In Search of the Lost Egyptian Identity

I. Introduction

A few years ago, I was on a guided tour of the Karnak Temple in Luxor when another group tourists with their own guide came up behind my group. My attention was diverted to the young Egyptian guide leading the other group. He was explaining how the Christian paintings on some of the columns came into being. To my amazement he said in English, "these paintings were done by the Copts who came into Egypt after the Greeks and the Romans." Sadly, this error in history reflects a serious loss of identity for the "Copts" rather than ignorance on the part of the guide or a deliberate effort to mislead foreign tourists.


II. Thesis

Use of the terms "Copt" and "Coptic" in the English language is widely accepted but is very problematic with regard to both denotation and connotation. This applies to both scholarly as well as common usage.1 This fact has already been alluded to by Pierre du Bourguet in the Coptic Encyclopedia.2

First both terms are linguistically unnecessary in the English language and should be replaced with "Egyptian." Because English directly borrows the words Egypt and Egyptian from the Greek language, the use of "Copt" and "Coptic" in the English language is not necessary. Second, when the terms are used to indicate a Christian Egyptian or anything pertaining to Egyptian Christianity they are can be misleading and are imprecise.1,2 Whether Coptic is used to refer to a historic period, language, religion, or culture, these terms cause confusion and in many instances invoke many established biases. On the balance, use of these two terms has done much harm and continues to harm the people, history and language that these words are meant to describe.


III. Standard Definitions and Etymology

Before we address the relevant issues, a review of standard definitions and etymologies of the words is useful. The word "Copt" in English and other European languages is typically defined as "a member of the native Christian minority (up to 10%) of Egypt," or " a member of the Coptic Church, an autonomous sect that adheres to monophysitism (infra vide),"3 or "an Egyptian belonging to or descended from the people of ancient or pre-Islamic Egypt."4

The noun form of "Coptic" is defines as "an Afro-Asiatic language of the Copts, which survives only as a liturgical language of the Coptic Church."3 Its adjective form describes someone or something "of or relating to the Copts, the Coptic Church, or the Coptic language."3

The standard etymology of Copt usually states "from New Latin Coptus, French Copte, from Arabic Qubt, from Greek Aiguptios, an Egyptian, from Aiguptos, Egypt, of Egyptian origin."3

IV. Origins of "Copt"

As stated above, the English Coptic (and Latin Coptus) is likely derived from the Arabic, Qubt, which is in turn derived from the Greek, Aiguptios or Aiguptioi.2 This viewpoint is supported by the fact that Arabic, like other Semitic languages, does not transcribe vowels and diphthongs. Thus Aiguptos became gpt or kpt. Indeed it is quite likely that the Greek word for Egypt, Aiguptos, is originally derived from the Egyptian word from Memphis, Hwt-ka-Ptah (or Het-ka-Ptah ), meaing the house of the ka (spirit) of Ptah.2 The latter was the principal sanctuary for worship in Lower Egypt. The Arabs used the word Qubt to describe the native Egyptian population in the mid-7th century. They likely chose this word because at the time of their invasion Egypt had a Greek-speaking Byzantine government. The native Egyptian population never used this term to describe themselves in their own language. In fact, it would appear that nowhere at any stage in the written Egyptian language (hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic, or "Coptic") are there any references describing the country or its people as "Copt" or "Coptic." Native Egyptians called their land Kmt and later Keme or Kheme (k/me, ,/mi, or k/mi). Since ancient times Egyptians have referred to their land as "the Black Land" to distinguish it from the red land or desert (Deshret), which surrounded their country and from other lands beyond the desert.5 They therefore called themselves in their native language Niremnkhemi, or "the men of the Black Land" and never "Copts" or any form of the latter. (The time at which they began to use Qubt or Qibti in the Arabic language is not established and would make an interesting study). The homonymy theory of Coptic being derived from the Coptos (Qift), a town northeast of Luxor, has largely been discredited.

The invading Arabs chose to use Misr as their name for Egypt. This was the word that Semitic non-Egyptians used in referring to Egypt. In the Hebrew, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonians, and Phoenician languages we find similar designations for Egypt Mirsayim, Misr , Msrm, Musur, and Musri.6 Why did the Arabs adapt the Greek word? At what point did they stop using the term Misri to describe the native Egyptians? It does not appear that they used the Egyptian Keme or Kheme. Was Qibti a derogatory term? Could it be that they, like the Greek Ptolemies, wanted to assume the Egyptian identity therefore reserved Misri for the Egyptianized Arab or the Arabized Egyptian (presumably a native Moslem convert)?

The earliest use of Coptus in Latin, Copte in French, and eventually Copt in English appears to have been in the 16th century by European scholars and travelers.2 Crusaders and Medieval European travelers who journeyed to Egypt referred to Egyptian Christians as "Jacobites."7 It is generally well known that the Crusaders did not regard the Egyptian Christians as true Christians and quite likely were unfamiliar with their history or language. They regarded Egyptian Christianity as part of an obscure heretical Christian sect.8 Later travelers and Western scholars would coin the Latin word Coptus and English "Copt" and knowingly or unknowingly would begin dissociating Christian Egyptians from their native country in the languages of the Western world.

Since the first use of the Arabic words Qubt or Qibti is not well defined and may be as late as the early Crusades, an interesting, though less likely, possibility is that the Arabic Qubt or Qibti are in reality derived Latin! A careful study of the usage of Qubt or Qibti in Arabic documents prior to the Crusades would be illuminating.

V. Problems with a "Coptic Language"

The "Coptic" language is nothing other than the Egyptian language itself and should therefore be called so. The Egyptian language like all other languages evolved over the years both as a spoken and a written language. It is generally regarded a unique language that may have both Hametic and Semitic origins. The study of this language has understandably been primarily based on its various written forms, which span nearly 6500 years. The earliest form is though to be pictograms and phonograms from the prehistoric Naqada-period pottery that evolved into the well known hieroglyphic, and later heiratic, demotic and finally "Coptic." The latter in reality refers to the final script phase of the Egyptian language rather than another distinct language. In the final phase of Egyptian, the written language for the first time began to include spoken vowels. (Vowels were not written in ancient Egyptian scripts). This occurred during the Hellenistic era, so the native Egyptians chose to adopt the Greek alphabet and supplement it with six to seven letters to accurately reproduce phonemes that exist in the Egyptian but not in the Greek language. It is generally well known amongst scholars that Champollion?s knowledge of "Coptic" script and its pronunciation were instrumental in recreating the phonetics of ancient Egyptian and deciphering the writing on the Rosetta Stone.9 Moreover, according to Gardner "the problem of vocalization of the ancient Egyptian language has been dealt with based on the vouchsafed by Coptic, Greek, Assyrian and Babylonian. Of these Coptic is, of course, by far the most important, being actually the old Egyptian language in its latest stage of development and written in Greek characters."

Most linguistic modern scholars freely admit that the "Coptic" language is really the Egyptian language and yet they continue to use the term Coptic. A few scholars still argue that "Coptic" is not really Egyptian because it uses many Greek words. They chose to ignore the fact that Greek was the language of the Roman and Byzantine governments in Egypt. Moreover, before the Arab invasion Greek held a position similar to English in our present world. It was the language of science, diplomacy, and trade. Indeed in our present time, nearly every language (including modern Arabic) has borrowed and continues to borrow heavily words from the English language.

VI. Problems with a "Coptic Period"

Many if not most scholars refer to a "Coptic period" or "Coptic Egypt." Unfortunately there is no general agreement as to the existence of such a period. In usage, the intended time period spans anywhere from the 2nd century B.C. to the middle of the 7th century A.D. or even later.2 The reason for this confusion is that this "Coptic period" cannot be accurately defined with regards to any era of rulers, any linguistic period, religious movements or a particular phase of culture. Indeed in their literal meanings these terms denote the "Egyptian period" and "Egyptian Egypt", respectively. Such a term could therefore be regarded either as nonsensical or as referring to ancient Egyptian times when Egyptians ruled there own land and spoke their own language. More importantly, the connotations of these two terms appears to be vary considerably between disciplines of scholarship as well as within disciplines.1,2

A. Rule of Government

Egypt has technically not been under Egyptian rule since prior to Alexander the Great. Even in the modern era, after the fall of King Farouk, the last three governments have chosen to call themselves first the United Arab Republic and then Arab Republic of Egypt. The Republic of Egypt could have easily sufficed. Based on the rule of government, the "Coptic period" and "Coptic Egypt" that most scholars usually refer to should be referred to as the Ptolemaic, Roman, Persian, Byzantine and finally Islamic periods.

B. Religion

The use of "Coptic Egypt" or "Coptic period" to describe a Christian era is also very problematic. Indeed as mentioned above, some scholars date this period as having started before Christ. The majority of Egyptians did not convert to Christianity possibly until the middle of the fifth century. Moreover, Christians did not become a minority until the 10th century AD. Any Christian period should therefore define a period between the end of the 5th and the end of the 10th centuries. This definition would therefore miss some very important segments of Egyptian Christianity. Thus religion also cannot be used to define a "Coptic" period.

C. "Coptic" Culture

"Coptic" art and architecture, social structure, and traditions may be thought of as the basis of a "Coptic culture." In reality, such a discrete phase of culture never existed. At the heart of the problem is that since the time of Alexander the Great, the Greek and Roman cultures, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have heavily influenced Egyptian culture.

To many Christian Egyptians, the "Coptic period" refers to a time after the Arab invasion (after the 7th century). Interestingly, some scholars also adopt this view. The problem with a "Coptic" after the Arab invasion is that it was not really a "Coptic" (Egyptian) culture but rather the Islamization of Egyptian culture. For example, the art and architecture of Christian Egyptians usually had to conform to Islamic principles. Thus this culture was not a result of free artistic expression or natural development but rather the constraints imposed by the Islamic rulers.


VII. Connotation Issues

"Copt" carries with it many connotations inside and outside of Egypt, in secular, scholarly and ecclesiastic circles. Certainly when it comes to the people that consider themselves "Copts", they are extremely proud of this term because they feel it identifies them firstly as the true native Egyptian population and secondly as Christians (not Moslems). Moslems also are also quick to identify Copts as Christian Egyptians but for different and often less flattering reasons. Unfortunately, even scholars are guilty of attaching connotation biases to "Copt" and "Coptic." The adverse effects of connotations can be eliminated by substitution of Egyptian or Christian Egyptian for "Coptic."

A. Christian Egyptian Connotations

Christian Egyptians are proud that they and their ancestors have survived an often intense and prolonged (>1300 years) pressure to convert to Islam. They could call themselves Christian Egyptians just as easily but most insist on "Copt" (in English or Arabic). Many Christian Egyptians have additional motives of keeping the term "Coptic" alive. They feel compelled to preserve the historical record of a segment in Egyptian history that is actively suppressed by Moslems and that Western scholars unfortunately often malign. Mistakenly, these Egyptians cite the need to preserve the "Coptic" culture when they really mean the Christian heritage of Egyptians.

Christian Egyptians are most proud and protective of their native Egyptian Orthodox Church. They cite the role of early Egyptians in the development and spread of Christianity. They cite the likes of St. Antony, Athanasius, and St. Cyril of Alexandria. All of whom were individuals who played influential roles in the development of both Western and Eastern Christianity. Unfortunately, Western churches mislabeled the native Egyptian Orthodox Church and other "Oriental Orthodox Churches" as "monophysites" even though in their Eucharistic liturgies they confirm "that (Christ) his humanity parted not from his divinity not a twinkle of an eye." As "monophysites" they have historically been treated as heretics who are on the fringe of mainstream Christianity. Indeed the terms "Coptic" and "monophysite" seem to have become inseparable in many scholarly circles.

From a religious point of view, one could easily argue that the most important identity for "Copts" to assume is that of being a Christian. Therefore native Egyptians who are Christians should really call themselves Egyptian Christians. The latter is most consistent with the teachings of Christ that Christians are all one in the Body of Christ, the Universal Church. Such an attitude would do much to unite Christianity, and indeed would cause other Christians to more readily identify with Egyptian Christians. "Copt" and "Coptic" confuses most Christians outside Egypt. They can readily identify the Russian, Greek, Syrian, Armenian, and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches but not the Coptic Orthodox Church because the name does not readily associate this Church with any country. The term Christian Egyptian leaves no room for confusion and should therefore be used.

B. Moslem Connotations

The issue of how Moslem Egyptians use and what they associate with "Copt" is more complex and is really not part of this paper. All Egyptians who speak Arabic equate the Arabic Qibti with the English Copt. Unfortunately, non-Arabic speaking people do not have this frame of reference. Moreover, its likely that many Egyptians and nearly all non-Egyptian Moslems do not know the origin of the Arabic word Qibti.

Moslem Egyptians may have mixed feelings about the word "Copt," especially if they know its root. Educated Moslems probably realize that "Copts" are their link with a true Egyptian identity (if they consider themselves true Egyptians as opposed to being Arabs, Turks Albanians, etc.). Should we refer to Moslems of true Egyptian ancestry as Moslem "Copts"?

On the other hand, some Moslems appear to be resentful of "Copts" perhaps because the latter may be a reminder of a previous Christian background or the existence of a native Christianity in Egypt. Perhaps in their own religious fervor, some Moslems believe that as "infidels" Christian Egyptians are shameful to the country. To some non-educated Moslems, the Aqbat may even be suspected of having foreign ancestry.

Indeed there appears to be a denial of the presence of native Christians in Egypt and an active effort to minimize their number and role in modern Egyptian society. Christians are almost systematically excluded from positions of authority, both governmental and private. The country has an official Moslem religion and Islam permeates all cinema, television, radio, and newsprint. A near complete lack of representation of Christian in all public media must make Christian Egyptians feel like foreigners in their own country.

C. Scholarly Connotations

Even with the best of training to be objective, scholars are also frequently guilty of racial, religious, or philosophical biases. Many Westerners will refer to a Christian Egyptian as a Copt but the Moslem Egyptian as just an Egyptian. Religious scholars continue to associate the term Coptic with monophysite, Jacobite, and even Gnostic. Others attach the connotation of a mixed Egyptian-Greek people, culture or language. In some scholarly circles, Coptic may be even used to refer to Ethiopians and less commonly Armenians.2

Egyptian Christianity arguably played a very important role in the development in early Western Christianity. Unfortunately, biases tend to make many western scholars focus on non-orthodox elements of early Egyptian Christianity, such as the Gnostic heresies. Even Egyptians who are held in high esteem, such as Athanasius are commonly referred to in patristic studies as "Greek fathers."

VII. Conclusion

Christian Egyptians should not call themselves Copts in English because this robs them of their true Egyptian identity and their enviable heritage. The ancient Egyptian culture heavily influenced the Greek and Roman cultures. Even the early Arab empires were benefactors of the relatively advanced culture that existed in Egypt during the 7th century. It is likely that assimilation of the fruits of this culture (arts and science) helped propel the Fatimid empire to its zenith, as exemplified by the Arab Fatimid kingdoms in Spain. In retaking Spain from the Arabs, the Europeans reacquired these fruits of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations and were able to lift themselves out the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance. Modern Western civilization arguably owes much its culture to Egyptian civilization.

The terms "Copt" and "Coptic" are most likely based on in the Arabic word Qubt, which is derived from Greek Aiguptios. Since English already borrows Egypt and Egyptian from the same Greek word, there is no need for "Copt" and "Coptic." Indeed the association between Egyptian and Qibti in modern Arabic has long been lost.

Should the term Coptic Egyptian be used to describe a Christian Egyptian? I think not. The literal denotation would be an Egyptian Egyptian. It may more appropriate to say Arab Egyptian or perhaps Turkish Egyptian for someone who traces his or her roots to Arab or Turkish ancestry, respectively. For example, the term Egyptian American denotes someone who is of an Egyptian background and has the connotation that he or she has adopted an American identity. "Coptic Egyptian" leaves one with the distorted impression that the person has assumed an Egyptian identity and was originally from some unknown country (Copt?).

A Christian Egyptian should be called a Christian Egyptian! Use of "Copt" only confuses the English-speaking world and perhaps "Copts" themselves. The word itself does not obviously denote Christian and the its association with Egypt is similarly obscured.

Lastly, perhaps there would be much greater interest around the world in the spoken Egyptian language if it were called Egyptian rather than "Coptic." The same point could be made for the history, art, and architecture of Egyptian Christianity. Perhaps it is time for Egyptian Christians to shed misleading labels such as "Copts" and "Jacobites" that were given to them by others and regain their own Egyptian identity.

VIII. Bibliography

1. Orlandi T: Coptic. In, Encyclopedia of the Early Church, Di Berardino A (ed.). New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.

2. du Bourguet P: Copt. In, The Coptic Encyclopedia, Atiya AS (ed.). New York, Macmillan Publishing 1991.

3. Microsoft Office Bookshelf, Microsoft 1995.

4. Webster?s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, Merriam-Webster 1985.

5. Mertz B: Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. New York, Peter Bedrick Books 1990.

6. Myers AC: The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans 1987.

7. van Ghistele de Joos: Le Voyage en Egypte, 1482-1483. Bauwens-Preaux R (translation), Instituit Francais D?Archeologie Orientale 1976.

8. Atiya A: Copts and the Crusades. In, The Coptic Encyclopedia, Atiya AS (ed.). New York, Macmillan Publishing 1991.

9. Gardner A: Egyptian Grammar, 3rd ed. Oxford, Griffith Institute 1957.

10. Ishaq EM: Spoken Coptic Language. In, The Coptic Encyclopedia, Atiya AS (ed.). New York, Macmillan Publishing 1991.

B. Phase of Language

After the fall of the ancient Egyptian dynasties, the official language of Egypt went from Greek, to Latin and Greek, to briefly Persian, and finally Arabic. There was never a discrete "Coptic period" where the "Coptic" script was the official written language of the country. Indeed the notion of a "Coptic" (Egyptian) script is confusing. Egyptian was spoken continuously by the majority of the native population well into the second millenium even though it was outlawed as a language by the Arab ruler, Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah, around 1000 AD. By some accounts natives caught speaking the language where liable to having their tongues cut out at one time.10 Although Christianity was a major force in the adoption of the new "Coptic" script between the 1st and 3nd centuries, there is considerable evidence of extensive pagan and secular use of the "Coptic" script.2 Literacy in this script was necessary to spread knowledge of the Bible. The majority of Egyptians did not speak Greek in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and therefore translation of the Bible into the Egyptian language was necessary. In fact, Christianity was instrumental in preserving the Egyptian language in liturgical use after the Arab rulers outlawed it.

It appears that by the year 1000 most Egyptians could no longer read the "Coptic" script, but many continued to speak their native Egyptian language at home until the 16th century and possibly even well into the 20th century.10

Language is one of the main distinguishing features that gives a population its own identity. Thus by the beginning of the second millenium after Christ, as the Western world was deep in the Dark Ages, Egyptians sadly began losing their identity and slowly became "Arabized."

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