Patriarch Gabriel III


The life of the monk and priest Ghubriyāl, who eventually became Coptic patriarch Gabriel III (usually counted as the 77th patriarch, 1268–1271), bears witness to both the flourishing of literary and scientific activity as well as to the turbulence of ecclesiastical and social affairs that characterize Coptic Orthodox history in the middle decades of the 13th century CE.

Our knowledge about Gabriel is gleaned from a variety of sources: brief notices in the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS OF ALEXANDRIA and in the History of the Patriarchs attributed to Yūsāb, bishop of FUWWAH; an important passage in al-Mufaḍḍal ibn Abī l- Faḍāʾil‘s history al-Nahj al-sadīd; a detailed entry in the Ethiopic Synaxarion (see SYNAXARION, ETHIOPIAN); and notices in manuscripts, including several that Gabriel himself copied. The portrait that follows is a composite drawn from these sources; while some details (especially about his early life and his final years) cannot be checked, manuscript notices dated between 1249 and 1270 provide some reasonably firm historical points of reference.

The future pope was born on October 20, 1208, probably in Middle Egypt, and was known as al-Rashīd Farajallāh. He was initiated into the life of the church early by his uncle Peter, Bishop of Ṭanbidī (variously vocalized; Coptic: Tampeti). He became a monk and spent time, we are told, at the Monastery of St. Antony, in SCETIS (where the Ethiopic Synaxarion reports that he became superior of the Baramūs Monastery, while others claim him for the Syrian Monastery), in Jerusalem, and eventually at the Muʿallaqa Church in Miṣr (Old Cairo), where he copied manuscripts. By 1247 he had come into the orbit of the scholarly family known as the AWLAD AL-‗ASSĀL, serving as scribe (today we might say ―research assistant‖) as well as tutor to the son of al-Amjad ibn al-ʿAssāl, the wealthy civil servant who sponsored his brothers‘ learned activities. Al-Amjad kept a house in Damascus as well as in Cairo, between which Gabriel spent most of his time between 1247 and 1261.

The patriarchal elections of the mid-13th century reveal a deep division within the Coptic community, normally identified as the division between Cairo (al-Qāhira) and Old Cairo (Miṣr). Old struggles within the Church between well-connected laity of the bureaucratic class on the one hand, and the bishops on the other, may have contributed to this division; so too may have differences in world-view, between an ecumenical and even inter-religious scholarly openness on the one hand, and a more traditional stress on the particularities of Coptic Orthodox identity on the other.

In any event, when in the year 1250 the decision was taken to try to fill a seven-year vacancy in the Coptic Orthodox patriarchate, the Cairo party (well-connected lay bureaucrats with ecumenical horizons), perhaps led by al-Amjad ibn al-ʿAssāl, put Gabriel forward as its candidate. Bishop Yūsāb of Fuwwah campaigned vigorously against Gabriel (as one ―ambitious for the patriarchate‖) and successfully organized the bishops to support Gabriel‘s rival, who was elected Pope ATHANASIUS III (the 76th patriarch, 1250–1261). For the decade of the 1250s, Gabriel continued his scribal work, contributing to well-known projects such as the critical edition of the Four Gospels by AL-ASʿAD IBN AL-ʿASSAL.

Pope Athanasius III died towards the end of 1261, and again the Cairo and Old Cairo parties were involved in a close contest, with the electors deadlocked between Gabriel and one Yuʾannis (John) ibn Saʿīd al-Sukkarī. Finally, the matter was put to an ecclesiastical lot (whereby, after a solemn liturgy, a blindfolded child would select the name of one of the candidates). It was Gabriel‘s name that appeared, and he was consecrated qummuṣ (HEGUMENOS) in preparation for his elevation to the patriarchate. But then, suddenly, he was put aside in favor of John. Al- Mufaḍḍal ibn Abī l-Faḍāʾil‘s al-Nahj al-sadīd provides a plausible account of what happened: after the selection of Gabriel, his rival John successfully appealed to a government official, a Muslim Copt (see COPTS IN LATE MEDIEVAL EGYPT) named Bahāʾ al-Dīn Ḥannā, to intervene in the patriarchal election—in return for a payment of 5,000 dinars.

Bahāʾ al-Dīn obliged; John was installed as patriarch John VII (usually counted as the 78th patriarch, 1262-1268, 1271-1293); and Gabriel was exiled to the Monastery of St. Antony (DAYR ANBĀ ANṬŪNIYŪS) in the Eastern Desert. This exile may not have been very strict: one manuscript (MS Oxford, Bodl. Hunt. 26) shows him at the house of al-Amjad in Cairo in 1265, while the Ethiopic Synaxarion claims that he spent time in Scetis. Other Ethiopic sources, however, place him back in the Eastern Desert between 1267 and 1268, copying manuscripts at the Monasteries of St. Antony and of St. Paul (DAYR ANBĀ BŪLĀ).

Al-Mufaḍḍal goes on to tell us that in 1265 the Coptic community was assessed the massive fine of 500,000 dinars; even if al-Mufaḍḍal was off by an order of magnitude (the History of the Patriarchs makes the fine 50,000 dinars), this was an enormous sum of money. Patriarch John VII was unable to gather it, and in 1268 Bahāʾ al-Dīn removed him from his patriarchal responsibilities and recalled Gabriel from exile. Gabriel, however, was no more successful than John in meeting the authorities‘ financial demands, and in 1271 Bahāʾ al-Dīn removed him and recalled John, who then served as patriarch until his death in 1293.

The History of the Patriarchs attributed to Yūsāb claims that Gabriel had died in 1271, but this may be an attempt partially to cover up the scandal of revolving patriarchs. Al-Mufaḍḍal and the Ethiopic Synaxarion agree that Gabriel was in fact deposed, spent a period in hiding, and then resided in churches (al-Mufaḍḍal: the Church of the Armenians at al-Zuhrī and then the Church of St. Mercurius in Old Cairo; Ethiopic Synaxarion: ―the Church of the Apostles,‖ where he devoted himself to prayer and pastoral ministry). Gabriel died on 11 Abīb 990 (5 July 1274), and was buried in the Church of St. Mercurius (Abū Sayfayn).

Gabriel‘s career provides insight into a number of important phenomena in the history of the Copts; a few may be listed below.

(a) In the first place, Gabriel was a skilled scribe in both Coptic and Arabic who played a role near the heart of what has been called the ―golden age‖ of Copto-Arabic literature, serving as a kind of research assistant for the Awlād al-ʿAssāl and their friends. The following (undoubtedly incomplete) list of manuscripts may give some impression of Gabriel‘s activities and scholarly range and contacts:

  1. Original for MS Cairo, Coptic Patriarchate, Bibl. 143 (Simaika 180, Graf 291), Oct. 1854. Epistles, Coptic-Arabic. This claims to be a copy of a manuscript in the hand of YŪḤANNĀ al-Samannūdī (the pioneer of Coptic grammatical science), which Gabriel collated in 1249–1250 (presumably for use in preparing the manuscript that follows).
  2. MS Cairo, Coptic Museum, Bibl. 94 (Simaika 4, Graf 151), Dec. 1249–Jan. 1250.
    Epistles and Acts, Coptic-Arabic. Written by Gabriel for (the great polymath and encyclopedist) al-NushūʾAbū Shākir ibn al-Rāhib; the Pauline Epistles are copied (and corrected) from a manuscript in the hand of Yūḥannā al-Samannūdī. (MS London, BL or. 424, Oct. 1307, is an early copy of this manuscript.)
  3. MS Paris, Institut Catholique 1, 1249–1250. Gospels, Coptic-Arabic. Copied by the monk and priest Gabriel.
  4. Unknown MS of the Gospel of John in Coptic, copied by Gabriel and used by al-Asʿad ibn al-ʿAssāl for his critical translation of the Four Gospels (1252–1253).
  1. MS Dayr al-Suryān, 11 Bibl., 1254–1255. Psalms, Coptic-Arabic. Copied by Gabriel.
    This and the following were originally a single manuscript.
  1. MS Dayr al-Suryān, 383 Lit., June 1255. Miscellaneous, Coptic-Arabic. Copied by Gabriel in Cairo at the house of al-Amjad ibn al-ʿAssāl.)
  1. MS Cairo, Coptic Museum, Bibl. 93 (Simaika 5, Graf 153), June-July 1257. Gospels, Coptic-Arabic. Copied by Gabriel in Cairo at the house of al-Amjad ibn al-ʿAssāl.
  2. Original for MS Paris, BN ar. 249, 15th c. The Nomocanon of al-Ṣafī ibn al-ʿAssāl. The original was copied in Cairo at the house of al-Amjad ibn al-ʿAssāl in Sept. 1261.
  3. MS Oxford, Bodl. Hunt. 26, Feb. 1265. Lectionary for Lent, Bohairic. Copied by Gabriel in Cairo at the house of al-Amjad ibn al-ʿAssāl.
  4. Arabic antecedent to MS Paris, BN éth. 100 (Zotenberg 110), 16th c. Ethiopic MS of Mäṣḥafä Ḥawi = Pandektēs of Nikon of the Black Mountain. Gabriel made his Arabic copy at the Monastery of St. Antony in April 1267.
  5. MS Vatican Copt. 9 (1204–1205, Gospels in Coptic and Arabic), includes a notice (fol. 1r) written by ―Gabriel, by the grace of God and His incomprehensible decrees called patriarch …,‖ dated 29 March 1270. The notice includes a statement of waqf to the Monastery of St. Antony.

(b) In the second place, we must note the tragic circumstances of Gabriel‘s career. His rise to the patriarchate was marked by intense partisanship within the Coptic Orthodox community and the willingness of some to bribe government authorities in order to advance their cause. This contributed, in the decade between 1261 and 1271, to unprecedented interference in the leadership of the community from the side of these authorities.

(c) Furthermore, we note that in all of this the role of the Coptic patriarch had largely come to be the point of financial transfer between the Coptic community and the governing authorities. Perhaps this constriction in role helps to explain the care with which Copts, throughout the Mamlūk period, recorded occasions of the consecration of the holy mayrūn (including three times under Gabriel, according to the Ethiopic Synaxarion!): here, at least, one can see the patriarch at the center of the community dispensing blessing, rather than as an embattled financial administrator struggling to preserve some breathing room for his community.

(d) Finally, we have mentioned Ethiopic sources several times. The Ethiopian church regarded Gabriel as a saint; he is one of only two Mamlūk period patriarchs to appear in the Ethiopic Synaxarion (the other being Patriarch MATTHEW I). This may point to the importance of the Monastery of St. Antony as a place where texts and traditions were passed on to the Ethiopian Church. It is not hard to imagine that Ethiopian monks at that monastery during the 1260s came to know Gabriel, not as one ―ambitious for the patriarchate,‖ but as a learned monk and saintly exile. Gabriel may have been neglected in some tellings of Coptic history—including in the first edition of The Coptic Encyclopedia—but Ethiopian Christians have been celebrating his feast day on the 11th of Ḥamle (Abīb) for centuries.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Primary sources

  • Ethiopic Synaxarion: edition and French translation, Ignazio Guidi, Le synaxaire éthiopien: Les mois de Sanê, Hamlê et Nahasê, II, Mois de Hamlê, in Patrologia Orientalis 7, fasc. 3 (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1911), 310–17; English translation, E.A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928), 4: 1106–10.
  • History of the Patriarchs: History of the Patriarchs of the Egyptian Church, Known as the History of the Holy Church, by Sawirus Ibn al-Mukaffa‘, Bishop of al-Asmunin, Vol. III, part iii, ed. and trans. A. Khater and O.H.E. Khs-Burmester (Cairo: Publications de la Sociétéd‘ Archéologie Copte, 1970), 133–34 (Arabic text), 228–30 (English translation).
  • History of the Patriarchs attributed to Yūsāb: Ṣamū‘īl al-Suryānī and NabīhKāmil, eds., Tārīkh al-abāʾ al-baṭārikah li-l-Anbā Yūsāb usquf Fuwwah (Cairo: Institute of Coptic Studies, 1987), 178–82.
  • al-Mufaḍḍal ibn Abī l-Faḍāʾil, Nahj al-sadīd wa-l-durr al-farīd fīmābaʿd Tārīkh Ibn al-ʿAmīd: E. Blochet, ed. and trans., Moufazzal ibn Abil-Fazaïl: Histoire des sultans mamlouks, in Patrologia Orientalis 14, fasc. 3 (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1920), 447–51.
  • al-Ṣafī ibn al-ʿAssāl, critical edition of the four Gospels: Ṣamūʾīl Quzmān Muʿawwaḍ, ed., al- Anājīl al-arbaʿa, tarjamat al-Asʿad Abī l-Faraj Hibat Allāḥ ibn al-ʿAssāl (m. 1253) (Cairo: Madrasat al-Iskandariyya / Alexandria School, 2014), 605–6. [Evidence for MS no. 4 in the above list.]


  • Bigoul al-Suriany, ―New Elements in the History of the Pope Gabriel III the 77th (1268–1270 A.D.),‖ in N. Bosson and A. Boud‘hors, eds., Actes du huitièmecongrès international d’étudescoptes, Paris, 28 juin – 3 Juillet 2004, 2 vols., OLA 163 (Louvain: Peeters, 2007), 1: 15–23.
  • Conti Rossini, C., ―Aethiopica (Serie II),‖ Rivistadegli Studi Orientali 10 (1923–1925): 502–5. [On MS no. 10, including a Marian legend about this manuscript.]
  • Davis, Stephen J., ―Marginalia Coptica et Arabica: Traces of Scribes, Patrons, Restorers, and Readers in the Biblical Collection at the Monastery of the Syrians (Dayr al-Suryan),‖ in the acta of the 11th International Congress of Coptic Studies (Claremont, CA, 25–30 July 2016), forthcoming. [Describes MSS no. 5–6.]
  • Elli, Alberto, Storiadella Chiesa Copta, 3 vols. (Cairo: The Franciscan Centre of Christian Oriental Studies; Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 2003), 2: 193–94. [Relies especially on al-Mufaḍḍal ibn Abī l-Faḍāʾil.]
  • Horner, George William, The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Northern Dialect, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898–1905), 1: lvii–lxv, xcvi–xcvii, cxxii–cxxiii; 3: x– xiii. [Descriptions of MSS no. 11, 3, 9, and the BL copy of 2, respectively.]
  • MacCoull, L.S.B., ―A Note on the Career of Gabriel III, Scribe and Patriarch of Alexandria,‖ Arabica 43 (1996): 357–60. [Takes note of MSS no. 3, 2, 11, 7, 8, 9, and 1(in the order in which they appear in the article)]
  • Nakhlah, KāmilṢāliḥ, Silsilat Tārīkh al-bābawāt baṭārikat al-kursī al-Iskandārī , fascicle 2: Min al-baṭriyark 76 ilā l-baṭriyark 86 (12501378 m) (Cairo: Dayral-Suryān, 2001), 6–16. [Relies especially on the History of the Patriarchs attributed to Yūsāb.]
  • Samir, [Samir] Khalil, al-Ṣafī ibn al-ʿAssāl:Brefschapitres sur la Trinité et l’Incarnation, in Patrologia Orientalis 42, fasc. 3 = no. 192 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1985), 624–31.
  • Swanson, Mark N., ―The Monastery of St. Paul in Historical Context,‖ in The Cave Church of Paul the Hermit at the Monastery of St. Paul, Egypt, ed. William Lyster (Cairo: American Research Center in Egypt; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), 47–48.
  • , The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt (641–1517) (Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2010), 97–100.
  • Zotenberg, Hermann. Catalogue des manuscrits éthiopiens (Gheez et Amharique) de la Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1877), 99–106. [Description of the Ethiopic copy of MS no. 10.]

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