Coptic in print – a history

The story of Coptic typography begins with a pilgrimage from Oppenheim to the Holy Land in 1483 by Bernhard von Breydenbach, Canon of Mainz and Dean of its Cathedral. Bernhard von Breydenbach was accompanied to Jerusalem by many nobles, among them the Dutch artist Erhard Reuwich who produced a series of impressive woodcuts of the places they visited along their jouney, people and beasts they encountered and oriental alphabets. On the conclusion of their pilgrimage, Breydenbach and Reuwich published an account of their journey in 1486 entitled Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam. First published in Latin and printed in Mainz, it was the world’s first illustrated travelogue and such was its popularity that it went on to be printed in several European languages. Among the alphabets Breydenbach and Reuwich produced in woodcut was the first printed Coptic alphabet (Fig 1).

Fig 1. Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctum (Mainz: originally 1486; this 2nd Latin edition printed in 1490 by Peter Drach in Speier, 59 recto)

The Coptic alphabet was printed alongside other scripts used in the Holy Land, namely the Arabic, Greek, Syriac, Hebrew, Ethiopic and Armenian alphabets. However, it was referred to as the ‘Jacobite alphabet’ and added to a section on the Jacobites (De Jacobitis et eorum erroribus, ‘Of the Jacobites and their errors’), who were said to reside in Nubia, Ethiopia and an area extending as far as India, but not in Egypt. Breydenbach probably learned of the Coptic alphabet from inmates of the Coptic convent in Jerusalem. The company also travelled to Sinai, Cairo and Alexandria, which allowed Reuwich to produce perhaps the first printed view of Cairo and environs (Fig 2), illustrating some of the most notable landmarks of fifteenth century Egypt.

Fig 2. A woodcut map from Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam showing Mount Sinai and St Catherine’s Monastery in the background, Cairo (Chayru) to the east of the Nile, the pyramids to the west and Alexandria at the bottom right corner. Taken from Davies’ (1911) reproduction, plate 28.

The reproduction of the Coptic letters is quite accurate and evidently Bohairic from the inclusion of the letter ϧ (labelled hachi in the woodcut). Their number is correct at 32 (including the letter for the number 6) as is their order, which not all subsequent attempts could boast. The names of the letters provided is interesting. As one of the earliest recordings of the names of the letters of the alphabet in a foreign language, in this case medieval Latin, it provides valuable evidence for the pronunciation of Coptic letters during the fifteenth century. I’m not aware of any study on Coptic phonology which has taken this important piece of primary evidence into account, the earliest Western source considered being a Latin phonetic transcription of Psalm 1 in the Bohairic dialect published by Theodorus Petraeus in 1659.

The following century saw three further scholarly attempts to block-print the Coptic alphabet in the European tradition of alphabet-collecting. The next two scholars to pursue Coptic Studies were the Italian priest Teseo Ambrogio degli Albonesi and his friend, the Frenchman and polymath Guillaume Postel. By all accounts, both men were remarkable linguists and both visited the Levant. Guillaume Postel claimed to have learned of the Coptic alphabet in Istanbul, but he also received copies of the Coptic alphabet that Ambrogio had acquired (Hamilton, 2006). Of the two, the Frenchman was first to publish producing in 1538 his Linguarum duodecim characteribus differentium alphabetum, introductio printed in Paris. Among the alphabets included was the Coptic alphabet (Fig 3), which was called the ‘Georgian, Jacobite alphabet’ (Alphabetum Georgianorum & Iacobitarum) and claimed by Postel to be used by the Georgians in a region extending from Egypt to Central Asia (Hamilton, 2006). It seems that Postel like Breydenbach never came into contact with Copts in their own land leading to confusion as to their alphabet’s provenance.

The following year, Teseo Ambrogio produced a better book in Pavia entitled Introductio in Chaldaicam linguam, Syriacam, atque Armenicam, et decem alias linguas, which included two very similar Coptic woodcut alphabets (Figs 4 and 5). The first was called Iacobitarum (of the Jacobites) and the second ascribed to the Cophtitae (Copts), who he correctly placed in Egypt. Thus, Ambrogio became the first scholar to accurately credit the Copts with the Coptic alphabet and place them in their homeland. Ambrogio also discussed the Jacobite/Coptic vowels (11 verso) and consonants (48 verso – 51 recto) in some detail, rendering his work more scholarly than his predecessors. However, he also published two further ‘Egyptian’ alphabets which are nothing of the sort (205 recto).

The second (‘Coptic’) alphabet (Fig 5) Ambrogio printed seems to be almost identical in form to that of Breydenbach produced almost 53 years earlier including its peculiarities, with some small changes to the names of the letters. The first (‘Jacobite’) alphabet (Fig 4) offers a generally truer likeness of the form of the Coptic letters, particularly improving on the letters ⲋ, ⲑ and ⲓ with the exception of ⲛ. Another advance Ambrogio may be credited with is perhaps the first representation of Coptic words in a Western publication. Handwritten below the ‘Jacobite’ alphabet are six Coptic words taken from the Gospel of Matthew (chapters 1-8) along with Arabic equivalents transliterated into Latin (Fig 6), demonstrating first hand knowledge of Coptic manuscripts. The words appear to have been scribed in spaces left by the printer.

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Pierre-Victor Palma Cayet published Paradigmata de quatuor linguis orientalibus (Paris: 1596), which included a woodcut reproduction of 1 Timothy 1:17 (Fig 7). However, it is clear from his attempted transcription and translation (177-183) that he was not familiar with the values of the Coptic alphabet nor its grammar. Nevertheless, he can be credited with the first printed Coptic verse in the West.

The next milestone in Coptic typology came with Pietro Della Valle, a wealthy Roman noble. Della Valle travelled extensively in North Africa and Asia collecting antiquities and manuscripts. During a period towards the end of 1615 and the beginning of 1616 he was in Egypt where he came across the Coptic, a language with which he was unfamiliar. Apparently under the illusion that he had discovered a hitherto unknown language, he procured four Coptic manuscript, two of which contained several medieval Coptic grammars (muqaddimat) and lexicons (scalae) written in Arabic by Copts in an attempt to save their language from oblivion in its final days. On his return to Rome ten years later, Della Valle searched for a scholar who might edit his manuscripts and also commissioned the printing house of the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (‘Congregation for the Propagation of the [Catholic] Faith’) to cast a Coptic font. In 1630, the Propaganda Fide produced the first publication in movable Coptic type, Alphabetum Cophtum sive Aegyptiacum in Rome (Fig 8). The short pamphlet, produced without a frontispiece, marked a revolution in Coptic typology. It contained the Coptic letters, their names in Coptic and Latin, phonetic values, comments on their pronunciation, Psalm 45 and the beginning of a syllabary.

Fig 8. Alphabetum Cophtum sive Aegyptiacum (Roma: Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, 1630)

Within 16 years, the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher would institute the modern study of the Coptic language with his grammar Prodromus Coptus (Rome, 1636) and later his Lingua Aegyptiaca restituta (Rome, 1643), both printed using the type cast by the Propaganda Fide. The West’s scientific interest in the Coptic language had truly begun.


  • Davies HWM (1911). Bernhard von Breydenbach and his journey to the Holy Land 1483-4: a bibliography, London: J & J Leighton.
  • Emmel S (2004). Coptic Studies before Kircher. In: Coptic Studies on the Threshold of a New Millennium. Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Coptic Studies. Leiden, August 27 – September 2, 2000, Vol 1. Ed. M Immerzeel, J van der Vliet. Leiden: Peeters, pp. 1-11.
  • Hamilton A (2006). Athanasius Kircher and his Shadow. In: The Copts and the West, 1439-1822: The European discovery of the Egyptian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 197-228.
  • Roper G, Tait J (2002). Coptic typography: a brief sketch = Koptische Typographie: eine kurze Skizze. In: Middle Eastern languages and the print revolution: a cross-cultural encounter = Sprachen des Nahen Ostens und die Druckrevolution: eine interkulturelle Begegnung. Ed. E Hanebutt-Benz, D Glaß, G Roper. Gutenberg Museum Mainz, Internationale Gutenberg-Gesellschaft. Westhofen: Skulima, pp.117-121.
  • Stolzenberg D (2003). Catholic Cosmopolis: Kircher in Rome 1633-1650. In: Egyptian Oedipus: antiquarianism, Oriental Studies, and occult philosophy in the work of Athanasius Kircher. Stanford University, Dissertation in partial fulfillment of PhD, pp. 73-139.

Their language has become forgotten…


“For the people of this time in this land, their language has become forgotten… Others have not abandoned their language as we have ours.”

Bishop Athanasius of Qus writing in the fourteenth century in his colourfully titled Coptic grammar, Qiladat al-Tahrir fi ‘ilm al-Tafsir or A Necklace of Composition in the Science of Interpretation (Bauer, 1972, pp. 245, 305).

Athanasius’s grammar, which was originally written for Sahidic and today survives in Sahidic and a Bohairic translation is reproduced and translated into German by Gertrud Bauer in Athanasius von Qūṣ, Qilādat at-taḥrīr fī ʿilm at-tafsīr: eine koptische Grammatik in arabischer Sprache aus dem 13./14. Jahrhundert (Freiburg, 1972). The quotation is taken from LSB MacCoull’s The strange death of Coptic culture, Coptic Church Review 10(2), Summer 1989, pp. 35-45.

Claudius Labib – short biography and bibliography

A photograph of Claudius Labib (1868-1918). Image from The Lexicon of the Egyptian Language, 1895-1915.

Claudius Labib (1868-1918, Arabic إقلاديوس لبيب, Coptic ⲕⲗⲁⲩⲇⲓⲟⲥ ⲗⲁⲃⲓⲃ or ⲗⲁⲡⲓⲡ, variously rendered as Cladius, Iqladiyus, Iqladyus, Klaudios, etc) was born to a Coptic family in the village of Meir in Upper Egypt in the province of Asyut. From an early age, he accompanied his family to the nearby monastery, Dayr al-Muḥarraq in al-Qusiyyah, where he first became acquainted with the Coptic language (Basta, 1991). An early interest would later flourish into a love for the Coptic language, which would last a lifetime and produce the most determined effort to revive Coptic as a spoken language in the modern era.

Labib studied Coptic systematically at the Patriarchal School in Cairo. The Patriarchal School had recently been founded by Pope Cyril IV and would later boast some of the most influential Copts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries among its alumni (Reid 2002). Pope Cyril V allowed him access to the Patriarchal Library, which enabled him to consult invaluable Coptic manuscripts (Basta, 1991). Labib also learned to read hieroglyphs while working in the Antiquities Service (Reid, 2002) becoming, according to his grandson Ahmes Pahor Labib, only the second Egyptian in modern times to do so after Ahmed Kamal (b. 1851). In addition he became fluent in English and French, publishing in both these languages. In 1892, he began teaching Coptic at the Clerical College.

Labib insisted that Arabic-speaking Coptic families use Coptic as the language of everyday life. He succeeded within his own family, but very few other families could follow (Basta, 1991). Nevertheless, he succeeded in teaching a number of young people to use Coptic as a school vernacular and in everyday life (Prince, 1902). In order to aid the revival of Coptic as a spoken language Labib realised the need to produce Coptic teaching and reading materials. To this end, in the 1890s he imported a specialised printing press from Germany capable of printing both Coptic type and hierogylphs (Roper & Tait, 2002). Under the imprints Al-Matb’a al-Wataniya (‘National Press’) and Matba’at ‘Ayn Shams (‘Heliopolis Press’), he produced a series of mainly Coptic-Arabic linguistic and liturgical works. In 1900, for the promotion of his ideas he established a periodical called ‘Ayn Shams (‘Heliopolis’, or by its Coptic title ⲱⲛ), which although short-lived was the first Coptic language periodical (Roper & Tait, 2002; Boutros Ghali, 1991).

However, Labib’s opus magnum was his Coptic-Arabic dictionary (ⲡⲓⲗⲉⲝⲓⲕⲟⲛ ⲛϯⲁⲥⲡⲓ ⲛⲧⲉ ⲛⲓⲣⲉⲙⲛⲭⲏⲙⲓ, 1895-1915), of which he completed five parts (letters ⲁ to ϧ) before his death. In his eulogy for Claudius Labib, Walter Crum (1918) suggested that the remaining four letters would be completed by another Coptic Egyptologist Dr Georgy Sobhy, although it isn’t clear whether this actually happened. Labib’s dictionary was the first modern Coptic-Arabic dictionary to be produced. Prior to this, Copts had to consult either the bilingual and trilingual Coptic word-lists (called scalae) that had existed since the early middle ages or refer to Western dictionaries. Western scholars acknowledged the value of Labib’s dictionary as it contained lexical information unavailable elsewhere until the excellent dictionary of Walter Crum, completed in 1939 (Gaselee, 1929).

Labib was a proponent of the Graeco-Bohairic pronunciation of Coptic, which departed from the traditional (or Old Bohairic) pronunciation (Worrell, 1937). He must have become acquainted with the modified pronunciation as a student of Muallim ‘Iryan Jirjis Muftaḥ (d. 1888), who was teacher of Coptic at the Clerical College (Ishaq, 1991). Muftaḥ promoted the pronunciation of Coptic letters according to their modern Greek phonetic equivalents in an attempt to bring the Greek and Coptic Churches closer together. Although widely respected as a great champion of the Coptic language, Labib is criticised by some for his promotion of the modified pronunciation, use of non-standard words, substitution of standard Coptic words of Greek origin (ⲡⲓⲛⲓϥⲓ instead of the standard Greek ⲡⲓⲡⲛⲉⲩⲙⲁ, the spirit) and adoption of words of unclear etymology (Bashandy).

Claudius Labib had produced two dozen, mainly linguistic and liturgical, works on or in the Coptic language by the time of his death at the age of 49/50 (Crum, 1918). His enthusiasm for the Coptic language and his zeal for promoting it as the revival of Coptic as the vernacular of the Coptic people was noticed by both his countrymen and Western scholars. There were those who were cynical that his efforts toward revitalisation would succeed (Prince, 1902; Crum, 1918), but his efforts were not in vain. He inspired a generation of Copts and has left an impressive written legacy for those that have followed.

A selected bibliography for Claudius Labib

I have here collected a bibliography of Claudius Labib’s linguistic works according to Kammerer (1969), Basta (1991), Crum (1918), MacCoull (1985). Many of these publications have been scanned and uploaded onto the internet by various people. I have attempted to collate the available scans, which unfortunately are sometimes of poor quality or deficient.


  • Bashandy. Claudian dialect, unknown publication date. Accessed 10 June 2012 from
  • Basta M (1991). “Iqladiyus Labib”. In: The Coptic Encyclopedia. Ed. Aziz S. Atiya. NY: Macmillan). Vol IV, p 1302.
  • Boutros Ghali M (1991). “Press, Coptic”. In: The Coptic Encyclopedia. Ed. Aziz S. Atiya. NY: Macmillan). Vol VI, p 2010-2013.
  • Crum WE (1918). Bibliography: Christian Egypt. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 5(3), pp. 201-215, especially p. 215.
  • Gaselee S (1929). A Coptic Dictionary (Part 1: ⲁ-ⲉⲓϣⲉ). Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies 5(3), pp. 611-614.
  • Kammerer W (1969). A Coptic Bibliography. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950; Reprint New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1969.
  • MacCoull LSB (1985). Egyptian Coptic Language Pamphlets: The challenge of a typology of errors. Coptic Church Review 6(1), Spring 1985, pp. 17-21.
  • Ishaq EM (1991). “Coptic language spoken”. In: The Coptic Encyclopedia. Ed. Aziz S. Atiya. NY: Macmillan). Vol II, p 604-607.
  • Reid DM (2002). Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, museums, and Egyptian national identity from Napoleon to World War I. California: University of California Press. Especially, Chapter 7: Modern Sons of the Pharaohs?, pp. 258-285 and n. 79.
  • Roper G, Tait J (2002). Coptic typography: a brief sketch = Koptische Typographie: eine kurze Skizze. In: Middle Eastern languages and the print revolution: a cross-cultural encounter = Sprachen des Nahen Ostens und die Druckrevolution: eine interkulturelle Begegnung. Ed. E Hanebutt-Benz, D Glaß, G Roper. Gutenberg Museum Mainz, Internationale Gutenberg-Gesellschaft. Westhofen: Skulima, pp.117-121.
  • Prince JD (1902). The modern pronunciation of Coptic in the Mass. Journal of the American Oriental Society 23, pp. 289-306, especially pp. 290-291.
  • Worrell WD (1937). Popular traditions of the Coptic language. The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 54(1), pp. 1-11.