Holy Week falls between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. The first description of the rite of the Holy Week is given by Egeria, a European woman from France who visited the Holy Lands between 381and 384. She provided a detailed description of the places she visited and the ceremonies that she attended. It is noteworthy to mention that Coptic rites are similar in structure to the Jerusalem rites of the fourth century.
Among the canons of Athanasius written around the year 370, which are preserved in Coptic fragments and in Arabic translation, one finds that in Articles 57-60 some arrangements concerning the Holy Week; for example, they show that there were long prayers based essentially on psalms and readings from both the Old and New Testaments. The churches were so crowded that it was very difficult for the deacons to keep order. Pachomius, the founder of cenobitic monasticism, established a monastery at Tabennisi in the Thebaid ca. 320.
He wrote the first monastic rule in Coptic. His life and writings describe Holy Week during Late Antique times in Upper Egypt. It is one of the rare Coptic sources on this topic. St. Theodore, the disciple of St. Pachomius, would assemble with brethren during the days of the Passover.
The actual rite consists of five hours in the morning and five hours in the evening. Each hour starts with the prophecies and the chanting of “To You is the power and glory,” 12 times. A deacon reads the psalm preceded by the words, “In order to make us worthy to hear the holy gospel, we beseech our Lord and our God. Listen to the holy gospel, in wisdom.” One of the most ancient sources on the history of hymns during Good Friday is a Syriac manuscript preserved in the British Library that dates to 411. (This manuscript is a translation of a lost Greek original that goes back to the year 362 and belongs to the Church of Nicomedia, where Egypt and Alexandria are mentioned 19 times in four folios.)
It mentions that “Good Friday after the Passover, the remembrance of the martyrs is performed.” This remark can explain the resemblance between the tune of the hymn of the Glorification of the Saints and the introduction to the Coptic gospel during the Holy Week. It is probable that these hymns were originally one.
Under the following patriarchs of Alexandria—Christodoulos (1047-1077 a.d.), Cyril II (1078-1092 a.d.), Gabriel II (1131-1146 a.d.), and Cyril III (1235-1243 a.d.)—many new important canons were added to Coptic canonical law. The first of this series of new canons was promulgated by Christodoulos, the 66th patriarch, in Alexandria on Sunday the 8th of Misri, a.m. 764 (1 August 1048 a.d.). Two of these canons deal with the rite of the Holy Week:
[Canon 8:] And after the completion of the Liturgy [Quddas] on the Sunday of Olives [Palm Sunday] there shall be read the gospel and the Diptych for the dead after the Apostle [the lesson from the Pauline Epistles] of Paul appointed for the dead, and after this there shall be read over the assembly of the people the Absolution, because in Holy Week neither Absolution nor the diptych nor the burial service is allowed until the Feast of Easter is completed.
[Canon 9:] On Maundy Thursday the Liturgy [Quddas] shall be [celebrated] in fear and trembling and quietness without either Kiss [of Peace] or the hand touching. [At the Kiss of Peace, the members of the Congregation touch one another’s hands] and the Prosphorin shall not be said, but instead there shall be said “meta-phobou” without the Absolution either at the beginning or at the end.
Shams al Riasah Abu al-Barakat ibn Kabar wrote his book The Lamp of Darkness for the Explanation of the Service. Only a few chapters have been published scientifically, where can be found the detailed description given below and taken from the oldest manuscripts of this book (from Paris dated to 1363 and another in Upsalla dated 1546 but copied from an earlier manuscript dated 1357).
The Rites of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday:
The rites of the day and evenings of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are identical, as follows: For each prayer, we read the readings of the Prophets and the Arabic translation and then “Kyrie Eleyson,” “Glory Be to God,” “Our Father,” and “To You Is the Power and Glory” (12 times). The psalm and the gospel is sung in sorrowful tune.
After the reading of the psalm and before the gospel, they sing: “In order to be worthy to hear the holy gospel; Our Lord, our God, have mercy upon us and make us worthy to hear the holy gospel, a chapter from the gospel of . . . The Evangelist.” And when it is finished, the commentary of the hour is read. If there is a sermon, it will be said after the gospel reading.
The reader says before the reading of the Tubuhat [see Tubh]: “Bow your knees” (four times) and the people prostrate four times for each hour except for the first and the third prayer of the night because they follow the break of fasting.
The priest or an archdeacon reads the Tubh, which are 18 in total:
Pray that God have mercy upon us; for the prayer for establishment of this place; the prayer for this holy place; for the sick members of our congregation; for our fathers and our brethren who travelled abroad; for the fruits; for the granting of God’s mercy; for our fathers and our brethren who had fallen asleep; for those who are in positions of authority; for the holy, apostolic father and patriarch; for the holy apostolic Church; for those who are assembled here; for those who suffer from imprisonment; for everybody present; for everybody who has asked us to pray for them; for the raising of the water of the river; and for this holy Pascha. Some priests pray only 12 of the litanies.
Then they pray “God have mercy upon us,” and Kyrie Eleison 48 times stanza by stanza. This is followed by 12 “God have mercy upon us,” then the “Our Father,” and finally the priest says in Coptic, “Make charity, bow your heads to receive the Lord’s blessing. May the Lord bless you,” before giving the benediction and dismissing the congregation. (It is important to mention that the number and the arrangement of the Tubuhat differs from the actual edition which includes more Tubuhat).
The prophecies in the Church of Egypt (Old Cairo) are arranged for the Matins (morning prayer) and the None (ninth hour) of the days only and some hours for the night. For the Passover at Sandamant, the prophecies are arranged for every hour of day and night. The sermons are generally read during the Matins and the None of the days.
If the patriarch is present, he reads the first prophecy of the first hour of Monday and the gospel of ditto and the gospel of the None of the day of Tuesday, which is the section of Sandaliyah, and the first prophecy of the first hour of Wednesday. On Tuesday night, the Gospel of Matthew is read and during Wednesday night the Gospel of Mark is read. On Thursday night the Gospel of Luke is read.
We owe another description to another Coptic writer called Yuhanna ibn Abi Zakariyya ibn Sabba‘. He is the author of a book called Precious Pearl in the Ecclesiastic Science. He provided a brief and useful description, while Ibn Kabar gave a detailed description of the rite as performed in the Monastery of Shahran, the Mo‘allaqa Church, the rite in Upper Egypt, and in the Monastery of St. Macarius. Maqrizi is a Moslem historian from the 15th century. He compiled his “Chronicles” from Coptic and other sources in addition to his own observations. Concerning the Passover he wrote, “This is the great feast for them and they pretend that the Christ-peace be on him—when the agitated Jews wanted to kill him, they crucified him on the cross.”
Textual Structure of the Rite of the Holy Week. The textual structure of the rite of the Holy Week is like a fabric with threads runninghorizontally and vertically. We will give examples by comparing the rite of the Sext and None of the Good Friday according to the earliest manuscript of the Lectionary in order to demonstrate the possibility of reading each section either horizontally or vertically.
|1 st lesson||Num. 21:1-9Bronze Serpent||Notice the first and the last lesson
|2nd Lesson||Isa. 53:7—>He was led like a sheep led to
the slaughter. . .
|Jer 11:18, 12:13I had been like a sheep led||Deals with the exceptional events
of this hour.
|3rd lesson||Isa. 12:2,13:1-1 0^And so you shall draw water
with joy from the springs
of deliverance . . .
|obedient to the slaughterZech. 14:5-11.On that day living water shall
issue from Jerusalem . . .
|Lessons 2 and 3 are
|4th Lesson||Amos 8:9-12.I will make the sun go down
at noon . . .
|1 st Hymn||This golden and pure censer
bearing the aroma is in the
hands of Aaron the priest,
who offers up incense on
|The golden Censer is the Virgin;
her aroma is our Saviour. She
gave birth to Him, He saved us
and forgave our sins.
|One may notice that the hymn
of the Sext could be completed
either by reading the
corresponding hymn in the
None or the following hymn
in the same hour.
|2nd Hymn||This Who offered Himself upon
the Cross as an acceptable
sacrifice for the salvation
of our race.
|This Who offered Himself upon
the Cross as an acceptable
sacrifice for the salvation
of our race.
|His Good Father smelled His
aroma on Golgotha in the
evening . . .
|Pauline Epistle||Gal. 6:14-16.I should not glory except in
the Cross of our Lord Jesus
Christ. . .
|Philippians 2:5-11.He humbled Himself and
became obedient to the point
of death even the death of
the Cross.Therefore Cod also has highly
|Troparia||O Thou Who on the 6th day,
at the 6th hour, was nailed to
the Cross, because of the sin
which Adam dared (to commit)
in the Paradise, tear up the
handwriting of our sins,
O Christ our God, and
|O Thou Who didst taste death
in the flesh about the 9th hour
on account of us, slay our
corporal thoughts, O Christ
our God and deliver us.
|Troparion||O Only Begotten Son and theWord of God . . . Save us||Especially for the Sext|
|Trisagion||As usual||As usual|
|As usual||As usual|
|Especially for the Sext|