COPTOLOGY AND COPTOLOGICAL STUDIES
Martin Krause, the father of modern Coptology, has defined Coptology as “a scientific discipline in Oriental studies that investigates the language and culture of Egypt and Nubia in the widest sense: literature, religion, history, archaeology, and art. Its range extends from late antiquity to the Middle Ages, or even down to the present. It touches on and intersects with a number of neighboring disciplines.” Of the latter should be mentioned Egyptology, classical philology, Byzantine studies, religious studies, theology, Church history, Islamic studies, Arabic studies, art history, Ethiopic studies, linguistics, history of law, and history of medicine.
Coptic studies go back to the earliest centuries of Christianity in Egypt, when an Egyptian text was composed using the Greek alphabet, with additional letters from the demotic. The early stage of that script was called Old Coptic. Its inventor or inventors are not known. The creation of that new practical writing system was a very significant cultural moment, for it enabled the native Egyptians to read the Old and New Testaments and Greek writings, which were translated from Greek into the Coptic language. After a few centuries of the Arab conquest of Egypt, Arabic began to supersede Coptic. In order to preserve the knowledge of their language, which is also the language of their Church, a number of scholars compiled Arabic glossaries of Coptic words (scalae).
Many biblical and liturgical texts, as well other literary works had been translated from Coptic into Arabic. By the 13th century, Coptic scholars were using Arabic and employing Arabic grammatical terminology to prepare and edit Coptic grammars. These glossaries and grammatical summaries proved to be instrumental in beginning Coptic studies in Europe. The manuscript collection of the Vatican, which was founded by Pope Nicholas V in the middle of the 15th century, had already included some Coptic-Arabic bilinguals. Yusuf Abu Daqn copied the Coptic text of the liturgy, probably to use it in his teaching at Oxford. He also wrote a history of the Coptic Church in Latin. During the 16th and 17th centuries, European travelers brought Coptic manuscripts from Egypt to Europe that were used by European scholars to study the Coptic language.
It was Athanasius Kircher who produced the first Coptic grammar and lexicon in a Western language. In the 18th century, Coptic was studied by many scholars in Europe, playing a crucial role in the decipherment of the ancient Egyptian language by Jean Francois Champollion (1790-1832). In the same century, Rufa’il al-Tukhi published a Coptic grammar and a number of Coptic liturgical books provided by an Arabic translation. In 1845, Moritz Gotthilf Schwartze was named professor extraordinaire of Coptic language and literature at Berlin University. The late 19th and the first half of the 20th century witnessed a remarkable progress in Coptological studies in many universities in Europe, especially in Germany, France, and England, as well as in the United States.
During that period many “excavations” were carried out in Coptic sites such as Akhmim and Antinoe, and publications on many ancient monasteries appeared. Of special significance are the Monastery of St. Jeremiah, the Monastery of St. Apollo, the Monastery of St. Hatre, the White Monastery, the Red Monastery, and the monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun. Moreover, a large number of Coptic texts found their way into museums, libraries, and private collections in Egypt, Europe, and America, including the Manichaean Codices, the Gnostic Nag Hammadi Library, biblical manuscripts, and nonliterary texts.
Many Copts strived for the recognition and preservation of the legacy of their Church, notably Ya‘qub Nakhlah Rufaylah, Iqladiyus Labib, Marcus Simaika, Habib Girgis, Yassa ‘Abd al-Masih, Georgy Sobhy, Mirit Ghali, Aziz Atiya, Sami Gabra, and Murad Kamil. A number of Coptic institutions had been established, such as the Clerical College, the Coptic Museum, and the Society of Coptic Archaeology. Two exhibitions of Coptic art stimulated the interest of both scholars and laymen; one was in Brooklyn in 1941 and the other in Cairo in 1944. In the second half of the 20th century and the first years of this century, Coptological studies have considerably improved.
Under UNESCO auspices, scholars from several countries cooperated to work in the Coptic codices of the Nag Hammadi Library in the Coptic Museum, and many scholars studied Coptic in order to investigate Gnosticism. In 1954, the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies was founded in the Coptic patriarchate. The exhibition of Coptic art in Villa Hugel, Essen, Germany, in 1963, began a series of exhibitions in many European cities such as Munich, Zurich, Vienna, Geneva, and Paris, with the latest at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest in 2005. These exhibitions engendered a vast awareness of the Coptic heritage worldwide. Scientific catalogues and symposia enhanced the benefits of such cultural events. In 1965, Coptology became an academic major in the University of Munster in Germany; and the universities of Geneva, Rome, and Halle had professorships of Coptic language and literature.
Coptologists also teach in other universities, such as Yale, Paris, Munich, and Gottingen. Since its foundation in 1976, the International Association for Coptic Studies has organized an international congress every four years to further Coptic studies. The appearance of the Coptic Encyclopedia in 1991 considerably facilitated research in the various aspects of the Coptic civilization.
Excavations that were executed in the late 1950s and in the 1960s in Nubia led to the discovery of many Coptic and Christian Nubian monuments. Carefully recorded excavations were carried out in many Coptic sites. Of special importance are Abu Mina, Kellia, Athribis, Saqqara, Naqlun, Antinoe, Abu Fana, Bawit, Thebes, and Esna. Great conservation projects yielded rich monastic wall paintings in Wadi al-Natrun, the Monastery of St. Antony, the Monastery of St. Paul, and the Red Monastery. A number of publications on the collection of the Coptic Museum appeared. The past few decades have witnessed more involvement of the Copts with their glorious history and legacy.
Their cooperation led to the establishment of a professorship of Coptic studies at the American University in Cairo in 2002, where Coptology became an academic minor. In 2005, Macquarie University in Sydney started a unique master of arts program in Coptic studies, while courses are also offered online. Coptologia and Coptic Church Review were both founded in North America. The St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society and the St. Mark Foundation for Coptic History Studies play a significant role in preserving Coptic heritage and furthering Coptic studies in Egypt and in the United States.