A sixteenth-seventeenth-century linguist and historian. A native of Cairo, Yusuf was sent to Rome in 1595 by Patriarch GABRIEL VIII (1586-1601), an event to be viewed within the context of the intensive ecumenical relations between the Coptic church of Egypt and the Catholic church of Rome at the time of this patriarch. It may be assumed that Abu Daqn was then about thirty years of age, and hence was born around 1565.
For reasons unknown, Abu Daqn became a Catholic soon after his arrival in Rome (Vocht, 1946, p. 671, n. 4). He latinized his name to Abudacnus, or translated it directly to Barbatus, adding by way of a surname “Memphiticus.”
In Rome Abu Daqn devoted himself to intensive study, concentrating particularly on ancient and modern languages, for which he showed a remarkable talent. He already knew Arabic (his mother tongue), Turkish (the current official language of the Egyptian administration), and Coptic, his liturgical language. In addition, he learned Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chaldean, and Syriac. As to the modern Western languages, he studied Italian, Spanish, and French. It appears that he also learned Modern Greek at that time. This knowledge of languages determined the course of his life. He became the first in a line of Orientalists who taught Near Eastern languages in the West.
In about 1600, he was in Paris as a translator at the court of King Henry IV. At this time, Thomas van Erpe, the Dutch Arabist, better known as Erpenius (1584-1624), studied conversational Arabic with Abu Daqn, making such progress that he was able to write in Arabic to William Bedwell (1562-1622) after only nine months of study.
In 1603 Abu Daqn embarked for England, and on 12 July 1603, thanks to the recommendation of John Whitgift, archbishop of Canterbury, he was engaged to teach Arabic at Oxford University. A few months later he wrote in Latin his history of the Coptic church, Historia Jacobitarum seu Coptorum in Aegypto, Lybia [sic] Aithiopia tota, et Cypri insulae parte habitantium opera Iosephi Abudacni, seu Barbati, nati Memphis Aegypti Metropoli. Abu Daqn never saw this work in print, for it was only in 1675, long after his death, that Thomas Marshall, then rector of Lincoln College, published the text at Oxford as a small book of seventy-three pages.
In 1693 Sir Edward Sadleir published a translation of it in London, The History of the Copts under the Dominion of the Turk and Abyssinian Emperors. In 1733, Johan Henri de Seelen reedited the Latin text in Lübeck as a small volume of sixty-five pages, preceded by thirty pages of introduction; and in 1740, Siegebert Haverkamp produced a new edition in Leiden, augmented with erudite notes compiled by Johann Nicolai of Tübingen, which brought the work to a total of some 215 pages.
Such great posthumous success was due in large part to the author’s clear and simple method of exposition. Abu Daqn showed a marvelous talent for simplification, for in twenty-three chapters, he explained the salient points of the Coptic church: its origin, history, hierarchical structure, liturgy, and customs.
It is interesting to note that E. L. Butcher, who knew nothing of Abu Daqn, wrote in 1897 about this history: “His book is remarkable for its dispassionate tone, though it is evidently written to point out the differences of ritual and discipline between the Church of Egypt and the Church of Rome” (Butcher, 1897, p. 280). Butcher used the work largely to describe the situation of the seventeenth-century Copts, and, believing that it had been written in Arabic, wondered how it could have come into the library at Oxford. All Butcher’s assertions were repeated later by the two Coptic historians who discussed the history: Ya‘qub Nakhlah Rufaylah (1898) and Kamil Salih Nakhlah (1954).
It is said that during Abu Daqn’s sojourn at Oxford, he translated the New Testament into Bohairic Coptic (Vocht, 1946, p. 672). However, this may have been a transcription rather than a translation. Abu Daqn also copied the Coptic text of the ancient Coptic liturgies for use in his teaching, which would indicate that he taught Coptic. The manuscripts are likely still at Oxford. About 1611, Abu Daqn also transcribed the Arabic text of the New Testament from a manuscript at Oxford, and sent it to Leiden, perhaps to his former pupil, Erpenius. This text was published by Johannes Antonides in 1612 at Leiden, where the latter taught Arabic, under the title of D. Pauli Apostoli Epistola ad Titum.
Abu Daqn remained at Oxford for ten years. He then taught Oriental languages to the monks and priests of Antwerp, as well as to future missionaries and a few merchants. Abu Daqn also taught Hebrew at Louvain.
During his sojourn in Belgium, Abu Daqn prepared many volumes in Arabic, of which the first was an Arabic-Latin lexicon. Soon thereafter, he translated from Latin into Arabic the work of Dia Sanche d’Avila—a Discalced Carmelite better known as Thomas de Jésus. That work had just appeared in Antwerp in 1613 under the title Thesaurus Sapientiae Divinae, in Gentium omnium Salute procuranda . . . Impiissimarum Sectarum, maxime Orientalium, Ritus ad Historiae Fidem XII Libris enarrans, Errores ad Veritatis Lucem confutans.
In addition to this work, considered by modern authors as the foundation of all future missionary study, Abu Daqn prepared the edition of a Psalter in four languages: Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and Latin. Lastly, he translated a work of mathematics from Latin into Arabic for an unknown reason.
From 1618 to 1620 he lived in Munich, where he worked at the ducal library. A manuscript dated 1620 and containing an abridgment of his Arabic grammar is conserved at the library of Vienna, which could indicate that he went from Munich to Vienna at this time. He died about 1630.
- Butcher, E. L. The Story of the Church of Egypt, vol. 2. London, 1897.
- Essen, L. van der. “Joseph Abudacnus ou Barbatus, Arabe né au Caire, professeur de langues orientales à l’Université de Louvain (1615-1617).” Le Muséon 37 (1924):121-37.
- Fueck, J. Die arabischen Studien in Europa bis an den Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts. Leipzig, 1955.
- Kamil Salih Nakhlah. Silsilat Tarikh al-Babawat Batarikat al-Kursi al-Iskandari, Vol. 4. Cairo, 1954.
- Sommervogel, C. Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, Vols. 1, 5, 6. Paris, 1890, 1894, 1895.
- Vocht, H. de. “Oriental Languages in Louvain in the XVIIth Century. Abudacnus and le Wyt de Luysant.” Le Muséon 59 (1946):671-83.
- Yaqub Nakhlah Rufaylah. Tarikh al-Ummah al-Qibtiyyah. Cairo, 1898.
KHALIL SAMIR, S.J.