturgical use as a reading book, and ultimately placed on lecterns.
f. Pagination: The Copts used a variety of methods of pagination which is of great importance to the researchers who attempt to piece manuscripts together from fragments or loose folios. They customarily employed two sets of numbers, one for the folio and another for the quire. The folio number is usually placed on the upper outside corner of the verso side of the folio, i.e. the back side of the page. The quire number is traditionally placed at the beginning recto page of it (right side of the page) and at the verso page of the last folio. Usually the number is written on both top corners of the page with a small ornament at the upper center.
g. Ruling: To facilitate good quality of work, a ruling pattern was used prior to start of writing. Such ruling was based on some uniform system that the scribes have been familiar with.
h. Colophon: At the conclusion of a manuscript, the scribe writes a small concluding section. In the older manuscripts the scribe would use a different, cursive hand to record such a section. However in the newer manuscripts, that practice was abandoned in favor of a similar hand to what the manuscript was written in. In this colophon the scribe usually affix a small prayer as well as record such information as the his name, profession, place of writing, ownership, and date of completion. The information in this section is sometimes as important as the contents of the manuscript itself.
The Copts had a custom of decorating their manuscripts with a variety of designs and images recorded in various beautiful colors. Manuscripts designed for Church-use seem to have more of these decorations. Some of the major features of such decorations are as follows:
a. Paragraph marks: The Copts used decorative design for the initial letter of a paragraph that combined pictures with clever design. They also added intermediate as well as final simple decorative marks, e.g. diple.
b. Decorations: Throughout the manuscript page one finds drawings or geometric designs in the margins as well as beginning and ends of sections. There are also beautiful monograms at the beginning and end of each quire.
c. Crosses: Most of the later liturgical manuscripts are adorned with an initial full page, beautifully-designed cross. Sometimes small miniatures or birds are attached to two or the four quadrants defined by the cross.
d. Miniatures: One of the most attractive feature of a manuscript is a full or a partial page iconographic picture. The subject matter of such miniatures ranges from appropriate scenes from the Old and the New Testament in their respective Biblical manuscripts to hagiographic representations in liturgical and literary ones. The most illuminated of the Coptic Manuscripts is the Paris FourGospels Bohairic manuscript B.N. Copte 13.
Coptic Manuscripts have come down to us in a variety of dialects and subdialects. The most numerous are in Sahidic and Bohairic. The ones in Sahidic ranges from the third to the 15th century AD. They cover a variety of subjects such as the Bible, hagiography, Patristics, monastic, ... etc. Most of the manuscripts are preserved outside of Egypt in a more or less dismembered state. The ones in Bohairic are the more in numbers but of later dates. The earliest is 9th century, though there are rare examples of 4th century ones found. The manuscript tradition in this dialect continued to the early 20th century AD. The majority of the manuscripts are Biblical or Liturgical, though there is a sizable hagiographic and patristic library that belonged to St. Macarius Monastery and is now preserved in the Vatican. Many are found outside of Egypt but much are in still preserved in the major Coptic Manuscript collections in Egypt. They are mostly preserved intact. Other major dialects with preserved texts are the Achmimic, Asyutic, Middle-Egyptian (Meso-Kemic), and Fayumic.
Dates of manuscripts were not always recorded in the manuscript. When it was, it came in a variety of formats. In the earlier manuscripts they used the years of indiction ( a 15-year-cycle) and a reference to the Roman Emperor of the time. Later, they introduced the Coptic Year chronography or the year of the Martyrs which is referenced to the year 284 AD. In the Medieval manuscript they even added a reference to the Islamic Calendar, sometimes referred to as the year of the Sons of Hagar. Dates have ranged from the 3rd to the early 20th century AD.
A variety of subjects has been included in the preserved manuscripts. The most significant of these subjects are as follows:
i. Biblical: The whole New Testament is preserved in Bohairic and Sahidic with some whole books and fragments preserved in other dialects. Most of the historical and some of the literary Old Testament books are missing in Bohairic. However much of these is preserved in Sahidic. The other dialects preserve parallel portions but do not cover the lacuna.
ii. Patristics: Many fathers of the Coptic Church or those widely read in the Coptic Church are preserved in Sahidic as well as Bohairic. The Libraries of the White Monastery of St. Shenouda (preserved in many places), the St. Macarius (Bohairic), the St. Michael of Hamouli (New York), and the St. Michael of Edfu (London) contained most of these treasures. The most in number, and worst in shape, are the corpus of the writings of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite. Many Writings are also preserved by Saints Athanasius, Cyril I, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Pachomius and his disciples, Besa, and others. They are mostly in Sahidic.
iii. Hagiographic: A variety of the martyriologies and lives of the saints and the monastic fathers is preserved in Coptic. Those of the Martyrs of the Diocletian era, St. Antony, St. Pachomius, St. Shenouda, and St. Macarius are the most notable of this group. Bohairic and Sahidic manuscripts are well attested in this group.
iv. Liturgical: Most of the liturgical manuscripts are preserved in Bohairic with some in Sahidic. These include Euchologions, Horologions, Lectionaries, Psalmodias, Ordinations, and Offices. The are the best-preserved group in terms of numbers.
v. Canonical: Some canons of the fathers as well as the councils are preserved in Sahidic but not a complete set.
vi. Historical: This is the least represented class among the literary manuscripts. Only few Church History manuscripts has been identified and all are in Sahidic.
b. Nonliterary: The majority are in Sahidic.
i. Legal Documents: Contracts, deeds, wills, ...etc.
ii. Letters: Private letter between people as well as between clerics of the church or the monasteries.
i. Lexicographic: They are written in two categories; Muqademat (Grammar) and Salalem or scalae (Vocabulary lists). Some are in Sahidic but most in Bohairic and Arabic.
ii. Gnostic and Manichaean: They have become most important among scholars due to the find of Nag Hammadi texts Sahidic texts and the Asyutic Manichaean tetxs. Hundreds of Scholars have participated in their study in the past quarter century. The Manichaean texts are considered one of the best written in Coptic.
iii. Astronomical and Astrological: There are few.
iv. Medical: There are few.
v. Magical: There are a several Christian-style magical texts preserved in Coptic. They are important in learning about the popular beliefs that existed among the Copts at different stages of their existence.
Prepared by Hany N. Takla 9/15/96
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