by Hany N.
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During the period of September 16 to October 2, I made my first trip abroad since my 1970 immigration to the US from the lands of my ancestors, Egypt. The destination was Great Britain. I was accompanied by my ever-patient wife. The trip was undertaken primarily for the purpose of establishing and/or strengthening International contacts for the Society. Specifically I had the following objectives in mind:
Most of the above objectives were met with success even beyond my expectations, and others fell below what I would have hoped for due to circumstances beyond human control. In summary the guiding hand of the Lord was constantly evident as it has always been in steering the work of the Society for the ultimate purpose of glorifying His Holy Name.
I would like to share with our members, in more details, the results of this trip as far as the Society is concerned along with my own impressions. For the sake of organization, I will try to arrange these according to geographical locations rather than following the order of the objectives listed above.
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Our 5-night stay in the Woodbrooke Settlement of Selly Oak Birmingham was primarily to attend the Symposium. The peaceful accommodation and communal-like atmosphere was courteously extended to us by the staff there, especially Mr. Chris Lawson who was untiring and ever-present in meeting our needs and guiding us when needed. Mr. Ramses Wassif, the Society's Secretary, joined us later as planned, to attend the Symposium. He was also accompanied by his wife.
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Prior to the start of the Symposium, I visited the Central Library of the Selly Oak Colleges, where the Mingana collection is housed. This visit was coordinated earlier by Mr. Chris Lawson with Mrs. Meline Nielsen, the Librarian. The collection was founded between the years 1924 and 1929 with Arabic (Christian & Islamic) and Syriac manuscripts. The manuscripts were primarily brought by Prof. Alphonse Mingana (1878-1937), a member of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, who settled in England and taught there since 1913. The Christian Arabic part of the collection is less than 10% of the total (270 out of approx. 3000). More than 50 of those are of Coptic provenance but only four are actually Coptic, all liturgical.
I had the chance to consult three of the Coptic manuscripts along with a 15th century copy of the first volume of the Synaxarium and a 19th century hagiographic manuscript that had several, yet coarse, miniatures. I was concerned with the overview of the contents of these manuscripts and took notes on the illuminations contained in some of them. I was particularly struck by the dominant use of the green color in many of the miniatures included in that hagiographic manuscript. According to Dr. Stephane Rene, the renowned Coptic iconographer in London, the use of the green color reflects Islamic influence. The leather binding of some of those manuscripts was particularly of interest to me. I observed in one, a handsome end flap that gave the manuscript a closed-box appearance. While another had a corona embossing on the cover that I saw latter in some of the Islamic manuscripts, housed the London's British Library.
Mrs. Nielsen was kind enough to give me the address of the company in Holland that distributes microfilms of these manuscripts. She also gratefully accepted my modest reassessment of the contents of one of the Coptic manuscripts as a liturgical, Psalis of Coptic feasts, rather than a Coptic New Testament one as previously cataloged. However, I was more disappointed at my discovery because I was looking forward to see a New Testament manuscript of such a small format. Such format usually indicate private use which is relatively rare among such manuscripts, i.e. Bohairic ones.
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This symposium was the one event that prompted my decision to leave the comfortable confines of home and travel over 5,000 miles. It was a two-day event that lasted from mid-morning to late evening. Less than 30 people were in attendance in general. Pope Shenouda's paper, as predicted, attracted a higher attendance principally from members of the clergy and the Coptic community. Two notable presenters were not able to attend for various reasons, Professors Adel Sidarous of Portugal and Van Koningsveld of Leiden. This initiated one revision after another of the schedule. A frustrating yet common feature in such international gatherings. The patience and diligence of Dr. David Thomas, the symposium's organizer, minimized the effect of such changes.
As far as I can gather, the following is a list of the attendees:
On Monday, September 19, the opening ceremony of the symposium was held. It started with an elegant Buffet Supper attended by the Symposium participants and invited guests. The Pope was in attendance along with four Coptic bishops and the senior Coptic priests in the UK. The guest of honor was the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Councillor Sir Richard Knowles and his wife. Several other dignitaries were also in attendance. This was followed by a formal opening ceremony in a nearby hall. There, a larger crowd was in attendance, which included nearly the entire Coptic clergy that serves in the UK Coptic churches along with several members of the Coptic community in Birmingham and other places.
The Pope was introduced by the President of the Selly Oak Colleges, Dr. Martin Conway. Joining them on the stage were the Lord Mayor; the Right Reverend John Dennis, Bishop of St. Edmunsbury and Ipswich, representing the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Mr. Charles Jillet, chairman of the Edward Cadbury Charitable Trust and of the Selly Oak Colleges Trust. Each gave a brief talk welcoming the symposium members and the Pope, stressing the contributions of the Coptic Church to the Christian Church as a whole. Then the Pope gave a talk about the history of the Coptic Church and the Holy Family's visit to Egypt. At the conclusion, the Pope gave designated indivisuals commemorative gifts. The Mayor received his earlier because he had to leave early for a prior engagement. The evening concluded as usual with the members of the Symposium convening in the food hall of the Woodbrooke College and conversing till midnight.
There was a total of 8 official sessions for the symposium along with three informal ones over the following two days. Eleven papers and a slide presentation were presented. Four lasted an hour and a half each and the rest for one hour each. The longer papers were in separate sessions and they were given in the morning and early afternoon with a coffee break intermission. The shorter ones were grouped in two per sessions and were given in the late afternoon and evening with the evening meal being the intermission. A longer intermission was made between the long and the short sessions. This intermission included lunch and a free access period to the Mingana Collection in the Central Library nearby. Also an informal session was convened toward the end of the intermission to allow the participant to discuss the different projects that they or their colleagues have been working on in the field of Christian Arabic Studies. A concluding informal session was given at the end of the final day of the symposium to discuss the format for the next symposium. A summary of the papers and discussions during these sessions are as follows:
: This paper surveyed first the history of al-Assal family, the environment they lived in, and their literary contributions to the Coptic Church. Then the Pope discussed in some details the collection of canons by al-Safi, the oldest of al-Assal brothers. The work was done during the patriarchate of Cyril III and was commissioned by the Holy Synod of the Church. The Pope cited several negative examples concerning the work primarily with regard to the use of apocryphal canons. Some of these canons were later used to substantiate the claims of primacy of Rome for example. He also used some of the royal laws (i.e. civil laws) which are not recognized by the Church. The Pope contended that this work can not be considered a collection of the laws of the Coptic Church based on his use of such spurious canons and the introduction of even some Islamic laws. In making such conclusion, the Pope made the assumption that the Holy Synod turned to the author for assistance and he should have been more faithful in the work that he later submitted to them.
This paper drew some interesting discussions with regards to the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue that has been going on for some time now. However the most pertinent discussion was strongly initiated by Prof. Samir, who defended the author as a scholar who gave the Synod a collection from which they can choose from. According to Prof. Samir, making the collection was the objective. He also used the Pope's observation of the distinguishing notation that al-Safi used to refer to the different sets of Nicene canons as evidence for his sound scholarship. The differing points of view never saw the light of reconciliation but friendship nevertheless was not strained.
Interconfessional Contacts and Borrowings, by Dr. Johannes den Heijer: This paper dealt mainly with the interconnection of the different histories or chronicles that were written during the period of the 11th through the 13th centuries. It surveyed first some of the Coptic sources that were drawn upon by the first writer of the History of the Patriarchs, Al-Mawhub in the 11th century. It continued on to establish the evolution of such chronicles during the above mentioned period and how they drew from or built upon others. He also dealt with the eternal problem of proper attribution of works to their authors. There he mentioned the concept of layered texts where many hands have contributed in order to bring it to their last surviving form. Identification of earlier manuscripts of such texts along with careful, comparative study of the extant ones will help in separating these layers and thus providing us with a clearer picture of Coptic History. One important aspect presented was the use of other sources, non-orthodox, Jewish, Gentile, as well as Moslem, in writing such histories. Such sources were predominantly Arabic, as Syriac and other languages did not seem to have much influence on these writings, especially the History of the Patriarchs.
Much work in this field is left to be done. Copts in particular need to get interested in methodically researching in such field. I was personally intrigued by the near unanimous rejection of the traditional attribution of the first History of Patriarchs to Severus ibn al-Muqafaa. The first writer of such work is a notable layman in the 11th century by the name of al-Mawhub abu al-Farij. This was introduced some years ago in the doctoral dissertation of the presenter. According to him, no one has disputed his findings.
Prof. Samir asked for a half-hour informal gathering of those that are doing research in the field to talk about the work that each or his/her colleagues were working on. The time allotted was very short for such an interchange. Subsequently a second session, an hour long, was proposed for the following day for continuation of the discussion and it was agreed upon. The most notable discussion, with particular interest to our Society, was the training work that Drs. Den Heijer and Swanson are doing in Egypt with monks as well as laymen Copts. In essence they were trying to develop researchers in this field by teaching them the fundamentals of research and of working with the ancient texts.
This presentation dealt with the concept of borrowing in Art and Architecture, from Moslem by Copts, during the period that the Symposium is dealing with. The observations of Dr. Hunt were presented with the aide of several color slides. She discussed and compared such Art elements as miniatures and illuminations in manuscripts, woodwork, murals, and icons as well as architecture. Such borrowing, according to Dr. Hunt, was due to influence of Islamic art and architecture.
In the ensuing discussions after the presentation there was general tendency to downplay such borrowing. Prof. Dayodan indicated that one of the motifs discussed, incense, was seen in earlier Armenian manuscripts. I personally saw that dating of motifs, such as the recently-discovered fresco in the Syrian Monastery, may be older than assumed. This would preclude it from this phenomenon. Also the fact of common Coptic craftsmen working on Coptic as well as Moslem art works, may show a common neutral artistic concept being developed by the Christians to match the new political surroundings! One thing to keep in mind is that accurate dating of artistic work will definitely aid in settling this question.
This paper dealt with the translation of the Coptic patristic writings into Arabic during the period of 950-1270 AD. Dr. Rubenson divided the process during that period into three stages as follows:
Problems in better understanding this process lies in the fact that many of the Coptic originals are lost, rare, or fragmentary. The presence of many errors in such texts does not help matters any.
Prof. Samir in his comments at the conclusion of the paper suggested another period, before the early period. There, more primitive translations were made. To such period he ascribed the anti-Arabic Vision of St. Samuel. His reasoning for is that people could not translate that badly from the 10th century on.
Many questions came to my mind during this paper. One for instance is when did the corpus of St. Shenouda's writings get translated into Arabic and how much of it was done? More importantly, how does the translation from Sahidic to Bohairic fit into that scheme and to what was its extent? Also were the Arabic translation from Coptic done from original Sahidic or from original Bohairic or from Bohairic translation of Sahidic? Unfortunately the time and the place did not permit the asking of such questions.
This paper presented a fascinating survey of the history of the Armenians in Egypt during the Fatimid period. A history that brought members of a heretical sect with more Islamic than Christian tendencies to Egypt in the late 11th century. They later seized power under the Fatimids with as many as 30,000 man army of Armenian Moslems. She discussed a 50-year brutal rule of Badr Gamali, a famous Armenian Vizier and his family. They rule was backed by a private army of about 7,000 Armenian Moslems. Ironically they set up an Armenian Patriarch in Egypt. Afterwards, Pahram, an orthodox Armenian vizier took control in the first third of the 12th century. He brought his own Christian army and persecuted the conquered Moslem forces of Badr Gamali's clan. However, Pahram and his followers drew the resentment of the Copts due to the favor bestowed upon the Christian Armenians and cause them to lose some of their influence as well as ecclesiastical possessions. The 12th century eventually brought with it the sunset of the Armenian control in the government.
The discussions were mainly innocent clarification requests. It seemed that everyone was more surprised and intrigued by the phenomenon of Armenian Moslems or heretics. Previously, Armenian presence in Egypt was always assumed to be a Christian one. Now we are faced with the notion of two types of Armenians that exerted influence on Egyptian history and politics in the 11th and the 12th centuries. Who can say now that history is a stale subject!
Prof. Ebied presents here a newly discovered Arabic version of the Sibylline prophecy that apparently exhibited an Egyptian provenance. This prophecy originated in Persia after the death of Alexander the Great. It later took on a Christian shape. The text being discussed is preserved in the Oxford Bodleian Library. It is assumed to be a Melkite text. The proof of its Egyptian or Coptic origin lies in such features as the frequent geographical mention of monasteries and churches, the use of the term 'the orthodox king', and some interesting abbreviated forms of words. Other interesting substitution are that of Alexandria for Rome and priests for magistrates. The text, according to Prof. Ebied can possibly be ascribed to the 11th century which is within the time period that the Symposium dealt with.
This paper was the first one to be devoted to Bp. Severus ibn al-Muqafaa and his works. Prof. Griffith gave a brief history of our writer with a survey of his works that no longer includes the History of the Patriarchs. He estimated his birth to be in the period 910-915 AD. His death is also estimated to be at the beginning of the 11th century. He was introduced as the best Copt of his time that wrote in Arabic with his apologetical works being the most widely known among the Copts. He also seemed to be closely connected with Cairo even after being ordained a bishop of a relatively far place in Middle Egypt, Al-Ashmunain.
Specifically, Prof. Griffith discussed a small work of Bp. Severus, Misbah al-Aql (the Lamp of the Mind). This work is known from three manuscripts that survived. It apparently had limited circulation. It represented an address to a certain person as a summary of the faith. There he discussed 17 topics of theological and other subjects. He leveled charges at the Jews and heretics. He also pointed out the effect that Islam had on some theological subjects and its help in developing the methodology to introduce and defend Christian theology. However he distinguished himself from Moslem theologians in his definition of God's essence He used Arabic to express his arguments in the language and the style of his days. He was exact in his use of technical terms.
The discussions dealt mainly with the sources that Bp. Severus drew from in formulating his theological arguments. The writings of SS. Basil and Gregory the Theologian were the sources suggested. Then the question of what language these sources were available to him in, was asked. The answer to this question stimulated a more lively discussion. Coptic and Greek were the languages that all seem to agree upon with Syriac being discounted by many for a variety of reasons. But did Bp. Severus know Greek and to what extent. Many had no quarrel in attributing an adequate knowledge of Greek to him to facilitate his use of such sources. In my opinion, if he had to be familiar with these writings it must have been through Greek, because Coptic seemed to preserve little of the theological works of such fathers. This is a reflection of the monastic nature of the patristic work available in Coptic.
Now we sat to listen to the leading scholar in the field of Christian Arabic. His paper dealt with a broad survey of the role of Christians in general and Copts in particular during the Fatimids rule from 961 until Al-Hafiz in 1149 AD. That time seemed to be a flourishing period for Christians. They held good and indispensable jobs in the government. With the exception of Al-Hakim, who was an equal opportunity persecutor of Moslems as well as Christians, they were treated well.
The Fatimids seemed to feel that their power was derived from above. This made them to discount their need for the support of the populace. This made them more tolerant to the Christians along with the obvious fact of the indispensability of their service. So no systematic persecution was waged. The Christian feasts were observed lavishly. However islamization was active during the period until the number of Christians declined enough to make it not worth while. Such numbers declined from 40% during the Fatimid period, with the majority in Upper Egypt, to 10% by the late Mamluke period.
One of the interesting points mentioned in the paper was the historical testimony of a Moslem complaining about being mistreated by the a Copt. In summary the Moslem was not pleased with the treatment that he was receiving from a Copt that achieved a high place in the government. He cited the justification for the Copt's behavior as that of one claiming to return the favor. In other words, the Copt did it because the Moslems did it to him and his countrymen first. A discussion followed, questioning the validity of a Moslem's testimony in such matter when there is no corroborating evidence elsewhere. That is when it got real interesting. Prof. Samir supported the possible validity of such testimony be recounting the fact of life in regards to Coptic-Moslem relations. He explained that there is one way to communicate with Moslems and an entirely different one when Copts among themselves talk about Moslems. The first way cites the similarities, while the second recounts their resentment.
No doubt the scholarship of Prof. Samir was evident in his presentation. However its remarkability lies more in being a subject of least interest to him as well as having to deliver it in English from notes written entirely in French.
In this hour long session, several other participants got the chance to talk about their work in Europe, the Middle East, and Australia. Through the encouraging efforts of Prof. Samir, I was given a chance to talk about the work of the Society. Due to time limitation, I only told of some of the educational efforts that we are doing among the Coptic Youth in Los Angeles in regards to teaching Coptic as well as the fundamentals of researching manuscripts aided by the extensive microfilm collection of manuscripts and research materials that we amassed in relation to the field of Coptic studies. Such efforts are being done by Prof. Samir in Lebanon on a wider and more academic scale with a lot more microfilm resources in the field of Christian Arabic Studies. The collection, mainly of Arabic manuscripts, totals about a million frame!
This paper dealt with a historical work of the early 10th century Melekite Patriarch of Alexandria, Said Ibn Al-Bitriq (874-940 AD.) The work was called Kitab Nazm al-Jawahar (Book of Arrangement of the Precious Stones). This work was later attacked in writing by Bp. Severus ibn al-Muqafaa. First a brief history of his early life was given, indicating that he was a physician as well as a theologian. This was followed with a survey of the work, pointing out its curious way of dating historical events as well as the unscholarly aspects of his methods. He, for some reason used the year of his birth as the base year of dating events he recorded which began with the creation of man. Many quotes from the work were recited to show his embellishment of historical events when little details were available. Also his embellishment of the story of the foundation of Baghdad, Rome of his time, was mentioned to further discredit his methodology. Ibn Khaldoun was cited as the best example of how one would write history.
Sources used by ibn al-Bitriq were said to be apocryphal ones such as "Cave of Treasures", Legends of the Jews and their Rabbinical literature, and even Islamic ones. In summary, the impression made on one who is not familiar with the work, was that the author wrote history of poor quality. Of course more knowledge of such author is required before jumping to such conclusion.
Here we have the second and final paper dealing with the writings of Bp. Severus ibn al-Muqafaa. The book being discussed is his most popular one, available in 78 manuscripts, Kitab al-Durr al-Thamin fi Idah al-Din (Book of the Precious Pearl in the Explanation of the Religion). The discussion centered on the 9th chapter, which the editor of the current printed edition saw fit to delete in favor of a non-informative brief summary. This chapter deals with Bp. Severus attack of a work popular in his time that talks about the angel of death and his activities. This work has been attributed to Timothy of Alexandria and is available in Sahidic Coptic. The attack made was both emphatic as well as categorical of such work. He said that Satan was the author of such work. He reiterated the principle that death is a consequence of sin.
In conclusion, we were given a picture of critical thinker who did not shy away from attacking popular notions in religion when it conflicted with the religion. We find him supporting his arguments with solid first principles of Christianity. We also finds him drawing from the Coptic tradition of his ancestors, such as using the earlier testimony of John of Burullus who shared his opinion of this pseudo-work. It is unfortunate that the readers of the printed edition were deprived of observing such wonderful and methodical defense of the religion because the material appeared to be too embarrassing to admit that it was ever in circulation among the Copts! I should not fail to add that the way this paper was delivered made it nothing less than most enjoyable.
A note worthy of mention is that the text being attacked here is preserved in a Sahidic manuscript in the London's British Library. The manuscript came from the library of an ancient monastery in Edfu, in Upper Egypt. A microfilm copy of the manuscript as well as the edited version of the text with an English translation By E. Wallis Budge are available at the St. Shenouda Center for Coptic Studies.
This was an intriguing slide presentation that took us on a journey in the deserts of Egypt. A journey of discovery of monastic life as it is lived today. From the contemplative quietness to the live festal celebration. From the primitive living to that of working with advanced computers. From the old wise monk to his youthful counterpart that tries to follow in his footsteps. A fascination journey made possible by the excellent skill of the one behind the camera. It displayed a way of life that continued in many ways to resemble those that pursued it during the centuries that the Symposium was scholarly exploring. It brought out the positive aspects of what was being discussed to balance the negative that naturally come out from such scholarly discussions.
Ms Rene is working on her Ph.D. in contemporary iconography from a photographic perspective, her specialty. Her husband Dr. Stephane Rene has done his doctoral work on the painting aspects of the same subject matter. He is also an accomplished iconographer that studied under the pioneer of the field Prof. Isaac Fanous. Two years ago, while in Los Angeles, Ms. Rene utilized the Society's microfilm collection in her search of examples of ancient hagiographic iconography in manuscript miniatures. They both helped raising awareness of contemporary iconography among members of the Coptic community in Los Angeles.
This paper dealt with the relations of the Coptic and Ethiopians Christians in the Holy Land throughout history. This historical survey started during the Turkish period which placed beyond the historical envelope that the Symposium was dealing with. There was an emphasis on the Deir al-Sultan issue in Jerusalem. This is a very sensitive issue as far as the Coptic Church is concerned. The tone of the paper tended to be sympathetic with the plight of the Ethiopian monks who were badly treated first by the Armenians then unfortunately by the Copts. The role of the European in providing protection and mediation on behalf of the Ethiopians was recounted with special mention of the British role. This subject is too explosive for the Copts at this time for me to elaborate further. So we will leave it at that!
At the conclusion of the Symposium, those who were still left convened under the guidance of Prof. Samir for one last time. There, a free discussion ensued for the purpose of deciding on a topic for the next Symposium. The objective was to make the subject matter of as wide a scope as practical, to allow more participation. The final decision involved Christian Arabic literature in the Middle East during a period that have an even earlier beginning than that covered in this Symposium. The time for the Symposium is to be in 1997.
The one thing that impressed me the most about this discussion was a minor item. It was a comment made by Dr. Den Heijer in response to a topic selection suggested by Mr. Ramses Wassif. The comment was to disagree with such a topic because of its narrow scope which would have him start from now to research a paper to be delivered three years in the future. A comment like this is an obvious one for a scholar to make, but in reality it reflects the dedication and the thoroughness that scholars bring in their research. A spirit like this coupled with the true love for God and His Church is what the Copts need to properly revive their glorious heritage.
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One of the most valuable benefit to be drawn from such gatherings is the personal contacts made. I learned this fact when attending the Coptic Congress in Washington DC in 1992. The smaller number of attendees of this Symposium made the contacts more concentrated. The objective was to acquaint the scholars as well as the students in that field with the work being done by the Society, to renew old ties made on prior occasions, and to establish ties with members of the Coptic Community in Great Britain. Before I went I already had certain people in mind to contact. The results, with God's usual guiding hand, was more than I expected.
Just about every one in attendance learned about the Society, its projects, and its efforts to revive and promote the Coptic Heritage. All who heard were receptive. Some were impressed enough to push me to talk to others about it. Dr. Mark Swanson and Mr. Peter Starr were representative of such group. With others like Dr. Den Heijer, Dr. and Mrs. Rene, and Dr. Wahba; it was renewal of old acquaintances. And still others Like Prof. Ebied and Dr. Megally it became possible to open avenues of contacts for the Society with the Coptic communities in Sidney, Australia and London, respectively. Gaining the respect for our work from such new stars in this field like Dr. Rubenson was very gratifying. I, on behalf of the Society, was also able to confidently offer assistance in a field like Coptic liturgical services to help the research of others like Dr. Hunt.
Lastly, we come to Prof. Samir. Establishing ties with him was one of the primary reasons for attending the Symposium in the first place. I was expecting to see an imposing solemn figure, hard to approach, and difficult to convince. Instead I found a true, untiring Christian scholar. He even proposed first ways of exchanging resources for the mutual benefit. Later I was able, with little effort, to have him accept the invitation to join the Society. We also discussed working together in standardization of cataloging manuscripts. Such standards would apply to Coptic manuscripts as well as Christian Arabic ones. Other fruits of this contact was to enlist his help in furnishing us with the methodology that students need to develop proper research techniques.
Every possible moment was utilized to make these contacts. Staying up past midnight hour was the common practice. The fields are now open to plant. They are only limited by how much an effort we will be willing to do. However, what the future will bring in terms of harvest is in the hand of the Almighty who makes every good thing grow.
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After the conclusion of the Symposium, I, accompanied by my wife, traveled back to London to pursue the other tasks that we have planned in advance. The results of this part of the trip was more than expected in some respects but less in others. The tranquil atmosphere of the Woodbrooke settlement was now to be replaced with the fast-paced life of Central London. This contributed indirectly to some of the disappointing results.
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On Friday September, 23, 1994, we visited the British Library (BL). A prior permission from the BL was obtained for such visit. The objective for this visit as well as the ones to the Oxford and the Cambridge libraries was to obtain information on Christian Arabic manuscripts there, to inspect the character of the manuscripts that form a integral part of our heritage, and to study manuscript illuminations and miniatures that can not be done satisfactorily from the black and white microfilms that we have.
The BL was traditionally located within the confines of the British Museum in Central London. In the recent past, the majority of the manuscripts were moved to an independent building about a couple of miles south east of the Museum on the other side of the Thames River. The building is equipped with a large reading room and with a library mainly of catalogs of manuscripts, microform facilities, on-line computer equipment, plus ample work space for the researchers. Silence, of course, reigned supreme in such a place.
While inside the reading room, we were joined by Dr. Nersessian, the curator of the Oriental and India Office Collections. He kindly acquainted us with the reading room. He also directed us to where the catalogs of the material we were seeking were kept and how to order the items that we would like to inspect.
I was able to identify more than 20 Christian Arabic manuscripts of Coptic provenance. These were found in a 100-year old catalog. More items were included in even older catalogs, written in Latin. However, there was not enough time to adequately consult them. But we have the necessary bibliographical information to enable us to locate them in the US.
A total of five manuscripts were consulted. They were Oriental (OR)Nos. 425, 1316, 1319, 1419, and 7021. The order of the number reflects when the manuscript was cataloged into the library. This material was inspected in preparation of an upcoming small publication on Coptic Manuscripts that the Society is planning. In them we saw several examples of textual ornamentation, colorful miniatures, and fine decorated leather bindings. Most of my attention was focused on OR. 1319 and I took many notes on its illumination features. I will try to briefly summarize some of the distinguishing features we observed.
OR. 1319 is a large format, paper codex, dated 1805 AD. The Society acquired a microfilm copy of it in 1980. In fact it was among the first fruits of our renowned microfilm collection. I used it as the basis for the computer text of the Bohairic Books of Isaiah and Jeremiah. It has two remarkable full-page miniatures, one of Isaiah and the other of Jeremiah. They tend to be closer to the contemporary iconography than others we have seen in Medieval ones like OR. 1316. The latter reflects more of the Persian style that dominated in many Medieval Islamic manuscripts. The 10th century OR. 7021 is one of the oldest paper manuscripts to come out of Egypt. It came to the library as part of the library of the ancient monastery of St. Mercurius in Edfu. The only miniature in that codex was a line drawing of St. Michael. The portion of this ancient library, preserved in the library, was edited with an English translation by E. Wallis Budge in his Coptic Texts series. The Coptic Center has a complete copy of this series.
Lastly, I should mention that while there, I had the good fortune to talk to Prof. Peter Nagel of Germany. I made his acquaintance in 1992 in Washington DC during the Coptic Congress, and benefited greatly from talking to him then. He was there proofing some of the Sahidic Old Testament text transcriptions he did against the original manuscripts there. It was heart-warming to see a great scholar like him working carefully and accurately verifying his initial work. It was truly inspiring to briefly watch him work. Unfortunately such sight could not be captured and used to inspire our students at the Coptic Center.
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On Saturday the 24th, we went to the British Museum. There, we saw a medium size room No. 66, called 'Coptic Egypt'. It sprang quietly from one of the six large halls that housed the Museum's vast ancient Egyptian collection. It is elegantly arranged but is overshadowed by the glorious treasures nearby.
The artifacts displayed are representative of the collection possessed by the Museum. They include several pieces of Coptic textiles from different eras; ostraca, or broken limestone or pottery shreds; an assortment of crosses of various materials; and ampouli (small water bottles) from the marble city of Apa Mena. There were also few pieces of grave headstones of various sizes and mostly made of limestone. They were lavishly decorated with Coptic inscriptions.
The most interesting piece was a well-preserved fresco of a hagiographic representation. It shows two large figures of bearded saints, SS. Cosmas and Damian, with three smaller figures of young beardless saints, their brothers. They are arranged in a U-shape. Inside the U, above the three smaller saints, is a near trapezoidal frame, possibly a later addition, containing a representation of the three youths praying in the furnace with the angel of the Lord in the background. There is also a three-line inscription at the bottom of the 3-youth representation in Sahidic Coptic. Three busts of anonymous saintly figures are seen outside of the frame on the right side. Identification of the figures are usually supplied in the form of Coptic titles toward the top of the head of each.
At the end of our visit to the Museum, we went to the British Library's permanent exhibition of Illuminated books and manuscripts. It is very difficult to properly describe such a magnificent display of written treasures in all kind of languages, ancient and modern. The most important of these literary treasures for a Christian of any denomination are Codices Sinaticus and Alexandrinus. Those 4th and 5th century parchment codices are two of the most important and ancient sources of the Greek as well as the Coptic Bible. Codex Alexandrinus came there from Alexandria via Constantinople as gift of the Greek Patriarch Cyril Lucar, who brought it with him from Alexandria. Codex Sinaticus was discovered in part by Prof. Tischendorf in 1844 in St. Catherine Monastery in the Sinai and the rest in 1859. He took it to Russia and eventually it was sold by the communist government to the British Museum in 1933 for the sum of 100,000 English Pounds. We also saw a display of two Coptic codices from the Edfu monastery collection mentioned earlier. They were opened to beautiful full-page miniatures, about 10 centuries old, on vellum.
Upon existing the Museum, we headed for a small street that dead-ended in front of the Museum. It was pointed out to us by Dr. Stephane Rene, who kindly gave us a lift there. We walked a bit in the street and then went back. On the following Friday we came back and walked the entire length of that old, narrow street. The street was called COPTIC Street!!!
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Sooner or later we had to come to the disappointing part of the trip. The disappointing part was that, apart from the contacts in Birmingham and a single encounter on our last day, there was no contact to speak of as anticipated. This was primarily due to the Pope presence in the London Church on the only Sunday we were there. This made any fruitful contact and/or presentation of the Society's work to the community an absolute impossibility. The only other chance left was a minor one on the following Saturday, our last full day in London. This also got frustrated by my sudden good-bye illness that put me out of commission on that day. But all were not lost. Through God's grace I was able to meet an aspiring young deacon from the church, Mr. Simon Kamel. I was able to spend some time with him that evening in our hotel lobby. During that time I tried to introduce him to the Society's work and answer his questions which centered around our Coptic liturgical heritage. Only God knows if our message struck roots in the British Isles.
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The first contact The Society had with the Oxford's Bodleian Library was back in 1986. Then, using an over 200-year old catalog, we ordered about 33 codices of Coptic manuscripts preserved in the library. We did not have any more contacts until this past year when we tried to obtain other material from the collection. This last contact proved to be beyond our wildest imagination. The cooperation, the courtesy, the most friendly attitude that was extended to us was like a dream. All this was due to a single person, Ms. Doris Nicholson, of the Library's Department of Oriental Books. So it was natural, when planning for this trip, to ask for permission to visit the collection. The reply was as friendly as we have experienced before and made this part of the trip one to look forward to. What we did not know was that the hospitable attitude that we experienced through our year-old dealing with the library through Ms. Nicholson was a mere gesture in comparison to what we were privileged with.
On a cloudy drizzly Monday morning, September 26, we took the train to Oxford, following the accurate directions sent to us by Ms. Nicholson. There, we met with her and with Mr. Wakefield, the Library's Arabic manuscripts specialist, who was also very hospitable and helpful. Unlike any other depository of manuscripts that we visited or where about to visit, we were given a tour of several levels of the stacks where the manuscripts were kept under strict humidity and temperature control. The emphasis of course was on the Coptic material that was dispersed among the various collections in the Library. We took a quick glance at some of the material. We were even shown the boxes where some of the fragile material, mostly papyrus, were kept. They were preserved between plates of glass of various sizes. These were probably from the collection of Deir Balaiza of Asyut, that Dr. Kahle Jr. worked on in the 50's. Needless to say, visiting this part of the Library is not extended to just any visitor. But this was just the beginning!
The second part of the visit was spent working with the manuscripts. To make life even easier for us, Ms. Nicholson made the request on our behalf for the manuscripts that we wanted to examine. A total of five volumes were brought to us. One was a Karshuni (Arabic in Syriac script) of Bp. Severus of Ashmunain (Ms Arab. f.2). While two others were Coptic Gospels that I wanted to study the beautiful illuminations they had (Marsh. Or. 6 & Hunt. 17). However the most important one that I spend time on was a briefly described volume of Bohairic fragments. I took some brief notes on that one which included parts of various sizes, from small to very small, of 17 different liturgical manuscripts (Ms. Copt e.89). The brief notes I took on the text identification I gave a copy of to the Library when requested, with a promise to send them a more complete one after I had more time to study it.
After we finished our browsing task, Ms. Nicholson then took us on another tour of the library, both old and new buildings. During this fascinating tour we were introduced to how the library catalogs the material it receives and how manuscripts ordered by the researchers traveled from the stacks to the Reading Room where they would be delivered to the requesters. That transfer system was as antiquated as the material it was transporting, but nevertheless it did the job. It was a simple transfer belt with long tracks and a loading/unloading zone at each of the stacks' floors. We then proceeded to the Old Library building through 'Staff-Only' doors and observed unimagined interior architectural beauty. We wondered how can people concentrate on their work in the midst of such grandeur. Some of the halls we entered were as old as the 15th century. As a last treat, as if one was needed, we entered a book exhibition that the Library had. It was not as elaborate as the one we saw in the halls of the British Museum/Library, but it still had exhibits of stunning beauty. If any one need more information they will have to go and visit.
It goes without saying that this visit to the library would live in our memories forever. As a way of repaying the kindness received and because I felt it was time to do it, I made a formal request to catalog the Coptic material in the library. This laborious task will take sometime to accomplish, not to mention the effort, but it is truly worth it. The collection is scattered among the many different collections in the Library. It includes several fragments from the famous library of St. Shenouda Monastery. Some of the special collections were catalogued at different times within the past two centuries, with a varying degree of completeness. However, many of the manuscripts like Ms Copt. e.89 has an abbreviated one-line description on a card in a card catalog kept in the Manuscript Reading Room. This cataloging process will no doubt yields a great deal of useful information for those lucky ones studying Coptic!
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On Tuesday September 27 we set our eyes on the university town of Cambridge. This was supposed to be our greatest challenge because the Society was a virtual unknown there. Even though we had a letter of introduction with us but we expected the worst. However, God always provided help in such circumstances. As a result, we were kindly received and every assistance that we needed were cordially met. To the Under Librarian, Mrs. Jill Butterworth goes most of the credit for such warm reception. She stayed with us as we were issued reader cards for the Manuscripts Reading Room, helped us with the references we needed for identifying the material we were looking for, expedited the processing of the manuscripts we requested, and even provided us with a gratis photocopy of the available bibliographic material on the Coptic manuscripts in the Library. She also made herself available to escort us when our work was done.
The first order of business, as we settled in the reading room with the references that Mrs. Butterworth provided, was to identify the Coptic and the Arabic Christian Manuscripts that were not included in the other handlists. About 15 manuscripts were identified from the Arabic catalogs of the library collection, three had Coptic material. There were also six more biblical manuscripts in the London Bible Society collection, housed in the library. Three were Coptic, including the famous 4th century papyrus codex of the Gospel of St. John in Asyutic. We also inspected four manuscripts. Two liturgical Bohairic lectionaries, a richly illuminated 12-13th century Gospels in Arabic, and one of the two volumes of Sahidic parchment fragments from St. Shenouda Monastery that Sir Herbert Thompson left to the library.
The most notable of these manuscripts were the lectionaries. The first, Or.1946, was composed of several discontinuous pages of different hands from a lectionary. I promised Mrs. Butterworth to send her a fuller identification of the manuscript as soon as the Society order and receive a microfilm of that manuscript. The second was the more interesting. It was a 17th century paper Bohairic codex of the Lent readings for weekdays. It was of a large format with a leather binding and straps. The rubrics (instructions) were, as usual, written in red in both Bohairic and Arabic. Several wax stains can be observed. At the beginning of the manuscript was a colorful Coptic cross with interlacing lines. Its most unique feature was seven colorful miniatures of biblical and hagiographic scenes. This material is very valuable for the study of Coptic Iconography.
The Library collection is mostly uncataloged. The best known portions are the two-volume of St. Shenouda Monastery Sahidic fragments, donated by Sir Thompson; and the approximately 94 items of Greek and Coptic fragments in the Michaelides collection, mostly legal texts. The later material are currently being studied and cataloged by Ms. Sarah Clackson. There are about 90 other items of various sizes, including many modern transcriptions by R. M. Woolley, the author of the all-important edition of 'Coptic Offices'. Also, as mentioned above, there were some items among the collection of the Bible Society's library, housed there. The contents of this library are extensive enough to warrant producing a good scholarly catalog. Mrs. Butterworth is hoping that Ms Clackson will undertake this task as a follow-up to her work on the Michaelides fragments.
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This trip has greatly enhanced the Society's standing in the academic and scholarly arena which would help the Society to establish the necessary ties and contacts needed to accomplish our goals. The contacts with the leaders of the community were also necessary because they would provide the support for the Society's goals as well as to promote its work among the Coptic youth, which is our ultimate target group. So the seeds have been sown, we will try to nurture them, but only God can make this grow for the GLORY OF HIS HOLY NAME.
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You are Visitor number to this page since February 25, 1996
Prepared by Hany N. Takla. Last Update 2/24/96
For more information contact HTakla@gnn.com