A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"The Oldest Tune in History"?

The Egypt Independent has a provocative piece on Coptic music entitled "Humming the Oldest Tune in History."

The title refers to the assertion made in the article that ritual music from Pharaonic Egypt was often incorporated into Christian liturgy by changing the words but retaining the Pharaonic tune. Given the frequency with which Western "pagan" customs were "baptized" into Christian customs and symbols in Western Europe (Easter eggs and Christmas trees among them), and given the continuity of the Egyptian language from Demotic into Coptic in Late Antiquity, and Coptic use of some Pharaonic symbolism such as the ankh, there doesn't seem to be anything incredible about it. I'll admit, I'd like to know the documentary sources for these assertions, though:
Talking about Coptic music is in fact a conversation about the pharaonic musical heritage formulated over the millennia, according to composer George Kyrillos, a deacon at the Virgin Mary Church in Maadi and the first person to musically document Coptic hymns successfully.
“Coptic music is part of the world’s cultural heritage, just like the [Giza] pyramids,” says Kyrillos.
The origin of the “Calvary” hymn sung on Good Friday every year, for instance, is a pharaonic melody that priests played as they buried the ancient Egyptian kings. Early Copts, familiar with the tune, continued using it on Good Friday, when Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and burial is remembered.
Similarly, the Coptic Orthodox Church inherited most pharaonic prayer hymns with the introduction of Christianity into Egypt, despite the pagan origins of the original tunes, according to Christian faith. They were passed on sonically from one Coptic generation to the next.
During Ramadan, we discussed a somewhat similar claim about a Muslim Ramadan chant.

While I don't know if these claims have any solid basis in evidence, it's intriguing, though I'm also unsure if that would make any of these hymns "the oldest tune in history."

The one specific claim  made, though, refers to Coptic hymn sung on Good Friday to mark the burial of Christ, saying it preserves the Pharaonic tune for the burial of a Pharaoh. The Egypt Independent article refers to it by the Latinate term "Calvary," but it's more normally called "Golgotha," Coptic adopting the Aramaic place name.

The Egypt Independent  article lacks any recorded examples, but YouTube  comes through. The first of these clips has the Coptic text and the English, with a background of religious Passion imagery; the second shows the hymn in context of the Coptic Good Friday ritual.

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