Yuhanna Chiftichi

YUHANNA CHIFTICHI

A Coptic priest and scholar born in Cairo in the last quarter of the eighteenth century; died in France sometime after 1825. One hindrance to discovering his identity is due to the illegible spellings of his name by biographers of Champollion, to whom Chiftichi taught Coptic pronunciation. H. Hartleben (1906, Vol. 1, p. 81) writes his name “Jeacha Sceptidschy,” and L. de La Brière transcribes it differently as “Icaha Scheptichi” in publishing the following letter by Champollion written in Paris to his brother, a letter of prime interest in the genesis of Champollion’s discovery.

I am going to visit a Coptic priest at Saint-Roch, rue Saint-Honoré, who celebrates Mass . . . and who will instruct me in Coptic names, and the pronunciation of Coptic letters. . . . I am devoting myself entirely to the Coptic language, for I want to know the Egyptian language as well as my own native French. My great work on the Egyptian papyri will be based on this [ancient] tongue. [1897; p. 69] Chiftichi also figures in correspondence regarding the encyclopedic Description de l’Egypte under the name of Youhanna only, in a letter written by the minister of the interior on 17 Floréal 10 (1802): Citizen, a Coptic (Cophte) priest named Youhanna, who is reputed to be very learned in Oriental languages, has been referred to me as capable of cooperating usefully in the great work upon which all the scholars recently returned from Egypt are labouring at present.

I am wondering if you think he might be in a position to help with this work, and would you kindly let me know your opinion about this as soon as possible. Citizen Langlès believes that this foreigner might be put to good use. [Nouvelles Acquisitions, official letters of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Department of Manuscripts, 21937, fol. 84] The is missing, but the missive of Langlès describes him as “a Coptic (Qobthe) priest named Youhanna (John),” whom he recommends for adding to the great work the “principal passages from writers regarding the antiquities and geography of Egypt.”

There is no further information as to the nature and extent of Chiftichi’s scientific collaboration save this note: “Apart from the four Orientalists included in the main body of the Commission of whom only one is salaried, Minister Chaptal has added to the Commission from the very beginning of the enterprise the name of the Egyptian Yuhanna Chiftichy, a refugee from Cairo. He enjoys but a modest salary.”

On the payroll until June 1814, his name, always last on the list, and always written in as al- Shiftishi, is sometimes preceded by the word Abuna (Father) Yuhanna, or al-Qissis (Priest) Yuhanna. In other papers from the Archives du Service historique de l’armée, at Vincennes, alterations of his name appear under diverse spellings: Anna, Kassis, Anna Kassis, and Anacharsis.

In those archives that faceless name to be translated as “John the Transparent” assumes all the known characteristics of a minority Copt. In the dossier of Chiftichi in the Archives, a document dated 21 Frimaire 11 (1803) at Melun (where the Mamluks of Napoleon were stationed—see YA‘QUB, GENERAL) enumerates nine “certificates and titles being in the hands of Citizen John Chfftgy, an Egyptian born in Greater Cairo.” He served under the French administration as interpreter for the province of Giza, adjudicator for tax collections, main recorder at the Tribunal of Commerce, interpreter for General Destaing, and then for Citizen Dallonville, director of rights on corporations.

Later, according to the Archives, upon Fourier’s recommendation, he became interpreter for the “Commission, created by General Kléber, to assemble materials for the history of the Conquest of Egypt.” Finally, according to an attestation of the chief of staff, General Damas, he had been chief of the brigade, that is, colonel in the Coptic Legion. As a soldier-priest, he resumed links with the ancient tradition of the warrior-saints so popular in Egypt: Saint George, Saint Menas, and the Thebans, and Victor.

Chiftichi bore a scar from a serious wound as described in a report, signed by Berthollet, Jomard, Jolliot, Duvillier, Girard, Fourier, and Delile, and addressed to the minister of the interior, 5 April 1816, in support of Chiftichi’s request for French citizenship. The Archives record: “He lost his fortune and some of his closest relatives because of the events that transpired in Cairo after the departure of the French Army; and in spite of these painful losses, he has been the main support of the rest of his family since that time.”

In truth, he gave up half his pension to the widows and six children of his two brothers who were assassinated for being members of the Coptic Legion.

In Paris he lived in the Rue Saint-Roch when Champollion came to consult him—after lodging at the Rue de la Concorde and the Rue Royale while still continuing his ministry in the Rue Saint-Roch. He decided in 1825 to go to Marseilles in order to end his days among the Egyptian refugees there. The exact dates of his birth and death remain unknown. The destiny of Chiftichi is symbolic of the survival of Egypt through the torments of that era.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Archives du Service historique de l’armée, Vincennes. Orientaux: Aumôniers et interprétes, 1 carton.
  • Brière, L. de La. Champollion inconnu, lettres inédites. Paris, 1897. Hartleben, H. Champollion, sein Leben und sein Werk, Vol. 1, p. 81. Berlin, 1906.
  • Louca, A. “Champollion entre Bartholdi et Chiftichi.” Mélanges Berque. Paris, 1989.
  • Savant, J. Les Mamelouks de Napoléon. Paris, 1949.

ANOUAR LOUCA