Tarikh Batarikat Kanisat al-Iskandariya al-Qibtiya (History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria) by Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa,
Tarikh Batarikat Kanisat al-Iskandariya al-Qibtiya (History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria) by Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa, the Bishop of Ashmounein, published in ten volumes by the General Authority for Cultural Palaces, is a great gift by the Ministry of Culture to the cultural arena in Egypt, and especially to the Copts. The volumes are prepared by Abdel Aziz Gamal Eddin. Well known is the fact that Coptic history, an important part of Egypt’s history, has been severely neglected in education and in the media. The initiative to issue this great 10-volume manuscript at such a low cost, a mere seven Egyptian Pounds for each volume, can only be hailed with appreciation.
It would not be impossible to ‘review’ such an encyclopaedic work; suffice it to say that the title may be rather misleading. It gives the impression that the book is concerned with the history of the patriarchs while in fact it is a history of Egypt during the times of each patriarch.
Severus Ibn al-Muqaffaa documented a biography of each of the Coptic patriarchs from St Mark the Evangelist, who brought Christianity into Egypt, to Pope Shenouda I, the 55th patriarch (859 – 880). Bishop Mikhael of Tinnis (near Port Said) registered the biography of Pope Kha’eel I, the 56th patriarch (880 – 909), to Pope Shenouda II, the 65th (1032 – 1046). Finally Mawhoub Ibn-Mansour Ibn-Mufarrag of Alexandria wrote the biography the 66th Patriarch (1047 – 1078).
The historian Iris Habib al-Masri says about Severus Ibn al-Muqqaffa’s encyclopaedia: “The Ashmunein bishop lived in the tenth century, but he influenced Coptic thought with his book to the extent that the history of the popes who lived in the centuries after him was referred to him.”
All that is known about Muqqaffa’s work is limited to three dates. First, November 950, when he wrote Tafseer al-Amana (Interpretation of Creed), a continuance of his book Al-Magaammie (The Synods). Second, September 955, the date his previous book was reinterpreted. And third, the year 987, when he helped write the synod message to the Syrian patriarch.
However, we do know that Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa was born in 915. He was a skilled and talented writer, and was appointed into the highest ranks in the government because he was fluent in the Arabic language, which was a necessary qualification at that time. Although he reached a senior position he chose to take orders and retreated to a desert monastery, and the reason for this remains unknown.
History under Islamic rule
The manuscript of History of the Patriarchs is one of the main sources used by researchers to find out about Egypt’s history under Islamic rule in the middle ages. Severus obtained his information from his own observations in several monasteries including Abu-Maqar in Wadi Natroun, Nahia in Giza (which no longer exists) and the monasteries of Wadi Habib (Wadi Natroun). Severus said he obtained some of his information from older Copts and from the popes who were his contemporaries, and he said that he had had many difficulties to overcome when translating Coptic and Greek documents into Arabic. He was assisted by Copts who knew Coptic or Greek, among them Deacon Michael Ibn-Bdair and Boulos Ibn-Ragaa. His book Tarikh al-Batarika (History of the Patriarchs) was in later years updated by other writers and bishops, but the book is attributed to him. The final manuscript thus documents Egyptian history from the Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman dynasties up to the French campaign and the Mohamed Ali era, ending with Pope Kyrillos V, the 112th patriarch, in 1895.