Among the most important exhibits at the 44th Cairo International Book Fair which was held from 24 January to 9 February, was the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s (BA) first issue of the
Coptic Notebooks Series published by the BA’s Coptic studies programme. The first issue of Coptic notebooks includes a study by the Coptic-Australian scholar Professor Youhanna Nessim Youssef entitled An Introduction to the Science of Coptic Studies.
The series fills a big gap in the Arabic library and restores the respect due to Coptic history, the study of which has hitherto been largely ignored. The aim is to introduce the Arabic reader to the different branches of Coptology. The English references are listed at the end of each chapter for the benefit of those who would like more information.
The Coptic Notebooks include various studies in Coptic art, architecture, language and all aspects of Coptic culture. They address issues not included in university textbooks, so they can be used as complementary material to the usual courses.
In his introduction, the Professor Youssef thanks his colleagues at the early Christian studies centre of the Australian Catholic University and its director, Professor Alliene Allen, for their assistance. He also thanks Professor Lu’ai Mahmoud Said, who supervises the Coptic Studies programme at the BA and who invited him to give a series of lectures in a workshop held under the same name.
Professor Youssef outlines the interest shown by foreigners, who in the 16th and 17th centuries began to seek out and obtain Coptic manuscripts. Among the first people known to have collected manuscripts in Arabic was Giovanni Battista Remandy (1540 – 1610). The first European known to have studied the Coptic language was a Franciscan monk, Thomas Obicini, a member in the papal committee that translated the Holy Bible into Arabic. Obicini studied the Coptic dictionary al-Salaalim wal-Muqaddimaat. He was followed by the Jesuit monk Athanasius Kircher (1601 – 1680), a renowned scholar of philosophy, mathematics and oriental languages. Kircher was one of the first people to attempt to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. He also printed Al-Mogam al-Kabeer (The Great Dictionary) prepared by Shams al-Riyasa Ibn-Kabr at the beginning of the 14th century.
From hieroglyphs to Coptic
This the first people ever to study Coptology as a dedicated subject were western Christian clerics, who were followed by western lay students of the Coptic language. Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 –1835), founder of Berlin University, lent his weight to Prussia’s King Frederick William IV eventual establishment of a Coptic language department at the university
Jean-Francois Champollion, the mainstay behind the deciphering of hieroglyphs, learnt Coptic from a Coptic cleric named Youhanna Shiftishi who was born in Cairo and died in Paris in 1825. According to Champollion, Fr Shiftishi served in a church in Paris and also worked as a translator for the French courts of commerce. He died in Marseilles.
After discovering how to decipher the ancient Egyptian language, interest in Coptic increased because it was seen as a normal extension of the Egyptian culture, and opened new vistas of Coptic culture and monastic literature. This includes dogmas and principles of monasticism, sermons and the sayings of the Fathers known as Patrum Apophthegmata.
The first Notebook also addresses matters related to Coptic history before and after the Islamic conquest in the 7th century, and the concept of ‘history’ in the Arabic and Coptic languages. It refers to the books of Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa, History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, and of Bishop John of Nikiû, The John of Nikiû Chronicle.
8 February 2013