The title commonly used for the principal text of Coptic historiography, which actually bears the title Siyar al-Bi‘ah al-Muqaddasah, “ of the Holy Church.”

It is important to emphasize that this text, which can be considered the official history of the Coptic Orthodox Church, should be defined not as one book representing a structural unity but rather as a tradition of historical writing. In various epochs, Coptic authors have recorded the history of their church and their country, each one of them continuing the work of his predecessor. The early historians in this series wrote in Coptic, and their successors from the eleventh century on wrote in Arabic. The text as we know it today consists thus partly of Arabic translations of Coptic originals and partly of original Arabic works, and as a whole, it covers the history from the first to the thirteenth centuries.

Moreover, there are brief continuations of the History of the Patriarchs that deal with the fourteenth to the early twentieth century. As for the contents, most lives of the History of the Patriarchs are much more than a biography of a patriarch. The authors endeavored to record all kinds of events, including those belonging to political or social history. But there is no uniformity on this point. Some of the authors concentrated on the patriarch’s personality, whereas others limited themselves to using the patriarch’s reign as a general framework in which other events are dealt with. At any rate, the History of the Patriarchs constitutes our main literary source for Coptic history, and, if used with some caution, an important complementary source for Egyptian history in general.

Traditionally, the name of SAWIRUS IBN AL-MUQAFFA‘ has been attached to the text of the History of the Patriarchs, but the exact nature of his contribution to it has been uncertain for a long time. Most scholars regard him as the redactor of the earlier series of written in Coptic, which he collected in order to have them translated into Arabic. Subsequent authors, starting with MIKHA’IL, bishop of Tinnis, are considered Sawirus’ successors. However, some doubt has been expressed concerning the role ascribed to Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa‘.

In particular, more attention has been paid to the redactional activity of the Alexandrian deacon MAWHUB IBN MANSUR IBN MUFARRIJ. D. W. Johnson discusses the puzzling similarities in the descriptions of editorial work given in the prefaces and redactional notes ascribed to Sawirus and to Mawhub, respectively (1977, pp. 108-116). J. den Heijer suggests ascribing all redactional work to Mawhub, thus denying any contribution of Sawirus (1984, cols. 346-347, 1989, pp. 81-116). The latter conclusion is mainly based on a study of the relation between the two recensions of the History of the Patriarchs, the “primitive” recension, extant in the manuscript by C. F. Seybold (1912) with unpublished continuations in a Paris and a manuscript, and the “Vulgate,” which is the version of all other known manuscripts by Seybold (1904-1910) and by B. T. A. Evetts (1904-1915), continued by the d’archéologie copte (1943-1974).

The Authors

What follows is a mere enumeration of the authors who wrote the various series of patriarch lives, including the Coptic-writing authors, whose texts are known only (with some exceptions for which Coptic originals have been found) through the Arabic redaction ascribed to Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa‘ or to Mawhub. No account is taken here of three texts appearing at the beginning of the History of the Patriarchs, but not entirely belonging to it, the treatise on the Priesthood of Christ, the Life of Saint Mark, and the Martyrdom of Saint Mark (fragments of a Bohairic original published by Evelyn-White, 1926, pp. 46-47; cf. the remarks by Johnson, 1973, pp. 68-70).

The identification of the biographers of the patriarchs is based on a number of editorial notes in which those authors describe their work and that of their predecessors, as well as on (mostly scant) autobiographical data they provide in their lives. A brief analysis of those notes was made, rather inaccurately, by Gutschmid (1890, pp. 401-403). The most detailed study on this subject is by Kamil (1943, pp. 9-45), who not only studied the abovementioned notes but also examined all Coptic potential sources for the History of the Patriarchs. With regard to some of them, however, Johnson demonstrates that they have at the most been used as indirect sources (1973, pp. 67-74). His study on the authors and their contributions is limited to those included in Mawhub’s redaction (1973, pp. 6-26; 1977), as are the additional remarks by den Heijer (1984, 1989).

As for the first series of biographies, those of Anianus to Cyril I (numbers 2-24), much attention has been given to them by Coptologists, since some fragments of the Coptic (Sahidic) original, known as the History of the Church, have been identified. Certain studies, particularly by O. von Lemm (1888) and by W. E. Crum (1902), demonstrate this text’s dependence on of Caesarea’s . All fragments known are now published in the editions made by T. Orlandi (1968-1970) and by Johnson (1973 and 1976; cf. also Brakmann, 1974, and Farag, 1973).

Although Crum considered the possibility of regarding TIMOTHY II (458-480) as the author of this series, most authors now tend to agree on ascribing these lives, though with some hesitation, to the otherwise unknown scribe Menas, who may have been a monk of the Dayr Anba Shinudah (Johnson, 1973, pp. 53-56; cf. also Kamil, 1943, p. 10; Johnson, 1977, pp. 114-115; den Heijer, 1984, 1989).

The second Coptic text used as a source for the History of the Patriarchs must have included the lives starting from Cyril I (412- 444)—thus overlapping with the first series—to the life of Simon I (692-700). From this lost Coptic source, the History of the Patriarchs fails to borrow the life of Dioscorus I, which is strikingly absent in the Arabic text. The author of these Coptic lives is one Jirja (George) the Archdeacon, spiritual son of the 40th patriarch, JOHN III (677-686), scribe of the 42nd, SIMON I (689-701), and himself the spiritual father of Cosmas, who became the 44th patriarch (730-731).

In one of the lives by Jirja the Archdeacon, the History of the Patriarchs proves to make use of an additional source. The latter part of the biography of Benjamin I (622-661) contains an abridged version of the Book of the Consecration of the Sanctuary of Benjamin, as demonstrated extensively by Coquin (1975, esp. pp. 24-25).

The third author in this list is John, called by Johnson (1973). He was the spiritual son of MOSES, bishop of Awsim, and a close companion of KHA’IL I (744-767). From some passages toward the end of the life of this patriarch, it can be inferred that John, a native of Giza, was a monk and a deacon, and that he must later have been a bishop himself, although we do not know of which see. John I wrote the lives 43-46, covering the period from 705 to 768. Besides John, an editorial note mentions two persons both called Maqarah (Macarius), in relation to this same series of patriarch lives. It is so far unclear what their contribution may have been.

The fourth author was a monk also called John. He wrote the lives 47-55 (Mina I, 767-774, to Shenute I, 858-880), and he describes in two fairly lengthy notes how his spiritual father Ammon (Ammunah) bade him write those lives. John was very close to the last three patriarchs whose he wrote, and it is quite probable that he served all three of them as a scribe. Since he wrote his lives in the years 865-866, the conclusion of his biography of Shenute I (d. 880), which is missing in the “primitive” recension of the History of the Patriarchs, must be a later addition.

Michael, bishop of Tinnis, wrote the fifth series, which comprised the Lives 56-65 (Kha’il II to Shenoute II, 880-1046), in the year 1051 or 1058. It appears to be merely because of this date and the relatively good Arabic style of these that most scholars have so far assumed that Mikha’il wrote in Arabic. Nevertheless, den Heijer (1984, 1989) has pointed out that they were composed in Coptic and subsequently translated for Mawhub ibn Mansur ibn Mufarrij, who also added a few passages of his own to Mikha’il’s text.

Mikha’il’s identification as the author of the Lives 56-65 is also important in that it eliminates Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa‘ as a biographer of patriarchs (cf. Johnson, 1977, pp. 115-116), and, according to den Heijer, as a compiler of the Coptic Lives and editor of their Arabic translation. The latter author thus discerns a clear boundary between the first five series of Lives (1-65) collected and translated from the Coptic in a single campaign led by Mawhub ibn Mansur ibn Mufarrij, and the subsequent Lives, written directly in Arabic by Mawhub and his successors.

Having completed his Arabic redaction of the earlier Coptic Lives, between 1088 and 1094, Mawhub ibn Mansur Mufarrij wrote the Lives of the 65th and 66th patriarchs, CHRISTODOULUS (1047-1077) and CYRIL II (1078-1092). The fact that his predecessor, Michael of Tinnis, wrote in Coptic makes Mawhub emerge as the first biographer in this series to write in Arabic, and probably even as the first Coptic historian who expressed himself in Arabic. At the same time, Mawhub is the first layman among the authors of the History of the Patriarchs, an indication of the transformation the Coptic community underwent in his times (cf. Martin, 1985, p. 26).

Although Mawhub’s authorship of the two patriarch lives is obvious, G. Graf, in his Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur, erroneously ascribed only the 66th life to him and the 67th one to his successor, Yuhanna ibn Sa‘id (1947, p. 301, perhaps inspired by the same mistake in Gutschmid, 1890, p. 402). Yuhanna does occur in the latter life, but only in his capacity of scribe, who, while copying Mawhub’s text, added a few personal remarks (den Heijer, 1983, pp. 114-119, and 1989, p. 113).

Yuhanna ibn Sa‘id ibn Yahya ibn Mina, known as Ibn al- Qulzumi al-Katib (the scribe), also a layman and a high official from Cairo, copied and rearranged the lives by Mawhub, and then went on to write down the of the patriarchs of his own times, MICHAEL IV (1092-1102) and MACARIUS II (1102-1128).

The 73rd patriarch, Mark III ibn Zur‘ah (1167-1189), wrote the of his predecessors, the patriarchs 70, 71, and 72 (1131-1167). Before his consecration he was a layman, called ibn Abi al-Sa‘d ibn Zur‘ah.

Whereas Graf calls the author of the Lives 73 and 74 anonymous, Kamil (1943, pp. 40-42) refers to him as Ma‘ani Abu al-Makarim ibn Barakat ibn Abi al-‘Ala’, and points out that he was a native and resident of al-Mahallah. Pursuing the tradition of some of his forebears, this author first copied the lives already written and then added the of the two aforementioned patriarchs, who reigned from 1166 to 1189 and from 1189 to 1216, respectively, as well as a separate account of the events taking place after 1216, when a nineteen-year vacancy of the patriarchate began. Some notes in his text seem to indicate that he wrote in several stages, over a long period of time. He wrote his first biography in 1207, started his account of the vacancy of the patriarchate in 1221, and appears to have completed it in 1229 (Kamil, 1943, pp. 40-42).

Kamil Salih Nakhlah (1943, p. 42) tends to regard the contributions of the nine authors treated above as constituting the History of the Patriarchs properly speaking, and the subsequent of patriarchs as a continuation of it. This demarcation is certainly corroborated by many manuscripts of the History of the Patriarchs, which are limited to the first 74 lives, and by the fact that for the remaining patriarchs, we have generally anonymous and very brief —while a separate, elaborate, life of the 75th patriarch exists (see below). Of those very abridged lives (patriarchs 76-113, period of 1250-1942), original, longer versions may have existed in the past, but the text presently available is often limited to the main dates (consecration, death) of the patriarch.

There are some exceptions. The life of the 87th patriarch, Matthew I (1378-1409), is lengthy and resumes the tradition of the earlier lives. Kamil (1943, pp. 43-45) has been able to identify its author as the bishop of the monastery of DAYR AL-KHANDAQ, who must have written it shortly after the patriarch’s death. The Lives 88-97 are extremely brief again, and in this form they may have been written by the patriarchal scribes. The biographies of the patriarchs 98-109 (1409-1852) are somewhat longer and anonymous, although with regard to the life of the 103rd patriarch, John XVI (1676-1718), a patriarchal scribe, the priest ‘Abd al-Masih of Minyat Sard, is mentioned. The recent lives 110-113 are due to the keeper of the Patriarchal Library, the hegumenos ‘Abd al-Masih Salib al-Mas‘udi of DAYR AL-BARAMUS (Kamil, 1943, p. 45).

Apart from the series of abridged biographies, there is a lengthy life of the 75th patriarch, CYRIL III ibn Laqlaq (1235-1243), including the long vacancy preceding his consecration, by his contemporary, Yusab, bishop of Fuwwah. This biography appears in a Patriarchal History by Yusab, which Graf (1947, p. 369) calls a completion and a continuation of the History of the Patriarchs. It is extant in a manuscript of the DAYR AL-SURYAN, of which the Coptic Museum holds a copy.

On the other hand, the edition of the d’archéologie copte contains a separate, elaborate life of the same patriarch, in which two persons are quoted: a certain Yuhanna ibn Wahb ibn Yuhanna ibn Yahya ibn Bulus and a shaykh called ‘Alam al-Mulk ibn al-Hajj Shams al-Riyasah. The editors appear to regard the former as a co-author and the latter as the compiler. A collation of this text with the Dayr al-Suryan manuscript, done by Nabih Kamil Dawud, however, has established that both texts are in fact identical, which implies that the life of Cyril ibn Laqlaq as in History of the Patriarchs was written by Yusab of Fuwwah.

From this overview of the various authors who contributed to the History of the Patriarchs, it is clear that the rather complex structure of this text necessitates much further research. About its sources and their use, the last word has not yet been said, despite the important studies done in this field. As for its secondary tradition or its influence on later texts, only some scattered remarks have been made (Levi Della Vida, 1940-1941; Cerulli, 1946; Kubiak, 1976). Studies of its language, particularly its vocabulary, exist but are based on only part of the text (Farag, 1969-1973, 1976, and 1979).

An evaluation of the historiographical methods and attitudes is also still a desideratum since we have only the critical remarks by E. Amélineau (1914) on John I (494-503) and the interesting but incomplete analysis by Farag. The numerous quotations of the text ever since E. Renaudot’s partial translation (1713) in many studies on Coptic history suffice to illustrate its importance as a source for many aspects of that history, a fact underlining the necessity of its further textual investigation.


Editions of the History of the Patriarchs

  • Sawirus ibn al-Mukaffa‘ (Muqaffa). History of the Patriarchs of the Egyptian Church, Vol. 1, part 1, ed. and trans. B. Evetts. Paris, 1904; Vol. 1, part 2, PO 1, part 2. Paris, 1907; Vol. 1, part 3, PO 5. Paris, 1910. Continued as History of the Patriarchs of the Egyptian Church (HPEC) by Y. ‘Abd al-Masih, O. H. E. Burmester, A. S. Atiya, and Antoine Khater. Cairo, 1943-1974.
  • Seybold, C. F., ed. Severus ibn al-Muqaffa‘. Alexandrinische Patriarchengeschichte von S. Marcus bis Michael I (61-767), nach der ältesten 1266 geschriebenen Hamburger Handschrift im arabi-schen Urtextherausgegeben. Hamburg, 1912.
  • _____, ed. Severus Ben el-Moqaffa‘. Historia Patriarcharum Alexandrinorum. CSCO 52, 59, Scriptores Arabici 8, 9, ser. 3, pts. 1-2.

Other Works Quoted

  • Amélineau, E. “Les Derniers jours et la mort du Khalife Merouan II, d’après l’Histoire des Patriarches d’Alexandrie.” Journal Asiatique 4, ser. 11 (1914):421-49.
  • Brakmann, H. “Eine oder zwei koptische Kirchengeschichten.” Le Muséon 87 (1974):129-42.
  • Cerulli, E. “La Conquista persiana di Gerusalemme’ ed altre fonti orientali cristiane di un episodio dell’ Orlando Furioso’.” Orientalia 15 (1946):439-81.
  • Coquin, R. G. Livre de la consécration du sanctuaire de Benjamin. Bibliothèque d’études coptes 13. Cairo, 1975.
  • Crum, W. E. “ and Coptic Church Histories.” Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology 24 (1902):68-84.
  • Evelyn-White, H. E. The Monasteries of the Wadi’n Natrun, Vol. 1: New Coptic Texts from the Monastery of Saint Macarius. Vol. 2: The History of the Monasteries of Nitria and of Scetis. New York, 1926, 1932.
  • Farag, F. R. “A Comparison of Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa’s Literary Technique in His Two Works, the “History of the Patriarchs’ and the “Book of the Councils’ 1 & 2.” Annual of the Leeds University Oriental Society 7 (1969-1973):50-53.
  • ____. “The Technique of Research of a Tenth-century Christian Arab Writer: Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa.” Le Muséon 86 (1973):37-66.
  • ____. “The Usage of the Coptic Language as a Constituent Element of the Literary Form of Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa.” Bibliotheca Orientalis 33 (1976):274-83.
  • ____. “The Usage of the Early Islamic Terminology as a Constituent Element of the Literary Form of a Tenth-century Christian Arab Writer: Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 99 (1979):49-57.
  • Graf, G. Catalogue de manuscrits arabes chrétiens conservés au Caire. Studi e Testi 63. Vatican City, 1934.
  • Gutschmid, A. von. “Verzeichnis der Patriarchen von Alexandrien.” In Kleine Schriften, Vol. 2, ed. F. Ruhl. Leipzig, 1890.
  • Heijer, J. den. “Quelques remarques sur la deuxième partie de l’Histoire des Patriarches d’Alexandrie.” Bulletin de la d’archéologie copte 25 (1983):107-24.
  • . “Mawhub Ibn Mansur Ibn Mufarrig et l’Histoire des Patriarches d’Alexandrie: notes sur une étude cours.” Actes du deuxième congrès international d’études arabes chrétiennes. Orientalia Christiana Analecta 26. Rome, 1986.
  • ____. “Sawirus Ibn al-Muqaffa‘, Mawhub Ibn Mansur Ibn Mufarrig et la genèse de l’Histoire des Patriarches d’Alexandrie.” Bibliotheca Orientalis 41 (1984):336-47.
  • ____. “L’Histoire des Patriarches d’Alexandrie, recension primitive et Vulgate.” Bulletin de la d’archéologie copte 27 (1985):1-29.
  • ____. Mawhub ibn Mansur ibn Mufarrig et l’historiographie copte-arabe. Etude sur la composition de l’Histoire des Patriarches d’Alexandrie. Louvain, 1989.
  • Johnson, D. W. Coptic Sources of the History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria. Ph. D. diss., The Catholic University of America. Washington, D. C., 1973.
  • ____. “Further Fragments of a Coptic History of the Church: Cambridge OR. 1699 R.” Enchoria 6 (1976):7-17, Taf. 1-3.
  • ____. “Further Remarks on the Arabic History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria.” Oriens Christianus 61 (1977):103-16.
  • Kamil Salih Nakhlah. Kitab Tarikh wa-Jadawil Batarikat al-Iskandariyyah al-Qibt. Tarikh al-Ummah al-Qibtiyyah 4. Cairo, 1943.
  • Kubiak, W. “The Burning of Misr al-Fustat in 1168. A Reconsideration of Historical Evidence.” Africana Bulletin 25 (1976):51-64.
  • Lemm, O. von. Koptische Fragmente zur Patriarchengeschichte Alexandriens. Mémoires de l’Académie impériale des sciences de St. Pétersbourg 7, 36, 11. St. Petersburg, 1888.
  • Levi Della Vida, G. “A Christian Legend in Moslem Garb.” Byzantion 15 (1940-41):144-57.
  • Martin, M. M. “Une Lecture de l’Histoire des Patriarches d’Alexandrie.” Proche Orient Chrétien 35 (1985):15-36.
  • Orlandi, T. Storia della Chiesa di Alessandria. Testo copto, traduzione e commento, I. Da Pietro ad Atanasio, II. Da Teofilo a Timoteo IIo. Testi e documenti per lo Studio dell’Antichità 17, 31. Milan and Varese, 1968-1970.
  • Samir, K. “Un Traité inédit de Sévère b. al-Muqaffa‘ (10e siècle:) “Le Flambeau de l’Intelligence.'” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 41 (1975):150-210.