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Libraries - Coptic Wiki


In pre-Christian times there were libraries in the temples of Egypt. From the Hellenistic period, the library of Alexandria is particularly well known. It once sheltered 700,000 scrolls, but in 48-47 B.C. it fell victim to a conflagration. A second library of Alexandria, located at the Serapeum, was destroyed in A.D. 391 during the storming of the Serapeum.

When Egypt was Christianized, other libraries in addition to Alexandria were set up, above all in the chief centers of the bishoprics of Egypt and later also in the monasteries. Of these, despite the dry climate, which is favorable to the of libraries, only remnants have survived. The library of the archbishop of Alexandria was particularly large. It served also for the theological instruction at the CATECHETICAL SCHOOL. In the time of ORIGEN, it was the model for the library of Jerusalem, and after his banishment from Alexandria (231), Origen built up an important library in Caesarea on the model of the library in Alexandria.

An impression of the number of books in a church is afforded by the inventory list of the Church of Theodorus in Hermopolis, which mentions thirty-one books without naming the titles (Crum, 1909, no. 238, pp. 112-14). According to Crum (1905, XII, no. 5), the Coptic manuscripts of Turin may have belonged to a church in Thinis (Abydos).

On the evidence of the literary sources, the libraries of the Egyptian monasteries were especially large. The Rule of PACHOMIUS required that those entering the monastery not only should learn Bible texts by heart but also should learn to read. Every monastery contained a library, from which during weekdays a monk could borrow a book to read in his cell. In the evening he had to lay it on the windowsill, in order that the superior’s representative might count the volumes and lock them up for the night (Leipoldt, 1962, pp. 210ff.). No list has survived of the books in the monasteries of Pachomius.

Under SHENUTE, too, the monks had to learn to read. In a room situated to the north of the great apse of the church of the White Monastery (DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH), inscriptions were found on all four walls that name the titles of books, sometimes with the number of copies of the book concerned. From this, Crum concluded that the monastery library was located in this room (1904, p. 552; 1909, pp. Xff.). According to the inscriptions (Crum, 1904, pp. 564ff.), the New Testament books were on shelves on the north wall, those of the Old Testament on the south wall, the and historical books on the east wall, and the biographies on the west wall. Of the four Gospels there were more than a hundred copies; of the Life of Pachomius, twenty; and of the Life of Shenute, eight.

Individual biographies of Pachomius, the founder of monasticism, and of his successors HORSIESIOS and THEODORUS OF TABENNESE are mentioned, as well as of Abraham of Pbow. Alongside Shenute his successor BESA appears, as well as a series of other monks: PISENTIUS OF COPTOS, JOHN COLOBOS, Apa Apollo, Apa Elias, SAMUEL OF QALAMUN, and others. It is not known from what period the inscriptions come.

There are dated inscriptions from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The period when the monastery flourished extends down to the thirteenth century. Of the oldest manuscripts, which were written on papyrus, none has survived. Even of the early parchment codices, which replaced papyrus in the sixth and seventh centuries, only scant remains are preserved. On the evidence of the colophons, manuscripts were given as gifts to the library of the White Monastery by other monasteries (e.g., in the Fayyum) and by private persons.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the first leaves of manuscripts from this library came to Europe, initially in the collection of Cardinal Borgia, and then through C. G. Woide and H. Tattam to Oxford. R. Curzon also brought manuscripts from his travels in Egypt. In 1883 G. Maspero bought all the manuscripts that remained in the monastery library. These are now in Paris (cf. Hyvernat, 1933).

Parts of manuscripts or individual pages are today divided among the libraries of many countries. In addition to Egypt (Cairo) these include Italy (Naples, Rome, and Venice), Great Britain (London, Manchester, Oxford), France (Paris), Austria (Vienna), Russia (Leningrad, Moscow), the Netherlands (Leiden), Sweden (Stockholm), Germany (Berlin), and the United States (Ann Arbor). W. E. Crum, O. von Lemm, H. Hyvernat, L. T. Lefort, and others began the task of reconstructing the original codices. Other scholars, among whom D. W. Young and T. Orlandi should especially be mentioned, have continued the work more recently.

In the libraries of older monasteries there were Greek as well as Coptic codices. This is shown by a monastery manuscript list deriving from the Fayyum (Crum, 1892, p. 50). It includes the writings of the New Testament in several copies, both in Greek and in Coptic, the Psalter in both languages, lectionaries, and a series of theological books. Some of the codices were of papyrus, some of parchment. There is a further book list in Turin (Crum, 1926, Vol. 1, p. 205 and n. 3).

The works of Origen and DIDYMUS, written in Greek, that were found in 1941 in the monastery of Arsenius at Turah also came from a monastery library (Koenen and Müller-Wiener, 1968, p. 48 and n. 14).

The library of is designated in child donation documents (see DONATION OF CHILDREN) as the place where such deeds were to be deposited (e.g., Koptische Rechtsurkunden, no. 89, l. 36). While we have no information about the number of the manuscripts kept in it, a part of the monastery archives has survived. From the neighborhood of this important monastery comes a library catalog (cf. Coquin, 1975) of the period about 600, written on a large ostracon, from the otherwise little-known monastery of Elias (Crum, 1926, Vol. 1, p. 113). It enumerates in three sections some eighty titles with a statement of the writing material.

For the most part, it is a question of papyrus codices, occasionally with the addition “new.” Parchment codices are in the minority. The ostracon, bought from a dealer in Luxor and published by U. Bouriant, was discussed in detail by Crum along with the remains of literary texts found in Thebes (1926, Vol. 1, pp. 197-208). His arguments are in part to be corrected in accordance with the new edition by R.-G. Coquin, who emended errors in the first edition.

In addition to the books of the Old and New Testaments, sometimes in two or more examples, the following are mentioned: LECTIONARIES, church canons, a book about the birth of the Lord and the feast of Epiphany, the life of Mary, books about JOHN THE BAPTIST, works of the monastic fathers PACHOMIUS and Shenute, the church fathers ATHANASIUS and CYRIL I (the Great), biographies of and encomia on monks (Pachomius, Shenute, Apa THOMAS THE ANCHORITE, etc.), martyrs (Archbishop Peter of Alexandria, Apa Epithymites, etc.) and church fathers (EPIPHANIUS, BASIL THE GREAT), two books about burials, and a medicine book (see PAPYRI, COPTIC MEDICAL).

From a later period come two manuscript discoveries from two monastery libraries. These are, first, the find of fifty-six codices from the monastery of the archangel MICHAEL, situated at Sopehes in the Fayyum, which passed almost completely to the Pierpont Morgan Library. They were written between 820 and 920 in the Fayyum and were published in facsimile by Hyvernat in 1922. The extant library (complete inventory in Hyvernat, 1922) contains, in addition to books of the Old and New Testaments, lectionaries, homilies, and an antiphonary.

The sermons are traced back to archbishops of Alexandria (PETER I, ATHANASIUS I, TIMOTHY I, THEOPHILUS, CYRIL I, DIOSCORUS I, JOHN III), to bishops of other, non-Egyptian cities (CYRIL OF JERUSALEM, JOHN CHRYSOSTOM of Constantinople, DEMETRIUS OF ANTIOCH, SEVERUS OF ANTIOCH, Basil the Great of Caesarea, SEVERIAN OF JABALAH) and of Egyptian dioceses (Macarius of Antaiopolis, Constantine of Lycopolis, Stephen of Herakleopolis), and abbot Shenute of Atrib.

Among Passions of martyrs are those of COLLUTHUS, COSMAS AND DAMIAN, Cyprian, Elias, MERCURIUS, PHOIBAMMON OF PREHT, and both THEODORUS STRATELATES and Orientalis, as well as the miracle stories of Saint and Phoibammon. The biographies deal with the apostle John, the protomartyr Stephen, and the monks and hermits Antony of Kome, Apollo, ARCHELLIDES, LONGINUS and Lucius, ONOPHRIUS, PHIB, and SAMU’IL OF QALAMUN. The installation of the archangels GABRIEL and Michael is also dealt with, as is the death of the patriarch ISAAC.

The codices of the monasteries at Idfu were written somewhat later, from 974 to the twelfth century, above all those of the Mercurius monastery, which were bought in Egypt in 1907 by R. de Rustafjaell and passed to the British Museum, where they were published by E. A. W. Budge between 1910 and 1915. As the titles of Budge’s publications show, these are and apocryphal writings, homilies, and passions.

From the Middle Ages come the surviving libraries of the monasteries of the Wadi al-Natrun, which were investigated by H. Evelyn-White in 1920-1921. The older libraries were destroyed mainly through the inroads of the bedouin in the years 408, 434, 444, and 817. That of the Macarius monastery (DAYR ANBA MAQAR) must have been particularly important, since the emperor annually provided money for it, and in the middle of the sixth century the patriarch transferred his seat to this monastery.

The library surviving from the Middle Ages fell into decay about the middle of the fourteenth century, and its dispersal began in the seventeenth century. J. S. Assemani brought valuable books to the Vatican; Huntington to the Bodleian Library in Oxford; Tattam’s books passed to the John Rylands Library in Manchester; and K. von Tischendorf brought codices to Leipzig and Cambridge, to mention only the most important European travelers, before Evelyn-White brought the remains of the most important manuscripts that had remained in the qasr to the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

The fate of the library of the Syrian monastery (DAYR AL-SURYAN) is dealt with by Evelyn-White (1926-1933, Vol. 2, pp. 439-58), as is that of the smaller monasteries (Vol. 1, 1926, pp. 270-74). For the reconstruction of the libraries of the monasteries of the Wadi al- Natrun, all the codices brought to European libraries must be taken into consideration, as well as the remnants that still remain.


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