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History of Coptology at the IOM Print E-mail
13/05/2008

Coptology at the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts

Coptology is a discipline that focusen on the culture of Copts in its various forms such as the language, literature, religion, epigraphics, book culture, arts, economics, etc.

Egyptian Christians are called Copts. The word is derived from Arabic qubṭi that is a shortened form of Old Greek Αἰγύπτιος, i.e. Egyptian: this was how the Arabs came to call indigenous inhabitants of Egypt conquered by them in the 640s.

Coptic is the last level of development of the Old Egyptian language; the first texts written on this language are dated from the 3rd century CE. The principal difference of the Coptic writing system from the former types of Eguptian scripts such as heiroglyphic, hieratic and demotic has been the presence of letters indicating not only consonants but also vowels; Old Greek alphabet was taken as the basis of the new script but with the addition of several letters (stylized after Greek letters) to indicate sounds not found in Greek.

As a living tongue (both spoken and written) it must have existed until the 16th century when it was finally substituted with Arabic but, as a liturgical language (nowadays not clear even for priests who use the parallel Arabic text while serving their rituals), it is still used by the Coptic Orthodox Church.

There are about 3 million estimated Copts now and their spoken tongue is Arabic.

The founder of the modern Coptology should be called the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher who published in 1643 Latin translations of some medieaval Coptic Grammars and dictionaries compiled in Arabic. At the end of the 19th and into the 20th century, scholarly interest in Coptology increased greatly thanks to discoveries of tens of earlier unknown religious texts and numerous artifacts of the Coptic arts found by archaeologists. The first academic grammar of Coptic was written by the German scholar Ludwig Stern in 1880 (L. Stern, Koptische Grammatik. Leipzig).

In Russia the cradle and center of Coptology was the Asiatic Museum. The first Russian scholar to win worldwide recognition for the Russian Coptology was the curator of the Asiatic Museum (from 1883) the corresponding member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences (from 1906) Oscar Eduardovich Lemm (Oscar von Lemm: 1856-1918).

For more details on Coptology at the Asiatic Museum / the Leningrad/St Petersburg Branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies / the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the RAS, check Personalia: Ernstedt, Elanskaya, Khosroev.


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