ILYAS BUQTUR (1784-1821)

Learned Copt associated with Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Expedition to Egypt, who produced the first -French dictionary. Ilyas Buqtur, known in French sources as Ellious Bochtor, was born into a highly respected family in Asyut on 12 1784. His parents noticed his intellectual tendencies and provided a good early education. In 1801 he followed General YA‘QUB, his uncle, to the city of Bani Suef and ultimately to Cairo, where the French Expedition had arrived. He studied French language and literature to prepare himself for service in the French army, first as an interpreter and later as Bonaparte’s private secretary.

When the French departed from Egypt, Ilyas left with them in the company of General Ya‘qub. After landing at Marseilles, he lived on the pittance he earned as interpreter for the Egyptian refugees. Afterward he moved to Paris, where he had an introduction to the councillor of state and director of public instruction for a position in the as translator of manuscripts. His life in Paris, however, was intolerable, and he decided to return to Marseilles. Apparently this is where he started compiling an Arabic-French dictionary, which became famous as the first of its kind.

In 1812, he was recruited by the Ministry of War to translate important documents from that were extremely difficult to decipher. While performing this task, he became acquainted with Edme François Jomard, Napoleon’s engineer-geographer in Egypt and a member of the Institut d’Egypte founded during the French occupation. Jomard was commissioned to supervise the publication of the extensive Description de l’Egypte. In 1818, his collaboration with Jomard offered him a stipend, which enabled him to continue compilation of his dictionary. In 1819 he was named professor at the Ecole Royale des Langues Orientales, where he developed advanced courses in Arabic, notably the spoken of Egypt. He became acquainted with some of the leaders of French literary circles, such as Chateaubriand, and he wrote articles for French literary publications. He was elected a member of the Institut d’Egypte.

During this time, Ilyas concentrated on the compilation of his -French dictionary and collected a stipend of 2,000 francs to encourage completion of that work. He finished it in 1821. In September of the same year, he died, at the age of forty-seven, before his work was published.

The Marquis Amédée de Clermont-Tonnerre, who took an interest in Oriental studies, decided that such an important work as Ilyas’ dictionary must be published. He commissioned a professor of colloquial at the Ecole Royale, A. Caussin de Perceval, who had learned Arabic in Syria, to undertake the editing of the dictionary. De Perceval’s edition (with some additions it was more than 800 pages) was reproduced several times. It must be remembered, however, that the dictionary specialized mainly in colloquial rather than literary Arabic. It is still in use.


  • Bochtor, E. Discours prononcé à l’ouverture du cours d’arabe vulgaire à l’Ecole royale et speciale des langues orientales vivantes près de la Bibliothèque du roi, le 8 decembre 1819. Paris, 1820.
  • . Dictionnaire français-arabe, 3rd ed., rev. and enl. by A. Caussin de Perceval. Paris, 1864.
  • . Dictionnaire français-arabe, rev. and enl. by E. Gallab, 3 vols. in 2. Cairo, 1887. Vol. 3 contains the supplement of E. Gallab.
  • Brockelmann, C. Geschichte der arabischen Literatur, Vol. 2, p. 479. Weimar, 1902.
  • Jomard, E. F. “Ouverture du cours d’arabe vulgaire.” encyclopédique 5 (January 1820):33-45.
  • . “Notice sur Ellious Bocthor.” encyclopédique 5 (October 1821).
  • Louca, A. “Ellious Bocthor, sa vie et son oeuvre.” Cahiers d’histoire égyptienne, 5th ser., fascs. 5-6 (December 1953):309-320.
  • Louca, A., and P. Santoni. “Histoire de l’enseignement de la langue arabe à Marseille.” In L’orient des provençaux dans l’histoire, pp. 113-23. Marseilles, 1982.
  • Ramzi Tadrus. Al Aqbat fi al-Qarn al-‘Ishrin, 3 vols. Cairo, 1911.
  • Riyad Suryal. Al-Mujtama‘ fi al-Qarn al-Tasi‘ ‘Ashar. Cairo, 1984.