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Severus of Al'Ashmunein (=Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria.  Preface to the online edition.


The first half of the Arabic text known as the Ta'rikh batarikat al-Kanisah al-Misriyah was edited and translated into English by B.T.A. Evetts under the title History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria.  The complete text with appendices and continuations runs up to the end of the 19th century, but Evetts stopped with the 52nd patriarch, Joseph, who died in 849 AD.  The text appeared in four parts in the Patrologia Orientalis series. These parts were issued as separate fascicles.  The first and second parts appeared in volume 1 of the PO; the third in volume 5, and the fourth in volume 10.  The top half of each page was devoted to the Arabic text; the lower half to the English translation, which appears here.  Each page was given two page numbers.  The first was the page number in the volume of the PO; the second the page number within the four fascicles, if considered as a single volume.  The former page numbers have been reproduced here for ease of location and reference in the bound volumes of the PO.

The 4 parts in the PO are available as reprints from in the Netherlands, and can be found in their online catalogue by doing a search and looking for name=Evetts. I have found that Brepols handle credit-card orders quite happily, if you email them.

The remainder of the text does exist in English, but its copyright status is unclear, since Egypt only promulgated a copyright law in 1954 and has been accused of not enforcing copyright on non-Egyptian products even now.  The PO text was reprinted in Cairo in the 1940's, as volume 1 of a 4 volume set by the Société d'archéologie copte, under the title History of the patriarchs of the Egyptian Church : known as the History of the Holy Church / by Sawirus ibn al-Mukaffa`, Bishop of al-Asmunin. Further volumes containing the text and translation of the remainder by Yassa `Abd al-Masih and O. H. E. Burmester appeared over the years. In:

The early portions of the text are derived mainly from Eusebius and coptic tradition, and are of little value.  But from the 6th century onwards, the entries grow longer and often seem to derive from documents written by eyewitnesses of the events recorded.  The moslem conquest of Egypt is recorded, and a vivid eyewitness account included of the overthrow of the last Ummayad caliph, Marwan II.

The text as we have it is in Arabic.  The source documents must have been in Coptic and Greek, and the introduction refers to evidence that a Coptic translation of Eusebius existed.

A coptic correspondent, Imad Boles, tells me of the existence of other editions of the Arabic text:

"In Egypt they publish the lives in Arabic and in very poor publications. The first time I found the lives in clear Arabic and in English translation was when I went to the British Library in 2003 and found the Parisian version. I cried with joy and held my photocopies like I was holding a very precious and sacred manuscript in my hands...."

"There are several Arabic publications of the History of the Patriarchs attributed to Anba Saweris of Ashmunin. They have really proliferated after Pope Shenouda took the patriarchate. But most if not all are in pretty bad shape. Accuracy is not an Egyptian virtue these days. The best one though full of spelling mistake making its reading a very agonising job is the one published under the supervision of the late Anba Samuel, bishop of Shabin al Qanatir. I think it was published in 1999 though it is not clear. I bought it (three volumes) from the Church of Al Moallaqa in Old Cairo in 2003. The printer is Al Ni'aam for Printing and Imports (!). They give their tel. and fax numbers as 2420362/2463633 and 2420362 respectively but I doubt it very much that you will have joy with them. If you happen to visit Egypt again try to visit the Institute for Coptic Studies which is located next to St. Mark's Cathedral which is next to the Patriarchate. Someone I am sure will help there."


Severus (Sawiros) ibn al-Muqaffac (which means 'son of the dwarf') as a layman was known as Abu Bisr ben al-Muqaffac and was a clerk.  He seems to have been born around 915 and grew up in Old Cairo (=Babylon fortress) before the founding of modern Cairo by the Fatimid caliph (on 6th July 969).  He became a monk, and then bishop of al-Ashmunein (Hermopolis Magna as it had been; Shmoun in Coptic) in the Thebaid under patriarch Theophanius (953-956) or Menas (956-975).  Information about his early life is unknown.  He flourished in the latter half of the 10th century and died at the latest soon after the turn of the century.  

In the monastery he became acquainted with a former Moslem who had taken the name Paulos and fled the wrath of his family and coreligionists, and taken refuge in the monasteries in the Wadi Natrun (the same Wadi Habib so often mentioned).  A close friendship developed, strengthened by a common literary interest in apologetics.  They researched together, and created their works in an atmosphere of constant discussion.  The account of this friend is perhaps more panegyric than biography, however.  In the process Severus came to realise the necessity of writing in Arabic, as Copts began to lose touch with their own language, and he is the first Coptic writer of importance to write in Arabic.

Severus also participated in Disputations with Moslems, and also with Jews, under the tolerant Fatimid rule.  The Disputation with the Jew Mose (975) is extant.  Severus wrote more than 20 works in Arabic (26 according to Abu al-Barakat), of which the majority is probably lost.  However in the mass of uncatalogued Arabic manuscripts, more may remain to be discovered.  Before 955 he also wrote a Book of the Councils in four chapters against the Melkite patriarch Eutychios (877-940), discussing the first four councils, with an appendix of computational material.  He then wrote a further book on the same subject at more length, in nine chapters, which is dated and was completed on 5th September 955.  He also wrote an explanation of the Nicaea-Constantinople creed in ten chapters, against the East Syrian or Nestorian bishop of Damascus, Elias, who had written his own explanation of the creed.  The work also attacks the Jews, and the Moslem Muctazilites.

Coptic Christians were constantly propagandised by Islam.  As knowledge of Coptic faded, the Copts lost access to their own literature, and this left them vulnerable to Islamic propaganda.  Severus therefore wrote the Book of the statement, in the first two chapters of which he describes this situation and gives it as a reason for writing.  The work contains twelve treatises in letter form, covering the Trinity, the incarnation, the crucifixion of the Saviour, and a range of other topics designed to equip the Christian to answer Moslem attacks.  It even included a summary world chronicle.

A further work is a manual of faith. The first 13 chapters (plus some appendices) discuss the christological differences between Jacobites (monophysites like Severus), Melkites and Nestorians.  A further 22 chapters explain the church and church practises and obligations.  It finishes with 13 key differences between Monophysites and Melkites.  

The Book of the precious bead is not attributed to Severus in the manuscripts, but the research of George Grafs and Paul Maibergers has established that he is in fact the author.  It contains a further statement of the Christian faith in 15 chapters.

The fame of Severus rests mainly on his History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, which contains biographies of the Coptic popes and patriarchs of Alexandria.  Den Heijer's research suggests that it was first composed in Coptic, and all the entries up to 1051 and 1058 were written originally in that language, and so not by Severus.  Michael, bishop of Tinnis, wrote the fifth series of biographies thus.  Thereafter it was continued in Arabic, and the original entries were translated into that tongue.  This view excludes Severus as author completely.  Aziz S. Atiya however believes that the evidence is still for the authorship of Severus for the original portion, in Arabic, but derived from Greek and Coptic sources.  The two opinions are mutually exclusive, and more work remains to be done.



Johannes DEN HEIJER, Mawhub ibn Mansur ibn Mufarrig et l'historiographie copto-arabe. Étude sur la composition de l'Histoire des Patriarches d'Alexandrie, in the Subsidia series of the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium; CSCO vol 513, Subsidia vol. 83.  Its bibliography gives references to numerous articles on the work, the various authors and sources.

F. ROFAIL FARAG, The technique of research of a tenth century Christian Arab Writer: Severus ibn al-Muqaffa, in Le Muséon, vol. 86 (1973), pp. 37-66.

Georg GRAF, Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur, Zweiter Band: Die Schriftsteller bis zur Mitte des 15. Jahrhunderts, Vatikanstadt 1947 (Studi e Testi, vol. 133), pp. 300-318, 484.

Johannes DEN HEIJER, History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, in Aziz S. Atiya: THE COPTIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, vol. 4 (New York 1991), pp. 1238-1242.

C.F. SEYBOLD, Severus Ben al-Moqaffa, Historia Patriarcharum Alexandrinorum, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 52, 59 (Scriptores Arabici 8,9), in ser. 3, pts. 1 und 2. 

Website:  The information on Severus given above is abbreviated from this.

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This text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, 2005. All material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.

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