History Of The Patriarchs


Major source for history. The History of the Patriarchs is the principal source for the history of the Church during the first six centuries of Islamic rule. The work came into existence toward the end of the 11th century through the labor of a team led by ibn ; the biographies of the first 65 patriarchs of the Coptic Church (beginning with St. Mark the Evangelist) were compiled from Coptic-language sources and translated into Arabic, while added original Arabic-language biographies of Patriarchs Christodoulos (66th, 1046-1077) and Cyril II (67th, 1077-1094), contemporaries with whom he was well acquainted.

After Mawhub, the History continued to grow as continuators added biographies, although most of the entries after ibn Laqlaq (75th, 1231-1245; a lengthy “Life” is devoted to him in one manuscript) are simply brief notices. (The biography of Matthew I [87th, 1378-1408] is an exception to this rule.)

The History of the Patriarchs is a well-known work. Western scholars have been using it since the 18th century, two editions were published early in the 20th century, and inexpensive copies circulate in Egypt today. Recent research (especially by W. Johnson and Johannes den Heijer; see the bibliography) has elucidated the nature of the work as a compilation of materials and has denied its attribution to the 10th-century theologian Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa‘.

This research has served to emphasize just how precious the History of the Patriarchs truly is: it preserves material by a number of different authors who were intimately acquainted with at least some of the people and events they describe. For example, the biographies of the patriarchs who served during the first 60 years of Arab rule in Egypt were written by one George the Archdeacon, who was the spiritual son of Patriarch John III (40th, 677-686) and scribe of Patriarch Simon I (42nd, 689-701). There thus is eyewitness testimony for a critically important period in the history of the Coptic Church. If this testimony is not wholly “objective,” it is tremendously revealing of how imagined themselves and their Church within the “new world order” of the Dar al-Islam.