Writing and society go hand-in-hand: almost all writing is intended to be read by another person or by a group of other people. That is to say, that writing presupposes that people want to communicate with each other, and that they want, in some way, to relate to one another. It is no surprise, then, to find that writing is often used as a means of identifying oneself in respect of another group. This may be in terms of national, ethnic or linguistic identity, but it may also be in terms of religious identity.
In an earlier post, I looked at the Ancient Egyptian writing system, that we know as hieroglyphics. In a future post I will be talking about how vowels are (occasionally) represented in that writing system. However, for now I want to look at another writing system also used to write the Egyptian language, but a much later variety, known as Coptic. Unlike other Egyptian writing systems (hieratic, demotic), which are related to hieroglyphics, Coptic is based on the Greek alphabet, with some letters added in for Egyptian sounds that did not exist in Greek. This is particularly interesting for my own research project in CREWS, since it means that, unlike the other Egyptian scripts, the vowels are written down.
However, for Coptic, both the writing system and the language are also interesting for the history of the relationship between writing and society. The other ways of writing Egyptian arose in times when the predominant religion in Egypt was the ancestral Egyptian religion (for the Ancient Egyptian god of writing see my colleague Natalia’s post here). By contrast, most Coptic texts were written when the predominant religion in Egypt was Christianity. Accordingly, the language and the script became intimately bound up with the Egyptian expression of Christianity, to the point that still today the liturgy of the Egyptian church is Coptic. This is significant, since nobody actually speaks Coptic today as a native language. Instead they use Arabic. However, the Coptic language and script are important markers of the Christian minority in Egypt, and this is something of great significance in the lives of Egyptian Christians.
Coptic Liturgical Codex from the 17th or 18th century. Rogers Fund, 1919. Met Museum New York.
On 18th November this year (2017), from 2-3.30pm at Great St Mary’s Church in Cambridge, the CREWS project is holding an event, entitled Writing in the Sand (for details and to book free tickets, see this link for the event), as part of the School of Advanced Study’s upcoming Being Human festival. Our speaker, Mariam Tadros, was brought up in the Coptic community here in the UK. She will be speaking to us about her experience growing up in this diaspora community and what it means to be a Copt here in Britain today. She will give an introduction to Coptic culture and language, and the significance of the writing system for Copts both historically and now, as well as insights from the lived experience of the Coptic church. We will see just how important writing is in the history, culture and religious expression of this persecuted religious minority, and how writing has shaped their identity in the past, and continues to shape their identity today. We look forward to seeing you there!
Service for the Coptic New Year (Nayrouz) in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, on 17th October 2017. Photograph from here.
~ Robert Crellin (Research Associate on the CREWS project)