A recent gift from Dr Khaled Azab, Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) Special Projects Department, filled me with proud delight. The invaluable gift consisted of the first two
issues of the BA’s new series Silsilat Karrasaat Qibtiya (Coptic Notebooks Series). The first issue came under the title “Muqaddima fee Uloum al-Dirasaat al-Qibtiya (An Introduction to the Sciences of Coptic Studies)” and was written by Dr Yuhanna Nessim Youssef, Professor of Coptology at the Catholic University in Australia. The second, compiled by Ms Duaa Mohamed Baheyeddine, Editor of the BA’s Coptic Notebooks, focused on “Mahiyat Uloum al-Qibtiyaat…Mustalahaat wa Taarifaat (The Science of Coptology…Terms and Definitions)”.
Anyone who has witnessed or lived through the decades-long efforts calling for the instatement of Coptic studies in Egyptian universities and institutes is sure to appreciate the true value of the work of the BA. As the beacon of knowledge that it is, the BA did not fall prey to the regressive thoughts which for ages kept Egyptian universities from founding departments for Coptic studies, history, or language; giving in to menacing fanatic ideas that linked everything Coptic to Christianity, and that rejected everything Christian.
Years upon years, we spared no effort to call for establishing Coptic studies in Egypt, in its capacity as an invaluable Egyptian heritage; we stressed the fact that Coptic was part and parcel Egyptian first, Christian second. This is definitely not to say that we shied away from our Christian faith but, in view of the obdurate fanaticism, we needed to draw attention to the historic facts. All our efforts, however, were thrown to the winds; the American University in Cairo alone was persuaded to found a Coptic chair some eight years ago.
The BA’s recent move broke the taboo, lighting a candle in the dark. It promised to be, at the end of the dark tunnel, the light that would illuminate Egyptian minds by informing them of a significant part of their history.
Dr Ismail Serageldin, Director of the BA, confirmed this concept in his introduction to the Coptic Notebooks series. He wrote that the BA was launching a new project that focused on a significant era in the rich millennia-long Egyptian history. Even though Coptic heritage included a wealth of unique intellectual, scientific and social aspects, it was never granted its fair share of study and research, he wrote. Much of this heritage lives on in the customs and traditions, religious celebrations, music, calendar, and other daily practices of Egyptians across the board, regardless of cultural and religious belonging.
“Heritage, on all levels,” Dr Serageldin wrote, “is a national concern not linked to a specific creed. The Coptic heritage—just as the Pharaonic and the Islamic—is a heritage that was produced by and belongs to all Egyptians. In this capacity, it is a national duty to study, index, catalogue, publish, and preserve it. This is a duty the BA has undertaken, asserting its mission in preserving Egypt’s national memory throughout the ages. It is a mission everyone who cares for the past and future of Egypt will stand up for.”
In the first issue of the Coptic notebooks, Dr Youssef briefly outlined a number of routines related to the study of Coptic culture and history, compensating for the brevity dictated by the limited space by a detailed list of the references. Following is the outline he proposed:
• Coptology as a science; this includes Coptic language and monasticism.
• History of the Copts: the early era from the 1st until the 7th century.
• History of the Copts: Egypt in the wake of the Arab conquest; this includes the Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluki and the Ottoman eras.
• The writing of the history of the Copts and the Church; this includes the history written in Coptic and Arabic. It involves the history of the patriarchs, and the historians—Copts and Muslims—who wrote.
• Coptic literature written in Coptic, and the literature written by Copts in other languages. This involves the literature of the early eras, the eras of St Athanasius, Anba Shenouda, the Council of Chalcedon, Damianus, the post-Arab era, and the last era. In addition to the works written during the apostolic and post apostolic eras.
• Religious rituals and their origins, and ceremonial rites.
• Coptic language; this involves its beginnings, the alphabet and the dialects of Upper and Lower Egypt, the transition from Coptic to Arabic, and the relation between Coptic and the Egyptian dialect.
• Arab Christian literature, which includes old and modern literature.
• Coptic icons and art; this involves the various phases of the development of icons; the iconoclast, and the icons of the 13th, 14th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and through to contemporary Coptic art.
• The Nag Hammadi Library which was unearthed by pure chance by an Egyptian peasant in a hilly area in the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in Qena in the 1940s. This collection of manuscripts written in Coptic comprises 13 papyri rolls that date back to the 4th century. It includes 52 books that bear the history of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries.
While he outlined the abundance and diversity of Coptic studies, Dr Youssef offered an introductory rather than a complete coverage of Coptic culture. He did not broach the professions or the creative arts, neither did he tackle non-literary texts, such as contracts or receipts. When he handled Coptic art, he only mentioned icons, leaving behind murals and manuscript drawings, and preferring to focus on the main topics which remain outside the scope of studies in archaeology in universities.
The BA merits our utmost gratitude for its noble initiative—truly a beam of light generated by the torch the BA continues to hold for the entire world.
31 May 2013
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