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Accounts And Accounting, History Of Coptic. - Coptic Wiki


Coptic accounts and accounting is not a familiar subject to students of Coptology. If the term “Coptic accounting” could seem excessive, its use here is quite justified, in spite of factors that may limit the period and the domain it covers.

It is true that Coptic was never the official language of Egypt. If accounting is a product of the administrative system, there was no nationwide official Coptic administration in Egypt, because Egypt was occupied during the Coptic period by the Byzantines and later by the Arabs. It could also be argued that Coptic as a written language extends from the third century until the present day, where it is fossilized as the liturgical language of the Coptic church, whereas Coptic accounting covers only some two centuries, the seventh and the eighth. But in that short period and after a long submission, Egypt knew a revival of the native identity opposite to the foreign domination. If this revival did not end in any military recovery or political independence, it resulted in a movement of rapid renewal of certain aspects of the civilization and a quick resurgence of quite a few traditions and practices of everyday life. The historian should investigate all these manifestations to assess their links with the past, to study their potentialities, and to evaluate their chances of survival in the rapid changes of events at that time. To work out the image of Coptic Egypt, research should not be limited to art, architecture, theology, monachism, habits, and popular beliefs, but enlarged to include all other manifestations as they contribute to that image. Accounting is a good example.

After the fifth century, to which the last demotic documents are dated, there is a period of absence of any account written in the native language of Egypt. In the seventh century and in different parts of the country, there appears a group of accounts written not in Greek, the official language of Egypt at that time, but in Coptic, the native tongue of the population. These accounts deal not only with private affairs but with relations of the central administration. The value of these documents is evident. Like accounts in general, they are connected with economic problems, which have a direct impact upon societies.

They provide the historian with precious material that is needed and that is often absent from literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources. This is needed even more for Coptic history, in spite of the inevitable limitation of this material and however unevenly spread the light it throws on Coptic Egypt might be. What is dealt with in Coptic accounts and in business documents does not only reflect the official policy of the foreign ruler and its impact on the country. It gives above all an image built up from sundry details of affairs of inhabitants of small towns, villages, and monasteries, composed of small property owners, merchants, clergymen, monks, fellahin, and fugitives, that is, the tissue of the population that was subdued by waves of foreign invaders and that ended up as a minority by the early period, trying always to maintain its heritage. Moreover, this material could help to assess more objectively the policy of the evolution of the foreign rulers, and many of their edicts.

In fact, since the economic framework of the population of Egypt was always based on agriculture, it helped them to resist imposed changes, and in particular the process of political unification applied by foreign rulers, whether Ptolemaic, Roman, or Byzantine, until the Arabs broke this resistance when they implanted their tribes within the native population in the country. What succeeded in Alexandria and in other cities had no chance in the country where the Ptolemization, the Romanization, and the Hellenization had no real chance to take root, since its inhabitants never wanted to part with their habits. The language of the ruler imposed as the official one was used in official acts and documents of the administration, but the population maintained its language, as it maintained its habits of millennia. As in other parts of the empire, the inevitable process of decay of the foreign domination gave way to a normal revival of what was left of the ancient structure. The heritage of the past centered on the national church and the native language. This heritage sprang up in a considerable renaissance, pushing aside the and giving to the Egyptian church an important role, and to the Coptic language quasi-official recognition.

In this context of political agitation, a historian would badly need this objective information, which seems more trustworthy than the florid official texts of Rome, Byzantium, or Damascus, whose aim was to fill their granaries. This is why certain studies that neglect this point or take into consideration only official sources cannot offer this true image but lead to biased conclusions like those of G. Rouillard in L’Administration civile de l’Egypte byzantine, largely drawn from official edicts in contrast with the more objective work of H. I. Bell and W. E. Crum based on material composed of business documents. On the other hand, this material could a priori also be more objective than some Coptic writers, who would have naturally preferred an Egyptian ruler, when they denounce the merciless attitude of foreign governors.

A good case to illustrate this is tax accounting, which seems to be much more eloquent than official texts in showing the aim of the ruler. A study of tax accounts can also settle important issues and controversies among scholars, including whether high taxation was imposed by the Arabs on clergymen and monks, and consequently the crucial question of the situation of the church, and finally the real conditions of conversion to Islam. In fact, documents from monasteries like DAYR AL-BALA’YZAH clearly show two points: how the number of accounts very sharply increased from the period, a fact that should not be understood as accidental; and how monasteries had to pay the polltax, and that it was, together with other taxes, exorbitantly high upon monks whose resources were very limited (private money of some monks or of their superior, and what they could gain from some handicrafts).

Monasteries and churches, exactly like individuals, had no alternative but to struggle hard and to borrow money, a fact that could explain the relatively high number of debt acknowledgments among these documents; the other alternative was to disappear. No wonder, then, that around the middle of the eighth century, many monasteries were abandoned. These tax accounts help to reveal a subtle strategy of disarming the church, the backbone of the Coptic population, because in fact those taxes that were too high on the poor monks added next to nothing to the total taxes. It was an undeclared campaign diametrically opposite to their proclaimed political action and to their official policy. The peasantry was in no better condition; many Copts had no choice but to abandon their fields, houses, and villages, and to flee, another fact that explains the presence of lists of fugitives among tax accounts. This means that the same policy of the Romans and the Byzantines of taxing the population too highly, which was at first denounced by Arabs in order to attract Copts, was later applied by them in a more artful way.

This information drawn from the tax accounts would incite the historian to reconsider the problem of political stability and social order in Coptic Egypt by the early period and to doubt the absence of revolts earlier than that of 725-726, stated by al-MAQRIZI to have been the first Coptic revolt against Arabs, and to give more credit to sources when they indicate earlier revolts even before the end of the seventh century. At any rate, the harsh tone of the letters of Arab officials found in archives with accounts pushes the historian more and more to doubt the officially declared attitude—unquestioned by quite a few scholars—and urges him to retain the literal meaning of the famous command of Caliph Sulayman (715-717) to Usamah ibn Za’id, when he was appointed governor of Egypt.

This was to “milk the cow till milk is exhausted and draw the blood to the last drop.” This attitude had an immense impact upon Egypt: rapid deterioration of the economic structure; degeneration of the social stability because of the growing and of the resurgence of banditry due to the increasing number of “fugitives” escaping high taxes; the decline of the administrative framework and impoverishment of its agents; the increase of taxes to compensate declining totals; and finally the massive apostasy of Copts in 745-750, which neither stopped the process of decay of the social structure nor the harsh policy of the ruler, who taxed converted Copts, too.

Another direct contribution of accounts is that they help to draw a more objective image of everyday life in Coptic Egypt, the nature of commodities, their abundance or scarcity, their prices, and their consumption; wages and expenses; the volume of commerce or exchange; the mechanism of quite a few commercial activities; the kind of dealings among villagers or monks, what they could afford to borrow and the price they had to pay for it, and so forth. Such a matter-of-fact image is needed to soften the fervor and charity that sometimes emerge from quite a few Coptic documents.

Last, accounts contribute to lexical studies, as they contain many terms and names of commodities and instruments not found in other sources. The importance of this aspect is that it shows how the popular language moves faster than other layers of the language and tolerates loanwords more easily.

The absence of studies on accounts and accounting contrasts with their contribution. If some scholars include accounts in the publication of documents, others would briefly refer to them and concentrate on other subjects. Consequently, no study of Coptic accounting has ever been published. Such a study would help students to tackle unintelligible accounts. It could also throw light on two interesting points—the logical approach of Coptic accountants reflected in their accounts and the place one could assign for this practice in the long history of accounting in Egypt.

First, accounting is basically the practice of analyzing, classifying, synthesizing, and registering accountable data. It could thus be, like mathematical exercises, a possible means to evaluate the logical approach of the ancient accountant, which is a valuable element for the historian since scribes were more or less the “literate” layer of the population, and accounts were often written by members of the clergy.

Second, since Coptic accounting is the last stage of a very long accounting practice in Egypt, it has to be considered from the point of view of the long development of this practice that, already around the end of the fourth millennium, allowed the administrative organization to take an annual census of the population and its wealth, and to adjust taxes levied every year. Since that time it has continued to develop with an evident tendency to simplify its method. This could be seen in a flow of hieratic, and later on, demotic accounts until the Roman period. Even when the Ptolemies imposed Greek as the official language, demotic continued to be used in a parallel direction until the Roman period.

In the Byzantine period, Greek tightened its hold more and more, especially with the teaching of mathematics in that language in different parts of Egypt. This explains the predominance of Greek accounts as well as its predominance in administrative and legal documents. It was only the process of political decay described above that changed this situation in the late Byzantine period and gave to Coptic its quasi-official recognition in accounts as well as in other documents. The invasion was not an immediate factor to upset this situation, since Arabs were not able to impose their language for a certain time. Consequently, Greek and Coptic accounts continued to be used at the same time.

This simultaneous use of accounts in both languages written sometimes by the same person underlines the necessity of analyzing Coptic accounts, not only from the point of view of links with ancient Egyptian bookkeeping but also from the point of view of reciprocity. Further studies of the Greek accounting system as reflected in papyri from Egypt and of its links with the accounting system applied in the Greek peninsula would pave the way for a study of the links between Greek and Coptic accounting in Egypt.

The meaning and the use of terms in modern bookkeeping systems do not necessarily accord with those of similar terms in ancient accounting. This does not only apply to technical or sophisticated modern expressions but also to terms expressing simple important notions as balance or even account, the meaning of which does not always coincide in the context of ancient accounting with their full modern acceptance. On the other hand, one could argue about what is to be considered an account in ancient documents and also about the exact significations of the Greek term lÒgoj (logos), usually translated by the word account and how its use in Coptic accounting—as well as in Greek documents—could convey the meaning of list, inventory, memorandum, notice, or even balance, remainder, and so forth. Besides, the structure of certain Coptic accounts greatly diverges from the normal form and falls within other categories of documents like those concerned with private law and letters. Since the terminology used by ancient accountants is, in fact, limited, lexicographical studies had better avoid too specific significations with modern connotations, unless it is illustrated beyond doubt.

For the most part Coptic accounts date from the seventh and eighth century. A few could, perhaps, be attributed to an earlier or a later date. Thus, they generally belong to the period of native renaissance, parallel with the weakening of the Byzantine domination and later with the very slow subjugation of the administrative system in Egypt by Arabs. These accounts come from monastic communities—an important element for the historian concerning the active role of the clergy and monks—and they were also the work of local officials who could write in Coptic and in Greek, the latter being the language they used in their dealings with the central administration, while the former was used for their dealings with the native population. When the Arabs quickly got rid of the Byzantines they had to rely on local officials, who knew Greek and Coptic.

The period covered by Coptic accounting is relatively short, shorter than that covered by hieratic, demotic, or Greek accounts from Egypt. Their number is also smaller. Yet one of their interests is that they represent the last step of the long tradition of accounting that lasted for almost four thousand years, a step that was able to survive in spite of the official imposition of an accounting in another language. No wonder, then, that the influence of this last step is felt in Arabic accounting in Egypt from the moment the same Coptic scribes used the newly imposed language as the administrative one. The influence of the same Coptic accountants continued centuries after.

Important accounts, as for example tax accounts, were written on papyrus, the writing material invented by Egyptians. Big monasteries, like Dayr al-Bala’yzah, seem to have kept papyrus account books from the period. These books, probably written by the prior of the monastery, were numbered (e.g., the first book of the income) to keep the records of income and income taxes. This is likely to have been one of the measures imposed by Arabs when they taxed monks and monasteries.

Only a few account books of big monasteries begin with a rather short protocol, used as a stamp giving the date and the name of the governor. These stamps, necessary for the acknowledgment of legal acts and documents, were destined to control the numbered books for the sake of taxation. Ordinary and unofficial accounts needed no such protocol. They begin directly with a title plogoc (plogos, account of) followed by details of what is accounted for. The term account or even the whole title could be omitted in less formal accounts.

The date is usually mentioned first, written partly in the margin to render it more obvious. Consecutive dates in long accounts and daybooks are written in the same way in the middle of the account. A full date does not bear any indication of a regnal year, but gives the month and the day of the indiction year, which was a cycle of fifteen years fixed as a fiscal arrangement. Shorter dates occur especially in the middle of accounts omitting the year. To quite a few documents, this absence makes it often difficult to ascertain a definite date and reflects the general lack of centralization of the administration, especially in the late Byzantine period. At that time Egypt was quite far from the solid administrative organization of the and its powerful centralization, reflected in the unified systematic form of datation even in documents. Moreover, dates mentioning the Lashane (the headman of a village or small town) or other local administrative authorities in the Coptic period are mostly confined to the elaborate style of legal documents. One is also far from the full dates of the time of Justinian, giving his regnal year, the consul, and the indiction. The fiscal year based on months of the ancient Egyptian calendar continued to be used throughout Coptic and Greek accounts and later in Arabic ones too.

Official accounts, written by experienced scribes, are often tabulated. Each item is entered on a separate line, arranged in two or more columns with dates, names of persons, places or commodities, and the appropriate amounts. The indication of the unit used often appears at the top of the column. The whole is usually aligned in a more or less neat table without any grid, and dashes are sometimes used in broad columns to facilitate the alignment of amounts with their respective entries.

Less formal accounts, on the contrary, are written in continuous lines with no apparent unit of the text and seem to have been written by unprofessional scribes or even dictated by illiterate persons or peasants as the text of these accounts show. One also remarks here the absence of idiomatic expressions, or units of currency or measure. In accounts originating from monasteries or written by members of the clergy or local officials, crosses begin and end accounts. They could also begin paragraphs or important entries and mark the separation between different parts of the account or between independent entries written in the same line, and in these cases, crosses are overwritten. To this pious attitude are attributed monograms like IC JC (Jesus Christ) or PC IC (the Lord Jesus) that one often meets in accounts and other documents.

Generally, Coptic accounts do not use many stereotyped formulas repeated every now and then such as in certain other ancient accounts. The language is simple and in accord with the contemporary language. The sober style tends to abridge everything down to the limits of intelligibility: dates, proper names, titles, commodity names, units of measure and capacity, currency, bookkeeping or economic terminology. The reading of these elements, familiar to the scribe, is not always easy for the student, especially since the same word could be differently abridged from one scribe to another or from one region to another, perhaps as a result of the lack of centralization; and examples abound in accounts. This excessive abridgment is no doubt the result of a long habit of scribes condensing their work, and can be seen in hieratic, demotic, and Greek accounts. Many features in common of this habit occur in demotic and Greek documents. It is necessary to mention here that the shortening of proper names in accounts is not a difficulty, since the filiation of the persons in question is often given.

Ellipsis, contraction, and the use of symbols are other characteristics of this style of Coptic accounts. Ellipsis is used to reduce the number of words in the entry to the very strict minimum. This is usually the case in accounts with similar entries. By contraction, the scribe shortens the familiar words and especially proper names, sparing only the initials, a habit which recalls a similar characteristic of abnormal hieratic and demotic texts. Here the number of omitted letters varies greatly, and a stroke is added after the spared letters to denote the contraction. One or more of the omitted letters are usually overwritten to help to identify words. Overwritten letters form an intercalated line in these accounts. This contraction of frequently used words, which are rapidly written, results in the formation of symbols that, in Coptic as in Greek accounts, are not numerous but occur very often, especially for units of measure and currency as, for example, (usually written with the omicron reduced and placed over the nu) for nom…sma(ta), “coin(s),” that is, nomisma or solidus. Monograms could also be considered as symbols.

As in Greek accounts from Egypt, but also in ancient Egyptian ones, there is a personal style as if the accountant were writing for himself (e.g., “I have received the remainder of” or “I have the remainder of the account of”). Another characteristic is what could be called the epistolary form of many Coptic accounts as well as Greek and demotic ones. The same form characterizes many documents of private law and business texts, not only in Coptic. This is why it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between these categories of documents, especially in the case of fragmentary ones.

Coptic measures used in these accounts include the very old units like the oipe and its subdivisions for grain (the same units were used in the countryside of Egypt until very recently before the application of the new systematization of units). Foreign units, like the Persian artaba and its subdivisions, are also used in demotic, Coptic, Greek, as well as Arabic accounts.

The currency mentioned in these documents is that of the Byzantine period. Other units could be related to the ancient Egyptian system. The same habit used in Greek accounts of adding diacritical marks after the nomisma sign to fill the vacant place and show that no carats are to be mentioned, is also used here. As mentioned above, at a certain time Greek was the language of mathematics taught in schools. This explains the tendency to write numbers and the units of measure and currency, as well as fractions, in the tailed Greek form of letters.

The ancient Egyptian system of fractions as aliquot parts is followed; with few exceptions there is no numerator greater than one. Fractions are written in the Coptic way, by using the letters of the alphabet. The ancient Egyptian word re (part or fraction), which in hieratic and demotic accounts is reduced to a dot or a dash preceding the denominator, fully reappears in Coptic as re- (re-).

Accounts bear different checking marks—dots and strokes added in the margin—and ink was erased with water. Some of these marks seem also to have been the work of young scribes, who used to go through the old accounts to learn accounting. They often copied old accounts either on the same documents or on separate ostraca, and one could tell from their paleographical characteristics that they are the work of beginners.

The handwriting of accounts is generally rapid. The writing is often ligatured; groups of letters or even of words familiar to the scribe are more or less attached. These paleographical features are common characteristics of business documents and are not always easily conclusive, for precise dating is different from that of the calligraphic uncial of liturgical or literary texts. This is also the case with similar documents from Egypt whether hieratic, demotic, or Greek. Analytical palaeography of Coptic accounts and business texts is in fact badly needed to date more precisely this important material for the historian.

Accounts were kept by local officials; the title “accountant” is found in documents. In where illiteracy was frequent, that role was played not only by the scribe of the village but also by the clergy, as for documents of Coptic law. The rich collection of documents from Djeme, a Coptic town that sprang up in the ruins of the funerary temple of Ramses III at MADINAT HABU in Thebes in Upper Egypt, shows that at a certain time it was more or less the property of the nearby monastery of DAYR APA PHOIBAMMON. This explains the presence in accounts of the repeated signs of the cross, monograms, and other pious expressions that reflect the impact of religion, the ever-important factor in the Egyptian milieu, on clerics, ascetes, officials, and peasants. But since only a small percentage of these accounts is free from this pious character, it seems to be an indication of the repeated affirmation of the Coptic identity with regard to the Byzantines.

There is no trace in these documents of any double-entry bookkeeping, which was an unknown method before the Middle Ages. In Coptic and in Greek accounting, a transaction is entered only once, however elaborate the accounts were. On the other hand, Coptic accounts reflect the two major divisions of the double system of economy of Egypt at that time. They are drawn according to the nature of what is accounted for—money accounts and grain accounts. This practice was already followed in demotic and in Greek accounts from the Ptolemaic period.

Apart from this important distinction, accounts were kept according to the two main axes, receipts and expenses. One could also classify these documents in distinct general groups: itemized daybooks, inventories, lists, detailed different accounts for current commodities, and tax accounts, which form the bulk of Coptic accounts. These terms are used loosely, and one could identify other categories of texts of accounting. Moreover, the scribes who kept the accounts were generally the same persons responsible for drawing up the legal and administrative documents. It would be interesting to trace the interaction of these domains, as well as the interaction of demotic, Greek, and Coptic accounting systems, so as to be able to assess Coptic accounting and whether the features in common are the fruits of a normal independent evolution or the results of these interactions; especially considering that bilingual accounts—like bilingual civil law documents—are not a rarity.

The accounting practice called hisab-dobia could be considered as one of the last steps in the history of accounting in Egypt. Although it was never done in Coptic, it became associated with Copts, because accounting used to be exclusively done by them, and even until the middle of the twentieth century it was one of their main occupations. The first element of this term is the Arabic word hisab (account). It is here coupled with a foreign word that may be a deformed derivative of the Italian adjective doppia, in the technical term partita doppia (double-entry), used in accounting to define the method by which two entries are made of each transaction. Hisab- dobia (var. hisab-ed-dobia and rarely hisab-al-dobia) is thus one of many hybrid terms that abound in spoken Arabic in Egypt. Its composition points to a fairly recent date.

The Italian origin of the loanword could be explained first by the long contact between the two countries and then by the genesis of the “double-entry” method in bookkeeping. Active relations between Egypt and the Italian cities have continued since the Roman domination of the Mediterranean. They were intensified by the polarization of commerce between Europe, Africa, and the East through Alexandria and the important Italian ports, in which the method of double-entry accounting among merchants engaged in these important transactions was first used.


No study of Coptic accounting has yet been published. Coptic accounts are published among other documents in general publications. The most important are:

  • Bell, H. I., and W. E. Crum, ed. Coptic and Greek Texts from the Excavations Undertaken by the Byzantine Research Account. Copenhagen, 1922.
  • Crum, W. E. Coptic Manuscripts Brought from the Fayum by W. M. Flinders Petrie. London, 1893.
  •  . Coptic Ostraca from the Collection of the Egypt Exploration Fund, the Cairo Museum and Others. London, 1902.
  •  . Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts in the British Museum. London, 1905.
  •  . Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts in the Collection of the John Rylands Library, Manchester. Manchester, 1909.
  •  . The Monastery of Epiphanis at Thebes. New York, 1929.
  •  . Short Texts from Coptic Ostraca and Papyri. Oxford, 1931.
  •  . Varia Coptica. Aberdeen, 1939.
  • Hall, H. R. Coptic and Greek Texts from the Christian Period from Ostraca, Stelae, etc. in the British Museum. London, 1905.
  • Kahle, P. H. Bala’izah. Coptic Texts from Deir El-Bala’izah in Upper Egypt. London, 1954.
  • Rouillard, G. L’Administration civile de l’Egypte byzantine, 2nd ed. Paris, 1928.
  • Stefanski, E., and M. Lichtheim. Coptic Ostraca from Medinet Habu. Chicago, 1952.
  • Thompson, H. Theban Ostraca. London, 1913 (Coptic texts). Till, W. Die koptischen Ostraca der Papyrussammlung der Österreicheschen Nationalbibliothek. Vienna, 1960.

For accounting methods, see:

  • Grier, E. Accounting in the Zenon Papyri. New York, 1934 (for the Greek collection of the Zenon Papyri from Egypt).
  • Megally, M. Notions de comptabilité à propos du papyrus E. 3226 du Musée du Louvre. Cairo, 1977 (for ancient Egyptian accounting).