The Difnar is a collection of BOHAIRIC hymns with Arabic translation which remains a part of the contemporary liturgy of the Coptic Church. These hymns commemorate significant people in the Coptic Church or who are of importance to Christianity as a whole, as well as decisive events in the development of the Coptic Church (e.g., councils).

In addition to the SYNAXARION, the second most extensive compendium of texts in memory of saints read in the service, the Difnar forms an essential part of the Coptic Church’s Tradition. Similarities in structure and function between the Difnar and the Synaxarion suggest a relationship between them; however, in each instance where they are placed together, their exact relationship is unclear. Current opinion holds that the Difnar is earlier in origin (Mekhaiel 2010: 441ff.). Of course, the Difnar was not conceived as a singular planned work, but came about as the result of a longer literary development. Although the original core of the Difnar collection is older than the Synaxarion, the latter handed down only in Arabic (Gabra 1996: 52), later additions and extensions to the Difnar may well have been influenced by Synaxarion texts. A precise comparison between the two corpora produces opposing results; on one hand, some texts in both corpora provide the same information in the same order; but on the other hand, other texts have nothing in common apart from commemorating the same person on the same day (Mekhaiel 2010: 345ff.).

Within the Synaxarion, a possible source for at least for a part of the complete Difnar corpus can be located. For the Difnar’s presumably older core, one must seek other sources. Unfortunately, the entire textual history of the Difnar is almost completely unknown. Following Coptic tradition, the Difnar dates to the patriarch GABRIEL II (Ghubriyal ibn Turayk 1131-1145 A.D.) (Mekhaiel 2010: 26f.). In view of the fact that during the relative quiet of the last of the Fatimids Ghubriyal ibn Turayk was able to renew Church life, it is plausible that he also felt responsible for the revival of the liturgy and, from this motivation, would have collected already-circulating texts on certain saints, adapted them to liturgical requirements, and assembled them into a collective work. However, since individual Difnar texts can be safely referenced to later times (e.g., a solar eclipse mentioned on the 9th Tut), the idea that Ghubriyal Ibn Turayk constructed the Difnar remains only a compelling hypothesis. In any case, the earliest known reference to the Difnar comes from the Coptic encyclopaedist Abu al-Barakat IBN KABAR (d. 1324 A.D.), who mentions the Difnar in the section of the Evening prayer Salat ‘Asiyah in his theological encyclopedia Lamp of Darkness and exposition of the (ecclesiastical) service (Graf 1944-1953: 438-445). It can be concluded that the original core of Bohairic hymns present in today’s Difnar dates to older Sahidic texts, and originated in the 10th century (Gabra 1998: 62).

One of several possible Difnar sources may be found in texts contained in the Sahidic manuscript M575 of the PIERPONT MORGAN LIBRARY, dated to 609 A.M. = 892-893 A.D. (Krause 2003: 171-174, 181f.). These texts are called “antiphonic” songs, and presumably had a similar function to Difnar hymns (Cramer 1969). Comparison shows that only a very small part of these Sahidic texts, and only in excerpts, match the Difnar. The spectrum of texts in M575 ranges from a comparable basic framework to almost identical wording in consecutive stanzas, even while bearing in mind that individual Difnar hymns in their present form have a different length and intensive editing process behind them. Presumably, in the traditional process, an intermediate-stage Bohairic version of the Sahidic texts of 575 is no longer extant (Mekhaiel 2010: 313ff.).

Another potential source for Difnar hymns is from COPTIC HAGIOGRAPHY and MARTYROLOGY. Traces of such lives are found in a number of hymns, and sometimes only in one of the two parts of a hymn. Concrete evidence of dependence of a single Difnar hymn upon a life or martyr text is, however, hampered by the fact that in this literary group, certain patterns and stereotypes emerge that are found in many texts. These hagiographical and martyrological narratives, like the two sections of each Difnar hymn, are often independent of each other, and thus cannot represent anything from a saint’s traditional texts with any certainty (Mekhaiel 2010: 445ff.).

Each hymn of the Difnar is formally of two separate chants, Adam and Batos. Depending on the day of the week, a certain Psali was assigned for recitation, i.e., from Sunday to Tuesday, the first part called Adam, and on the remaining days of the week the second part called Batos. An exception to the rule is when Psali Adam and Batos speak of different people, between whom there is no relation. As a rule, the same person forms the contents of both Difnar chants, but this does not mean that Psali Adam and Batos will always harmonize in their content. This causes potential issues between the chants: both in large, almost identical text passages and in contradictory statements. This common experience leaves the reader with the impression that there has never been a final, comprehensive editorial work of Difnar hymns. Their length varies from six to twenty stanzas, each having four verses. Apart from their stanza form, apparently no attempt has been made to unify or adapt Difnar texts, as their content is given priority over formal criteria. Difnar chants often jump from one idea to another and contain duplications of both content and linguistic mechanisms. Sentences are sometimes inconsistent, and narratives abruptly alternate with sections of praises, in which a saint is directly addressed. All these variations are characteristics of the living use of this literature.

The Arabic translation of the Difnar consistently shows careful effort to deal with the Coptic text and to reproduce it as adequately as possible in expression and syntax (Mekhaiel 2010: 130ff.). Therefore, formal differences from the Coptic text, such as precise additions, are the exception. Presumably the Arabic translation was created in a fairly early phase of the Difnar’s development. The language used in Arabic can be called a fairly homogeneous middle «Arabic»[1], which was already evident from the 10th century. At this time, Coptic bilingualism was the normal case: the faithful still sang their hymns in Coptic, and the Arabic aided understanding until a second phase of systematic translations became necessary.

Compared to its importance, the number of received textual witnesses to the Difnar is relatively small. Significantly, there is a lack of early manuscripts, as most date from the 19th and 20th centuries. By far the most important[2] and at the same time earliest-preserved Difnar manuscript is one dated to the year 1101 A.M. (1384/85 A.D.) from DAYR ANBA ANTUNIYUS on the Red Sea (MS. A, Fig. 1)[3]. Its original six-volume bilingual manuscript (Bohairic and Arabic, arranged in two columns) was later rebound in twelve volumes, of which volumes for the months Hatur and Kiyahk are missing today. Perhaps rebinding became necessary after they were copied several times in the church of HARIT ZUWAYLA, the former seat of the Coptic Patriarch, to which this manuscript had been transferred. After 1790 A.D., the last confidently testified transcript, this manuscript was relocated to Dayr Anba Antuniyus, where it remains today, under the reference «Liturgical» 278, 279, 282, 283, 284, 285, 286, 287, 288, 289 or 314, 315, 320, 322, 325, 326, 329, 331, 332, 333.[4] MS. A offers a very pure text apart from dialectal peculiarities, especially in vocalization. It bears minor occasional corrections from a second hand, as well as decoration including highlighted initials at the beginning of a hymn or stanza.

Fig.1: MS. A, the beginning of the text of the month Amšῑr, fol. 123v
Fig.1: MS. A, the beginning of the text of the month Amšῑr, fol. 123v

Difnar transcripts, which are recognized by self-attestation in the colophons, also prove to be true copies. The most significant of these transcripts is a six-volume manuscript from the Coptic Museum, which originated in the years 1445 A.M. (= 1728/29 A.D.) to 1450 A.M. (= 1733/34 A.D.) for the Church of Saint in Old Cairo. It bears the numbers Litfurgica] 357a to 357f (Simaika 1942: 101ff, Ser. 213-218). This bilingual text is, like MS. A, arranged in two columns. Its greatest value is that it can serve as a supplement for the months Hatur and Kiyahk missing in MS. A, as an exact synopsis shows that it represents a faithful and complete copy of MS. A (Mekhaiel 2010: 146ff.). Other early Difnar manuscripts usually contain only parts of the Difnar: first of these is the manuscript Borg. Copto 53 from the BIBLIOTECA APOSTOLICA VATICANA, which contains hymns for the months Basans, Ba’una, ‘Abib and Misra, plus Nasi, Tut and Babah in stanzas on Coptic and Arabic[5] and dated to the 18th century. Another manuscript from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Borg. Copto 101, was written in the year 1475 A.M. (= 1758 A.D.) for the month of Ba’una. Borg. Copto 101 can also be compared with another text in the same collection: manuscript Borg. Copto 102 for the month ‘Abib, which according to its colophon was made only two weeks later than Borg. Copto 101.

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Borg. Copto 101
Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Borg. Copto 101


In contrast, manuscript Borg. Copto 104 from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana for the months Misra plus Nasi has a colophon stating the year of its copying as 1475 A.M. (= 1758 A.D.), but the year of writing down its Vorlage as 1103 A.M. (= 1378 A.D.). This could be either a very early copy of MS. A, or the Vorlage of MS. V104 and MS. A, both possess a common ancestor that has not been preserved. In any case, all these early Bohairic manuscripts: V101, V102, and V104, are very close to the text of MS A. apart from dialectal influences, which presumably can be attributed to the copyists.

A complete three-volume Difnar manuscript in the library of the old Coptic Patriarchate “al-Murqusiyah” in Azbakiah, Cairo (Simaika 1942: 392f. under ser. nos. 869, 870, 871 or lit. 268, 269, 270) is also worth mentioning. This was made at the instigation of Bishop of Abu Tig in 1790 A.D. for the Church of the Virgin in Harit Zuwayla. All other extant Difnar manuscripts are of later date and of secondary importance for the reconstruction of the Difnar’s textual history. It can be concluded that all the early preserved manuscripts go back directly or indirectly to MS. A, or are associated with it and that thus (and unlike the case of the Synaxarion) there has always been only one version of the Difnar; i.e., only one authorized text was created. At best, this differs from the original version in the fact that in the hymn طرح مختص بحضور بطريرك الزمان بالبيعه «It is sung at the arrival of the patriarch in the church» the name of the respective reigning patriarch was used.[6] The entire Difnar collection can, and indeed has been, extended where devotion suggests. A later addition, for example, is represented in the hymn to the martyr Salib (also called Pistavros) on 3 Kiayhk, which was included in the Difnar after 1512 A.M., the year of this martyr’s death.

The Coptic Difnar was first published by O’Leary (1926-1930), who, however, printed only about half the text of the last four months of the Coptic year; O’Leary’s edition was based on several relatively late 18th century manuscripts. His edition has been updated and replaced with a Coptic-Arabic edition and translation of MS. A by Nashaat Mekhaiel. In his doctoral thesis (Mekhaiel 2010), he reviewed the Difnar as a whole, paying particular attention to its genesis and traditional process. In addition, various studies on individual Difnar texts have been made. Of these one notes above all the work of Gawdat Gabra and Maria Cramer.

Nashaat Mekhaiel


  • Blau, J. 1982. “Das fruhe Neuarabisch in mittelarabischen Texten” In Grundriss der Arabischen Philologie, vol. I, edited by W. Fischer, 96-109, Wiesbaden.
  • Burmester, O. H. E. 1931. Review of O’Leary, De Lacy: The Difnar (Antiphonarium) of the Coptic Church, Part III, London 1930. In Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 17, 1931, 161-162.
  • Cramer, M. 1969. Koptische Hymnologie in deutscher Ubersetzung. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
  • Gabra, G. 1996. “Untersuchungen zum Difnar der koptischen Kirche, I. Quellenlage, Forschungsgeschichte und kunftige Aufgaben.“ In BSAC 35, 1996, 37-52.
  • Gabra, G. 1998. “Untersuchungen zum Difnar der koptischen Kirche, II. Zur Kompilation.“ In BSAC 37, 1998, 49-86.
  • Graf, G. 1944-1953. Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur (GCAL): II, Die Schriftsteller bis zur Mitte des 15. Jahrhunderts. Studi e Testi 133. Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.
  • Krause, M. 2003. “Das koptische Antiphonar aus dem Handschriftenfund von Hamuli.“ In Agypten-Munster. Kulturwissenschaftliche Studien zu Agypten, dem Vorderen Orient und verwandten Gebieten. Festschrift E. Graefe, edited by A.I. Blobaum, J. Kahl, and S.D. Schweitzer, 167-185, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
  • Mekhaiel, N. 2010. Untersuchungen zur Entstehungs- und Uberlieferungsgeschichte des koptischen Difnars anhand der Hymnen der letzten vier Monate des koptischen Jahres. JThF 14. Munster: Aschendorff Verlag.
  • Mekhaiel, N. forthcoming. Edition und Ubersetzung des koptisch-arabischen Difnars auf der Grundlage der altesten erhaltenen Difnar-Handschrift aus dem 14. Jahrhundert (Hs. A), 5 vols., JThF 31-35. Munster: Aschendorff Verlag.
  • O’Leary, D.L. 1926-1930. The Difnar (Antiphonarium) of the Coptic Church (First Four Months), from the Manuscript in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, with Fragments of a Difnar Recently Discovered at the Der Abu Makar in the Wadi Namin, I-III. London: Luzac.
  • Simaika, M. 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, vol. 2, Cairo.

[1] According to Blau’s terminology, “middle Arabic substandard.”

[2] All general statements about the language and development of the Difnar made here are based on study of this manuscript. Burmester already saw its value in his review of the third part of O’Leary’s 1926-1930 Difnar edition (Burmester 1931: 162), but it was left to Mekhaiel to investigate it more precisely (Mekhaiel 2010); Mekhaiel’s forthcoming new edition of the Difnar is based upon this investigation.

[3] Colophons show that in the period between the end of December 1384 and 3 August 1385 at Dayr Anba Antuniyus, this Difnar was copied by the monk and Petros of Drunka from an until now unknown Vorlage.

[4] For the importance of MS. A and its codicological description, see Mekhaiel 2010: 34ff.

[5] However, only the first three or four stanzas were written from a Coptic text, while the Arabic text is complete.

[6] The fact that there was an authorized text does not preclude that in later manuscripts copyists inserted stereotyped affirmations, or even moved individual passages of a general character within the hymns.