The Coptic era in text

15-12-2011 09:05 AM

Samira Mazahy

The Manuscripts Centre affiliated to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has a new publication in English, Coptic Texts: Relating to Daily Life, a short book in three chapters by Maher Ahmed Eissa. The book will be a valuable addition to the Coptic bookshelf in that it includes manuscripts from the Coptic Museum which are published here for the first time. The manuscripts, related to daily life, show how Egyptians lived during the Coptic era between the fifth and ninth centuries.

Official letter
The first chapter presents a personal letter written in the Sahidic Coptic dialect during the eighth century. The letter is written in a form still usual today, beginning with a greeting and continuing to the main subject of the letter before finishing with a name and an address. Judging from the official tone of the letter and in some insinuations revealing that it concerns issues related to the monastery, the letter was obviously addressed to a high-ranking person in a monastery or a church.
Eissa points out that, more often than not, one is unable to understand the whole essence of the Coptic letter, despite its being complete. This, Eissa explains, is because of the writing style of such letters, which rely on ambiguity and on avoidance of detail since the topic of the letter is already known by the sender and the receiver.
This chapter also focuses on the different forms of salutation employed in Coptic letters and on the importance of each of them. The author reviews the names of the Coptic celebrities in this chapter, as well as the Coptic personal names and their different origins.

Dioscorus’s letter
In the second chapter Eissa looks at another letter, also written in the Sahidic Coptic dialect but with some terms from the mediaeval Egyptian dialect. This letter, which was found in the village of Kom Ashqaw, pertains to the Dioscorus Aphrodite Coptic Archive. Dioscorus of Aphrodito was a sixth-century jurist and poet from a Hellenised Upper Egyptian family. Dioscorus wrote several famous poems and manuscripts in Greek. The texts he wrote in Coptic, however, remained unknown, since most were destroyed at the time of their discovery because of a lack of interest and ignorance of the researchers. What remained of these manuscripts was stolen by antiquities thieves.
Eissa focuses on the text of one of Dioscorus’s exceptional letters, taking into account the language in which it was written as well as the historic information it includes.
In this chapter the author also tackles the issue of adding, removing and switching of some letters in words without altering their meaning, especially in titles, as in the Greek language.

Coptic contracts
The third chapter is on three different manuscripts, the first a financial contract written at the end of the eighth century. The author here presents the various styles of Coptic contracts, and provides information related to chronicling Coptic manuscripts in general and contracts in particular. The second manuscript is a letter written in the Sahidic Coptic dialect interspersed with phrases from the Fayoumi dialect. This letter is about a financial problem between the sender and the receiver. The author here focuses on the impact of the Fayoumi dialect on the Sahidi dialect, and also stresses some terms that speak of money.
The third manuscript is a letter that dates back to the sixth century and is also written in Sahidic Coptic. It gives information on agricultural affairs, especially agricultural produce.
At the end of the book Eissa gives information on the manuscripts, their significance, and on how helpful they can be in researching the state of the Egyptian community during the Coptic era.

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