SYNAXARION (Kitab al-Sinaksar)
Collection of brief biographies of the saints and martyrs, arranged for daily reading according to their feast days. A characteristic feature of the Coptic Orthodox liturgy is that, in addition to appointed lections from the Pauline epistles, the Catholic epistles, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Gospels, there is a reading specific to every day in the calendar year, from a collection of very brief saints’ lives called Kitab al-Sinaksar (from Greek, synaxarion).
This collection gives much space to the martyrs of the pre-Constantinian persecutions of the Church, although it also includes notices for later martyrs, ascetics, and patriarchs, as well as biblical figures and a variety of other commemorations. Many questions about the history of this collection remain open. A model for it had existed (from about the 11th century) in the synaxaria of the Arabic-speaking Chalcedonian (or Melchite) community. The names conventionally associated with the production of a specifically Copto-Arabic synaxarion are those of Butrus Sawirus al-Jamil and especially Mikha’il, Bishop of Atrib and Malij, from the early and mid-13th century, respectively.
Their specific contributions to the compilation are unknown, however, and internal manuscript evidence points to a 14th-century date of compilation. An additional complication in the study of the early Copto-Arabic synaxarion is the fact that two recensions exist in the manuscript tradition, one of Upper Egypt and one of Lower Egypt. The former may be older, but the latter has had the greater influence, not only in Egypt but also in Ethiopia, thanks to its translation into Ethiopic by one Sim‘on at the Monastery of St. Antony around the year 1400.
This Ethiopic version then underwent its own history of enrichment and later was translated back into Arabic. The volumes of the Synaxarion used in the Coptic Orthodox Church today, first published in 1935-1937, represent the tradition of the Lower Egyptian recension as enlarged and shaped by its modern editors, with contributions of material from the recension that passed through Ethiopia.
The regular commemoration of the saints and martyrs has undoubtedly played a role in the formation of the imaginations of the Coptic Orthodox faithful, reinforcing their identity as part of the “church of the martyrs,” and inspiring them to imitate the saints’ courage and steadfastness of faith, in spite of many difficulties and challenges throughout their community’s history.