Athanasius, Bishop Of Abu Tij


A collector, restorer, and copyist of manuscripts (d. 1819/20)

This bishop, known chiefly from the history of Coptic Arabic manuscripts, must be considered a major protagonist in the early Coptic cultural awakening of modern times (19th century).1 He is to be distinguished from two other homonymous bishops of the same town of Upper Egypt near ASYUT:2 a former Athanasius, from 1696 to 1719(?), the restorer of some ten manuscripts held now in the Coptic Patriarchate at Cairo (Simaika 1942: passim; see Samir 1978: 84, n. 32); and a later Athanasius who was between 1844 and at least 1862 (Muyser 1944: 171; further data in Timm 1984: 58).

We are acquainted with some 200 manuscripts related to Athanasius’ intense library activity. While Samir (1978: 105-6 and 1981) listed about 40 such manuscripts, sometimes with detailed information, and chiefly held in the Coptic Patriarchate at Cairo,3 we can count up approximately 150 copies in the catalogue of the Monastery of St. Anthony in the Eastern Desert (Wādī ‘Araba).4 Most manuscripts were directly restored by Athanasius, or under his patronage.

Some were copied or sponsored by him, and he owned others before they were entered into the library. The remaining manuscripts show his own endowment deeds (waqf ) without further specification. This huge number of manuscripts associated with Athanasius can perhaps be explained by a note in MS London, British Library, Curzon 118, from 1794/5, which states that the monastery was under the jurisdiction of the of ABŪ TĪJ (Timm 1984: 58).

According to a note on fol. 155r of one of the St. Anthony manuscripts, Liturgy 215, Athanasius was made by Patriarch JOHN XVIII (1769-1796) in AM 1502 (1785/6), and attended later in spring of 1786 the ceremony of the consecration of the holy Myron (CHRISM).5 Without any specific date, Athanasius’ consecration is confirmed in a note in MS London, British Library, Oriental 1001 (1791/2), fol. 77v (see Timm 1984: 58). On the other hand, in the endowment record of 1790/1, displayed in a range of Difnār manuscripts from the referred monastery (Liturgy 325-326, 329, 331-333), Athanasius is given the title of Metropolitan (Muṭrān), perhaps in connection with the See of Jerusalem.

In fact, if we trust Timm’s reading (1984: 60, n. 7), according to a note inserted in another London manuscript of the same Library (Oriental 1325, written in 1805/6), Athanasius eventually became Metropolitan of that prestigious Palestinian See. Apparently this charge was nominal and added to his first See, as Athanasius carried on his involvement in the library of the monastery in Egypt many years after this date, and he is referred to in the respective manuscripts simply as of Abū Tīj.

In two manuscripts from the same monastery, Theology 43 and 46, dated 1797 and in which Athanasius acted as sponsor, he was noted as a former monk there. He may already had the name Athanasius, if the conjecture expressed in a note on fol. 70r of 300, from 17 Tūt 1500 (September 1783), can be confirmed. It states that the copyist Athanasius (whose name is written in Coptic) should be (ghāliban) “Anbā Athanāsiyūs usquf Abū Tīj”. Furthermore, some seven volumes of the same collection give the name of Abū al-Baqā’ as the ’s ‛alāmah (humble self-allusion).

On the basis of the manuscripts he was aware of, Samir (1978: passim; see also 1981: 219) sets the years of 1788 and 1811 as bookend years for the ’s activity as restorer. However, we now know that we must go back at least two years from 1788. A marginal note on fol. 12r of the restored MS Theology 222 of St. Anthony attests that it was bestowed by Athanasius in Ba’ūnah 1502 (June 1786): that is, a few months after his consecration. At the other end of this chronological spectrum, half a dozen manuscripts from the same monastery were bestowed by Athanasius in AM 1531 (1814/5). The copy of a Psalter with the signature Bible 43 was sponsored by him, with the precise date of Baramhāt 1531 (March 1815). Immediately afterward, in the next year, Patriarch PETER VII (1809-1853), a former monk in the same monastery, bestowed some ten codices to the Library.

And in 1817/8, Hegumenos appeared as a new (?) abbot (MSS Liturgy 335, 844, and others). We do not know if this means that Athanasius was deceased by this date, or if he was somehow handicapped or ill before his death. Jacob Muyser (1944: 170) places the date of Athanasius’ in October 1819, though without supporting documentation, noting only that Athanasius was not present in the ceremony in the spring of the same Coptic year of 1531 (1820).

Henceforth, the intense activity of Athanasius as collector, restorer, sponsor, or copyist of manuscripts covered some thirty years and continued during the time of three patriarchs: John XVIII (1769-1796), Mark VIII (1796-1809), and the beginning of the reign of Peter VII (1809-1853).

Taking into account the content of all manuscripts related to Athanasius, we can note that his intellectual interest was wide, and embraced almost all the common topics of Coptic or Coptic Arabic literature. He did demonstrate a certain preference, however, for liturgical and biblical matters. Apart from Samir’s detailed study concerning the most important Greek-Arabic codex of the St. Basil Liturgy (Samir 1978), Gabra (1996: 43 ff.) studied the history of a set of manuscripts from St. Anthony which had great relevance for the history of the Coptic Difnār (Antiphonarion).6


  • Muyser, Jacob. 1944. “Contribution à l’étude des listes épiscopales de l’Église copte,” Bulletin de la Société d’Archéologie Copte (Cairo), 10: 115-176.
  • Gabra, Gawdat. 1996. “Untersuchungen zum Difnar der koptischen Kirche,” Bulletin de la Société d’Archéologie Copte, 25: 37-52.
  • Guirguis, Magdi & Nelly van Doorn-Harder. 2001. The Emergence of the Modern Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian and Its Leadership from the Ottoman Period to the Present, New York: Press.
  • Samir, Samir Khalil. 1978. “Le codex Kačmarčik et sa version arabe de la Liturgie alexandrine,” Orientalia Christiana Periodica (Rome), 44: 74-106 + Pl. 1-3. . 1981. “Athanase évêque d’Aboutig († 1819) restaurateur de manuscrits,” , 47: 213-221.
  • Simaika, Marcus & Yassā ‘Abd al-Masīḥ. 1939 & 1942. Catalogue of the Coptic and Arabic Manuscripts in the Coptic Museum, the Patriarchate, the Principal Churches of Cairo and Alexandria and the Monasteries of Egypt in 3 Volumes, Vol. I [The Coptic Museum] & Vol. II [The Coptic Patriarchate] (in 2 fasc.), Cairo, 1939 and 1942 (only two of the three volumes were published).
  • Timm, Stefan, 1984, Das christlich-koptische Ägypten in arabischer Zeit, Vol. 1 (A-C), Wiesbaden.