A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Alfred J. Butler, Egypt, and the Copts: Part I

I'm on vacation. As I have done each year, I have prepared a number of posts on historical and cultural subjects unlikely to be overtaken by events, with at least one appearing daily.

Alfred Joshua Butler (1850-1936) seems, at first glance, a typical donnish sort of 19th century Englishman. He certainly looked the part (photo at left) and his Who's Who entry (below) seems stereotypical: son of an Anglican clergyman, "the late Rev. A.S Butler, Rector of Markfield, Leicestershire"; married "1882, Constance Mary, d[aughter] of Col. Heywood, of Ocle Court, Herefordshire"; Scholar of Trinity College, Oxford; Fellow of the wonderfully-named Brasenose College at Oxford, Visitor of the Ashmolean museum, winner of poetry and other prizes, and of course, "Recreations: shooting, fishing, boating, whist, chess. Club: Royal Societies." Just your typical late Victorian and Edwardian donnish dilettante scholar, at first glance.

And then you notice, "Tutor to the Khedive of Egypt, 1879-81," and the string of publications that followed. For in fact, Butler was a pioneering Orientalist in the study of Egypt, with two main and overlapping specializations: the Coptic Church, its history and its ancient churches and monasteries, and the period of the Arab Conquest of Egypt. More than a century after the publication of most of his major works, they are still of value, and none can be said to have been completely superseded despite  a century of subsequent research.

His works on the Copts earned him his own entry in The Coptic Encyclopedia.

This blog  has often provided profiles of those who have made contributions to the study of Egypt, from Egyptians like ‘Ali Pasha Mubarak and Prince Omar Toussoun, to Western scholars from Edward William Lane, through Sir K.A.C. Creswell, to the recently deceased George T. Scanlon. Butler also deserves to be mentioned in such company.

As I said, his works, except for a memoir of his service as a tutor at the Court of Khedive Tawfiq, fall into two broad categories: the Copts, particularly their ancient churches, and the period of the Arab Conquest. In this post I plan to deal with the memoir and the works on the Copts; and tomorrow address the works on the conquest. 

Because his entire body of work was published before 1923, it is out of copyright and is available in digital form. As a result in addition to summarizing his work I am able to link you to the full texts.

Although not his first book in terms of publication date, thematically one should probably begin with his memoir of his work as a tutor to the sons of Khedive Tawfiq, a job for which he was recruited in January, 1880. He traveled up and down the Nile, but with the stirrings of the ‘Urabi revolt, left the job, "for reasons, which I need not here record," but note that he married the year after his return.

His 1887 book Court Life in Egypt (Google Books version; multiple formats at Internet Archive) is a narrative of his experiences and impressions; there are some anecdotes about the Khedivial family and a lot of impressions of Egypt by an observer who, apparently, had no previous experience of it.

It was, however, during that stay that he began, in what he described as his leisure time, his study of Coptic churches.He would later admit that at the time he began his researches he lacked the training in architecture and ecclesiology necessary, and that the lack of access to scholarly works meant his researches had to be supplemented on his return to Europe. He later mentions that he was just learning Arabic at the time,and it is not clear if he knew any Coptic then, though that was not uncommon for an Oxford scholar due to its importance in Biblical studies.

On that first period of living in Egypt, he was also unable to visit the monasteries of the Wadi Natrun, the center of Coptic monasticism, due to Bedouin unrest in the region.

Soon however, able to return to Egypt to complete his researches, referring to a stay of seven months. In 1884 he published the two volumes of The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt. (Volume I: Google Books version; multiple formats at Internet Archive; Volume II: Google Books version; multiple formats at Internet Archive).

He explains the purpose of the work in the Preface to Volume I , sounding very much the Victorian Orientalist and clergyman's son:
The aim of this book is to make a systematic beginning upon a great subject-the Christian antiquities of Egypt. Few subjects of equal importance have been so singularly neglected. One writer admits that the Coptic Church is still 'the most remarkable monument of primitive Christianity'; another that it is 'the only living representative of the most venerable nation of all antiquity'; yet even the strength of this double claim has been powerless to create any working interest in the matter. No doubt the attention of more travellers has been bewitched and fascinated by the colossal remains of pagan times, by the temples and pyramids which still glow in eternal sunshine, while the Christian churches lie buried in the gloom of fortress walls, or encircled and masked by almost impassable deserts. Yet the Copts of to-day, whose very name is an echo of the word Egypt, trace back their lineage to the ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids, and the ancient tongue is spoken at every Coptic mass: tlie Copts were among the first to welcome the tidings of the gospel, to make a rule of life and worship, and to erect religious buildings : they have upheld the cross un-waveringly through ages of desperate persecution : and their ritual now is less changed than that of any other community in Christendom. All this surely is reason enough to recommend the subject to churchman, historian, or antiquarian.
The two-volume illustrated work is a treasure-house of information, including floor plans and descriptions of churches no  longer standing. Volume I begins with a chapter on the structure of Coptic churches in general, including layout and decoration. Then he begins his systematic tour: first with the major and minor churches of Old Cairo, then with the old churches in other parts of the city. Then he proceeds to the Wadi Natrun and the churches of Upper Egypt.
Volume II begins with n extensive description of the Coptic altar and the various liturgical vessels, two chapters on priestly vestments, and an extensive discussion of the legends of the Coptic saints. Despite his apologies, it is a tour de force, though it is limited to the ancient, or at least pre-modern, churches. The sections on liturgical vessels and vestments, however, are still largely valid.
Butler continued his researches and studies and in 1895 made another contribution to the field of study of ancient churches and monasteries: providing annotations to a book translated by B.T.A. Evetts, The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries, attributed to Abu Salih, the Armenian (Google Books version; various formats at Internet Archive). It is now known that the attribution to "Abu Salih al-Armani" was in error; the manuscript Evetts worked from had been owned by a man of that name, and it was the only name on the title page. The work was in fact written by a Coptic priest known as Abu al-Makarim, writing in the late 12th/early 13th century AD. Butler added many notes to Evetts' translation, based on his familiarity with the sites described in the older work.

Butler also wrote the entries on the Coptic and Ethiopian churches in the 10th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Butler continued his studies (he would receive his Ph.D. in 1902, the same year his work on the Arab Conquest appeared; and that work is even better-known than his studies on the Copts.

Tomorrow: Butler and the Arab conquest.

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