JOHN OF NIKIOU
A seventh-century bishop of Nikiou in the Prosopite nome, in the southwest Delta—a place already known in the third century B.C. All that we know of his life is contained in the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS. In the History he is present at the death of the patriarch JOHN III of Samannud in 689 and at the election of his successor, ISAAC, in 690, accompanying him to the court of the governor, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. He was general overseer of the monasteries under Simon (693-700) until he was deposed for beating to death a monk who had raped a virgin. Since his Chronicle does not extend beyond that date, his death may be assigned to some time shortly after A.D. 700.
John’s Chronicle survives in an Ethiopic version made from a lost Arabic version. Views have been divided about how the text was written. H. Zotenberg, the first editor, believed that the original text was written partly in Greek and partly in Coptic, according to the source used. Some claim that it was written totally in Greek; others that it was entirely in Coptic. Yet it is unlikely that, as a leading Monophysite bishop, John would have composed his work in the language of the Melchites, and T. Nöldeke pointed to traces of Coptic in the Ethiopic translation. Considering the absence of any reference to the Chronicle in Byzantine literature, it becomes almost certain that the original language was Coptic, although John drew upon Greek writers plentifully.
The Ethiopic version is badly mutilated, especially the material on the first half of the seventh century, for which John provides valuable contemporary evidence. The work, which is prefaced by a summary, presents some problems. From chapter lxv the summary and text disagree numerically as well as in content.
The purpose is to chronicle the whole history of the human race from Adam, including references to Egypt and sections on early Roman history, as well as on Hellenistic history. A full, though brief, account of the reigns of the Roman emperors focuses on those who persecuted the Christians. As the Empire becomes Christianized, details increase about both secular and religious matters, although much of the information is untrustworthy. John is dependent, indirectly, no doubt, on Malalas and, for ecclesiastical matters, on the ecclesiastical historian Socrates. For the reign of Justinian, John gives (chap. xcii, 20-21) the histories of Procopius and Agathias credit for being the authoritative studies on the Vandalic and Persian wars.
From the reign of Maurice through the events leading to the accession of Heraclius and the subsequent Arabic invasion of Egypt, John assumes the role of a contemporary authority of major importance. Unfortunately, his text for this period, particularly the account of the Arabic conquest, is corrupt, full of lacunae, and dislocated. The lacuna in the relevant chapters (cvii-cxxii to the end) omits completely the years 610-640. Thus the history of the Sassanid conquest, occupation, and evacuation of Egypt and the preliminary phases of ‘Amr’s operations before his investment of Babylon have been omitted. Despite the difficulty of interpreting the chapters about the later stages of the conquest (chaps. cxi-cxxi; see ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT), his narratives assume pride of place over the Arab chroniclers in instances where they disagree on fundamental points.
The style of the Chronicle—as it appears in translation from Ethiopic—is simple, naive, and disjointed in places. Nevertheless, it carries conviction by its detail, even when the sequence is confused either by the author or by the intermediaries between him and the surviving Ethiopic version.
- Butler, A. J. The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of Arab Dominion. Oxford, 1902.
- Caetani, Leone. Annali dell’Islam, vol. 3, Milan, 1905-1926.
- Charles, R. H. The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu. London, 1916.
- Nöldeke, T. In Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen 1 (1881):587-94; 2 (1883):1364-71.
- Zotenberg, H. “Mémoire sur la chronique byzantine de Jean, évêque de Nikiou.” Journal asiatique 7, 10 (1877):451-517; 12 (1878):245-347; 13 (1879):291-386.
P. M. FRASER