Defining the word “Copt” is not an easy matter. Gratuitous applications of the term in many circumstances have come together under the Coptic umbrella, resulting in a surprising mixture of connotations. A definition, therefore, that considers factual usage or acceptable conventional usage becomes necessary.
The root of the word serves as a beginning. Two etymologies have been proposed. One is based on homonymy, which connects the term with the name of the city Coptos (modern Qift), situated about 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Luxor. In this city in Upper Egypt the Copts have been, and still are, more numerous than elsewhere in the country, a fact that tends to support this theory.
However, today Qift is largely Muslim, and in the past it was never distinguished as a center or place of Coptic activity, as was Asyut or Suhaj, farther to the north in Upper Egypt. Therefore, homonymy has no historical justification that would authorize a derivation of the word in relation to the city of Coptos.
The other hypothesis sees in the word Copt the equivalent of the Greek Aigyptos/Aigyptioi, but reduced to the root consonants. This reduction indeed took place in Arabic administrative acts from the time of the Muslim conquest of the country in 641. The most obvious probability (still awaiting textual evidence) is that the vocable passed thus from these acts into the spoken language, as would be natural. In Arabic neither vowels nor diphthongs are transcribed. So in this manner Aigyptos/Aigyptioi became kpt, and in the subsequent pronunciation, “Copt,” to designate the country and its native inhabitants.
It should be noted that the Greek words Aigyptos/Aigyptioi themselves seem to have been formed by the Greeks upon the name of the principal sanctuary in the north of Egypt, that of the ancient city of Memphis, dedicated to the god Ptah. This sanctuary was named Het-ka-Ptah meaning the divine house of the ka of Ptah, for which the Greeks did not transcribe the aspirated sounds and modified the vowels.
No doubt the Greeks decided to designate as the geographical area that best represented the entire country and its inhabitants that well-known and most ancient Egyptian center in the north where they had first settled. Consequently, it was used for ethnic and geographic purposes more than for its religious appurtenances. Had it been otherwise, the Greeks would certainly have opted for the sanctuary of Amon-Ra at Karnak in Luxor.
From the arabization of Aigyptos/Aigyptioi, and from the etymology reconstructed therefrom, there is reason to conclude that these words take on first of all a geographic sense, and second, a meaning that is essentially ethnic. Thus they signify none other than Egypt and the Egyptians of the period immediately following the pharaohs. The same thing, of course, must be said for the word “Copt.”
Semantics and circumstances have, nevertheless, added a local religious and Christian sense to the original meaning of “Copt.” In effect, the word “Copt” served to distinguish the conquering Arabs, who were Muslims, from the native inhabitants of Egypt, the great majority of whom were Christians. As a consequence, the tendency to identify Muslim with Arab spread throughout the Islamic world. It was later strengthened by a progressive conversion of Egyptian Christians to Islam under the pressure of considerable burdens, notably fiscal, which weighed upon them to the point that within three centuries only a minority remained faithful to Christian beliefs—a minority very important to this day.
It is with the elements of this minority that the Crusaders of the thirteenth century dealt. The same thing may be said for European travelers who at the end of the sixteenth century were interested in the manuscripts of the Coptic monasteries. So the term “Copt” took on, and has kept, a meaning that is inseparably ethnic and Christian.
From that time, for means of classification, modern historians have gone back chronologically and have adopted an older meaning from a time anterior to the formation and usage of the word. In effect, this complex interpretation has been affixed to all the indigenous inhabitants of Egypt and to everything concerning them over a period of history dating from the third to the middle of the seventh century—with no other distinction. Within Egypt the word “Copt” pertained to the language, social life, art, and liturgy (Christian). More extensively, outside of Egypt, it was applied to those people to whom the word seemed appropriate: the Ethiopians, for example, by reason of their ties with Christian Egypt, ties that were ecclesiastical (hierarchy and administration) and liturgical or dogmatic.
The same may be said for the Syro-Jacobites and the Armenians because of their official MONOPHYSITISM. Such was the amplitude reached by the word “Copt” brought about arbitrarily by scholars. It came about in a rather natural way, since it all had to do with the people from which this minority had come and with everything connected to them.
It was, however, no less an anachronism, characterized, at the same time, by a much-abused generalization. The need to distinguish by this word the native Egyptians from the occupying Roman or Byzantine powers, or later the Arab conquerors, brings no justification at all. Moreover, accepting these erroneous applications and definitions causes immediate problems.
The first of these, and one that supersedes all the others, seems to have been virtually unnoticed to the present. The word “Copt” to mean “Egyptian Christian” cannot be reconciled with the characterization by modern historians of “Copt” as a period of time, from the third to the middle of the seventh century, including all the Egyptian people, not all of whom were Christian. This objection is more credible when considering that the Egyptians did not awaken to find themselves all Christian at the beginning of the third century, any more than other people. Christianity, on the contrary, did not attain a majority in Egypt until the middle of the fifth century.
The majority of the people up to that time had been on the side of the pagan Egyptians, whose influence did not recede all at once. And yet these pagan Egyptians cannot be separated totally from the Christian Egyptians. For they all had in common their social status, taxes and other obligations, language, art, and, for some, a magic or gnostic literature. The attribution of the label “Copt” to this mixed society is difficult in the extreme. Under the guise of simplification, only confusion resulted.
In addition, the frequent extension in the religious sense of the word “Copt” to Christian Ethiopians, Syro-Jacobites, and Armenians makes it radically and arbitrarily empty of its essential ethnic base. Its application in these communities to the period that precedes the formation and use of the word by the Arab conquerors of Egypt makes this usage as anachronistic and unjustifiable as when used in referring to this same period in Egypt.
The label of “Copts” conferred upon Orthodox Egyptian Christians who during the nineteenth century became Catholic or Protestant—all the while keeping to the Coptic ritual—is more acceptable, in that it limits the creation of new distinctions among the Egyptian Christians. Nevertheless, it makes the usage of the word still more complex. And, to add to the confusion, the profession of agnosticism by certain contemporary Copts removes the religious value from a word that had developed an ethnoreligious meaning, without clarifying it at all.
One would be tempted to cast aside the improper usages of the word and to impose upon it a definition taking into account only facts, whatever their complexity. But this would create new confusion because the anachronisms described above have become accepted, and hence make up a part of the word’s meaning. It seems wiser to endorse them all with deliberation, but to offer at the same time more acceptable bases for their conventional usage. With such reckoning, the irregularities could serve scientific truth. Only the most impossible ones would be rejected, especially certain inadmissible extensions of the term.
From this perspective, the following outline can be proposed.
In Egypt or Concerning Egyptians
- The Coptic period in Egypt lasted from the second century B.C. to the middle of the seventh century A.D. Its terminus a quo is justified by the beginning of the formation of the Coptic language, last stage of the Egyptian tongue, traced up to that point in hieroglyphs or written in hieratic or demotic. The word “Copt” has only an ethnic meaning. The native inhabitants of Egypt during this period are Copts, initially mostly pagan, then pagan and Christian, and finally Christian by a large majority. During this period the language is common to all, as is the writing; the literature and art are Coptic, either pagan or Christian according to the subject matter; the Christian liturgy is Coptic; the pagan cult of pharaonic origin, mixed together with Greek “mysteries,” is also Coptic.
- The Coptic community in Egypt lasted from the middle of the seventh century to the twentieth century. The meaning of the word “Copt” is ethno-Christian. The word “Copt” designates essentially the Orthodox Copts. By extension, it may be applied to Copts who have become Catholic or Protestant, or even agnostic (but then reverting to the purely ethnic meaning). The Coptic language remained that of the Coptic community for a short time only. By the tenth century it was supplanted by Arabic, as was their literature, which, however, remained Christian. The Coptic liturgy kept its place of honor in this community and is to be distinguished from other Christian liturgies.
Coptic art is also that of this community and is thus Christian. It lost its value as art during the thirteenth century.
The word “Copt” is to be discarded when discussing the Syro- Jacobites and the Armenians and whatever may concern them. Nor can it designate the Ethiopians, who are of a different race and language. But it may be used to describe ecclesiastical and administrative affairs such as their dogma and liturgy. Concerning Ethiopians, it is normal to speak of the Coptic hierarchy, Coptic Christians, and Coptic liturgy.
- Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte. Catalogue d’exposition. Editions du Ministère des Affaires culturelles. Paris, 1964, pp. 25-27. . L’art copte, pp. 5-6. Paris, 1967.
- Doresse, J. “Les Coptes.” Histoire universelle, Collection de la Pleiade. Paris, 1970.
- Lefebvre, G. “Grammaire de l’egyptien classique.” 2d ed., p. 6, n. 3. Cairo, 1955.
PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S. J.