A Copybook of Historical Letters and Documents Found in Arabic Manuscript Preserved in the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchal Library, Cairo/
November 01, 2021
During the spring of 2003, I had the opportunity to examine a collection of Arabic and Syriac manuscripts in Cairo and in some monasteries in Wādī al-Naṭrūn, located in the northwest of Cairo. Among the manuscripts that I have examined was a copybook of letters and discourses found in the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchal Library, on a shelf marked Theol. 301, dated 1378 A.M. = 1661-1663 A.D. This historical source bears a special interest not only for the Copts but also for the history of the Syriacs, Ethiopians, and Mamelukes during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. My intention here is to share some observations concerning this manuscript with the public, as well as academics. The original index of the contents of the Coptic-Arabic manuscript has been edited and translated into English in my recent article published in the journal Oriens Christianus 104 (2021): 1-23.
This historical source bears a special interest not only for the Copts but also for the history of the Syriacs, Ethiopians, and Mamelukes during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Historical Background of the Copts under Mameluke Dominion
The historical setting of our copybook of correspondence is the dominion of the Mamelukes, who ruled Egypt and Syria from 1250 to 1517. The Mamelukes were one of the most important powers in the history of Islam, earning fame for stopping the Mongol advance in Syria and for eliminating the presence of the Crusaders in Syria and Palestine. Scholars divide the Mameluke era into two sub-periods: the Baḥrī dynasty (1250-1382), which was mostly of Cuman-Kipchak Turkish origin, and the Circassian dynasty (1382-1517), which was mostly of Circassian origin, an ethnic group native to the Northwest Caucasus.
Under the Mameluke dominion in Egypt and Syria, Copts as well other non-Muslim communities often suffered at the hands of government administrators and Muslim fanatics. The position of the Copts was a source of occasional unrest and discontent, especially since many of them were still employed in various government offices and held high positions. Other reasons behind the mistreatment of the Copts and other non-Muslim communities included the militant language of the holy war against the Crusaders by the Mamelukes themselves; the deteriorating economic situation starting from the mid-fourteenth century onward, particularly after the outbreak of the Black Plague in Egypt; and the competition over government positions in which members of the Muslim learned class had a particular interest. All of these factors caused a serious process of Islamization among the Christian population.
During the reign of the Circassian Mameluke (1381-1517), the situation of the non-Muslim communities was a little better, although from time to time some instances of persecution erupted against the Christians. Here, it is important to mention that among the factors of the survival of the Copts and their sacred places was the relationship with Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Emperors, who confessed and practiced the same religious faith as the Copts of Egypt, mediated on behalf of the Copts in the court of the Mameluke Sultan and promised to protect the Muslim inhabitants, merchants, and mosques in Ethiopia in exchange for better treatment of Christians in Egypt and Syria.
Here, it is important to mention that among the factors of the survival of the Copts and their sacred places was the relationship with Ethiopia.
The Manuscript: Ms Cairo, Patriarchal Library, 301 Theology
The copybook of correspondence found in the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchal Library, in al-Azbakiyyah, Cairo, was mentioned in the Catalogue of Georg Graf, no. 541 (1397) and in the Catalogue of Marcus Simaika Pasha, Serial No. 291, call no. Theo. 301. A table of contents found at the beginning of the manuscript on folios 1v-2r lists ninety-one titles of letters and discourses: forty-two titles on folio 1v and forty-nine on folio 2r. The contents were arranged consecutively within a table, however, without borderline. The contents were numbered in foliation using the Coptic zimam numeral system.
Author: Patriarch John XIII (1484-1525)
Most of the contents of this manuscript are letters issued by John XIII, the ninety-fourth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (1484-1524). John’s life before joining the Monastery of Our Lady, known as Dayr al-Muḥarraq, is unknown. After the death of John XII, the bishops, clergy, and archons remained undecided about the selection of a candidate for patriarch for two years. Finally, they chose another monk from Dayr al-Muḥarraq whom they consecrated as John XIII. The most memorable fact of his patriarchate was its length of forty years, eleven months, and twenty-six days. He acceded to the throne of Saint Mark during the reign of the Burji Mamluk sultan Qāytbāy (1468-1495), and he was a contemporary of the last five Mamluk sultans. After the conquest of Egypt by the Ottomans, he lived through the sultanate of Selim I (1512-1520) and Sulaymān I the Magnificent (1520-1566), during whose reign he died.
The most memorable fact of his patriarchate was its length of forty years, eleven months, and twenty-six days.
Contents of the Manuscript
The copybook of correspondence contains 91 letters and models of letters, benedictions, and diplomas, which were copied from the original sources and composed in this manuscript. The letters were issued from the secretariat office of Patriarch John XIII addressing bishops, abbots, parish priests, monks, deacons, keepers responsible for collecting dues and taxes, secular and religious authorities in Ethiopia, and Mameluke authorities in Egypt. The content of the manuscript contains so much material, not only from an elite point of view but also from ordinary people. The contents of this manuscript cover different subjects and topics, which can be divided according to the following major themes:
- Biblical and theological treatises such as the importance of the Eucharist, a treatise about the Christian faith — the Urgūzah, written by Buṭrus al-Sadamantī al-Armanī, discourses on fate, destiny, death, offerings, and the Eucharist.
- Social ethical themes such as instructions against speaking irritably, gossiping, and spreading rumors.
- Instructions concerning domestic relationships between husband and wife, cheating, adultery, and concubinage.
- Ecclesiastic government such as investitures and appointments of monks and priests to administrate local churches and monasteries.
- Collecting dues and taxes from certain regions in Egypt and the involvement of the ecclesiastic authority in conducting such activity.
- Instructions against magic, superstition, sorcerers, fortunetellers, and bewitched women.
- Women‘s status and behaviour in society such as in the lamentation in funerals, grief, and how women must behave in public.
- Mediation and inquiry on behalf of Muslim notable people close to the Mameluke authority.
- Interfering, conciliation, or mediating for the sake of members of the Coptic church in and outside Egypt as well members of other Christian communities, such as Syriacs and Ethiopians.
Style and Format
The length and the structure of the letters vary. All the contents are written in Arabic language and script and have vowel marks. Titles are in red ink, the text in black ink. Most of the letters begin with a self-introduction, followed by addressing the recipient with an expression of praise and admiration, and end with blessings and prayers. The titles of the letters within the manuscript are more detailed than how they appear in the table of contents. For example, there is additional information about the name of the recipient, his location, or his provenience. The letters are characterized with a delicate style of communication, such as using persuasive words to appeal to the emotions of the recipient. An often-used element in this regard is the expression الأخ الحبيب “my beloved brother,” for emphasizing the bonds and friendship with the addressee.
... الأخ الحبيب 'my beloved brother,'
An Example of Topics Discussed in the Correspondence: Insights on Gender Relation and Coptic Women’s Status
Other aspects the correspondence sheds light on are that of social history, gender relations, and Coptic women’s status in Egypt during the fifteenth century. Among the frequent challenges that the Coptic church faced, which was a subject of constant protest by the Coptic patriarch, is concubinage. The numerous letters against concubinage found in this manuscript show that this habit was widespread among Copts during Mameluke rule. It is worthy to mention that during the Fatimid rule, concubinage was also common among the Copts, especially among the nobles and employees of government who enjoyed prosperity under the Fatimid state and who imitated the Muslims in taking several wives and concubines.
Other aspects the correspondence sheds light on are that of social history, gender relations, and Coptic women’s status in Egypt during the fifteenth century.
Furthermore, the practice of magic, charms, amulets, and fortune-telling was also a subject of rebuke in many letters, which also shows that practicing magic was widespread among Copts during that period. Although Patriarch John XIII speaks against practicing charms, magic, and amulets, he issued ‘benedictions’ upon the request of certain people, mostly women who suffered from physical and psychological problems, in which he pleads for protection from evil spirits and demons.
For example, in one of his letters, “blessing to a woman who is sick in her body,” (ff. 28b-29b) he says: “May the Lord heal her suffering and treat her miseries, expel completely from her the spirit of sickness, heal her as he cured the daughter of the Canaanite woman and the woman with the bent back, he may cure her from every sickness, and magic and charm, and from everything evil (… …) may he banish from her all the acts and fantasies of the malevolent spirits, from all invalid tricks, and all false power, and all substantive power, all bad spirits, impure spirits, the spirit of the night and the spirit of the noon, the spirit of the evening and the spirit of the night, the spirit of love, and the spirit of separation, the spirts of jinn who dwell under the ground, and may she be saved from all the opposing forces and all the opposing evil spirits and she may be unharmed from all kinds of magics.” In addition, there are letters that discuss how women must behave in public such as in the streets, markets, public squares, bathhouses, and when women gather for lamentations in funerals. Also, there are letters that discuss the proper conduct between husband and wife within their domestic relationship in which the emphasis is on obedience, respect, compassion, and virtues.
About the Author
Iskandar Bcheiry, PhD, Metadata Editor in the Production Department of Atla, frequently publishes articles in the Atla Blog on Syriac Orthodoxy.
Read His Latest Publication
Iskandar Bcheiry, “The Table of Contents of a Copybook of Letters and Treatises by the Coptic Patriarch, John XIII (1484-1524): The Arabic Ms. 301 Theology, Coptic Patriarchal Library, al-Azbakiyyah, Cairo” in Oriens Christianus 104 (187-207).
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